McShane and Colchester: together again in an action packed, funny, race against time through the atmospheric walkways and canals of Venice
What a time it is to be Dorothy ‘Ace’ McShane! Between recently meeting the Tenth Doctor (and getting her own K9!), this Torchwood adventure Death in Venice, and, most of all, her upcoming triumphant TV return in The Power of the Doctor, she’s firmly gotten her Doc Martens under the modern Whoniverse’s table. To be honest, it’s a long overdue development. As Blogtor noted in our review of Quantum of Axos, Ace has always been the bridge between the 20th and 21st century companions, cut from the same cloth as Rose Tyler and Bill Potts.
She also had her television run cruelly truncated by the 1989 cancellation. So she’s the only ever Doctor Who television companion to never get an end to her story. (Alternatively, if you include every piece of expanded media, she’s had more endings than you can count.) So there’s something particularly special about seeing Ace’s second act going so strong lately.
With Ace’s one time multiple choice future solidifying into the A Charitable Earth version, Death in Venice goes deeper into how that works for the character
All three of these new appearances build on the version of Ace’s future in which she’s the head of NGO A Charitable Earth. It was originally a throwaway line by Russell T Davies in The Sarah Jane Adventures. And then we saw this ‘new’ Ace in the flesh in a minisode to promote the Collection Blu-ray range. It’s a take on Ace that some fans, and even Sophie Aldred, have needed time to get their head around. Could the bomber jacket wearing, school science lab exploding Ace really grow up to be the pinstripe suit wearing Ms. McShane, with her vast office’s windows looking out across prime London real estate?
But these new scripts consciously take great pains to make the concept work. And so to Death in Venice, which confronts head on the idea that maybe, just maybe, Ace really isn’t cut out for board meetings and paperwork.
Aldred and Clayton’s charming double act of (mostly) good natured bickering is the real heart of this latest Torchwood adventure
The action, as you’d think from the title, primarily takes place in and around the historic Italian city of Venice. McShane is there in a last ditch effort to save A Charitable Earth. Having taken her eye off the details while getting back to basics and getting her hands dirty on missions around the world, a culture of corruption and waste has crept in to the charity’s lower levels, and now she’s desperate to restore confidence in both it and her leadership. And she hasn’t even touched down before she’s survived the first of many assassination attempts, foiled by Paul Clayton’s Mr. Colchester. Torchwood have dispatched their resident grumpy pants to keep her alive by any means necessary.
Their first team up, last year’s The Red List, saw McShane and Colchester slowly gain each other’s trust and learn to focus more on what they had in common than on their different views on how to deal with threats to the Earth. It frees Death in Venice to hit the ground running, almost literally. The two dash around the city trying to keep one step ahead of a never ending succession of paper-masked assassins. Meanwhile, they also move steadily closer to discovering why there’s a target on McShane’s back in the first place.
James Goss’ script makes great use of Venice as a setting, with the best and Bondiest action sequences audio can afford
The result is one part Charade to two parts Daniel Craig’s Bond as the mismatched pair adorably bicker their way through chases, gun fights, fights in cable cars, and the prerequisite number of times stumbling across corpses just in time to become prime suspects. And it comes complete with some of the most thrilling action set pieces an audio budget can buy. One highlight sees the former Ace bombing along the narrow paths and bridges of Venice on a motorbike.
And whichever thunderbolt of genius first suggested this most unlikely of pairings, it continues to delight. There’s a natural ease to their relationship, even during their sharpest political arguments, that Blogtor could listen to for hours. But, despite Ace’s presence, Death in Venice also never forgets that this is a Torchwood story. Many of those end with Torchwood saving the day, and saving an ally along the way too. But many more end with Torchwood throwing those innocents to the wolves, albeit regretfully, to keep their own agenda safe. So when McShane asks Colchester if she can really trust him, you can sense the unspoken equivocation in his answer.
The story beautifully retains that tension that she can, but probably only so long as she’s not in Torchwood’s way, even as their sincere friendship develops. And it also means our final destination remains obscured right up until the point we reach it.
Alongside the recent Quantum of Axos, the upcoming Power of the Doctor, Death in Venice makes a compelling case for this as the definitive Ace going forward
Death in Venice also possesses a lovely sense of place. It’s instantly recognizable both when racing along the canals and narrow passageways of the city itself and when venturing into the surrounding region. An extended running gag about Colchester’s rueful admission their escape routes keep brining them via tourist attractions he missed during his honeymoon there helps make this feel like the real Venice too. Along with his love of all things First Class, from champagnes to airplane seats, it’s also another reminder of what a great combination Colchester and actor Paul Clayton are.
With its brisk, action packed pace, intelligence teased out mystery and, above all, the terrific double act at its core, it provides another great entry in the current McShane renaissance. The Ren-Ace-ance, if you will (I’m so, so sorry for that one.)
Long may it continue!