A new story receives the Target Books treatment as James Moran brings his own The Fires of Pompeii to even deeper, more emotional, life than before
The past few years have begun a lovely tradition of an annual return to the Target Books library, helping slowly slot in novelisations for the Doctor Who stories of the 21st century. The progress may be slower than back in the day when they kept Terrance Dicks’ typewriter gently steaming with the speed of his keystrokes. But it’s welcome all the same to continue to see a few tales adapted each year with such obvious care. For 2023, the Target treatment is extended to, among others, classic 2007 episode The Fires of Pompeii. Better yet, original screenwriter James Moran takes on the adaptation duties himself.
The plot, as on TV, brings the Doctor and his new friend Donna Noble to ancient Rome… or so they think at first. Finding themselves in the doomed city of Pompeii one day before the fateful volcanic eruption that buries the town alive, there are flashes on the Hartnell era as at first all they want to do is find the missing TARDIS and get away. But every soothsayer and prophet in Pompeii has the gift of perfect accuracy, and men made of stone and fire march beneath the city streets. It all leads up to one of the most dramatic decisions of the Doctor’s life, and heart wrenching scenes that cement Donna as one of the all time great companions and prove why the Doctor really, really, does need someone.
The Fires of Pompeii reads like a directors cut of the episode, rarely making changes but adding detail and length to many scenes
With other recent adaptations coming from the likes of Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, and Paul Cornell, there’s a definite sense of Moran not wanting to be the one to let the side down. If the classic Target books could vary wildly from enhancing every aspect of the original to straight forward presentations of the script in prose format, The Fires of Pompeii sets out to be quality example of the former. Better yet, it succeeds.
The original episode was already so well crafted that there’s little need for new subplots or explanations to put narrative band aids on the plot. Instead, the novelisation feels in places like a looser, earlier edit of the episode. Most of the additions here involve scenes carrying on a little longer than we remember, or take advantage of the extra word count to squeeze in an extra gag here, an extra note of emotion there. (One reality bending one-liner suggesting the Doctor is old friends with a certain 1970s television writer is almost worth The Fires of Pompeii’s cover price all by itself.) But only a little extra detail on the fate of the Pyrovilles’ original planet feels like an attempt to put in place to apply a little hindsight to the original.
The prose format allows James Moran to bring us into the minds of our cast, making already emotional moments truly heart wrenching
But the greatest strength among Moran’s enhancements is his full use of our ability to listen in on our characters’ inner monologues. It’s particularly lovely to be able to see Donna through the eyes of Evelina, the teenage daughter of the family the time travellers fall in with. It’s Donna’s “natural gift for making you feel good about yourself… and for silly voices,” that endears her to the people she meets not just in Pompeii, but in all her travels, and is a neat little word portrait of Catherine Tate’s performance. Donna is also the focus of another of the key moments were Moran takes a sad moment off the screen and properly stabs you in the heart with it from the page, as Donna desperately tries to save the panicking crowds.
Fans of a certain vintage, the ones who go pale when they meet fully grown adults who say Christopher Eccleston was their childhood Doctor, often talk about the lines between Target book and television episode blurring in their memories, until they were unsure where one ended and the other began. That’s less likely these days with tools like iPlayer and DVDs to keep fans memories of the original version fresh. But the Target version of The Fires of Pompeii would be worthy of such confusions. And you may yet feel an extra little pang the next time you watch its most emotional scenes, knowing the anguish behind the eyes of those fantastic performances.
Artist Anthony Dry provides another masterpiece for the cover of The Fires of Pompeii
The whole book is, of course, wrapped up in another stellar cover by 21st century Target’s resident artist Anthony Dry. Meticulously crafted in a pointillist style, they make these novelisations such attractive objects any fan would want them on their shelf almost regardless of the prose within. The only slight disappointment this time is the move to the current Doctor Who logo introduced in 2018. Not because it’s not a great logo; in its usual form it’s gorgeous. Nor because it means the spines don’t all match now. Part of the charm of the Target novelizations is how, assembled in television broadcast order, they sit on the shelf in a chaotic washing machine spin of ‘wrong’ logos.
No, it’s because this stacked version always looks like exactly what it is – a single line logo with a carriage return casually slapped in the middle. It’s an oddity when there are so many more graceful and elegant ways to have stacked the logo.
It’s a tiny misstep in a book that’s otherwise a delight from cover to cover. But perhaps it’s frustrating precisely because this is a volume that otherwise shows its tremendous quality on ever page.
Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii by James Moran
“My masters will follow the example of Rome… our mighty empire bestraddling the whole of civilization!”
It is AD 79, and the TARDIS lands in Pompeii on the eve of the town’s destruction. Mount Vesuvius is ready to erupt and bury its surroundings in molten lava, just as history dictates. Or is it?
The Doctor and Donna find that Pompeii is home to impossible things: circuits made of stone, soothsayers who read minds and fiery giants made of burning rock. From a lair deep in the volcano, these creatures plot the end of humanity – and the Doctor soon finds he has no way to win…