Think of it as a wedding present because frankly, it’s either this or tokens.
What’s striking about The Vampires of Venice is quite how similar it is to School Reunion. Not just in terms of the parallels between Mickey and Rory, each episode serving to reposition a supporting character as something closer to a lead, but also on a much more basic level: The Vampires of Venice is about disguised aliens operating a mysterious school, replacing some students and eating others, and generally getting up to no good. (Oddly, one review of The Vampires of Venice described it as an episode “about the fear of knowing what your life will entail and the sacrifices you might make to be forever young”, which feels to me like one of few things you could say of School Reunion but not The Vampires of Venice.)
That makes sense, of course: both School Reunion and The Vampires of Venice were written by Toby Whithouse, in each case doing exactly what was asked of him by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat respectively. Whithouse’s original Series 5 pitch was an early iteration of what eventually became The God Complex, pushed back a year because of fears the dilapidated hotel labyrinth might be too similar to the maze of the dead in The Time of Angels; when that script was postponed, Whithouse began to develop The Vampires of Venice, prompted by Moffat to write something “big, bold, [and] romantic”. Presumably, the version of The God Complex written for Series 5 would’ve done similar character work for Amy and Rory – it’s easy to imagine the wedding present trip leading to the space hotel, fitting a different premise around the same basic character arc. (The reuse of the school setting is more likely than not just a coincidence, though it’s an interesting repetition nonetheless, particularly given Whithouse’s original version of School Reunion was set in an army base.)
Taken together, they make for interesting points of comparison to one another – less in terms of Whithouse’s work, though, but in how Moffat continues to reinvent the structure Davies applied to Doctor Who. (A word on Whithouse briefly anyway, though: it’s a well-written episode, and had he eventually taken over from Moffat, the fact that he could write something solid and reliable like this would’ve been as much to his credit as his more high-concept episodes like School Reunion or The God Complex. Equally, though, you can start to see the narrow focus that would eventually prove limiting, those portentous references to the Time War sitting awkwardly here as the series is beginning to move on from the idea; you get the sense that Whithouse was probably the writer most interested in that angst after Davies, his take on the show always very grounded in that, even defined by that.)
Within the structure of Series 5, then, The Vampires of Venice is something of a Davies-era throwback. Or, at least, it’s where that influence feels most pointed: the whole of Moffat’s first series as showrunner is closely modelled on those of his predecessor, with the initial present/future/past trilogy, the celebrity historical, and the returning monster two-parter having already opened the series. But it’s more easily highlighted with The Vampires of Venice, which mimics Davies’ innovations in terms of character, rather than just structure – as already noted, it bears some obvious similarities to School Reunion, but there’s a resemblance to The Long Game as well, another episode that develops the Doctor/companion relationship by introducing a new character into an established dynamic.
(Incidentally, it’s also interesting to note that The Vampires of Venice was being positioned as a second jumping on point for the series, for anyone who’d missed the episodes already broadcast. How exactly that isn’t so clear – something like Dalek makes sense in that role, with the iconic returning monster, as might Mummy on the Orient Express, with the heavily promoted guest stars, but The Vampires of Venice is much less consciously attention grabbing as those counterparts.)
It’s not the sort of thing you ever see Steven Moffat do again, not really: there’s no The Vampires of Venice style episode devoted to Danny Pink in Series 8 (arguably the closest is probably In the Forest of the Night, but that’s a fairly strained comparison). Even Series 10, which opens with an episode clearly written in the same style as Davies’ Doctor Who contributions, largely eschews this with its relationship plotline – Heather appears briefly in the opening and closing episodes, but there’s no effort to make her stand as a character in her own right exactly. Meanwhile, in one of the more surprising moves from Chris Chibnall, there’s been no particular attempts at any developing romantic relationships between the characters (or, if you’re feeling less than charitable, relationships full stop) – which makes The Vampires of Venice not just a throwback, but essentially the last hurrah, not just reinventing a Davies-era innovation, but putting it to rest instead.
Which brings us neatly, ish, to Rory. What makes The Vampires of Venice so distinct from its predecessors, ultimately, is that it’s far more invested in Rory than The Long Game ever was in Adam, or School Reunion was in Mickey – where those episodes were, on some level, demonstrating the inadequacies of their focal character even as they developed them further, The Vampires of Venice is a much more straightforward, and much more earnest, showcase for Rory as a character. (You can make the point, reasonably, that School Reunion is fairly invested in Mickey – he gets that vote of confidence from Sarah Jane, after all – but it’s as much about what the episode is leading into as it is anything else, and Series 2 is not making a case for Mickey Smith in the same way Series 5 is for Rory Williams.)
This as much as anything else is how The Vampires of Venice is disrupting the Davies era structure – because it’s invested in a different approach to character, both in the abstract and in terms of these characters, Moffat’s perspective on the Doctor and romance markedly different to that of Davies. Positioning the episode specifically as the Doctor trying to repair Amy and Rory’s relationship is a genuinely clever conceit, affording Matt Smith space to continue redefining the role and giving Gillan and Darvill something more distinct to play too (for all that there are similarities to something like School Reunion, it’s difficult to imagine the Tenth Doctor, Rose, and Mickey appearing in this script verbatim – that’s not even remotely what that dynamic was like). They both impress – Gillan is clearly confident and comfortable in the part by now, and Darvill has this very immediate control over the role, settling into his character faster than his co-stars did theirs.
On the whole, then, it’s another strong instalment in Series 5. There are moments that feel a little rote, maybe, details that hew a little close to familiar archetypes – but with the remove of over a decade, it’s easier to notice what this episode is doing, and how it’s subtly progressing the show. Even the more traditional aspects work – Helen McCrory is fantastic casting, her laugh is one of the more memorable acting choices from any of the year’s guest stars – and in the end it’s clear that while The Vampires of Venice might not be an obvious highlight, Series 5 would be appreciably weaker without it.