THIS EPISODE TAKES
PLACE IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE TV EPISODE "FLESH AND STONE" AND PRIOR TO THE NOVEL
VAMPIRES IN VENICE
'THE COMPLETE FIFTH SERIES' LIMITED EDITION STEELBOOK BLU-RAY DVD
(BBCBD0130) RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2010.
The Doctor takes Amy and Rory away for
a romantic break but terror awaits in 16th century Venice. What DARK secrets are held by the House of Calvi-erri and who is the mysterious Rosanna?
8TH MAY 2010
Vampires and Doctor Who share a long and torturous history that spans three decades and just as many mediums, and which has seen the fabled creatures rise to a position of some prominence within the series’ mythology. The race of Great Vampires introduced in Terrance Dicks’ 1980 serial State of Decay were portrayed as the ancient enemies of the Time Lords – a notion that would be embraced and elaborated upon by many subsequent writers – and more recently, Cavan Scott and Mark Wright have intro-duced us to home-grown and (in my view at least) markedly more menacing versions of the monsters in their celebrated audio dramas Project: Twilight and Project Lazarus. Toby Whithouse’s Vampire tale, however, presents us with a third variation on the theme, and it’s one that I don’t think anybody will have been expecting. Here the titular Vampires of Venice aren’t the traditional undead bloodsuckers that we had all anticipated seeing: they’re fish. Fish from space…
“Now then Rory. We need to talk about your fiancé. She tried to kiss me….”
The episode’s lengthy pre-title sequence perfectly encapsulates the story’s style and spirit. The Being Human creator opens his script with a resplendently traditional, gothic horror vignette that introduces us to his principal antagonist. But whereas the vampire’s victim’s scream would normally bleed into the howl of the opening title music, instead it dovetails into the roar of Rory’s stag do, and a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in most sitcoms. Having swapped places with a diabetic stripper, the Doctor bursts out of a cake to declare the hen’s indiscretion to the stag. Such an intense hush falls over the pub that one could be forgiven for thinking that a crack in time and space had opened right in the middle of the room. “Funny how you can say something in your head and it sounds fine,” the Time Lord fumbles, as the opening titles kick in and one of the wackiest stories in the series’ long history begins to unfold.
But as well as being one of the wackiest Doctor Who stories to date, The Vampires of Venice is also one of the most visually arresting. Venice is one of the most distinctive cities in the world in any event, but Venice in the late 16th century is even farther removed from the world that we live in, and is that much more romantic as a result. And director Jonny Campbell presents it (well, Trogir in Croatia decked out as it) in all its luminous glory, light and lavish and naturally toned; hardly the sort of environment that one would normally associate with the legendary creatures of darkness.
Indeed, if you were to ask a man in the street where he’d expect to find a vampire, he’d be unlikely to answer you with “Venice”. The chances are he’d say “Transylvania”, “Whitby”, or – if he’s smarter than the average bear – perhaps even “Ungro-Wallachia”. But even given the potentially telling setting, I wasn’t expecting the “fish from space swerve”. With hindsight, of course, it makes perfect sense (given the prevalence of water in the city), but watching the episode for the first time it really came as one hell of a shock.
Nevertheless, those with a penchant for Hammer Horror (or just buxom belles in low-cut garbs!) won’t be disappointed as the first half of the episode does exactly what it says on the tin. It may not reach the levels of glorious gratuity that movies such as Lesbian Vampire Killers aspire to, but for six o’clock on a Saturday night it certainly acquits itself admirably. Throw a prancing Matt Smith brandishing a library card with William Hartnell’s photo on it into the mix, and it really is Christmas.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea… I’m a Time Lord. You’re big fish. Think of the children…”
Following the twist in the tale, however, the adventure assumes a slightly heavier tone as Whithouse explores the motives behind the ersatz vampires’ plan. The conceit that these creatures want to adapt our world to suit their needs as their planet has been destroyed (those cracks again…) may not be particularly original, but Whithouse puts enough spin on it to make it feel fresh. I’m especially fond of Helen McCrory’s Rosanna Calvierri as she really gets across the idea that this creature is trying to save her race, and so in her view annexing one primitive, already half-sunk human city is justifiable when the alternative is the extinction of her entire race. This resonates very nicely with the Doctor’s traumatic history, as once again he finds himself in the unenviable position of having to watch a species die.
“Tell me, Doctor. Can your conscious carry the weight of another dead race? Remember us. Dream of us.”
Ultimately though, The Vampires of Venice will be remembered for its raucous humour. I think it speaks volumes about the appeal of this episode that my wife lauded it as the best episode that she’s ever seen (and she’s seen ‘em all, poor lass, telesnap reconstructions and all!) whereas I was much more ambivalent about it. My wife couldn’t give a damn about how innovative or fan-pleasing the main thrust of the narrative was; she just wanted to be entertained for an hour. And, whilst I thought that the storyline was merely very good, I have to admit that I haven’t ever laughed as much watching a televised Doctor Who story as I did watching this one.
“Oh right, I’m being reviewed now am I…”
For starters, Arthur Darvill’s Rory Williams is a goldmine of comedy. Hapless, feckless and overwhelm-ingly inarticulate, this poor young feller makes the Mickey Smith of the 2005 series appear strong and staid in comparison. And in this episode, Rory finds himself plucked from the drunken warmth of his stag do and planted firmly in the middle of renaissance Venice in a bright red T-shirt with his and Amy’s faces on the front, and the legend “Rory’s Stag Do” emblazoned on the back. Most blokes just wake up in the back of a lorry in Calais! I think I found the visual gag of this T-shirt funnier than anything else in the story, especially when Rory swaps clothes with the gondolier Guido (not the bounty hunter Guido…) - a 16th century bloke in a cheap bright red T-shirt several sizes too small for him just really tickled me. That said, Rory’s immortal line “I’m a gondola… driver” is very hard to beat, as is his exuberantly feeble wielding of his “lightsaber” broomstick in his ‘duel’ with Francesco.
And when Darvill is paired with Smith, we are treated to something very special indeed. Naturally we have all the obligatory “yours is bigger than mine” banter as Amy’s two “boys” try to top one another, but for all his ineptitude, Rory is proven to be extremely perceptive. He is quick to spot Amy’s zealous desire to impress the Doctor (“You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around!”), and is desperate to curb her recklessness as she tries to do so. However, by the end of the story, Rory finds himself just as keen to make an impression on his would-be rival as his fiancé is, bravely putting his life on the line to try and save the city.
“Hey look at this. Got my spaceship. Got my boys…”
On a final note, as she has done all season, Karen Gillian gives a fabulous performance here, particularly when she finds herself between Darvill and Smith. Inevitably Whithouse’s script favours the two gents as they verbally joust across the forty-five minutes, but every so often Ms Pond is able to silence both her companions with a choice phrase, and she is certainly given plenty to do so far as the action goes. Her impromptu killing of Francesco was a little unexpected, mind; I can certainly understand her having to kill him in order to save Rory’s life, but I’d have thought that she’d have at least been a little shaken by her actions, rather than taking murder in her stride.
Overall then, though I don’t agree with my wife’s soaring assessment of its merits, The Vampires of Venice is an extremely entertaining romp. I didn’t find its main plotline to be quite as exciting as I’d thought that I would prior to transmission, yet I enjoyed the wit and the energy of the TARDIS ménage à trois far more than I was anticipating, so fair’s fair. Ultimately my only real grumble with this episode is the title’s superfluous ‘The’ – plain old Vampires of Venice packs much more of a punch, don’t you think?
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
I really enjoy watching Doctor Who with my husband because we very often have conflicting opinions about the episode. He is on the cusp of being a fan – he wouldn’t go out of his way to watch a story, but will happily join me if I am, and he wouldn’t dream of missing a new episode. He has pretty much liked all of what he has seen in the last five years, although there have been a few moments where he hated something (Fear Her, Midnight). I was expecting quite a lot from The Vampire of Venice (always a fatal error) and wasn’t entirely satisfied with what I got, but Simon adored every second of it. For him to simply be ridiculously entertained for an hour is more than enough. Sometimes, being a critical fan, I forget how mesmerising it can be to shut off your critical faculties and just enjoy something, and after my initial viewing (groaning with displeasure afterwards!) I re-watched the episode with this in mind and found it far more enjoyable the second time. There are problems here, but on the whole this continues Matt Smith’s impressively consistent first season.
Venice is possibly my favourite place on the Earth bar none. I had a fantastic romantic weekend there with Simon three years ago, and it was everything you could possibly hope for; seductive, mysterious, gloriously atmospheric and beautiful. So imagine my disapp-ointment when I watched this story and there were only a handful of shots of the canals and striking buildings – for the odd reason that this story was not filmed in Venice! And then I switched over to Doctor Who Confidential, and there they were, offering up lavish shots of Venice itself! The actual episode couldn’t make it to the city it was set, in but the ‘making of’ show could? Craziness, and despite Steven Moffat’s rather odd assertion that Venice is all Starbucks and McDonalds these days (huh?) I found the Confidential material far more convincing (obviously).
“Makes you wonder what could be so bad that it would let you think it’s a vampire.”
Okay - that’s my rant over. Regardless of my feelings of brevity towards the production decisions, the filmed material is still stylish and sumptuously shot, and this is easily the most expensive looking episode of the year so far. The essence of Venice is there with some well staged waterway scenes and some huge and detailed sets. I adore the grand staircase that Rosanna descends to send her girls out into the town, and the shots of Venice when the Doctor steps from the TARDIS are divine. The lighting is superbly done as well, especially when you consider some of the gondola scenes weren’t filmed on water and the harsh green lighting when Amy is menaced by Rosana and the torchlight escape scenes lit up my darkened front room deliciously.
I will be mirroring the praise I have heard for Matt Smith elsewhere, but just to give a more balanced view I know a couple of people who refuse to watch the show because he isn’t David Tennant; one who thinks he’s ugly as sin; and one who thinks he’s too young and doesn’t capture the essence of the Doctor. What nonsense! I find Matt Smith immensely likable in every single shot (which I couldn’t say about Eccleston or Tennant) and whenever he’s on screen I always find my eyes drawn towards him at the expense of whoever else is around. The Doctor creeping about underground and being threatened by the Calvierri girls is an essential scene just for Smith’s flighty performance. He’s hilarious and flits about like a pixie who is thrilled at the discovery of vampires! Later he commands the attention sitting on Rosanna’s throne, questioning her motives and throwing out great lines like, “You’re a big fish. Think of the children.” Smith dazzles his way through the story as a witty, seductive and playful protagonist and I don’t think we have had a Doctor this delightfully whimsical since Tom Baker at his height. Plus his entrance as a stag do stripper has got to be one of the funniest scenes ever.
“I owe Casanova a chicken…”
A love triangle in Doctor Who should be about as welcome as the Rani storming into Albert Square (which explains a lot) and whilst I was unsure where the deliciously fanboy upsetting snog last week was going, in fact I was quite surprised at how delicately this was handled. It helps that the three characters are all very interesting - Amy is enticed with the Doctor and his lifestyle, but has lingering feelings for her life with Rory; Rory is a bit of an idiot, but he is capable of sudden clarity and bravery, and wants to prove himself to Amy; and the unsexy Doctor wants to bring them together but doesn’t want to lose Amy. There’s no Eastenders’ style histrionics but a subtle layer of tension that runs through the episode between them. I find Rory a far more convincing stooge than Mickey was in Series 1, his head snapping around in confusion and comically culture shocked throughout but full of razor sharp observations. People do try and impress the Doctor when they are with them and that does very often lead to danger and I’m surprised nobody has pointed this out so nakedly before. I love how protective of Amy Rory is even if his instincts tell him to run away and there is a general feeling of a modern day ordinary guy walking onto a period drama set which is exactly the point. There are some great lines within their tug of war over Amy, “Yours is bigger” / “Lets not go there” and I like how the story sees Rory join the crew at the end with both the Doctor and Amy delighted by the idea.
The main thrust of the story is the Saturnine migration to Earth and Rosanna’s attempt to repopulate her race and create a home for them. It’s a mixture of good and bad really. The good is the Saturnines are a generally fun species with some outstanding design. The first reveal of Rosanna as a giant fish is absolutely terrifying, and Francesco leaping at Rory in his fishy form is a genuinely spectacular visual. Who said the budget had been cut this year? Helen McCrory gives a very good performance as Rosanna and it is easy to sympa-thise with a villain that seduces with a voice and eyes like chocolate. It is a thoughtful performance and not a one note wonder that so many Doctor Who villains can be (Maureen Lipman springs to mind) and I found her sacrifice at the end of the story quite a lump in the throat moment. Its not often you feel sorry for the monster that tried to murder so many people.
“There are ten thousand husbands waiting in the water…”
The blossoming arc is also very well done with more intriguing touches that I think are going to cumulate into one hell of a climax. The talk of the silence descending is terrifying and the Saturnine escaping from the latest threat to the universe has an Unquiet Dead vibe to it. Best of all was that shot through the TARDIS keyhole at the end of the episode, which looks suspiciously like the cracks in time – could it be that our trusty time machine is responsible for all these holes tearing up the universe? There’s so much potential for terror there…
I really like the idea of fish people raising the waters of Venice to create a habitable environment for them to live in but wasn’t that already done in The Stones of Venice, Paul Magrs’ audio drama? And haven’t we had enough of the Doctor climbing great masts and flicking a switch to save the day? It was lousy in The Idiot’s Lantern and Evolution of the Daleks and it hardly makes for a clever resolution, which I have come to expect from the Moffat stories this year. Perhaps Terry Pratchett had a point when he said Doctor Who stories were lazy with their conclusions – Who ex Machina, hmm? Plus there were a few awkward spots of direction in the episode too, the lead into the theme music should have been hilarious but they didn’t cut away soon enough and the Doctor ended up looking like a twat; Rory’s slapstick fight with Francesco should have been tighter and funnier; and the silence descending at the climax was a bit sudden and unrealistic.
“This way you stupid great Spongebob!”
For all these complaints there were some fabulous subversions – I loved how the story cut from the screaming victim to Rory’s stag when I was certain the theme music would cut in, I liked how it was Rosanna to nibble on Amy’s neck rather than Francesco, Guido’s sacrifice was a triumphant moment and the decision to let Rory stay was a surprise.
I know Murray Gold gets some stick for slapping on loud music over dialogue scenes but he more than anyone has ensured the continuity and identity of the show between Doctors ten and eleven and he is responsible for some of the most atmospheric moments in Doctor Who’s history. His work in The Vampires of Venice is extraordinarily good, dynamic and dramatic and capturing the horror and the beauty of the story. A superb score, I love the feet-thumping piece when the Doctor threatens to tear down the house of Calvierri and the shock scream-like music when Rory insults Rosanna in front of Francesco.
“Library card! Of course…”
Simon was grinning all night after this episode. I was less enthused, but this is still a fun episode with a lot to offer if you don’t go into it with too many preconceptions. I hope that one day we can really visit Venice, but this replica still has an exquisiteness of its own.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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