[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
Episode six rolls around (and, hey, that was the name of the band that Ian Gillan and Roger Glover were in before they joined Deep Purple): we find out how the Doctor responds to Amy’s ill-judged overtures at the end of Flesh and Stone, and how he deals with vampires.
It’s not the first time that the Doctor has encountered vampires — they featured in both State of Decay (Fourth Doctor) and arguably The Curse of Fenric (Seventh Doctor), but I’ve never seen either of those. (I don’t count the “haemovore” from Smith and Jones, as she exhibits none of the standard vampire attributes.) So this was effectively a first for me.
Vampires are an interesting choice to follow on from the weeping angels of The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, because like the angels they follow well-established rules. Everyone knows how vampires work: they can’t stand daylight, garlic or the sight of a cross, they can only be killed by a stake to the heart, and so on. Because of this, vampire stories — like the first weeping angel story, Blink — resemble puzzles: the pieces are laid out on the board, their capabilities are known and understood, and we have to figure out a way to check-mate in 45 minutes. Done well, this kind of story can be a tour de force; on the other hand, countless Hammer Horror films show that they can also be hack work of the lowest order, with the Vampire Rules standing in as a shoddy substitute for, rather than the motor of, plot. So, how did Vampires in Venice stand up?
[Not wholly relevant aside: for the last week or two, Fiona and I have been watching and enjoying the first series of House, an American hospital drama with elements of comedy, mostly due to Hugh Laurie’s impossibly ascerbic portrayal of the eponymous lead. Every episode follows much the same pattern: a patient is admitted with a mysterious set of symptoms which cannot be diagnosed. Initial and sometimes subsequent treatments make the illness worse or introduce deleterious side-effects until an insight shows the true cause, and the patient is cured. One of the things that makes this show fun to watch is that around the time that the first unsuccessful treatment causes more problems, I always say, “Oh, I think I know what it is!”, and Fiona always — I mean, literally, pretty much always — fails to recognise that I am about to say that the cause is: vampires. Seriously. I have done this in every single one of the first eleven episodes, and she has fallen for it on every occasion but one. That is a 91% hit-rate, folks! That is quality wifing.]
Warning: not particularly surprising spoiler coming up.
So if you don’t want to read the spoiler, scroll down to the next picture and pick up from there. Actually, come to think of it, the picture is spoilery, too, so if you don’t want to have the unsurprising surprise spoiled for you, you’d better just go.
Still here? OK, then.
Turns out that in Vampires of Venice, the vampires are not vampires. They are aliens using perception filters to appear human, and when they exhibit their eating-people tendencies, they appear like vampires. (The Doctor describes the aliens’ true form as being “big fish” but they appear more like arthropods. Surely the Doctor can’t be one of those appalling pre-cladistic taxonomists who classify organisms according to gross resemblance rather than commonality of descent? I guess not, since there’s not even a gross resemblance to any non-tetrapodan gnathostome I’ve ever seen. Oh well.)
I have mixed feelings about this. It’s done well, and makes the premise more science-fictiony (whatever Terry Pratchett might say), which is more in keeping with the Doctor Who approach. But part of me wishes that this episode had had the, oh, what’s that Jewish word?, to stick with actual vampires. Vampires whose strengths and weaknesses we know, and can think through, and reach conclusions. (Oh, yeah: chutzpah. That’s what I was thinking of. That’s Jewish, right?)
On the positive side, the not-actual-vampires-ness of the vampires does open the door for a rather neat science-fictional explanation of why they can’t be seen in mirrors. It never becomes clear whether a stake through the heart will kill them (though, as Buffy observes in an episode that eludes me for the moment, you’d be amazed at how many kinds of bad guy that works for.)
So what works and what doesn’t? I loved Amy’s response on first seeing a vampire feeding: she convinces as someone who is genuinely shocked. Seeing this kind of thing makes me retrospectively downgrade all those 1970s episodes where Sarah Jane, bless her, was wholly unable to summon anything resembling a realistic reaction to Sutekh/Styre/Davros/whoever. In terms of acting, the bar has been raised enormously in the last 30 years. (You can also see that in Liz Sladen’s own more recent performances in The Sarah Jane Adventures, which by the way I heartily recommend. For one thing, it’s about ten times as “adult” as The Dreadful Torchwood.)
I was also pleased to see the Doctor not just brushing over Amy’s indiscretion at the end of Flesh and Stone, but confronting it head on by bringing Rory to Venice. Rory acquitted himself pretty well, showing enough courage to earn a more protracted stay in the TARDIS; I don’t see why Amy thought it was silly of him to try to repel the vampire with the sign of a cross. There’s some risk of a Doctor/Rose/Mickey vibe developing in the Doctor/Amy/Rory, but for now let’s trust the writers to be aware of that danger, and able to write around it. If Rory’s going to stay around, he needs to develop beyond Generic Well-Meaning Buffoon.
And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I continue to very much like Matt Smith’s Doctor. I’m not prepared to install him in the much-coveted potion of Best Doctor until I’ve seen a whole season, but the signs are good. Six episodes in, he has established himself firmly as his own man, and is by some distance the most thoughtful Doctor in recent memory. I particularly enjoyed his anticipation of Amy’s plan to infiltrate the vampires’ palace, and his reluctant but conclusive recognition that Isabella’s father had made his decision. (See how neatly I wrote that sentence spoiler-free? I do it for you guys. No need to thank me.)
Oh, and by the way: the episode is beautiful to look at. The locations and costumes are gorgeous. Should have mentioned that before.
Here’s a thing. By coincidence, it was this very evening that I happened to reach the end of my re-watching the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I don’t want to say too much about it because I have a post nine-tenths written on that subject, but I will just say this: watching Vampires in Venice and Prophecy Girl on the same evening shows just how much Doctor Who and Buffy differ in their approach. Without ever dragging, Buffy takes the time to stop and look at the characters, and that time is well spent. In that climactic episode of the first series, we are given an opportunity to look at Buffy’s quiet courage as she sets her face to confront the Master, knowing that her death is prophesied. There is no big scene; no oh-look-at-me-I’m-so-noble moment; just the gently heartbreaking spectacle of a sixteen-year-old taking on responsibility beyond what she ought to have to carry, and doing her best to shield her friends from even having to know about it, let alone participate. It’s masterfully judged: there is nothing heavy-handed about it, but the elemental evil of vampires, the weight of the burden of fighting them and the firmness of spirit that is needed to do so all emerge organically from an episode that has time to breathe.
So I find myself thinking that maybe Doctor Who should rush less. This season certainly rushes less than the David Tennant seasons did — it’s a step in the right direction — but I think that the writers should have the courage to take it a step further. We’ve seen enough of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan to know that they both have the acting chops to make use of more time — neither of them needs to be running down corridors all the time to stay interesting.
All in all, I rate Vampires in Venice a success, but not a resounding one. Comparing with equivalent episodes in previous seasons, it lacks the weight of Season One’s Dalek, covers more interesting ground and in more depth than Season Two’s The Idiot’s Lantern or Season Three’s The Lazarus Experiment, and towers above Season Four’s execrable The Doctor’s Daughter.
I think we’re on target for the best Doctor Who season ever.