Our regrets señor, there will be spoilers... if you are lucky
Right than, to take the bull by the horns – or rather the fish by the gills - Vampires of Venice unfortunately failed to scale the heights of the last two episodes. No real surprise there of course; after all the Weeping Angels epic was always going to be a tough act to follow, if not night impossible to top. However it does make this episode a little hard to judge as after such an accomplished story, you can’t help feeling, and admittedly probably unfairly, that there’s a drop in the quality of the show.
Now that’s not to say Vampires in Venice was bad per se; this wasn’t a horrible episode by any means. However I’m not sure exactly how good it actually was, and I am aware my judgement may be a little harsher than many of you, as I was coming to this outing a mere 48 hours after watching the preceding two storming episodes in a single sitting.
So then what were the highlights? Well from a cosmetic point of view, the episode looked fantastic and great credit must be given to the production team who did an amazing job in recreating Venice. While I was watching I was stunned to see what appeared to be lots of location work shot in the City of Masks itself – but the following edition of Doctor Who Confidential revealed that only a handful of wide shots were actually filmed there, with the bulk of the shoot taking place in Trogir in Croatia, an architectural stunt double founded by Venetians.
In addition to expertly handling a fiddly location shoot, new to Who director Jonny Campbell kept everything galloping along at a rip-roaring pace. And in general, Toby Whithouse hit all the right marks story-wise, delivering a tale that paid homage classic Hammer vampire flicks – the girls’ school being a favourite trope in the later, saucier outings from that legendary studios vampire oeuvre – and at the same time giving the monsters a typically Doctor Who sci-fi twist. And although I do have some niggles with his scripting but let’s stay focused on the positive for the moment…
Now it’s widely assumed that the introduction of a bit of romance in the TARDIS was a big part of the resurrected Who finding a new audience. However by Series 2 for some, and definitely by Series 3 for most, it was clear that they didn’t really need all that doe eyed mushiness to keep the viewers hooked. When Big Russell had initially rebooted Doctor Who, the whole romance between the Doctor and Rose was daring and different, but as the seasons progressed and new Who had won itself a healthy viewership and created a new generation of fans, it was rapidly became an albatross around the show’s neck.
Hence when Donna Noble returned for full-time companion duties in Series 4, it was good to find the whole companion fancying the Doctor business had been left in the drawer for a change, and the show was moving on. Donna felt like a return to the companion relationships of old but you never got the feeling she was the Tenth Doctor’s best friend in the same way you did in the relationships between Jamie and the Second Doctor or the Fourth and Sarah Jane.
However Amy Pond, with all the intriguing implications of her first meeting the Doctor in childhood, has been looking to hit that ‘best friend’ mark dead on. And there even a touch of the Seventh Doctor and Ace in the way that Matt Smith is sort of mentoring her in the do’s and don’ts of adventuring through space and time – a good example is the way he occasionally addresses her as ‘Pond’ in a playful mock teacher fashion.
So then at the end of Flesh and Stone, although I approved of the much more forthright approach Amy took to dealing with her feelings for the Doctor – the polar opposite to the Mills & Boon mooning of Rose and Martha in fact – a distant Cloister Bell began to ring in the depths of my addled brain. And when I saw the teaser for this week’s episode with Rory making a return appearance, I was immediately reminded of Rose bringing Mickey on board the TARDIS in Series 2 and that whole awkward implied love triangle malarkey. And so, the thought ‘Oh no, not again...’ plummeted through what I laughingly call a mind like a bowl of gravitationally challenged petunias.
But as it turned out, and seemingly continuing the mess-about-with-audience-expectations theme we talked about last time, in Vampires in Venice Rory and Amy’s relationship was put firmly back on track. Indeed, judging from the trail for next week’s adventure Amy’s Choice, it would seem that the companion/Doctor romance angle has well and truly been put to bed. Big relief all round … in Moff we trust, eh?
Equally, aside from not re-treading tired, old ground, on a character level I was pleased to see Amy and Rory click again. Basically because, although I enjoyed watching Rose as a companion I ended up not actually liking her that much as a person; I could never quite shake the feeling that the way she treated poor old Mickey, her Mum and even the Doctor showed her up as a bit of a selfish little cow to be frank. And I’d didn’t want to end up with the same mixed feelings about Amy, who so far has proved herself to be a smarter and more interestingly complicated character than Rose ever was.
However, in truth I probably could have lived with them going down the romancing the Doctor route as basically the writing and tone of this revamped series is far tighter, with better dynamics and well crafted plotting replacing empty bombast and cheap melodramatics. But the echoes of Rose and Mickey also bring me to my major niggle with Whithouse’s script – basically it’s run-of-the-mill to the point of unoriginality.
As we’ve already discussed, we’ve been over the emotional territory of the episode before, but unfortunately we’ve seen ever everything else before too. For example, the whole deal with what the Fish From Space were actually up in. Now the Saturnynians’ plot to re-colonise the Earth is a very old trope in Doctor Who - indeed it’s one of the top three reasons for aliens invading in the series – and I’m not knocking the episode for using it. But where I do have a problem in the way it was presented – for me them getting to Earth through the Cracks was far too close to the Gelth getting trapped on earth by the Time War in The Unquiet Dead.
And their plot to readjust the local environment to suit their species’ needs by pumping tons of cloudy crap into the atmosphere was far too obviously a crib from Series 4’s Sontaran double bill. Also while I enjoyed the fun and games of them appearing as vampires, allowing some neat explanations of classic undead traits like not appearing in mirrors, the use of perception filters felt a little too much like Whithouse trying to make his story fit into the Moffat style by merely robbing some technobabble instead of picking up on the tonal and structural changes the new production has ushered in.
Furthermore even the reveal of the true nature of the vampires is a steal too! Now, I know what you’re thinking – “He’s lost it! There is no way on God’s green earth that anyone else has shown the ultimate reality behind the vampire as a giant sodding fish monster!”
However readers familiar with the work of the Wizard of Northampton will know exactly what I’m talking about...
Way back in the mid 1980’s, DC had scooped up a promising British comics writer from 2000 AD and turned him loose on one of their struggling titles. That comic was The Saga of the Swamp Thing, the writer, bearded guru Alan Moore, and his run on that book pretty much invented Vertigo, ‘Suggested for mature readers’ titles, and dragged comics out of the fields of kiddie-fodder.
Now being a writer who enjoys reinterpreting myths and putting fresh spins on old characters, it was only a matter of time before Moore had the Swamp Thing encounter vampires. Earlier in the comic’s run, Swampie had met the undead before, in Marty Pasko’s “A Town Has Turned To Blood” (see Issue #3, oh fervid one!). That tale ended with our muck-encrusted hero destroying a nearby dam and flooding the vampire-infested town of Rosewater with deadly running water.
Now Moore’s two part story was a sequel to this earlier tale. In “Still Waters” and “Fish Story” (Saga of the Swamp Thing #38 and #39, fact fans), Moore posited that some of the vampires had survived and remerged when the water ceased to flow. These bloodsuckers further discovered that not only they could live underwater – the undead don’t need air – but also could breed and produce a purer vampire which just happened to look like this… (click to enlarge)
And if the similarity between Moore’s new, improved vampires and the Saturnynians are just a coincidence; I’ll eat my copy of Van Helsing's Compendium of Vampires & Other Perilous Creatures!
Now in all fairness, Vampires in Venice only robs a new look for its monsters, and you could theorise that this slice of Who provides an explanation why Moore’s vampires reveal their pure-bred form to be scaly aquatic horrors…
But it does reinforce my feelings that this is episode is trading far too heavily in borrowed elements for its own good. Now in his other outing to the world of the monstrous, his BBC 3 series Being Human, Toby Whithouse has shown he can bring a good deal of original thinking and fresh concepts to the vampire mythos. And although the two shows are written for vastly different audiences, I hope think he could have brought some of that series’ narrative flair to this episode. And harder edged story telling he demonstrates he is capable of with Being Human wouldn’t have gone amiss either.
Again I’ll stress that overall what he did deliver was fast and fun, but at the same time I can’t help feeling he could have produced something better. All this recycling of ideas that have been used recently before in Who smacks of writer unsure of himself and playing it too safe. And this scriptwrting by seemingly re-arranging a shopping list of familiar elements feels far more in keeping with the Russell T Davies era than the Moffat new broom. Indeed the episode did feel like it would be more at home in the RTD days than any other story this season so far.
Similarly it also suffered from a slight return to the vices of seasons past. For the first time this series, I felt that Murray Gold’s score was getting a shade out of hand and blaring over the dialogue at a couple of points. Secondly, the pace of the story veered close to the run and gabble routine of days gone by; with the episode feeling like it had too much to cram in for its own good. And finally, I felt the show slightly over reached in the special effects department – despite some seamless CGI in blending wide shots of Venice with the foreground of Trogir, some one went berserk at the episode’s finale with an overly busy and consequently very fake looking stormy sky.
Now you may say that latter point is a matter of taste and you’d be right – some will be a lot more forgiving of the patently added in post skies. But the real trouble is not how tolerant you are of obvious CGI but that the mad roiling thunderheads didn’t match up with the lighting of some of the street scenes and consequently made something of a nonsense of Amy reflecting sunlight to slay the Mummy’s Boy vampire shrimp.
All these things are just small points I know, but lapses like this made the episode feel far looser than what we have been used in this season so far. And I will concede that perhaps I’m being too picky. However I can’t seem to shake the feeling that this episode was too much of a romp. Now there’s nothing wrong with fast’n’fun run-around ever now and then, however considering the subject matter, the atmospheric location and the emotional meat of the story, I do think that Whithouse sold all of the above short with a cookie cutter adventure. Instead of taking his cues from the frothy old tat of RTD’s house style, he really needed to think his way deeper into the story and bring some of the darkness and emotional weight of Being Human to Vampires in Venice.
There are touches of it, such as when Rory confronts the Doctor and tell him that he is dangerous because he inspires his companions to impress him, but not nearly enough of it to give the story some real dramatic impact. Generally though I get the impression that Whithouse is so worried about getting the Doctor Who style wrong, he’s not got took many creative risks with his script. And I’m not having pop at him because I think he’s weak writer, in fact the opposite is true, I think he’s actually a very capable writer who with a more confidence; when he feels more at home in the Who universe could deliver some real classics.
Again I will reiterate, I didn’t hate this episode by any means; it was pretty and it was fun. And maybe I am being overly critical, but I suspect anyone is into Being Human will have similar concerns. From watching that series, we know Toby Whithouse could delivered deeper and darker than just knockabout fun. And if he had, we would have had an episode that could have given Moffat’s two-parter a run for its money…
JIM MOON, 11th May 2010