“The Vampires of Venice” is a distinct step down for the season after the triumph of the Weeping Angels two-parter. It has some good elements in it, particularly when it concentrates on the central relationships between the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his two companions, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her fiance Rory (Arthur Darvill). It’s not so good, though, when it comes to providing a strong and interesting adventure in its own right. Writer Toby Whithouse previously provided the highly acclaimed episode “School Reunion” for the 2006 season of Doctor Who; he’s also the creator of the supernatural drama series Being Human, so he should know a thing or two about writing for vampires. Unfortunately this episode works as a good-looking “romp,” but nothing deeper, with its tone veering uncertainly between sci-fi, horror, and comedy.
After the final scene of last week’s episode, when Amy launched herself at the Doctor, totally ignoring the fact that she was getting married the next morning, the Doctor evidently decides that Amy and Rory’s relationship needs working on as a matter of urgency. This strand of the story opens with a bit of pure slapstick, as Rory is talking (or rather yelling) to Amy’s answerphone over the noise of his bachelor party while a large cake is being wheeled in. He and his cheering friends are suddenly silenced as out of it emerges, not a bikini-clad girl, but a bowtie-sporting Time Lord, leading to a hilariously awkward monologue:
The Doctor: “Rory! That’s a relief. Thought I’d burst out of the wrong cake… again. … Now then, Rory, we need to talk about your fiancée. She tried to kiss me.” (gasps and hoots from the crowd) “Tell you what though, you’re a lucky man. She’s a great kisser.” (A glass is dropped and shatters, as Rory and the whole crowd are frozen in shock.) “Funny how you can say something in your head and it sounds fine…”
The way the scene just hangs there, letting the embarrassment pile up until the opening titles mercifully cut in, is laugh-out-loud funny. After the titles, things turn more serious; we are in the TARDIS, with the Doctor explaining to Rory that: “The life out there, it dazzles. It blinds you to the things that are important. … Because, for one person to have seen all that, to taste the glory, and then go back…it will tear you apart.” Basically, Toby Whithouse is, as with “School Reunion,” making central to his story an examination of the Doctor/companion relationship, and in particular its effect on the companion once they leave the Doctor and attempt to return to a normal life. Once again, the thesis is that being a companion is such an overwhelming experience that it makes having normal relationships afterwards virtually impossible. In the earlier story, we saw this demonstrated explicitly with Sarah Jane Smith, former companion from the 1970s. Here, the Doctor is trying to prevent that outcome—observing the Amy/Rory relationship already becoming attentuated over just a few episodes, he’s decided that they need to be forced back together.
The Doctor: “I’m sending you somewhere, together.”
Amy: “What, like a date?”
The Doctor: “Anywhere you want, any time you want. One condition—it has to be amazing. … Think of it as a wedding present. Because frankly, it’s either this or tokens.”
The Doctor decides they need to go somewhere romantic, and so they land in Venice in 1580. The environment is very well realized by rookie director Jonny Campbell, helped greatly by the location filming—not in Venice itself, but in the Croatian town of Trogir, which provided an abundance of authentic buildings and squares to recreate the period setting. As always when the Doctor Who team do a story set in Earth’s past, the BBC design and costume departments do an excellent job. I think it’s one of the most impressive-looking episodes the series has done.
Unfortunately, the story being told in this impressive setting has its problems. Sometimes, the self-contained 45-minute format in which the majority of Doctor Who stories are told works well—and other times, as here, it really works against the story. At the opening of the show, we saw the aristocratic Rosanna Calvierri (Helen McCrory), who runs an exclusive school for girls, accept the appeal from a lower-class boatbuilder, Guido (Lucian Msamati—another case of an excellent actor making the most of a rather minor part) for his daughter Isabella to be accepted into the school. As soon as Guido leaves, Rosanna’s son Francesco (Alex Price) bares his teeth, revealing enormous fangs, and attacks Isabella. Now if the story had two episodes to play with, the intersection of this plot with the Doctor and his companions could have been played out much more naturally, slowly building up the horror atmosphere which all the nicely creepy vampire imagery deserved. Instead, the Doctor stumbles onto the plot almost immediately; as they are wandering through the streets they see Guido accosting the Calvierri girls, who are out promenading with veils covering their faces. He finds Isabella, but she doesn’t recognize him, and another of the girls menaces him with fangs like Francesco’s.
The Doctor has no difficult in befriending Guido, who immediately tells him his whole story. This leads to him paying a quick visit to the Calvierri mansion, where he encounters a group of the fanged girls. This scene is one of the few times in the whole season so far where I felt Matt Smith was trying too hard to play up the eccentricities of the Doctor; in particular, the bit where he says “Tell me the whole plan!” and follows up with an aside to the camera (“One day that’ll work”) was just too jarring, really pulling the viewer out of the story. Meanwhile, Amy and Rory just happen to witness Francesco attacking a nameless flower-seller; they rush back to the Doctor with the news of vampires, which he of course already knows. They go and have another chat with Guido, who just happens to have a map and knowledge of a tunnel leading under the Calvierri mansion. The tunnel ends in a sealed trapdoor, so Amy will have to infiltrate the school and open it for them. The story is advancing in an entirely predictable and formulaic way.
Again, this is similar to “School Reunion,” where some fantastic Doctor/companion material was set against a rather simplistic B-story of alien activity in a school setting. It’s interesting to compare the similarities between the Doctor’s treatment of Rose and Mickey there, and Amy and Rory in this episode. Just as with “Mickey the Idiot,” the Doctor tends to be rather unfairly dismissive of Rory, even when he demonstrates some intelligence. In the opening TARDIS scene, Rory immediately accepts the TARDIS interior as a different dimension because after his last encounter with the Doctor he’s been doing some reading of the latest scientific theories—and the Doctor is almost angry when he says, “I like the bit when someone says it’s bigger on the inside. I always look forward to that.”
There’s less pathos than in “School Reunion,” though, since unlike with Mickey and Rose, the Doctor is definitely not interested in winning Amy’s love, and wants to push Amy towards Rory. Hence the relationships can be exploited for comedy:
The Doctor: “We go together, say you’re my daughter.”
Rory: “What? Don’t listen to him.”
Amy: “Your daughter? You look about nine!”
The Doctor: “Brother, then.”
Amy: “Too weird. Fiancée.”
Rory: “I’m not having him running around, telling people you’re his fiancée.”
Amy: “No. No, you are right.”
Rory: “Thank you.”
Amy: “I mean, they already have seen the Doctor. You should do it.”
Amy: “Yeah. You can be my brother.”
Rory: “Why is him being your brother weird, but with me it’s okay?”
Guido: (looking at the Doctor) “Actually, I thought you were her fiancée.”
The Doctor: “Yeah, that’s not helping.”
Arthur Darvill does well at portraying Rory’s rather hapless love for Amy and the way it leads him to follow her into danger as she is taken into the school, which requires Rory to bluff Rosanna—or so he thinks—using the Doctor’s psychic paper. Later, he will have a “swordfight” with Francesco which, even though it’s played for comedy with Rory wielding a broom instead of a sword, still demonstrates the character’s bravery. Indeed, he gets to demonstrate a perception that elevates him above the level of comic relief when, upset over Amy’s danger, he berates the Doctor: “You know what’s dangerous about you? It’s not that you make people take risks, it’s that you make them want to impress you. You make it so they don’t want to let you down. You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.” Of course, he is falling victim to this himself as he follows the Doctor into the school, armed only with a tiny flashlight—which the Doctor immediately trumps by producing a comically huge lightsaber-like device from his pocket. (“Yours is bigger than mine.” “Let’s not go there.”)
Once Amy is inside the school, the story is full of images taken straight from the Hammer gothic vampire movies like The Brides of Dracula, with the vampire girls surrounding and menacing her. There’s the classic horror movie image of Amy in a nightdress, carrying a lantern through the darkened corridors of the building as she goes to open the trapdoor for the others—leading to a nice ’jump’ moment when Rosanna’s steward suddenly appears next to her. She is seized and taken into a sinister “processing chamber” where the only genuinely horrific sequence of the story takes place. Rosanna reveals that she saw through Rory’s bluff with the psychic paper immediately, and wants to know what Amy is doing in this “world of savages.” Amy is tied down as Rosanna bares her fangs and lunges at her.
She is rescued by the Doctor and Rory, and it’s at this point that the story suddenly changes direction, as it turns out that the vampires aren’t actually vampires at all. Amy kicks at Rosanna and accidentally hits a device she’s wearing—a perception filter—which reveals her true form, an upright lobster-like alien with spindly black limbs and claws. I thought these aliens were a very good piece of CGI design, particularly the match between the alien form and the human disguise—for example, the way the spines around the alien’s neck morphed into features of the ornate collar of her dress.
Helen McCrory gives an excellent performance as Rosanna. Her best scene is another one that parallels a moment in “School Reunion”—a face to face verbal confrontation between the Doctor and the villain, who offers the Doctor an alliance. In that episode, David Tennant and Anthony Head created some terrific tension as they strove to outwit each other, and here McCrory and Matt Smith do just as well. It also serves to tie this story into the ongoing season arc, as Rosanna tells how they came here: “We ran from the Silence. … There were cracks. Some were tiny, some were as big as the sky. Through some we saw worlds and people, and through others we saw silence…and the end of all things. We fled to an ocean like ours, and the crack snapped shut behind us.” They have made a new home for themselves in the waters of Venice, and are converting the girls in the school into members of their own race in order to provide breeding stock to rebuild their population.
The episode provides sci-fi explanations for the convenient coincidence that the aliens have the same attributes as traditional vampires—like invisibility in mirrors—with varying degrees of success. It’s a cute idea that the perception filter doesn’t work in a reflection, and that the brain can’t deal with the aliens’ true appearance and so leaves the reflection blank. However, while I could believe that humans would be fooled like that, I just couldn’t buy the proposition that the Doctor would have that problem—this is a guy with the wisdom of the universe, who’s familiar with uncountably many alien races; there’s probably no one less likely to be fazed by a creature’s strange appearance.
Now things have to start moving really fast, in order to wrap the plot up within the episode’s running time. Rosanna sends the vampire girls to attack the Doctor and co., but they are all conveniently wiped out by the store of gunpowder which Guido just happens to have stashed in his room. Then Rosanna activates some weather-control device which will apparently cause Venice to sink due to earthquakes or tidal waves or something; which leads to an ending with the Doctor having to climb up the side of a high tower to destroy the generator. This brought back memories of “The Idiot’s Lantern” and “Evolution of the Daleks”—neither of which are particularly good episodes to be reminded of. In the end, he manages to switch off the aliens’ plan literally by simply flicking a switch. In “School Reunion” (again!) this same situation was treated as a joke—but here we’re expected to take it seriously.
There are lots of untidy loose ends in the plot. Who is Rosanna’s human steward, Carlo, and why is he serving her without any comments about the weird goings-on within the school? How come only male aliens (apart from their leader) survived the passage to Earth, thereby requiring them to start preying on human girls? Most irritating is the way the aliens’ vulnerability to sunlight changes from moment to moment to suit the requirements of the story. The sunlight burns Isabella during the escape attempt so badly that she can’t bear it and is pulled back inside, but in the very next scene she is standing in full daylight before being pushed into the water to be devoured by the lurking aliens. During Rory’s fight with Francesco, Amy somehow causes the alien to explode simply with a reflection from a hand mirror(!) After the failure of her plans, Rosanna despairs and commits suicide by diving into the water in her human form. Somehow she is able to shed her outer clothes even though they don’t really exist—they’re a creation of her perception filter. (Of course, the real reason is probably that the production team couldn’t afford to damage that very expensive-looking dress.)
So it’s probably best to ignore all the stuff about the vampiric alien lobsters, and just concentrate on the interaction between the Doctor, Amy and Rory. In the end, the adventure does seem to have resulted in a change in their relationships. Amy invites Rory to stay with her and the Doctor in the TARDIS, and he’s happy to accept. She’s happy too, since it means she doesn’t have to choose between them—at least, not yet.
Amy: “Hey, look at this—got my spaceship, got my boys. My work here is done.” (She enters the TARDIS.)
Rory: “Uh…we are not her boys.”
The Doctor: “Yeah we are.”
Rory: “Yeah we are.”
Then, as they enter the TARDIS, the sounds of the marketplace around them suddenly vanish—Silence falls. The direction here is a little too arty for its own good, not making it clear whether all the people who were there just a moment ago have simply vanished, or whether they are still there but have somehow been silenced. And in either case, why does the Doctor head into the TARDIS, rather than stay and investigate? The final shot, a zoom into the TARDIS keyhole, may or may not be important—I’ve seen some comments saying that the shape of the keyhole is similar to the crack in the universe that’s been a feature of this season, but I don’t see it myself. An appropriately confusing end for an episode that unfortunately never quite lived up to its potential.
NEXT WEEK: There’s no new episode, as BBC America is having a Memorial Day weekend marathon. In two weeks, the Doctor, Amy and Rory find themselves trapped by a strange force, trying to distinguish between reality and dreams, in “Amy’s Choice.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: For an example of how the classic series dealt with gothic horror themes, check out “The Brain of Morbius,” starring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.