City of Death in Venice
Doctor Who: Vampires of Venice
Review by Paul Kirkley
A refugee alien disguised as a human cooks up an elaborate plan to avert the destruction of its race while hiding out in a romantic European capital. The Doctor makes himself comfy in a fancy chair and engages in some sparky banter with a haughty bit of aristo-crumpet. There are many – oh, so many – good jokes, and the whole thing is eventually resolved in a matter of seconds.
Sound familiar? What I’m saying, and not very subtly, is that if you didn’t like Vampires of Venice, then you can’t like its 70s spiritual antecedent either. And anyone who doesn’t like – no, anyone who doesn’t love - City of Death is hereby ordered to report to the Behind The Sofa admin office to hand in their psychic papers/library card. And once you’ve done that, you’re free to go and spend the rest of your life looking for satisfyingly grim Nazi parables in Genesis of the Daleks (where a war of attrition lasts a thousand years, but feels like so much longer).
Presumably, if some Who fans had been script editor for Blackadder or Porridge, they’d have sent back a note saying “the gags are great, but there are too many of them"
I’ve never understood people who don’t like it when Doctor Who – gag for gag the wittiest fantasy franchise ever - does funny. It reminds me of that anecdote about the dour Yorkshireman who sat through an acclaimed comedy show and, when was asked for his opinion, declared: "I suppose it were alright for them as likes laughin’”.
As I mentioned last week, some Who fans have a curious habit of measuring comedy in terms of quantity rather than quality. (Presumably if they’d been script editor for Blackadder or Porridge, they’d have sent back a note saying “the gags are great, but there are too many of them”.) In Vampires of Venice, the jokes come thick, fast and, most importantly, funny. Crucially, many of them are also uniquely Doctor Who, exploiting the show’s patented fantastic/domestic USP to bring us a 16th Century Venetian gondolier in a stag-do t-shirt, or deploying words like ‘Ofsted’ to kick the legs from an otherwise wholly convincing bit of Hammer glamour lusty vamp action.
This verisimilitude is important: The comic anachronisms (“So, basically, our mum and dad are dead from getting the plague… Cheers”) only work because the production around them is so handsome, so sumptuously cinematic, so credibly Venetian - paddling pools, cardboard gondolas and all. When the sets, costumes and acting also felt like part of the joke – as in those hyper-inflationary knockabouts of the late 70s – it’s no wonder we started pining for the Gothic chills of the Holmes and Hinchcliffe years. But when witty, vibrant, cheeky scripts get the production values they deserve – as they did in City of Death, or The Talons of Weng Chiang, or Tooth and Claw – that’s when Doctor Who feels properly, treasurably unique.
I’ve seen quite a few comments on Gallifrey Base this week describing Vampires of Venice as a “run of the mill” romp. Oh how quickly a privilege becomes a right. Seriously, if we’d been presented with this five, 15 or even 25 years ago, would we really have responded with a collective shrug and tried to work out whether it should sit above or below Four to Doomsday in the end-of-season polls? True, it may not be an epoch-making, game-changer of an episode, but if that makes it run of the mill, then it’s one hell of a mill they’re running in Cardiff these days, churning out the sort of organic stoneground wholemeal Who we’d have killed for in the days when even the magisterial City of Death was acting as the fancy French filling between two slices of value-brand white loaf.
Like its Parisian forebear, Vampires of Venice wasn’t perfect. In fact, the two share some common faults, including credibility-stretching human disguises for the alien Big Bads and a plot resolved by a simple punch to the head/flick of a switch (though the former was done infinitely more stylishly, as a deliberate gag set up and seeded throughout the story, whereas the latter was literally just switched off at the end).
There were the usual messy plot holes, too: Did I miss the explanation of why simply disguising yourself as a vampire makes you susceptible to sunlight? That’s like a Playboy bunny getting myxomatosis. What happened to that tidal wave that was on the way? How do you transform one species to another through a blood transfusion? (The true purpose of the Signorra’s little academy certainly brought a new meaning to the term school of fish, and its best not to think about the mating ritual of five females thrown to the mercy of thousands of horny fellas - though they certainly won’t be the last Italians forced to sleep with the fishes.)
Did this entire episode revolve around the fact that, like their Earthly, tank-bound cousins, the Fish from Space just wanted some nice underwater ruins to swim around in?
More fundamentally, why go to all the trouble of sinking an entire city on a planet that’s 70% covered in water already? Or did this whole episode revolve around the fact that, like their Earthly, tank-bound cousins, the Fish from Space just wanted some nice underwater ruins to swim around in?. (And if someone wouldn’t mind dropping a few pellets of fish-food into the ocean every couple of days, that would be lovely, thanks.)
The death of Isabella added a note of genuine horror and poignancy to what everyone has already officially declared A Romp, though I felt they bottled out by not showing Guido’s reaction (the first time we saw him after the tragedy, he was calmly sitting round the table indulging his visitors’ wisecracks – though, as it turned out, he was literally sitting on a powder-keg of broken-hearted resentment). But, by way of compensation, we did get the Doctor’s thrilling, semi-flirtatious confrontation with Rosanna, deliciously played by Matt Smith and the excellent Helen McCrory, and ending with our hero promising to “tear down the house of Calvierri stone by stone” (exhilarating stuff, even if, in the end, he managed to do it with a small brass light switch instead).
Despite moving with the natural grace of a camel on rollerskates, Matt Smith once again managed not to put a foot wrong, though this week he faced serious competition from Arthur Darville’s deeply loveable Rory (think Mickey Smith but written and played as a genuinely funny, likeable character, as opposed to the words Long-Suffering Boyfriend stuffed into an anorak). Together, the two of them gave us what must amount to the show’s best pre-title sequence ever ("Lovely girl. Diabetic"). Seriously, no-one does popping-out-of-cake acting like Matt Smith: look at his big daft face as he emerges, or the way he tries to shake off the loose bit of paper. It’s adorable.
In fact, the only major way in which Vampires of Venice didn’t measure up to City of Death was in the ratings. But that’s what you get for showing your biggest show at six o’clock in the middle of summer. City of Death, by contrast, didn’t even have any opposition to go up against it: as the second story to be shown after a Labour government was unseated by the Tories, it was an unexpected beneficiary of nationwide industrial unrest. So here’s hoping for 16 million on Saturday.