Series 5, Episode 6: The Vampires of Venice

You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.”

You want vampires? Toby Whithouse can give you vampires. After his excellent Doctor Who debut, series 2’s School Reunion. Toby famously went on to create BBC3’s excellent Being Human, in which a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a house in Bristol. The Vampires of Venice has nothing like the depth of that series, but nonetheless Toby’s thoughtful writing style raised this a little above the fun romp that it basically was.

The actual concept of vampires in Venice is not new; there was a spurious sequel to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu called Vampire in Venice way back in 1987, and apparently there are actual historic myths about vampires in the Italian city state. But this had the inventive idea that the villains weren’t actually vampires at all – they were alien ‘fish people’, bad enough that they actually preferred to be thought of as vampires! It’s an inventive idea that also neatly sidesteps the need to tie these in with the other ‘vampires’ already in Doctor Who continuity, the Great Vampires seen in State of Decay and the Haemovores from The Curse of Fenric. These ‘vampires’ were creepily played and well-directed, especially the Calvieri girls who were, presumably intentionally, strongly reminiscent of every portrayal of Dracula’s ‘brides’. Joining in with the theme was Murray Gold, whose score was, in its low, mournful strings, inescapably reminiscent of Wojciech Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

It’s a mark of the writing quality that the script wrongfoots you into thinking the villains are entirely without redeeming features. Certainly the sublimely creepy Francesco Calvieri comes across as a straightforward villain, but just as we think the same of his mother, she gives us an impassioned speech about trying to save her race from extinction. Certainly the end never justifies the means, but in the terms Signora Calvieri expresses – one city of 200,000 in exchange for an entire race – you can certainly see the temptation to think along those lines. The Calvieris were an engaging pair of opponents, and strikingly played by Helen McCrory and Alex Price – the latter being especially unnerving, like a young man who was heading towards being good looking and took a wrong turn towards ‘sinister’ at the last moment.

It was actually something of a relief that the ‘vampires’ of the title proved to be nothing of the sort, as the screens are becoming irritatingly crowded with bloodsuckers. As well as the aforementioned Being Human, there’s True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and teenage girl swoonfest the Twilight series to contend with. Vampires, in short, a re getting a little routine. So the fish people of Saturnine were overall a more inventive monster, used well in an appropriate and sumptuous historical setting.

Standing in for Venice, the Croatian town of Trogir was well used, particularly in street shots when we didn’t have to see a wide vista; the real Venice would presumably have been infinitely busier and too modern to portray its 16th century self. Less successful were the long shots of the city as a panorama, in which it was clear that the watery setting and attendant gondolas had been added by the Mill.

But the realisation of Venice in 1580 was there in the writing too. The Doctor’s wariness of the presence of Casanova, the use of the canals to infiltrate the Calvieri Academy, Rory’s pretence to be ‘”a gondola… driver” meant that it was more than just a gratuitous historical setting and actually instrumental to the story. As did the ultimate plans of Rosanna Calvieri; any city can be flooded, but only Venice can be sunk.

These short romps tend to have little time to develop supporting characters, so it was pleasing to see the depth given to even the minor players like Carlo the Steward. It was a nice little touch to show him fleeing the Academy with the silver as the catastrophe struck. But the main supporting characters were Isabella and Guido, and not only were they well developed, but another example of Toby Whithouse’s writing taking you by surprise. Given that the initial purpose behind investigating the Academy was to ‘rescue’ Isabella, it was a heck of a surprise that when they failed she was immediately fed to the fishes. It also perfectly set up both Guido’s explosive sacrifice and the Doctor’s moment of righteous anger for the week.

And I did like that moment of righteous anger. Matt Smith does fine when he’s shouting passionately as last week, but I much preferred the underplaying of his conversation with Rosanna Calvieri, as he condemned her for killing Isabella without even knowing her name. It was an affecting bit of writing, very well acted, that certainly beat the pants off Tennant’s “Nothing can stop me now” bit in The Idiot’s Lantern. Matt Smith, in fact was on very fine form this week, neatly mixing that kind of gravitas with a superb sense of comic timing. You’d have expected the pre-credits teaser to end with Francesco baring his vampire teeth; instead, we cut to the Doctor leaping out of a ‘stripper cake’ at Rory’s stag do. The Doctor’s baffled attempt to explain Amy’s attempt to jump his bones was a great comic moment, and well-served by the excellent dialogue given to all three leads this episode.

Yes, all three leads. Rory’s now officially part of the TARDIS crew, “my boys” as Amy affectionately calls them. And I thought Arthur Darvill was great as a well-written character. I did think there was a little too much use of him as, basically, the comic relief, such as the interview with the Calvieris and his attempt to fight off Francesco with a not very sturdy broom, but really, wasn’t that the most realistic portrayal of how any of us might act under the circumstances. I know we’d all like to think we’d be great heroes if the Doctor whisked us off into time and space, but I suspect I’d be far more like Rory: blundering, scared and completely out of my depth.

Which is not to say he was played as stupid, far from it. Aside from his buddy buddy byplay with the Doctor “Yours is bigger.” “Let’s not even go there…”, he got some of the more penetrating lines in the script, including the one quoted at the top of this review. I’m glad to have him around, and hope he carries on in the same way as he did in this episode.

And it’s clear now that Amy’s the one who wears the pants not only in that relationship but the one with the Doctor too. Karen Gillan was entertaining as she led the two ‘boys’ into the TARDIS, and throughout the episode. It was a typical but well-played bit of companion heroism for her to be the ‘mole’ inside the Academy, and thankfully this week she didn’t solve the crisis when the Doctor couldn’t: she still needed rescuing, and the Doctor and Rory were on hand to do it, bickering all the way.

And the script had one last ace to play that raised it above the level of a mere romp. The final scene between the Doctor and Rosanna, as she threw herself to her doom at the teeth of the last of her species, was an unexpectedly moving moment, and very well acted by both. There were more hints here than previously of what we know the Doctor’s been guilty of in the past, and Matt Smith’s face was a perfect picture of despair when Rosanna asked him if his conscience could bear the weight of one more dead race.

Ultimately, The Vampires of Venice is a romp, a filler episode, and should be compared to the likes of The Idiot’s Lantern, The Lazarus Experiment. But some great performances, sparkling dialogue and a bit of unexpected depth lift it above your average filler. It’s still not Genesis of the Daleks, but hey, what is? And the story arc was given little time this week, but what time it did get added another level of creepiness to the ‘crack in time’ concept. Now, it’s not only ‘the end of all things’, but ‘the Silence’. The same Silence that the TARDIS crew heard beginning to seep into 15th century Venice. And somehow, I find that even more chilling than the end of all things…