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May 09, 2010

Fangs

Stuart Ian Burns takes a bite out of Doctor Who: The Vampires of Venice

In these uncertain times for the nation, when frowning men in suits are walking from cars into buildings and back again and no one has a fecking clue about the future of the country, weekly events like Doctor Who come into their own.  We should just be thankful perhaps that the hand over of power at the top of our favourite franchise ran so smoothly by comparison.  If it had been like the current constitutional negotiations, we might have seen Moffat attempting to form a coalition with a different Nick (Briggs), the latter demanding the resurrection of the Voord as a red line deal breaker (though presumably without a couple of thousand people turning up at Upper Boat demanding an adaptation of The Fishmen of Kandalinga -- from the 1966 annual). 

The Vampires of Venice is particularly welcome because it is so comfortingly familiar, drawing together old and new series traditions to produce a supremely entertaining forty-eight and a half minutes.  If ever there could be an episode designed to convince fans that the show is just the same as it always was, it would be this Hammer infused gothic horror adventure with creepy candle lit corridors in foreign climes, mythic creatures revealed to be aliens with a leader given to portentous speeches prophesising doom for her people.  The title even evokes Vampire In Venice, the spaghetti horror from the 1980s with Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu.

Bob?  Bob?  Are you there?

You can almost imagine Philip Hinchcliffe watching the episode over a sherry at the retirement home for old Doctor Who producers and with a slight chuckle in his voice pointing to the plasma screen and muttering “That’s it!  That’s it! If only I’d had the budget … Bob?  Bob?  Are you there?”  “Calm down Mr Hinchcliffe.  It’s only a television programme.”  “But look Bob, they’re finally doing that version of Lust for a Vampire we were talking about, and at six o’clock in the evening!  And it looks like a feature film!” “It’s not Bob, Mr. Hinchcliffe, it’s Olla.  Have you taken your diabetic pills today?”

Except of course, mythic creatures that aren’t all they seem employing fairy tale fantasy elements to mask technology infuses the Moffat era too; interestingly a combination of the preview in the parish newsletter and Doctor Who Confidential suggests that writer Toby Whithouse had a pretty free hand in crafting his story, but with its lush Croatia in for Venice architecture, giant fangs and lashings of the uncanny it fits perfectly with the past five episodes evening including a variation on the now familiar crack.  It’s the oh so quiet.  Sshh.  Ssssssh.  So peaceful until …

William Shakespeare as a spy

As an aside, Venice isn’t, surprisingly, a regular stop for the Doctor and this is his first television visit.  Spin-off media offers two visits; Big Finish’s The Stones of Venice in which the Eighth Doctor and Charley stop the city from sinking despite the best efforts of Michael Sheard and the bonkers Virgin Missing Adventure The Empire of Glass (available as an e-book) in which author Andy Lane has the First Doctor and Steven Taylor mixed up with Galileo and William Shakespeare as a spy, which presumably explains the photo on the Doctor’s library card (squee).  Aside over (since I'm now having to ditch all my choice State of Decay comparisons).

In developing the piece Whithouse appears to have looked to his own earlier episode School Reunion for inspiration.  Like Krillitanes, these perception filter employing fish from space are a disenfranchised people attempting to absorb the local culture by inhabit a school, the Doctor sharing portentous conversations with an intractable, sinuous leader whose pack is unexpectedly destroyed through a suicidal explosion that the timelord finds himself leaping to escape from.  No former companion to distract us this time, of course, though at least we can now induct Russell’s adaptation of Casanova into the Whoniverse as an unofficial spin-off.

Whithouse also has to deal with the companion's boyfriend again.  The production team and Arthur Darvill try their best not to make him Mickey 2.0 – his knowledge of the TARDIS for example, and eventual camaraderie with the Doctor, but some of the scenes here couldn’t help but sound like light rewrites of Boomtown, in which the companion’s partner has to jealously deal with his partner’s dazzling new best friend and her time spanning adventures.  The difference will presumably be that his and Amy’s future happiness is a key element of the ongoing arc story though it’s worth asking what Pond was doing at home on the night before her wedding when Williams was at his stag party.  Does she have any other friends?

Derick Sherwin is quietly pleased

Back at the retirement home, Derick Sherwin is quietly pleased that some of his era seems to have seeped through too.  Apart from a recognizable companion structure – a science geek and a Scot (albeit with a reversed gender make-up), Matt is at his most Troughton in this episode, hopping about the internal structure of the TARDIS, his hands forever moving in unusual ways, his voice cheerfully disappearing into anecdotes and making inarticulate noises during a solution which was the stuff of a season five four parter, battling extraordinary elements (foam or in this case rain) before saving the world with the simple flick of a switch.

Sherwin might also appreciate the imaginatively old school approach to reproducing Venice as revealed in Confidential and how despite the budget they still had to resort to a cardboard cut out and a paddling pool across a cobbled courtyard to create the impression of a gondola drifting up a canal.  In his book, What is cinema?, film critic Andre Bazin talks about how the best film makers understand that it’s the illusion of reality created in the frame that counts and the suspension of disbelief was total here (unlike the dome the Doctor had to shimmy his way up at the end though my digibox is particularly unforgiving to any kind of CGI element).

sorry Dennis and John

But the 60s episodes were never this funny (sorry Dennis and John).  From the Doctor’s cake burst in the teaser (leading into the titles with the kind of comic beat not seen since the other first series) to the sight of the gondolea wearing Rory’s stag t-shirt, this is an episode unafraid to be a romp.  There’s a Gallifrey Base thread developing which lists all of the best lines (and a flame war about the innuendo – yes, really) and though nothing quite touches City of Death, you have to love the confidence of the series to be able to chuck in "Blimey, fish from space have never been so....buxom" or “Yours is Bigger than Mine?” “Let's not go there!”

If there’s a problem, it’s that for a show about vampires (sort of), the episode isn't that scary.  Helen McCrory has a certain camp serpentine Joan “He’s good for families” Collins steeliness but her character Rosanna Calvierri’s real alter-ego just looks like a well designed alien.  If her Oedipal relationship with her son is creepy, her daughters are simple eye-candy and less sinister than a bar invading hen night.  And the execution by aquatic predator worked better when Spielberg was directing it.  Perhaps like The Brain of Morbius, appropriating the imagery of Hammer and the like is one thing, delivering it to a family audience, and now getting it past BBC standards, is something else.

dressed only in a pink bikini

Only as Amy was led into the green light and Calvierri’s transformation process did I get a tinge, but even that scene ran up against the syncopated shooting and editing style which I’ve noticed in all of these episodes, were the action is sometimes obscured by the camera shooting from an unexpected position, or the cutting in and out of shots early with apparently important lines given off screen or as was the case at the close of this episode with the moment of silence not given room to breath.  It reminds me enough of Gilliam’s work in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to suggest that it’s a deliberate choice, and it doesn’t ruin the episode, but just sometimes it can be distracting.  

Then again, at least it's not like many "classic" series episodes where you could guess which direction the actor would be walking by the camera Ron Jones or whoever decided to cut to and the reason for shooting abroad was entirely dependent on the cheapest air fairs.  But in the old series you wouldn't have expected John Nathan-Turner to going swimming in the seas around Lanzarote dressed only in a pink bikini so that Nicola Bryant knew what to expect when she was forced to do it, like the swan attracting executive producer of the current show.  Perhaps for all its formal similarities, The Vampires of Venice differs from tradition in just the right places.

Next week:  How Do You Want Amy?

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