J did a very kind thing for me. While I was staying with him over New Year, he picked out one of his Big Finish CDs (he has the first season’s worth) and lent it to me, as I had forgotten to take the majority with me on the plane to listen to. I thought it was odd that he paused over his collection instead of picking the one that was closest on the shelf, but in the end I forgot about it and listened to the CD he lent me, The Fires of Vulcan, on the coach ride back to Swansea a week ago. I didn’t realize until I got home that the gift he had ordered for me on the 29th was a copy of the scripts of four Big Finish plays, including The Fires of Vulcan. It was perfect because I’d been saying how much I wanted to read some scripts from Big Finish in order to help me with my scriptwriting.
I’m now debating with myself whether to read the scripts for the other plays in the collection or buy them on CD first. The other three scripts are all highly regarded (at least I think!) so it’s a tough decision.
I was delightedly surprised when I listened to The Fires of Vulcan: it’s a Seventh Doctor/Mel story and while I had wanted to hear a Mel story for a long time as I suspected they were rehabilitating her with the same success as they rehabilitated the Sixth Doctor, I had just seen “Dragonfire” and didn’t know what to think. For Steve Lyons’ first play, it’s crackin’. It tackles Pompeii from an entirely different perspective than “Fires of Pompeii,” and in my opinion, it’s better. Mel works extremely well in this story (you’d never guess this was originally a story for Ace—that is, unless you read the script book and see the first draft—but I’m getting ahead of myself).
The opening scene, which takes place in 1980, reminds me of Liz Shaw/Five story from the Short Trips range, though I can’t remember the title. (This “frame” story also reminded me of The Stone Rose in a pretty obvious way.) I only wish UNIT officer Muriel Frost and Professor Scalini had been used more in this story, rather than just as bookends. Other than that, the opening was great (Lyons grabs the listener from the get-go) and considering I’ve been reading up a lot on hoaxes (don’t ask), the “hook” is very much in tune with that.
There’s a curious nuancing in the story that takes place, practically, because of its original setting as a later Ace story—instead, with Mel, the Doctor is very mercurial. It’s strange to see him certain of his doom in season 24 (it ends up being a very similar time paradox to the one in Glorious Revolution, but I digress). What I love about this play is the way Lyons (almost) never jumps from plot point to plot point: everything is progressed in a logical fashion that makes it seem that much more naturalistic. For example, though the Doctor has much more serious reasons for discouraging Mel from staying in Pompeii, he gives her four perfectly legitimate ones: she’s not dressed for the time and place, “the Romans are quite a barbarous people” (take that , James Moran! J/K),” we have a habit of attracting trouble, no good can come of meddling in your own history” (the last, of course, reminding us of that ultimate adventure, “The Aztecs,” which we’ll come back to).
Although Mel is confused and frustrated by the Doctor’s darker turn, she decides to stick around. I love that graffiti plays an important part in Fires of Vulcan (as it did in Rome, actually). Lyons is wonderful at adding the history in, not too overtly and not sloppily (as I tend to do). Parts of the play are quite funny. My favorite gag—and it’s the most shocking one!—is when Aglae takes her newfound friend Mel to her workplace, the Lupanar. This is a hilarious moment that works so well on radio, as Mel puzzles over the symbols on the sign—are they really what she thinks they are? “It bespeaks the nature of the Lupanar.” Once Mel, embarrassed but unfazed, gathers Aglae’s meaning, Aglae has the dreaminess to ask, “Do you not also serve your master [the Doctor] in this manner?” AS IF! :-D
But Lyons has an affection for Mel and has picked out the best bits of her character while playing with the more stereotypical aspects (like her vegetarianism). Mel befriending Aglae, for example, is perfectly in character. She’s assertive but shuns violence, argumentative and acerbic but really very kind. It makes it all the more amusing that the Doctor almost loses her in a game of dice to the boorish gladiator Murranus (a similar scene takes place in Letters from a French Actress, actually). Actually, almost all of the Roman/Greek characters—Aglae, Murranus, and Valeria the Greek innkeeper, particularly—are very strong, likeable, and feel like flesh and blood (and are not nearly so annoying as the family in “Fires of Pompeii,” IMHO). The antagonists Celsinus and Eumachia are slightly less well-rounded.
The play made a very big deal about the futility of the offerings made to various gods so that Pompeii would not be destroyed (obviously they didn’t work). However, the Doctor says ,“it’s not for me to judge your culture.” Mel obviously reacts in a similar way to Donna against the injustice: “Can’t we do something?” Interestingly, in contrast to the Tenth Doctor and Donna actually scooping the family up in the TARDIS and taking them to safety, in this story Mel and the Doctor tell people to save themselves but we have no idea whether they make it to safety or not.
The fourth part has wonderful suspense, though the narrative bypasses the final carnage (difficult to do on audio anyway) for the twist at the end.
I couldn’t resist reading the script of the play before I wrote this review, and at once I noticed how different the Roman/Greek names look spelled than said. In Lyons’ introduction, he’s on to his weakest scene, but it was actually better than he thought. The scenes seemed quite short on the page but they were the right length on audio. Obviously, all the actors did great jobs and the music, sound design, and technical recording stuff was done by Alistair Lock.