THE VAMPIRES OF VENICE
Buy this Doctor Who DVD: UK
Buy this Doctor Who DVD on Blu-ray: UK
Oi! Toby Whithouse! Over here! Can you get a bit closer? Closer. That’s it.
We love this episode to death. It’s Doctor Who that works from start to finish.
Yes, we know there are plot similarities between this and Toby Whithouse’s stellar School Reunion. It doesn’t matter at all. We’ve seen this story many times anyway. It’s how you do it that matters, and this comes across as an enjoyably fresh and entertaining take which fits the character of the Eleventh Doctor superbly.
So what makes it so successful? First of all, it’s the scale. Yes, this turns out to be about the destruction of an entire race, but thank God, we don’t get to see all of them zooming about menacingly in the sky, we mean the water, for once. Instead, it’s essentially a two-hander between the Doctor and Rosanna, with support from a very small handful of other characters. Does this underplay the big issues at stake? Actually, the opposite. The microcosm is not only enough, it’s more all up in your face than thousands of CGI fish thrashing around baring their fangs would ever be. With very few exceptions, the new series has forgotten that less is a hell of a lot more. The Vampires Of Venice gets it exactly right.
Of course, a two-hander would fall flat on its face if either of the hands, were, er, sprained. (Work with us here.) Luckily, that’s absolutely not an issue. You’d guess Helen McCrory would knock it out of the park, and oh boy, does she. Sensual, menacing, wistful? Bring it on. It’s a joy to watch her deliver every line.
As for Matt Smith, we didn’t think we could like his performance any more than we already do, but every week he astonishes us by getting better, and this week is no exception. How do we love him? Let us count the ways.
We’re very impressed by the way he walks the line when it comes to sensuality, for a start. It’s a long, long time since the Fourth Doctor was Sarah Jane’s best friend: things haven’t been as innocent as that since the new series’s inception. On the other hand, he’s the Doctor: we’re not of the school that thinks the Doctor has to be asexual, but making him a bog-standard romantic hero would detract from his all-important alienness and in general subtract from that peculiar yet unmistakable cluster of qualities that’s kept him in business for 47 years. It’s a fine dividing line: the Tenth Doctor was sometimes dragged a little too far down the romantic end of the spectrum, but so far this Doctor is pitched exactly right. He can flirt for Gallifrey (feel that zing between him and Rosanna), but he knows exactly what he is and isn’t going to do.
And that’s why all the stuff here resulting from Amy’s attempted seduction in Flesh And Stone works brilliantly when it could have been peeking-through-your-fingers embarrassing. It’s not completely out of the question, in the way it would have been for the classic Doctors, but nevertheless despite briefly returning her kiss he’s made up his mind he ain’t going there. The sharpness of his observation to Rory that he just happened to be there, his benign attitude to Rory, and his concern for Rory and Amy’s relationship might have turned out unDoctorly, but it doesn’t by any means. We’ve had a jealous boyfriend in the TARDIS before, but the Eleventh Doctor’s measured relationship with Rory is a welcome change from the Tenth Doctor flinging barbs at Mickey.
He’s great at so much other stuff, too. Like reined-in menace, for example, which nevertheless sends an icicle down your back. We contend that the Tenth Doctor’s finest moment is in the confrontation with Finch in School Reunion: here Matt Smith gets a similar opportunity, and guess what, he’s just as good at it as Tennant is. His scene with Rosanna is electric: he has the Doctor’s authority without question.
And all the other stuff he does with his face! His look after he’s told the pubful of Rory’s mates what a great kisser Amy is. His expression as he realises Guido’s about to blow up the gunpowder. His face as Rosanna points out he’s offed another entire race, and after she throws herself in the water.
You can take his Doctor (very) seriously; you can laugh at him; you can see, in a single look from him, 900 years of experience behind that youthful façade. And, importantly, you can see the alien in him too, a vital characteristic not every Doctor has been able to capture. We’re in heaven. These are sides of the Doctor we waited for the Tenth Doctor to develop - and for the most part, waited in vain.
Rory, too, is working really well. Decent guy who’s obviously mad about Amy, poor bastard, and not overawed by the Doctor, either. In fact, he’s really got his number: his speech about people wanting to show off for the Doctor is dead on the money (and splendidly delivered to boot). His ordinary reactions in an extraordinary situation are a great contrast to the Doctor and Amy’s glee in the face of danger - and his gradual shift away from that towards the sword-fightin’ derring-doin’ end of the scale is equally effective.
As for Amy, pffft. We weren’t particularly entranced by her trying to shag the Doctor the night before her wedding, and we’re even less impressed now that we’ve got to know Rory a bit better. They can downgrade it to a kiss all they want, but that it wasn’t more is down to the Doctor, not Amy. We hope the answer to this is still ahead of us, but why the hell is she marrying Rory anyway if she doesn’t want to? It’s not as if she’s condemning herself to a life of toil as a governess or something if she can’t catch a husband. And despite the Doctor’s (absolutely incredible) speech about how “the life out there” changes you, that’s not it, or all of it, either, because Amy made the decision to run away from her wedding before she’d experienced that. Although we appreciated her courage here, they’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do if we’re going to like Amy much again.
The supporting players also hold their end of the thing up. Special big ups to Lucian Msamati, who as Guido shows enormous dignity and heartbreaking concern about his daughter.
What else? We love the sheer look of the thing: the lighting in particular is swoonily lovely, and they make the most out of the airfares to Croatia. The costuming - that gorgeous collar Rosanna’s wearing! Mwah! She also has a lace overlay on her bodice which looks like fish scales, which is a nice touch. Some pretty camerawork, too - we’re very fond of the shot from the ground of Francesco swirling his cloak. (We’re suckers for a good cloak swirl.) The shot from above of Rosanna and Francesco lolling around on the well is also lovely,. And we love the way they cut away from the shot of Francesco doing a swan dive before he hits the water.
And the story? Could be worse, could be worse. Our feelings generally about vampires are Buffy/Angel good, Twilight appalling, the rest mostly boring. And since this isn’t Buffy, we were worried. (When we realised you can only see the vampires’ evil teeth sometimes, this led to a lengthy discussion about how that was OK because vampires do have normal teeth when they’re not vamping out. Then we realised that was Buffy, not real life. Then we realised we have trouble distinguishing between the two. Then there was a ruminative pause.) However, since it’s not really a vampire story, there was nothing to worry about. We get that fantastic scary/hilarious scene with the girls, the Doctor and the mirror, a bit of nibbling, and then the vampires are forgotten.
As for the story about the Saturnynians, it’s a well-worn path but is done efficiently, and it allows for those absolutely excellent scenes between Rosanna and the Doctor as she threatens him, then tries to seduce him, then pleads with him, all to save her species. We’ve been here before, of course, but it’s very much worth watching this Doctor make his decision - and register the consequences.
It’s a script that repays more than one watching: “I believe protecting the future of one’s own is a sacred duty.” “Then we will take your world.” You sneaky little haddock, you! And it’s so funny! “Could someone let her in and give her a jumper?” “Because frankly, it’s either this or tokens.” “I’m a gondola…driver.” “I’m from Ofsted”…stop us before we throw the whole script in here.
It’s not just a laugh riot, of course. As well as the showpiece scenes, there are the small but effective lines like Isabella’s “the sunlight burns my skin like candle wax” and Rory’s bitter “You can promise me that, can you?” And it’s full of subtle but telling touches, like the way they underline Rory’s discomfort with his situation by the way he edges off the gunpowder barrels only to barge into the hanging rabbit. And there’s genuine suspense here, too, especially when Amy is alone in the school.
Is it just a classic episode retreaded? Not at all. The toing and froing about the Doctor/Amy/Rory lurve triangle is enough in itself to set it apart from the old stories, but it’s not just that that. There’s lots of stuff in here, like the Doctor’s reaction to the girls and the Doctor and Amy squeeing about vampires in Venice, that could only work with this Doctor.
So what don’t we like? The CGI, alas, is woeful and just gets woefuller and woefuller until that woefulissimo scene of the Doctor and the dome. Yee-ouch. They should have learned from Isabella’s death, which was a lot more effective for the creepiness of what we couldn’t see than tons of CGIed fish in the water would have been. In fact that scene's a stinker in general. The Doctor's climb up the roof reminded us forcibly of the 60s Batman TV series. Holy walking sideways, Doctor! How many times do we have to see the Doctor waltzing up a tower anyway? And why would anyone, least of all a fish, put a secondary circuit at the top of a tower with no access?
Besides, was the flooding all about? All right, they're fish and they need water, but the oceans are full of it. What's the point of sinking Venice? Given that the girls are all dead anyway, so it's not a question of tipping in brides or anything, it seems like a fit of pique on Rosanna's part more than anything else. And while the Doctor et al dust their hands off and skip away happily, basking in the knowledge of a job well done, aren't there 10,000 lethal Brothers Of The Water still dog-paddling around in the canals? (Thanks to Gareth Rafferty for pointing this out.)
There are other assorted bits of crappitude. We’re not too keen on the way first Isabella and then Guido die deaths full of pathos and nobody even remarks on it. They’re not too consistent on the whole sunlight thing. The “yours is bigger than mine” torch scene is overegging the pudding. The Venetians are remarkably laid back about a big blue box appearing in the middle of the market, not to mention about Amy’s outfit, which in ye olde Venice would have been like walking down the street in your underwear. “Slutwear” wouldn’t have begun to cover it. As it were. And Rory’s remarkably unfazed by everyone speaking English, too. However, none of this matters a great deal, because none of it dents the sheer brio. There are problems that sink the ship, like fecking about with the nature of your villains until they’re unrecognisable, and there are problems that are fleas and the bites thereof. These? Fleas.
We love it, love it, love it. Fangs for the memory.
MORAL: Don’t put all your fish eggs in one basket.
SPRUNG FROM THE SPONGE
Why does the Doctor burst out of the cake, anyway?
That “Mummy’s hydrating” scene doesn’t look all that hilarious on the page, but in the performance it’s quite another matter.
BOOK THE FIRST
The library card with the First Doctor on it! We went awwww!
ALL THE PUN OF THE FAIR
‘“You kissed her back?” “No, I kissed her mouth.”’ This is the kind of joke for which the death penalty was invented - but the delivery more than saves it.
PAPERING OVER THE CRACKS
We love the way Rosanna calls the Doctor on the psychic paper. We know they say these things are necessary, but they do get terribly tedioso: making an interesting plot point out of it instead is a great improvement.
It makes no sense that Guido is wearing Rory’s stag do sweatshirt when they’ve had to shell out anyway for the rest of Rory’s and all of Amy’s outfit, not to mention that it makes him pretty conspicuous, but it’s funny all the same.
THE EMPRESS HAS NO CLOTHES
The scene where Rosanna takes her clothes off and dives into the plunge pool is poignant as all get-out, embodying both her loss of and her dedication to her species. But wait a minute - she's not actually wearing any of that stuff! It's all the perception filter! So how does she get to rip 'em off and pile 'em up? (Thanks again to Gareth Rafferty for this one.)
Um, we hate to mention this, but since the earthquake had already happened when the Doctor did his domey magic, he wouldn’t have stopped the tsunami he was warning them about.
Buy this Doctor Who DVD: UK
Buy this Doctor Who DVD on Blu-ray: UK