Published on October 22nd, 2013 | by Philip Bates
Introducing: The Vampires of Venice
As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, we’re looking back at some of the pivotal tales of all of time and space, taking on one Doctor each month, running up to November – and An Unearthly Child…
Venice is isolated from a world supposedly infected with the plague. Parents beg for their children to be inducted into the mysterious school run by Rosanna Calvierri. Vampires stalk the streets. And there’s something in the water.
But enough of that! It’s Rory Williams’ stag do! Tomorrow, he marries the girl of his dreams, the one he’d wait nearly 2,000 years for. Nothing can ruin the night – and then the Doctor shows up.
Rory’s first voyage into time and space takes him to an impossible, preposterous city in 1580 and introduces a fresh dynamic to the TARDIS. But, all the way back in March 2010, it also gave viewers a first proper glimpse of the Eleventh Doctor, the wonderful Matt Smith…
Cab for Amy Pond?
With the TARDIS falling apart around him, Matt emerged as the Doctor in the closing moments of The End of Time, thankful that he still had legs. After the Doctor Who Confidential that followed on New Year’s Day, a trailer for Series 5 debuted – but it wasn’t until Matt’s appearance on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross on 26th March that we got virtually a whole scene with the Eleventh Doctor in action.
In the interview, Matt talked about getting the part, how brilliant both David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston are, and showed off his new sonic screwdriver before a scene in which the Doctor met the Calvierri girls… who boast impressive fangs and don’t have reflections.
(The scene was dubbed with placeholder music, with the real score, conducted by Ben Foster, recorded on 1st April in Air Studios, London.)
It’s a scene which showrunner, Steven Moffat, highlights as particularly funny as Matt tries to hide his excitement! Though it’s quite a low-key affair, the episode was received well by cast and crew, with Matt a particular fan of the Vampire-like girls:
“I’ve never seen the crew more occupied and attentive! They looked like 1980s glam-rock stars. Come back – you’re always welcome!”
The critics were decidedly mixed, but 7.68 million viewers tuned in and The Vampires of Venice got an Audience Appreciation Index (a calculation of how enjoyable the episode is) of 86, considered excellent. A BBC3 repeat, however, gave the story a rare 92! The Toby Whithouse-penned script was conceived as a new jumping-on point with Rory joining the TARDIS.
The writer was approached by Moffat after being impressed by Whithouse’s Being Human. He’d previously written 2006’s School Reunion and an episode of Torchwood and pitched an idea based on the Doctor being stuck in a labyrinth. The idea, which eventually became Series 6’s The God Complex, was dropped for being too similar to another potential plot and Whithouse was instead asked for a funny, romantic story.
Venice was an obvious choice – but, just like the episode’s monsters, nothing is quite what it seems.
“Streets are piled high with bodies.”
Partly due to the modern-day Venice having been commercialised and partly due to the crew having to film both Vampire of Venice and Vincent and the Doctor in the same place, Trogir, Croatia, was used as the backdrop. The city had been under Venetian rule for over three hundred years, so much of the architecture was similar.
As the TARDIS crew enter the Italian city, they’re stopped to show their bill of medical inspection. Citizens are scared of the return of the Black Death. The real Venice was first struck by the bubonic plague in 1348, then 1575- 77 (shortly before Vampires in Venice takes place) then one final time in 1630- 31. In Doctor Who, Rosanna played on fear of the plague in order to cut Venice off from the outside world – and in reality, fear of the Black Death was palpable. Thousands had been wiped out, even the doge (head of state) Giovanni Mocenigo; during the last outbreak, about 500 people died each day in Lazzaretto Vecchio, an island located in Venice’s famous Lagoon.
Whilst digging the foundations for a new museum recently, trenches of the dead were uncovered in Lazzaretto Vecchio, believed to be the first lazaret, quarantine to prevent the spread of diseases. Over 1,500 plague victims were found, and their accompanying artefacts – jewellery, money, pottery and the like – show that it didn’t matter whatever status you held: rich or poor, if you carried the plague, you were sent to the lazaret to either recover… or die.
Their desperation also shows. Early victims were wrapped up and buried in rectangular trenches, but as the plague ravaged society, the dead were instead piled up.
16th Century Chronicler, Rocco Benedetti, who lost his mother, brother and nephew, described Lazzaretto Vecchio as “like Hell itself,” and reported that there could be three or four to a bed with the air filled with a foul stench and a constant chorus of moans and groans:
“Sometimes at the height of the plague, 7000- 8000 sick persons languished at the Lazzaretto Vecchio… It was truly impossible to provide for so great a need, there being so few to serve so many. We should not be surprised if scarcely one in ten survived, and if hundreds died every day upon those beds, stinking and blackened with smoke as they were.”
Venice certainly has a terrible history when it comes to the bubonic plague… but could it also have a history of vampires?
“I’m a Time Lord. You’re a big fish. Think of the children.”
On another nearby lazaret, Lazzaretto Nuovo, plague victims were unearthed, but one particular skull is of interest – as a suspected vampire.
The female skull had had its jaw forced open by a brick, a typical exorcism technique used throughout the Middle Ages on the suspected living dead. Many thought that vampires were a main cause of the Black Death so when the graves were reopened to dump more plague victims, a misunderstanding about decomposition meant the woman was seen as a vampire. Likely a lower class citizen, she died in either her 60s or very early 70s, and might even have been mistaken for a witch during her lifetime; nonetheless, a recent 3D imaging reconstruction reveals that she was just an ordinary woman, done some considerable injustice!
Helen McCrory (Rosanna) seems to have enjoyed being mistaken for a vampire, however; she told The Daily Telegraph:
“There are very few times in life you’re going to be running past a blue telephone box in medieval costume with large fangs. You can’t really give the licence-fee payer any more than 18 scantily-clad vestal virgins with Barbarella-hair and fangs, can you?”
Rosanna herself, though, might not even be based on vampire legends, but instead on the supposed ‘Blood Countess’ who lived in Hungary from 1560 to her death in 1614. Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed was accused of torturing and killing hundreds of girls, and was said to have bathed in their blood to maintain her youthfulness! Though she was only convicted of the deaths of 80 women, accounts vary wildly, from 30-odd victims to over 650.
She was imprisoned without a trial, though her collaborators were killed in shockingly gruesome ways. Bricked in with only small slots in the walls for passing through refreshments, Countess Elizabeth Báthory was found dead four years after being jailed, a guard having looked in on her when plates of food began piling up.
(She quickly became a national folk story, but recent historians have begun questioning the ‘facts’ of her criminal activities; even the idea of her bathing in virgin blood only appeared in print in 1729, over a century after her death.)
“The life out there – it dazzles!”
Although The Vampires of Venice has its origins in gore, crime and disease, it’s refreshingly light, with more than a brief nod to the Hammer Horror films. Sexy fish vampires certainly made an impression on the Doctor! Viewers might be niggled by what happens to the Saturnynes left in the waters of Venice. Did they just carry on eating the locals until they all died out?!
Well, no – according to this deleted dialogue from when the Doctor, Amy and Rory are heading back to the TARDIS:
THE DOCTOR: “Oh, we’ll find them a nice suitable planet, drop ‘em off there.”
RORY: “How do we do that?”
THE DOCTOR: “Remember when you were a kid and you’d won a goldfish at the funfair and they’d give you a little plastic bag to carry it home?”
THE DOCTOR: “Nothing like that.”