Warning: spoilers throughout.
Actually, make that Huh. Venice. After the second half of “Flesh and Stone” made it clear that the mysterious crack in time and Amy’s role in the possible decay of the entire universe were now to take front stage, “The Vampires of Venice” takes an unexpected step back. Gone is the urgency of the season’s big mystery, replaced instead with a race to fix Amy’s relationship with Rory. So, you know: Huh.
What we get with “Venice” isn’t the payoff to the previous episode’s big cliffhanger we wanted, but it’s a perfectly serviceable – in the best sense of a word usually reserved for worst-sense scenarios – mid-season adventure. “Who” fans will recognize this as a “settled in” episode, the sort of yarn that’s offered after the Doctor is finished showing new companions (and producers are finished showing new viewers) all the TARDIS can do: voyages to the past, future, other worlds. Characters have been introduced, story arc ideas have been cemented, and now it’s time to, well, just plain settle in.
But don’t confuse a settled-in mid-season adventure with “filler.” “Venice” still thrills nicely; aside from the obligatory bits introducing Rory to the TARDIS life and the teasing mentions of “the end of all things” peppered lightly throughout, it’ll likely go on to become one of those episodes fans can revisit at random for a light evening’s rerun entertainment, free of the burdens of heavy continuity.
Having realized all of that sounds like two clumsy paragraphs of backhanded compliment, I’ll simply reword it as: Darn good episode, even if the eagerly awaited resolution to the “Flesh and Stone” ending disappoints.
Disappointment aside, the episode’s open is awfully cute, revealing the Eleventh Doctor to be even more socially awkward than any of his predecessors (no small feat). The Doctor sees nothing wrong with himself replacing a stripper inside an oversized cake – indeed, he barely seems to understand the basic concept of strippers. (Toby Whithouse’s dialogue sings in moments like this: “There’s a girl sitting outside in a bikini. Could someone let her inside and give her a jumper? Lucy. Lovely girl. Diabetic.”) Nor does he realize – until far too late – the implications of announcing Amy’s kissing abilities in front of Rory’s stag party. Oh, dear.
(Is the Doctor’s social ineptness to blame for his pissy attitude? Perhaps. Consider the moment where he complains that Rory deduces the mechanics of the TARDIS. The Doctor becomes impossible to read here. Is he genuinely angry, as he appears, that Rory isn’t tossing him the usual wide-eyed “bigger on the inside” spiel? Is he upset that Rory, by “reading up” on scientific theories, is perhaps a threat to his intellectual superiority, a sense of superiority on which the Doctor’s ego thrives? Or is he just mildly disappointed that he’s found someone he’s unable to wow using the old standbys, and his emotions are just coming out all wrong? Between this and the character’s other verbal and physical “eccentricities,” it’s quite possible this entire series is about a time-traveling hero with Asperger.)
Whithouse’s teleplay then moves on to explain away five years of New “Who” Doctor-swooning: it’s all, you know, because of the TARDIS. Its power is enough to dazzle and figuratively blind, he says, and whether it’s true or if he’s just unloading a pile of B.S. in order to spin Amy back toward her fiancé, I don’t care. It sounds plausible enough for me.
The rest of the episode is standard “Who” fare – action, horror, comedy, all rolled up and served up in a clever sci-fi dressing. Whitehouse barely seems interested in the mechanics of the plot, which basically roll along to get Amy and Rory in and out of various troubles while revealing – to no fan’s real surprise – that the vampires aren’t vampires, they’re aliens.
Where Whithouse is concerned instead, fortunately enough, is in the character interaction. And not just between the Doctor, Amy, and Rory, either (although the Doctor/Rory bits are quite funny indeed; Arthur Darvill makes as good a bickering partner as his castmates). “Venice” delivers its best moments in the exchanges between the Doctor and “fish queen” Rosanna (Helen McCrory), both lamenting their roles as Last of Their Kind. At times, the script gets flirtatious, almost sexual – director Jonny Campbell gets the camera in tight as the actors crowd each other in an intimate dance of sorts. Watch how Smith and McCrory play off each other: she’s willing to use her feminine wiles to get her way; he’s thankful to find an alien who can stimulate him mentally. Sure, the Doctor’s encountered aliens before this season, but none yet acted as an intellectual and emotional equal.
Equal, but opposite: Rosanna cannot see the harm in sacrificing a fraction of one population to save the entirety of another. Despite her vast intelligence, she is oblivious to her own villainy. This is what makes her a good villain – and a great tragic figure, as she sacrifices herself to feed her fellow beasts, all the while unable to comprehend why her actions were wrong.
Rosanna’s final scene is so heavy (her sacrifice, yes, but also her hateful reminder to the Doctor of all the species he’s watched die) that the lightness of the epilogue is so welcome. Rory officially joins the TARDIS crew, and for what seems to be the first time since the series relaunched, everyone seems to be happy with a crowded police box. Amy’s invitation for Rory to stay, and the Doctor’s happy seconding of it, is a nice change from the pouting Rose would throw our way whenever someone would move in on her man. The Doctor and Rory even jokingly admits to being Amy’s “boys.” Would the Tenth Doctor and Mickey ever say the same?