The Doctor and Charley decide to take a well-deserved break from the monotony of being chased, shot at and generally suffering anti-social behaviour at the hands of others. And so they end up in Venice, well into Charley’s future, as the great city prepares to sink beneath the water for the last time…
Which would be a momentous, if rather dispiriting, event to witness in itself. However, the machinations of a love-sick aristocrat, a proud art historian and a rabid High Priest of a really quite dodgy cult combine to make Venice’s swansong a night to remember. And then there’s the rebellion by the web-footed amphibious underclass, the mystery of a disappearing corpse and the truth behind a curse going back further than curses usually do. The Doctor and Charley are forced to wonder just what they have got themselves involved with this time…
Paul McGann as the Doctor in The Stones of Venice.
Paul McGann (The Doctor)
India Fisher (Charley Pollard)
Michael Sheard (Count Orsino)
Elaine Ives-Cameron (Ms. Lavish)
Nick Scovell (Churchwell)
Barnaby Edwards (Pietro)
Mark Gatiss (Vincenzo)
Written By: Paul Magrs
Directed By: Gary Russell
X X X X X
It’s not the first time a Doctor and a companion have visited Venice, and it surely won’t be the last. However, the TARDIS has always brought its passengers back in time, to when Venice was a bright, shining, serene republic on the Adriatic. This time, however, the TARDIS has brought the Doctor and Charley to the end of Venice’s days, as the once-great city is hours away from sinking into the lagoon to its watery end. Is it time and tide that brings about the demise of Venice? Or an ancient curse that’s extended well past the end date of most standard curses?
When Big Finish was trying to convince Paul McGann to return to the role of the Eighth Doctor, the producers handed him two scripts; one was Sword of Orion and the other was The Stones of Venice. It was McGann’s reactions to these two scripts that brought about his agreement to reprise the part of the Doctor, with Venice being the very first Big Finish serial recorded by McGann and also by India Fisher in the role of Charley Pollard. The rest, of course, is Whovian history, and who are we to argue with history?
So, based upon McGann’s positive reaction, we should expect The Stones of Venice to be a smashing success, a serial for the ages. In the end, the story doesn’t reach as high as it could. It’s a solid “historical” serial, even though it’s set in the future, but the plot twist and the storyline that leads up to it are both blindingly obvious and portrayed in such an unconvincing manner.
Venice is under a hundred-year curse. Its leader, Count Orsino, lost the love of his life, Estelle, in a card game. With her last breath, Estelle cursed Venice. Now, as Venice prepares to sink into the waves for the final time, the citizens make merry as much as they can, the Count broods on his throne as his right-hand-man seeks to save as much artwork as possible, and a cult dedicated to the memory of Estelle seeks the salvation of Venice. And that’s not to mention the gondoliers who are waiting to inherit the ruins once Venice has taken its last breath. And in the middle of it all is where the Doctor and Charley come in.
As his first recorded portrayal of the Doctor, McGann does his best to both himself and build upon his portrayal of the Doctor from the 1996 TV movie. He’s the quintessential Doctor here – nosy, muttering, poking his nose in, dashing in without a plan, calling out people when they need called out, and trying his best to keep the peace before things get even worse, and even name dropping a time or two while admiring the scenery and the setting before everything goes pear-shaped. There are some growing pains. McGann loves the run-on sentence and comes off a bit more “manic” than “enthusiastic” at times, and sometimes his dialogue comes off with a bit more meta-commentary and snark than necessary. It’s Eight’s delivery of a line like “escaping from dungeons is a common thing for me” vs, say, Five’s delivery of “why do I always let my curiosity get the better of me?” But McGann, in his first time out, establishes that he IS the Doctor, with only a few bumps that need smoothed out.
Once again, Charley finds herself in trouble, as is a companion’s lot in life. Fisher, much like in Sword of Orion, plays Charley as the adventurer who is in awe, but not overwhelmed, in that manner only the British can pull off. She immediately falls in with the oppressed gondoliers of Venice and gets caught up in their attempts at revolution, thanks to a remarkable similarity to the former wife of Count Orsino. Charley is a companion who takes everything in stride, rarely getting excited, always with a comeback or an observation. India Fisher does a good job in keeping Charley fresh and interesting, as such a character can quickly slide into an abyss of annoyance. The chemistry and dialogue she has with the Doctor is spot on. It’s amazing how, during their first recorded adventure, McGann and Fisher simply click together, coming off as friends and colleagues even before recording Storm Warning and Sword of Orion.
Which brings me to the supporting cast, who chew the scenery for all its worth. Nick Scovell does a good job as Churchwell, who cares only for two things; his paintings, and his safety. Count Orsino, as played by Michael Sheard, isn’t given much to work with, sadly, as he plays Orsino as brooding and lonely and regretful the entire time, but regretful of the curse that has been put upon Venice and NOT regretful for losing his wife in a card game. It seems that the writer, Paul Magrs, was going for Wuthering Heights with him, but missed. Mark Gatiss takes it over the moon as cult leader Vincenzo, and when he loses it, he LOSES it. Elaine Ives-Cameron does what she can as Ms. Lavish, but instead of going for mysterious and insightful, she comes off as a type of ridiculous character I hate; the “I know something you don’t and I’m going to lord it over you no matter what.”
Which brings me to the alleged plot twist. It’s incredibly obvious and could be seen from the surface of Skaro. It’s not just the obviousness of the twist, though. The heart of the twist, the reason for both its existence and its denouement, fall incredibly flat, which is a shame. The cliffhangers at the end of each episode are very solid, but the climax doesn’t garner any emotional investment. Even the uprising of the gondoliers comes off as very ho-hum, serving to put our heroes in danger and nothing more. The story moves quickly, however, and there is always something going on, a sense of urgency brought about by the sinking stones.
The sound is lovely, a true high-mark. Aside from a low point at the end of Episode 2, where it’s loud noises and one character yelling “we’re under attack,” the dripping water, the currents in the canals, a dusty old mausoleum, the high ceiling and crumbling frescoes, and the footsteps of the last two people to step foot inside a museum put the listener in the heart of Venice. Even the cold open, where the Doctor and Charley are running for their lives, is done well, a high-tech, laser-filled mess that is a complete 180 from the quiet despair of crumbling Venice.
Final Snyopsis – Although the story falters at the end, The Stones of Venice sees a return to the historical settings that the Doctor finds himself in all too often. The chemistry between the Doctor and Charley is solid for their first recorded serial, the story and dialogue move right along, and Big Finish does a great job bringing a dying Venice to life for one more day. 3/5.
Next up – Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart encounters the charismatic Brigham Elisha Dashwood III, patron of a new medical institute, concentrating on curing the ills of the human mind. One of the patients there interests the Brigadier – someone who claims he travels through space and time in something called a TARDIS…
Paul McGann as the Doctor in Minuet in Hell.