Doctor Who 5.6 – The Vampires of Venice

I was sold on “The Vampires of Venice” (not “Vampires in Venice,” which is what I mistakenly called it at the close of last week’s recap) by its beginning – well, its second beginning, since there are two. In the first, we are in Venice of 1580 and Guido (Lucian Msamati) has brought his daughter Isabella (Alisha Bailey) before Signora Rosanna Calvierri (Helen McCrory). He wants for her to be a part of Calvierri’s school, so that she can have a better life. Since we’ve all seen plenty of “Doctor Who” at this point, we know this isn’t going to end well for Isabella, and since we’ve seen the previews we also know that Calvierri, as well as her son, Francesco (Alex Price), are vampires (or are they?). So there’s precious little that’s surprising or of interest about Beginning #1, although the sequence ends with a lovely little smash cut from Isabella screaming to Rory (Arthur Darvill) screaming at his stag party, which is Beginning #2, and the point at which I was won over. The two beginnings are also the jumping off points for what end up being the episode’s A and B plots, but more on that later.

Ah, the stag party! Drunken friends, cardboard cakes and the clichéd sound of “The Stripper” wafting through the proceedings. The Doctor may rescue the human race from all manner of grotesque alien creatures and life threatening situations, but this is the first time he’s rescued a human from this occasion that’s grotesque in an entirely different manner. From the moment Matt Smith pops out of the cake, he’s bloody brilliant, simply because he chooses to play it straight, in what’s a thoroughly absurd setup. Many actors would’ve mugged and tried to add to the already ridiculous situation, but Smith (or perhaps freshman “Who” director Jonny Campbell?) allows the scenario to happen around him, and in the process the joke becomes about five times funnier than it has any right to be. I’ve been trying to figure out for weeks now how to explain precisely what it is about this actor in this iconic role that I find so very appealing, and this scene offers up the best example yet of why this guy is the perfect Doctor for his time. Smith’s very much the anti-Tennant, which isn’t to bag on Tennant, but the series really needed this kind of change coming off Tennant’s tenure, and it’s a decision that’s shaping up to be the best one Steven Moffat made for his inaugural season.

The Doctor: “Funny how you can say something in your head and it sounds fine…”

With that line, and an ensuing uncomfortable silence, the episode dives into the opening credits. This must surely be one of the best “Who” pre-credits sequences in ages, simply because it’s so socially awkward. I’ve watched it numerous times and have yet to tire of it, or even cease finding it incredibly funny. After the credits, the episode shifts into yet another sequence which I adore. The Doctor, Rory, and Amy (Karen Gillan) are in the TARDIS, and the Doctor’s strapped into some crazy harness, wearing goggles and doing some work beneath the console, all while rambling on about how the wonders of the universe blind people and lead to them shutting out their “other” lives. And once again, Smith’s largely playing it straight while appearing a total madman, and it works beautifully.

On a different note, the old-school fan in me loves this scene because it shows the Doctor puttering away, working on the TARDIS. This used to be a staple of the classic series, but it isn’t something we’ve seen a whole lot of in the new incarnation. (Off the top of my head, I honestly can’t recall a single instance of it during the Davies era, but I’m sure somebody will step in and correct me if I’m wrong.) Further, because the TARDIS set is so freaking immense at this point, it allows for his actions to feel more epic than they did in the classic series, when it was usually just him, a roundel, and the sonic screwdriver.

The Doctor: “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…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.”

The Doctor’s plan is to rekindle Amy’s feelings for Rory, even though he doesn’t say as much, instead focusing on the couple as a unit. Back when I wrote up “The Eleventh Hour,” I made absolutely no mention of Rory, even though it was clear he’d end up being a major player in the season. It didn’t seem like there was much point to it given that the episode wasn’t really about him. Now all that’s changed and it’s time to give him, and Arthur Darvill, some blog time. This TARDIS scene sets up the friction between the two men. Most noteworthy is the fact that Rory has done some homework, and appears less than impressed with the TARDIS. In some ways, it’s a variation of what we saw back in the first couple seasons with Rose and Mickey, but the setup is just different enough to warrant exploration. The Eleventh Doctor doesn’t seem invested in Amy in quite the same way the Ninth and Tenth Doctors were in Rose. Back at the start of the new series, Rose was the Doctor’s savior, but these days the situation is reversed, with the Doctor taking the lead yet again. Likewise, Rory isn’t like Mickey in that he’s very much still into Amy, and is all set to marry her. This entire construct feels like Moffat’s reaction to what Davies did, and his attempt to do it “his way.”

And so the Doctor whisks Rory and Amy away for a date in Venice of 1580, where they encounter Rosanna, Francesco, Guido and Isabella, all of whom were introduced at the top of the story. “The Vampires of Venice” is written by Toby Whithouse, who gave us “School Reunion” back in Season Two, and has since gone on to create and showrun “Being Human,” the series about a vampire, a ghost, and a werewolf who all share a flat. “Vampires” has a great deal in common with “School Reunion,” but since that was so long ago, we shouldn’t hold that against it. Both stories feature disguised aliens with evil plans, although here the aliens are disguised as vampires who are in turn disguised as humans, at least as far as the viewer is concerned, which is a decent enough – if not a somewhat predictable – twist. (He also contributed “Greeks Bearing Gifts” to the first season of “Torchwood,” which again featured a disguised alien with nefarious plans.) But also similar to his previous script is that what appears to be the A-plot (the vampires/the Saturnynians) is actually the B-plot, and the true A-plot consists of all the character interaction in between the big set pieces. The stuff with Saturnynians is all frankly rather rote. We’ve seen this before, time and again on “Doctor Who.” It’s there to thrill and chill the little ones, while the adults will (hopefully) find themselves drawn to all the meat of the episode involving the drama of our three main characters, and here we finally get to understand Rory.

Rory (to 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 that they don’t want to let you down. You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.”

And with that little speech, Rory pretty much won me over as a valuable addition to the TARDIS crew, because it’s important for the Doctor to hear that, as Amy is never going to say it, since she’s the one who’s busy giggling and having a good time throwing herself into perilous situations right and left. In fact, the Eleventh Doctor seems considerably less concerned with the fate of his companion(s) than his recent predecessors, which again kind of takes us back to the mold of the classic series, in which this was often the case, even though it was usually unspoken. Whithouse had a knack for cutting through the bullshit in “School Reunion” and getting to the heart of the central characters, and he does so once again here.

So as far as I’m concerned, Toby can contribute scripts to “Doctor Who” any time he wants, because this kind of interplay is like gold for this series, and it needs it in order to keep building the ongoing narrative about what’s really going on with these people when they’re not fighting monsters and travelling through time. All in all a deceptively charming episode, and one that’s well-directed, beautifully shot and thoughtfully planned out. It’s likely to have its detractors, but I think the people who don’t care for it are the ones who’ve mistakenly assumed that the alien invasion storyline is the meat of the episode, whereas the reality is that the vampires in Venice are merely the backdrop for other, far more engaging issues.


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NEXT TIME: It’s time for the “weird” episode of the season, “Amy’s Choice.” Well, that’s assuming there aren’t several weird episodes yet to come.

Classic “Who” DVD Recommendation of the Week: Check out the Doctor’s previous meeting with vampires – real vampires – in “State of Decay,” starring Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. It’s the second story in the fantastic E-Space Trilogy. You can get it through Netflix by adding Disc Two of “Doctor Who: The E-Space Trilogy” to your queue.

(Thanks as always to Sonic Biro for the screencaps.)

  

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