You know The Fires of Pompeii right? Well The Fires of Vulcan is a story that does the same basic plotline, but does it thousands of times better. But Jacob I hear some of you asking, how can an audio be better than anything televised Doctor Who could put out? Well there are several reasons that Steve Lyons’ story is much better than James Moran’s script but first is the tone and the way the Doctor is portrayed. While Moran’s script deals with some tough topics and dilemmas his tone still remains relatively light while Steve Lyon’s can only be described as morose. The plot involves the Doctor and Mel landing in Pompeii the night before Vesuvius’ eruption, but instead of leaving the Doctor has to stay because in his Fifth incarnation the TARDIS was found in the ruins. The morose tone comes from the absolute hopelessness of knowing the volcano is going to blow and the Doctor can’t leave. Sylvester McCoy gives one of his best performances as the Doctor, even though the story is firmly planted in Season 24 where the order of the day was a lot of humor. McCoy’s melancholy attitude only adds to the tone and atmosphere. Yes he gets a few humorous moments in the story, particularly trying to get Mel not to be suspicious of his motives for leaving, but they are few and far between staying in line with the morose tone. But enough of the comparison, so let’s move on to the main attraction of the story, the plot.
The plot also involves no extraterrestrial elements outside of the TARDIS, going for another pure historical. Now this should have failed as it is the companion’s job to make the historical setting work in context and this story’s companion just happened to be the much loathed Melanie Bush played by Bonnie Langford. Yet much like their redemption of the Sixth Doctor, Big Finish almost immediately redeem the character by turning into a smart, quick-witted young woman and not the screamer we saw on television. Bonnie Langford’s performance is a lot better than ever on TV as she has grown up a lot in the years between Dragonfire and The Fires of Vulcan. She’s still her usual happy and optimistic self which serves as contrast to the Doctor’s morose attitude as she is convinced she can find a way out of it. The writing also has Mel give us a great view on Roman society as she does quite like it, but is appalled at the sexist and less than pleasant portions of the culture. She hates the idea of slaves as much as the next person but the suggestion that the female slaves will have to pleasure their masters makes her face red with outrage. Yes it’s possible for even Mel to be likable here and no longer the worst companion of all time in my book.
I also have to give props to master of sound Alistair Lock who is responsible for the sound design and the music of the story. While the music isn’t very catchy, per say, it immediately transports you back to Ancient Pompeii and helps set the mood from the word go, getting you ready for the historical drama that is about to follow. The supporting cast would probably have to be the only weak spot in the story. Some of them are fine, especially Gemma Bissix slave Aglae who becomes companion to Mel and has really good chemistry and the main villain of the piece Eumachia played by Lisa Hollander. Both actresses have some great chemistry with the lead actors and give it their all. The rest of the cast however seems really quite bland in comparison to the others. You have a barkeep and a gladiator who are both there to make us feel bad about the coming volcano. There’s a soldier who wants to well get with Mel, but he is played by Steven Whickham who is so underwhelming you can barely tell he has any feelings towards Mel. Also the solution to the story is a little weak as if you know anything about how Vesuvius erupted, you can guess it at the very beginning
To summarize, The Fires of Vulcan is a brilliant audio drama that just oozes with a melancholy atmosphere and a great historical plot. The story is slightly let down by its solution and some rather underwhelming actors in the supporting cast, but the thing is able to redeem Mel Bush from the depths of companion hell. Let me say that one more time, Mel is actually a good companion that actually provides the solution to the story. 97/100