A Future Set in Ash

Review of The Fires of Vulcan (#12)
Big Finish Release Date: September 2000
Doctor/Companion: Seven and Mel
Stars: Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford
Preceding Story: The Apocalypse Element (Six, Evelyn, Romana II)
Succeeding Story: The Shadow of the Scourge (Seven, Ace)

Although I've always had a soft spot for Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor (especially when he's paired with Sophie Aldred's Ace, my all-time favorite Companion), somehow in my explorations of audio adventures, I'd never sat down with one of his before. I've come close, in that I did once track down episodes of Death Comes to Time, a webcast from 2001-02, which had only limited visuals and relied heavily on the audio component to get the story across. As for Big Finish product, though, this was my first.

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, especially given that The Fires of Vulcan co-stars Mel, of whom I've never been a fan. Although supposedly a bright woman—a computer programmer, no less—she seems to have been reduced on screen to an overly optimistic cheerleader to the Doctor and an epic screamer. I had been told she was much improved on audio, but I still winced a little at the prospect.

To my mild surprise, though, the rumors were true, and Mel didn't grate on my nerves. She was still a little too upbeat for my taste, but it fit her character well, and it wasn't excessive. In fact, I can honestly say it wasn't until I was finished listening that I remembered how little I usually care for her.

The story begins with a "modern day" (1980) discovery: there's an English police phone box buried in the ruins at Pompeii. UNIT promises to take care of it, and the poor archaeologist is left wondering what's going on. When we hear the TARDIS materialize a few seconds later, the Doctor and Mel don't, either; the Old Girl wouldn't show the Doctor where they'd landed. Soon, though, we realize they're in Pompeii—the day before Vesuvius erupts.

Most of the drama then centers around whether or not there is the possibility of escape—for Mel, at the least. It turns out the Doctor learned of the buried TARDIS a couple of incarnations ago; trying to avoid his fate here would result in a paradox. Of course, Mel's not going to take the Doctor's fatalistic approach lying down, and insists on following her own course to try to help them avoid the future the Doctor has seen.

In typical Doctor Who style, our heroes get separated and reunited a few times, uncovering various petty personal plots along the way. The supporting characters supply plenty to both love and hate about the individuals and culture of the Roman Empire in AD 79; the cast is, as always, impeccable; and the denouement left me simultaneously satisfied and irritated I hadn't devised the Doctor's plan myself.

Given that the bulk of the events center on the final two days of ancient Pompeii, I can't help but think of all the others we know from other stories are there on Volcano Day—Captain Jack Harkness, in his con-man persona; the Tenth Doctor and Donna; maybe even Twelve and Amy... (C'mon, you just know there's a fanfic out there somewhere that explains why Caecillus and the soothsayer are really Doctor and Companion, and how they could possibly be there, together or otherwise.)

Mostly, though, it's just a good yarn with a slightly timey-wimey component to keep the listener guessing about how the Doctor and his Companion will make it out of the scrape they've found themselves in this time. What else could one really want from Doctor Who?

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