Monday, July 16, 2012

The Fires of Vulcan

Melanie Bush was not a particularly well received companion. She was perky to the point or madness, and was seemingly good for one incredibly high pitched shriek per episode. Of course in her first story with Big Finish, she is much more subdued and more likeable. In fact, I am generally always pleased to see Mel on the cover of a Big Finish CD these days.

Her Big Finish debut is also a really good story. The opening scene features a UNIT captain being escorted through modern Pompeii by an archaeologist. They dug something out that had been sitting buried in the ashes since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius 2000 years before. What did they find? A blue police box!

The story cuts to the Doctor and Mel arriving in the TARDIS. Fairly early on, the Doctor surmises that they are in Pompeii and it's the day before Volcano day. It's clear that the Doctor has somehow found out about his TARDIS being buried in the volcanic ash for 2000 years, so he takes on this air of resigned acceptance to his fate. This is a simply wonderful performance from McCoy. I always greatly prefer his underplayed performances and this is a fine one.

In many ways Mel is the true hero of this story. When the Doctor figures out what's going on, (it turns out that UNIT contacted the 5th Doctor and told him about the archaeological find. The Doctor not wanting to know about his personal future immediately left without seeing the TARDIS) he refuses to use his foreknowledge of the TARDIS' fate to change his behavior. He lets Mel decide whether they should get right back in the TARDIS and leave, or if she wants to stay a while. Mel, knowing they have a full day before the catastrophe chooses to stay. Once they finally decide to leave, the TARDIS has disappeared! It's kind of wonderful to hear Bonnie Langford portraying Mel as a real person with depth and determination and thankfully, she doesn't scream once! She won't give in, even if the Doctor already has. Later the Doctor is inspired by her determination and then decides to try to find the TARDIS and escape.

The search for the TARDIS is muddied by an unfortunate decision by first the Doctor and then Mel to lie that they are messengers from Isis. This white lie gets heard by both a priest of Isis (named Celcinus), and (unfortunately) a high priestess (Eumachia) who considers Isis a false, foreign goddess. A political, religious plot than ensues. The story does a good job in the first episode of making you think Celcinus is the bad guy since he attempts to surreptitiously follow Mel around. But it's Eumachia who ends up having the TARDIS stolen and tries to embarrass Celcinus by exposing his false messengers of Isis. The other notable character in the story is Murranus, a leader of gladiators who is masterfully portrayed by Steve Wickham (who was Dr. Holywell in "Phatasmagoria"). Murranus is every bit the arrogant, simple minded, people's champion, and develops a deep hatred of the Doctor when he realizes the Doctor has used his own loaded dice against him to win some money from him gambling. Murranus' feels humiliated by the Doctor and spends the rest of the story trying to find and kill him.

In the final part, when the volcano finally erupts, it's pretty exciting listening to Mel and the Doctor try to find the TARDIS and each other. The production (directed by Gary Russel) is superb with convincing volcano sounds, and really conveys the panic as the denizens of Pompeii try to flee the city. I guess, one can't help but compare this story to the TV series' episode "The Fires of Pompeii". This is a pure historical with a bit of time travel foreknowledge thrown in as opposed to the more overtly sci-fi TV episode where it is revealed the Doctor himself has to start the eruption using alien technology. Give Big Finish and writer Steve Lyons credit for tackling Pompeii first. As for when Mel and the Doctor escape, the trick for making sure the TARDIS is buried and discovered 2000 years later is actually pretty simple, and while it's a bit of a cheat, it isn't unsatisfying. All in all, this is probably my favorite McCoy story so far in Big Finish, and it's great to hear Bonnie Langford's Mel written as a real character and not a shrieking annoyance. It's also not the last great Big Finish story to be written by Lyons.

Rating: Great

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