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The Stones of Venice

Doctor Who: The Big Finish Audio Adventures #18
Eddy Wolverson

It’s fair to say I didn’t enjoy this story at all. McGann, Fisher, Sheard and the rest of the cast all put in excellent performances and the premise for the story is one which fires the imagination – future Venice sinking into the water; an evil curse; a revolution. Somehow though, the story just didn’t pull me in. By the third episode I was waiting for it to end, and even before it did, I had worked out the ‘surprise’ at the end which was appallingly obvious!

“I should have seen this coming…” says the Doctor…. Indeed he should!

However, after a solid start in “Storm Warning” and a great adventure in “The Sword of Orion” I won’t pass judgment on the eighth Doctor for one below par story. I don’t remember thinking much of “The Ambassadors of Death,” “The Sontaran Experiment,” “Kinda,” etc – it usually does take a while to get into a new Doctor, both for writers and fans alike. I do think that the problem with “The Stones of Venice” actually lies in the story itself, not with the Doctor who is the best thing about the story by far, so that has to be a good sign for the McGann era! Nevertheless, the season’s low point.

Richard Radcliffe

Out of all the McGann audios - the most eagerly anticipated, for me, was this one. The romance and majesty of Venice is legendary. Dr Who had never been there, in any format. Stories are often remembered for the stage they are set - and Venice promised a rich, magical stage.

I never doubted that Venice would be re-created with glory by Big Finish. They have never let down with their re-creations of Earth environs (Pre-Georgian London, rural Cornwall, Pompeii being the best) and they don't let us down here. With marvellous background music evoking the splendour of Venice you really feel you are there, amongst the architecture and waterways.

The story is as elaborate as the setting. Paul Magrs paints a rich narrative, flowing with large majestic speeches and eccentric characters. Orsino is the most dramatic. An aged Duke, obsessed with his wife Estella, is brought to life by Michael Sheard in a typically theatrical way. Churchwell, the Curator, is almost as good. Mark Gatiss lends his character skills to Vincenzo, a cult leader with wide eyes and a driven, manic obsession with all things fantastic. There's also the appropriately named Ms Lavish - a trifle too-shrieking performance here - but not detrimental to the story.

The 8th Doctor is his "love of life" self. Enjoying the glories of Venice and rattling through the alleyways trying to put things right. Charley is splendid too, portraying her amazement at the wonders of the universe.

Venice is the main star of this story though. Putting the story in the future was a masterstroke. It still has the ambience of the past, but this is tempered by the decay that results from time. The imminent collapse of the glorious buildings into the famous canals creates a great air of tension, that makes this always a fascinating voyage.

Overall an extremely good Doctor Who story - and the greatest credit must go to the wizards of Big Finish. The way Venice is re-created is brilliant. The best 8th Doctor audio to date. 9/10

Paul Clarke

‘The Stones of Venice’ is the first Big Finish Doctor Who audio from the pen of Paul Magrs, and despite being more restrained than the later ‘Excelis Dawns’, it still boasts his distinctive style. And despite perhaps being a little too wordy, the witty, tongue-in-cheek approach and the sheer depth of Magrs’ imagination mean that it is very entertaining.

Paul Magrs’ style of writing is often described as “magical realism” and ‘The Stones of Venice’ fits this description very well. The plot is relatively straightforward, set in Venice in the future with the city at risk of sinking (which is real possibility), but there are numerous details that skew the story at a slight angle to reality, and as in Magrs’ Doctor Who novels, there are fantastical aspects to the story with only scant attempts to explain them away using the equally fantastical technobabble that seems to be more acceptable to many science fiction fans. The impending destruction of Venice is due to a curse placed on the city and its ruling Duke Orsino by his lost love Estella, and although this explained away as a result of alien technology (the eponymous stones), it’s essentially treated as magic. In a similar vein, there are various details that are very characteristic of Magrs’ style, including the Canal People (former Gondoliers who have adapted to the water and have become amphibious), and the briefly mentioned and not at all explained fact that the sea fog rearranges the topography of the city at will. There’s a also a certain joie de vivre to the story brought about by such conceits as the inhabitants of Venice having deliberately remained in the doomed city to face certain death purely for the sake of having “One last really apocalyptic knees-up”, and Churchwell’s plan to seal himself in a vault with erotic etchings when the end comes. When Churchwell apologetically tells Orcino, “Your Majesty, I don’t think the Doctor understands what surrealism is”, the line is clearly self-referential.

In addition to this slightly surreal air, ‘The Stones of Venice’ is very witty, and much of this is focused on the Doctor. Paul McGann proves adept at handling the more lighthearted approach to Doctor Who heard here, deadpanning his way through the role with aplomb. This is evident from the opening scene in which the Doctor and Charley flee and indignant toppled regime, the script slyly poking fun at some of the conventions of the series, and again in Episode Two as he cheerfully expounds on the joys of being captured, tied up, and chased to an incredulous and unhappy Churchwell. There are great lines throughout, from Ms Lavish calling the Doctor a “hapless fop”, to Churchwell reminding him, “I told you, they’re cultists, they’re funny like that” when he realises that the cultists are threatening to kill them. There are also subtle criticisms of ‘Doctor Who’, with Charley criticizing the TARDIS console room’s Jules Verne look and suggesting that white walls and gleaming consoles would look better. Later, the Doctor reveals that he knows something of Churchwell’s past, seemingly a nod to his off-the-cuff knowledge of people’s lives in ‘Doctor Who’, but done much better so as to make him seem mysterious and complementing the story’s slightly magical air. Charley isn’t used very prominently here, but Magrs does give her some good lines, her increasingly smart-arse persona put to good use as she complains about some of the clichés of being a Doctor Who companion.

The success of ‘The Stones of Venice’ is also due in large part to the characterisation of the supporting characters, all of whom are self-centered and slightly unlikable, but fascinating nonetheless. Count Orcino is an arrogant bully, totally self-absorbed, who calls Pietro a toad and threatens old ladies. Peitro drugs Charley, Miss Lavish has condemned the entire city to death, and the cultists, especially Vincenzo, are all mad. Even Churchwell cares about nothing but preserving the Duke’s art treasures. Despite this inherent selfishness however, all of them are sympathetic. Despite the nihilistic selfishness of both Orcino and Estella, the story is ultimately a tragedy, each heartbroken, albeit with different reactions; Orcino has spent one hundred years wallowing in self pity, whilst the embittered and cynical Estella is a classic example of the “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” cliché. The acting is superb; Doctor Who veteran Michael Sheard is perfectly cast as a lovelorn tragic figure and sounds utterly forlorn, and Elaine Ives Cameron is equally impressive as Estella, whose bitterness and hatred masks a deep-seated hurt. In the hands of many writers the ending, as the pair are reconciled and Orcino makes the ultimate sacrifice to save Venice, redeeming himself in the process, would be twee and nauseating, but Magrs script and the performances make it genuinely touching. Also worthy of mention is Mark Gatiss, here playing the villainous Vincenzo and sounding impressively sinister and obsessive.

Of the four stories of McGann’s first “season” for Big Finish, ‘The Stones of Venice’ is perhaps the most overlooked, but it really doesn’t deserve to be. It is perhaps overly dependent on dialogue in places, but with dialogue as sparkling as this, it doesn’t really matter, and the actors deliver it wonderfully well. The sound design is also exemplary, with Gary Russell doing a great job as director, and some splendid music from Russell Stone. Overall, ‘The Stones of Venice’ is probably my favourite of McGann’s first four Big Finish audios, and an impressive audio debut for its author.

Lawrence Conquest

Following the disappointing mediocrity of the first two releases in the 8th Doctor’s initial audio season, The Stones of Venice manages to sidestep the obvious formulaic conventions and actually provide the listener with an interesting premise. The execution is certainly patchy, but while there are a lot of flaws here this is easily the best of McGann's initial 4.

When Paul Magrs first appeared in Who-land with The Scarlet Empress I was bowled over, but with each successive novel the author’s limited bag of tricks has looked increasingly bare. Thankfully The Stones of Venice avoids the usual Magrs props; there’s no Iris Wildthyme, and the story isn’t an ironic post-modern comedy. There’s plenty of humour here, but it’s mostly contained within the characters witty dialogue; the main story of lost love and Venice sinking beneath the waves is suitably gloomy.

It’s good enough to entertain with its rich dialogue, but there are still enough flaws to make this far from a classic. The biggest structural mistake is to present the play as a mystery. The whole thing revolves around the search for the long lost Estrella, and her final revealing moment is unveiled as though it’s a stunning twist in the final episode. Unfortunately the fact that there is only one female cast member in the play (excluding India Fisher obviously) means that the second the Doctor bumps into a supposedly unimportant old lady we know exactly who she is. “I should have seen this coming!” wails the Doctor in episode 4 – too right, we’ve known who Estrella is since the beginning of episode 1.

The location of Venice, while highly atmospheric, does clash somewhat with the far future setting. Rather than sounding like a Venice of the future, this place seems virtually medieval. The decision to start the story with the closing moments of another adventure (no, not Sword of Orion), is inspired, but ultimately I felt that more could have been made of this to make a full-blooded James Bond pre-credits sequence – the Doctor and Charley running into the TARDIS isn’t all that exciting.

The regulars put in their usual sterling work, with Charley getting to pop out from the Doctors shadow and get some large slices of action herself – though I haven’t got a clue how the drug she is given is supposed to fill her with the spirit of Estrella. The 8th Doctors manic enthusiasm is given as his key defining characteristic here, and it works well as highlighting a big difference between his character and that of his predecessor.

Flawed it may well be, and with one central mistake that sucks a lot of the tension right out of the play, but thanks to it’s rich dialogue and interesting premise The Stones of Venice is really the only story of McGann’s initial season actually worth listening to.

Nigel Parry

It is hard to categorise 'Stones of Venice'. Writer Paul Magrs has a slightly obscure style, all of his own. Often, that style is open to suggestion, with the atmosphere of a piece taking precedence over the story or plot detail. Such is the case of 'Stones...' The overall story could be condensed to make a fairly satisfying two-parter, but that is not to suggest that this tale is full of padding, or throwaway set-pieces - unless, that is, you consider the whole story to be a throwaway set-piece.

Spoilers follow...

So, we have a small cast. Two females are featured. The Doctor's companion Charley, and Elaine Ives Cameron as the supercilious Ms Lavish. The story introduces the idea of the seemingly immortal Count Orsino's missing wife. The surprise at the end is that the wife returns, but who is she? Baring in mind we know it's not Charley, the unveiling of her true identity as Ms Lavish is not entirely unexpected.

The writer has indicated his love for many inspirations in his sleeve notes, including Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights and Dracula. Well, many of the character names owe themselves to Expectations, there is the overriding story of doomed love from Wuthering Heights, and the Dracula influence seems to be provided by actor Mark Gatiss doing his best Christopher Lee impression. I am not criticising 'Stones of Venice' for this reason; it just makes it hard to pinpoint. By the end of episode 3, things seem to be very exciting, but the listener isn't quite sure why. Much like season 26's 'Ghost Light', in fact, although at least that story had its visuals to help it out. And to be honest, this plot is more predictable, so it doesn't really carry the same fascination. The characters talk, not in conversation, but great wads of quite awkward speeches - great bursts of long-winded eloquence which might work well in book form, but on audio, sounds a little over-blown.

The acting is variable, but the dialogue is so strange that credit must be given to the people involved for investing their parts with any emotion whatsoever, and it does occasionally seem as if the characters are reading lines for the first time from idiot boards.

Michael Sheard is always reliable, always enjoyable. He gives his Count Orcino such sympathy and a sense of tragedy that it is hard to dislike the character as much as we are supposed to. Nick Scovell is sly and surly, but his performance at Episode 2's cliffhanger is a little over the top. In fact, apart from episode 3, there don't seem to be any natural cliffangers; when the time comes for an episode to end, it seems the actor speaking at the time is merely required to shout a bit to provide the customary excitement before David Arnold's theme - for once strangely out-of-place here - winds the episode up. Barnaby Edwards and Mark Gatiss are enjoyable, and Elaine Ives Cameron is by turns irritating, obnoxious and ultimately triumphant.

This story is the least of the McGann's so far. It isn't bad, but it doesn't seem to satisfy. It appears to be a collage of ideas, with no clear identity of its own. It doesn't have the darkness of 'Sword of Orion', or the gung-ho theatricals of 'Storm Warning'. A better novel than a play, perhaps.

Myke Bartlett

I haven't read the Blue Angel as, sadly, I don't have the cash or the time to wade through a BBC book or two a month. I was given a copy of the Scarlet Empress for Christmas and I approached it with a great enthusiasm that waned as the book progressed to the point where I picked up something else instead. What I did love about the book was Paul Magrs' postscript describing his journey from childhood fan to adult novelist. He seemed to have such a wonderful feel for the series, without believing that we should still be reading the sort of story that was fine for television twenty-five years ago but more or less irrelevant for a series that hopes to maintain a place in the twenty-first century. With the Stones of Venice, Magrs' has again delivered a postscript that reminds us beautifully what is like to have grown up as a fan and why we should still be excited for the series' future. Unfortunately, once again, the accompanying story falls short.

What Magrs has done well is give us a definitive voice for the Eighth Doctor as finally played by Paul McGann. He has progressed the character we first met in the TV movie in a manner that is both natural and, at times, radically exciting. Where Nicholas Briggs last gave us a Doctor lacking in specific definition, there can be no doubt which Doctor we are listening to here. From the opening scene, Magrs promises us a Doctor who is ready to carry a new series into this new century. He is post-modern enough to be self-referential in the most charming of ways. He knows where his place is in the scheme of things, once again the wandering hero whose job it is to bring down evil dictatorships and chase the monsters out from under the bed. Not for any grand cause, simply because it's what he does. The Doctor is again the most heroic of anti-heroes, at once just and mischievous, honest and sneaky. How far we can trust him remains to be seen. The Doctor is back in centre stage here and, for the first time since Baker 1, he has all the best lines. For this alone, Magrs deserves top marks.

Where the story, at times reminiscent of the Holy Terror, falls down is that, quite simply, there doesn't seem to be much of it. Venice is sinking, some people want it to happen, some people don't, and some believe the long-lost Duchess will return from the dead to save them. It's an interesting idea, it just never takes off to the heights you need it to. There are few surprises and nowhere near enough plot twists and turns. The first two episodes are strange and exhilarating, but by the end of Disc One, you've worked out all that you need to know. The identity of the Duchess is hardly going to spill your cup of coffee and the cliffhanger for episode three is, while sounding fantastic, a large explosion of nothing. And the big surprise is... what we found out in Episode Two, last time we were down here in the crypt.

At half the length, this could have been great. With the exception of the embarrassing Ms Lavish (which accent is that exactly?) the cast are superb. McGann, finally given the dialogue he deserves, hands in his best, perhaps definitive, performance. Charley's character is slightly less traditional and therefore less annoying than we last heard her in Sword of Orion - India Fisher is again brilliant. Who and Grange Hill veteran Michael Sheard is as good as we always knew he would be and Mark Gatiss provides another highlight as a suitably arch-type-villain. The latter may have watched Masque of Mandragora fairly recently. Which is fine.

Stones of Venice is a frustrating, if thoroughly enjoyable experience, which leaves you feeling slightly cheated. Again, the play sounds brilliant, but the end impression is a lot of gloss without enough substance to carry us the full distance. It should have been the high point of the season. At fifty minutes it might have been. I look forward to Magrs' next work, but hope he spends a little more time on plotting. Big Finish have again captured the feel of the original series a little too well, this time complete with lots of running down corridors from two or three locations. Doctor Who can afford to be bigger than this now, it needs to be.

My Girlfriend Stayed Awake Until: The End of Episode Two.