The story saw the Doctor (Matt Smith) take Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) on a date to Venice in 1580, where they discover the cosmopolitan city has been sealed off from the outside world by Rosanna Calvieri (Helen McCrory), who operates a curious school for girls. It’s no surprise that Signora Calvieri and her “family” are vampires – but not exactly the kind of vampires one might expect.
It was immediately clear that writer Toby Whithouse really captured this Doctor’s voice. Whithouse is not afraid to play with expectations and have a little fun at the Doctor’s expense. The Time Lord’s entrance in this episode – popping out of a giant cake in lieu of the expected stag party stripper — was one of the most memorable and unexpected in entire history of the series. (Who really cares how he actually got in there?) The Doctor’s unbridled enthusiasm for Venice recalled the mania of the 10th Doctor – who got a coded shout-out thanks to the Doctor’s line about wanting to avoid Casanova, who was played by 10th Doctor David Tennant in 2005. The sequence in which the Doctor meets the “pale, creepy girls who don’t like sunlight” was nothing short of brilliant, and may very well be my favorite scene of the season so far. Smith’s body movements were delightfully daft as he corkscrewed his entire body and waved his hands. The Time Lord was also far more purposefully funny than he has been in a long time: checking himself in a mirror with a rakish “Hello, handsome,” or asking the girls, “Am I thinking what I think I’m thinking?” His “Tell me the whole plan” gambit was brilliant, and the way he and Amy hopped in each other’s arms like excited children at the idea of seeing vampires…well, he just about had me giddy, as well. After a mere handful of stories, I am totally on board with the 11th Doctor; in fact, part of me is already saying, “David…who?” Gillan was typically brilliant – all sassy charm and sex appeal, and when Amy snarked, “I’m kinda done with running down corridors,” she perfectly crystallized the travails of the Doctor’s assistant after just five stories. What a cheeky lass!
On the downside, however, Rosanna proved to be just another alien queen out to revive her race, like the Empress of the Racnoss and any number of other baddies during the Russell T Davies run of the series. (Reviving a dying/dead race was Davies’ default plotline). Whithouse wrote the series two story “School Reunion,” which featured the Krillitanes, a race of aliens who could also appear human and were also secretly enslaving humans (in that case, children). If Whithouse spent half as much time on his plots as he devotes to characterization, he could become a formidable WHO scribe.
In this story, Rosanna was enslaving women because she was from the planet Saturnyne, a creature that looks like a mixture of a green fish head and a purple lobster body. (“I’m a Time Lord, you’re a big fish,” the Doctor noted. “Think of the children.”) When the Doctor foiled her plans, he essentially wiped out their race, similar to what happened with the Racnoss in “The Runaway Bride.” The Saturnynes (Saturnynians?) are the latest in a long line of pseudo vampiric characters on the series, such as the water-dwelling Haemovores of “The Curse of Fenric,” or even the Plasmovore seen in “Smith and Jones,” who literally sucked blood through a straw. The so-called “Great Vampire” race that the Fourth Doctor met in “State of Decay,” were apparently the inspiration for Earth legends of vampires.
One final note, a quick shout-out to the location shooting in Wales and Croatia, which contributed to some truly atmospheric scenes. Real stonework chambers are infinitely preferable to a set, even if the architecture did not exactly match 16th-century Venice.