Hmm, I’m getting a little worried about these Big Finish Doctor Who audios. Of course, I’ve only heard the “early” ones, but many have been generally un-exemplary. I’m afraid The Stones of Venice, the third story featuring Paul McGann as the Doctor and India Fisher as Charley Pollard maintains that standard.
Actually, the drama starts off well, as we catch up with the Doctor and Charley in the middle of a “typical” adventure in which they are being pursued by some group or angry guards or another. There is some witty dialog about the familiar aspects of this, and the requisite grumblings from the companion about wanting to go visit someplace nice for a change. In response, the Doctor takes Charley to Venice. Unfortunately, he takes her there in the 23rd century, on the very day that Venice is scheduled to fall into the sea. The people of the city seem to be taking this in a weird sort of stride, with various groups throwing parties or sitting around in quiet resignation. Part of the weirdness is the fact that some, including the local Duke, believe that the city’s doom is a result of a curse placed by the Duke’s beloved wife Estella before she died a century ago after being betrayed by the Duke. The curse has led to the Duke’s prolonged life, and given rise to a cult who worship her and hope that her prophesied return will lead to the city’s salvation. Charley learns of an undercurrent of social unrest between the decadent Duke and some low-caste amphibian gondoliers, while the Doctor meets up with the curator of the Duke’s paintings, who is saddened at the imminent loss of literally a museum’s worth of works of art.
After this interesting but wordy beginning, the story takes an abrupt wrong turn in the middle of the first episode. The Doctor suddenly realizes that Charley is not with him in the museum, and goes out to look for her, in spite of the curator’s insistence that doing so will put them in danger of the cultists. He protests about this ad nauseum, with the Doctor ignoring him just as repetitively. This goes on until they are, of course, captured by the cultists. It’s a very clumsy way of keeping the story going, and sadly it never really recovers from this.
Basically, from then on, nothing that happens in the story seems dramatically justified. The Duke is worried that his people will be upset at him if he doesn’t provide some sort of spectacle for their benefit just before they all die. Pietro, the gondolier, decides that the best way to prevent the prophesy, which he doesn’t believe in, from coming true is to trick the Duke into thinking it has. Charley is given a drug, or hypnotized (the two terms seem to be used interchangeably) which allows her to be conversational and lucid one moment and yet act like the long-lost Duchess another. Later, she inexplicably pretends to still be hypnotized for no discernible purpose except to cause more difficulty. The angry and put-down gondoliers anticipate controlling the city “again” once it sinks, but they impatiently decide to wage war on the Duke’s palace one day in advance anyway. And the Doctor discovers bits and pieces of information, refuses to tell anyone anything, and then is frustrated when people don’t heed his so-called warnings.
The script is very wordy, which has a positive side to it (see below) but can seriously bog down the action, and leads to many of the guest performances coming across stilted and stylized. It’s like their trying to ape a live Shakespeare play, but instead many of them come across as whiny people who just love to talk about how passionately they feel things. It’s a little like listening to the Doctor interact with characters from my own Captain Strong audio serial.
The whole setting is confusing as well. The story is supposed to be hundreds of years in the future, but nobody seems to comprehend the idea of aliens or space ships. Everyone seems to get around only by gondola or steam engine, and to fight with knives. And there’s this unexplained race of amphibians who consider themselves the original owners of Venice and have been around long enough to be downtrodden and put down by the upper class. This could all make sense if the story was happening on some generic alien world, but it’s not. It’s Venice. On earth. Not too far in the future. Where there are no humanoid amphibians living in the canals – at least not as far as we know. But then if it wasn’t Venice we wouldn’t get to use all those nifty Italian names, like Orsino, Vincenzo, and Pietro.
Positively, there is a lot of nice dialog in the story. Though the flowery vocabulary is excessive, it’s never boring to listen to. And though some of the performers seem like they are just trying to read their lines in as fancy a way as possible, Paul McGann is not one of them. He is confident and clear as the Doctor, which is all the more impressive when one realizes that this was actually the first of his audios to be recorded. Also, the audio landscape is well done, and gives a strong sense of location. And the climax also picks up a bit when Duke Orsino actually takes some positive action (though this is undermined a bit by Charley’s going on about it being all about love – the story never really sells that).
From what I can read on the internet, some fans love this so much that they consider The Stones of Venice to be one of the best, if not the very best, Big Finish Doctor Who audio, in spite of the minimalist and predictable plot. I, however, want to have my cake and eat it too. I want interesting dialog, good production design, compelling plot, and meaningful character drama – all in one story.
Come on, is that too much to ask for?