The Fires of Pompeii by James Moran is one of the latest novelisations in the Doctor Who Target Books range. Target Books first published novelisations of classic Doctor Who episodes between the 70s-90s. This book is a novelisation of the episode featuring David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor and Catherine Tate as Donna Noble. The episode also featured Peter Capaldi, who would later play the Twelfth Doctor.
Target’s collection for 2022 also included: The Stones of Blood & the Androids of Tara by David Fisher, The Eaters of Light by Rona Munro, and The Zygon Invasion by Peter Harness. The Fires of Pompeii is one of the most iconic episodes with the 10th Doctor and Donna and is the first novelisation from their era. Perhaps a sign more is to come later on?
The Character Development
The side characters develop more in this novelisation, especially the villains. There are tantalising hints about the previous culture of The Sibylline Sisterhood. And it’s intriguing to see some of the priestesses start to question their beliefs. The Pyroviles aren’t developed so well. In the prologue, they’re introduced as a species with ‘honour and stoicism.’ But they quickly revert to the generic monsters we saw on screen, without any more humanising or interesting moments.
Comedy is subjective, but I found that the humour felt flatter on the page. Reading this, it seems that Catherine Tate and David Tennant’s comedic timing and chemistry sold the comic moments of the episode rather than the writing itself. I didn’t find most of the extra jokes particularly funny. Moran tried to use comedy to give Donna some additional development. But none of the new stuff was as compelling as the distress she faces in the episode.
The adaptation succeeds where it builds on its sense of dread and melancholy. The characters’ increasing doubt mirrors the uncertainty of the Doctor and Donna’s moral choices. The tragic moments that Moran expands and adds to the novel are pitch-perfect. Especially a new scene where Caecilius’ family comforts each other. Donna’s inner monologue and new conversations between her and the Doctor make for some great character moments. Showing her shame and awe, highlighting how she quickly knows The Doctor so well into their journey.
The Easter Eggs
Unlike other novelisations, The Fires of Pompeii contains very few easter eggs. There are slight references to Douglas Adams, Sherlock Holmes, and some of Donna’s adventures from when she went looking for the Doctor.
There’s one easter egg that you’d almost expect to be guaranteed for this novelisation. Some sort of comment on Caecillus’ appearance – as the character marked Peter Capaldi’s first appearance in Doctor Who before he became the 12th doctor. While there are a couple of references to this, they’re frustratingly thin – though it might be unfair to expect more from a standalone novelisation.
The Fires of Pompeii novelisation puts Easter eggs and references on the back burner to prioritise character development. But I’m conflicted about how successful it is. It sings when it focuses on the tragedy and mystery of the episode. But the comedy’s so-so compared to the episode itself, and the development of side characters – especially the Pyrovilles – seems underwhelming.
It’s such a good episode that it couldn’t have become a bad novelisation. But I’m unsure how much it gains from the new format. While some of the extra scenes and development felt seamlessly like part of the episode itself, the episode also seems to have a sharper focus. The imagined voices of Catherine Tate and David Tennant can’t compete with their real chemistry on screen. I’d recommend checking the novelisation out if you’re curious. But I don’t think it competes with the episode, especially as the additional content isn’t as rich as other novelisations.