20 May 2010

The Zero Room #3- The Vampires of Venice and Amy's Choice

We've now passed the midpoint of the fifth series, and it looks to be doing pretty well. This post covers The Vampires of Venice and Amy's Choice.

Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.

Following a come-on from Amy at the end of the previous episode, The Vampires of Venice opens innocuously enough, with the Doctor bursting out of a cake at Rory's stag night, in place of a lovely girl in a bikini. The Doctor's decided that the husband and wife to-be need to reaffirm their relationship, and offers them a date in 16th century Venice. There they find the city has been closed down for fear of plague, and the students of Rosanna Calvierri's school for girls stalk the city for new recruits. More than that, they're vampires, or at least masquerading as vampires, and they have plans for the impossible city. Ah, Venice...

After the new direction of the previous five weeks, writer Toby Whithouse revisits an old favourite of the series, the pseudo-historical. Notably, it's the first historical since 2005 to go back to before the 20th century without implementing a "historical celebrity", like Shakespeare or Queen Victoria. The Vampires of Venice comes along nicely without that baggage, and it's very nicely done by the Being Human scribe. It's not going to be anyone's favourite episode of the current run, but it's certainly decent.

For starters, it looks gorgeous, with the production team having found a marvellous double for historical Venice in Croatia, a location they're going to revisit later in the series to use as Paris. It's a versatile location that works beautifully here. Those disappointed by Amy's lack of wonderment thus far won't like how Karen Gillan once again plays it pragmatic, but might instead enjoy Arthur Darvill's return as Rory. He's got a great sense of comic timing that he didn't get to show off as much in the series opener, and he's simultaneously both reminiscent of and distinct to the show's previous tin dog, Mickey Smith.

Once again, Matt Smith shines in the lead role, here given a lot of material up against Helen McCrory as Rosanna, queen of the "vampires". There's a little of the last of the Time Lords angst that came to characterise the previous two Doctors, but his quiet and righteous fury continues to be one of the most compelling parts of his portrayal. McCrory holds her own to make a meal of a less than memorable villainness, and the vampires in general are tackled inventively. That's an achievement for an idea that's not only been done at least three times in Doctor Who before now, but is also being violated by Stephanie Meyer and any number of clingers-on to the current vampiric vogue.

As I mentioned, no-one is going to declare this the best of the series by the time it's over, and that's largely because the plot goes through the motions. In a Doctor Who drinking game, you'd be fairly sozzled if you had to take a shot every time the Doctor climbed a perilously tall tower in order to save the day, and the reliable supporting character efforts come to the fore once again with concerned father Guido and his daughter Isabella both sacrificing themselves. The lack of consequence doesn't ring true here, even for a story where the hero is in a different place each week. Instead, we get another hook for the series finale, the momentum for which seems to be really building up now.

The Vampires of Venice is a romp, through and through. Romping isn't synonymous with being average, but I'd have preferred a throwbak to Doctor Who's earliest historicals like The Romans rather than something that feels spiritually closest to The Shakespeare Code. It's good all the same, with some great shooting, cracking one-liners and wonderful acting, but it wouldn't be unbelievable if it left you cold. Especially if the prolific success of Edward Cullen and his ilk is doing your nut.

A week later in Amy's Choice, we find Rory has finally got Amy to settle down in Leadworth, and five years on from their travels with the Doctor, she's about to have their first child. The Doctor still comes to visit every now and again, but just when he does, birdsong fills the air. The next minute, they all wake up inside the TARDIS, having all just had the same dream. There's more birdsong, and they're back in Leadworth. A dangerous foe has ensured that they face a deadly threat in both world, but only one world is real. If they die in the dream, they wake up in reality, but which reality is which? And if Amy has to pick, which of the men in her life will she choose?

First and foremost, this is obviously the "cheap" episode of the run, largely constrained to a small village and the TARDIS. Therefore it's an even more impressive feat that this is my favourite episode of the run so far. Its circumvention of the low budget is nothing short of genius, taking the opportunity to go for some real drama and character development over monsters and spectacle. Of all things, it's most surprising that it's written by Simon Nye, creator of Men Behaving Badly, who shows a great capacity for both drama and comedy in his first episode for the series.

It has a terrific villain at its heart in the form of the marvellous Toby Jones. His self-styled Dream Lord is enigmatic and incredibly vindictive towards the Doctor, and Jones knocks it out of the park completely. He's one of the most memorable villains I can think of in the new series, and as I noted over on Den of Geek, he bears more than a few similarities to a certain enemy from the past. The closing moments seem to suggest he'll be back in the future, and I really hope that pans out.

The regulars are great too, with Matt Smith taking a comparative backseat to allow Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill to shine. Amy's name is in the title and it's really a turning point in the series for her- after the end of the Angels two-parter, she's made to realise how much she cares for Rory, to the stage where she's prepared to die for him. Darvill also steps up his game dramatically, still finding time for some brilliant physical comedy involving beating up old ladies. Smith's presence is still felt throughout, especially with the revelation that the Dream Lord is made of the Doctor's darkness. The entire episode is creepier in retrospect for that revelation.

The episode that Amy's Choice bears the closest resemblance to is Midnight, and although this isn't as good, it's economic with its budget and endlessly inventive and memorable. It's also better as a piece of drama than as an episode of Doctor Who, but it certainly won't alienate any younger fans. Other shows have trotted out dream sequences in the past, and this seems almost like a massive "oh yeah?!" to Russell T. Davies' previous assertion that nothing of dramatic value can happen in dream sequences. He'd usually be right, but almost all of this one takes place in one dream or the other, and it's brilliant.

With a fantastic villain and some wonderful turns in the plot, Amy's Choice is the highlight of the fifth series thus far, although it's good for entirely different reasons to the Angels two-parter. It's not the most fun, most re-watchable episode ever, but it is very well put together and doesn't dispense with the sense of humour you've come to expect from Nye and from showrunner Steven Moffat. Urgent, satisfying and downright superb.
I'll be back in a fortnight with reviews of the Silurians' return in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood and the poorly titled Richard Curtis-penned Van Gogh episode, Vincent and the Doctor. Until then, why not share your comments below?

The next episode of Doctor Who, The Hungry Earth, airs on BBC One and BBC HD on Saturday 22nd May at 6.15pm.

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