Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 018. The Stones of Venice by Paul Magrs (March 2001)

Paul Magrs can come back any time he likes, because oh my word, this is gorgeous: he takes his time to luxuriously fill out his world and give it a leisurely atmosphere, while at the same time playing a wonderful trick with regard to his setting.  Locating this story in 23rd century Venice frees him from delivering the Disneyfied film version of historical eras, and allows him to do with Venice what he wants. Yet it enables him to keep most of the trappings - gondoliers and cults and so on. So the setting feels distinctively Gothic, but at the same time exotic, a Venice that is quite literally about to fall into the sea. Magrs clearly has a great fascination with the place and this seeps through marvellously into the narrative – McGann delivers the Doctor’s early description of Venice particularly wonderfully: “It's magnificent and charming and often quite silent and sinister. Last time I watched the lights spilling from palace windows onto the grand canal, and all the stars looked like they were trapped underwater, bursting to get out... And you get all these people swishing past in their gondolas, gorging themselves on fruit and cakes. The whole place lights up wonderfully at night and looks new. In the morning it's all desolate and ruined.” It is this dichotomy between the palatial marble and the rotting sewer-like water in which the gondoliers toil, between shimmering night and the harsh reality of day, which informs the story’s central themes. Indeed, it is rare that a Doctor Who story is quite so determined by its setting as this one is.

Magrs imbues his setting and indeed many of his central figures with both a glittering vitality and yet an impressively adult fatalism which makes them much more riveting than the average Doctor Who supporting cast. Helpful in the first instance is one of his obvious central gifts as a writer: a love for passionate, vibrant dialogue replete with a stunningly verbose vocabulary (“Crazed aristocrats, madman, inveterate revellers, all here for the final carnival of all”; “we last few denizens”; “the arbiter of possibility”; “at its doomed apotheosis”; “you obstreperous hag!”; “He sits lugubriously on his throne, surrounded by his giggling lackeys and myrmidons”; I could go on but I’d be quoting most of the script!) And yet for all this veneer, this is a story of profound melancholy. “Far better that I slip below the surface with the rest of my life,” intones Ms Lavish mournfully. And this tone lends itself particularly well to the Eighth Doctor, who lies back “in melancholic thought” on the gondola – it’s one of the first hints of the flip side of the bohemian artist, not just the man who enthuses about surrealist galleries but who is prone to Weltschmerz. There’s a gorgeous moment later on where he says, if he wasn’t convinced there was something he could do to change things he “wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning”. It is a key character beat that he is passionate to see the sinking of Venice, and ties together both aspects of his personality well: the man who yearns to travel and run and topple empires and gods (it is of course no accident that the opening begins with the Doctor and Charley mid-way through a successful revolution), and the man who must on occasion sit and let the course of history run as it must. This comes to a head in his superb final speech in the last act, which is worth quoting in full:

“Nothing had to be played out. Can't you people see? Won't you ever learn? There's no such thing as prophecy or fate. There are true events: things that happen and things that have to happen. And none of us can escape those. None of us can, and that's bad enough. I know that. But we don't have to invent myths to make everything worse. We don't have to invent terrible destinies, we come to them sure enough. I thought my own people were bad enough with their legends and their great and terrible happenings. But you lot take the biscuit! The fates you encounter are all down to yourselves. You make it all up yourselves. Everything that has happened here is down to the capricious wills of two people among us: Estella and Orsino. You two are responsible for all of this.”

He is thus characterised as a meddling and mercurial force, justifying interfering “because if I didn't, everything would just go on being the same”, which thus echoes the efforts of the web-footed gondoliers in their determination to bring down the decadent nobility (indeed, Gallifrey is explicitly likened to the stiflingly corrupt and decadent Venice). And yet he is also a mirror image of the aristocratic figures, Estella and Orsino. He is of course an aristocrat (described here as a “hapless fop” while Orsino is “a pathetic creature from a spoiled, indolent race”), which instantly links them in a story where everyone else plays a subservient role of sorts (even Vincenzo). These two are stagnant forms of the Doctor as narrative force, never changing, watching time pass and things come to ruin. Estella, in particular, as the alien outsider, is a refraction of the Doctor: but where her experience of the stars has made her contemptuous of those littler than herself, he has developed enormous compassion. It’s a profound examination of the Doctor, I think, and a mature one in the way it reflects the other characters almost as manifestations of his psyche.

The Doctor here feels like a fully-fledged Time Lord in the way he maybe hasn’t on his previous two audios: Magrs keeps up his surprisingly intimate foreknowledge of strangers from The TV Movie, which was a bit annoying there but works in this instance to make him a little more alien and distant. "I know about all sorts of things, Francis Churchwell. More than you could imagine." His sardonic edge is also quite strong in this sense, leading to him developing a nice rapport with Churchwell. Hard to believe it’s McGann’s first effort!

The growing, developing nature of the Eight/Charley stories is great. There's really time for their character development and interaction to breathe, and feel more natural – I love that these are presented as a “series”, as explicitly consecutive adventures. Their dynamic grows stronger by the episode. Charley gets a lovely moment early on, as she says, "I've decided to enjoy myself." So nice to have a companion who, even when disappointed that they haven't landed in the place she wanted, still puts a brave face on it and wants to have fun. It's also a nice touch that she simply leaves the art gallery to explore on her own accord, and subsequently that Eight fails to notice as he's so wrapped up in the art. India Fisher gets lovely meaty material in the story’s second half too, having to pose as Estella.

It’s a very solid guest cast. Initially I had my doubts about the early Orsino/Churchwell scenes, as I was starting to worry they would drag, but they’re intriguingly arcane enough, and Michael Sheard is always good value enough, that they end up working. Elaine Ives-Cameron is superb as the dual role of Lavish/Estella (and what a great reveal that is!): she has just the right rich, plummy, classic English actor delivery that has always suited Doctor Who and which really elevates her scenes. It is a bit of a shame to use Barnaby Edwards and Mark Gatiss again, although both acquit themselves admirably. Vincenzo and the Cult of Estella (“superstitious misfits”) are a bit of a stereotype, unfortunately, although I feel their absurdity is sufficiently mocked by the script that this doesn’t stand out as a narrative problem in the way it otherwise might. In fact, the story does a good self-aware job of mocking the absurdism of ritual in much the way The Holy Terror did, though with less vehemence and gore; the stories these characters tell themselves are small, petty-minded, solipsistic and false. But they are tempting to listen to rather than confront the alternatives, that perhaps death is a natural, cyclical part of bringing about new life, and of course this is what Orsino and Estella recognise in the conclusion.

The production is absolutely watertight (pun very much intended): the running water of the river, the church bells and the cries of birds all create a lush Venetian soundscape. The score is perfect, too: the softly eerie flutes together with the judicious and creepy use of whispers are terribly evocative, whilst the frantic and frenetic harpsichord makes a lovely contrast (and contributes to the carnivalesque/ruination divide – it plays a merry tune as the buildings tumble into the water).

Very few Doctor Who stories are quite as soaked in literature as this one is, so it was always going to be a favourite of mine: Orsino’s name, his listless melancholy, and the plot beat of a character entering into his court in disguise are all borrowed from Twelfth Night, though here given a delicious Gothic twist. We also get Lavish as a character name taken from an EM Forster novel, the title comes from John Ruskin’s memoir The Stones of Venice, and the working title and some of the themes come from Robert Browning's My Last Duchess. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is referenced toward the end of the story, and there is something of a male Miss Havisham about Orsino – ludicrous yet mournfully pathetic (again, the imagery of Estella drowning in her wedding dress is highly apt).

Let us also not forget the way Magrs plays with the genre convention of Venice as the honeymoon city, as the city of love stories. The entirety of the fallout and the mess, from cultish devotion to enslavement to rebellion, stems from the tempestuous love affair between Orsino and Estella, of course, and I like that this is (as with so much of the baroque magic in this script) a twisted version of what is quite a common trope. The love story turned macabre. In this respect it echoes not only Wuthering Heights but also Thomas Mann's short and infamous novella Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) in which a fading artist falls in love with a beautiful young boy; the improperness of this love is equated with the plague and sickness that grips the city. That love is turned on its head here to be, when one broods over it, something unhealthily decaying and rotten and stultifying, yet also the means by which one escapes ruin and the "curse" as it were of inevitable mortality is another beautiful bit of scriptwriting. Bravo Magrs.

This is an absolute triumph. A story in which the Doctor looks upon a glittering human achievement and ruminates “I was here when it was still being built. When it still smelled like a swamp”, and we can feel the “foretaste” of the “primordial world” underneath mankind's decadence; a story where water itself is a primeval force, a power that can drown and quench all human endeavour; a story with effective class commentary in the form of Pietro and the long-oppressed gondoliers, showing us a city whose noble towers are rotting at their core; a story in which the mercantile history long associated with Venice is explicitly linked to the hoarding of artwork and jewels and the fact that one man’s greed condemns the “greedy city”. And in the end the day is saved when the two lovers accept their selfishness and are purified, going through the crucible one last time to save the city from the mess they created. “It's amazing to me that human beings can invest so much emotional energy into legends, into stories like this”, says the Doctor, and yet Magrs weaves such a fantastical tapestry that one finds oneself being swept along by the legend.

Other things:
Great opening, rather meta in its knowingness: “We've tried to help them and now they're shooting at us!”/“That's often the way.”
The Doctor's sudden “How about a trip to Venice, Charley?” is lovely. 
“I'm attempting to save our necks, find the TARDIS and plan our next trip all at the same time. I think I've over-extended myself.”
The Doctor still keeps the key in his shoe???! So impractical.
Nice in-joke to the sci-fi TARDIS of the 80s as Charley complains that the console “looks like something out of Jules Verne” and wishes for something more tech-y.
“It all depends on how long before the whole place goes tumbling and crumbling into the warm Adriatic...imagine seeing it sink, watching all the marble facades fading and cracking.”
“Are you drunk?...They're mostly drunk. They seem to think it's the thing to do.”
The Doctor's costume is of a “dignified fashion”, apparently.
“I'm an irregular kind of guy.”
“How do you know my name?”/“It's on your badge.”
“I'm afraid I don't believe in curses.”/“A rationalist?”/ “Not exactly, I just look for the best in people.” (not sure how I feel about this line – in one sense, the Doctor doesn’t disbelieve in unpleasant things like curses just because he’s an optimist. It IS because he’s a rational figure. And yet the line is semi-knowing, semi-sardonic enough, to just about pull off).
“If one is betrayed one is apt to do all sorts of things.”
Despite his claim to the contrary the Doctor is still very good at name dropping, here various renaissance artists. 
“It's trustworthy and watertight and my oldest friend in the world.” (The TARDIS in the Doctor's words).
“We're in a time of decadence and lethargy.”
Moodier and more adult than the last two by far: “Venice is alive with desperation and villainy of all kinds. It teems with thieves and assassins.”
The Doctor champions his sense of smell. 
“I'm afraid the city loops back and alters itself out of capriciousness. The sea fog comes in and corrupts the topography at will.”
“The distant sound of ceremonials... I wonder if they're into sacrifice as well. They usually are, that type.”
I liked that the gondoliers who start to drag priests down into the depths are really people, as opposed to amphibious monsters –but then turned on its head because we learn they are normal humans who are slowly developing amphibian-like features. Whithouse owes this script a lot!
“Have the wretched hobgoblin thrown into the canal!”
“Fanatics never want to get their hands dirty, it's why they wear gloves.”
Coming back from the dead “is a pretty taxing business.”
The Doctor has “never been very religious.”
Once again, he loves his tea, mentioning it several times!
“That's more like it, Vincenzo. I knew you'd find grandiloquence if you tried!”
“A whole city is dying because of the curse you brought upon its head. Your greed caused this; your greed and your disregard.”/ “Venice was always a greedy city.”
“It doesn't do to have an underclass, you know; it really doesn't do at all.”
The Doctor promises Charley he would never betray or abandon her - she's his “best friend.”

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