Let’s travel in style! Let’s raise a glass as we steam down the canal and before the world ends, it turns completely upside down.
The Eighth Doctor
Looking to take a break from the monotony of being shot at, chased and general standard activity of travelling with the Doctor, he and Charley travel to Venice in the 23rd Century, where the city is preparing to sink below the water for the last time. However, once there, they encounter a dodgy cult, a proud art historian and a love sick aristocrat, as well as a rebellion by the web-footed underclass and a disappearing corpse.
Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to The Stones of Venice is that it would not feel out of place in the early Tom Baker era, with the story wearing some horror influences quite close to its sleeve. Tom Baker would not have sounded out of place in this environment, with a possessed companion and a story involving a subplot around class warfare. My biggest problem with it is how predictable the story is, however, it is beautifully produced and performed, and is a high point of McGann’s first installment of stories, which is remarkably uneven.
My biggest problem with the story is that the plot is very predictable, there are no sudden moments of surprise. However, this was prevented from being too much of an issue for me by my fascination with the setting. For some bizarre reason, the fact that the city of Venice will one day sink into the sea has always fascinated me and it is nice to see the Doctor visit this point in time, even if the story concludes with the city restored to it’s former glory. The revelation that Duke Orsino’s wife, Estella is alive and is in fact Ms. Lavish is pretty obvious from the get go, but I don’t think Magrs was aiming for it to be a mystery. There are elements that are references classic literature and some that evoke moments from the Hinchcliffe era, however, this story is rather unique, which may be why some are not so keen on it. There is no imminent alien invasion and, as Charley states at the conclusion, the story is really all about love. I really like the fact that the story opens and we find the Doctor and Charley towards the end of an unheard adventure, which for me is a reference to the beginning of a lot of the James Bond movies, where the cold open generally finds Bond in a bombastic opening sequence. This worked well to establish the central motive for going to Venice in the first place: for Charley and the Doctor to have a get away from being shot at.
The direction is also pretty good and the background sound design fantastic, especially in the opening scenes. The direction fantastically evokes horror themes, and the majority of performances are played pretty straight, with the exception of Ms. Lavish, but that can be excused as I believe this is necessary for the plot. I do have one slight quibble with the sound design, which is particularly geeky and demands some context. Outside of my hobby of watching (and blogging) about Doctor Who, I am a church bell ringer. For those reading who are unaware, in England and some other parts of the World, such as the US, Australia and Canada, bells are rung full circle, meanwhile in other places, especially in Europe, they are hung to be rung differently – mainly just to be chimed. When I was listening to the first part I noticed the bells ringing, and listening closely, observed that they sounded like they were ringing the “English” way, which unless this style spreads in the intervening centuries wouldn’t be heard in Venice. Listening to this admittedly background noise did serve to take me out of the story in the first part, but I appreciate that this will probably not bother anyone else! Geeky spiel over. I also appreciate that the director did not insist on the actor’s attempting faux-Italian accents for this story, though the full context of this appreciation will become evident when I come to review the next Eighth Doctor story, Minuet in Hell.
The cast here is small but actually this really serves the story rather well. None of guest cast feel superfluous, they all have clear goals and desires and I feel that the story does them all justice. When the story finished, I didn’t feel as though any of them had been underserved by the story and that they all had pretty complete arcs. The guest performances are fantastic, and I feel that I must particularly mention the performance of Michael Sheard as the cursed Duke Orsino, who gives the part the required feeling of world weariness due to his artificially extended lifespan. Mark Gatiss is superb and I almost didn’t recognise his voice whilst he was playing the sinister leader of the Cult of Estella and it was only when compiling the cast list that I realised that it was him. Elaine Ives-Cameron is evidently having a ball playing Ms. Lavish and Estella as well and Nick Scovell is good as the pseudo-companion, as the Doctor and Charley become separated early on by Barnaby Edwards amphibian gondolier Pietro. As mentioned earlier, all of these characters have clear motivations and it is easy to keep track of them all through the story.
McGann and Fisher have lovely chemistry together, despite not sharing very many scenes together, and it is remarkable considering that this is their first recorded story together. I particularly like India Fisher’s performance as the possessed Charley, as I feel that this is a different kind of possession to that which we normally see in Doctor Who, and the script allows her to maintain a real sense of personality, which does not always happen in stories like this. McGann’s Doctor feels fully formed here, and I do enjoy his disdain for humanity’s predilection for spreading myths about curses and prophecies as I feel that these are never really fully comfortable in Doctor Who. At times it feels as though Tom Baker could be the Doctor, as it does certainly carry some hallmarks of his earlier stories, however, I feel that it is unique enough and there is enough to distinguish between Baker and McGann’s incarnations.
Verdict: The Stones of Venice is a different type of Doctor Who story to what has gone before and actually what has followed, which makes it interesting enough despite the predictability of the plot. The cast is on great form and the direction gives a great horror-influenced tone. 8/10
Cast: Paul McGann (The Doctor), India Fisher (Charley Pollard), Barnaby Edwards (Pietro), Mark Gatiss (Vincenzo), Elaine Ives-Cameron (Ms. Lavish/Estella), Nick Scovell (Churchwell) and Michael Sheard (Orsino)
Writer: Paul Magrs
Director: Gary Russell
Behind the Scenes
- This was the first contribution to audio-based Doctor Who for Paul Magrs but he had written novels for the Eighth Doctor for the BBC Eighth Doctor Adventures range.
- This was the first Eighth Doctor story recorded by Big Finish, and therefore the first story that McGann recorded after agreeing to return to the role and the first performance by India Fisher.
- The story marks the seventh and final appearance in a Doctor Who story for Michael Sheard, who appeared alongside every Doctor except the Second and Sixth, with his most notable performance coming in Pyramids of Mars, where he played Laurence Scarman. Sheard died in 2005.
- Duke Orsino is also a character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, whilst Mrs. Lavish is derived from E.M Forster’s A Room With A View. The story title is also a reference to The Stones of Venice, a collection of essays by John Ruskin written in the 1850s.
There she is! There she is! Bright, bold, beautiful and bright blue and waiting for us!
The Eighth Doctor