...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, July 12, 2010

Day 3478: DOCTOR WHO: A Fishy Tale


For anyone NOT watching the World Final of Footballing (if you're Spanish) or Kick-Boxing (if you're Dutch) – i.e. Generation "SQUEE!" – this weekend was VAMPIRE weekend, with the release of the latest in the TWIGLET saga…

…personally, I don't understand why "wait till you're married then he kills you" is a more CHRISTIAN message than Harry Potter's "love is better than power and murdering people tears your soul apart", but apparently angsty vamps go down very well with the League of Abstinence…

…so this seems like the right weekend to make Daddy do the Vampires of Venice review! Now available on shiny silver disc AND shiny blu disc, too! The, er, episode, not Daddy's reviews… RUN VT!
"C" is for fish, as the old pun would have it, and the first thing we see in Venice is the carved curved fish that forms the monogram "C" for Calvierri on the back of Signora Rosanna's throne. Essentially, the "answer" is right in front of you in that first image: this is, of course, a school of fish. And then the rest of the episode is a huge exercise in misdirection.

And jolly good fun it is too.

Almost in spite of the arc-ish framing device of taking Rory and Amy on a "date", almost in spite of the intruding mentions of cracks and silences, it feels the most simple and self-contained story so far.

(I'll allow "The Beast Below" on a challenge if you want, but to me that feels very much continuing Amy's story rather than wholly a story of its own, while of course the Mark Gatiss episode is obviously no more than laying the groundwork for revamped Dalek escapades and as I said before "Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" feel very much parts four and five of "Doctor Who and the Cracks in Time".)

The teaser clip shown on Jonathan Ross was rightly picked from this episode, showcasing the brilliance of Matt Smith as the Doctor as he is surprised and delighted by the "creepy girls with no reflections" and tosses in a fanboy-pleasing glimpse of William Hartnell on the Doctor's library card. (Yes, Alex and I were those fanboys.) I would contrast the Doctor's scampering glee at real living vampires, cavorting around them as though his body is going out of control along with the words coming out of his mouth, with his "woah, aren't you magnificent" reaction to the real living werewolf in "Tooth and Claw".

Helen McCrory as the wicked but tragic Rosanna is a captivating central performance, often holding the eye with her stillness – sitting in her throne, kneeling and "rehydrating" from a chalice: these moments are almost tableaux. And for all of her vampire trappings, she is really much more of a fairy-tale wicked queen, holding the city in thrall by her magic and putting the girls under her spell. Even the "glamour" of her perception filter – revealing the ugly witch underneath – fits. Mind you, "ooh grandma what big teeth you have" is also there in the mix.

She has some marvellous confrontations with Matt's Doctor. There's a lovely, almost flirtatious sense that the two of them are of an age, and that their age is ancient, particularly in the moment where she offers the Doctor an alliance with the hint that it may be of the matrimonial variety. "Think of the children," he whispers.

As a "grande dame" of Venice she is reminiscent, if not quite so grand, nor quite so dissolute, of the character Miss Eleanor Lavish from the early Paul McGann Big Finish Adventure "The Stones of Venice" by Paul Magrs.

("The Stones of Venice" is almost literally three parts lush, elegiac tragedy to one part "oh, they live". Yes, another Paul Magrs where he muffs the ending: he may be a genius and a lecturer in creative writing but you do occasionally want to bang him over the head with a book on "how to write". Funnily enough, it also features a breed of fish-men living below the canals and finishes with the city being cursed to sink below the waves. In honesty, though, they could hardly be more different: "Stones of…" is a lament for lost love, and the foolish and selfish things that people do even when it can and does lose them the most important thing in the world, with a heartbreakingly beautiful performance from Michael Sheard as Duke Orsino. Oh and never mind what Wikipedia says about essays by John Ruskin, "The Stones of Venice" is also the title of an episode of "Jason King" guest-starring Roger Delgado and don't think Magrs wouldn't know that.)

Meanwhile Alex Price, who's been voicing the Doctor Who Confidentials this year, has (forgive me) a whale of a time playing evil mummy's-boy Francesco. (Although since his appearance as a ghost in season one of Toby Whithouse's "Being Human", we ended up calling him "fish-Gilbert"; Gill-bert groans Alex).

Oh, and I must say I do like Simon Gregor as the obviously all-too-human Steward of the House of Calvierri who does a lovely boggle-and-recover when the mistress turns into a giant fish in front of him and is last seen skipping town dragging a sackful of looted gold.

The visuals are gorgeous, too. Yes, even the silly fish.

They've gone for a much more muted colour palette, lovely pale marble of Venice, a lot of sea greens, obviously, but perhaps more daringly some fluorescent purples as the Doctor waves around his ultra-violet light stick.

The "vampire girls" of the Calvierri school have a real "Hammer" vibe going on – I mean big blousy "Hammer Horror" dresses, emphatically not MC Hammer big trousers. As the Doctor says, fish from space have never looked so buxom. Those vampire teeth are a bit of a triumph, too, though I'm fairly sure they would leave rather more of a hickey than the traditional two puncture-wound bites that we see on Amy's neck with the Doctor sonic-ing them closed. And do fish really have teeth like that? ("Don't tell him Pikes," heckles Alex. "Stupid boy.") Oh but if I'm being picky… having gone to the trouble of explaining all the vampire attributes via the technobabble of the perception filter… suddenly we get vampire girls floating outside the window. Are they flying fish now?

Of course, if they'd surprised us with a reveal that the house was now under water, they could have used that scene to establish that Rosanna can sink the buildings of Venice into the lagoon one by one… oh, who cares, it's just a magnificent image, isn't it.

Trogir in Croatia, allegedly built by the Venetians, is a real find, standing in for Venice without any of that intrusive modern tourist tat. Incredibly, the ability to do this and the Van Gogh episode in the same location turns what might have been an indulgence into an economy measure and gives the series a more globe-trotting feel all in one. And, as mentioned under "Vincent and the Doctor", the illusion is greatly helped by not slamming the two location episodes in side-by-side.

This is, incidentally, one of those rare-for-the-new-series episodes set in the past without a celebrity (or at least "famous event" e.g. coronation and/or volcanic eruption) tacked on. I'm thinking that "Father's Day" and "The Next Doctor" would be the others, though Alex makes the point that "the Eighties" and "the Victorians" almost count as the celebrity guest on their own, and likewise "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" and "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" each evoke a World War.

Instead, Alex says "Daleks in Manhattan"/"Evolution of the Daleks"; I tentatively suggest either the Empire State Building as the "celebrity" or perhaps the Depression Era as the famous event, but he's almost certainly right: that one is much more about exploring a part of history we're unfamiliar with… at least until Dalek Sec starts exploring new careers as a hat…

That sense of exploring the unknown led Alex to feel that the nearest new series equivalent – in big frocks in European history – was actually Steve Moffat's "The Girl in the Fireplace", another story with disguised invaders as well. I'd have called that one a pretty obvious "celebrity historical", but Alex is right to say that, at least in Britain, Madame de Pompadour is one of the least famous "famous people" that the series has featured. After all, she was only responsible for bankrupting the country by starting a protracted, unwinnable war and then spending vast sums of money on a lavish royal court while the economy went down the Seine. After her came a revolution involving lots of cuts. If only I could make some kind of topical political comparison.

Really, if you want the true historical experience you have to look to the "classic" series. Here, the grande dame villainess, the medieval history, the location somewhere on the continent and the appearance of William Hartnell, not to mention the touch of light genocide at the conclusion, all give the story a feel of the "The Massacre". Though course the one story it's most like, with its aliens masquerading as local superstitions, sword fights, location filming and Italianate setting, is "The Masque of Mandragora".

And sure, in a year or so, no doubt we will look back at the CGI canals and scoff, but on first viewing they look "really there" good enough.

"Vampires in a school setting" almost seems to be writer Toby Whithouse having another go at the story he wrote for Russell: "School Reunion".

So perhaps that is why "The Vampires of Venice" is the most Russell-ish entry of Steve Moffat's series so far. And perhaps that is why, in spite of its flaws (and I'm coming to those) it feels so warm and welcoming after the cold logic of Moffat's precision-engineered puzzle-boxes.

Let's just have a quick look at those Russell tropes on show:
  • an animal-based alien (space-cats, space-bats, space-rhinos and space-spiders are now joined by space-fish);
  • refugees fleeing from a terrible something (for "Time War" read "the silence");
  • the lead villain is an empowered woman (see also the Lady Cassandra, Margaret Slitheen, Yvonne Hartman, the Empress of the Racnoss, Miss Foster, Mercy Hartigan etc);
  • and the Doctor saves the days by performing some extraordinary physical stunt in order to thump the technology till it breaks do something technobabblingly-clever to the technology… till it breaks (almost more examples than you can list starting from "The End of the World", but see in particular: "The Idiot's Lantern", "Evolution of the Daleks" and "The Next Doctor" – "The Next Doctor" doubled for the applause at the end).
This does also mean we get some of the "School of Russell" plotting as well.

Two of the most egregious moments stand out: Francesco the Fish-boy's unexpectedly explosive reaction to direct sunlight; and the Doctor's over-the-top heroics (literally over the top as he scales the roof) at the conclusion.

The problem with Amy blowing up Francesco is not just because it comes out of nowhere nor the blink-and-you-missed-it "explanation" that she's using a hand-mirror to reflect the sun, but that it appears to contradict most of the rest of the story. The fishy-people are clearly photophobic, but it's not ever established that it's to the point of spontaneous combustion! They do manage to stand in direct sunlight at other points (if nothing else, Madame Rosanna's final dive into the water is achieved without blowing up the wharf) and there's no reason to think Amy's mirror is a magnifying one (in fact, we don't do a "Chekov's gun" to establish the mirror, either) so why the sudden incendiary insanity?

Meanwhile, the Doctor saving the day at the end is one of those naughty moments of "if he does something spectacular enough maybe you won't notice that all he's doing is pushing the 'plot off' button".

It's almost by-the-by that if what the Saturnynians' device does is create an earthquake that will trigger a tidal wave that will drown the city, then just putting a spanner in the works won't actually fix that – the earthquake happens, so the tsunami has been triggered, you can't un-drop the bomb. But Doctor Who is always doing that sort of thing, and at least Matt Smith acts the Doctor's reaction as "wow, that actually worked!" rather than, naming no names, "yes, mortals, you may applaud my crowning moment of awesome".

No, the problem is that bonkers spectacular villainy like this does not fit with the rest of the episode. The fact that the device exists at all is pretty much pulled out of the air; disappointingly it's not really any more than an "end-of-level challenge", just there to provide the episode with a conclusion because forty-five minutes are up.

Rosanna has been demonstrating a careful, cautious step-by-step subversion of Venice, and so far she's got five girls. And now she plans to sink the city? Why not just run away to start again somewhere else? After all, that's how this began when she and the boys escaped from Saturnyne. Rosanna's flight could have led to a chase through the watery catacombs, perhaps, with the threat of the piranha-like boys in the water at every step. Even the "she slips and falls" cliché would have made for a more original ending than what we got.

If Rosanna had expressed any weariness at the slowness and the effort of her plan, the fact she's clearly bleeding herself in order to transfuse the girls (hence all the "rehydration"), then her suddenly going nuts and pulling the doomsday lever – not to mention her suicide at the end – might make some character sense.

It also makes her last accusation at the Doctor, that he's responsible for two genocides now, a lie. Not that lying to wound is out of character. But he's in no way responsible for the extermination of the Saturnynians. Arguably they were extinct from the moment they arrived on Earth anyway, as even if Rosanna's plan had worked, the next generation would have been hybridised with humans. And at the end, at least before momma goes swimming with the fishes, their position is really only as bad as when they first arrived.

One might also ask, if mommy was so keen on repopulating her race, why was her son stomping around the place with his grumpy-face on, when he should have been pretty permanently locked in the boudoir with one or more of the buxom fish-from-space girls? And why only one son? It's not like Rosanna doesn't have perception filters to spare, as she's clearly handing them out to her "gels".

Come to think of it, why can't Rosanna's ten thousand male offspring carry on the hybridising process for themselves? It can hardly be that only the female Saturnynians are intelligent – I mean Francesco is a bit thick but…

What does actually happen to the surviving male offspring? It's just a thought, but these are not the first "water vampires" that have appeared in Doctor Who. In "The Curse of Fenric", the Ancient One is said to have passed through Venice following the path of the trader who took the flask from Constantinople. It's almost tempting to wonder if the Haemovores didn't pick up some Saturnynian traits then.

Where Toby Whithouse's first Doctor Who script fell down was that while "School Reunion" featured a strong, and much admired, emotional "b-plot" for the Doctor – meeting Sarah Jane and what this means about the way he treats companions, the effect he has when he leaves them behind – the nominal "a-plot" – all that sub-Logopolis business with batty Krillitanes trying to hack the operating system of the Universe – was treated as little more than a throwaway framing device.

If anything, "The Vampires of Venice" has the reverse problem (making it much less of a problem): the main story about the vampires is actually treated as the main story, while the emotional sub-plot about the Amy / Rory / Doctor non-love triangle is given little more than a nod in passing. Amy as good as says "let's not do this plot this week", passing the buck to Simon Nye's "Amy's Choice", and then she and Rory get on with enjoying Venice.

Actually, watched again, it's nice that you can see that Rory does get it; he's genuinely "woo Venice!"; he understands and shares Amy's excitement in time-travel in a way that, say, Mickey Smith really, really didn't.

Alex points out the comparison with "The Girl in the Fireplace" again, saying that Rory gets the advantage of actually wandering around in history, seeing all the frocks and monsters, where Mickey gets left behind on a spaceship to be probulated while the Doctor gets the girls and the frocks and gets to disparagingly compare him to a horse.

Whereas it seems clear that the Doctor likes Rory, and probably for exactly the reason that Rory shows signs of being companion material. Notice that every dig the Doctor makes seems to be accidentally (unlike the ninth or tenth Doctor's deliberate sniping). And he's going to quite a lot of trouble to make sure Rory has a happy life with Amy and it's not just for Amy's sake. We will see later ("The Pandorica Opens") that the Doctor thinks of Rory as someone he has lost, not just someone Amy loses.

These are nice character notes, so it's a shame to undermine them with silly "yours is bigger than mine" jokes. And then Francesco gets to symbolically castrate him by chopping his weapon in half in the sword fight at the end! Having Amy save Rory is empowering for her, but much less so if you've just made her boyfriend look like a dipstick.

And as for the Doctor emerging from the stripper-gram cake… as the man himself says: "there are some things that just sound better in your head…"

I'm slightly in two minds about Rory's "you make people want to impress you" speech, though. It's a good speech, a strong and true accusation to throw at the Doctor. In the excitement of the conclusion, the Doctor throws the speech back at him: you've gone from "you make people dangerous to themselves" to "we won't leave you to die" as though this doesn't entirely prove Rory's point.

But on the other hand, does Rory know the Doctor well enough yet to make that accusation?

"The Eleventh Hour" is the only other time they've really met – no, Amy's cosplay games really do not count – and while it may not strictly be an "everybody lives" (Patient Zero probably slaughters the other patients in the coma ward, and is himself executed), no one else who meets the Doctor dies. Rory and Amy only end up in peril because Patient Zero happens to have come back to the hospital; the Doctor didn't actually send them into harm's way (for once). So although the accusation is true, I'm just not sure how Rory gets there so soon.

Having said that, in the context of a story about people being turned into something they're not against their will, it's an interesting time to flag up the way that the Doctor changes the people around him too.

Ultimately, "The Vampires of Venice" appears to be a proof that Russell was right, and that feel is more important than plot. The Doctor versus vampires in Venice feels right, no matter what hand-waving over the details you need. We invest in this idea emotionally and it rewards us with a story that starts with vampires (who want to drain our blood and turn us into things like them) who turn out to be aliens who turn out to want to drain our blood and turn us into things like them, so they are vampires after all. And they're in Venice.

Which, let's face it, is pretty cool.

Then there's just a moment at the end when Venice falls silent, and it's truly chilling. All the more so in retrospect, knowing that it won't be explained and is still hanging over us.

Next Time… ♫ Cold stars shining, frozen above you… ♫ In the future Rory whispers "I love you"… ♫ Birds twitter in the sycamore tree… ♫ Dream a little dream of me… ♫ Adventures with the Doctor or Happy Ever After with Rory? That's "Amy's Choice".
Don't sing, Daddy! DO NOT SING!

[silence falls]



Mike Taylor said...

I have little to add to this, just wanted to thank you for writing it -- I know how dispiriting it is to write a long article and have it disappear into the blogoverse without so much as a squeak of acknowledgement. I love your writing on Doctor Who, and look forward to each new installment.

By the way, you liked this episode rather a lot more than I did -- for details, see

Caron said...

I kind of wondered if Rosanna wasn't some prior incarnation of George Osborne when she started going on about coalitions. This episode was broadcast just as the Lib Dem Tory coalition was coming together and I wondered if that had been done delibarately, knowing the broadcast date would be near the General Election - a bit like Rusty's WMD in 45 secs comment in the first Slitheen story in 2005.

Another great review........

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Mike,

Thank you, it IS always nice to know folks are reading. And funnily enough, we've been reading YOUR reviews too! And enjoyed them muchly. With their pictures of sushi! Though we may have started later than "Vampires of Venice". So on us for not posting a cheery thank you to you!

You may find you're more generous to "Vampires" than you think you are! On the whole it reads quite positively, certainly about the "look" and stuff about Rory. You do make some good points about doing vampires that actually ARE vampires, too; it's really only been done in "State of Decay", but that story was followed up a LOT in books and the like, so much so that the Mister Moffster might feel that doing vampires "with a twist" was the better option. (In particular check out great chunks of "The Book of the War" and the Yssgaroth.)

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Auntie Caron

I realise that Master Gideon is a bit of a WET FISH, and that he appears to come from ANOTHER PLANET, but you could NEVER describe him as… "BUXOM"!!!

As for political allusions, you are RIGHT! Other people have pointed out that the election campaign coincided with "The Beast Below" where the voting booths were a con-trick and didn't change anything; AND that series ends with an unexpected team-up between the Doctor's enemies in a COALITION of the CHILLING. And NEXT year, the Skittles Daleks will be introducing a PREFERENTIAL VOTING system into their new colour scheme… only kidding (I hope!)