Matthew Kresal returns to Venice.
When I first listened to The Stones Of Venice a few year ago now, I admit I wasn't hugely impressed with it. However, going back and listening to that first season of audio stories for the Eighth Doctor from Big Finish left me surprised when I came back to this particular adventure. Not only that but I came to really enjoy and appreciate this classically inspired tale of Venice's final hours, a cult worshiping a dead woman, amphibious gondoliers, an ageless duke and his lost love.
Paul McGann and India Fisher give nice performances as the Doctor and Charley. This was the first story they recorded together (although it's the third in proper story order) and the chemistry between them is fantastic to listen to. McGann's performance is interesting as this was his first outing as the Doctor since the 1996 TV movie, and there are echoes of that performance to be heard in this story (such as this Doctor's ability to pick up on the pasts of other characters almost instantly). Yet McGann pushes towards being his own Doctor from the teaser sequence right to the finale itself. Fisher too gives a marvelous performance that, more then in either Storm Warning or Sword Of Orion, gives her a chance to really show off her skills as Charley ends up separated from the Doctor for a while. Fisher makes moments like Charley being hypnotized, and her reaction to it, credible, which I can imagine is nowhere near as easy as she makes it sound. All told, it is this story that really cements a fine Doctor/companion combination.
The story has a strong supporting cast as well. Michael Sheard (perhaps best known to Who fans from his appearance as Lawerence Scarman in Pyramids Of Mars) is fine as Venice's ageless and cursed Duke Orsino who finds himself at the heart of the events in the story. Then there's Nick Scovell as the duke's art curator Churchwell, who becomes something of a companion to the Doctor while Charley is away and a target of a cult. That cult is led by Vincenzo who is played by none other then Mark Gatiss and with considerable tongue in cheek at that. Then there's Big Finish regular Barnaby Edwards who plays the gondolier Pietro, one of the many amphibious gondoliers who plots to reclaim Venice after it sinks into the sea. Last but certainly not least is Elaine Ives Cameron as Ms. Lavish, an elderly lady who is amongst those to see Venice in its final hours, yet is far more then she seems. In particular it is Cameron's fine performance in the last two episodes of the story that helps to make The Stones Of Venice really stand out. Like the two stories before it, 'Stones' has a fine supporting cast backing up its stars rather well.
The script by Paul Magrs is in itself interesting and probably not for all tastes. My real change of heart regarding this story was here as well. It places the Doctor and Charley in 23rd century Venice as its about to sink into the sea. The city's only remaining people are the Duke Orsino (who a hundred years earlier was cursed by his beloved Estella before she threw herself into the Grand Canal), the cult that worships Estella and hopes she will return to save the city, the revelers awaiting the end of the city and the long oppressed amphibious gondoliers who hope to reclaim the sinking city. If this doesn't sound like your typical Doctor Who story then you would be correct and I suspect this was the reason I didn't enjoy it as much the first time round.
Yet it is a story that, grounded in classical literature and themes, is about how people face disasters both epic and personal. It's also a tragic love story about a man who threw away his only love and somehow seeks to make things right which reaches its end in the incredible finale as well. Despite seemingly being buried too deep in magic, the story also does something Doctor Who has always been doing: disproving magic with science. The script is also full of some the best dialog you are likely to find in any audio story (or beyond for that matter) with a strong wit (Charley's line to the Doctor about what happens on their travels in part three, and his response) and a fine sense of drama (see the part three cliffhanger or the story's finale). While it might not be a traditional Who story it's still a fantastic piece of work by Paul Magrs.
The Stones Of Venice is one of the best stories of the first McGann season, if not the best. It has fine performances from its leads, a supporting cast that is just as good and a first rate script by Paul Magrs. Yet it's also more than just that, as The Stones Of Venice proves something else as well: that sometimes Doctor Who is at its best when its anything but your traditional story.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.