Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Doctor Who: The Vampires of Venice

Rory: '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.'

It's been four years since Toby Whithouse last wrote an episode of Doctor Who. I know he's been busy with No Angels and Being Human, but after the unmitigated success of 'School Reunion' (one of my favourite episodes, ever), it's been a long and frustrating wait. After the debacle that was 'Victory of the Daleks' my expectations this week were low. So far this season, the only episode not penned by Moffat, turned out to be an absolute turkey. Thankfully, Whithouse's script was streets ahead of Gatiss' dreck: the story was solid, the vampires were frightening, and the humour was bang on the money. Even Rory made me chuckle. I take back what I said about him being the new Mickey. He's so not! Well... not so much.

What immediately stood out this week was location, location, location. Okay, so maybe it was Croatia, and not actual Venice, but Trogir made an impressive substitute for the floating city. From its Romanesque churches, to its Renaissance buildings, this must surely be one of Doctor Who's most atmospheric stories to date. And its location, coupled with Whithouse's script, definitely gave it that New Moon flavour—with Venice replacing Volterra, the Saturnynians' sensitivity to sunlight, the Calvierri replacing the Volturi, and last, but definitely not least, the impossibly hot vampire ladies. Not that that's a bad thing—I'm a closet fan of the Twilight franchise. (Shush!)

One thing Whithouse's script did get right was its characterisation. 'The Eleventh Hour' concentrated mostly on the Doctor and Amy so, naturally, Rory didn't get much of a look-in, but tonight we got to see something of his personality, and unexpectedly, I found myself quite liking him. Sure he's the comic relief—but there's clearly more to Rory than meets the eye. He was brave enough to take on Francesco, armed with nothing more than a besom (of all things), and was sharp enough to understand why the TARDIS was bigger on the inside (without having to be told). So, despite his initial timidity, Rory's not the mug I initially thought he was.

It was refreshing, too, that there was no petty jealousy between Rory and the Doctor. In fact, the Doctor seemed quite pleased when Amy suggested Rory tag along. He obviously doesn't feel threatened by him (as with Mickey). Which means, what? That he doesn't fancy Amy? That he feels morally unable to get involved because of her commitment to Rory? That he just hasn't thought that far ahead, yet?

And the Doctor popping up out of a cake and informing the groom-to-be that he's been snogging his fiancĂ©, was laugh-out-loud preposterous. I really enjoyed the Doctor's awkwardness in those scenes—Smith seems to be making an art form out of gawkiness. It was interesting, too, that later in the episode, the Doctor blamed Amy's loose lips on the exhilaration and relief of escaping almost certain death. That's one possible explanation, I suppose, but is did feel as though he was playing down the significance of what actually happened.

Rory's role tonight, rather than being the privileged passenger, felt more like that of proverbial third wheel. At this point in the series the Doctor and Amy are on a roll. Amy's lost that initial nervousness—she's been in mortal danger several times now and has lived to tell the tale. She's seen what the Doctor's capable of and knows her own limits. She's seen aliens, too—so, on finding out that vampires seemingly do exist, her reaction was to jump for joy and hug the Doctor, who seemed equally as thrilled at the prospect. Of course, this didn't go unnoticed by Rory, whose similar observations elicited no such glee from the Doctor, but Amy does have feelings for Rory. She agreed to marry him, after all, but that was before she'd met the Doctor. Would she make that same decision now? I can see the appeal—Rory's safe and dependable—but the Doctor's unpredictable, mysterious and infinitely more interesting.

It was telling too that, even while acting, Amy insisted on being the Doctor's wife. She didn't think twice before relegating poor old Rory down to sibling status, yet Rory completely stole the show when they went up before Rosanna Calvierri. His acting was dreadful—no wonder Rosanna saw through the charade. A gondola driver? And his sword/broom duel with Francesco was hilarious. What was Rory trying to do with that broom? I don't think I've ever seen a man look less capable of winning a fight, yet his heroics clearly had an impact on Amy. That kiss looked genuine enough. Of course, she kissed the Doctor last week too, so it's hard to gauge how much a kiss from Amy Pond actually means.

The Saturnynians were a pretty decent effort, though, at times, Whithouse's exposition seemed clumsy and needlessly detailed. And some poor CGI did detracted from the overall effect—which has been a bit of a problem this season. I'm not sure who's doing the visual effects these days. Is it still The Mill? The Saturnynians insectoid form, although marvellously detailed, didn't quite blend in with the background, but we did get some interesting main arc stuff about the Saturnynians' home planet, and how the same crack that's been plaguing the Doctor, forced the them to flee to another world. Silence and the end of all things, eh? That doesn't sound good.

Matt Smith, again, was simply superb. He just totally gets this role. He's completely brought back the Doctor's alien-ness. He's not like us. He looks like us, he talks like us, but he's not one of us. That's something, I think, the Russell T. Davies era never really got across convincingly. Tennant's Doctor felt like a man with superhuman powers. Smith's Doctor feels like an alien who just so happens to look like a man. And props too to the magnificent Helen McCrory: she played the role of Rosanna with just the right amount of menace, sensuality and otherworldliness.

If I did have one gripe, it's that the plot was a little derivative. The exploding Francesco reminded me of Sip Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen's demise in 'World War Three', the Doctor climbing up the belfry was reminiscent of him scaling the Empire State Building in 'Evolution of the Daleks', and the Doctor/Amy/Rory love triangle—although different in its specifics—felt too similar to the Doctor/Rose/Mickey dynamic of season one. And of course, the idea of aliens posing as humans was a direct steal from 'School Reunion'. Not that stealing from your own episode is too heinous a crime, but the bulk of this episode felt like a patchwork of other people's stories. Not that it wasn't enjoyable—it was fine—it just felt a little too familiar at times.

Other Thoughts:

—Can the BBC please stop arsing about with the start times?

—I can't believe the storm device had an off switch. How convenient.

—I loved the Doctor waving off the applause after deactivating the device and saving Venice.

—This story felt reminiscent of 'The Stones of Venice', one of my favourite Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas.

-- Next week's episode looks a corker. Roll on Simon Nye.

-- Tonight's episode was forty eight minutes long. Whatever happened to episodes being roughly the same length?

-- OFSTED, for those of you who don't know, is the Office for Standards in Education.

Quotes:

Doctor: 'Funny how you can say something in your head and it sounds fine.'

Doctor: 'I like the bit where somebody says 'It's bigger on the inside!' I always look forward to that.'

Rory: 'Er, according to this, I'm your eunuch.'

Doctor: 'Tell me the whole plan! One day that'll work.'

Doctor: 'Gunpowder? Most people just nick stationary from where they work.'

Amy: 'Your daughter? You look about nine!'

Francesco: 'Have we met?'
Rory: 'I've just got one of those faces.'
Francesco 'I wasn't talking to you.'
Rory: 'She's got the same face... which is because she's my sister.'

Rory: 'I have a right to know. I'm getting married in 430 years.'

Doctor: 'No, no, no, no, no, no! It can't keep happening like this. This is how they go.'

Rory: 'And you kissed her back?'
Doctor: 'No, I kissed her mouth.'

Doctor: 'I can't see a thing.'
Rory: 'Just as well I brought this, then.'
(Rory pulls out a tiny pen-light and the Doctor pulls out a massive portable strip-light)
Doctor: 'Ultra-violet. Portable sunlight.'
Rory: 'Yours is bigger than mine.'
Doctor: 'Let's not go there.'

Amy: 'I'm from Ofsted.'

Doctor: 'I'm a Time Lord. You're a big fish. Think of the children.'

Doctor: 'Blimey, fish from space have never been so... buxom.'

Rory: 'Ew, you stink of fish.'
Francesco: 'Well, I'm hardly going to smell of cheese and biscuits.'

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