Big Finish Productions
The Stones of Venice
|Written by||Paul Magrs|
|Running Time||90 mins|
|Continuity||After The Telemovie|
|Starring Paul McGann and India Fisher|
|Also featuring Michael Sheard, Nick Scovell, Barnaby Edwards, Elaine Ives-Cameron, Mark Gatiss|
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Charley become embroiled in the decadent court of a tired Duke and his search for his beloved wife. The curse of the long since dead Duchess has finally come to pass and the enchanted city of Venice is sinking beneath the canals...|
A Review by Iain Bristow 5/4/01
A qualifier: if you're reading a review of one of the McGann audios, you've got to factor in the fanboy glow. That sense of anticipation was always part of DW; how we'd missed it ...
Got that one off my chest. Good.
This is a slightly different Doctor from that of Storm Warning and Sword of Orion. In those two scripts there were fairly unwieldy pretexts for stranding the Tardis; nothing similar is needed here, as the Doctor throws himself into the story, waxing lyrical about Venice and not even thinking of leaving until he's sorted everything out. Stones of Venice's script was used by Big Finish to persuade McGann to return to the role, and he certainly sounds like he's enjoying it; full of life, this is a Doctor who isn't afraid to be natural and sound a bit rough around the edges (remember the line "we can sit down, 'ave a cup of tea, talk about it" from the TVM? That's the sort of thing I mean). After a slightly awkward start in Storm Warning, the improved Charley of Sword of Orion really blossoms. Like Ace, she's independent and doesn't suffer fools gladly, but unlike Ace she comes across as a real person, with lovely throwaway lines about fancying gondoliers and so on. The interaction between McGann and Fisher is wonderful, perhaps the best aspect of the story; it's abundantly clear that they really like each other, that there's a real bond between them. After the success of the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn, new companion - Doctor relationships are proving to be a real strength of the audios.
This is in many ways quite a 'light' story, with a lot of humour, much of which comes from the way the characters are written and played rather than one liners. After so many BBC novels full of blood, torture and deadly serious issues (yawn), it's a breath of fresh air to hear a story in which the Eighth Doctor enjoys himself rather than getting stripped naked, beaten up and tortured. Not that there aren't very dark aspects to this story; it's just that they've got the balance right in a way that I've never felt the EDA's have.
The performances are for the most part pitched at the right level, as though the actors, realising that their roles have more than a touch of the grotesque about them, have recognised that overplaying them would be far too much. Michael Sheard is great, as you'd expect, and Mark Gatiss is clearly having a whale of a time. The Big Finish rep actors are also on good form, and although if you listen to more than a few of the audios there's a risk you'll start getting a bit sick of the same voices, using a rep company makes sense as they do seem to be getting better with each story. I'm not sure about Elaine Ives - Cameron, though; at times her voice is perfectly suited to the character she's playing, but at others it just sounds ridiculous.
This being a Paul Magrs script, it's baroque and uses magic rather than technobabble, making a nice counterpoint to the impressive Sword of Orion. The structure isn't up to much; the cliffhangers seem to be tacked on, and characters just move back and forth between locations chatting (except at the climax, where they stand around chatting). Not a lot really happens, and when it does, the events are overwhelmed by the dialogue. It's fortunate, then, that the dialogue is so impressive.
The production's suitably atmospheric, reflecting the sense of decadence and slow, building decay written into the story, but it is let down by some odd moments (for example, at one point a group of characters are attacked by a crowd - I'm trying to avoid spoilers here - but there's no discernible change in the sound effects, so we have to rely on a cry of "oh, they're attacking us!" or somesuch to work out what's going on).
In all, it's just about the best of the McGann audios so far, though that's a difficult judgement to make as, encouragingly, they've been very varied. It's Magrs' most enjoyable and coherent DW work to date; his style certainly seems more suited to audio than to the novels. It's not without its faults, but The Stones of Venice feels very different, quite innovative, and yet it's unmistakably Who. What's encouraging is that the audios are taking the Eighth Doctor in a new direction, building on the past but not in thrall to it - unlike a certain TV movie I could mention.....
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 11/4/01
The Stones Of Venice is an enchanting tale which endears itself to the listener. This is largely due to the atmosphere of the story, which is in part down to writer Paul Magrs who seems to have captured the essence of the waterways of Venice. In fact it is his plot which helps to keep the listener entertained. It is not too dissimilar to The Fires Of Vulcan in some ways, but is also reminiscent of The Masque Of Mandragora.
Paul McGann is excellent, really finding a foothold in the role now, especially as this was one of the first stories he recorded. India Fisher continues to improve as well, as both Charley and The Doctor are given separate yet interlinking storylines, which don`t detract from the plot. All the supporting cast deserve plaudits here as well for being both believable and sympathetic. You could do a lot worse than buy this as it is easily one of the best Big Finish audios.
I Get it by Robert Thomas 1/6/01
First off the previous story had a characters whose hidden motives and nature were a mystery that was given away badly. Here we have a character who is supposed to have their nature guessed straight away, and it works well for the story.
This is a really nice story with lots of good trimmings that delighted me. It probably comes under traditional but its so much fun. The Doctor and Charley are loud and proudly launching themselves into the story, The Doctor's lines about being in a story are fabulous. Venice is put across well and Magrs also puts a lot of magic into it. If you forget about the magic it stops making sense - but it serves you right if you are so serious.
The priest played by Mark Gatiss is played marvelously over the top. This isn't a good Verses bad story either - there is about 3 or more sides if I counted right.
Overall this is fun and would probably recommend this so far as the one to dip into if you are only looking for one 8th Doctor story.
A Review by Alan Thomas 12/11/01
This was my first Big Finish audio, and I have to say that I was very impressed. Paul McGann's return to the role gave me cause to celebrate. He really puts in a wonderful performance as the Doctor. The greatest thing about it is it's eccentricity, which the 80's Doctors seem to have been missing.
As for Charley, well, I liked her, but not as much as some companions. India Fisher still makes Charley quite plucky for a girl of the 1930's.
The story itself is excellent. Everyone puts in a good performance, and Mark Gatiss is a joy to listen to. All the cliffhangers are faithful to the spirit of the TV show. This is what everybody wanted from Enemy Within, but we never got it.
To sum up, The Stones Of Venice is excellent, and certainly is not going to be my only audio adventure.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 3/12/01
Out of all the McGann audios – the most eagerly anticipated, for me, was this one. The romance and majesty of Venice is legendary. Dr Who had never been there, in any format. Stories are often remembered for the stage they are set – and Venice promised a rich, magical stage.
I never doubted that Venice would be re-created with glory by Big Finish. They have never let down with their re-creations of Earth environs (Pre-Georgian London, rural Cornwall, Pompeii being the best) and they don’t let us down here. With marvellous background music evoking the splendour of Venice you really feel you are there, amongst the architecture and waterways.
The story is as elaborate as the setting. Paul Magrs paints a rich narrative, flowing with large majestic speeches and eccentric characters. Orsino is the most dramatic. An aged Duke, obsessed with his wife Estella, is brought to life by Michael Sheard in a typically theatrical way. Churchwell, the Curator, is almost as good. Mark Gatiss lends his character skills to Vincenzo, a cult leader with wide eyes and a driven, manic obsession with all things fantastic. There’s also the appropriately named Ms Lavish – a trifle too-shrieking performance here – but not detrimental to the story.
The 8th Doctor is his “love of life” self. Enjoying the glories of Venice and rattling through the alleyways trying to put things right. Charley is splendid too, portraying her amazement at the wonders of the universe.
Venice is the main star of this story though. Putting the story in the future was a masterstroke. It still has the ambience of the past, but this is tempered by the decay that results from time. The imminent collapse of the glorious buildings into the famous canals creates a great air of tension, that makes this always a fascinating voyage.
Overall an extremely good Doctor Who story – and the greatest credit must go to the wizards of Big Finish. The way Venice is re-created is brilliant. The best 8th Doctor audio. 9/10
Please, Just Sink by Sean Twist 19/7/02
I sometimes wonder if I'm the only one who didn't enjoy this particular adventure. I've often wondered if perhaps I listened to something entirely different, and The Stones of Venice everyone else slipped into their CD players was the real Stones of Venice, and I ended up with the rehearsal tapes.
Of the Big Finish Eighth Doctor productions to this point, Sword of Orion was my favourite. It hit a perfect balance of character and action, with a definite sense of threat. Storm Warning was also enjoyable, if you ignored the rather whiffy third episode. But with Stones, I thought the production stumbled, and stumbled badly.
To be fair, McGann and India Fisher are wonderful -- but I've come to expect them to be. McGann shines in the Big Finish audios in such a way that it's sad to consider a day when he isn't doing them. He is the Doctor. He generates all the warmth, eccentricity, and childlike wonder that was roughly hinted at in the movie with a skill that makes you wonder if he hasn't been practicing this role privately since 1996. As for India Fisher, she is a natural in her role as Charley, an absolute delight. Again, to consider a day when Charley leaves the series makes me want to close the drapes and put on Joy Division.
The first place Stones falters is Magrs' script. It's far too wordy, not hinting as much as it painfully explains. There are times when you can tell the actors aren't acting -- they're reading, and this comes across far too often. They are some brilliant ideas in the script -- this is Magrs, after all -- but he has yet to master the finer points of pulling back, of realizing that less is more. This approach works well in his novels, but it makes a 'live' performance far too clunky.
The second problem are the supporting actors, who leave no part of scenery unchewed. Doctor Who works best when the actors take it seriously, and don't treat it as an inside joke, or worse, pantomime. There are theatre people and there are actors, and Stones has far too many theatre people.
All in all, it's still worth picking up, even if you're not just an anal completist like me. McGann and Fisher are worth the charge on your credit card bill, and Magrs shows definite promise of better plays to come. Just remember to turn down the volume when anyone else takes the mike.
A Review by John Seavey 6/1/04
Probably the best of the Eighth Doctor audios in the first season. Magrs' writing isn't quite suited to dialogue; he's really a very "literary" writer. But it's enjoyable and un-self-consciously fun, with enough silliness that I could tell McGann was enjoying himself. A fun way to pass two hours.
Romance is in the air... by Joe Ford 30/1/04
The eighth Doctor's debut season is something of a curiosity. Looking back it is a perfect example of where Big Finish gets Doctor Who exactly right (Storm Warning) but also where they sometimes go horribly wrong too (Minuet in Hell). It features some wonderfully experimental material (this fantasy story is hardly your typical Who), some dreadful continuity (the Cybermen are dreadfully dull in Sword of Orion), some traditional elements (aliens on the R-101!) and veers dangerously close to racist material in places (the embarrassing treatment of the US in the closing story). Two downright winners and two painful losers. The ups and down of a company that are continuing Doctor Who's legacy.
The Stones of Venice is my personal favourite of the season, just edging out Storm Warning thanks to Paul Magrs' delirious trip through the worlds of fantasy. Never before has a writer been so obsessed with simply cherishing life and pushing a story to its limits whilst never pushing out of its traditional barriers. It is a love or hate story, one which regularly drips with melodrama and predictability. And yet it seems to highlight one the audios only strengths, the celebration of dialogue and music, both of which are quite superb and combine to create a distracting, whimsical holiday away from the real world.
Have you ever been to Venice? Neither had I until I heard this story, it is a city with a magical atmosphere. I took this story with me during my visit and I have to say Paul does a fine job in catching the place at its height. I can still recall listening to this one evening, the sun was going down, a blood red light sparkling on the waves, throwing the characterful architecture into black silhouettes. The music was the voice of the city, the night time an endless party of masked strangers and fine food.
That's exactly the mood Paul captures in his story albeit with mad Dukes, ancient curses, homicidal Gondoliers and alien Duchesses thrown in for good measure. Who wouldn't want to visit Venice after listening to this story, a city on water, the buildings finally slipping under the waves. Secret cults gliding through the shadowy streets at night. A royal palace throwing the grandest party of all time and why not? The world is over as far as Venice is concerned. Paul always was wonderful at world building and he excels himself here, the production rising to the occasion and providing an evocative and seductive city of magic.
People have been bandying around the opinion that Doctor Who's history with love stories has been a turbulent one. Well I'm not sure I agree, Jo Grant's departure from the series was achingly poignant, her decision to leave the Doctor for another man remains one of the most emotional moments in the series history. Same goes for the Doctor's decision to lock Susan from the TARDIS when he realises she has grown into a young woman and deserves to explore relationships away from his powerful influence.
Let's face it, Doctor Who was never about love stories, if that's what you want go watch Friends or Eastenders or some other such tripe. And when love was an element in a story it was usually on the sidelines, never explored much beyond a quick peck on the lips or the odd squeeze. Deep emotional relationships spring from nowhere in Doctor Who stories, usually just to get rid of a companion who has outstayed her welcome.
So it comes as a relief to see Magrs using love to drive a story rather than be a consequence of it. He never betrays the series reputation as a children's show for adults, instead he creates a wonderful mystery around the theme of love, revealing the pain and tragedy and consequences of losing your one true love. The legend of the Duke and the Duchess, that he gambled her away in a game of cards and suffered her wrath as she jumped into the depths of Venice's waters, bringing down a curse on the great city, only 100 years of life left in which the Duke will not age a day. Isn't that just a gorgeous idea for a story? Set at the end of that century in Venice's dying days, The Stones of Venice finally reveals what happened to the Duchess and her final judgement on the greedy city.
It is through Michael Sheard's Orcino that we see the true heartache that love can punish with. When you risk it, gamble with it, you will lose big time. The story immediately sets up this deranged and somewhat pathetic character, having spent the last century pining over the foolish decision he made concerning his love. Sheard's effeminate, flute like voice is ideal for the role, capturing the raw emotion in the script without ever letting us forget this is a grandiose, sensational character.
The consequences the curse throws up branch out the story nicely. Mark Gatiss, in another anonymous voice role, provides the voice of the Cult Leader Vincenzo. How does he do it? Gatiss manages to create a thousand variations on his own voice and this silky voiced nutcase is just as good as his other parts in Big Finish's canon. Vincenzo gets to do all the seriously over the top bits... he gets my vote as the best camp villain yet ending episode one with a wonderfully silly info-dump "We have you! On the Eve of the anniversary of the Lady Estella's death! Can't you see how it was all meant to be! Gaurds! Render them both unconscious! We have you now and it will be your honour to bear witness to her resurrection!" and even better is his duplicitous reaction to the climax of the story... grabbing the bones of the Duke and the Duchess and climbing down some rabbit hole to worship them! Silly man... but very funny!
As I understand it this is the first story to be recorded featuring Paul McGann and India Fisher. And it never once shows, they are such pros and it seems like they have been at it for years. The only difference I can spot is that Charley is slightly more crabby than usual but compared to somebody like Tegan she's still cheerful as heaven!
Mind you she has quite a bit to whinge about, taken to a dying city for a holiday, drugged and forced into the role of an ex-Duchess and nearly forced to marry the Duke. It's time for Charley to live it up for the night, get dressed up and go partying! India's noble accent suits the story well and she pulls off the regal disguise with ease. You can already see he chemistry brewing between Charley and the Doctor as they embark on their own love story. And it is Charley who points out the moral ("As if I would ever have a moral!" the Doctor snorts!) of the story to the two shy men in her company ("It was all about love in the end!" and "Oh don't go all sheepish on me Doctor you know it was!").
I love Paul McGann's Doctor in this! What a guy, whipping up the whole of Venice up into a storm during his visit. This is the Doctor as we know and love him, name dropping to the point of arrogance, poking his nose in where it isn't wanted, pulling his finger out for the downtrodden classes, speaking up in the face of the bad guy and listening to the only person who is making any sense ("She's right you know! Why don't we listen to Eleanor Lavish!"). But it is the vigour and passion McGann puts into his performance that really makes you pay attention, some reviewer in a magazine claimed he spends too much time trying to be liked in this story, going on about adventuring and loving mysteries and stuff. But it's just not true; he's too busy having fun for all that pretension! He manages to wind up Churchwell, Charley, the Duke, the cult, the Duchess... well pretty much everybody throughout the course of the story. As Miss Lavish so beautifully puts it "Are you drunk?" Maybe so, but drunk on a passion for living life to the full.
Such beautiful dialogue abounds I could spend all day reciting it! Don't worry I won't but here are a few favourites...
One of my favourite ever Doctor Who audio stories and a firm reminder of how damn good Big Finish (and Gary Russell) can be. I love it with every fibre of my being, a look into a world of pure magic and a place I would love to pack my bags moved into!
Venetian Lullaby by Phil Fenerty 21/9/04
The Stones of Venice is a simple story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl and is condemned to live for 100 years, boy rules over decaying city whilst waiting for girl to come back to him.
But even that simple precis hides a complex piece of writing from Paul Magrs, at once evocative, haunting and stunning.
It also feels slightly anachronistic. The tone of the story, its themes and the motivations of the players, are reminiscent of the earlier McCoy/ Aldred BBV audio releases (Republica or Ghosts, for example). The ploy centres on Duke Orcino, who gambled away his wife playing cards 100 years ago and is cursed to remain alive whilst his city decays around him. The streets teem with revellers waiting for the final collapse into the sea, whilst a deranged Cult worship the missing Estella, believing she will return as the end draws near.
Curses, long-lived individuals, revenge tragedy, mysterious entities - all of these are light-years from the hard sci-fi displayed in the preceding release Sword of Orion, and seem to fit better into the milieu built on the BBV releases. Add in Mark Gatiss' wonderfully over-blown (yet under-performed) High Priest Vincenze and you could be right back to the days of The Island of Lost Souls.
At the heart of the story, however, breezing around the crumbling remains of a dying city is the Doctor: wonderfully enthused by his love of art and his nose for a good mystery. This is the Doctor we met briefly in the TV Movie: full of the joys of life, railing against Death in all its forms, fiercely protective of those whom he loves.
In the same way that New Orleans was the star of the EDA City of the Dead, so to does Venice shine in this release - even if limited to a handful of locales (and one sewer hideout). The elegant ballrooms, romantic (if dank) canals, the galleries lined with exquisite art - all come alive, woven together with writing, performance and music working together well.
The streets and palaces are packed with revellers, engaging in one final Grand Party before they, and Venice, die as the morning comes. This touch, a party on the edge of destruction, has a nice resonance with Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks, where a group of gamblers play cards on a planet about to be destroyed. The sense of enjoyment in the activity is heightened by a frisson that the world (as you know it) is about to end.
The grand party has elements of Saturnalia, too, as a humble old lady is given the role of the Duke whilst he investigates the possibility that his beloved is still alive.
And yet - and you knew it was coming - there is at least one duff part in the proceedings. The Gondoliers - human boatmen "evolved" into amphibians - plot to upset the applecart and take over the city after it sinks. They use Charley as bait, clothing her in Estella's wedding dress and having her pretend to be a reincarnation of the Duke's wife. Whilst subplots in Doctor Who can be immensely effective (e.g. the Vulcan Colony Rebellion in Power of the Daleks), this seems to be present for the sole reason of padding out the saga to the requisite length. Given the romance and high drama of the other parts of the story, it feels like a breeze-block garage built onto a Tudor half-timbered cottage.
Whilst love has been a story element in Doctor Who from the earliest days (including the half-whispered possibility that Ian and Barbara were lovers), there have been few stories where love has been the driving force for the story. The recent EDA Emotional Chemistry used love as its main theme (although it was masquerading for another basic drive at the same time), and here the Duke, driven to despair by the loss of his wife, continues to search for her. The cult exhibit a love for her, too, although their beatific devotion is an affectation, a need to belong to a group rather than the religious fervour it should inspire.
Even the cringing Curator Churchwell is affected by love, although in his case it is for art rather than humanity. At the end of the saga, however, he is redeemed and shown that whilst art is important, people are what life is all about.
In a similar vein to Spare Parts, we are missing a central enemy for The Doctor to confront. The whole scenario is, rather, an intellectual puzzle for him (and, therefore the listener) to unravel. This can lead to a lack of focus, however the whole story and fate of Estella and the Duke make compelling listening, even on a second or third time around when the ending is already known.
The Ending: once again, the resolution mimics the BBV audios, with explicit definition of who the outsider responsible and where they are from being ducked. Indeed, whilst the story features a number of individuals who have differing aims (The cult, the Duke, Gondoliers), there are no explicitly EVIL people in the story - each of the protagonists is acting in a reasoned and motivated manner, even if the motives are somewhat crazy.
The performances are solid throughout, with Michael Sheard's Duke (weary of life, his city, of beauty) taking centre stage. The supporting cast are magnificent, and the whole audio experience is beautifully presented.
Whilst not being a classic, nor a continuity-fest, this is a charming piece of work, of which all responsible can be proud. Take out the superfluous Gondoliers sub-plot, and it would be near-perfect.
Overall: no damp squib!
Anything But Your Traditional Story by Matthew Kresal 14/4/10
When I first listened to The Stones Of Venice, I admit I wasn't hugely impressed with it. However, as I've been going back and listening to the first season of audio stories for the eighth Doctor from Big Finish, I was surprised to discover that it was a much better story this time round. Not only that, but I came to really enjoy and appreciate this classically inspired tale of Venice's final hours, a cult worshiping a dead woman, amphibious gondoliers, an ageless duke and his lost love.
Paul McGann and India Fisher give nice performances as the Doctor and Charley. This was the first story they recorded together (although it's the third in proper story order) and the chemistry between them is fantastic to listen to. McGann's performance is interesting as this was his first outing as the Doctor since the 1996 TV movie and there are echoes of that performance to be heard in this story (such as this Doctor's ability to pick up on the pasts of other characters almost instantly). Yet McGann pushes towards being his own Doctor from the teaser sequence right to the finale itself. Fisher too gives a marvelous performance that, more than in either Storm Warning or Sword Of Orion, gives her a chance to really show off her skills, as Charley ends up separated from the Doctor for a while. Fisher makes moments like Charley's being hypnotized and her reaction to it credible as well, which I can imagine is nowhere near as easy as she makes it sound. All told, it is this story that really cements an excellent Doctor/companion combination.
The story has a fine supporting cast as well. Michael Sheard is great as Venice's ageless and cursed Duke Orsino who finds himself at the heart of the events in the story. Then there's Nick Scovell as the duke's art curator Churchwell, who becomes something of a companion to the Doctor while Charley is away and a target of a cult. That cult is led by Vincenzo who is played by none other then Mark Gatiss and with considerable tongue in cheek at that. Then there's Big Finish regular Barnaby Edwards who plays the gondolier Pietro, one of the many amphibious gondoliers who plots to reclaim Venice after it sinks into the sea. Last but certainly not least is Elaine Ives Cameron as Ms. Lavish, an elderly lady who is amongst those to see Venice in its final hours yet is far more then she seems. In particular, it is Cameron's fine performance in the last two episodes of the story that helps to make this story really stand out. Like the two stories before it, Stones Of Venice has a fine supporting cast backing up its stars rather well.
The script by Paul Magrs is in itself interesting and probably not for all tastes. My real change of heart regarding this story was here as well. It places the Doctor and Charley in 23rd century Venice as its about to sink into the sea. The city's only remaining people include the Duke Orsino who a hundred years earlier was cursed by his beloved Estella before she threw herself into the Grand Canal; the cult that worships her and hopes she will return to save the city; the revelers awaiting the end of the city; and the long-oppressed amphibious gondoliers who hope to reclaim the sinking city. If this doesn't sound like your typical Doctor Who story, then you would be correct and I suspect this was the reason I didn't enjoy it as much the first time round. Yet it is a story that, grounded in classical literature and themes, is about how people face disasters both epic and personal. It is also a tragic love story about a man who threw away his only love who somehow seeks to make things right. This reaches its end in the incredible finale as well. The story, despite seemingly being buried too deep in magic, also does something Doctor Who has always been doing: disproving magic with science. The script is also full of some the best dialog you are likely to find in any audio story (or beyond for that matter) with a strong wit (Charley's line to the Doctor about what happens on their travels in part three and his response) and a fine sense of drama (see the part three cliffhanger or the story's finale). While it might not be a traditional story, it is still a fantastic piece of work by Paul Magrs.
The Stones Of Venice is one of the best stories of the first McGann season, if not the best. It has fine performances from its leads, a supporting cast that is just as good and a first-rate script by Paul Magrs. Yet it is also more than just that, of course. The Stones Of Venice also proves something else as well: that sometimes Doctor Who is at its best when it's anything but your traditional story.