A little late this week – partly thanks to being rather busy, and partly thanks to the fact that I wasn’t exactly blown away by “The Vampires of Venice”. The Who rollercoaster of quality continues – a shorter TV-related ramble follows. And, as usual, fear the spoilers…
We certainly seem to have our quality bench-marks worked out for this new incarnation of New Who – the Moffat episodes are going to be largely brilliant (if a little up and down at times), and the non-Moffat episodes… well, I can certainly see that the phrase “At least it’s not as bad as ‘Victory of the Daleks’” is probably going to be used quite a lot. It’s the down-side of having someone as fantastic as Moffat onboard as head writer – he can lay down some great tracks for people to follow, but you’ve got to have equally fantastic writers to take up the slack and keep things balanced. And in this case, unfortunately, we’ve got Toby Whithouse, author of S2 New Who episode School Reunion (an episode which even the reappearence of Liz Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith couldn’t make me like) and creator of Being Human (a show which, impossibly, manages to be even more emo than most anime I’ve seen, and which managed to take me from “Hmm, this seems quite good” to “Sod this, I’m never watching this complete arsing nonsense again” in the space of only seven episodes…).
No, The Vampires of Venice is not as bad as Victory of the Daleks, but it is a definite come-down after the spectacular one-two punch of The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. It’s a very obvious scramble back to a much more traditional New Who structure, giving us a historical romp with occasional lashings of horror, but nothing particularly scary – apparently, it was designed as a mid-season ‘reboot’ episode, a jumping-on point for new audience members (hence the lack of fuss made over the Doctor’s discovery that Amy and Rory’s wedding day is also the date that the explosion that cracks the universe happens), although we do get a couple of major pointers to the season arc that are a lot more explicit than New Who’s usual strategy (especially with the ‘Silence’ being namechecked for the first time).
And again, we get strong evidence that (a) doing a fast, pacey action adventure romp in 45 minutes is absurdly difficult to do unless you’re a very good writer (or, at least, a better writer than Toby Whithouse), and (b) Doctor Who is an absolute slave to its direction. Now more than ever, with the HD cameras giving the show a very filmic sheen, it’s really showing the Fifth season directors who can (Adam Smith) and the ones who can’t (To be honest… so far, just about everyone else). There’s a definite knack to getting Who to function properly onscreen, and I can’t help wishing that they hadn’t made quite such a clean sweep of new talent behind the cameras – having a not-exactly-spectacular but very reliable director like Euros Lynn around might have made The Vampires from Venice hang together a little bit better. It doesn’t help that there’s very obviously been lots of editorial jiggery-pokery going on – I’d lay bets that the episode over-ran by a fair margin, and they’ve tried to solve it by cranking the pace up to a near-hysterical level. The result is that the first few minutes barely give us a chance to draw breath, and feel absurdly choppy – it’s very obvious the pub scene wasn’t meant to lead into the credits (it’s possibly one of the weakest “lead into the credits” moments New Who has ever done), and the whole concept of Rory being dragged back into the Doctor’s world is done too fast. It’s a very important moment, and it’s wasted – it really feels like the strengths of this season are only fully obvious when there’s enough room to let them breathe.
Otherwise, elements like the introduction of Rory as an actual, full-fledged companion don’t register as well as they should. Because Rory does present a bit of a problem, as we’ve got to buy into the idea that Amy wants to spend the rest of her life with him (or at least, that this idea has sounded particularly appealing at some point), and it’s a concept that doesn’t really convince. Right now, Rory is trapped in the role of comedy boyfriend – there are some moments where he does get to up-end expectation (like the fact that he isn’t freaked out by the TARDIS), but a lot of his material is feeling like only a very slight improvement on Mickey Smith from S1/S2, which is hardly a bit of the programme’s history I was in a hurry to repeat. Amy isn’t as well-written here – and, to be honest, neither is the Eleventh Doctor (although they are at least more consistent than in Victory of the Daleks). Both of them are very distinctive, odd characters, especially this take on the Doctor, and it’s feeling like not all the writers have got a handle on how to get them right. Or, as suspected, Moffatt isn’t being quiet as hands-on as RTD was, meaning that the episodes don’t quite have the consistency of tone (even if the RTD tone wasn’t one I always liked).
About the strongest thing I can say about The Vampires of Venice is simply that I really don’t want to write that much about it – once you get into the plot, it’s very much a case of ‘been there, done that’. It’s a mixtape of previous historicals, and even the concept is familiar – runaway aliens mistaken for mythical/supernatural creatures has been turning up as a story device since The Unquiet Dead, and I can’t help feeling it’s time for it to be mothballed, as The Vampires of Venice doesn’t really do anything new with it. Combined with that, Toby Whithouse recycles big chunks of School Reunion (particularly the ‘Villain tries to win the Doctor over’ scene), and while there are some decent one-liners, the whole thing feels remarkably long for a single parter (especially in comparison to Flesh and Stone, which moved like a bullet). To be honest, I think the whole ‘big jolly blockbuster’ approach is inherently flawed, and certainly needs fresh ideas (as in The Eleventh Hour) to make it work. This episode doesn’t have a fresh idea, and simply makes do with lots of running around – it’s relatively entertaining running around, but while the more overt nods to the story arc are nice, there isn’t the strong emotional undercurrent that The Fires of Pompeii had. With the flaws in the Amy/Rory relationship, the less-than-amazing script, the weak direction, the effects that varied from impressive (some very nice creature CG) to the worst I’ve seen from New Who (including a cloudscape that was straight out of an Eighties fantasy movie) and a sense that we’re not seeing anything Who hasn’t done dozens of times already, The Vampires of Venice isn’t an episode I’m in a rush to see again. (To be honest, one of the weirdest elements was the fact that aside from a few OTT moments, Murray Gold’s score was surprisingly good this episode, doing more than the direction to conjure a bonkers Hammer Horror style. He’s had a very good season, and the moments that have annoyed me have been more than outweighed by the ones that have genuinely impressed me.) It’s more divisive than Victory of the Daleks – I’ve seen more positive feedback online for this episode, and overall it is a stronger episode. It’s only when you put it up against what Moffat’s pulling off in his episodes that it all looks rather weak.
At the least, I can but hope that pretty soon they’ll have run out of basic ‘historical romp’ set-ups and will have to come up with something new. Also, I’m hoping that while Rory’s reintroduction wasn’t fantastic, he does look to be sticking around long enough for some better writing focused on his relationship with Amy. And while we’ve got another five episodes before we’re back with Moffat for the big finale, I am going to keep my mind open. The upcoming episode certainly looks weirder, and more in the spirit of the episodes that have worked best so far (even if it’s also coming from Simon Nye, the writer of Men Behaving Badly, a fact that has me somewhat bemused) – and I guess we’ll see how the non-Moffat episodes continue. Fingers crossed…