• 8th May 2010 • Review by Julian Hazeldine •
Vampires Of Venice was initially greeted with a shrug of the shoulders on announcement, with most fans regarding it as a late bid to jump onto the Twilight bandwagon. Curiosity has risen, however, as more details of the setting emerged, and the final scene of Flesh & Stone gave us possibly the programme’s most unconventional cliffhanger of all time to further pique the interest. In the end, the second view of unfevered anticipation was justified. The story is a strong one, but with a slightly dated aspect which restrains it from quite standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Steven Moffat-scripted entries in the series.
It’s difficult not to begin with the production values. Where Victory Of The Daleks maintained the quality of its period setting by effectively locating the action in a handful of rooms, Vampires of Venice has no difficulty in working on a more expansive scale. The production’s greatest enemy is the audience’s difficulty in suspending disbelief, knowing that the cast did not enter Italy to make the story, but for the most part this obstacle is surmounted. The telling moments when shorts of the Doctor in a gondola don’t include water slightly intrude, but for the most part the combination of matt paintings and green-screen is supremely effective. It’s a staggering illusion, complemented by a high standard of effects for the sci-fi elements of the setting. The fish-like Sisters Of The Water are a distinct improvement on the sub-par CG realisation of Prisoner Zero in the series’ opening story, and the visual impact of the show is only let down by the substandard shots of the Doctor scaling a campanile during the climax.
After strictly limited screen time in The Eleventh Hour, the story has to make up the ground quickly in differentiating Rory Williams from his Russell T Davies-created predecessor. It initially feels too on-the-nose to have him fully accepting of the nature of the show’s more out-there concepts, but this self-awareness extends to his own character as well as his circumstances, stopping him being a mere figure of fun. His informed reactions to many of the slights that he encounters reminds the viewer that, like Amy, he has grown up with a background awareness of the Doctor, and there’s a pleasing inevitability as he is won over to the leading man’s modus operandi. While Mickey Smith was initially used to highlight the Doctor as a man of action and determination, with his foibles played up for pratfalls and comedy, the interaction between Rory and the Doctor is much easier. For all Rory’s attempts to confront the alien over Amy’s attempted fling, the tone is one of mutual bumbling, reminiscent of the Second Doctor and Jamie at their most relaxed. The Time Lord’s decision to welcome Rory aboard his ship feels entirely natural, and in keeping with Steven Moffat’s seamless integration of what at times have been previously bolted-on character arcs. A case in point is the fate of the grieving Guido- although not passing remark on the death of his daughter, it clearly fuels his willingness to sacrifice himself to halt the Sisters.
For all the focus on Rory & Amy’s relationship, the episode provides a surprising number of archetypal moments for Matt Smith’s Doctor. The actor has talked at length of how he has tried to continually vary his portrayal of the character, and to a certain extent that’s true. The giggly excitement of The Beast Below hasn’t made a reappearance, and it’s been a while since we last heard the word ‘gerranimo’. Despite this, a number of traits have been discussed, both within the fiction, and by the cast and crew, and Vampires Of Venice provides some acute illustrations of these. It’s easy to see why the Doctor’s encounter with the vampire girls in the House of Calveirri’s basement was chiselled out for consumption in early previews, with all its traces of this Doctor’s quiet self-regard, but just as striking is the moment in Guido’s sitting room where the Doctor gags all present while he puts the pieces together. The most telling incident, however, is the pre-credits scene. It’s extremely easy to imagine David Tennant’s Doctor leaping out of the stag night’s cardboard cake with aplomb, bowling the guests off their feet, and dragging Rory away with a quick bon mot. In contrast, the eleventh Doctor instinctively grasps the nature of this course of action, but fails to fully compute the details, quickly floundering into endearing awkwardness.
Given the episode’s successes, it feels rather harsh to reel off the list of similarities to writer Toby Whithouse’s previous Who tale School Reunion, but I doubt I’m the first person to notice the fact that the scripts are non-identical twins. Both adventures see the Doctor investigating a sinister school, run by aliens who are mutating children to further their master plan. There’s a risky piece of infiltration work to gain understanding of the scheme, and a number of tense stand offs between the Doctor and the villain of the piece, who knows the Time Lords of old and tries to tempt the Doctor into joining forces. In part, this is just window dressing for the emotional heart of the episode, which concerns the Doctor & his companion’s relationship with the latter’s boyfriend. It’s easy to imagine Whithouse placing an ad in the local paper: ‘Will trade Anthony Head for gorgeous setting’.
This creates a problem, but not the obvious one. Given how many Who scripts have developed memorable adventures from similar premises, the re-use of successful plot elements isn’t an issue. The trouble stems from the fact that the series has moved from the the ‘Last Of The Time Lords’ angle that Russell T Davies laid to rest in his final scripts. Steven Moffat has successfully progressed, giving a freshness to Series Fnarg, and the long conversations between the Doctor and Rosanna about vanished civilisations can’t help but feel rather old hat. Substitute the Time War for the cracks in the universe as the cause of the lost Saturnine planet, and you’ve got a scenario is identical to the fate of the Nestines in Rose; the switch-over of reference isn’t enough to keep pace with the real changes of emphasis in the series. What would have been considered a good script in the show’s previous incarnation (and a great one compared to much of Series Two and Four) at times feels a little long in the tooth.
One of the episode’s strengths initially looks like a strange misstep, in the non-threatening nature of the villainy. The slow movement of the vampires at first looks rather comical, but it soon comes to embody the languid nature of the action, with neither the freneticism of Who’s fast moving episodes, or the building tension of some quieter tales. The execution of Isabella may be cold-blooded evil to rival the neck-snapping Weeping Angels, but in general, the matriarch of the piece takes a back-seat approach in her work, instructing her son to have patience so that she may continue posing as Lady Bountiful. While a more melodramatic Who villain would have set about the task of sinking the city using high explosives, she merely makes it rain. Despite the apocalyptic fate facing the city, it’s all a rather relaxed affair, with the Doctor now able to stroll into the House of Calveirri at will to save the day. While budgetary restrictions may at least in part have prompted the direction adopted (it’s possible to imagine that actual shooting in Venice would have given us the Doctor frantically racing through the campos in a bid to save the day), there’s a welcome empathy with the dreamy nature of its setting. While we in the UK associate Venice with the great romantic poets, and their debauched existences, it’s important not to forget the otherworldly and tranquil atmosphere that drew them to the city-state. It’s an astute judgement by the production team, with Rosanna’s suicide a troubled but fitting way to conclude the tale.
One of the joys of the present run of the programme is the way that themes and stories run into each other so effortlessly, and the calm progression of the friendship between the three leads is a case in point. The retrograde approach to the Doctor is something of an irritation, but it mercifully doesn’t stop the fun.