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How Doctor Who made the greatest fix-it fanfic of all time
The British screenwriter James Moran has always had a keen interest in the history of Pompeii, so when he was asked to write a Doctor Who episode about the doomed Roman city, he was thrilled. That episode, the second episode of Season 4, "The Fires of Pompeii," saw the Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) accidentally arrive on the eve of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. When the TARDIS goes missing, the duo is introduced to a Roman named Caecilius, a real historical figure whose house was spared by the volcano's fallout and remains standing to this day.
A version of Caecilius' story was told in Book I of the Cambridge Latin Series, the textbook series used to teach Latin to secondary school children in the UK, including eventual Who showrunner Russell T. Davies, who was let down by the fact that Caecilius and his wife died in the earthquakes around the time of the Vesuvius disaster, leaving their son Quintus alone in the rubble. Decades later, Davies decided to use the Doctor to change his fate, at least in the Whoniverse. The task of designing his alternate history was assigned to Moran.
"[Davies] loved the stories when he was at school and was really upset when they got to the end and found out most of them were killed in the eruption. I agree, it sounds like a massive downer to drop on schoolkids," Moran admits. "He said to use them for inspiration, then he said no, actually, let’s just put them in! Save their lives, right the wrongs of history. I mean, if you can’t do that in Doctor Who, where can you?"
It wasn't Moran's first time in the Whoniverse — he was already writing for Torchwood — but he was, of course, dazzled at being part of the Doctor's journey.
"The conditions were: put a family in so we can have some scenes inside their villa, which they’d build in the studio, put in some sort of fire monster, and have a moment where a spaceship comes flying out of the volcano when it erupts," Moran tells SYFY WIRE. "Apart from that, I had free reign to think up a story."
It was the eruption that would, of course, be the center of the tale. But how to work it in within the realm of Who proved to be slightly tricky — but not unprecedented.
This act of changing the outcome of a character or plot is known as "fix-it fic" in the fanfiction world. Sometimes this involves entirely re-writing the ending of an episode or adjusting a character arc. Sometimes it's ignoring the events of a film and creating your own version, the way you thought it should have gone. Fix-it fics are popular, with over 55,000 tagged fics on Archive of Our Own alone. They're a method of catharsis for fans to see the story they want when the actual material is anything but. In this case, he was "fixing" a real world event.
"It really is fix-it fic when you think about it that way. It’s funnier because I used to do things like that in short stories when I was at school, all the time, about TV shows or movies or books," Moran explains, admitting that he'd never heard of "fix-it fic" before. "This was before the internet, so I didn’t realize at the time there was a whole term for it."
Moran also introduced the idea of fixed points in time (aka events that simply cannot be changed, a concept that would prove vital down the line). It was a good thing Caecilius and his wife Metella's deaths weren't one of those, even if the deaths of their co-inhabitants of Pompeii were.
"My big problem when trying to work it out was: the eruption happened, and I couldn’t change that in the story — so what is there for the Doctor to do? Why are the aliens there? What’s their plan?" Moran explains. "The main thing I was worried about was: this was a real event, in which a lot of people died. I didn’t want to cheapen their deaths or make a joke of that, or flippantly change history and say, 'It’s okay! They all survived now!' I already knew a lot about the history of it, and wanted to honor the people who lived and died there."
So no, Moran couldn't save everyone in Pompeii. The eruption had to happen and worse yet, the Doctor had to be the one to ensure that it did. Moran contrived it so that if the eruption doesn't happen, the planet would be destroyed. Sacrifice Pompeii to save humanity. While a heartwrenching choice, it's one the Doctor simply has to make.
However, there were some people he could save, and with the help and assistance of his companion Donna, one family made it out of Pompeii.
"It’s bizarre because you can never predict what will become A Thing later," Moran explains. "I’m pretty sure [fixed points in time] started out as a way of explaining why we couldn’t save Pompeii on screen, because it really happened, and then Russell made it a proper lore thing. It’s bizarre when clips of the episode pop up in other episodes. It really startles me, as if they’ve suddenly turned a camera on in my living room — I forget sometimes that I’m forever linked with Who history now. It’s so strange."
Not to mention the fact that both Peter Capaldi and Karen Gillan, both of whom had their first appearance in Doctor Who in "The Fires of Pompeii" would go on to become major players in the Whoniverse as the Twelfth Doctor and a long-running, fan-favorite companion, respectively.
"I’m now convinced that Tracey Childs will pop up at some point as the Rani," Moran jokes. Then again, this is the man who tended to the wounds of horrified schoolchildren everywhere with his episode. Who knows, it may just happen at this point.
These days Moran runs a Patreon for writing advice and works on various short films, as well as Mina Murray's Journal, a vlog adaptation of Dracula starring Mina and Lucy as the heroines. Considering how Mina and Lucy's journey is often sidelined or full of misogynistic stereotypes, Moran is once again on the fix-it fic train, doing right by characters who deserve more.