Sunday, May 09, 2010

Vampires of Venice

After a 21-year hiatus, vampires return to Doctor Who, and in a fun period piece. While it's not as good as the gothic historicals of the Davies era, it's blessed with a sparkling comedic script that would have made Graham Williams proud and stands as a fine example of how levity and dread work together when done right.

But by way of preface. In reviewing State of Decay, I noted my wariness of vampires given the contemporary deluge of excrement like Buffy and Twilight. If the aristocratic Dracula model has been overused, the bubblegum teen version is offensive beyond words. Vampires, in my opinion, should be brutally savage (e.g. From Dusk Till Dawn, 30 Days of Night), though obviously the R-rated breed isn't suitable for a family program. State of Decay actually did astonishingly well by the aristocratic model, and The Curse of Fenric even better with sea vampires that were products of human evolution caused by pollution. Venice goes a more radical route, with vampires that aren't really vampires, but rather alien fish monsters who want to drag Venice under water and call it home. It works pretty well, though a part of me wishes the myth wasn't stripped away to this extent. There's always a scientific explanation for the supernatural in Doctor Who, but State of Decay and Curse of Fenric pulled that off without giving up on the vampire concept entirely. Still, I applaud the originality.

As we've come to expect in these period dramas, the real agenda is the story at hand, and seasonal story arcs take a back seat. The plot is distinctly linear, from the opening as the Calvieri school welcomes innocent ladies into its monstrous breeding (= feeding) program, to the climax which involves an apocalyptic storm of tidal waves, and it develops nicely over the course of a 45-minute running time. There is the business of "the silence" which caused the fish-aliens to seek refuge on Earth -- and which we suspect will be explained by the season finale -- but aside from that allusion, this feels like the most self-contained story of the season so far. Like Amy and Rory, we're meant to be on vacation and just take in 16th-century Italy, the subterranean corridors, the horrors lurking behind shadow and flame... and the Doctor's exuberant inability to take this stuff with the seriousness it deserves.

The love triangle between Amy, Rory, and the Doctor is a particular highlight, and not a surprising one coming from the scriptwriter who gave us the famous bitch-fight between Sarah and Rose in School Reunion. But Sarah wasn't soap opera throw-away; she was used very effectively to put Rose's relationship to the Doctor into perspective, and to call into the question the way the Time Lord eventually discards his companions. We see a similar dynamic in this story, as Rory makes the Doctor see how he takes his companions for granted while continually putting them in danger without a second thought. There is sexual tension too, and this breaks out in hilarious jokes, such as when the Doctor and Rory are fending off vampires with ultraviolet lamps, and Rory remarks that the Doctor's "is much bigger than his", to which the Time Lord groans, "Don't even go there." As for the character of Rory himself, he repeats the tired formula of a not very bright, and woefully insecure, beta male competing for his girlfriend's attention, so I hope that he will come into his own as Mickey finally did in the wonderful Cybermen story.

Rather disappointing is the resolution of the Doctor saving the day by climbing a tower to deactivate the alien technology; period stories are usually more original than this. In The Unquiet Dead the Gelth's gaseous nature was used against them; in Tooth and Claw the diamond carried by Queen Victoria was the key to drowning the werewolf in moonlight; and in The Shakespeare Code, the witches were banished by the power of a playwright's words. Compared to all of this, climbing a tower to push a few buttons is pretty unimpressive, and it doesn't help that this climax copies those of stories whose reputations get deservedly worse every year -- The Idiot's Lantern and Daleks in Manhattan/The Evolution of the Daleks. Lazy resolution aside, the script does carry some unexpected surprises. The scene with Amy strapped in the chair of woes, getting bitten by Signora Calvieri, saturated in an atmosphere of green light that seems somehow alive, is a cracker.

Vampires of Venice is no State of Decay or Curse of Fenric, but, unlike the victims of the Calvieri school, it manages to hold its head above water. That's no mean feat given the subject matter; it takes courage these days to play the vampire card. The result is a savagely fun romp.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.


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