We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #18, The Stones of Venice, starring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
In the twenty-third century, Venice is dying, sinking at last beneath the waves. Its remaining people are trapped [editorial note here: That’s the most unbelievable aspect of the whole thing—it’s the 23rd century, that should not be an issue!], and will die tomorrow. The Duke Orsino has ruled for over a hundred years, ever since his beloved Estella drowned herself after pronouncing a curse on him and on the city. Now, the Duke desperately clings to the idea that he will find Estella here at the end, and she will remove the curse—but his art curator, Churchwell, has his doubts.
The Doctor, wanting to take Charley somewhere great, takes her to Renaissance-era Venice—but as usual, he misses the century, landing in the 23rd.After an encounter with a rather strange old woman, they take a gondolier; to Charley’s chagrin, rather than attending a party, they visit the Duke’s art gallery. Charley opts to stay behind and speak with the gondolier, Pietro; unfortunately the Doctor doesn’t realize it. Pietro takes Charley to a catacomb where gondoliers gather; along the way they see a group of hooded cultists looking for something. The cultists are the Cult of Estella, led by the High Priest Vincenzo, who worship the Duke’s lost love. Meanwhile the Doctor meets Churchwell, and talks him into a tour of the gallery, and also learns the story of the Duke and Estella. Churchwell admits that the cultists search for him, because they believe he is hiding a portrait of Estella. The Doctor realizes that some of the paintings are not of Earth, and offers to get them to safety in the TARDIS—however he panics when he realizes Charley is missing.
Pietro and the gondoliers also have plans. They intend to keep the Duke from breaking the curse, because when the city falls, the gondoliers—who seem less human by the minute—will overcome the aristocracy and reclaim the city. To that end, they want Charley to impersonate Estella, even dressing in Estella’s long-recovered wedding dress, and distract the Duke—and they won’t take no for an answer. They drug her and hypnotize her, convincing her that she IS Estella. Elsewhere, the Doctor and Churchwell search for Charley, but are caught by the cult of Estella, who take them captive, intending to resurrect Estella.
The Doctor and Churchwell escape their cell, hearing the cultists performing rituals in the distance. They find the cult’s inner sanctum, where they find a golden coffin, presumably Estella’s…but it is empty except for a few jewels, which the Doctor confiscates. They are caught by Vincenzo, who offers them a choice: die, or else go into the palace and steal the (rumored) portrait of Estella. The Doctor chooses the latter. Pietro is joined by Ms. Lavish, the strange woman that the Doctor and Charley encountered upon arrival, and takes Charley to the palace and presents her to the Duke; it’s just convincing enough to lure him in. She is escorted to Estella’s apartments. Meanwhile, en route to the palace with the Doctor and Churchwell, the cultists are attacked from beneath the water by the gondoliers.
Pietro admits that the gondoliers are not just human anymore; they have evolved into amphibians, and won’t die with the city. Charley, with the drug worn off, says that the Duke doesn’t need her anymore; at this point he can’t save the city. Pietro agrees to help her escape.
The Duke’s guards rescue the Doctor, Churchwell, and Vincenzo. The Doctor goes to confront Orsino, accidentally interrupting Charley’s escape. Vincenzo announces himself to the Duke, who becomes angry; Vincenzo secures himself by saying that he possesses Estella’s remains, and will exchange them for the portrait; he further says that Estella herself started the cult, and left her own remains with Vincenzo’s grandfather. With everyone present, the situation devolves into chaos; Orsino injures Vincenzo, but doesn’t kill him, and orders him to take him to the cult’s lair. He leaves Ms. Lavish in control in his absence—a very strange choice! He takes the Doctor, Charley, Vincenzo, and Churchwell with him. Behind him, his guests engage in a wild, drunken party.
The city is starting to collapse into the sea; and the gondoliers are still waiting to attack the Duke. In the lair, a horde of cultists overpower the Duke’s guards, and stand before the casket; the Duke, still proud, refuses to admit his guilt in their situation. Meanwhile, the gondoliers are outside, preparing to break in and kill everyone. As day breaks, the cultists open the casket (which they have never opened before) and find it empty. Venice will die under its curse.
At the palace, Ms. Lavish strikes up the band; this is not how she wanted it to end, but it’s too late to change anything now. As the city begins its final sinking, the revelers flee.
Elsewhere, the catacombs are crumbling, too. Vincenzo and Orsino are about to fight over the missing corpse, when Orsino is distracted by the fact that Estella’s jewels are missing; Vincenzo concludes she must have already risen. The gondoliers attack and battle the cultists, and Orsino and the others return to his barge, seeing that the city is sinking. Vincenzo again demands the portrait so Estella can be resurrected; shocking Churchwell, Orsino admits that the portrait does in fact exist. And the palace is still standing, with only Ms. Lavish and the musicians present (and the musicians flee as the group arrives). Ms. Lavish, however, has had enough—and she reveals, with proof, that she herself is Estella. She never died, only aged. She scorns the cultists for their ridiculous mythology about her, and Orsino for his self-pity and wastefulness. She stands with the gondoliers.
The Doctor has also had enough. He blames Orcino and Estella for this disaster, and insists that they can stop it. Estella refuses, insisting that she couldn’t stop the destruction even if she wanted to; but the Doctor knows better. He reveals the jewels he took. The jewels are an alien technology…and Estella is an alien. She uses the jewels to amplify her own will power. The Doctor realized it based on the alien paintings. Estella is still bitter; she fell in love with a stupid man, who then abandoned her, leaving her trapped on Earth, and she has not forgiven him.
Orsino, however, is finally, truly repentant. Estella cannot save the city; the technology that prolonged their lives requires a balance, which led to the decay of the city, and she doesn’t have enough left to save the city. But Orsino will sacrifice himself to save the city; and at his pleading, the Doctor gives him the jewels. It burns him away, and Estella, realizing that she still loves him, joins him in the flames. They meet their deaths, but the city is saved.
Vincenzo flees with their remains, ostensibly to start another cult; Pietro is forced to see the reality of the situation as well. Churchwell is still concerned for his paintings, but admits that there are more important things than relics. The Doctor speaks up for the gondoliers, then returns to the TARDIS with Charley. On the way, she muses over the love of the Duke and Estella, and how Orcino abandoned her; the Doctor assures her he would never betray her like that.
I should start referring to this cycle of Eighth Doctor stories as the Ramsay Cycle, as every story seems to be contingent on trying to get Ramsay the Vortisaur home. (Since “home” is the Time Vortex, shouldn’t they be able to just push him out the door in midflight?) It’s amusing enough, and even though Ramsay doesn’t get much (or in this case any) screen time, he grows on you.
I was surprised to learn that this is one of only a very small number of stories set in Venice; it seems like a very likely location. The First Doctor visited Venice in 1609 with Steven and Dodo in the novel The Empire of Glass; but it wasn’t until 2010 (viewing time, that is) that we got to see the city on television, in The Vampires of Venice, featuring the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory. Onscreen, that adventure occurred in 1580. That story bears some small resemblance to this one; both feature a water-dwelling, inhuman race planning a takeover; but the similarities end there. Since we’re already on the topic, I should say that there are few continuity references here; one of the paintings in the gallery, of a woman in a jar, is a reference to the novel The Scarlet Empress, which, like this story, was written by Paul Magrs. Otherwise, there’s nothing really, not even in reference back to previous Eight/Charley audios.
The story is engaging, and with sufficient urgency to keep me listening; it’s a great “racing the clock” story, with only hours from the Doctor’s arrival to Venice’s scheduled destruction. It was hard to immerse myself in it, though, for one major reason: it’s set in the 23rd century, but reads like a Renaissance period piece. All of the characters would be right at home in a historical, and there’s nothing to distinguish it from one. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen medieval cultures in a future setting; but this is Earth, and we know that some things just don’t make sense. For instance, why so much alarm at the idea of aliens, when Earth is a spacegoing culture that has encountered many aliens already (not least of which are the Daleks, who already invaded Earth at least once)? Or, why—as I pointed out early on—would the Venetians be trapped in the city, when air travel has been a thing for hundreds of years? (To that end, the discontinuity guide points out that the airport is probably already underwater, but aren’t helicopters still in existence?)
I was about halfway through when I realized that Ms. Lavish had to be Estella. I was caught much more off guard by the revelation that she wasn’t human; I had expected it of the gondoliers, but didn’t anticipate a second non-human influence (or third, if you count the Doctor). Her species and planet of origin are never identified, but she can at least pass for human; even the Doctor admits that he doesn’t know where she’s from. Likewise, the paintings in the gallery are confirmed to be scenes of other worlds, but they aren’t identified. Lavish/Estella is an interesting character; she’s determined to get revenge even if it kills her, but she’s not wholehearted about it, and has her regrets—and she still loves Orsino, even as she is furious with him. In the end, she’s pitiable, more than anything else. Orsino, on the other hand, is mostly pathetic, but he does get his redemption at the end. Churchwell is your typical cloistered academic, refusing to see the outside world as it is; he’s mostly negligible to the story, and could probably be removed without effect. Pietro and Vincenzo are a matching set, each with their own form of fanaticism and its attendant deception. The gondoliers in general are not truly alien; they are humans with an unusual evolutionary path, probably forced by their circumstances; but still, they are an entity of their own, and don’t really identify with the common humans.
It’s not a complex story. From the Doctor’s perspective, he arrives, investigates a very small bit, is captured, gets free, is captured again, and saves the city. For the Doctor, that’s a walk in the park. None of this is a complaint, however; this story isn’t trying to be earthshattering, it’s just a good, clean, simple story. It’s content with what it is, and I am content with it as well. In hindsight it seemed to go very quickly; while it isn’t really much shorter than the surrounding stories, it’s broken into fewer tracks, which probably affected my perception of it. Its only failing, as I said, is in its setting; you can be a historical or a futuristic story, but you have to choose one. Had it been set in the past, I wouldn’t have anything to complain about at all—and I don’t think it would have suffered for the change.
Next time: On Thursday we’ll continue Destiny of the Doctor with the ninth Doctor’s Night of the Whisper; and next week we’ll be back to the Eighth Doctor and Charley with Minuet in Hell! See you there.
All audios featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.