The Vampires of Venice

Story No. 225 They only look like vampires
Production Code Series 5, Episode 6
Dates May 8 2010

With Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Written by Toby Whithouse Directed by Jonny Campbell
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis.

Synopsis: The Doctor takes Amy and Rory for a romantic mini-break. But 16th-century Venice is not as it should be. The city has been sealed to protect it from the Plague, although Rosanna Calvierri may have other plans...


A Review by Paul Mackie 10/6/10

Reviewing Doctor Who is always fun. In any given season you can expect a blend of transcendent episodes that let you gush (The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone), pretty good stuff with interesting quirks/flaws to discuss (Eleventh Hour, The Beast Below), and total garbage that you can just unload on with both barrels. Vampires of Venice is definitely the latter.

This isn't to say it has no redeeming qualities. From the first shot, it's a gorgeous production; BBC period pieces are second to none. Some of the humor works, at least, particularly Amy and the Doctor's excitement on discovering the vampires. Most of it does not, mind you, but for a few minutes in the early going, you have a sense that this might be a mildly amusing episode.

But the rest is just derivative trash. This is the kind of dull, lifeless, imagination-free thing season 4 would feed us and expect us to lap up, like The Doctor's Daughter or The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. The whole thing is just a haphazard assembly of elements from previous new series episodes: the plot is from School Reunion, the villains' motivation is from The Unquiet Dead, the climax is from The Idiot's Lantern. Even Rory's supposedly meaningful observation about the Doctor making people foolhardy is ripped off from Davros' gloating in Journey's End. The larger plot isn't really touched on in any depth; the one nod to it seems ripped off from season 4 as well.

Unintentional or failed humor abounds. Rory's duel with Francesco, played up in the trailers, is as slow and dull as the clips would suggest. The Doctor shushes his companions in a pitiful mid-episode gag. Guido's heroic sacrifice turns into pure comedy gold as his last cry recalls a memorably cheesy battle movie of the last few years.

In general, this doesn't seem like much of a Smith episode at all; I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that it was pitched as a Tennant episode, rightly rejected, and picked back up to fill time. The numerous cliches make this impossible to avoid; I, for one, am sick of the Doctor getting so upset when his enemies wind up getting killed or offing themselves or whatever the case may be. This is undoubtedly a question of taste, but is such a generic hero attitude, and it was run into the ground during the Tenth Doctor era. We've come a long way from The End of the World and "Everything dies". Nine's righteous wrath with Cassandra, or Ten's with the Family of Blood are so much more compelling.

There is no reason a show unbounded by time, space or logic should keep going back to the same wells. If you're watching Doctor Who, you're already halfway to the theater of the imagination. Its special effects have never been particularly convincing and yet it can engage as strongly as far more expensive productions. Mostly, the writers are to thank for this; they give the usually fine core actors something to play with, and they put enough cleverness and imagination into the plots to bring us into them. When an episode has neither of these, no amount of resources can resuscitate it. Vampires of Venice has completely garbage writing and completely fails. It's the worst of season 5 so far, and hopefully we'll not see its like again.

The Italian Job by Mike Morris 22/5/11

What's a writer like Toby Whithouse doing writing for Doctor Who?

This isn't as crass a question as it sounds. Whithouse's previous offering, School Reunion, now roughly corresponds to what other programmes term an 'event story'; by bringing back Sarah Jane and K-9, plus giving the Doctor a tangible companion-filled past for the first time, School Reunion is important even if you ignore the spin-off series it generated. All this, the story's wit, and the genuinely good work Whithouse put into the Sarah / Rose dynamic, has tended to obscure the story's obvious problem; that if you consider it solely on the basis of its monster-based plot, it's easily the weakest of the season with the exception of the finale. It reads very much like the work of someone completely unfamiliar with Doctor Who's format, who's produced something that reads as a weirdly jarring Dark Season / Buffy hybrid, and the last twenty minutes are taken up with Anthony Head striding angrily around a school because the Doctor threw a chair at his television. Now, I like School Reunion, but at the same time Whithouse's return was the cause of a raised eyebrow. He's not a bad writer, strictly speaking, but I'm yet to be convinced that he's particularly well-suited to Doctor Who.

There's a cracking scene at around the halfway point of Vampires of Venice, where Rory berates the Doctor for his effect on the people he meets, transforming them into people who'll destroy themselves for a cause, perhaps not even of their choosing. It's a moment of real insight, certainly more well-considered than all that 'you make people into weapons' half-arsery inflicted on us in Series Four. The leads, in general, are pretty good, and Matt Smith gives probably his strongest performance since his debut. His cold rejection of Signora Calvieri, grounded in aesthetics and emotion rather than logic or high falutin' principle, is particularly good in what's ultimately a scene where the dialogue itself is spectacularly useless.

These are the only decent points in what's comfortably the worst story of the season, and one veneered with such a glib laziness that it goes beyond irritating. There's been a lot of talk about Vampires of Venice along the lines of 'Well it's amusing, and it has some good bits, and if you don't take it too seriously it's actually kind of fun,' but these miss the mark as badly as the story itself. It's ultimately trying to be - as Paul Magrs once modestly described one of his own audio dramas - 'a bedazzling romp through Venice,' but is so leaden, repetitive and ultimately ordinary that it fails to be anything of the kind. It's too slow, and far too much time is spent with the dull business of breaking into / walking out of the bad guys' lair. In addition, the mechanics of the Saturnynian's plan is either baffling or just plain ordinary. It's never explained why, for example, The Bad Guy bloke is hanging around with all the girls, how they benefit from his presence, or why he's bothered learning to be handy with a sword. He's just a second-in-command villain, and that's all there is to him.

In much the same way, the story wants to be comedic; but while the attempts at comedy are numerous, they're all a variation on the 'Person mentions prosaic thing to knowingly highlight weirdness of weird thing' template, which had grown old long before Buffy The Blah Blah finished. They're all laboured, and completely fail to lift proceedings. The role of humour in Doctor Who is always difficult to pin down, but Vampires of Venice is one of those stories that sets up a series of completely unbelievable premises, then tries to wring humour from how silly they are.

The best example of this is undoubtedly Signora Calvieri's bizarre 'seduction' scenes with the Doctor, which go on forever, and every moment they continue the viewer is just thinking 'Why is this big fish, who - remember - is only disguised as a woman, getting all sultry-like with an air-breathing humanoid? When they put all the Urbankan make up on Stratford John, he didn't suddenly start trying to seduce frogs.' And then, moments later, the Doctor says 'It'll never work... you're a big fish!' This is supposed to be funny, but it isn't; it's just highlighting the lazy-arse logic that generated the scene in the first place, where Whithouse wrote a seduction-scene because, um, female villainesses with big tits always have a seduction scene.The phrase used in scriptwriting circles for this sort of line is a You Can't Fire Me, I Quit. The phrase I use for it transgresses any boundaries of decency.

The thing is, the story thinks this is justifiable because it's meant to be a lighthearted runaround. However, the lighthearted requires more skillful writing than the heavily melodramatic, not the other way round; if you look back through the great canon of Doctor Who lighthearted romps, far more of them have failed than not. The ones that really work are plotted and/or written so hard their mechanics work like invisible poetry. I'm thinking primarily of City of Death here, which remains the pinnacle of Doctor Who's comedy tales, but the second-rank stories all have so much more going on than this. The Androids of Tara has a deceptively multilayered plot. The Pirate Planet swims with bizarre concepts, but they're revealed to the viewer in a way that's very carefully modulated. Even the lower echelons of the comedic stories - stories like The Horns of Nimon, The Creature From The Pit, even Delta and the Bannermen - have more going on than this. They're disguised as vampires! They're doing something bad! That's it! Seriously, even The Unicorn and the Wasp wasn't this lazy.

Lazy logic is the basic language of Vampires of Venice from start to finish. One moment, the 'vampires' can go outside if they wear a veil; the next, a flash of reflected sunlight causes them to explode. And why the hell are they so set on eradicating mankind from earth anyway? This is the standard-issue alien race - blah blah planet destroyed blah blah no home blah blah we're not anything like the Zygons honest we aren't - but they come in relatively small numbers, and they live in the sea. Of all the species ever to pitch up on earth, this is one that could happily coexist with man; certainly, they could comfortably avoid detection for a century or four.

Similarly, there's great emphasis given to the importance of their breeding stock; so the one thing you'd do above all else is protect that stock. Instead, the Saturnynian send their most vital, but least combat-trained, individuals out to tackle the one man capable of destroying them. This ends up pretty much as you'd expect; afterwards, the Saturnyniasi announce they're going to... sink Venice. Why, for the love of whatever deity you care to name? How does this help them in any way? It kills all the females they would have been hoping to convert, and gains them absolutely nothing. Oh, sorry; they're destroying the city because, um, we need some dramatic tension.

Signora Calvieri's sticky end is absurd. Presumably her holographic circuitry extends to fooling taste buds as well.

This story also marks the point at which endless finale-foreshadowing becomes spectacularly irritating.

Matt Smith can make just about any dross watchable, but this is the story that works him hardest. It's lazy, hazy, confused and nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is. Any producer's epoch will throw up a stinker, and this is Moffat's first. Thoroughly, spectacularly dreadful, unfunny and undramatic, and a waste of a decent premise.

A Review by Matthew Sychantha 26/8/11

The Vampires of Venice is the bastard child of this season, in that it tries to do too much and sags under its own weight. Don't let that stop you from watching this episode, as there's so much to it that it fantastically reveals a new layer and gets better each watching. Just remember that the first one is where you won't like it. The episode isn't fun to watch on your own. The plot is lightweight and you won't forgive the way the monster of the week looks. That's gotten enough coverage. It'll bug the crap out of a Whovian watching this for the first time on their own. In fact, for the incredibly hardcore Whovians, the echoes of some fish monsters trying to sink Venice in order to create a city of their own has actually been an Eighth Doctor audio drama. Right down to the evil matriarch who makes a tragic sacrifice, consumed by emotion and its reliance on human superstition fed by aliens to drive the plot. I'd like to note that even though it rips off the superb Stones of Venice, it gets contradicted by the earlier Eighth Dcotor novel, Vampire Science. Someone did selective canon homework.

However, this is Rory's first companion story. Put a feather in his cap, because he manages to NOT be Mickey. He firmly establishes the possibilities of his character from the get-go and, to his credit, he doesn't feel like the new guy at all. He feels like he's been part of this all along. Rory's complaint at the Doctor and the beginnings of their relationship as friends grows organically, and as wary as Rory gets, give him credit for never being the guy who "stays back and gathers information". Likewise, the acting of the villain is admirable. Our vampire fish queen carries herself like a true matriarch; when she opens her mouth, she is very compelling as she matches wits with the Doctor. Her subtle use of the Doctor's guilt over the time war was an element they should have played up more, as from that point forward the Doctor was suddenly more biting and aggressive in his reasoning. What hurts his characterization is the lack of a grand plan. Like the Eighth Doctor was known for, the Doctor here squeaks by on coincidences and stands awash while greater plot elements force his hand.

The scenery here is breathtaking. The sets seem authentic and the clothing is wonderful. I'm inclined to believe this is where most of the budget went, seeing as the monsters are truly rubbish. There is a scene where the Doctor climbs a up a steeple, and it truly feels epic. And it's all money well spent, as introducing Rory in such a fantastic setting is all the more believable a step in forcing us to believe he'd stay at the end. In fact, the first 30 minutes show great characterization and plot and setting. It's the fish people themselves that drag down this story. They're not well defined from the moment they appear, and they don't appear to be threatening, despite the teeth that they probably hacked off the multiform from The Eleventh Hour. As vampires, they have connotations of fright, seduction, and myth. When the fish appear, they have no time to build up their race, no time to build up their capabilities, and already they have a weakness before they do anything intimidating.

But don't let this take you away from the good points of this episode. The sacrifice is a tragedy, the elements around it play well and it's a solid introduction for Rory. It's a 6.5 if you watch it alone. It's a solid 7 if you watch it with someone who is just getting into Doctor Who at Series 5.

"Doctor Gooseberry" by Thomas Cookson 17/8/12

Well this is definitely a comedown from Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.

From the off, the scene of the Doctor gatecrashing Rory's stag night and telling him in front of all his mates that he's snogged his fiance was not funny, and it was horribly off-colour. At the time, it sorely made me dread that we were still in the rotten-hearted spirit of the RTD era, and its production/writing team that had never moved on from the high school mindset of cliques and queen bees, rewriting the Dcotor into some punchable jock who would gladly humiliate others to make himself look good and crush the other guy's manhood (hence why these days I actually think RTD's era actually went wrong from the closing scene of Rose onwards).

Of course, here this isn't quite the case, and in fact this episode shows the Doctor having a vested interest in putting Amy and Rory's relationship back on track, and even the scene itself is meant to be more about the Doctor's alien-ness and social awkwardness than anything.

But then, after that teaser, suddenly Rory's in the TARDIS and the Doctor seems to have gotten through most of the reconciliation counselling, and Rory seems all too able to forgive Amy already. This is just one of many points on which this story feels very rushed and cluttered and doesn't flow as coherently as it should. It's similar to the scene where, only a day after willingly giving Isabella away, her father immediately starts forcing his way back to see her as though some unseen developments have led to his exhaustion of any trust or ability to be diplomatic with them. If his suspicions of them were long-standing, it only begs the question of why he gave his daughter away in the first place. The character motivations need to be far more consistent.

This 'rushed' aspect is a real handicap to the story. They did a beautiful job in evoking 16th century Venice. Helen McCrory is appropriately slimy and predatory and actually quite believably fishy as Signora Rosanna. The scene where the Doctor barters for an exchange for information and then promises to tear them all down without even raising his voice, and where Matt Smith really makes the line "because you didn't know Isabella's name" is superb and actually done with the right degree of breathing space and build-up (it's also a nice throwback to, without being a carbon copy of, the similar confrontation moment by the school swimming pool in School Reunion from the same writer). Likewise, the scene of Rory broom-fighting with Rosanna's momma's boy of a son is a lot of fun and very thrilling at once. But somehow it's misplaced in such a way that it just doesn't build up to much. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. As a result, the scene where Isabella's father sacrifices himself to destroy all the vampire girls feels far too neat and perfunctory and just leaves me rather cold.

I think that's the crucial problem with the story. It seems at a bit of a loss as to what kind of tone it wants to take. It seems to want to be an old gothic vampire horror tale with a sexual frisson, a frivolous, joie de vie romantic holiday a la City of Death (and, to be fair, Karen Gillan gets into the spirit of that side of it effortlessly and continues to make me smile with her wide-eyed childlike facial expressions and animated personality), and at the same time a downbeat story about the Doctor failing to save the little people, or the endangered species, and at the same time work in some petty soap opera piffle about Rory feeling that the Doctor has ruined his relationship with Amy. (To which I can only echo the Doctor: "Now!? You want to do this now!?") All these elements and tones sit awkwardly with each other and never really coalesce or have the impact that they should. It feels patched together and, coupled with the sense of pandering to the Twilight craze, particularly in its look to the European Vampire's throne room (and incidentally I have no shame about admitting to actually being a fan of Twilight) makes it feel rather cynical and cold.

As for the Vampires themselves. I guess there's always going to be a fannish part of me that doesn't understand why they couldn't have just been the same classic 'ancient enemies of the Time Lords' vampires we saw in State of Decay. But no, I don't think that's a fannish wish because conceptually those vampires worked far better. These vampire girls never get to be anywhere near as threatening as they should (mind you, that blonde one can devour me anytime).

Conceptually, something about them doesn't quite hold together. The scene where Isabella can't leave the lair because of the sunlight but survives anyway (actually, her death scene in the piranha river left me cold too because her performance was so rotten) and then the scene where Amy kills the mommy's boy vampire who was attacking Rory with reflected sunlight from her make-up mirror both add up to a feeling that sunlight and other Achilles heels and weaknesses the Vampires have all vary in effectiveness and deadliness depending on how much the plot needs them to be in that moment.

Then there's the perception filter idea, and the reveal that they're really sharp-toothed fish people, which just feels like fitting a square peg into a round hole. And the sense that these are not human bodies corrupted by vampire blood is completely taken away by the reveal that their human appearance is just a hologram. There's a clever idea in that how the perception filter can't disguise the teeth because of the human subconscious and survival instinct, but overall there are just too many questions raised. If when Rosanna's perception filter fails, not only do her human features disappear but so do her clothes then we can assume her clothes are also a hologram, except that when she prepares to feed herself to her children at the end, she takes off her corset and casts it aside. It just doesn't add up. And there's a sense really of this half-baked concept being rushed to the conclusion before it gets a chance to fall apart.

And that's frustrating because a more robust concept behind these vampires might have afforded them a chance to properly go on the offensive. That's what this story really needed. It needed these vampire girls to do more than skulk about their own lair and guard their own territory and be chased away easily by a convenient ultraviolet glowstick. They should have really gone out on the streets and preyed on unsuspecting souls, and really lived up to the terror behind their idea. They would have looked well-suited to patrolling the streets with their ghostlike, luminous pale white faces and umbrellas. Giving them the power to levitate as well and hover like banshees could have paid off, but when they venture out they do little more than attack Isabella's father's house and get themselves all killed in the process.

Instead the big threat turns out to be some weather machine which the Doctor can easily climb up to and switch off and conveniently daylight is restored within seconds (I mean, come on, that's cartoon logic). There is a touch of genuine vertigo to the Doctor's inital climb up the pillars to the tower, but after a few seconds' climbing it becomes all too clear he's at no risk of failing. And really it adds up to a sense of the drama and threat dissipating and weakening as it goes on, the stakes getting lower rather than higher, which again leads to a poor sense of payoff. Matt Smith and Helen McCrory wring everything performance-wise out of their final confrontation scene as she kills herself to guilt and spite the Doctor, and really reinforces how she did it all for the sake of her children's survival. This gives a real sympathetic edge to these villains, but the directing makes it feel oddly flat and sanitised, and ultimately it's a bit too incidental and undermined by the frivolity elsewhere to work as a downbeat climax.

As for the final scene with the portents of the coming fall of silence, that effect of dubbing Matt Smith's voice over himself miming was a pretty awful effect that I wouldn't have expected them to pass. Ultimately though, this felt rather inconsequential, and frustratingly so, because I really feel this could and should have been far more iconic.

I'm a Time Lord. You're a big fish. Think of the children. by Evan Weston 28/6/17

It's pretty terrific just how smooth Series 5's character arcs are. Never before or since has Doctor Who done serialization so well, and the character development is actually better than the plot. In The Eleventh Hour, we are introduced to the principals in such a way that tells us loads about them in a tiny amount of time. Then we learn bit by bit about Amy (in the series' only two below-average episodes) before the deluge of development in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. The Davies era would have followed a massive episode like that with some light filler - think The Idiot's Lantern to Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel. But Moffat doesn't quite want to work that way, so instead he gives supernatural romance maestro Toby Whithouse the keys to Rory's first TARDIS adventure in the important and better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be The Vampires of Venice.

Here's a story that benefits significantly from a rewatch. Knowing the dynamic of Amy and Rory's relationship and how it develops in the future is key to seeing the two interact for the first time: you understand bits about the two (especially Amy's way of showing her love for Rory) that you just couldn't pick up before. Amy's embrace of Rory near the end after spurning him for the large majority of the episode felt forced the first time, but it's just the way Amy is capable of expressing just how deeply she loves her fiancee. It's a great moment on the second go-around, and Rory's bold determination in saving his mistress - who really didn't need it but appreciates the thought more than anything - is absolutely adorable. The Ponds rival the Tenth Doctor and Rose as the best Doctor Who relationship, and Moffat's decision to make Arthur Darvill a regular cast member was one of the best he's made. Darvill is hilarious and tragic throughout, showing off the qualities that made Rory a fan favorite moving forward.

The other principals are just fine, as well. Karen Gillan lets Darvill be the comic star of the show this time, simply bouncing along to the script, happy to have "my boys" along with her. Matt Smith mostly runs around enjoying himself; the Doctor isn't really all that central to the overall thrust of The Vampires of Venice, or at least to the parts that are the most successful. Speaking of which, the Ponds' development works far better than that of the actual plot, which gets bogged down in style over substance and results in a pretty action-heavy episode. This is all great fun - I really enjoyed watching the Doctor climb Venetian spires to save the day, and vampires are awesome no matter how you slice it - but the plot is pretty thin. Whithouse's previous story, School Reunion, had this same issue, but it was minimized greatly by a tight focus on Sarah Jane Smith's return.

It also featured a better villain in Anthony Head's glorious Mr. Finch, though Helen McCrory is pretty great as Rosanna Calvierri. Whithouse writes her as straight-up creepy at first, then subverts her character to make her somewhat sympathetic by the end. McCrory does well with this mini-arc, even lightening her facial expressions to display Rosanna's inner sadness by the end. Alex Price is more one-dimensional as son Francesco, but he's creepy enough and he does what he has to do. The real triumph is the design of the vampires, who look convincingly pale and are given awesome fangs. Whithouse knows a thing or two about good vampires - check out BBC Three's Being Human, his baby - and he's right in his element here.

The Vampires of Venice doesn't quite land in the near-classic category of the previous episode though, and not just because of its thin plot. The pacing is a bit off throughout; I mentioned it's action-heavy, but the big chase sequences are spaced out by some very slow-moving dialogue scenes, with Lucian Msamati's predictable and offensively-named Guido drawing most of my yawns. His character arc was telegraphed from the start, and he and his daughter mainly serve as plot devices. The episode also doesn't quite know what to do with the main characters for a good chunk of the story. Rory and the Doctor end up having to rescue Amy from the Calvierri house, and they just sort of stand around for a while until everyone runs out together. Then Rory and Amy just sort of... wander off again. It's a bit meandering, and while you're always having a good time, the story never picks up any serious dramatic momentum. It's also a lighter story, and, while those can be extraordinarily successful - Whithouse's School Reunion being perhaps the best example of that - this one doesn't quite hit every comedic bit. The Doctor and Rory in particular have an uncomfortable interplay, and, while this is obviously intentional, I don't need our favorite Time Lord telling penis jokes.

It's shot nicely, though! The BBC is renowned for its period pieces, and Venice is just about the perfect fit for the network. I'm sure Cardiff has about 75 Venetian sets just lying around, waiting for the next period drama to come about. The production team uses them tastefully, with director Jonny Campbell and cinematographer Tony Slater Ling draping the city in a marble-white color that feels right at home. The costumes are also a big plus, as they've been for the majority of Series 5 so far - Rory's bachelor party shirt is hysterical (especially on Guido - that character's biggest success), and the Calvierri family looks terrific in just about everything.

Really, though, The Vampires of Venice is just another solid historical outing from Doctor Who, spiced up with the inclusion of what's becoming an extremely interesting and seamless serialized arc. It's a format that really works with the show, and not just in terms of plot, but with the characters. Rory is brought in smoothly and confidently by the writers, who have told us enough about Amy to the point where we can begin to see the relationship develop. In the next episode, this will take hold in a much stronger way, but this is a period of strength and efficiency for Doctor Who, despite the horny canal fish.