DOCTOR WHO: Series 5 - The Vampires Of Venice / Review

BBC1 - 7th May 2010 - 6pm

As Stuart Ian Burns has already pointed out, in this week of political insecurity it's a relief that we can rely on something like Doctor Who to provide a salve for our troubles. But as the pre-titles of The Vampires Of Venice get underway, you'd be forgiven for finding an equanimity between the hung parliament rhetoric of Brown, Cameron and Clegg (pleading every five minutes that we must think of the country's need for a strong, stable government) and Rosanna Calvierri as she offers to her son ' I believe protecting the future of one's own is a sacred duty.' That later discussion of a pact between her and the Doctor uncannily echoes the various open offers that the Tory and Labour parties have been trying to tempt Nick Clegg with. Rosanna is just as unlikely to go for proportional representation as Cameron is, so the Doctor's on a hiding to nothing trying to persuade her to rethink her policies. She instead goes for unleashing a very different kind of Eurozone crisis and one that certainly won't help clear up that ash cloud.

Alas, if anything, The Vampires Of Venice is cookie-cutter Doctor Who. Yes, sumptuously lovely to look at, entertaining and witty, but it's just rehearsing any number of rather tired scenarios from the previous series and not really bringing anything new to the table. Hence, we get highly contrived plans to sink Venice made by aliens on the run from 'Amy's Crack' (rather too similar to those refugees of the Time War including the Nestene Consciousness, which lost all its protein planets and then turned up on Earth in Rose, and the Gelth, who were forced to exist as gaseous beings and then had to form a bridgehead on Earth in The Unquiet Dead). Then there's the whole climax of the Doctor climbing up the bell tower to stop the space-fish terraforming device which just looks like a rehash of him climbing up Alexandra Palace television tower or clinging onto the top of the Empire State Building. And lest we forget, the noble self-sacrifice of a supporting character is back again with gun-powder loving Guido blowing himself to bits to stop the vampire brides of Rosanna.

Yes, it's difficult to try and be original after 47 years and the series is bound to keep offering up traditional stories every year but this just smacked too much of repetition. And for once couldn't we just have a Doctor Who story where the vampires actually are the supernatural bloodsuckers of legend and myth, maybe even tying in with the Great Vampires of State Of Decay? Why do they automatically have to be space-fish aliens? Either go for the vampires or go for the marauding space-fish because in the end it'll help avoid all the contrivances chucked into the script to explain why the space-fish are pretending to be vampires and the silly inconsistencies of having creatures that react badly to sunlight romping through the episode in broad daylight only for one of them to be vaporised by a quick flash of sunlight from Amy's Boots No 7 make up mirror.

It also joins the myriad of novels and films that partly look at the vampire genre as a representation of race and nation. Again, immigration was, and continues to be, an anxiety for those who have just voted in the election and, debatably, 'Bigot-gate' may have been one of the factors that influenced the electorate on May 5th. How timely then that The Vampires Of Venice uneasily reflects much of the concern about European immigrants. The vampire genre often expresses some of the discourses on race and nation that are reflected in changes in immigration laws and the public perceptions of immigrants and immigration. Vampires, particularly, are often treated in such narratives with much the same hostility as actual immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Here, the space-fish seem to assume the role of asylum seekers from the oncoming silence at the end of the universe and, much to the fear of the Doctor and everyone else, would rather like to impose their culture on 16th Century Venice and annex it for themselves to rebuild their population.

Despite the stereotypical images of vampire brides, there is also something more going on here about the familiar themes of unfettered sexuality. Not only is the story positioned as a response to the deliberately flirtatious cliffhanger of Flesh And Stone, showing Amy practically jumping on the Doctor, where now the Doctor seeks to contain her passions and cool her ardor by bringing fiance Rory along for a romantic trip to Venice, but it also shows an alien race who can only survive by converting young girls into suitable wives for the male children of the queen-like Rosanna. Rosanna also suggests the possibility of both a political pact with the Doctor and also a physical congress with him. This further opens up some of the miscegenation anxieties at the heart of the story.

The Doctor's rejection of the vampire Other in this story could partly be seen as a reaffirmation of his own nationalism, his own heritage as a Timelord. One of the moral conundrums here is that the Doctor quite clearly allows the space-fish species to die out rather than do much more to help them and uses his own example with Gallifrey ('I told you you can't go back and change time. You mourn but you live. I know, Rosanna. I did it.') as a yardstick by which to make this decision and it convinces Rosanna that she has no alternative but to throw herself in the canal.

The Doctor's morally questionable destruction of the 'monsters' at the end of the episode ('One city to save an entire species. Was that so much to ask?' 'Tell me Doctor, can your conscience carry the weight of another dead race?') uneasily posits The Vampires Of Venice as re-enactment of an imperialist fantasy of defining and drawing frontiers, both the national (preventing the isolation of Venice by the space-fish) and galactic (the Doctor repelling those that wish to possess the Earth) and sorting out the aliens, perhaps attempting to humanise them ('you didn't know Isabella's name' is enough of a test for the Doctor), without the whiff of racism.  It's highly ironic then that the shoot for The Vampires Of Venice took place in Croatia, itself historically enmeshed in balkanism and wars of independence.

Despite these uneven subtexts and themes, there is much to enjoy but it's status as a 'romp' doesn't quite give it the stamina to make a favourable comparison to the likes of The Time Of Angels and Flesh And Stone. It rattles along happily enough on a succession of quick-fire witty and funny lines. What I enjoyed was the re-introduction of Rory into the series and much of the witty interplay between him and the Doctor. Matt Smith, it now goes without saying, provides yet another thoroughly appealing performance as the Doctor.

I'm no doubt going to upset some by saying that Amy is beginning to annoy me now. She's slowly losing her appeal for me and I'm finding her quite a cold, rather odd, character and I simply don't believe that she was interested in marrying Rory at all. This might well be part of Moffat's arc for the character so I'm prepared to see what happens but it underlines something about her that I don't honestly find that appealing. Arthur Darvill fulfills the potential he displayed in The Eleventh Hour and makes Rory such a fresh presence through his very normality. He's a welcome addition to the TARDIS crew simply because he offers a balance to the overwhelming 'kookiness' and cynicism of Amy and the full blown eccentricity of the Doctor and even offers a critique of the Doctor's ability to make people want to impress him. The sword fight between him and Francesco is a lovely bit of physical comedy too.

Helen McCrory is suitably enthusiastic as Rosanna and she looks magnificent, works very well with Alex Price as her brother Francesco and is especially good in her stand-off against the Doctor, giving us one of the best scenes in the episode. Some very funny moments to cherish too; from the Doctor popping up out of the cake to 'The Stripper' ('There's a girl outside in her bikini. Could someone let her in, give her a jumper?'); the confrontation with the Brides of Calvierri using the library card with the First Doctor's image; Rory and Amy pretending to be brother and sister when talking to the Calvierri ('I'm a gondola…driver'); the 'Ofsted', 'yours is bigger than mine' and 'Cab for Amy Pond?' gags and many more.

It's also sustained as television spectacle by virtue of the beautifully photographed locations in Trogir and some digital magic to make it look like 16th Century Venice, playing on the 'quality television' denoting period cozzies and, what Matt Hills regards as, the series flirtation with 'historical citations and high cultural aesthetics' (its visual nod to Visconti's Death In Venice amongst them). It taps into the popularist vampire genre via the prism of Hammer's exploitation style horror rather than the teenage romantics of Twilight. The vampire genre it emulates is unfortunately rather diluted here but, granted, this is going out at 6pm so it can't have too much blood and thunder these days.

The spectacle takes a slight dive in quality with the not so convincing CGI depiction of the space-fish, particularly in Francesco's death scene, and the terraforming over the stormy Venetian skies. There's also a tendency to describe rather than show and that is particularly problematic in the sacrifice of Isabella where she thrashes about in the water and tells us what is happening. A couple of underwater shots of 'things' grabbing at her would have sold that scene more convincingly. Again, perhaps considered too traumatising for the kiddies. The finale on the top of the bell tower also doesn't quite work either as the dramatic tension is dissipated by some very lacklustre studio based green screen work and an odd choice of using static shots.

Dare I say it, but the promises made by the current production team, especially in Moffat's comment "If you took a vote amongst the playgrounds of Britain they'd all be saying, 'Make it scary, you're meant to be behind that sofa!'", have so far only briefly emerged in the last two-parter. My inner 8 year old is still looking enticingly at the sofa behind which only one or two momentary visits have been made this year. The only moment in The Vampires Of Venice that threatened to disturb the peace was the sequence in which Amy is taken to the green, eerily lit room to be processed and is bitten by both Rosanna and Francesco. Trying to do vampires at 6pm was always going to be bound by the BBC's regulations and the audience's idea of what could be acceptable in an early evening slot.

Long gone are the days when Hinchcliffe and Holmes would cover the screen in graphic strangulations, shootings, drownings and disfigurements. Dressing it up as a mix of late Hammer (European glamour models inducted into vampire schools in Lust For A Vampire is as good a place to start and it's even referenced by the Doctor's dialogue ('Blimey, fish from space have never been so…buxom'), but the visual and sub-textual nods to the plague analogies and Venetian-medieval opulence of Death In Venice and the ropey Venice based sequel to Nosferatu starring Klaus Kinski won't quite work unless you bung in either some highly charged eroticism or some genuinely scary moments.

A completely revised and much fuller version of this review is now available in my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press and also available on Amazon.  

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10 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: Series 5 - The Vampires Of Venice / Review”
  1. KAOS says:

    Excellent analysis, as always. You've confirmed what I suspected. For the first time in 25 years or so of watching Doctor Who, I deliberately chose not to watch this week. I've never missed an episode, but I'm so disenhanted with things this year that I knew it would be another dog's dinner.

    I'm glad someone else has taken against Amy Pond: I liked her in the first episode, but found her increasingly grating. Definitely the worst companion of the "new" series.

    Hasn't everything been a rehash of past glories this year? The Beast Below reeked of The Long Game, the Dalek one was merely an advert for new Dalek toys, and the 2-parter was Silence In The Library/Blink spliced together.

    It's all going wrong...

  2. It wasn't a disastrous episode by any means. Entertaining and perfectly watchable but certainly not scary enough and far too many familiar elements being re-used. Beautiful location filming that's very impressive but it decorates a rather slim story.

    That said, there are some very funny moments in it and Matt Smith is still an absolute joy.

  3. Melissa says:

    I enjoyed this week's episode of Who but mostly because of the cute one liners and the cake scene. It was, as you pointed out, a cookie cutter episode but it wasn't your generic filler episode by any means.

    I'm really looking forward to Amy's Choice next week.. I'm slowly growing to her I must admit.

  4. rob says:

    Great review Frank. You're not alone in your feelings about Amy Pond, she's become too over-sassed to be likeable, especially after the Are-You-Being-Served-style end to last week's episode.

    Still, let's see where we're being taken, perhaps we're supposed to have misgivings..?

  5. Harry says:

    Perhaps Rory is turning out to be a better companion than Amy? I'd like to see what happens in the next episode - when Rory might be a bit more used to life with the Doctor. I would rather see the fundamentally good man that got into a sword fight than the more than a little slapstick character that acted out said fight.

    Good, interesting review for a decent episode, by the way.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Why did the mother-of-all fish aliens die when she threw herself in the canal among her sons?

    I was annoyed by the other stuff - the sunlight not bothering the fish people - except when it did, or when it made them blow up - and annoyed it bothered them at all. And also annoyed by all the other gaping holes and unexplained inconsistencies and stupid plot points. Not to mention how little I liked the way Amy and Doctor gave Rory such a really bad time at the start of their time in Venice.

    But the one thing that bugged me most of all was that final scene where she supposedly died - a fish now, and the mother of all the other fish - by throwing herself in WATER.

  7. I'm interested in where the character of Ms Pond is going. She has a choice to make at some point in the very near future - obviously whether to marry Rory and settle down or to continue travelling - and this fits with Moffat's repeated comment that Doctor Who is a fairy tale. Amy's choice, which has been looming large in her life since Fish Custard, is whether she wants to grow up or not.

    Currently, she's leaning very much toward not. I don't think that state of affairs will continue.

  8. This was the most boring chapter of this season. The last ones didn't make me feel bored at all, but then I was mercifull and as I love the series, I hoped it could get better with time. It was like the pilot chapter of 2005, that bad.
    Now I watch this season with difrent eyes.
    Even the "next chapter" looks so wrong, some dreamy wobly timy wimy story of the Doctor sleeping... I think I'll wait three or four chapters more to see them all at once, hoping they won't disapoint me (again), and the storyline of Amy's cack get some answer, soon.

  9. chas_m says:

    Personally, I saw it more as a return to form -- this is exactly the sort of story that Doctor Who does best, and yes the overall plot is repetitive to other such plots scattered throughout the series' history ... so what?

    I feel a lot of viewers are just not being terribly fair. Although the show has more money now than it did, it can't re-invent the universe every single week. After 47 years, there's going to be some obviously repetitive stories ("Waters of Mars" being a prime example of "base under siege" as just one example). They also clearly have some restrictions on what they can and can't show at 6pm that in some cases limits the story.

    We should enjoy the variances of the theme. In this case, we had an interesting twist on the old vampire tales (delightfully avoiding any "Twilight-esque" nonsense); a wonderful location tale that really resulted in one of the most sumptuous-looking stories ever (IMO); some genuinely witty banter and some good old-fashioned detective work, not to mention introducing a new companion (who's quite observant, which I'm sure will come into further play).

    This was a script that could, with minimal alterations, have been done by any of the previous actors in the lead role and would have worked well. To me, that's a HIGH compliment, not a negative.

    When the day comes that I'm saying "oh no, not another 'race on the run justifies evil' story" or "oh not, not another 'unwilling quest' story," I'll know that I have finally finished growing up, become a boring old fuddy-duddy, and should switch off Doctor Who and find something more "adult" to watch.

    I pray that day never comes ...

  10. chas_m - I agree with a lot of what you're saying. Yes, it looked sumptuous, it had witty banter and was funny and was a great introduction to Rory. Lovely stuff. And all enjoyable. But for me it was just an average episode.

    Maybe I am a boring old fuddy-duddy after all but I did want something scary and something that just didn't shamelessly borrow very familiar tropes from the RTD era. It suffered from that repetition rather than making a virtue of it. But I know it's very difficult being original with 'Doctor Who'.

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