The Vampires of Venice is all about the Doctor trying to fix Amy and Rory’s relationship. The reason he wants to do this is slightly troubling because it has overtones of somebody deciding the path Amy’s life is going to take, and that somebody is not Amy. We can excuse this because it is the Doctor trying to do this, and we have seen that he has an understanding of what might be considered the correct or best future path for a person’s life to take. He seems to have an instinct for it, particularly in The Movie, and maybe he gets an impression somehow about how happy Amy’s life with Rory is going to be and doesn’t want to be the person to destroy that, even if he can replace it with a life of adventure. That gets to the heart of what the story of Amy and Rory will be: the choice between having a happy domestic life and going off on exciting adventures, both of which could be a source of absolute joy. Amy chooses adventure, then chooses family, then tries to choose a bit of both, until finally she makes her ultimate choice in The Angels Take Manhattan.
We could also say that the Doctor recognises the significance of the way he originally turned up in Amy’s life, and what that means for the story their lives together are acting out. He has been here before with Reinette in The Girl in the Fireplace, and he knows he can’t fit the Prince Charming role. Prince Charming settles down and becomes a husband. But the Doctor has learnt his lesson and he knows he can’t be that character in the childhood fiction that Amy’s life is emulating. She has gone through the wardrobe and he is Aslan, or the Mad Hatter in Wonderland. Real love and real life for Amy is not going to be about that: she already has her Prince Charming but first Rory needs to earn her respect as well as her love by showing how brilliant he is, so he can become the hero she needs to marry to complete her fairy tale.
The way the Doctor goes about fixing things is also troubling. Could anyone really get to the age of 1000(ish) and think that the best way to deal with an engaged friend trying to sleep with him is to go to the fiance’s stag night, burst out of a cake, and announce it in front of every single male friend he has? We can’t possible assume the Doctor is that innocent and childlike in his understanding of the dynamics of friendships and relationships, so this can only come across as showing off. The episode just about gets away with it because Matt Smith sells the moment brilliantly, but it is still hard to wonder why any reasonable person would not have that conversation in private. I can see what this is doing: it’s working to please the fans who always wanted the Doctor to be asexual and awkward in understanding anything to do with relationships to provide an identification figure and say “it’s ok to be like that”, but if doing that makes him look (a) heartless or (b) an idiot, then it’s not the right path to take. And it’s a step on the road back to Doctor Who as a niche appeal show rather than Doctor Who as family viewing.
So for Rory to become Amy’s hero he needs to travel with the Doctor and have the opportunity to live up to his potential. In order to do that he has to slot into the companion role, and this can’t be half-hearted or it won’t work. Doctor Who has an interesting history with male companions. Looking at the early years of the classic series we have Ian, Steven, Ben and Jamie, all of whom were successful in their own ways, although Ben got caught up in a transition that ended up with him being a bad fit for a new team. Adric suffered an identical fate. Leaving aside what was going on behind the scenes, his character worked with the Fourth Doctor and didn’t work with the Fifth. Jamie and the Second Doctor were of course the ultimate example of how a male companion can work: a simple best-mates bromance, complete with a healthy dose of winding each other up. Then we had the UNIT chaps: the Brig, Benton, Mike and Harry, the last of which transitioned into the role of full-time companion and did so brilliantly. Finally there was Turlough, who was probably the most interesting companion character of the whole classic series. So the hit rate of male companions was actually amazingly good, and it seems odd that from 1984 onwards Doctor Who settled into what I suppose many people assumed was the best format: the Doctor and one female companion.
There have been three attempts since 2005 before Rory comes along: Mickey, Adam and Jack. None of these are allowed to be fully fledged companions. Adam in clearly a mis-step, and all three of them are defined by their awkward relationships to the Doctor as (a) not quite companion material, and (b) love rivals for Rose’s affections. The fact that Jack was successful enough to become the only new series companion to spin off into his own show demonstrated the enormous potential of a male companion, and finally somebody gets it right for the first time in 25 years with Rory. The Vampires of Venice starts us on this path by immediately stripping away all the love rivalry nonsense. The Doctor simply has no interest in competing in that way. His ego clearly loves the attention, but he knows he needs to be her Dumbledore instead.
Rory starts down his road to heroism here by more than holding his own in a pretty standard Doctor Who historical invasion story. In my article on Doctor Who Settings I was dismissive about the motivations behind filming abroad but I have to admit that applies far more to the classic series than the newer stuff, because it is a huge advantage to this story, and is no longer being done extravagantly for its own sake. The choice of Croatia to double for Venice is a good example of this because it works perfectly.
This is the Doctor’s third (obvious) encounter with vampires, and each time it has been a different race with a different explanation. The previous occasions (State of Decay and The Curse of Fenric) were big mythical threats that had long-standing significance in the Doctor’s life. This time round it’s “fish from space”. This is an approach that skews much younger in its demographic, in keeping with the childhood fiction theme of the series, rather than the out-and-out horror it could have been. Having said that it does take much more inspiration from the brides of Dracula passage in Bram Stoker’s novel than Doctor Who has ever done before. The Curse of Fenric made use of it as well, but this is a much more overt homage. Francesco is our Dracula substitute and really is not terribly convincing, but that’s not the point of the story. Like the two previous efforts, it cherry picks the bits of the vampire myth that work well within the story that is being told. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Buffy vs Dracula” ably demonstrated that a full-blown homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula within a genre series is probably best avoided. And if Buffy can’t even get that right, then it is probably very wise for Doctor Who never to try. RP
The view from across the pond:
Vampires! Love them or hate them, they can make for great stories. I’d be hard pressed to believe that there is anyone who doesn’t like to sink their teeth into a good vampire story. But therein lies the rub: good vampire stories are hard to find. Too often we run the risk of getting ninja vampires with swords, punky west coast teen vampires, and ultra-flamboyant pretty vampires that can’t handle the truth. There’s those that glisten in sunlight like pretty diamonds because… well because some writers think they have to do something so unique with a well-established idea that they make embarrassments of themselves and their creations. Those sparkly vampires were as bad as the idea of taking a well-loved alien and suddenly saying he’s half human after 30 years on TV as an alien! (Thank Gallifrey that never happens!) That’s why when a good vampire story does come along, I drink deeply of its richness. And there have been good ones: Nosferatu is as close to perfect as you can get. Near Dark, Let the Right One In, Bram Stoker’s Dracula; all extremely well done movies. So that’s where Doctor Who comes in and… suffers an identity crisis.
It’s not that The Vampires of Venice is bad; it’s far from bad! In fact, it is actually a lot of fun. It’s Rory’s first proper adventure and it takes him to Venice in 1580 for his honeymoon with Amy, but the TARDIS crew encounter those foul fanged fiends that we expected from the title. Sadly, in a move not unlike Stephanie Meyer’s, Toby Whitehouse is not content with using vampires as we’ve known them, so he gives us bloodsuckers that are … aliens. Of course!
Ok, fair play, do what you’re good at; Doctor Who is science fiction far more than horror so maybe I shouldn’t complain but when you watch that scene in the underside of the Church, with the “creepy girls”, it is so perfect that we want these to be actual vampires. Their Nosferatu-like teeth, their Brides of Dracula appearance, their voices speaking in unison as if controlled by a central intelligence… I was so hopeful. The Doctor says “this is Christmas” and I was right there with him. Alas, it was like watching Dracula unwrapping a wooden stake from under the Christmas tree because these “vampires” are in fact Saturnyne, a race that would make Cthulhu happy if not for the fact that they use technology to maintain a human appearance. Their tech, which is supposed to affect perception, actually works on their own kind too. They want to convert human women into their own species to become breeding machines for the thousands of husbands beneath the waves. Dark? You bet! Certainly atypical for Doctor Who but absolutely the sort of dark thing that would come from Mythos lore.
Speaking of the great old one himself, this story has more in common with Cthulhu than vampires because it’s in the water where the menace truly lies. Under normal conditions, Vampires don’t do well with water. And let’s be honest, the notion of something in the water is terrifying because you can’t always see what’s down there. Was that a weed that brushed your leg? A small fish? Something else… And I would love to see a good Lovecraftian tale even more than a good vampire one! Oh, that is one place very few venture, and I would love the TARDIS to put us into the thick of one of those tales! (And if you think Vampire stories are hard to get right, take a look at Lovecraft and see how many do his works justice. Those numbers are infinitesimally small!)
But on its own merits, this story has a lot going for it. I recently commented on the importance of character, and this episode has character! It examines the characters of the Doctor, Amy and Rory very well. Most importantly, Rory’s assessment of the Doctor is actually fairly unique and probably very accurate. Of what makes the Doctor dangerous to his companions, Rory explains: “You make them want to impress you… You make it so they don’t want to let you down.” Potent! Rory and Amy are becoming a match made in the heavens too; their relationship is growing and strengthening with each episode.
As for humor, from the moment the Doctor jumps out of the cake at Rory’s bachelor party, the lines start and continue with the library card, the flashlight, and the upstairs neighbors, to name a few moments of comedy.
Matt Smith is superb in his dialog scene with Rosanna, played perfectly by Penny Dreadful alum Helen McCrory. Appropriately, her part in Penny Dreadful was as dark as her character here. The back and forth questioning is outstanding, even as the Doctor asks more than his share and she reminds him “my turn”. Smith conveys in a glance that she’s right and awaits her question. I won’t lie: I really did want them to become allies, though not at humanities expense, of course. His reason for turning on the house of Calvierri sums up the Doctor so well: “and you know why? Because you didn’t know Isabella’s name!” His indignation that these creatures kill without a thought for those lives they take, infuriates him and he cannot align himself with it.
Vampires of Venice is dark, eerie, periodically funny and very Doctor Who. It just lacks the requisite vampires to make Venice a tourist attraction for vampire hunters.
Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s play “Track the Crack”. Rosanna says there were many cracks. “Some were tiny, some were as big as the sky. Through some we saw worlds and people and through others we saw silence, the end of all things.” Now, this is where knowing hurts. This does not make sense in the context of what we eventually find out. But, let’s go with it for now. For this episode, we don’t see, but we learn about it and we hear the silence that falls at the end of the episode.
(Or should that read, “we don’t hear the silence that falls…”?) ML