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Doctor Who XXXI.6: The Vampires of Venice

May 10th, 2010 (11:12 pm)

Fish and Ships

The Vampires of Venice proved an unsatisfying viewing experience at first. This might have been the result of personal circumstances; I was watching on my sister's television and altering the sound settings would probably have enabled me to hear more of what I found on first viewing to be muffled dialogue. Consequently I lost the point of many of the jokes in the script and didn't appreciate most of the wit until later. This is hardly the fault of the production, but did lead to me being less involved with this episode than I might have been, and was not the only reason for my being underwhelmed.

A quick glance at Wikipedia (hardly exhaustive research, I know...) suggests that the historical Venice in 1580 is a city in crisis, not because of plague but because of challenges to its naval supremacy from the Ottoman Empire to the east, and Spain to the south and west. The population was in decline, and in 1573 Venice had been forced to recognize the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus. This is just the kind of instability in which the Calvierris would be able to exploit; but instead we have the generic 'plague', indicating that this Doctor Who is to owe less to historical circumstances of the sixteenth-century Adriatic than the early modern fictional Mitteleuropa in which so many Hammer films were set. Like these, The Vampires of Venice exploits the friction between rationality and superstition. The cogs and wheels of sixteenth-century mechanics co-exist with the glowing half-spheres of Doctor Who's pseudotechnology. A clue is that the Doctor attributes the foundation of the city to the flight of refugees from Attila the Hun in the fifth century, part of the Venetian republic's origin myth, but which obscures its better-attested rise from a power vacuum left by the retreat of the Byzantine Empire in the late eighth and early ninth centuries; and it is the legendary Venice to which the Doctor takes Amy and Rory. It's one where the promise of romance (as signified by the Doctor's mention of Casanova, conjuring up memories of the heavily stylized and non-realistic Casanova of Russell T Davies, and thus close kindred to Doctor Who) is being subverted by not only dehumanizing but depersonalizing sexual aggression on the part of the Calvierris.

The episode makes some play with perception filters, established as part of Doctor Who's furniture since The Sound of Drums. The psychic paper, an all-powerful device in most Russell T Davies era stories (though interestingly undermined as early as Steven Moffat's own The Empty Child in 2005), while persuading the immigration officer that the Doctor is apparently the pope, is first confused with a fanserving library card, and then fails to have its intended effect on Rosanna, though implausibly convincing her steward that Rory and Amy have references from the king of Sweden). Rosanna is then alerted to the possibility of a non-human presence and potential ally, though Amy is a human being and therefore simply fodder for the process (an echo of Dahlquist's Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, with its quasi-surgical straps and 'process' stripping subjects of compassion and familial loyalties). The perception filter stops the Saturnynes terrifying the Venetians but they remain figures of fear: aristocrats and vampires both prey on and exploit the subjection of the underprivileged.

In having the immigration officer mistake the Doctor for the pope, the script might be making play of Matt Smith's old/young appearance and behaviour. In 1580 the pope was the 78-year-old Gregory XIII, best remembered for his reform of the calendar and thus a Time Lord in his own way. Later, Amy rejects the idea that the Doctor pose as her father on the basis that he "looks nine" (which, given the final scene of the previous episode, could open interesting questions). This remark is anticipated by the Doctor's childlikeness at Rory's stag night, a gaucheness just a few carefully judged steps away from the camp spectrum, but still with resonances of a Charles Hawtrey or a Larry Grayson, injecting ambivalence into the drunken night of heterosexual masculinity; the intended object of the masculine gaze, the stripper, is never seen, being outside in her bikini, and the Doctor wants someone to give her a jumper.

Helen McCrory outperforms all the other guest cast. Her delivery of lines is often out of step with the more straightforward performances of other performers; perhaps even with the often flat direction. The opening scene fails to draw out what it probably intended to, the contrast between the aristocratic privilege of the Calvierris and the poverty of the boatbuilder Guido, because the performances of the antagonists are badly matched. Though Guido reminded me of Rocco, best friend and valet of David Tennant's Casanova, as played by Shaun Parkes, and the casting was perhaps intended to recall him, Lucian Msamati didn't have the presence I thought the role required.

Uncertainty of tone spread to Arthur Darvill as Rory, where I don't feel I am watching a consistently-drawn character. Darvill is a strong presence on screen, but there doesn't seem to be enough room for him to integrate the Rory who has read up on temporal physics and who is ready for the Doctor and prepared to run a critique on his methods, and the Rory who struggles to find his depth in the Doctor's world. There's a tension there which is ultimately resolved in the final scene, but the path is uneven and the impression remains that the production isn't sure what the script intends.

Doctor Who monsters have often had a problem with clothes, but the Saturnynes' fashion sense drew attention to it. What was illusion, and what was not? It was evidently important for Amy to change into the shift which all the girls of the Calvierri school wore; perhaps it was part of the species-hopping process, but this was only at most implied. Perhaps it is nothing for Rosanna to remove imaginary clothes before offering herself, still obscured in human form, to her ten thousand sons (evidently not in on the plan and stupid enough to be unable to distinguish between human and Saturnyne meat). In a reversal of mythology, a Saturn(yne) is eaten by her children.

The shift-clad young women were themselves a borrowing from Hammer, with its Collinson twins (of Evil) and Madeline Smith and other heroines, doomed and otherwise, whom I watched on the various BBC 2 and Tyne Tees seasons of horror films on Friday and Saturday nights in my teens; while the Doctor thought them 'buxom' fish (albeit with a touch of the arachnid about them) this was hardly the case by the standards of X-rated films of forty years ago. For this, and for the reasons mentioned by strange_complex in her review, the line seemed somewhat misplaced.

The threads of the story were rather loosely tied, though it was pleasing to see nods to the aquatic vampires of The Curse of Fenric, and the technology in a throne recalled the disguised spaceship in State of Decay. The echoes of these stories and to other Doctor-companion relationships made it feel sometimes as if Doctor Who was eating even more of itself than is normal. The final scene, though, wittily reformatted the series as the adventures of Amy, the little girl who has grown up and won her spaceship, accompanied by 'her boys'; Rory was repositioned as the Doctor's confidante and so accepted into domestic life aboard the TARDIS (where there is a kettle for Amy to put on and play 'mother'). The final slow zoom into the TARDIS lock associated the TARDIS itself with the cracks in time, the 'silence' perhaps having accounted for those ten thousand sexually frustrated Saturnyne in the sea. The Vampires of Venice as a storyline is ultimately eclipsed by the series arc.


Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: May 11th, 2010 06:47 pm (UTC)
liz shaw

I was also not deeply impressed.

It worked as entertainment and had some wit, but there were distractions. Such as the daylight thing, which sometimes seemed to affect the newly-converted Saturnyne, and sometimes not.

I agree about Rory not quite having found his place in the narrative yet, I hpe he'll get there. I don't think the end really resolved the uncertainties, but since he is sticking around, I hope the writers will.

The most glaring distraction to me was what looked like a hole in the story. The Doctor being electrocuted and in his next scene, sitting on the "throne". Thats eemd a bit abrupt. After last week's speculations, I wondered if these was significance in it, but if so, it was well-hidden. Replaying the scenes did not seem to reveal anything. But maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough...

And finally, gondolas are rowed not piunted!!! Don't they watch their own background shots!!! ;-)

On the plus side, I love the idea of the Doctor meeting Casanova sometime - played by David Tennant :-)

Must run!
I'm sure insight will be provided shortly...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 12:04 am (UTC)

I don't think there is anything special about the Doctor's recovery from electrocution other than the miraculous resilience of his constitution, in this case, but am prepared to find out that I am wrong...

...I hadn't realized that gondolas are rowed; I'm sure they are punted in Cornetto adverts...

Posted by: ooxc (ooxc)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 07:37 am (UTC)

Haven't been in Venice since 1970, but am sure they were punted then! The Cornetto ads might have confused my memory, and even then I didn't ever ride in one - we alsways too k the steamers, on the grounds that we didn't want to be touristy

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 09:33 am (UTC)

No, no, no - definitely rowed (albeit with a single, side mounted oar). Waters in Venice much to deep to reach the bottom with a pole.

Somewhere on the internet, some uber-fan continuity freak is coming up with some kind of Shada or Five Doctors crossover theory...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 09:33 am (UTC)

That's what I was thinking of, then!

Posted by: ooxc (ooxc)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)

That explains a lot - people who are used to punting would mistake the single oar for a punt pole1

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 09:35 am (UTC)
Reginald Iolanthe Perrin

"I'm sure they are punted in Cornetto adverts..."

On the contrary, Sir Knight:

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 10:29 am (UTC)

I've always interpreted that as punting, not having noticed the oar.

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)

oops, I seem to have set off quite a discussion with what ws intended as a throwaway line ;-)

I agree the oar is quite narrow and not easy to tell from pole, the real giveaway is the movement the gondolier makes when using it.

Which reminds me, you might have seen these guys on the Thames, although I don't think they have a gondola:

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: May 21st, 2010 05:40 pm (UTC)
liz shaw

irrelevantly for the record, having been distractedby boats:

I never thought the Doctor's recovery itself was surprising, but the fact that there seemed to be so much missing between the scenes.

It was the kind of editing awkwardness that in Flesh and Stone I had thought was accidental and turned out not to be.

Apparenlty, this time it is...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 21st, 2010 06:04 pm (UTC)

It wouldn't be the first episode this season which could have done with a few more minutes!

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: May 22nd, 2010 01:48 pm (UTC)
liz shaw

Let's start a campaign for more two-parters...

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: May 11th, 2010 08:18 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

Do you back date your reviews? When you post them late, I sometimes find it hard to locate them and only found this one by chance.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 11th, 2010 08:34 pm (UTC)

I don't back date the reviews; I started this one on Saturday, saved it, but forgot to change the date when I finished it and made it public.

Posted by: segh (segh)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 06:48 am (UTC)

Amy as Wendy, the Doctor as Peter Pan . . . I suppose Rory is John/Michael.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 10:38 am (UTC)

I'd not thought of that!

Posted by: Dewi Evans (wonderwelsh)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 09:02 am (UTC)

I agree with you on this - I enjoyed it, but somehow it all fell a little flat. I wasn't sure why at the time but, thinking back, I think a certain 'uneven' quality probably accounts for it.

Incidentally, what did you think of 'The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters'? Personally, I loved it in theory and thought it would make an excellent film or graphic novel - but the prose leaves a lot to be desired. It's like someone who's had late nineteenth-century decadence explained to them without ever actually reading any Beardsley, Beerbhom or Wilde. I enjoyed the sequel a lot more though and hope for a third volume.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 10:39 am (UTC)

I've still got to read the sequel - but agree with you on the assessment (though I've not read any Beerbohm or Beardsley).

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 09:38 am (UTC)

I really wanted this to be the vampires from State of Decay. Oh well. One of the earlier 8th Doctor books uses those vampires in a modern San Francisco setting and struck me as one of the better ones in that series. Can't remember the author or title though.

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: May 12th, 2010 09:42 am (UTC)

Ah, this is the one I mean:

Posted by: But what if I'm a mermaid? (deepbluemermaid)
Posted at: May 13th, 2010 08:58 am (UTC)

I'm really enjoying your Who reviews :)

On another note:

In 1580 the pope was the 78-year-old Gregory XIII, best remembered for his reform of the calendar and thus a Time Lord in his own way.

When I was living in Rome, I visited a Renaissance country estate in a nearby hill town. One of the rooms had this Latin plaque on the wall: