Saturday, May 15, 2010

Pesce Al Dente

Only a week or two ago I was browsing in the local bookshop and was dismayed to see a whole shelf full of vampire novels from different authors, different publishers, all with similarly styled covers. Like clones they were. Spawn of Twilight, we'll call them, although I'm not sure if Twilight was the first so much as the one that just happened to soar higher than the rest. It's a tad depressing for authors who are constantly striving to break into the publishing world with something a little more creative and original. Fair dues to those vampire authors, for all I know, many of them had put a brilliantly fresh and different spin on their bloodsucking creatures of the night, but the fact is I wasn't remotely tempted to pick up any of the books and read because their publishers (a breed of people often known to express concerns that they 'don't know how to make [insert name of original work here] stand out in a competitive market') had made them *all look the same*.

But I'll climb down off my soap box because I'm meant to be here reviewing The Vampires Of Venice and soap and canals just don't mix. Too many bubbles. Curiously enough though, bubbly is exactly what this latest Doctor Who story manages to be. For all that I'd reached the stage where I thought if I saw another vampire I'd scream, this histhorrorical romp was never short of entertaining.

Perhaps in recognition of the perennial surfeit of haemovores, the story works a little too hard at giving them their sci-fi twist. But it deserves points for trying and the creature design (more fish-headed lobster-thing than 'fish from space') is an interesting one, with even the traditional vampiric fangs lent a more piranha-like look. The perception filter is a familiar concept to fans, of course, many of whom have one of their own – and they are apt to malfunction at the slightest knock. Joking aside though, it's a decent enough Doctor Who plot device and works well here up to the point where Rosanna (played superbly by Helen McCrory) removes it and slips into the water while retaining her human form. It's possible she fiddles with it beforehand to ensure that it somehow maintains her appearance remotely – thus facilitating her suicide – but it's not clear.

Similarly on first viewing I had some initial concerns that the effects of daylight on the Venetian vamps were too selective, but second time around I realise it's all a matter of brightness and in that respect the story is reasonably consistent. When they're out parading the streets and piazzas there's generally some cloud cover or they're shaded from direct sunlight by the buildings and/or lacey parasols or veils. That said, timing seems to have been fudged during the attempted rescue of Isabella, as our heroes venture into House Calvieri in the dead of night and don't appear to spend long enough inside for it to be morning when they emerge. Still, if it's for the convenience of the plot it's also for Isabella's inconvenience and the closing of that door in the Doctor's face (never mind the added electrocution) has genuine dramatic punch as well as investing Guido (Lucian Msamati) with convincing motivation for his own ultimate self-sacrifice.

It's one of a handful of moments that keep this from being entirely light and superficial. Which is not to underestimate the appeal of the superficial. The combination of a gorgeous setting and that almost Merchant Ivory sumptuousness you tend to get with BBC period drama is a visual treat. (And if we're permitted to be a little shallower for a moment, so are the vampire belles of the Calvieri school.)

What this story really thrives on is its humour. The Doctor's - and Amy's - sheer delight at the prospect of facing vampires sets the tone (and both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are clearly revelling in their roles), succeeding in pushing the scare potential firmly into the background. The story does have a reasonable go at generating a dose or two of fear, notably with Amy's experience in the 'green room'. And once again they strike the right balance for a companion, allowing her to be brave enough to get herself in trouble, gutsy and defiant when she's in it but also allowing her to be genuinely frightened when she's helpless, strapped in the chair and at the mercy of Rosella's fangs. (Isabella's death would have been scarier if she hadn't been narrating so much - “I'm Venetian, we can all swim. Something's touched my leg. They're all around me. Glug.” etc.) Laughs are the main order of the day though. It has a lively wit coursing through its veins and the jokes keep coming, from the Doctor bursting out of the cake (saw that coming, but it's not so much that he does it, it's what he says afterwards) to his finding the off switch on the alien weather control device. Even the simple visual gag of having Guido in the stag party sweat shirt is comic genius. Ninety percent of Rory's scenes are hilarious and those that aren't are because he's meant to be serious, levelling some heavy accusations at the Doctor. As misguided as I thought adding a boyfriend to the TARDIS crew was, I think he'll be a welcome addition.

There's just enough real drama to keep it meaningful and the contrast drawn between the Doctor as last of his race and Rosanna trying to save hers underlines it all effectively without over-egging the point. Their face-to-face chat is, unfortunately, one of those largely expositional conversations too common in Who, but it's played well and it calls to mind the similar meeting of two quality actors – David Tennant and Anthony Stewart Head - in Toby Whithouse's previous offering, School Reunion. I would have preferred a greater sense of the alien culture, some better idea of what the universe was losing, before Rosanna throws herself to the fishes and seals her race's fate, but it's just a feature of these 45-minute episodes that there's rarely room to make as much of certain elements as would be ideal.

Along the way there are some nice directorial touches: Rosanna and son describing different orbits around Isabella at the beginning, as though emulating the orrery-like device the Doctor has to disarm at the end; the shot of mummy's-boy Francesco sprawled in his mother's lap after she's done hydrating, evocative of Shakespearian tragedy; and Francesco, again, frozen in mid-dive as the camera cuts away before he strikes the water. A few artistic flourishes that show considerable thought and attention to detail.

They also make up for the slightly dodgy shot of the Doctor climbing the steeple at the end. Maybe the CGI wasn't quite up to it, maybe it's that the framing of the shot that reminds me of Batman and Robin scaling buildings in the old Adam West TV series, but something about it fails to convince. It's a small enough thing and I think there are bigger problems that aren't really to do with this story per se but are an issue of context.

The Doctor telling Rosanna that time can't be changed strikes a distinctly odd note, after making such a big deal of his conclusion, that time can be rewritten, the previous week. (In a musical scale that odd note would go something like, Doh! Ray! Me! Fah! So! La! Te! Huh?) Fair enough that Doctor Who has never really established a firm set of rules for time travel - generally it's 'whatever suits the story at any given time'. But if the stories are right next to each other and you're (apparently) building your arc around one particular principle, then you might expect some effort to have them vaguely agree. I'm sure it can be rationalised away, but for the moment it makes little sense. Which would bring us back to D'oh! I suppose. I've heard Who fans before complaining about magic in Who, but to my mind we may as well have spellcraft - and the purely supernatural - as variable internal logic. But then, I'm completely at a loss as to how the urgent mission to fix Amy - by playing matchmaker to her and Rory - will translate into repairing time and space, restoring Amy's memories of previous Dalek invasions and returning ducks to the village pond. So that's probably my perception filter going wonky. That or I'm a bit thick.

By episode end, it's fair to say that, as much as I am tired of creatures that you would think must have been sucked dry by now, I'm persuaded there was probably a better story that could have been told under the same title. The words The Vampires Of Venice incline me towards a darker tale, for instance, but here they opted for a romp that, minor niggles aside, was a lot of fun. And on that level it delivers very satisfactorily.

Not completely solid then. But firm, with just enough bite to keep it interesting.

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