In 2010, Doctor Who was catching up on the resurgent popularity of vampires. Twilight was, by this stage, a publishing and film phenomenon. True Blood was giving those who liked their vampire fiction a little less sanitised something to… oh god, I can’t stop it… get their teeth into. The Vampire Diaries was kicking around too, giving a more soapy take on bloodthirsty things. Fangs were on trend, so perhaps it was inevitable that new Who would get around to it.
Thing is, vampires bring with them two fundamental elements that Doctor Who has trouble with: blood and sex.
Blood is all but forbidden in new Who, even though it was, at times, splashed around liberally in the classic series. A family show in an early evening slot can’t show too much gore. Even today, blood is used sparingly and events which might produce some are cut around. When the 21st century version of the show had featured a bloodsucker – the carefully named Plasmavore in 2008’s Smith and Jones – the fiend in question drank her victims’ blood with a straw pressed tight against a neck, and not a drop of red stuff was seen. So the monsters in The Vampires of Venice leave two discrete puncture marks on the skin, but little else. In a vampire story, the absence of blood in Doctor Who seems more conspicuous than ever.
The Saturnynes, however, are pointedly not vampires. They are hologram-disguised fish aliens. Which helps avoid the need to splash lots of blood around, but it does give this story a slight feel of bait and switch. C’mon, give us vampires in Venice! That’s what it said on the box and it sounded awesome! Don’t over complicate it with “they’re fishy aliens disguised as vampires for, um, some reason.” (See also writer Toby Whithouse’s next episode The God Complex for similarly unnecessary complications .)
So it’s a blood-lite affair, this ep. Sex, on the other hand, is much more familiar territory for Doctor Who. At least in a suggestive or metaphoric way, rather than through explicit demonstration. Sex, or at least sexiness, is all over The Vampire of Venice, and not just because it features a coterie of busty, spunky vampire chicks. Signora Rosanna Calvierri (Helen McCrory) is a flirty, seductive presence – not just with the Doctor (Matt Smith, with whom she goes as far as to suggest an, ahem, alliance) but also with her son. Not to mention that the whole plot is about her procuring wives for her fishy alien offspring.
Lust is coursing through everyone’s veins, like water through those Venetian canals. Our heroes aren’t immune, either; there’s the love triangle between Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill) and the Doctor. It starts when the Doctor gate crashes Rory’s stag night to break the news that Amy kissed him. Tact and timing; these have never been his strong points.
In your standard vampire story, you’d expect a strong male lead to seduce young ladies into inappropriate dalliances. Here, we have to make do with the Doctor, but he is still a source of temptation for Amy. If there’s someone who might get her into trouble, of both the romantic variety and the old fashioned dangerous variety, it’s him.
The Doctor’s reaction to Amy’s amour is (again with trademark subtlety) to take Rory aboard the TARDIS and hope that a romantic getaway will rekindle Amy’s affection for her fiance. But it’s difficult to stay focused on the boy next door when there’s this other boy, just over there with two hearts and a time machine. Rory’s already got some tough competition and that’s before the script does its best to emasculate him.
A quick detour. Back in 2010, one of my mates was watching Doctor Who ardently in order to ardently watch Karen Gillan. After The Vampires of Venice went out, he texted me indignantly. “Rory is a soggy biscuit,” he complained. “Amy should dump him and go out with me.” And he was right (about the first bit. Definitely not about the second.) Rory’s repeatedly presented as less than a man and certainly no romantic match for Amy.
The evidence? As soon as they land in Venice, the psychic paper calls him a eunuch. Later on, no-one thinks it’s feasible that he could pass himself off as Amy’s fiance; he has to pretend to be her brother. The Doctor has a torch which is bigger than Rory’s, cue dick joke. He never gets to properly challenge Amy about her infidelity. He gets into a fight with a vampire and is hopeless. And the story ends with him admitting that he’s Amy’s “boy”. (The Doctor too, but as he just got to heroically save the day, we know that’s not true.)
So in a vampire story, where sex is a powerful theme and constantly reinforced, Rory is a cuckold. A couple of randoms ago, I was talking about how romantic rivalry brought out Danny Pink’s manipulative side and yes, that was icky. But Rory’s tendency to be a doormat isn’t great either. It doesn’t seem like how a fiance would react to infidelity, nor does this kind of walkover seem like someone Amy would be attracted to.
Luckily, as his time on the TARDIS goes on, we discover that Rory is not the soggy biscuit my mate claimed he was. But I sometimes wonder where his character would have ended up, had they not cast someone as skilled as Darvill. He brought such charm and comic timing to the role, that I suspect he ended up more heavily featured than was first intended. If Darvill hadn’t been so compelling, perhaps Rory might have been ditched at the altar, with Amy flying off with her Time Lord temptation.
But this emasculation of Rory has an interesting effect; it slightly desexualises the whole episode. It stops a Doctor Who story about vampires getting too raunchy, by adding a few jokes and about the henpecked husband to be. It’s like the fish aliens not quite being vampires, which takes the edge off an otherwise bloody tale. It all adds up to a sense of this episode not quite going the distance, of being slightly apologetic for what it is. A vampire tale that’s not really… no, stop it! Can’t help it… full blooded.
LINK TO Full Circle: watery monsters who aren’t what they seem.
NEXT TIME: we brave some freak weather conditions for The Claws of Axos.