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Thoughts on DW: "The Vampires of Venice"

Caught the sixth episode of the new Doctor Who, "The Vampires of Venice", on Space this past Saturday. We fell an extra week behind on the series because of the Victoria Day weekend, and thus they skipped that week to air movies. My thoughts and observations follow. May be some rambling, too.

What can I really say about "The Vampires of Venice"? I tried to like this episode, really I did, but alas and alack, the story just didn't gel for me at all in places. There were a lot of basic ideas here that I really did like, but the problem I had was that the ideas weren't executed all that well and the pacing of the episode seemed to be off to me (and not for the first time). On the surface, the episode was pretty enjoyable for the most part, certainly having a lot of humour to it, but with very few laugh-out-loud moments to it as far as I was concerned. The pre-opening credits sequence was quite good, but I thought that the joke was badly handled and directed (and if you were a diabetic viewer like me, I'm not sure you would have been amused). However, I did chuckle at the bit where Matt Smith's Doctor whipped out the really huge ultraviolet lamp from inside his jacket, and the whole business about the "size" matter. That said, I was totally annoyed by the sequence when the TARDIS arrives in 1580s Venice, and no one pays any attention to the strange object that has just appeared before them. Strange, that. Disquieting, that. Or perhaps another season's hint as to the truth of what's going on.

The setting was stunning and Croatia stands in nicely for Venice. The BBC has always been known for its high production values when it comes to historical sseries and episode, and "The Vampires of Venice" was no exception to that rule. The costuming here is brilliant. The location and production design was of a high standard, but the action scenes, notably the Doctor's being electrocuted, were very poorly handled by the director of the piece. In many ways, "The Vampires Of Venice" had a curiously Classic Who series feel to it in its early stages, as well as having a lovely Hammer horror flicks feel to it. While it appeared to be dialogue driven as episodes go, things go really wrong after the first twenty minutes or so. That said, the episode is quite well done for the most part, but that ends up working against it, since the slower, more verbose style doesn't fit all that tidily into the 45-minute length. Part of it was the fact that for all the CGI stormclouds (which weren't all that great, visually) and talk of earthquakes and tidal waves, "The Vampires Of Venice" never manages to create a sense of real threat or high stakes. Looking at the shots of people cheering the Doctor as he dramatically saves the day from the rooftops, I was left feeling quite off, since I didn't know what the episode was trying to make me feel. Episode dissonance, I guess.

There are several moments in this episode that I really adored. The first was the sequence where the Doctor is looking in the mirror and is then confronted with the vampire girls. This is a superb sequence, with wonderful acting by Matt Smith, with the humour we've come to expect from him, his intelligence allowing him to immediately think they are vampires, and his seeming passion and excitement about realising that they might be vampires. However, my favourite moment was when he flashed them the library card (instead of the psychic paper?) and it had William Hartnell's Doctor on it! Loved the homage, and it's great to see that series head honcho Moffat is acknowledging the previous Doctors (unlike his predecessor seems to have done). Another sequence that I really loved was the bit when after opening the underground grate, Amy was captured and then subjected to the biting and all (if you're trying to make the villains seem like vampires, I suppose you have to have the heroine bitten, right?). Rosanna's talking to her about various aspects of the aliens' plans (I never got to clearly hear the name of this race of aliens, for the record) just made the whole scene in the dungeon torture chamber all that more surreal and scary. Great bit. I also liked the final sequence with Rosanna, where she quietly and with dignity gave herself to the boys in the water, and her final line to the Doctor about living with himself after condemning another race to death and extinction was wonderful.

One of the strengths of this particular episode was the character moments. While I can't say I'm particularly fond of Rory, I did like the character's portrayal and his interaction style with both the Doctor and Amy Pond. While Rory may be useless in some ways, he's not portrayed as a fool. The premise of the episode - that the Doctor has to show Rory the wonders of time travel, because without knowing what Amy knows, he will lose her forever - is quite simply very emotive and powerful, without either elements having to be made explicit. That was one of the good qualities of the story, and one reason that I was disappointed with the episode turning out not to have more than it did going for it. Rory starts out somewhat bewildered, although he's done his homework since the whole Prisoner Zero business, but while the Doctor is delighted to have him along for the ride (largely due to the attentions of Amy in the previous story), Rory doesn't strike me as the type of companion's significant other that's going to be the Doctor's doormat. In some ways, the relationship at this point between the Doctor, Amy, and Rory strikes me as being similar to the Hartnell Doctor, Barbara Wright, and Ian Chesterton one, where the Hartnell Doctor had an avuncular relationship to them. I'm probably wrong about this, but that remains to be seen. Insofar as the performances of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are concerned... I think that Matt Smith finally seemed to have settled into his role of the Doctor in this episode. While he's been doing a super job so far, I got more of a sense of a 900+ year-old Time Lord in this story, particularly in the scenes with Helen McRory's Rosanna (more on her later). I wasn't all that impressed with Amy this outing for some reason, other than the sequence when she was bitten by Rosanna, and the moments that she had with Rory. I guess the character just isn't too my liking for various reasons, but I can't yet tell whether it's the way she's written or the way she's played by Karen Gillan.

On the other hand, there was Helen McRory. I adored Helen McRory in the role of Rosanna. She brought a strength and vulnerability, not to mention pathos, to the role and the sequences with her bandying with the Doctor, all the time their conversation having the deadly serious undercurrent (no pun intended) to it, absolutely brilliant. Her character did seem to suddenly know an awful lot about the Doctor, which led me to believe that she was from a point in the future where the cracks are much more dangerous than they have been to this point, and she also spoke about his having let a civilisation turn to ash (or some such, I don't recall the exact wording), that I took as a reference to Gallifrey. Rather than seeing the cracks in the wall of time this go around, the subject was broached in conversation between the Doctor and Rosanna, and we learned more about what is going on with them through dialogue rather than visual raconteuring. The moment at the end of the story, where we experience The Silence, was stunning and very creepy, and brought home the fact that the theme is more than what we've seen to this point - cracks in mere walls.

More's the pity that the episode is so shallow for the most part, because despite the overall pretty good quality, the biggest mark against the Moffat period of Doctor Who so far is that roughly half-way through the season, we've yet to see a story that uses the single episode format with any degree of success. "The Vampires of Venice" was a sweet, but very fluffy and light storyline that offered moments of promise that went largely undelivered. My favourite line of the piece was, "What could be so bad that they don't mind people thinking they're vampires?"; great when delivered, very ominous, but when the answer turned out to be an extremely standard alien invader, it left a big hole where the *meaning* of that line should have been. I guess I'm somewhat bored with the "everything turns out to be aliens" theme that seems to be recurring in this series, but having the supposed vampires as "fish from space" (as the Doctor calls them) was too much. On the other hand, I was relieved that the vampires were not portrayed as the typical type of vampire we see in current media, and for that I was grateful. That said, just for once, I'd like to see villains that aren't aliens disguising themselves as humans, and that raises another point here. We see another perception filter being used here, yeet again, and that's becoming a bit of a theme this series out too, isn't it? It makes me wonder if that's important to the season's worth of stories, and whether we're seeing the whoe series through a perception filter of our own, you know...

The episode trailer for the next story was quite amazing, reminding me somewhat of "The Mind Robber" and "The Celestial Toymaker." Can't wait.

That said, I give "The Vampires of Venice" a 6 out of 10.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 31st, 2010 10:29 pm (UTC)
We did like some of the same things - the William Hartnell library card and the scene with the Doctor and the vampire girls not casting a reflection. I liked the fact that it had a bittersweet ending of condemning a race to extinction (and I was pleasantly surprised that the main guest star girl from the beginning didn't get saved as might have been expected).

That was the episode where I probably liked Rory the most. I like Karen Gillan's chemistry with Matt Smith, but as a character she's someone who is just there for me and doesn't really evoke any particular responses or reactions from me.
Jun. 1st, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
The problem for me may well be the chemistry between Matt's Doctor and Karen's Amy.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


John Kahane

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