Advertisements
    Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

Doctor Who: The Vampires of Venice (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Vampires of Venice originally aired in 2010.

Tell me the whole plan!

One day that will work.

– the Doctor

The Vampires of Venice is interesting because it looks very different in 2013 as compared to when it was originally broadcast in 2010. In 2010, it looked a bit overly familiar, a collection of the tropes and storytelling tricks that we took for granted in the show under Russell T. Davies. The elements felt, at the time, a little over-familiar. Indeed, it seemed like Toby Whithouse’s script owed a great deal to his earlier adventure School Reunion.

However, Doctor Who looks very different in 2013. The show has definitely radically changed, so that these familiar plot points don’t seem quite so familiar any longer. Whereas The Vampires of Venice didn’t feel so strange after five years of Russell T. Davies, it does seem a bit more unique after three years of Steven Moffat. It doesn’t seem so much an attempt to repackage these story elements as it does one final celebration of them, a fond farewell to many of the narrative bits and pieces that we’d come to take for granted.

How times change.

A late-night bite...

A late-night bite…

To be fair, Steven Moffat’s first season was a transitional period. A lot of producers on Doctor Who have something of a gentle shift out of their predecessor’s vision of the show and towards their own model. Barry Letts and Philip Hinchcliffe, for example, only really laid down their blueprint for the show in their second years as producers. Their first years produced classics, but the second years of their tenures laid set out the structure that their subsequent seasons would follow.

For Letts, that structure was rigidly five stories per year – including one reptile story, a socially-conscious space story and a finalé written with Robert Sloman. For Hinchcliffe, that structure was a string of four-parters with a six-part finalé. Structure is a major part of how a showrunner guides their series, and Davies was quite rigid in structuring his own four series. They each adhere to the same basic structure, with the start of the second season deviating slightly by virtue of not starting in present-day London.

Vamps...

Vamps…

Indeed, it’s quite noticeable that Moffat’s first year carries over his predecessor’s basic structure. His first season as showrunner opens with an adventure on modern day earth, has two stand-alone stories (one with social commentary in the future and one with a famous figure in the past), and then has a two-part story, some mid-season character and arc development, another two-parter, a “lite” episode and then the end-of-season two-part finalé.

It’s remarkable because it’s Moffat’s only season that follows this pattern. His second season opens with a two-parter, is split in half and has a single-episode resolution. His third season is a collection of stand-alone episodes spanning two years, with a Christmas special in the middle. Structurally, Moffat has reinvented the show. This is perhaps the most objective point of difference between Moffat and his direct predecessor. It goes almost without saying that he has a different way of telling stories, structuring story arcs and dealing with familiar characters.

Moffat started by mirroring Davies' structure...

Moffat started by mirroring Davies’ structure…

So, while the show is now remarkably different from what it was while Russell T. Davies was in charge, The Vampires of Venice comes from a point in time when the transition was in progress. Watching The Vampires of Venice now, with a clear idea of what the show will become, it is very distinct from the way that we all looked at it when it originally broadcast about half-way through Steven Moffat’s first season, following immediately on from Moffat’s first two-parter as showrunner.

The criticisms at the time were that The Vampires of Venice felt derivative. It was full of elements that we recognised from stories across the Davies era of the show. The last survivors of an alien species seek refuge on Earth. They set up an institution to exploit the structure of human society, creating a systemic supply of food. They plan to feed on mankind in order to survive, forcing the Doctor to commit genocide in order to stop them.

A role McCrory can sink her teeth into...

A role McCrory can sink her teeth into…

The emphasis is very clearly on the Doctor as a “Lonely God”, the supreme arbitrator of morality from Davies’ show. “Tell me, Doctor,” Rosanna taunts, “can your conscience carry the weight of another dead race?” Although these aliens are the last survivors of their kind due to the cracks in space, rather than the Time War, it feels a bit familiar. There’s event he implicit acknowledgement of the Doctor as the tragic “Last of the Time Lords.” “Such determination, just to save one city,” Rosanna notes. “Hard to believe it’s the same man that let an entire race turn to cinders and ash.”

There’s even an acknowledgement of the Daleks’ nickname for the Doctor, oft-cited during the Davies era. After her meeting, Rosanna declares, “The Storm is coming!” Of course, she’s referring to a literal storm rather than “The Oncoming Storm”, but the reference can’t be unintentional. In this context, The Vampires of Venice almost feels like an archetypal monster episode from the Russell T. Davies era, full of the same sort of grand drama and epic scale that we’ve come to expect from the series.

Mummy's boy...

Mummy’s boy…

Except, of course, this is not the Davies era. This is the Steven Moffat era. As of The Eleventh Hour, the Doctor is less “the Lonely God” and more “a mad man with a box.” He’s come to terms with the genocide of his own people, to the point where he finally considers wandering around the cosmos by himself almost liberating. It takes both Martha and Rose some time to get the truth of the matter out of Davies’ Doctor, but the Eleventh Doctor is remarkably up-front about the history of his people.

The inference is clear, the Time War is over. All that is in the past. The only time that the existence of other Time Lords has really come up again was during The Doctor’s Wife, which also harked back to the Davies era by incorporating an Ood and even the old TARDIS control room. Generally speaking, though, Moffat has generally steered relatively clear of the Doctor as a genocidal force. Again, Day of the Moon is the exception that proves the rule, and even then his use of the human race to kill the Silence seems a little out-of-character.

Drink in the scenery...

Drink in the scenery…

So, with all that in mind, The Vampires of Venice stands out a bit more. While it might have been typical of the Davies era, it is somewhat atypical of the Moffat era. And this is where things get interesting. We might be tempted to suggest that the similarities to the Davies era of the show might be down to writer Toby Whithouse. Whithouse wrote the wonderful School Reunion, which actually perfectly embodied a lot of those familiar Davies era tropes. As such, it’s tempting to suggest that Whithouse can only write one particular type of Doctor Who script.

There’d be no shame in that. After all, Malcolm Hulke was a big fan of reptiles and social commentary, and he’s one of the best writers to work on the classic series. But the evidence doesn’t support that position. Whitehouse wrote the great School Reunion, but he also wrote the following year’s The God Complex. I’m a big fan of The God Complex, which is pretty much typical Moffat-era Doctor Who, disproving the idea that Whithouse can only write one particular style of Doctor Who adventure.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

So, then, The Vampires of Venice becomes something a bit more interesting. It seems to be intended as a transition between the established Davies era of the show, and Moffat’s vision for it. It’s something I don’t think that Moffat ets enough credit for. He radically overhauled the series, but he did in such a way that it felt like a gradual evolution from the template set up by his predecessor. And, looking back at it now, I think it’s fair to point as The Vampires of Venice as a key point of evolution for the show.

The story is very clearly a collection of familiar elements from the previous four years. However, it’s the differences that are noteable. They make it quite clear how Moffat plans to differentiate himself from his predecessor. Whithouse’s earlier script, School Reunion, is quite informative here. Another similarity between The Vampires of Venice and School Reunion is the fact that they both introduce a new companion in the form of the female companion’s love interest. For Davies, it was Mickey Smith. For Moffat, it is Rory Williams.

Seat of power...

Seat of power…

The basic set-up is familiar. The Doctor shows up. He steals away a beautiful young woman to travel through time and space with him. She has a crush on him. The implications of this adventure on the young woman’s relationships are explored. Clearing travelling the universe with a handsome and flirtatious man on whom you have a massive crush is not ideal for any boyfriends left behind on Earth. To be fair, the relationship between Mickey and Rose is effectively over by Rose. However, Amy and Rory are still planning to get married.

The points of similarity are obvious. However, there are some massive differences, and these differences tell us a lot about how differently Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat view Doctor Who. The Ninth and Tenth Doctors aren’t too fond of Mickey. The Ninth Doctor seems openly jealous, while the Tenth Doctor treats him as the pet Rose has emotionally blackmailed into bringing along. On the other hand, the Eleventh Doctor actually wants Rory on board the TARDIS.

Mr. Fix-It...

Mr. Fix-It…

His reasons seem sincere and rather thoughtful:

Oh, the life out there, it dazzles. I mean, it blinds you to the things that are important. I’ve seen it devour relationships and plans. It’s meant to do that. Because for one person to have seen all that, to taste the glory and then go back, it will tear you apart. So, I’m sending you somewhere, together.

And that’s a big difference right there. The Ninth and the Tenth Doctors were sexual creatures. Moffat was one of the writers who explicitly confirmed that in The Doctor Dances.

Lighten up!

Lighten up!

No matter what some people in the audience might like to believe, running off with them wasn’t innocent. In contrast, the Eleventh Doctor is not an explicitly sexual creature. He might call the TARDIS “sexy”, but he can’t figure out why Amy and Rory don’t like bunk beds. He isn’t jealous or possessive of Amy, because he simply isn’t interested in her in that way. He wants Amy to be happy, and Amy loves Rory, so making Amy happy means that Rory comes along.

It also, as with a lot of stuff the Eleventh Doctor does, seems to be an explicitly selfish decision – his way of avoiding a potentially awkward subject. Moffat dealt with Amy’s attraction to the Doctor in Flesh and Stone, and the Doctor was distinctly uncomfortable. It seems that the Doctor suspects that having Rory on board might stop Amy from trying to jump his bones, and avoid another awkward conversation like in her bedroom. This is perfectly in-character emotional avoidance from the Eleventh Doctor, like his decision to lie to Amy about Rory in Vincent and the Doctor.

Honeymoon in Venice...

Honeymoon in Venice…

It’s clear that it isn’t just that the Doctor has no interest in sex, he also appears to have no real understanding of how relationships work. His two predecessors could charm and flirt to beat the band, but the Eleventh Doctor thinks it’s appropriate to pop out of a stripper’s cake, or to tell Rory casually (and publicly) that he kissed his fiancée. “Now then, Rory,” he states. “We need to talk about your fiancée. She tried to kiss me. Tell you what, though. You’re a lucky man. She’s a great kisser… Funny how you can say something in your head and it sounds fine.”

Of course, this change in sexual attitude is rooted in Moffat’s characterisation of “the raggedy doctor”, Amy’s childhood imaginary friend. More than any other Doctor or companion relationship since Susan, it would be grossly inappropriate to even hint at a possibly romantic relationship between the Doctor and Amy. It would seem more than a little exploitative on his end, and downright creepy, despite the fact the actors are the same age and both quite photogenic. He did first meet her as a child, after all.

I always suspect private schools were blood-suckers...

I always suspect private schools were blood-suckers…

However, The Vampires of Venice also suggests that while Moffat might be playing down the sexually active nature of the Doctor, he wouldn’t be toning down the show that much. Indeed, The Vampires of Venice seems to be a story about how asexual the Doctor is in an increasingly sexualised universe. The Doctor ends up in the dorm of a posh girl’s school. “Oh, this is Christmas!” he boasts, but not because he’s surrounded by beautiful women in nighties. Instead, because he’s surrounded by vampires.

The evil plan is itself explicitly sexual – and decidedly creepy. Which, of course, makes sense as a vampire story. Vampires have always been a sexual monster. Here, though, that sexuality is especially perverse and unnerving. “Then there are ten thousand husbands waiting for you in the water,” Rosanna tells Amy. The Doctor effectively sums up how incredibly dysfunctional the whole thing is. “She’s got ten thousand children swimming around the canals, waiting for Mum to make them some compatible girlfriends. Ugh. I mean, I’ve been around a bit, but really that’s, that’s… ugh.”

There's something fishy going on here...

There’s something fishy going on here…

Indeed, the episode ends with Rosanna eaten by her own sons. Even discounting Francesco’s rather creepy fixation with his mother, it’s an unnerving scene. I mean given the sexual connotations of vampires feeding… To quote the Doctor, I’ve been around a bit, but really that’s, that’s… ugh. In a way The Vampires of Venice is a very fitting vampire story, as it’s an exploration of creepy sexuality. Rosanna’s plan for the girls of Venice is incredibly disturbing, but – then again – Amy’s sexual fixation on her childhood imaginary friend is also uncomfortable.

Moffat’s Doctor Who has done an excellent job of reestablishing the Doctor as alien, and his sexuality must be somewhat alien as well. More than the Ninth or Tenth Doctor, Moffat’s Doctor is a man who walks through time. As a man who can live for millennia, and who travels through time, his idea of a romantic relationship must so far outside our norms as to be perverse. Indeed, our sexuality must appear quite alien to him. The Eleventh Doctor is bored out of his treetop watching Van Gogh paint, so imagine what a long-term relationship would be like to him – let alone our idea of a functional marriage.

Not a man you want to cross...

Not a man you want to cross…

The Vampires of Venice marks Rory’s first adventure as a companion. Rory is pretty great, if only because he’s so radically outside what the revived series has defined as a companion. He’s not so close to the Doctor that he’s unable to see some of the Doctor’s blind spots, and it’s great to have a character there who is willing to question and criticise. The revived series has always been most successful when it is willing to criticise its lead character.

“She’ll be fine,” the Doctor assures Rory as Amy does something incredibly dangerous and stupid. “You can promise me that, can you?” Rory counters, forcing the Doctor to admit that he can’t. Rory’s criticism of the Doctor’s recklessness is actually pretty sound, and his concerns for Amy are justified. We discovered in The Eleventh Hour that the Doctor effectively left her with a load of mental issues, and we’ll soon discover that he cost her her family to boot.

Infiltrating Rory's stag? Piece of cake...

Infiltrating Rory’s stag? Piece of cake…

Amy simply can’t be objective around him, and the Doctor owes Amy a bit more responsibility than he’s willing to assume. Then again, there’s also the fact that Rory is perhaps too protective of Amy, and that he underestimates her ability to protect herself and to cope. He has watched her go through years of counselling after the Doctor left her behind. I’m very wary of talking about Amy as if she’s a plot point rather than a character with her own agency and choices. Of course she is, even if she’s not as well-defined as Rose or Donna, but Moffat’s portrayal of female characters is a hot-button issue.

However, Rory is defined by his relationship to Amy, so it’s impossible to talk about him without talking about her. Amy can exist in a story without Rory. Indeed, we’ve just had four consecutive episodes without Rory, and we’ll have a few more before the season ends. On the other hand, Rory can’t exist without her. There’s really no context for the Doctor and Rory coexisting where Amy isn’t the force uniting them.

Well, this is romantic...

Well, this is romantic…

There are some issues in how Amy isn’t really defined that well outside her relationships with those two characters – to the point where in Closing Time she is suddenly a model for some reason. That said, she’s still more strongly defined than Rory as an independent character. Rory is defined as the character who walked the slow path with Amy, who stayed with her and who waited – things that the Doctor simply couldn’t do. It makes him a nice supporting character, and I think that Amy and Rory work well together. Amy has more ambition and energy than Rory, while Rory is more grounded and objective than Amy.

Aside from the role Rory plays in the TARDIS dynamic, which is pretty novel and pretty great – a married couple on the TARDIS! – Arthur Darvill is also pretty great. It’s also fun to watch Rory try to blend in, despite clearly not being that kind of person. His application to the school is just fantastic. “So, basically, both of our parents are dead from getting the plague. I’m a gondola driver, so money’s a bit tight, so having my sister go to your school for special people would be brilliant.”

They do make a bloody mess...

They do make a bloody mess…

The Vampires of Venice looks fabulous from a production standpoint. It was filmed in Croatia, but it architecture looks uncanny – apparently the city was designed by Venetian architects. The CGI canals are a bit dodgy, but I think we can live with that. The show also has a pretty great guest cast. Helen McCrory is an absolutely wonderful evil queen. She’s not the best guest star of the season by a considerable margin, but she still has great fun in what’s effectively a very archetypal role.

To be fair, The Vampires of Venice is a story that would feel relatively typical had it been produced two years earlier. However, its position in Steven Moffat’s first season as producer makes it a great deal more interesting. Indeed, rather than just another example of these sorts of tropes, it now feels like a celebration of an era that is already fading into memory.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: