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New Who 5.6: Vampires of Venice

Basically, I loved this episode, except for some reservations about the way the black characters were handled. Because unfortunately both of them died to save the white characters. That would be OK if it were really just about individual characters making individual choices. But two of them within one episode is already a trope, and examples like Midnight show that it's widespread in Doctor Who generally. This really does need to be addressed.

Other than that quite serious flaw, though, it was a really good story. I loved Rosanna Calvieri - what a great villain! I loved the sets and costumes and location footage and general Hammer horror atmosphere. I loved that the Calvieri family crest showed what I think was either a leech or a lamprey or similar, fitting neatly with the blood-sucking fish motif. And I see that it did link in, at least thematically, with The Stones of Venice, insofar as it had strange creatures lurking in the water and someone trying to sink the city.

It's the second historical of the season (after Victory of the Daleks), and I felt made slightly better use of its period setting. At least it was a plausible context in which a corrupt aristocratic family might feed on a fearful population, and successfully hoodwink them into isolation by playing on fear of the plague. I know a Renaissance historian in our University who'll have been thrilled to see the way they used antique-looking maps at one point to evoke the character of the city and figure out how to make its topography work to their advantage. And how interesting to see the Doctor providing the necessary historical orientation at the beginning - Barbara's old job, of course.

Talking of Barbara - OMG William Hartnell on the Doctor's out-of-date library card! a_d_medievalist obviously noticed this right in the trailer after the first episode, but it passed me by in all the barrage of images at the time. Great to see though. I liked Smith generally a lot in this episode, to the extent that for the first time I found myself thinking - do I actually like him more than Tennant now? I don't necessarily mean I prefer one or the other as an actor, but I think I mean I like the way that the Eleventh is generally being portrayed - scripted, acted, directed, filmed. I like the lines he is getting (like asking someone to give Rory's strippergram a jumper!), the way he is delivering them, the way he's generally quite sweet and self-deprecating but can lose his temper when he thinks people are being idiotic around him, and the way he doesn't seem to look for huge adulation when he has saved everyone's lives - just gets the job done and then smiles to himself in a satisfied manner.

His final choice in this episode, to kill off the Saturnine(?) race entirely in order to save one human city was interesting, and I felt had resonances with what Ten did in The Fires of Pompeii. It's not quite the opposite case, because there he destroyed one alien race plus one human city in order to save the whole human race, whereas here he destroyed one alien race to save one human city. There were reasons given for this. First of all the Doctor refuses to help Rosanna and her family because she did not know Isabella (the black girl)'s name - a regular theme with the Doctor, which follows particularly well from him being careful to establish cleric Bob's name in the previous two-parter. And then they just generally prove themselves to be evil, ruthless killers anyway. But it's still questionable ethical position for him to take, rather like what he was planning to do to the Star Whale in The Beast Below, and one which Rosanna Calvieri draws explicit attention to at the end of the story. I wonder if this is something which will come back and bite him (*boom-tish*) at the end of the season?

It's also interesting that there was no reference at all to the effects which allowing the Calvieri family to sink 16th-century Venice might have on the development of the human race or the course of history, which could have been another perfectly plausible reason for getting rid of them. Slightly worrying, actually, as I'm pretty wedded to the idea that Doctor Who treats Earth history as something which can't be altered and needs to be protected. This is the second time this season that the conflict between the events of a historical story and what we as viewers know of real history just hasn't really been addressed - and I'd like to see that being dealt with more directly.

Meanwhile we get some interesting development of Amy, Rory and the relationship between them. I liked the Doctor's explicit statement that Amy's experiences of time-travel would drive a wedge between her and Rory if he hadn't shared them too - a common concern for former companions. Mind you if I'm right about Rory being the person River Song will kill in the final story, that's also obviously going to throw a bit of a damper on their future together... :-/ Anyway, for now I liked how he had been learning about other dimensions on the internet since the events of The Eleventh Hour, and his slightly ham-fisted attempts at sword-fighting, and his agitation about Amy's attempt to kiss the Doctor - right up until she rescues him and snogs him madly and he understands and realises that she really does love him after all.

And there's a bit more development of the plot-arc too. The vampire fish people have seen silence through some cracks in time, and travelled through another one... and now at the end silence has fallen in Venice too. We're only half-way through the season, but there is a definite sense of gathering momentum and rising tension here. Can't wait to see where it goes!

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( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 8th, 2010 09:59 pm (UTC)
I really like the new Doctor - I much prefer him to the face pulling school of acting Tennant descended into but I thought this episode promised lots but ultimately failed to deliver. Both me and Mr Pops groaned at the name of Guido and his stockpiling of gunpowder and I can do without the kissing and sexual innuendo as well and some of the CGI just looked plain shonky. To me the trailer for this week's episode was better than the actual episode and I'm worried that the trailer for next week's looks excellent which looks really good will also be the same.
May. 8th, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
Some people on doctorwho have been complaining that the pacing was 'off', too, although I didn't really get that feeling myself. It seemed pretty smooth to me.
May. 12th, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC)
I don't read that community (indeed, I'm not really much one for reading analysis and debating plots - yours are usually the only write-ups I read), but...

Most of the time this season I've felt that the endings have happened all in a rush without quite enough explanation. Obviously you want a sense of momentum and climax, but when people are even speaking fast to the extent that I can't quite understand them, I'm not sure that's ideal.

Dunno if that's what the pacing complaints were about, but that'd be my complaint :)
May. 12th, 2010 05:40 pm (UTC)
Yes, that makes a lot of sense, actually. I tend not to pay that much attention to how plots are finished off, thinking of it as a necessary coda to the tensions and developments of the story itself, so that I don't always notice if the resolution is actually a bit crap. But, looking back, you're probably right about them tending to be a bit rushed this season.
May. 9th, 2010 08:33 am (UTC)
Now I saw the black characters die and thought "Oh, black characters have to be good and can do no wrong". Which was silly, because they did very wrong indeed at Christmas. I suspect I'm racist for making anything of it at all. (I liked both characters very much, especially when the dad was wearing Rory's stag do top.)

Oh, it was a library card! It was so fast I didn't have time to clock more than 'hey, that's William Hartnell!'

I get the feeling I'm missing a lot this series (and indeed in Life) by not knowing much about Hammer horror.
May. 9th, 2010 09:21 am (UTC)
I think the problem for me is that portraying black characters as Noble and Self-Sacrificing carries inevitable echoes of Boys' Own-ish stories featuring native trackers who lead white explorers to safety. Things like Walkabout, where the Aboriginal boy saves the two white children from dying in the desert, but then dies himself. Too much of it makes it look an awful lot like this is being conceived of as the only really important function of characters of colour, who don't seem to get much personal characterisation of their own. I could be wrong, but I don't remember Isabella's father getting much chance to respond to or show grief about her death - which would have made him much more real as a character, and added plausibility to his decision to blow himself up if that still had to happen.

Anyway - I think the Doctor referred to the ID card he was holding as a 'library card' in the dialogue. Which is so sweet, and typical of both Eleven and One. And most Hammer horror films are easily and cheaply available on DVD these days. You could do a lot worse than the Wikipedia article for pointing the way towards some of the best ones.
May. 9th, 2010 09:48 am (UTC)
Except that in both this story and the last one all speaking characters bar the "core" died - sacrificing themselves so that the stars might live. Indeed it was much more explicit last time - this time the daughter who died expected to save herself as well and needed help, and the father was not saving the core, but rather revenging himself on his daughter's killers. I would say that you cannot call this trope here, as the soldiers in the previous one more explicitly were putting themselves on the line for the stars, whereas here it was an unexpected moment(the aversion to sunlight) and a deliberate choice for revenge.

I would say on the contrary that this is progress as being killed so that the Doctor can live is now an equal opportunities death trap.
May. 9th, 2010 10:29 am (UTC)
I do take your point about a lot of people of all kinds dying to save the core characters in this season. But I also think the script-writers have more control than you're implying over how and why characters are killed off.

Regarding the daughter, I'd say that her aversion to the sunlight was an unexpected moment for her character, but not for the script-writers. An alternative situation in which the problem with the sunlight didn't arise, and she got to live, could easily have been written. The fact that it was could be read as revealing that she had now served her purpose as a living character, and could contribute more to the plot by dying in the canal. Similarly, a scenario could have been written in which the father blew up the vampires without killing himself as well.

I do recognise that this needs to be seen in the context of a theme of sacrifice-for-the-stars, as you say, and that the fact it is happening to black characters is partly a side-effect of the fact that they're in the story at all, which is certainly good. But I also think that there's an extent to which black characters and their fates actually need to be handled with slightly more sensitivity than ordinary white characters, because of the historical legacy of racist portrayals of such characters. To me, it isn't enough to just throw black characters into the mix and treat them exactly the same as white characters. I feel that, just as with queer, disabled, and female characters, the current social climate requires that they are treated in a more positive manner than (straight, able, male) white characters, as an active means of contributing to the gradual overcoming of prejudice in the wider world.
May. 9th, 2010 10:45 am (UTC)
I take your point about the extra treatment needed.

I would dispute the point about the script writers - her death was required to a) the father's revenge (which may be part of the problem) and b) the Doctor's decision to eliminate the baddies rather than moving them on ("you didn't even know her name" (which ironically, I have now forgotten)).

I will say I was expecting a rescue when she was executed as it was not quick or unavoidable as most such deaths are. Normally goodies only die if the events are too fast for the Doctor to react to (cf the father's death). Normally if there is time, the Doctor would stage a rescue, he may not succeed, but he would usually try. It is also not clear to me he told the father about her being dead - which is why he did not grieve. Both made me feel uncomfortable.
May. 9th, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC)
Her name was Isabella. :-)

I think somebody had to die in the canal in order to help establish the Calvieri family as truly evil, and therefore an acceptable target for the Doctor to wipe out. I'm honestly not sure now if the Doctor himself even knew about it, though - would have to watch again to be sure. But either way I'd definitely have liked a bit more room to be allocated to the impact of her death somewhere in the script.
May. 9th, 2010 04:58 pm (UTC)
He knew about it after the event from his conversation with Lady Calvieri - that was when he threatened with the line "you didn't even know...".

I would have thought that the attempted execution was sufficient to establish their evilness, but maybe it needed the actual act. I also would have thought it was reasonable to suppose that Isabella was in trouble and thus an imminent rescue was in order which was not attempted at all.

But then I am not a script writer, and probably Doctor Who is all the better for it!

May. 9th, 2010 10:49 am (UTC)
I'm not a fan of positive discrimination at all, but that's pure opinion and I don't have an argument to back it up.
May. 9th, 2010 11:16 am (UTC)
Another way of looking at it is that this was colour-blind casting. These were characters who didn't need to be black- and could easily have been white. Their blackness was never an issue- and their self-identification- at the moment of death- was as Venetians.

I'm thinking the script was written before these particular actors were cast.

May. 9th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC)
I think this is on the mark. The roles were not written as specifically black, but when casting took place, black actors were cast, because the casting director was being colourblind. This sounds very noble, and in a way it is. The problem is, if you act entriely colourblind, you are blind to the way your own prejudices form your opinions, and as a result, end up consistently casting blacks as victims. Which can make you part of the problem, when you were trying to be part of the solution.
May. 10th, 2010 11:55 am (UTC)
Exactly this is exactly what I was exactly going to say exactly! :)

(Or: IAWTC!)

I'd say that's been the problem with the casting of non-white people in DW for some time, actually (e.g. the Hostess in Midnight; I suspect that was a case of the casting director's unconscious prejudices informing their decisions rather than a character being specified as black in the script).
May. 9th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
I understand your point, but I also have problems with colour-blind casting. It acts as though the experiences of ethnic minorities are exactly the same as those of white westerners, but that isn't true today, and was still less true in 16th-century Venice. I understand that it is an ideal that one day casting really can be colour-blind, at least in drama set in the present day, because skin colour genuinely is no longer an issue. But at the moment, casting characters as black without acknowledging that that makes a fundamental difference to how they experience the world around them, and especially how white characters are likely to perceive and treat them, seems to me to be in itself dismissive of non-white people's experiences.
May. 9th, 2010 06:13 pm (UTC)
Yeah I kind of felt that. That were almost incidentitally black - and frankly minor characters die so the Dr can live is pretty standard....
May. 9th, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
I pretty much agree. I took it as read that destroying Venice would have a massive impact on Earth's history, and that that was a large part of why the Doctor didn't allow it (that, and he's real attached to Earth, generally), but I guess it could be more explicit. Generally I felt like they were trying to squeeze a lot into the episode, and masking teh places where stuff didn't quite flow fairly well. I had the impression of shots being cut in the sequence at the end where the Doctor traces the location of the generator back from the chair, for instance.

I really hope you're not right about Rory being the one River Song has to kill, although the more I think about it, the more that fits with my theory that Rory's an alien (who quite probably doesn't know that he's an alien). If the trouble started in Amy's town (as seems not unlikely - why did the TARDIS crash land there anyway?) maybe something else got through when Prisoner Zero did. Maybe he'll need to be killed to set things right.
May. 9th, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
There's definitely more we need to know about Rory, although I don't think I'm convinced he is an alien! And yes, this story could have benefited from a bit more screen-time to really work out the full implications of what was going on. Still, not a bad story for the time it had available.
May. 9th, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC)
As always I do like your reviews! I almost wept with delight when I saw the trailer for this but in the end, though I loved the visual feel, the clever details and the whole concept, it was a pretty light bit of work, largely I think because it had to move so fast and cover so much ground. Stories which spread over two episodes do allow a bit more character development, or at least should. I have fast become a great partisan of this Dr, largely because he and the writers are making the whole thing fun. It may start to grate after a bit, but after all the angst-ridden self-examination of Ten it's hugely refreshing. And as for the idea that much of the last four years may have been bollocks, sorry, a deleted timeline, well, that would in some ways be a great relief.
May. 9th, 2010 08:13 pm (UTC)
Yes, fun is definitely firmly on the table again. Some people on doctorwho have even been saying that the Eleventh Doctor is reminding them strongly of the Fourth. Mind you, the same was true of the Tenth sometimes, too - but I think it feels less forced with the Eleventh.
May. 9th, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
Because unfortunately both of them died to save the white characters.

Huh? She died trying to escape and he died because he wanted to kill his daughter's murderers. I don't recall any motivation to save any white characters in any of their actions. In the daughter's case they all seemed to be safe anyway but she could not join them and in the father's case they were all safe anyway but he went back for revenge surely? In the case of the father you could argue that inadvertently as a result other people were eventually saved but it was an essentially selfish motive. In the case of the daughter I couldn't see anything but her wanting to escape and failing to do so.

What am I not seeing that you did?
May. 9th, 2010 10:34 pm (UTC)
OK, I guess the case is weaker with the daughter, but I believe she was trying to help all of them escape, and succeeded in doing that for the regular characters but failed for herself. I accept that she may not have chosen to lay down her own life directly for the sake of the white characters, but she did constitute collateral damage from their escape.

And I was pretty clear that the father was combining revenge and noble self-sacrifice in the same act. I'd have to watch the story again, but I'm not even sure he knew that his daughter was actually dead.
May. 10th, 2010 08:07 am (UTC)
It was curious that they did not make it clear that he'd been told about his daughter but it seems to be implicit as there was a scene before his death but after his daughters with them all sitting round the table with him looking particularly sad. I remember wondering at the time if they'd skipped the scene where he was told and assumed they had. I guess I interpreted his motive as pure revenge as my reading was that everyone had escaped and was safe temporarily at least when he went back in. (And it wasn't at that point clear his actions would have wider repercussions than purely revenge).
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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