Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Stones of Venice by Paul Magrs and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? The Doctor and Charley decide to take a well-deserved break from the monotony of being chased, shot at and generally suffering anti-social behaviour at the hands of others. And so they end up in Venice, well into Charley's future, as the great city prepares to sink beneath the water for the last time.. Which would be a momentous, if rather dispiriting, event to witness in itself. However, the machinations of a love-sick aristocrat, a proud art historian and a rabid High Priest of a really quite dodgy cult combine to make Venice's swansong a night to remember. And then there's the rebellion by the web-footed amphibious underclass, the mystery of a disappearing corpse and the truth behind a curse going back further than curses usually do. The Doctor and Charley are forced to wonder just what they have got themselves involved with this time.

Breathless Romantic: Now this is more like it! Considering this was the first story Paul McGann performed after the TV Movie he puts in a confident and assured performance where you never doubt for one second that he is the Doctor through and through. Paul Magrs’ fantastic dialogue helps but McGann plays the lines for all they are worth – if anything he is even more enthused and full of wonder than in Storm Warning and he snuggles into the romantic atmosphere beautifully. He bursts into the story running away from the military forces from a previous adventure feeling very happy that he has put an end to really vile regime – there is nothing he likes more! When they move onto Venice he enjoys trying to unsettle Charley with stories of the City’s impending death. He thinks watching Venice sink under the waves would be a glorious event to witness. There is a great image of the Doctor lying back on the gondola with his hands behind his head snoozing whilst Charley chats up the athletic punter! He finds he can’t name drop for toffee these days. This Doctor has not lost his appreciation of art and is appalled at the thought of the Duke’s art collection atrophying under the sea. Feels awful for taking Charley from one awful place to another. He finds cults too sullen for his tastes. Being knocked out, tied up in a cellar and blindfold are same old, same old for him. Secrets, danger and romance excite him. He often gets a whiff of something wrong and has to sort it out and might have something of an innocent view but he can live with that. Still nibbling at people’s pasts like he did in the TV Movie, this time Churchwell is his victim. He isn’t superstitious. Fanatics get on his nerves; they are too hysterical and love the sound of their own voices. The Doctor is described at being very good at causing a stir! I love the way he quite brazenly walks into the palace and demands the attention of the Duke without even introducing himself! His simple ‘of course’ when asked if the artworks are from outer space is hilarious. Just imagine the 8th Doctor, all long hair and flapping coat, punting down the Venetian canals as the facades crumble into the swelling waters around him. Bloody marvellous! He scoffs at the very idea that he would suggest that the story would have a moral! If the Doctor didn’t believe there was always a way to put things right he wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, he wouldn’t eat breakfast, he would leave the TARDIS and he certainly wouldn’t have left home.

Edwardian Adventuress: Whereas the Doctor and Charley had virtually no characterisation at all in the last story here they are in the hands of Paul Magrs who transports them to a truly incredible location and lets them have some fun. Charley’s father wasn’t keen on her striking out on her own and would be appalled at the thought of the Doctor taking her under his wing. She thinks the TARDIS looks like something out of Jules Verne and should have gleaming white consoles and controls (never fear…you will see the sixth Doctor’s console one day!). Charley is appalled that the Doctor has taken her somewhere awful where everyone wants to die but soon changes her mind and is soon wrapped up in Venice’s seductive atmosphere. She is very sympathetic to the underdog – in this case the Gondoliers and is soon embroiled in their despicable scheme to convince the Duke Orcino that his Duchess has been re-incarnated – with Charley playing the role of the Duchess! She is held at knife point, drugged, forced into a fabulous frock and spilled into an aristocratic role. When he invited her on his travels the Doctor never mentioned anything about marauding amphibians and enforced marriages to noble lunatics! I adored the moment where she turned on the ranting Orcino and finally gave her a piece of her mind: ‘And who are you to inflict your misery and self indulgence on a whole city? Look around you – a whole city is dying because of a curse you brought upon its head! Your greed caused this Orcino, your greed and your disregard!’ Charley is shaping up very nicely indeed, still infectiously sweet but ballsy enough to strike out on her own for the majority of this story and more than a match for the Doctor. You have to love how she scoffs at the men at the end of the story and points out that the whole thing was about love.

Great Ideas: Magrs is an ideas man – that is his meat and tink so you can always expect something special when his name crops up in the schedules but imagine my delight when he decided to set a story in my absolute favourite place in the whole world – Venice! I had a truly wonderful week in Venice three years ago and have been desperate to return since. There is an atmosphere of beauty, magic and wonder, decay and disaster, curses and cults. It’s fabulous.

Venice is sinking, cursed by Orcino’s ex lover the Duchess who he gambled away in a reckless wager. She flung herself into the canal in her wedding dress and cursed Orcino to 100 years of life unaged by which time the City will fall. A cult sprung up that worshipped her body that they believed was hidden in their underground catacombs. The gondoliers are planning a revolution – waiting for the City to slide under the waters and they will reclaim it (what an imaginative visual – underwater Venice with the gondoliers gliding through the waves and buildings). The irony is that Estella never did kill herself – she has been living as Eleanor Lavish who Orcino treats in a filthy fashion and the ultimate irony is that for a laugh he puts her on the throne for a laugh as he goes in search of his beloved. Charley is dressed up in finery and asked to play Estella re-incarnated to distract the Duke and prevent him from trying to save Venice. The ending is glorious, the Duke and the Duchess are reunited in the flesh and she rejects him and he asks her to step into the flames so they can sacrifice herself and allow Venice to rise once again. The sun rises again and bathes Venice in its glow, a story of a City reborn.

Standout Performance: How wonderful to see Michael Sheard in Doctor Who again. His impressive turn as Duke Orcino is one of his best performances in the show; in turns desperately romantic, lethargic, ruthless, bloodthirsty and theatrical. He is an insane selfish man but is ultimately redeemed.

Sparkling Dialogue: The whole script is a delight on the ear and the words work to magic up a wealth of imagery.
‘There she is! There she is! Bright, bold, beautiful and bright blue and waiting for us!’ – the Doctor rejoices at the sight of the TARDIS.
‘Last time I watched the light spilling from palace windows onto the Grand Canal and all the stars looked as though they were trapped underwater bursting to get out.’
‘I’ll find myself some opulent ballroom and watch the chandeliers grown extravagant beards of lichen and weed and the monstrous fishes take up residence in the sepulchre boudoirs of ancient princesses.’
‘Let’s travel in style! Let’s raise a glass as we steam down the canal and before the world ends it turns complete upside down.’
‘And the clocks chime out for the death of Venice.’
‘Look the jewels they’ve come alive! They’re opening like eyes!’
‘Abandon you? No and I wouldn’t lose you in a game of cards either. Of course not, you’re my best friend.’

Audio Landscape: God bless Gary Russell for being so in tune with the script and bringing it to life with such verve and energy. The teaser is great as the Doctor and Charley run from gunfire and cries for them to stop. We jump to Venice with its lapping waters and church bells, echoey courtyards and birdsong. Revellers party in and out of the cloisters and party horns blare in the distance. Even small details like the gondolier feet being flippers slapping against the stone are just right. The catacombs are an atmosphere of dripping water, loose bricks and crumbling concrete and religious cults chanting evil chants. As the Doctor approaches the Duke’s palace the piano playing inside gets slowly louder and louder. Estella’s tomb is a stone scraping event. Clocks tick to suggest the end of Venice. Jewels tinkle and sparkle as they consume the City. Swords unsheathe and the gondoliers attack with a lot of splashing and screaming. The music, performances and writing are all at their height at the story’s conclusion as the Duke and Duchess step into the flames and save Venice, a devastatingly romantic moment for Big Finish.

Musical Cues: More plaudits as Russell Stone gives us the party of the decade with his riotous piano score. Seriously this is the best of some outstanding scores by Stone, the glorious piano pieces in episodes three and four as the party goes on around the drama really got me in the mood for a knees up. It feels as though there is an entire band playing – kudos for keeping things so uplifting. But he is no shirker when it comes to scoring the more emotional moments either. There is a lovely soothing piece as Orcino reminisces about Estella in episode one and the episode ends on a cliffhanging high with the music suggesting an air of mystery and wonder. A hypnotising piece lures us into Charley’s brainwashing sequence. There is a really exciting, foot tapping piece when Churchwell declares ‘We’ll all be dragged down into the deeeeeeeeepths!’ The music in the last episode is the best thought – an enchanting piece plays over the climatic sacrifice and the new dawn of Venice as greeted by a seductive and sunny score. Of all the ‘Music of…’ CDs Big Finish released, this was my favourite and most played. Stone’s loss was a huge blow to Big Finish.

Isn’t that Odd: That the story is hopelessly predictable but I don’t give a toss because I was so romanced by its atmosphere and imagery? It happens…

Result: Controversially this might be my all time favourite Big Finish. It’s not the most intelligently written or the most innovative, it doesn’t have a huge mission statement and it doesn’t once threaten to become an exciting story. The script is captivating all the same, full of delicious dialogue, magic, love and wonder and perfectly taking me back to one of the best weeks of my life spent in Venice. The Doctor and Charley are perfect for this story and have their own adventures, wrapping themselves up in the seductive atmosphere of the place and enjoying some of their best ever dialogue. This is a world of secret cults, lost love and revolutionaries hiding under the surface, a story where the conclusion sees lovers sacrificing themselves so they can be together and a City reborn. I could listen to this one over and over. How on Earth did Tom Baker say no? What a nutter: 10/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/


P. Rocerin said...

Our prayers will continue for you and your family, Nate...especially as you adjust to the loss of your dear "sister", Eva. But rejoice for her if you can, and remember--you will be reunited with her someday. I believe the Lord will be coming for us all SOON--the end times are near! Prepare, and make sure that all your friends and loved ones have heard the message of the Lord, so that not one will perish!

Bad Andy said...

That's odd. I really dislike this story. In the early pantheon of Eighth Doctor stories it ranks just ahead of Minuet in Hell.
Still, horses for courses.

Doc Oho said...

Like I said in the review Venice is my home from home and I really feel Magrs captures the beauty and the majesty of the city. I love his language anyway. Magrs is one of the most marmite of authors but I love his work!

Bad Andy said...

Magrs did this as well? Blimey. I'm just listening to his Hornets Nest stories thanks to the free Guardian giveaway at the moment and think it pales in comparison to BF output.
Maybe I just don;t like Magrs. I hate marmite also.

Doc Oho said...

Hornets Nest is a completely different beast to the usual Big Finish output, an exploration of language and narration - since our opinions differ so wildly I have to confess I adored Hornets Nest. Beautifully structured, lush dialogue and with far more twists and turns than your average Big Finish. Magrs really is love him or hate him - I love his work.

Bad Andy said...

In fairness to The Hornet's Nest - I've just finished it and it is very good. I just really didn't like the first episode for a number of reasons.

Tim90 said...

This is such a magical story with one of the very best soundtracks of any Big Finish audio (I bought the Eighth Doctor soundtrack album ust so I could hear the music from this). As you said it's very predictable but that doesn't matter when a story is as charming, atmospheric, and beautiful as The Stones of Venice. An absolute favourite which I too could listen to over and over again.

Doc Oho said...

The Stones of Venice really seems to divide opinion between those who want a nice, tight Doctor Who story with plenty of plot (which this isn't) and those who are looking to immerse themselves into an evocative audio environment (which this most definitely achieves). Its still one of my favourites, and I too love the soundtrack. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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Guy said...

The soundtrack is absolutely beautiful I love the atmosphere and it's gentle, soothing pacing.

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If you listen to the Big Finish audios they have 'behind the scenes' featurettes after every release and Sutton can often be found reminiscing about her time on the show. A time that she loved, suggesting that they were a family unit that got on like a house on fire and that she was extremely sad to leave when her time had come. It's quite a different account from Waterhouse's during the same period, his being much more self pitying and depressing. Perhaps that is how he experienced his time on the series but let's be honest, with so many accounts of what a precocious actor he could be he probably made a rod for his own back.

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