Roman Holiday
(The Vampires of Venice Reviewed)

The Vampires of Venice

Images courtesy the BBC.

In the old series, one of the most overlooked elements was the background of the companion characters. If it was addressed at all, it was to fill in as much as possible with as little detail as possible, at times explaining why said companion had no connections holding her back to her old life.

Sarah Jane Smith does not seem to have any parents (at least, not until the Sarah Jane AdventuresThe Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith), living instead with Aunt Lavinia. Tegan Jovanka seemed to have no parents either, and writer Christopher Bidmead went so far as to kill off her aunt. Russell T. Davies, in bringing the show back, knew this approach was wearing a little thin, so he went in the opposite direction, giving Rose, Martha and Donna parents, grandparents and boyfriends, returning to them often and making them important characters in their own right.

Moffat stepped back with Amy Pond. Notice how she’s an orphan and, more importantly, living with an absent aunt? (Very Sarah Jane) However, he hasn’t ditched the connections completely. Moffat, one of whose many strengths is playing with complicated interpersonal relationships (see Coupling and Joking Apart) went one better on Mickey Smith, and made Amy’s boyfriend Rory a fiance at the end of The Eleventh Hour. It has to be an uncomfortable position for both Amy and Rory to be in, given how much of an impact the Doctor has had on Amy’s life straight on from age seven. Can such a relationship function, much less flourish, blinded by the light of someone like the Doctor?

It’s become a cliché of the Russell T. Davies years that the Doctor’s companions always fancy the Doctor — indeed, we all cheered when Donna most definitely did not do this. As cliched as it is, it’s still an understandable reaction, and it’s one that comes to a head at the end of Moffat’s Flesh and Stone. And in the season-spanning storyline that Moffat is building, here, the time has come for the Doctor to address Rory and Amy’s relationship, because I’m certain that it’s at the crux of the cracks in the Universe that we’ve been seeing in every episode except Time of the Angels up to now. After all, these cracks all date from June 26, 2010 — the date of Amy and Rory’s wedding and, not coincidentally, the date of the debut of the final episode this season.

And, tellingly (and a small spoiler warning for those who don’t want to know), the cracks take a holiday starting with The Vampires of Venice. They’re not to be seen in either Amy’s Choice or The Hungry Earth and though it’s too early to tell, they don’t appear to have an influence in Cold Blood, either. Why? I think it’s because Rory’s now in the TARDIS, and the second element of the season-spanning plot is now under active development.

That’s a heavy load to put on any episode that also has to entertain the audience, but this is what The Vampires of Venice does. Sometimes, there’s comedy and drama inherent in being the fifth wheel. And sometimes all it takes is a bunch of vampires to liven things up.

A full spoilery review after the break.

The Vampires of Venice, appropriately enough, begins in late sixteenth century Venice, where poor boat builder Guido has taken his daughter Isabella before the city’s patron, Signora Rosanna Calvierri, in the hopes of having her accepted at the prestigious Calvierri school for young women. The aloof Calvierri and her salacious son Francesco look on, and decide to grant Guido’s request. Guido and Isabella’s joy turns to disquiet when Rosanna asks that Guido leave his daughter to the school now, and, of course, disquiet turns to horror when, once Guido is shooed from the room, Francesco and Rosanna show their teeth.

A quick cut takes us to the present day, where we see that Rory’s pals have taken him out to a stag party, complete with special t-shirts. We catch Rory in the process of making yet another sappy declaration of love to Amy’s voice mail, when the big cake is rolled out. Of course, Rory thinks he knows what’s coming next. We, of course, know differently, but it’s still a delightful moment when the Doctor bursts from the cake instead.

Best. Teaser. Ever!

What follows turns this moment into the best teaser ever in the history of Doctor Who, and I’m serious when I say this. The writing (by Toby Whithouse, who gave us School Reunion) is pitch perfect as the Doctor talks his way valiantly, but uncomfortably, through this awkward situation, telling Rory in front of all his friends that Amy tried to kiss him earlier that night. Matt Smith takes this material and runs with it. His Doctor is clearly out of his element here, and would much rather be fighting Daleks.

As an aside, can you imagine someone explaining to the Doctor what the function of a stag party is? Don’t you want to be a fly on the wall for that conversation? Can’t you see Matt Smith’s Doctor saying, “Let me get this straight: on the night before your commitment to your life mate, your best friends take you out to a bar, get you very, very drunk, and then try to tempt you with someone who bursts out of a cake and proceeds to take their clothes off? Have I got that right? Really, Amy, I’ll never understand you humans’ fascination with strangers taking their clothes off. Why can’t you people get titillated the Gallifreyan way: with complex maths?”

Arthur Darvill’s Rory also nails the scene the moment Matt Smith bursts from the cake, with the look on his face speaking volumes of horror that this figure from his past should pop up at this very moment. And, best of all, the whole thing just trails off in a moment of supreme awkwardness that makes the arrival of the opening title sequence one of relief for all the principles concerned, but one where Erin and I were left laughing and punching the air.

From here, Doctor Who ventures into unfamiliar territory: the romantic comedy. Thoroughly tired of being fancied by his companions, and desperate not to be responsible for breaking up Amy and Rory’s relationship, the Doctor has a simple solution: since Amy has had her time on the TARDIS, it’s time to bring Rory into the mix. So how about a romantic holiday in Venice in the middle ages, with its associated lack of plumbing and threat of plague?

This whole premise hangs on Rory, who walks several fine lines here. Despite being more prepared for a trip in the TARDIS than most (his undercutting of the Doctor’s expectation of awe is a delight), he’s had his world thrown out from underneath him yet again. Should he be jealous of the Doctor for sweeping Amy off her feet? Or should he be angry at Amy for being swept off her feet? Should he bother competing for Amy’s affections given the incredible glamour and excitement that life on board the TARDIS offers? Or should he, perhaps, just accept this gift that the Doctor has given him and revel in the fact that, yes, he’s actually gone back in time and this is supremely cool? It’s a testament to Arthur Darvill’s acting that all of these reactions come into play, and the character isn’t overwhelmed.

But before we get too heavily involved in our Roman — er, Venetian — holiday, along comes the threat. The Doctor sees Guido confronting some of the girls of the Calvierri school and goes to the man to learn more. Guido tells the Doctor that his daughter no longer recognizes him, and that one of the girls who turned him away have the face of an animal. Meanwhile, Rory and Amy hear a scream, come running, and find Francesco drinking from the neck of a flower girl. Rory tends to the girl while Amy gives chase, only to lose Francesco in the canals. When the group reunites, they share the obvious: there are vampires in Venice… or are there?

The story dutifully pursues the mystery in old school Who fashion. The trio befriend Guido and find he has scouted the place, but can’t get in without help from the inside. Amy suggests that she enter the school as a student, much to the Doctor and Rory’s varying levels of discomfort. They hatch a plan where Amy will pose as Rory’s sister (which he isn’t too happy about), and go before Rosanna. The plan works, and Amy gets in touch with Isabella, puts her plan into action, and, of course, gets into really big trouble. Meanwhile, as the Doctor and Rory sneak through a tunnel towards the school, they engage in a hilarious game of one-upmanship, including a brief argument about who has the bigger (ahem) flashlight.

Director Jonny Campbell keeps things moving and suitably scary. The city of Trogir, Croatia doubles as Venice, and the direction makes good use of the architecture. It feels like Venice, and unlike previous visits to exotic Earth locales (like Manhattan), its use doesn’t seem superfluous.

But it is the rocky dynamic between Amy, Rory and the Doctor that makes The Vampires of Venice succeed so well, and most of that is largely due to the acting of the regulars. Arthur Darvill and Matt Smith play off of each other so well, and Rory is a very subtle and very well rounded character. His understanding of the situation is impressive, and there is a core of bravery to his very understandable fear about the whole situation. I think he is also right in his angry read of the danger the Doctor represents to his companions, even as he succumbs to the charms of the Doctor’s life, and accepts that he couldn’t hope to compete with it for Amy’s affections. Some people may think it’s a little hard to believe that Amy could fall for Rory, and still want to be with him, given how quiet and meek the character appears, but Rory’s character, and the reasons Amy love him, are best displayed in the scene where he takes on Francesco in a swordfight, armed only with a broomstick.

Writer Toby Whithouse holds everything together for the first half hour. The story has a sparkling script, and a firm understanding of the dynamics between the characters. Unfortunately, when the “vampires” plan collapses in on itself, and we rush towards the climax, things almost fall apart. I started to get the sense that the story had run five minutes overlong, and that most of that extra time was cut out of the last fifteen minutes. We start to lose the sense of travel from A to B as the Doctor discovers the alien power behind Rosanna’s throne, and then inexplicably has to climb the school’s tower to shut everything down, even as a lightning storm from hell bears down on the city.

The whole sequence needed another pass, and less may have been more. There’s no reason why the Doctor couldn’t have dealt with the problem from the throne room, and the whole climb up the bell tower is superfluous, and ends with a “crowds cheer the Doctor” scene that has been used so often, it’s officially hokey.

But, really, this is the only major flaw in The Vampires of Venice. The story holds together, otherwise, in all departments, particularly characterization, and the real story here: the restoration of Amy and Rory’s relationship, and his acceptance of the life Amy leads, is satisfyingly told. The episode works; it entertains, and it kicks the season-spanning plot down an intriguing character-developing path, and ultimately, I cannot ask for more.

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