Doctor Who Audio Book Review: #12 – The Fires of Vulcan

Written By: Steve Lyons
Directed By: Gary Russell
Featuring: Seventh Doctor and Mel
Release Date: September 2000

Big Finish Summary:

Two thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption wiped the Roman city of Pompeii from the face of the Earth. It also buried the Doctor’s TARDIS…

Arriving in Pompeii one day before the disaster, the Doctor and Mel find themselves separated from their ship and entangled in local politics. As time runs out, they fight to escape from the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. But how can they succeed when history itself is working against them?

The TARDIS lands in Pompeii on the day before Mount Vesuvius erupts, drawing the Doctor and his companion into a race against time, in this well written audio book adventure.

Listening to this audio book when this was first released must surely have been a different experience to what it is to someone listening in 2020. The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Mel (Bonnie Langford – her first appearance in this Big Finish audio book series) land in the city of Pompeii, just a day before Mount Vesuvius erupts. However, an earthquake caused by the volcano buries the TARDIS under the rubble of a building, and the Doctor remembers a moment from one of his past lives, when UNIT dug up the TARDIS in a Pompeii dig site – causing him to face the reality that arriving here has effectively sentenced him and his companion to death, of old age if not the volcanic eruption, with no access to the TARDIS. This is the central plot point of the whole audio book, with even Vesuvius’s eruption being background to this. The solution would have surely been an intelligent piece of writing in 2000. However, viewers of the modern version of the show, especially in the last ten years, have witnessed all kinds of similar paradoxical and ‘timey-wimey’ solutions, so it is hard to ignore that. But I do applaud the writer for creating something different compared to the classic TV series.

So far, in this series, the more historical stories have generally impressed me more than those set in contemporary or futuristic periods. In ‘The Fires of Vulcan’, the portrayal of the Roman city of Pompeii is just okay. There are soldiers fighting in the nearby arena, slaves doing errands for their rich masters, bars open for nearby festivals and various mentions of Roman and other Mediterranean deities. The last of these becomes an important secondary narrative when Mel lies that she is the emissary of another deity, causing suspicion in the mind of High Priestess Eumachia and leading to the companion getting thrown in prison on more than one occasion. The Doctor also becomes a target to a jaded and crazed fighter, to the point where they face off against each other in the arena. But honestly, strip the characters back and there isn’t much colour or flavour in this ancient city; it could be any city from the past that the TARDIS lands in. The volcanic eruption is done pretty well on the other hand and feels like an exciting conclusion to the story.

Including the eruption though, the best aspect of this story is Sylvester McCoy’s terrific acting as the Seventh Doctor. When he realises where the TARDIS has landed, he starts mumbling cryptic sentences under his breath about living a lifetime already. McCoy has consistently been fantastic in these audio books, especially when he effortlessly goes from being full of humour to being at his most cold and alien. Bonnie Langford is also decent as Mel, balancing the Doctor’s resigned mindset with a reckless determination to somehow recover the TARDIS. It is this willingness to not resign to the situation that eventually sparks the Doctor’s mind into life, helping him notice a detail that he had previously missed. The supporting cast are also good additions, infusing their characters with flavour and personality that the general setting is lacking in.

‘The Fires of Vulcan’ is a successful addition to the Doctor Who Big Finish series, with a clever narrative for its time and an exciting eruption of Mount Vesuvius helping to overcome a slightly more subdued historical setting. Sylvester McCoy’s acting in this deserves particular praise, going from charming to completely alien in the blink of an eye.

Star Rating: 3.5/5

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Next time on the Doctor Who Audio Book series…
The Seventh Doctor and Ace are joined by Bernice Summerfield, a companion who first appeared in the Doctor Who – New Adventures book series, as they investigate a dead body in a hotel and a threat from another universe that is threatening to break into ours. My review of ‘The Shadow of the Scourge’, the next audio book in this series, will be released soon!

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