Thoughts on: The Vampires of Venice

This could easily have been the kind of throwaway filler that usually follows one of the walloping centrepieces in a series, and, admittedly, this was filler, but it’s easily some of the best filler I’ve ever watched. Vampires in 16th Century Venice. Sounds eye-rollingly dumb, but this episode was a quality work of writing and production. The vampire plot was actually intriguing and rather mysterious, bolstered by the magnetic presence of Helen McCrory as Rosanna Calvierri, the imperious matriarch of the vampires. The story reeked of plot and intrigue from the outset, and the episode was suitably set in Venice, the city of secrets and conspiracy, for which a sumptuous Croatian village was shot as a double. Add a moral dilemma concerning the fate of a displaced alien species, and hilarious triangular romantic comedy between the three leads, and we have an episode that achieves more than your average filler.

I can’t resist hot vampires, and these fanged femmes were well fit. There was a pretty blonde one who particularly caught my eye. My taste in the female undead aside, the vampire plot, although self-consciously camp, was written and conceived well such that it genuinely held my interest and almost made me forget about how ostensibly silly the idea was. Aliens disguised as humans is becoming a bit of a tedious idea on Doctor Who, but it wasn’t necessarily that offensive here, although it could have worked better if the vampires were actually vampires, and vampires are aliens… the Time Lords were supposed to have gone to war against a race called the “Great Vampires”, maybe they could have been related to them? In general this premise worked well, it wasn’t trying to be ambitious, so I can hardly mark it down for not being completely inspired, and it achieved successfully what it set out to achieve, which was to offer a bit of fun but quality storytelling to follow the previous high-charged two-parter. There was also a very compelling moral dilemma which set this episode apart from other filler episodes, like The Idiot’s Lantern, involving the fate of the fish species. Signora Calvierri’s confrontation with the Doctor was an electric couple of minutes of dialogue, and her death scene, representing the death of her species, was an uncharacteristically dark note in this otherwise lighthearted romp. Her words, about the Doctor having the weight of another dead race on his conscience, rang a bit uncomfortably true.

Rory makes a delightful addition to the TARDIS team in this episode. I can’t believe how much I didn’t appreciate Rory when I first watched these episodes—blame youth. He’s adorably goofy and insecure and bewildered as his fiancée and an alien sporting a bow tie run, cackling madly, into the clutches of vampires and aliens. “What is wrong with you people?!” Arthur Darvill has great comical instincts and he’s a hilarious addition to the Doctor’s posse. His fight scene with Francesco was absolutely rofl-worthy. We also got a follow-up on the last episode’s saucy “cliffhanger” in the form of some awkward romantic comedy between the Doctor, Rory and Amy, i.e. the stuff about Rory posing as Amy’s brother and “Yours is bigger than mine.” Rory’s insecurities are so sweet, but it’s good that Moffat is emphatically resolving this question before it becomes too big an issue. Moffat rightly didn’t want another Doctor-Rose-Mickey triangle where Mickey became an unfortunate liability for the writers who didn’t know what to do with him given Rose’s callous dumping him for the Doctor. The Doctor, in this case, finds himself haplessly coming between his best friend and her betrothed, and sets out to patch things up before it gets out of hand. Mercifully, he seems successful, as, by the end, everything seems good again between them.

My verdict: a surprisingly quality effort for a piece of camp filler. Well done.

Rating: 8/10.   

Thoughts on: The Eleventh Hour

It’s funny. I’ve seen this episode a number of times before, but it’s only upon this rewatch that it struck me how good this episode is. I can’t explain it, but I enjoyed this episode more than I ever have before. Perhaps it’s because I watched it as part of a marathon, so it was more apparent to me how fresh and different it was from the four years of the show it had followed. This is the first story of the Moffat era, and the new showrunner has gone all out in taking the show in a bold new direction: new Doctor, new companion, new intro, new TARDIS, new sonic screwdriver, new music, new writers, producers, directors, everything, a distinct change in tone and style, and the show even looks different. It’s as close to a wholesale reboot Doctor Who has experienced since the show came back drastically revamped in 2005. The purpose of all this change and renovation is to make a clean break from the RTD era and to usher in a completely new era of the show. Doctor Who is reinvented and reshaped to according to the fresh artistic vision of Steven Moffat. And I love it.

The biggest job this episode had was the introduction of the new Doctor. The youngest actor ever to play the Doctor, Matt Smith was sure to come under intense critical scrutiny, but I think, in his first outing, he acquitted himself with distinction. No, that’s an understatement; he was astoundingly good. There was always the danger that another young Doctor was going to be too similar to David Tennant’s Doctor, and in some respects Eleven was very reminiscent of Ten, but it’s also clear that Eleven is also a wholly different person; a new man. He’s eccentric and hyperactive and just a bit mad. A lot mad, actually. He’s bonkers. He’s clearly more of an alien than David Tennant’s profoundly human Doctor, and his characterisation has echoes of Patrick Troughton’s whimsy and Tom Baker’s aloof alienness. The first time we see him on solid ground, he bewilders little Amelia Pond by going through her whole kitchen in search of something to eat that won’t make him retch, before finally settling on fish fingers and custard. It was a delightfully magical scene that established what Matt Smith’s Doctor was about in hilarious style. He continued to dazzle and impress throughout the story. One particularly good scene in relation to the Doctor’s characterisation was when (grown-up) Amy backed him into a car and, understandably resentful and confused after twelve years, demands he explain himself. He tosses her the apple she gave him twelve years ago and, smooth and gentle as anything, quelled her anger and convinced her to trust him. It was beautiful. We got a glimpse of another, softer, human side to the Eleventh Doctor here—he’s not all just fish fingers and custard.

The second, but arguably no less daunting task this episode set out to accomplish was to introduce Amy, the new companion. It was a stroke of genius to show the new Doctor with little Amelia first before joining him up with grown-up Amy. It meant the episode didn’t have the difficult task of introducing a new Doctor and a new companion at the same time. We got an idea of what the new Doctor was about first, and then he was joined up with the new companion, and the focus shifted to her. Karen Gillan’s portrayal of Amy in this episode encapsulated perfectly why Amy is my favourite companion. She’s not a Mary-Sue like RTD’s companions. She’s not necessarily meant to be a surrogate for the audience—at least not to the extent that RTD’s companions were. She’s her own self-contained character. I think she has the most interesting personality of any companion yet. She’s feisty and pert and flirtatious and uninhibited and daring. She’s very grown-up in her, er, “sexual instincts”, but she’s still a child inside, with a child’s sense of wonder and adventure. This was particularly apparent when she stepped into the TARDIS and looked like a little girl in a magic garden, her eyes wide and filled with childlike wonder. I love her so much. Maybe I’m biased, but I also think Karen Gillan is the best actress to play a companion yet. It just seemed to me, even from this episode alone, that Gillan’s acting is on another level to that of her predecessors. Amy was a very convincing character, after all.

To say something about the plot, it was a fairly simplistic runaround, but that was hardly the point of this episode. In any other context I might mark the episode down for an unimaginative plot, but not here. This episode was all about introducing a new Doctor and a new companion and rebooting the series; a more complicated plot might have distracted from this focus and actually detracted from the quality of the story. In any case, somehow, the light plot was actually made kind of exciting and gripping. I don’t know how, but I found myself totally enthralled by a plot I might have found tedious if it wasn’t played out as well as it was. I was so gripped that I actually forgot to take notes for the majority of this episode, and that’s the first time that’s happened since I started writing these reviews, which says a lot about how effective this episode is. The “cracks in time” arc that was established in this story really piques my interest. That scene in Amelia’s bedroom where the Doctor is investigating the crack was actually quite creepy. Even now, Moffat delights in scaring children every opportunity he can. I’ll bet there were a lot of petrified children scouring their bedrooms for cracks in the wall after this aired.

Some final thoughts. The supplementary details and aspects of Moffat’s reinvention of the show were very effective. I absolutely adored the new TARDIS. It’s wacky and spacey-wacey and looks just a bit unreal, like something out of a fantastical dream. It works perfectly with the “fairytale” tone of the new era. The other thing I really like is the shift in the aesthetic appearance of the new series. It’s all much more cinematic and clean and delicate, which makes for a more pleasing visual experience, I think. That aspect, too, works well with the shift in tone, as compared with the more gritty, intimate, almost soap operatic aesthetic of the RTD era. This all makes for a fantastic and intriguing rebooting of the series. This is the era that made me into a proper fan of Doctor Who, so, of course, I’m very sympathetic to the changes made in this series, most of all the new leads of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, who remain my favourite Doctor and companion. As a final thought, I thought Arthur Darvill was excellent as Rory. It’s hugely enjoyable watching him, he has a great sense for humorous performance. Rory himself is a charming, adorable character whom you feel for just a bit. There’s the danger that Rory is going to become Mickey 2.0, an awkward hanger-on to the lead companion whom the writers don’t know what to do with, but, of course, we know now that Moffat and Co. wisely avoided that particular pitfall.

Rating: 10/10.