Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Above-Water Menace

Doctor Who
The Vampires Of Venice
Series Five, Episode Six

What with current events being, well, typical of 2016, I thought it'd be nice to dip back into Doctor Who.  Series Five was a jolly time, with Matt Smith and Karen and Arthur (oh my!), and Vampires Of Venice – though unpopular among much of Who fandom – is one I've got plenty of time for.

Well, 47 minutes, anyway.  It's definitely one of those that's enjoyable, but too frivolous to really hold up.  I'll gladly put it on during a wet afternoon.

After the regrettable incident of the inappropriate kissing, the Doctor recruits Rory to the TARDIS team, figuring (not unwisely) that if he and Amy both see the wonders of the universe then they won't drift apart.  It's a lovely idea and it gives us one of the fun-est opening teasers in Doctor Who.  Matt Smith bursting awkwardly out of a cake may be rather schtick-y, but leading us into the credits from an awkward pause, as opposed to anything remotely scary, is a downright brilliant change.

Moustache Guy likes what he sees.
For good measure we get a "scary" bit beforehand, as a young girl is recruited to a special school in ye olde Venice.  The sinister Rosanna Calvierri and her son Francesco (Helen McRory and Alex Price) set their stalls out immediately: between the predatory body language and (slightly comical) fangs, we've got our monsters of the week.  They've also got bags of otherworldliness and mother-son chemistry.  One of the things I really like about Vampires Of Venice is, well, the vampires.  These two, at least.  There's a creepy ease to their performances.

On arrival in Venice (after some more solid banter, the Doctor pouting at Rory's nonchalant response to the TARDIS), things get a bit more conventional.  It's a bit disappointing to see the TARDIS (which looks even bluer and more like a toy these days) land in a busy street in broad daylight and no one bat an eyelid.  Similarly the three of them are wearing completely anachronistic clothes.  There's a certain psychic-paperish familiarity to these sort of scenes, and goodness knows it'd get boring to have people constantly questioning Amy's skirt.  And okay, one bloke does jump out and demand to see their (psychic) papers, but that's it.

Despite the lovely location filming (not in Venice, mind), there aren't many "real" people about, or hardly any with speaking parts.  Our heroes wander around in a giggling daze, spouting regulation glib dialogue ("I'm from Ofsted!") and quite happily taking photos on a mobile phone, all of which makes it feel like one of those "historical" episodes that might as well take place on the holodeck.  It's a feeling not helped by Venice's plotty isolation from the rest of the world.  Okay, only a fool would watch Doctor Who for a history lesson – sorry, Sydney Newman – but apart from Venice being wet and Venetians being able to swim, this story hasn't got much to do with the place.  They don't even bother to drum up one of those historical curios now-with-spurious-Doctor-Who-explanation, like Love's Labours Won or the Koh-I-Noor.  It's just aliens invading, and predictably failing, circa Venice 1580.

Still, I said I enjoyed it, so back on track: that creepy vampire school is in full swing, and a man has lost his daughter to them, so the Doctor and co. must stick their oar in.  Cue more excellent guest acting: Lucian Msamati enlivens Guido the gondolier, making him a fun and, thank heavens, human presence among the usual three.  As for investigating the vampires, this elicits predictable excitement from the Doctor and Amy, and terror from Rory.  It's good to have a spectrum like that, although (as with viewing Rose and Captain Jack through the eyes of Mickey) all the bouncing up and down does make them seem even less like they're in a real place having a real adventure.  Still, you expect this kind of detachment from the Doctor, and the exact reason Rory is here is so that he and Amy won't see things differently after a while.  Plus Rory makes a big thing of how people desensitise themselves to danger when they're around the Doctor, so while it is all a bit frivolous, it's character development, so hush.  I still miss the (long dead) days of historical adventures just about people leading interesting, dangerous lives throughout history, and the TARDIS turning up, but... hey ho!

I love the direction in this,
but I'm not sure about Doctor Who: Electric Boogaloo.
Needing an "inside man" in the school, Amy volunteers herself.  Cue more sparkling dialogue, with the Doctor hilariously offering to pose as her dad (despite looking "nine years old" – it's wonderful to be reminded that he doesn't see himself that way).  Rory takes his place, fumbling adorably through a monologue so painful, it ends up being a sort of show-stopper.  "Both our parents are dead from getting the plague.  I'm a gondola... driver."  My favourite bit is when you can actually hear him thinking: "We've got the same face... which is because she's my sister!"

And I'll pause here to say one of the main reasons I like Vampires Of Venice, and Toby Whithouse scripts in general, is that it's really funny.  There are great gags like the awkward cake scene, Rory's gondola driver and the Doctor's "Stop talking, brain thinking, hush" routine.  Plus even the villains get funny lines, but in a way that actually works and doesn't just make everybody in the episode a forced comedian.  A lot of novels do that, but Francesco's sarcastic "We'd never interrupt mummy when she's hydrating" fits completely with his character.  Bravo!  It's easy to give everybody funny lines whether or not they're funny people; Joss Whedon sometimes does it, then moans when the actors supposedly cock it up.  Francesco has a certain wicked glibness from the get-go.  See also, "Or they die.  That can happen."

Operation: Rescue Isabella doesn't go as planned (although they do rescue Amy, who gets bitten but-she'll-be-fine-because-sonic-screwdriver-moving-on), so there's nothing else for it: Doctor Vs. Villain Showdown!  Well, it's a Toby Whithouse script, it'd be rude not to.  And just like School Reunion, it's one of the best bits.  Matt Smith gets to show off his Doctorly authoritah, and unlike the more straightforward "Stop it!" of Tennant Vs. Anthony Head, Helen McRory adds extra flirting.  Together with her deliberately fish-like movement, swishing left and right towards him, it's rather like a dance between the two.  I often think of it when I'm remembering really good Doctor scenes: they even sell a couple of not-great lines, such as "I'm a Time Lord and you're a big fish.  Think of the children."  (Hey, I never said the script was perfect.  See also: "Fish from space have never been so... buxom."  Yeesh.  Not your best.)

It's around the Villain Showdown that the minutes start ticking down and a bit more chop-chop is needed, so the plot kicks up a notch.  And it all gets a bit wobbly.  If you've seen School Reunion, you may already suspect that while this is hilarious and the characters develop a bit and there's a couple of really good scenes, the plot won't work.  And, well, surprise!  Vampires Of Venice looks gorgeous and the dialogue's mostly spiffing, but there ain't much going on upstairs.

First off, those darn vampires.  Fish people.  Whatever.  That's another thing actually: the Doctor says "Makes you wonder what could be so bad it doesn't mind us thinking it's a vampire", which is a Doctor Who trope.  You can have a supernatural thingummie so long as you come up with a cod science fiction explanation for it.  But all that does is give you exactly the same thing, minus the horror and plus techno-babble.  It's generally less interesting when you explain a mystery, and these fish people, with their wishy-washy aversion to daylight, and insatiable need for water but-we'll-drink-blood-too-sure-why-not, and random one-scene-only ability to fly, make irritatingly tenuous "vampires".  Also, give over, Doc: aliens aren't "worse" than vampires.  They're just aliens, a.k.a. those things you meet every week.

Blooper or deleted scene?
When the fish-vamps attack at the window, this one comes in the door.
Then everybody looks at the window ones before running away.
Through the door.
Damn it, Fish Girl!  You had one job!
But gods, that daylight thing.  So they can wander around in it fine, but then if you shine a pocket mirror at them, suddenly it's kaboom?  (Although hey, look at the Krillitanes, with their natural oil that also conveniently makes them explode so obviously they carry it everywhere with them.)  Plus they wear "perception filters" so they can look human, and Francesco has no problem recognising his mummy, but then his 10,000 brothers hiding underwater can't, so they eat her?  How thick are they?  If her "clothes" are part of her perception filter, how does Rosanna take them off?  Why doesn't the Doctor do anything about the 10,000 fish people that are still there at the end?  And if Rosanna's whole brood, including babies, would fit inside one measly city, why not go and live in the sea instead?  There's a lot of sea!  They could still be there now and remain undetected!  I mean, Venice is very nice and everything, but this is all just playing silly buggers.

As for the specifics of their plan (come on, you knew this bit would be trouble!), using a giant rain machine to sink Venice (the sea, you fools, it's right there!) isn't terrible in theory, but how they go about foiling it falls squarely under that heading.  Rosanna's throne is conveniently her control hub – we've seen the Doctor sitting on it so he could easily figure that out.  So, commanding that Amy and Rory pull out all the wires (sure, that'll do it I guess), he dashes over to the secondary control hub in the bell tower... which he hasn't seen or thought about at all up to now, so how the hell did he figure that out?  His dash to the top of the tower might look impressive – and while I think most of the CGI in this episode looks exemplary, contrary to popular criticism, this bit of green-screen does look a bit shit – but it's just a load of random jiggery-pokery until the rain stops.  In action terms, it has the considered finesse of a screenwriter mashing the keyboard with his feet.  Make... problem... stop!

Then, after another really beautifully acted bit with Helen McRory (the clothes aren't real, how does that work goddamnit) and the Doctor pleading with a second person not to get killed (don't you start that nonsense, Mr Eleven!), the plot politely obeys and shuts up so our can heroes go home or whatever, pausing to make a clodhopping reference to The Silence which, in hindsight, rather suggests nobody told Toby Whithouse what it was.  (All Rory can hear is silence?  In a crowded marketplace, next to the sea?)

Vampires Of Venice is pretty much par for the Whithouse-y course: nice character moments, shame about the brains.  But the character moments aren't all that fantastic either, with Rory and the Doctor's unintentional competition over Amy at one point crystallised in a mine's-bigger gag, and some of Rory's pratfalls are, well, pratfalls.  He's not Mr Bean.  And yet, it's a really good time.  The production's lovely and the direction is eye-catching.  (Like that bit where Francesco jumps into the water and we cut away just before he hits.  But less so the sudden jump from night to day during the rescue scene.  But shh, this is the good list!)  Even Murray Gold's music seems appropriately extravagant.  Also there's another really great guest cast to add to the pile.

And lest we forget the main trio being on good form, most noticeably Matt Smith, who (if you're a Matt Smith Doctor fan like me) ticks all the Doctor's boxes.  And incidentally, how nice to make it a trio.  It avoids the I Wuv You pitfalls of a twosome, and makes a point of doing it because characterisation is always a good thing, but just generally it's good to shake things up.  Can they get a pet?

It's still style in another winning-over-substance shocker, but Doctor Who has had far less entertaining holidays.  I'd go again.