I’VE discovered a new facial expression I didn’t know I had – to happy, sad, surprised, Blue Steel, Magnum and some others I don’t want to mention here I can now add my Doctor look.
It involves sort of dopily staring into space, half smiling and occasionally mouthing words like ‘awesome’ and ‘oh that’s clever’ as the latest episode of Doctor Who unfolds in front of me.
When I sat down to watch The Vampires of Venice I wasn’t sure if the Doctor look would be deployed, coming as it did after a stupendous two-part tour de force from Steven Moffat.
I needn’t have worried. It was a solid standalone episode from Toby Whithouse that managed to be funny (did you get the Casanova reference? Or Don’t Look Now?) and great to look at for the most part while layering on heaps of character development – even if some sections didn’t stand up.
As so often this series, perception was everything and nothing was as it seemed as the Doctor took Amy and Rory to Venice in the 1500s (beautifully realised btw) as a pre-wedding gift, only to find a city in the sway of a mysterious school and its Vampiric owners and Hammer Horror-like pupils, complete with heaving breasts. For my 10-year-old son who loves vampires, the excitement factor was already set at def-con 1.
Once the Doctor started taking an interest however, it turned out the girls weren’t extras from Over The Rainbow gegging in again, but had been transformed into alien fish people (also well realised with great special effects) who were changing the women of Venice into brides for the rest of their species swimming in the canals, before planning to sink Venice itself.
They were led by Helen McCrory‘s Rosanna Calvierri as the big fish – ho ho -who had real depth herself in being driven not by being a mad scientist or evil genius, but by altruism as she saw it – the desire to save her race from extinction at the hands of the mysterious cracks in the universe and the silence they bring.
I was fascinated by her line about whether the Doctor could stand the death of another race on his conscience because it made me realise with all the fuss about who or what Amy is, I’d sort of ignored him this series.
That is a shameful admission as Matt Smith inhabits the character to an astonishing degree with his incredible ability to look about nine as Amy said, and yet 900 at the same time. Here, Smith was note perfect whether he was bumbling through a story about kissing Amy after bursting from a cake or sternly admonishing Rosanna for not knowing the name of the girl she sacrificed or even sending Amy back to the TARDIS to keep her safe, against his wishes.
Smith’s performance constantly reminds the viewer that the Doctor is a hero who stands in harm’s way willingly and for the greater good, but despite being written by Mr Everybody Lives himself, he is also soaked in blood and surrounded by bodies with all the lives, worlds and universes he has saved coming at a terrible cost.
The line about his conscience seemed to really hit home, just like Rory’s about his hazardous effect on other people who don’t want to let him down and just like Father Octavian saying he would tell his clerics’ families of their deaths after the Doctor had flown away in his little blue box.
What does that do to a man who has seen so much for so long, who has shed his skin but not his memories or experiences? Must he always move forward to the next challenge, the next adventure, for fear of stopping and turning around?
For David Tennant‘s Doctor,that weight of history and responsibility nearly drove him over the edge as the Time Lord Victorious. Smith’s Doctor is still finding his feet but he already seems more unstable than 10, driven by a mercurial and manic energy. He also did not save the fish people, instead telling them to suck it up basically and get on with it, with Rosanna throwing herself in the canal as a result.
I wonder if that is really what this series is about with its references to the Pandorica and silence falling – a reckoning for the Doctor after all this time.
Thinking about stuff like this brings on my Doctor face too, as well as making me grateful to be able to watch something so good every week.
Smith and the Doctor weren’t the only good things this week. Toby Whithouse’s script was fantastic, filled with zingy one liners that were laugh out loud funny as well as clever references and geek-powered moments like the William Hartnell library card. Even knowing it was coming, I still nearly jumped off my hair when Matt Smith held it up.
I was very taken with Arthur Darvill’s performance as Rory too. Who companions’ boyfriends can easily become a third wheel but Rory was helped here by Whithouse’s easy familiarity with writing for three main characters, as in the awesome Being Human. (Come to think of it, clever brave girl, awkward chap and man older than he looks have adventures together? Where have I seen that before?)
He was funny when he needed to be, but beyond that he showed greater perception as he called the Doctor on the effect he has on other people, making them put themselves in danger to impress him. That was puzzling as he has only seen the Doctor once before, and then briefly. How does he have such strong and well established views?
From all the childhood games Amy made him play, dressing up as the Doctor, or something else? One to keep an eye on anyway.
In an episode that worked so well, it was a shame that its flaws were so apparent. If I were nit-picking, I’d point out that the Jaws moment in the canal broke the show, don’t tell rule of TV where seeing sea monsters attack someone is always better than hearing someone say ‘they’re biting me!’.
And the Bat-Doctor climbing the roof to defuse the alien’s sinking machine showed the story’s ambition clattering awkwardly against its effects budget. You could also ask why a race of fish people didn’t put their key machinery underwater, where they could access it easily, instead of on the roof? Or why the vampires weren’t just vampires?
But I’d feel churlish doing so as I enjoyed The Vampires of Venice so much and it kept this series’ standards high.
One final point. When RTD was calling the shots, the Moff was always seen as the man in waiting because of the quality of his work. I wonder, now that Moff is in the hotseat, could Toby Whithouse be the next in line to the throne?
Of course the Moff has only just got his feet under the table and will be around for a good while yet, but when the time comes when he decides to move on? Just remember you heard it here first.