Monday, August 13, 2012

The Stones of Venice

The first season for the 8th Doctor continues with possibly its best story. "The Stones of Venice" was actually the first McGann story to be recorded. Paul McGann and India Fisher show great chemistry right away, which is pretty remarkable. The story has a great introduction with the Doctor and Charley frantically escaping into the TARDIS from armed pursuers. It's nice to come in at the end of an off-screen, unrelated adventure. The Doctor promises Charley a holiday so he takes her to Venice. Of course, they don't simply get to enjoy some time off.

The story actually takes place in the future, but other than the amphibious Gondoliers (more on them later) it feels like it could have been set in the present, and feels even more like a story set in the past. Our pair arrives when Venice is seemingly on the point of destruction (via flood). This imminent destruction is apparently based on a curse. The ruler of Venice is Duke Orsino who has governed the city for over a century. Apparently, in his hubris he gambled away his true love, Estella, and she cursed the Duke (prolonging his life) and Venice. Then, she is believed to have drowned herself. Apparently, the imminent destruction of Venice is caused by this curse. Meanwhile, a nefarious cult has sprung up over the years that worships Estella and supposedly secrets her remains in a crypt. They believe she will return from the dead and save them and the city from destruction. The curator of the Duke's collected artwork, Churchwell, is despondent about the forthcoming loss of the Duke's sizable collection (which the Doctor notes seems to have art not from Earth). The Duke is indifferent about the imminent destruction of his city and artwork, but only longs to see his lost love one more time.

This is the backdrop where Charley and the Doctor find themselves when they arrive. They quickly meet the mysterious Ms. Lavish who lets them know that at dawn the flood will come and the city will be lost under the lagoon. (It becomes pretty obvious who Ms. Lavish is fairly quickly.) They also encounter the Gondoliers, an amphibious, web-footed under class who work as... well, gondoliers. They are eagerly awaiting the flood which will allow them to emerge from under the rule of men and live as kings of the underwater city. Frankly, the plot of the story is serviceable, but full of some plot holes. The Gondoliers are never properly explained. Are they some sort of evolution of men? Are they relatives of the Sea Devils or Silurians? Are they aliens? They are simply introduced with no real explanation. If your monsters are so uninteresting to not warrant any kind of explanation, then they simply come off as padding in the story. Their plot to distract the Duke with a fake Estella seems pointless, other than giving Charley some peril to be involved in. It's also silly when the cult leader, Vincenzo, and the Duke go to look at the remnants of Estella in the crypt. The Doctor and Churchwell both know that the sarcophagus is empty and at the end of episode three protest that they tried to warn them both not to open it. But, in reality, they didn't really make much effort to warn them. A simple "It's empty!" would have worked better than their vague "You don't want to do this." protests.

Still, this story really works, because the plot is more of a means to an end. We get some fantastic performances helped by stellar dialog from writer Paul Magrs. Orsino is wonderfully played by classic Who veteran guest actor Michael Sheard (perhaps best known in Doctor Who for playing Laurence Scarman in "Pyramids of Mars". As an unrelated aside, I improbably, actually met him once.) Sheard is wonderfully over the top here, wringing out every line of dialog with angst or anger. He's quite a lot of fun here. Also great is Mark Gattis as the evil Vincenzo. Gattis' name keeps showing up in the cast list of many of these earlier stories, and I am struck by how I almost never recognize his voice, unlike say the similarly oft cast Barnaby Edwards (who yes is in this as main Gondolier, Pietro) who I usually can spot after one line of dialog. Elaine Ives-Cameron (who was in the classic Doctor Who story "The Stones of Blood") is full of doom and gloom as Ms. Lavish. The cast clearly has a lot of fun with some very witty dialog.

The direction goes a long way in this story as well. Gary Russel does a great job of making you feel like you're in Venice. As mentioned earlier, we are supposedly in the future, but it doesn't really feel that way. It seems like Venice is largely the same as it is today (and was yesterday), which is kind of wonderful to hear. The party sounds like a riotous good time with the band playing jauntily in the background (and having fewer and fewer band members as the night wears on). It's interesting how you never feel any particular peril or impending doom as we get closer to the dawn. This is perhaps a good thing as it might make this story feel a little too much like "Fires of Vulcan". The final explanation of the curse is satisfying, and the romantic way the curse is averted makes for a nice ending.

Despite some of my misgivings with the plot, this remains the highlight of the first proper season for the 8th Doctor. It particularly shines bright given the absolute dreck that concludes the season. Again you can't help but be charmed by both the 8th Doctor and Charley. They seem to be having a ball together, and you can't help but feel like you're in on the fun. Bigger and better things will come for this duo in their second season together, but this story is a lot of fun along the way.

Rating: Great

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