(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
Expectation is a funny old thing. It almost seems to set you up to let you down, and The Vampires of Venice is a prime example.
With one particularly well-received entry in the Doctor Who canon already safely under his belt (any deficiencies on School Reunion’s part came from the directorial side of things; and even then, were less the fault of the director than of a production schedule that was afterwards deemed by all to have been asking too much), and having since been the creator and chief writer on what is undoubtedly BBC Three’s most successful creation (Being Human is probably one of the best programmes to have surfaced on any channel in years), expectations were unnaturally high for Toby Whithouse’s return to the world of the Doctor.
It starts brilliantly, however. The pre-titles sequence is as daft as it is funny, but nevertheless it manages to raise the biggest of smiles in the most economical of fashions, and hints that humour might be about to play a leading part in what is to come. Which is to say, that with Amy Pond’s fiancé Rory finally dragged aboard the TARDIS and about to be given full-blown companion status, hi-jinks and high comedy will surely be the order of the day.
But there’s an uneven tone here, beginning with the very first sequence (in which Lucian Msamati – who seemingly doesn’t know quite where to pitch his performance – loses his daughter to the Calvierri’s school for young ladies), in a scene which is more than a little reminiscent of the opening to Whithouse’s Series Two story. In fact, more than that Jonny Campbell’s direction simply never quite finds the balance between humour and drama, the main problem is that Toby Whithouse’s script never quite finds the balance between originality and the repetition of his previous themes. An awful lot of School Reunion is repeated here, from the bat-like creatures disguised as humans to the school setting in which the authority figures are the ones to be feared. The story even manages to finish in a manner that has already been seen twice in the revived Doctor Who – although not in Whithouse’s previous effort, but the Doctor and two companions dynamic the writer is here tasked with introducing is very similar to the introduction of Mickey as a regular in that earlier episode.
If you can manage to erase memories of earlier stories from your brain, though, and if the sudden shifts in storytelling – shifts between comedy banter and Saturday teatime terror (and the oft-repeated sequence wherein the Doctor first encounters the “vampire girls” is doubtless the best example, comprising as it does the Doctor at his daftest, the costumes at their sexiest, the guest cast at their spookiest and a little nod of the head for Doctor Who buffs) don’t niggle, then The Vampires of Venice is actually quite intelligent and fulfilling stuff.
The background to the plot, that of an alien race displaced and all-but-destroyed, has been played out in the series before, but the ultimate reveal of the vampires’ true appearance is gloriously mad, the bittersweet conclusion to the tale being a newish spin on an old story. And there are two areas in which The Vampires of Venice absolutely excels.
Firstly there’s Helen McCrory as Rosanna Calvierri, the vampire queen and probably the strongest guest performance so far this series. In fact, it was beginning to become noticeable how Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who seemed to be avoiding having strong villains at the centre of its plots (in direct opposition to the expectation that his Who might be heavily influenced by the Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories of the mid-’seventies, in which the Doctor almost always encountered an antagonist with a personality approaching the equal but opposite of his own), and in this episode that subject is addressed and then some. McCrory is magnificent.
Even more magnificent, and the one area in which the production perhaps exceeds expectations, is the depiction of Venice.
If Daleks in Manhattan managed to squeeze in a little location filming in America (if not for the majority of the cast and crew, but simply to include a little background detail to the story), then The Fires of Pompeii upped the ante on foreign location work, and The Vampires of Venice’s excursion to Trogir in Croatia is new Doctor Who’s most exciting use of a foreign location yet. The use of Cinecitta in Rome (doubling for Pompeii) was all about utilising a controlled environment for maximum effect, but the Venice conjured up by the production of this story is all angled canals and narrow streets, and manages to evoke the story’s environment extremely effectively. In fact, the cuts between Trogir, St Donat’s Castle in South Wales and the studio filming is seamless and efficient, and is the one area in which this episode thoroughly delivers on its promise. It will be interesting to see if the same location, for which the production of future story Vincent and the Doctor also tagged along, will be half as effectively used.
Ultimately, if The Vampires of Venice had appeared in any other series of Doctor Who, it would undoubtedly have been a striking and resonant addition to the show’s legacy. But coming as it does in the middle of a run of stories that don’t quite seem to know what they’re aiming for (both tonally and in terms of character development), and suffering as it does with a certain lack of initiative in terms both of its story and its ambition, it can’t help but be a disappointment. It’s that weight of expectation, you see; Whithouse’s story seems so determined not to disappoint, it never really takes flight – it never dares to really innovate – and it’s this lack of aspiration that’s the real let-down.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)