|What do you mean Girls Aloud are “on hiatus”?
It’s May 8th, 2010. Roll Deep are at number one with “Good Times,” with Taio Cruz, Usher, Plan B, and Timbaland also charting. In news, the bombing in Mogadishu is widely blamed on Al Qaeda, protests begin in Greece against austerity measures, and the general election takes place, with results described in a Pop Between Realities post at the start of the Smith era, although the actual formation of a government does not take place this week.
Meanwhile, on television, Toby Whithouse’s The Vampires of Venice. The decision to bring back Toby Whithouse was, in many ways, obvious. He had experience with Doctor Who, but had by this point distinguished himself with Being Human and shown that he could more broadly handle genre-based character drama. But there’s a second and subtler reason at play here, which is that in many ways Whithouse has been brought back to write the same story he did last time. School Reunion was one of the better notes of the 2006 season, but one if its main purposes was to rehabilitate Mickey such that he would serve as a functioning companion instead of the buffoon he was initially portrayed as.
In many straightforward regards, The Vampires of Venice is visibly designed to serve the same purpose. It is the “reintroduce Rory” episode, and, more to the point, the one in which he becomes a regular companion. And Rory served many of the same purposes in The Eleventh Hour that Mickey did way back in Rose – he’s the good but slightly inadequate guy that the new companion leaves in favor of a life of adventure. In that story he’s nobody’s favorite character, and this is by design. His role is to be replaced by the Doctor. And so when he does come back in The Vampires of Venice, the audience’s reaction is necessarily one of slight hostility. He is, after all, a third wheel on our brand new TARDIS team that we’ve been set up to love over the past five episodes.
Another way of putting this, then, is that the series has so far led us to, if not root for Amy to abandon her wedding and run off in the TARDIS, at least to fail to have any strong feelings that she should go back and marry Rory. It is, at this point in the narrative, more or less impossible to have those feelings: Rory isn’t developed enough as a character to motivate them. And since marrying Rory is explicitly set up as a threat to the fun adventures in time and space, the audience has been carefully positioned to be relatively hostile to the idea. This is not ironclad, of course – surely there exist people who sided with Rory from the start. But the series has been constructed so as to give the sense (without actually having said much of anything about it) that it is on Team Doctor, to borrow another text’s milieu. Doubly so because Series Five’s conscious reiteration of much of the Davies-era structure makes it easy to simplistically read Rory as the new Mickey, and thus to define the character primarily through his inadequacy.
And here we get to the big difference between School Reunion and The Vampires of Venice, which is that Mickey never actually transcends that characterization. Davies really does conclude that Mickey isn’t good enough for Rose, instead giving her the half-human Doctor to grow old with while Mickey gets written out alongside Martha in the most awkward bit of the whole “Doctor’s reward” sequence in The End of Time. Even though he gets to travel on the TARDIS and gets to show up and save the day with a really big gun in Army of Ghosts, Mickey is always the also-ran character.
Rory, on the other hand, is yet another feint on the part of Moffat – a case where the audience is carefully allowed to fall into one set of expectations only to have the story turn out to be something different. With the benefit of hindsight we know that Rory is in fact every bit as major a character as Amy, and that the resolution of this problem is, in practice, not that he’s an also-ran. But the series has carefully kept us from realizing that up to this point. And, crucially, this isn’t actually the episode that’s going to reverse things – there’s an entire second feint to be had about Rory before we finally circle around to the resolution. So Whithouse is left with the interesting challenge of writing an episode that is in a large part about Rory, but that nevertheless remains suspended in the ambiguity between Rory-as-Mickey and Rory-as-Pond.
The trick that Whithouse subtly hits on is the decision to have the Doctor be consciously on Rory’s side in this. Once the Doctor recognizes that Amy is in part using the fairy tale adventure to run away from a sense of responsibility and adulthood, he becomes proactive in attempting to fix this. Without overstressing the point, The Vampires of Venice stays manifestly on Rory’s side, and puts the Doctor there as well. There’s a really elegant balance here. Amy retains agency throughout the story, thus avoiding any sense that this is a story about two men deciding her fate. But nevertheless, the story is driven forward in a large part because the Doctor wants to make Amy and Rory’s relationship work.
But for all that these scenes are scattered carefully throughout the episode, they’re not the focus. Instead Whithouse writes to the brief of penning a jumping on point that would serve as a sort of standard issue Doctor Who, using Rory to introduce all the tropes. By stressing Rory’s inexperience in contrast with Amy and the Doctor’s familiarity with the life of adventuring, this ends up being done primarily through comedy. Rory bumbles his way through the plot, exposing “standard” Doctor Who in contrast by tacitly highlighting what a proper Doctor Who story would do.
This requires, in the background, an enormously proper Doctor Who story. Which in this case is taken to mean a story built on the “take a location and put a type of monster in it” model. But there’s been some care with this. 16th century Venice immediately reinforces the “fairy tale” aesthetic, and the use of vampires furthers it. The sense of storybook adventure is strong here. This is very much the program showing its most standard repertoire. But everything is done particularly well. The decision to film in Croatia pays off handsomely here – the episode looks absolutely gorgeous and drips with a texture that elevates the entire thing.
What this means is that even though the apparent substance of the script – the actual vampires in Venice – are fairly thin, the whole thing comes off fairly well. The ending is a bit rough – there are four separate denouements lasting nearly fifteen minutes, and the rush to wrap everything up makes this one of the new series stories with the highest body counts – the only two credited characters to survive are the inspector who lets the Doctor into Venice and Carlo the steward. But the messiness of the ending only exists because the story puts so much effort into having a lot going on. Inasmuch as the ending is overloaded, it’s because the preceding thirty minutes do such a good job of constantly throwing new things into the mix that it manages to keep things moving.
The result feels slender in many ways, though this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially after the previous episode’s rather massive pile of arc plot. The biggest problem is that it’s not quite clear why this story would serve as a jumping on point for anyone. There’s nothing here that seems particularly likely to hook people who haven’t been watching – it’s not anchored by a major guest star or some instantly recognizable monster. It’s in the same slot as the Series One soft relaunch, but that was Dalek, a story with obvious ability to draw in new viewers. This, however, is not a story along those lines.
Instead, then, it really does serve as a platform for the characters to show their stuff. Moffat has said that he suspected the “burst out of the cake” scene would be where people would finally accept Smith as the Doctor, and though that proved ludicrously pessimistic, it does capture much of what this version of the Doctor can do that others can’t. It’s not just that Smith has exquisitely good comic timing, although he does, but that he plays the Doctor with a charming awkwardness that nobody has quite brought to the part before. Similarly, his scene with the vampires and the mirror is absolutely marvelous (and rightly extracted for trailers and clips) because of the physicality he brings to the part. It’s a genuinely new take on the Doctor – one in which the mercurial swiftness of his mind is physically performed and transmuted into bodily movement. It’s not that the lines Whithouse writes for that scene are terribly unusual – they all could be performed by Tennant. But Tennant would just have a big grin on his face and do it much like the “Blood control!” bit from The Christmas Invasion. Where Tennant’s Doctor was always a discrete set of decisions based on Tennant’s ability to cram a lot of clear acting decisions into a short time, Smith’s Doctor instead just sort of burbles out activity, not so much seeming to be constantly making decisions as constantly acting and reacting without differentiation.
Karen Gillan, on the other hand, is also settling effectively into her role. The story is very invested in maintaining Amy’s sense of agency – note that it’s consciously her decision to risk infiltrating the Calvierri school, and that the episode deliberately ends with a gag about how the Doctor and Rory are “her boys.” This is important – as noted, this is in one sense an episode in which Rory and the Doctor spend an awful lot of time debating Amy’s future behind her back and making decisions on her behalf. This isn’t in and of itself unreasonable in the context of the episode – there’s plenty of good Rory/Amy scenes as well where they come to terms with their new life, and moving to have the Doctor and Rory clear the air quickly largely defuses a lot of worst plots that would come down the line. But it’s nevertheless an episode that could marginalize Amy as “the girl one” in a cast that is now majority male. It falls to Gillan, then, to have the presence and poise to keep Amy as a force in her own right and as a character with agency. Gillan, for her part, is extremely good at this. Part of it is a physical contrast with Smith. Where Smith’s Doctor is all motion and blur, Gillan is almost always physically anchored in a shot. She’s extremely good at simply holding a compelling and dynamic pose. (She is, and this is a strange thing to say but nevertheless vital, very possibly the best actress Doctor Who has ever had at handling directions like “pretend there’s an earthquake and fall down.”) The result is a character who never appears to be anything other than wholly in control of herself, such that she can be in the background of a scene and still feel like a major part of it. There’s a line of criticism that suggests that Amy’s character can be reduced to merely being “feisty,” but it is in practice so much more than that – Amy, as played by Gillan, is nearly impossible to push to the margins. Even when she’s being tied to a chair and left to scream and have her blood drained, she’s imperious. She manages to play “delirious and having her blood drained” so as to retain Amy’s agency.
And then there is Arthur Darvill, in many ways making his true debut here. His abilities are subtler, but nevertheless tremendous. First and foremost is a supreme sense of comic timing. Darvill is cast as the straight man for this episode, and plays it with aplomb. His scene broomfighting with Francesco is an absolute masterclass in which he manages to look ridiculous and out of his depth in a gloriously deliberate way. Every single time the script requires a joke about how Rory is rubbish at this he manages to sell it completely. But this obscures the way in which he can push the character in other directions. The vein of steel underlying his challenge to the Doctor to promise that Amy will be OK is fantastic, and he manages to elevate the otherwise banal “you make people want to impress you” bit into something interesting by recognizing that the scene is not, in fact, about making an ethical critique of the Doctor but is instead about Rory having gotten to the point where he’s willing to say that to the Doctor in the first place. His quiet glee at having been deemed good enough to be invited along for more adventures at the end is absolutely wonderful. The depths of Rory’s character aren’t clear yet, and Darvill’s performance never invites the audience’s investment in quite the same way that Smith and Gillan’s energetic “we are the lead characters” vamping does. Nevertheless, what we have here is an episode that is largely about quietly and subtly beginning to set up Rory’s transition from a Mickey clone to the third lead character of the Moffat era, and Darvill’s performance shows an incredibly nuanced awareness of exactly how that transition has to work. He plays the comic role perfectly, but with a considered depth to the character that absolutely makes the episode.
So after a big, dramatic, and possibly overly epic two-parter we get a bit of fluff that exists as a showcase of what the series can do. The answer is look pretty, be exciting, be full of ideas, and have three great lead characters. As a piece to transition into what we might think of as Act Two of the first series, it does the job while remaining interesting.
We ought return briefly to Whithouse, just as ground-laying for the possibility that he’s an author with a much bigger role to play in Doctor Who in years to come. This is not his best script – it’s workmanlike in many ways. But he was given a workmanlike job. This isn’t meant to be flashy – it’s meant to be a story about a date gone very weird that demonstrates the show at its most basic. It’s not an easy or fun brief, and Whithouse fills it out with a script that’s better than it has to be. In many ways the obvious point of comparison is Victory of the Daleks, the series’ previous attempt at a comfort food story. Put in that context, Whithouse’s virtues as a writer become clear.