Monday, May 10, 2010

The Vampires of Venice

8/5/10 “The Vampires of Venice
“Vampires—I am loving it!” --The Doctor

I was really looking forward to this episode. I enjoyed it as a whole but, perhaps inevitably, I enjoyed the costumes and the setting a great deal more! I remember two years ago someone wondered if it was worth the expense and the trouble of going all the way to Rome to film “Fires of Pompeii”—she didn’t think so, but I did. Personally I find it unquestionable that it was worth going to Croatia: this was a worthy successor to the historical benchmark set by “The Shakespeare Code” and a joy to watch.

It’s easy to say that all the elements were there and that the right person had been picked to write it: vampires, Venice, a girls’ school, aliens, and Toby Whithouse, he of Being Human fame—yet to be honest, that didn’t work for “Victory of the Daleks”—that had all the elements and an experienced Who writer, too. Maybe I’m a tiny bit biased: throughout the episode I had to keep repeating to myself, in all seriousness, “That’s gorgeous!” But to give it as high praise as I have, you must remember that the idea was originally stolen from my friend Johanna and I, who wrote about the vampires of Venice in our novella The Blood of Venice in 1997!

The teaser was classic Who stuff: Guido the boatman was sending his daughter Isabella to a school run by aristocrat Rosanna Calvieri. They are overjoyed when Isabella is allowed to be educated at the school, but Guido sniffs trouble when he is abruptly told, “Say goodbye to your daughter,” and Isabella is spirited away, not long after being leered at by Rosanna’s son Francesco. While not going into instructive detail about the period in history, bits of Whithouse’s story hint at historical precedents: I think of the schools, slightly later, where young women lived, being educated to become singers or musicians but essentially in a convent life (there was an excellent radio play on the subject in 2008, and Milton it seems became a friend of one such lady when he visited Italy in 1637). That families offered up their daughters to be educated in someone else’s household makes a subtle reference to the period itself.

Much more overtly, we gauge the tenor of the episode from the costumes and the settings. In the low light of Rosanna’s “throne room” in this early scene, her golden Elizabethan collar gives a deceptive opulence to her costume. Don’t get me wrong, when seen in full light it’s certainly beautiful and historically accurate (to the Elizabethan ideal and in a lush royal purple palette), but it’s much simpler in design than one might expect—especially considering the fabrics aristocracy during this period favored (take a look at Queen Elizabeth’s outfit in “Shakespeare Code” to see what I mean). I’m not sure if this was done for character reasons, for practical reasons (it seems likely the extras were kitted up in BBC wardrobes from previous productions), or for allowing Rosanna to get out of her costume at the end of the episode. In any case, I looked at the costumes and went “oooh.” I also thought of “State of Decay” (which is a story I like).

After all that, though, Rory phones Amy from his stag party (read: bachelor party). “It’s been seven hours since I told you I love you—that’s scandalous!” Amy’s not there, of course—fortunately the Doctor pops out of the cake intended to contain a stripper—best entrance ever! (I’ve always wanted to pop out of a cake!) He then takes both Rory and Amy back to the TARDIS and tells them that traveling the universe “blinds you to the things that are important.” Hence why he is putting Rory and Amy on a date together and chooses somewhere romantic so they can both get grounded again. So to speak!

They end up in 1580 in Venice. I don’t care if it’s really Croatia, it looks fabulous. I’ve never been to Venice but I’ve read enough about it, and though they don’t show St Mark’s Square or the Bridge of Sighs, it’s beautifully integrated filming, and all the extras going about the nitty gritty of daily life is beautifully illustrative. A picture tells a thousand words, and I think we can instantly believe we’re in Venice. This is good, because there’s no time made for the wisecracks that were said in “Shakespeare Code”—even the issue of clothing isn’t addressed; it’s odd that not even a concession toward it is made, at least until Rory and Amy dress up to foil the Calivieris. The Doctor himself is quick to provide us with the date, just because he doesn’t want to run into Casanova. This is very clever and made me laugh. (Ie it’s quite possible Casanova will be the spitting image of his last regeneration.)

Amy, Rory, and the Doctor run into an official who’s “looking for aliens,” foiled by the Doctor’s psychic paper (Amy is a Viscountess and Rory is her “eunuch”—a hundred years later, he could have been a wandering castrati in search of an opera company). The first whiff of trouble as far as the Doctor’s concerned is mention of the Plague, which connects him to Signora Calivieri. They also run into Guido, who’s trying to get Isabella back—unfortunately, she has joined the other girls of the school wearing white veils and carrying parasols and bearing their teeth at passersby. I knew the fact that the vampires’ teeth were different was a clue to them not actually being vampires (because that would be too easy, and plus, I’m sure while Doctor Who is glad of the audience that Twilight has stirred up for vampire stuff, the core audience of Doctor Who would want to distance itself from that teenage phenomenon—have I stepped on toes?). In any case, the costumes are fabulous, the scenery is fabulous. Like the Doctor, I’m loving it.

Certainly because, as we find out later, the vampires are doing their best to be true to their roles, a lot of the choreography is very iconic and stagey, especially when Rosanna is drinking from a chalice—OF BLOOD!—“Never interrupt Mummy when she’s hydrating,” says Francesco. There must be something inherently right about vampires in Elizabethan get ups, ‘cause that was one image that kept cropping up when I wrote Elisabeth Bathory into my one, long Doctor Who comic. In any case, clues are coming in that the vampires are bringing in new blood, so to speak, but that Rosanna has other children already. It’s vampire dynasty, which is again a recurrent theme, as well all know.

Rory and Amy are attempting to enjoy their date but get involved when Francesco decides to make a snack of a passing flower seller. It’s nice to have Rory on hand to pronounce “She’s okay” when they surprise Francesco in the act—the poor flower seller has been lucky. The Doctor has gone to ground, meanwhile, bringing in further vampiric motifs which are just fun, fun, fun. What would Kristeva have to say about the subterranean descent of the Doctor? Or Mrs Radcliffe for that matter? The Doctor echoes my sentiments as the Vampire Brides arrive, straight out of Dracula. Whithouse is keeping the sexuality inherent in vampirism much more subtextual than Stoker did—the Doctor is amused and bewildered by the fact he can’t see the Brides (I will call them that for fun; that is, in a sense, what they are) in the mirror—but there isn’t the seduction involved, like Lilith and the Tenth Doctor. These Brides are just interested in menacing and killing, rather than the ones that blur the fine line between pain and pleasure for poor Jonathan Harker.

The Brides speak as one, asking the Doctor who he is. He tries the psychic paper but only gets a library card checked out to William Hartnell! The Doctor manages to escape from the dozy Brides (how exactly I’m not sure) and runs into Amy and then Rory. Amy and the Doctor do a funny “OMG vampires” jig, just as Rory says, “Amy saw a vampire!” The Doctor wants to investigate the Calvieris and their school for scandal; Guido wants his daughter back; Rory wants Amy to go home to safety, and for once the Doctor isn’t disagreeing. “He said no, Amy. Listen to him.” They try to formulate a way of getting into the school—someone’s got to open the trap door. “You look about nine,” Amy snarks at the Doctor. “They’ve already seen the Doctor—you do it.” This, directed at Rory. So, Amy will be an unfortunate girl seeking education and Rory will be her brother. “They’re vampires, for God’s sake!” “Or worse,” says the Doctor darkly.

So far I haven’t said anything about the Doctor, Rory, and Amy. I’ve been swept up with the setting and the villains, which is as it should be, I think. However, are we seeing a repeat of “The Girl in the Fireplace” in terms of Mickey and Rose? Well, Amy isn’t rejecting Rory in the way Rose seemed to be constantly dismissing Mickey—but then again, Rose wasn’t engaged to Mickey. He had the right to feel mistreated and misled, but there was never a formal guarantee. Rory certainly has license to be upset at the Doctor when he freely admits that Amy kissed him. However, the Doctor/Amy/Rory relationship is a lot more inclusive, and the Doctor’s mission, without any ulterior motive (we suspect), to get Amy and Rory together again, is also freely spoken. It’s interesting, and the character shading of Rory helps distinguish this whole threesome from one(s) that have come before. It has potential, certainly.

Despite Rory’s terrible and deadpan funny introduction (wearing Guido’s clothes) at the school, Rosanna rather too eagerly takes the psychic paper and is impressed by their credentials from the King of Sweden. Amy’s peasant Venetian outfit is gorgeous again. She is accepted and taken up to the room where all the Brides are waiting, Carmilla¬-like. She’s told to change into her Bride outfit; the only one to act the least bit human is Isabella, who tells her what happens to her at night (again, very Carmilla). The set for the bedroom is a Gothic vampire paradise. It’s absolutely fantastic, and screams Vathek, The Monk, “Ligeia”—anything Gothic horror, it screams.

Amy makes her own Phantom-y descent into subterranean depths (eat your heart out, Jerrold E. Hogle) as the Doctor and Rory race to meet her halfway. I always remember that RTD said Jack and the Doctor couldn’t have a touchy-feely discussion except in that radiation room during a tense and dangerous situation in “Utopia”: it’s clearly the same dynamic for why Rory chooses this point to grill the Doctor about Amy and his intentions (certainly it’s good for dramatic tension as well). “You kissed her back!” “No, I kissed her mouth.” Oh, Doctor, you big weird face. “That’s why I brought you here,” says the Doctor. Because he was there, he argues, and not Rory, Amy turned to him out of relief. We have an inkling (or perhaps more than an inkling) that that isn’t true; nevertheless, it’s a good sentiment. They also find a vampire skeleton in a chest (!) suggesting that “maybe not everyone survives the process.” Rory is unhappy and levels a similar accusation at the Doctor’s recklessness that has cropped up a few times in the new series: “You make them want to impress you.”

Amy, meanwhile, has been apprehended and is going to be turned into a vampire. Rosanna explains that the vampires are going to suck her dry and then fill her with their own blood. When Amy admits that she’s engaged, Rosanna tells her she has hundreds of bridegrooms to choose from. In any case, again, Carmilla, anyone? Why was it that Rosanna sucked Amy’s blood first? Certainly she is the matriarch and the one in charge, but it was Francesco who was sniffing around at Amy and the most likely choice for a heterosexual reading of the vampire subtext. And as brutal as strapping Amy down to a chair that’s “like for a surgery” is, had Matthew Lewis been writing this, it could have been much, much more disturbing and kinky. Of course, this is a family program and while vampires have perhaps been rendered safe up to a point, it seems very interesting to me that the “safe” choice is latent homoeroticism rather than a more black-and-white rendering of the very obvious. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it? Explaining Amy’s eventual transformation into a vampire, Rosanna tells her, “You awake and your humanity is a dream.” (Interesting considering the subject of next week’s episode!) Fortunately the Doctor and Rory rescue Amy, but at the cost of Isabella’s life.

We eventually find out what we’ve expected, that the vampires are actually aliens and that they look kind of like a cross between a lobster and the Empress of the Racnoss. Except for Francesco, all of these “monsters” are female—this is similar to Dracula, and of course in that there was always the double standard of Lucy being critiqued for her “promiscuous” behavior and becoming a vampire and eventually being staked (read: gang raped) by her former suitors—yes, I’m going off into a tangent again, but again it’s quite interesting. There are a lot more parallels with “The Runaway Bride” than at first meet the eye. As the Doctor finds out, it’s Rosanna’s children who are her reason for turning to villainy and wanting to turn all of Venice into vampires—to keep them alive, her sons who are at the moment swimming around in Venice’s canals in fish!lobster state (I hope this doesn’t negatively impact Venice’s tourist industry!). She realizes that the Doctor is an alien from his psychic paper—“I take it you’re a refugee like me.”

Theirs is an interesting conversation, not a confrontation in the way that the Headmaster and the Tenth Doctor’s was as the poolside in “School Reunion”—there is almost tenderness between Rosanna and the Doctor. She isn’t a moustache-twirling villain (even if she had a moustache to twirl) and despite having a murderous plan, doesn’t really seem to want to gloat. The Brides come after the Doctor, Guido, Amy, and Rory, and Guido blows them (and himself) up with gunpowder he’s cleverly stored. Before Rosanna realizes what has been done, she uses her steampunk technology to make the clouds boil—their plan is to sink Venice so it becomes habitable for their species. This involves Rory in a rather charming swordfight with Francesco (“You great big Spongebob!”). Amy comes to the rescue, in a bit of anti-climax! The Doctor climbs up to the bell tower and saves the day (I always bite my nails when he climbs to great heights—I think “Logopolis” is plenty reason to worry!). Rosanna kills herself in a most gruesome and extreme way, by stripping to shift and jumping into the water where her brethren devour her. Importantly, it isn’t the Doctor who pushes her (he was much more responsible for the death of the Empress of the Racnos and her children).

Things lighten up very quickly after that, and the Doctor wants to return Rory and Amy to their wedding day. “I’ll even give you away.” Amy has the good idea of letting Rory travel with them for a bit, and Rory (and crucially, the Doctor!) agree, too. It’s a good idea for the viewers because it will be interesting; it may be a bad idea for all involved if you look at next week’s episode.

I really did enjoy this, though time will tell if I keep that level of enthusiasm up after all the dust has settled.

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