Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Vampires of Venice written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Jonny Campbell


This story in a nutshell: It's all in the title…or if only it were.

Nutty Professor: As much as I don’t like the idea of the Doctor crashing (and ruining) Rory’s stag, his face when he jumps out of the cake is an absolute picture. I was much more impressed with the glorious shots of him swinging beneath the TARDIS console; sparks flying, goggles deployed and tinkering with the real lady in his life. He looks like the nutty professor more than ever before. The Doctor enthusing about Venice is appealing, giving the viewer a little history lesson and capturing the magic of the city far more effectively than a handful of brief CGI shots. Smith wanders down into the catacombs and is confronted by a gaggle of Vampire girls and you might just think that Patrick Troughton’s spirit has entered his body because his comic double takes, airy fairy waves of the hand and delight at being in danger recalls his predecessor with great aplomb. There was a time when the Doctor would revel in the thrill of breaking into a convent school for vampires but nowadays he’s so entrenched in Eastenders territory he has to talk about being the unwilling target of an engaged Scot’s misplaced sexual frustrations. How the mighty have fallen. Rory makes a great point about how people try and impress the Doctor and as a result are a danger to themselves and his expectations. Matt Smith plays the role with such conviction that even when they try and make his Doctor sound like a hard man and he threatens to tear down the house of Calvierri (stone by stone, you know) and he marches off to get that done you believe him. For such a slight bloke that is quite a feat. Mind his ‘I tell you to do something and you do it’ tiff with Amy at the climax is horribly misplaced. I guess they were still feeling their way in with his character…I just cannot imagine that scene taking place now. The Doctor would find a much better way of getting Amy to safety than balling at her like a naughty child. It reminds me of the climax of The Beast Below and is similarly troublesome. 

Scots Tart: ‘Yeah sorry…I’m kind of engaged’ This is the point they poisoned the well. Until now Amy has been a perfectly serviceable if completely bland companion (albeit one with an intriguingly structured opening episode that's almost convinces there is something more to her than meets the eye...but now she is just a Scottish tart with an attitude problem after all) but The Vampires of Venice (or rather the cutaway scene at the end of Flesh and Stone that almost threatened to topple a classic story in one foul swoop) marked the fork in the road where the character turned actively unpleasant. Moffat has always preferred the mechanics of his arcs over the authenticity of his characters so Amy by the very nature of her narrative (that a crack in space has swallowed her existence whole and replaced it with one where she is brought up by her aunt) leaves her with a faceless background and little character beyond being a smart arse shoving her hands on her hips and posing dramatically. The irony being that once the universe is rebooted in The Big Bang and she is given her boyfriend and parents back the result for Amy is that she becomes only fractionally nicer (not enough to consider her agreeable however) and marginally more interesting. The idea of having a threesome in the TARDIS where the companion chooses the Doctor over her lover is a flawed idea. It doesn’t work for Amy on two levels – one because it refuses to allow her to have that special connection with the Doctor because twos company and threes a crowd (especially when you are banging one of them) and secondly because it’s a horribly abusive arrangement for Rory to watch the woman that he loves falling for another man. Rory is a far more interesting character because our sympathies automatically fall in his lap but the consequence of having Amy cheat on her husband to be (she would have gone all the way in Flesh in Stone had the Doctor not been above such things) and spend the next handful of episodes having to decide which man to choose turns her into a morally unsound, selfish and thoroughly exploitative character. It is not a shift in her favour by a long chalk. I found it quite ironic that once the cracks in time swallow Rory and take him from her, the consequence was for her to completely forget about him. Whilst this is a plot function rather than a character beat (what’s new?) it felt entirely in keeping with her hideous behaviour towards him, a natural extension of her abusive attitude. It's also quite telling that it took nearly an entire season and a half worth of episodes (not until the climax of The Angels Take Manhattan) to undo all the damage done here and to have Amy make the choice and commitment that she should have done from the very beginning. To forget about the Doctor and devote herself completely to her husband. Yes that's right, it takes Amy two and half seasons to realise that the man that she has chosen to marry is the one that she wants to spend her life with. That's not a journey, that's realising the bloody obvious. The Doctor becomes an awkward third party that diverts the course of true love for nearly two and half seasons (despite the fact that he sees himself as the Pond’s counsellor he is actually the reason they have all of their problems in the first place) and even at their parting he asks Amy to choose him over her husband (his desperate pleas to her not to step back into the past in The Angel Takes Manhattan). For me this was never an adequate place to take either the Doctor or his assistant. And it all starts here.

Amy looks appalled at the idea of a date with her fiancé and doesn’t even have the balls to look ashamed at how she has behaved. She’s far more passionate at arriving in Venice than in trying to address the problem of her slowly broken down marriage (I guess ignoring a problem is the easy way out but it hardly makes her more appealing). When Rory is confused about the psychic paper Amy simply shrugs him off with an ‘I’ll explain later.’ Rather than say ‘I was wrong to cheat on you, Rory’ Amy instead tells him about how scared she has been almost as though that excuses her behaviour (the little punch on the arm is like how a sister treats a brother). She doesn’t want to talk about the deep stuff because it will ruin their date – seriously, are they trying to make her look selfish? You know that feeling when you are in a group of friends and everybody is deliberately having a laugh but excluding you…the Doctor and Amy’s excited exchange on the bridge with Rory looking on despondedly really taps into that. And she’s completely unaware that he is hurting. Is the woman a completely insensitive moron? Suggesting that she and the Doctor pretend to be husband and wife and she and her fiancé pretend to be brother and sister? When Amy was wandering around the vampire school I was hoping that she would be drained of blood as punishment for her indifference…probably not the best sign that a companion is working. Unbelievably the episode seems to make the decision that Amy gets to ‘review’ Rory and consider him worthy of her when that is the last thing that it should be promoting. The emphasis is on her being in the right. Astonishing. She even gets to choose to have Rory along for the ride in the future, having her cake and eating it by being able to play the two men in her life against each other. By the end of this episode I was spitting blood at the woman. I can’t think of a time when I have disliked a companion quite this much. 

Loyal Roman: The idea of Rory leaving a drunken declaration of love on Amy’s answer phone whilst she is gadding about the universe with another man is heartbreaking. He’s such a trusting fool he would never suspect a thing. Rory is the only person who seems to remember that they are actually in real danger and despite the fact that she doesn’t deserve it he tries to point out to the Doctor that he is constantly walking his fiancé into trouble. Rather than sit his wife to be down and ask for answers, it’s the Doctor that gets all the accusations flung at him. It's almost like Amy is a particularly special child that nobody wants to upset by forcing her to confront her own misplaced sexual morality.


Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Cab for Amy Pond?’

The Good:
  • Helen McRory clearly has what it takes to be a great Doctor Who villainess (one to add to a pleasingly great number that have appeared in the new series – Margaret Slitheen, the Wire, the Carrionites, the Sibylline) because she takes the part seriously enough when it counts (she could have stepped from a straight drama at many points in the episode) but still able to strut her stuff, hands on hips and shake her fist in the air when things turn sour.
  • The sets, lighting and general design of the episode is a feast on the eyes. I especially love the impressive courtyard with arched alcoves and a grand staircase winding around it – filmed in long shot, the show hasn’t looked quite this expensive in a while.
  • The one scene that really stands out amongst the mediocrity is the two hander between the Doctor and Rosanna. Not because it is especially well scripted but it is exquisitely performed by both actors and walks through a host of emotions from flirtatiousness to intrigue to outright hostility. If only the rest of the episode had displayed such marbled depth.
  • Murray Gold is having a whale of a time and his score suggests the operatic drama and spectacle of the piece that the actual content of the episode fails to deliver. I love his glorious horror theme as the Doctor is menaced through the catacombs by flame wielding vampires and the passion that the Doctor/Rosanna confrontation climaxes with thanks to the score is breathtaking. And the vocals go nuts during the climax in authentically melodramatic fashion.

The Bad:
  • It seems somewhat ungrateful that I should complain about the location work of such a visually lush episode but I was so angered to see that the actual episode was not filmed in Venice (without a doubt one of my favourite places in the world), and yet the Confidential episode was, that my opinion of this piece was automatically soured. The location work that is lavished upon this episode is gorgeous but having taken in the atmosphere of Venice I have to say they don’t even come close to capturing the romance and the mystery of the city in a way that actually filming in the real place would have achieved. It bothers me far more than previous attempts at this show pretending to go to places that they are not.
  • I loathe Francesco with a passion. Considering he is a weasly, bullying mummys boy that was probably the idea but I also didn’t particularly admire the performance of Alex Price. He looks as though he has walked onto the wrong set at times and wishes he was playing a role on Rome instead. There’s something vaguely incestual about the relationship between Francesco and Rosanna, he loves nothing more than resting his head in his mothers lap and having it stroked seductively. When his mother rejects him he plods off with a sour look on his face and preys on some virginal innocent instead.
  • The teaser doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. I think the idea of the Doctor jumping out of a cake and telling Rory that his wife tried to kiss him in front of all his friends is supposed to be belly laugh funny but it plays out very awkwardly (and the drawn out pause before the title music kicks in makes prolongs the agony far longer than it should). There’s nothing worse than comedy that dive bombs and whilst I’m sure this is supposed to be an uncomfortable moment for all the characters its never the way I ever envisaged a Doctor Who story being kick started. Bawdy and cheap where I’m accustomed the clever and inventive.
  • I’m not sure if it’s the scripting or the performances but Rory’s speech to Rosanna about Amy getting into school is painful to watch. It's another instance of laugh out loud comedy that misses the mark by a country mile.
  • CGI creatures have impressed on the show before (I especially enjoyed the nimble Krillatines) but the Satturnyne aren't the most memorable of creations. Monsters that have two layers of deception before you get to the real thing…and ultimately they are just mechanical looking fish that stand there clenching their teeth with outstretched nails. They aren’t even as imaginatively designed and shot as the last time Doctor Who indulged with the notion of fish people (no I’m not talking about the trout finned Tereleptils) – at least those corral encrusted nasties performed an underwater ballet. The best they can manage here is water being blown up through a river to suggest fish creatures breathing beneath (and it does look like a solitary pumping blowing up bubbles). They might not have had much money in the 60s but by golly they had more ambition.
  • Whenever a writer isn’t sure how to conclude a tale these days the ideal get out clause seems to be to shove the Doctor up a pole (or at least at high altitude). It happened in The Idiots Lantern, it happened in Evolution of the Daleks and it happens here. None of these episodes are anything out of the ordinary and all three of them exchange intelligence for spectacle during their climax to their detriment. The Ariel shots of Venice racked by storms feel as though they have leapt straight from The Shakespeare Code. They didn’t even have the chutzpah to electrocute him this time.
  • So let me get this straight. This isn’t the work of vampires but a race of fishy aliens that have set up a school for girls so they can turn Earth females into amphibians and toss them into the water to copulate with the horny males of their kind? Isn't that just the most embarrassing b-movie idea      ever to grace Doctor Who? And that is in the face of some pretty stiff competition. We've sat through 45 minutes for this revelation? Rosanna wants to cause earthquakes to create tidal waves and turn Venice into an underwater city for her freakishly fishy folk. Even a Doctor Who romp should aim higher than this. Check out Paul Magrs' superlative Stones of Venice to see how a Doctor Who romp in this city should be played out. 
  • As soon as Guido reveals that he has a store of gunpowder in his house its pretty obvious that his character is going to sacrifice himself. When it came I greeted the ‘surprise’ with a cry of despair rather than surprise. And to be fair the explosion is pretty lame.
  • They say bad things always come in threes and the final comedy nugget that sinks like a stone is the appalling directed ‘and so’s your mum’ fight between Rory and Francesco. It's supposed to show Rory in a heroic light but its so awkwardly filmed and performed both actors look deeply uncomfortable.  ‘Did you say something about mummy?’ It lacks wit or drama. It's just odd
The Shallow Bit: Considering Venice is the most romantic city in the world and this episode purports to be something of a romantic comedy/tragedy…there is nothing in the least bit seductive in how this instalment is presented. Odd.

Foreboding: ‘And so in memory of those children lost to the Silence…’ Another example of Moffat trying to be all clever-clever at the expense of making any sense. In theory the idea of setting up the next race of nasties a season before they appear is a sound idea. In practice having the Saturnine come to Earth to escape from them and then to establish that the Silence have been present on Earth long before they arrived makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Surely the Silence would have just wiped them all out as soon as they made their presence known if they had been present for such a long time in all areas of the globe? You need have some kind of internal consistency to your arc stories, you cannot just make it up as you go along and hope that nobody will notice the holes. Don't you know how anal your fan base is, picking over every obscure detail? Perhaps this is why Davies restricted his arcs to a single season and started again each year. He knew better than to overcomplicate to the point of presenting a reckless narrative that makes no sense. 

Result: Visually stunning but morally corrupt…have we wandered into an episode of Torchwood? This was one of the most disappointing episodes of the season for so many reasons, chief amongst them being the fact that it promised far more than it delivered. The elements of the title whet the appetite but what transpires is less of a vampire tale and more of a traditional Doctor Who monster of the week and despite the suggestion it doesn’t capture the essence or the magic of Venice in the slightest (I say that as Venice is my home from home). Toby Whithouse rejects the gothic trappings that could have sold this adventure and instead chooses to fill in the cracks with an appallingly handled domestic drama that charts the character assassination of Amy Pond. About the only person who emerges from this episode intact is Matt Smith who waltzes through the forgettable events with glee; playful, silly, powerful and truly embracing the role of a lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with a little brainless escapism every once and a while but this is so undemanding and predictable it leaves no room for surprises or even much entertainment. The odd witty line and sumptuous visual is in evidence but there is so little of substance here and bringing Rory into the fold means that this isn’t even an episode that you can avoid during a rewatch. At least Murray Gold is having a field day: 4/10

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can’t think of a time when I have disliked a companion quite this much.

Even Tegan? :D

Anonymous said...

A always, your review is spot on! You have reviewed Partners in crime and now Vampires of venice, I find a great contrast between Donna(one of the finest companions) and Amy (yuck), what I miss more from RTD era is the greatness of his characters. Moffat era companions are... hollow? I totally agree with you about Amy, I wish the Doctor had crash landed on youn Rory's garden in the Eleventh Hour and make HIM the companion...

Anonymous said...

I thought the destruction of Franscesco by Amy's pocket makeup mirror was ridiculous. Francesco was able to walk around in the sunshine prior to this without any discomfort.

The storm clouds were building when Amy used the mirror so there shouldn't have been any sunlight to reflect.

I would have preferred Amy to distract Francesco with the mirror so that Rory could run him through with the sword. By killing Francesco, Rory could have gone up in Amy's estimation. We know she likes beefy men with big weapons who know how to use them.

Anonymous said...

I thought the destruction of Franscesco by Amy's pocket makeup mirror was ridiculous. Francesco was able to walk around in the sunshine prior to this without any discomfort.

The storm clouds were building when Amy used the mirror so there shouldn't have been any sunlight to reflect.

I would have preferred Amy to distract Francesco with the mirror so that Rory could run him through with the sword. By killing Francesco, Rory could have gone up in Amy's estimation. We know she likes beefy men with big weapons who know how to use them.

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