A brief delay, and we’re back. And let’s just say, I’m feeling a lot better about Who than I was at the end of ‘Victory of the Daleks’. As usual, fear the spoilers…
There’s a very good interview with Steven Moffatt in a recent issue of Doctor Who Magazine where he talks about the fact that in the first couple of seasons, New Who was a little bit on the worthy side, functioning as a general all-purpose drama series as well as Doctor Who. A good point that he makes is that back in 2005, the show had to fit in with the television landscape of the time (a landscape which it’s ended up changing), whereas now there’s far more freedom for Who to be genuinely Who-ish, especially when it’s in the hands of a life-long fan like Moffatt who isn’t afraid to push in weirder, more intelligent dimensions.
Because one thing’s for sure – there’s no way in hell New Who could have risked pulling off anything quite as barmy as The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone in its first couple of seasons. It’s filling the slot that normally houses the ‘big bold mid-season two-parter’ (which looks suspiciously like it’s been swapped to the episode 8 + 9 slot), the slot that brought us pretty throwaway stuff like “Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel” and “The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky” – only this time, it’s a mixture of all-out we’re-really-not-messing-around scarefest and action movie. It’s the most slick and genuinely movie-like Doctor Who has ever been – Adam Smith once again pulling out the stops with the direction (especially in the hand-held sequence of Amy’s collapse in Flesh and Stone) – and a story that manages to speed past its relatively few issues with a gigantic amount of style.
Yes, there are problems here – rather more in The Time of Angels than there were in Flesh and Stone, to be honest (which is very rare – the increased claustrophobia, and the level of threat from the crack in time actually make part 2 of this story stronger than part 1), but again it’s partly the bar being raised so high by episodes like Blink or The Eleventh Hour that makes Who fans grumble when Moffatt commits the cardinal sin of not writing an utter 100% stone-cold classic. This two-parter is certainly closest to what a lot of Doctor Who fans regard as ‘true’ Who – believing that dark and scary is the best way of doing Who, and any other episode sub-genres are wastes of time (when it’s the colourful, different episodes that make the scary ones stand out, and the Phillip Hinchcliffe era in the Seventies is the only real period in the show’s 26 year history that fully embraced dark-and-scary horror).
For the most part, it is a pretty simple and traditional setup, a dark SF thriller that morphs into a chase movie (the kind of thing Classic Who couldn’t really do – a chase story would have meant far too many locations); on the surface, it isn’t gigantically different from Moffat’s S4 two-parter, but while this story does have echoes of Moffat’s previous work (especially in the dialogue scenes with ‘Angel Bob’), it doesn’t suffer from the same Moffat mix-tape feel. Partly it’s the sharpness of the dialogue, the visual style, the atmosphere of the Labyrinth of the Dead and the Forest Vault, and it’s partly that the scares are a lot more effective here, and much, much weirder. Flesh-eating shadows and virtual realities are one thing, but Weeping Angels doing a Ring-style attack on Amy and then infecting her mind, combined with a history-devouring crack in time, and we’ve got a very different, much more intense story.
One of the main differences is, to be honest, the characters. We’re back with Moffat, so it’s no surprise that the characters are as strong as ever, and the Eleventh Doctor is a gigantic amount of fun – it’s hard not to quote Moffat’s description of him as an ‘elegant shambles’, a fast-talking professorial nutcase who manages to veer from eccentric to starkly honest like a flash. It’s a portrayal of the Doctor that’s hugely confidant and very different from the Tenth Doctor, and one that’s once again matched by Matt Smith’s performance. Aside from a couple of almost imperceptible wobbles in the first episode, it doesn’t show that this was Smith’s first recorded story – he’s given some pretty challenging material here, and he pulls it all off. There are strong echoes of both Troughton and Baker in his portrayal (I especially loved the bluntness of telling Amy that she’s dying, followed shortly by the quiet and heartfelt moment between them before he leaves in Flesh and Stone), a warmth and eccentricity combined with energy that makes him appealing, oddball and simply interesting to watch. Yes, it’s possible that some people may be finding this kind of intense Doctorishness hard to cope with, but Smith has already become my favourite New Who Doctor, within only five episodes, and he’ll have to do something pretty staggeringly bad in the next eight weeks to make me change my mind. (Although I’m crossing my fingers now – please don’t make me regret writing that…)
And along with the Eleventh Doctor, we’ve got one of the most distinctive and offbeat companions we’ve ever seen. Amy is back centre-stage here, and seriously put through the wringer, but she also gets a massive number of opportunities to show what a brilliantly fascinating character she is. It’d be very easy for the show to fall into a relative formula with ‘plucky and feisty modern-day girl companion’, but Amy is a really interesting mix of confidence and distrust, and it’s also great to see that even in completely terrifying circumstances (like the fantastic ‘Angel emerging from the TV’ sequence) she’s capable of thinking her way around problems. One of my favourite lines (out of a mountain of brilliantly quotable lines throughout the two-parter) is Amy towards the end of The Time of Angels, when she’d convinced her hand has turned to stone, and says “I don’t need you to die for me, Doctor, I’m not that clingy!”, which tells you so much about the kind of person Amy is. Karen Gillan knocks it out of the park, especially in the more traumatic episode 2, and it’s certainly going to make any future Victory of the Daleks-style shifts back to ‘generic companion’ feel even more grating.
Of course, there’s also the scene that will have caused many die-hard Who fans to have miniature coronaries – the final scene, where it turns out that Amy really isn’t like any other companion we’ve seen before. And I’ll have to admit – it’s played a little too broadly, and a touch too sitcom-like in construction (it does feel a bit odd to have this kind of epilogue to such a tremendously dark story), but I really liked it. I like the ballsiness of Amy – the fact that almost her first question when she’s taken onboard the River Song situation is “Is River Song your wife?”, and that she’s reacting to her life-long crush on the Doctor (which was already pretty-much confirmed in Victory of the Daleks) and the fact that she’s just been through major levels of trauma by trying her level best to jump his bones. And it completely fits her character – after all, she’s already been established as having a previous job as a kissagram (I have learned, through ‘sources’, that she was originally going to be a strippergram, but it was decided finally to tone it down), and it’s hard not to imagine that she may have first gotten together with Rory in a not dissimilar fashion. Also, it gives us the Doctor’s priceless reaction of absolute flustered horror, desperately trying to fight her off while realizing exactly how important she may be to what’s going on in the universe, and means that we really are in unknown territory as far as the Doctor/Companion relationship goes. It’s even hard to completely define what the Doctor and Amy’s relationship is – they’re much more than just friends (like, say, the Doctor and Donna), and yet there’s so many difficult emotions at the heart of their relationship that there’s certainly no resemblance with the Doctor/Rose dynamic. I’m still sold, I’m still intrigued, and I’m still going to be fascinated to see what happens next, especially with Rory joining the TARDIS crew next episode.
Indeed, one of the most distinctive things about Flesh and Stone is the way it up-ends a lot of our usual expectations for New Who’s long-form storytelling. The appearences of the crack in time did look to be this season’s equivalent of ‘Bad Wolf’, and I was fairly certain the situation with Amy’s wedding was going to stretch on for some time – but instead, we’re five episodes in and both situations have at least reached a temporary resolution. The crack in time is gigantically important here, changing the entire nature of the episode, and also setting us up in intriguing ways for the finale (as does the mystery over who exactly River Song is guilty of murdering). It’s also fascinating to see that Moffatt is capable of tackling the kind of problems that New Who has normally overlooked until now – like the Cyber King in Victorian London, which I was quite happy to just write off as another nonsensical bit of Who excess. Only now, Moffatt is back-engineering that into a threat to time, and it’s the kind of reference I love, one that shows that Who is respecting its audience and trying to be just as smart as them. Indeed, the world-building here is very effective – it’s broad strokes, and there are points where it could have been a little braver (like maybe not just dressing the Clerics in standard desert fatigues), but the whole thing hangs together. There are gaps, and other mysteries – like we still don’t know why the ship was sabotaged, and why the army of Weeping Angels were being raised up, especially when they seemed to be intent on devouring the universe? (Okay, that probably comes from the presence of the crack in time, but how would anyone have been able to control an army of Weeping Angels? Inquiring minds wish to know). But, the story is strong enough, and I’m willing to give Moffatt the benefit of the doubt, waiting for the big finale and whatever he’s got in store then.
Of course, the two major factors in the story that are impossible to ignore are the recurring ones – not only do we get River Song reappearing, but we also get the return of the Weeping Angels. I knew River Song was back thanks to the publicity photos from the first day of filming, and I wasn’t exactly surprised – she was a Moffatt character, and there’s enough potential to do some interesting things with her (even though I can’t help feeling that there’s also the potential for the character to become a bit of a bind and a restriction – or at least, that she’s only going to be effective for so long (added to which, there’s only so long that Alex Kingston will be able to get away with playing a younger version of a character she first played two years ago). And Moffatt does seem to be aware of this – while he has great fun with River Song’s relationship with the Doctor, he also pushes things in interesting directions, suggesting that maybe things aren’t as clearcut as we think (although time will tell whether any of this pays off sufficiently). It’s notable that the focus shifts from River Song in the second part – partly thanks to the attention shift to the crack in time, and partly because things have to remain ambiguous to fully set-up the end-of-season climax – and also that Alex Kingston’s performance isn’t quite as sharp as in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. It’s possibly just because of the different dynamic (and the bigger gap in ages between Kingston and Smith), and the slightly spikier nature of the character dynamic (I do like that the Doctor and River Song have a long-time married couple dynamic despite only having met twice, and that the Doctor really doesn’t like that fact), but Kingston’s performance in The Time of Angels is a bit odd for the first fifteen minutes or so – she’s better once she’s out of the Thirties-style dress, but there’s something terribly off-putting and arch about some of her line deliveries, and it’s a bit surprising (especially since it’s nothing like her first go at the character). But, River Song is still great fun to have around, and her introduction in The Time of Angels definitely ranks as one of the most daring bits of storytelling the series has pulled off yet.
And then, there are the Weeping Angels. The minute I heard they were back, I did think “Uh-oh”. Blink is still a fantastic piece of television, the best standalone story Who has ever done, and I was worried that going back to the well on the Weeping Angels wouldn’t be as good (rather in the same way that Sally Sparrow is so much more effective as a one-time only character, a companion who only really meets the Doctor for about two minutes but also manages to save his life). Well, I needn’t have worried – it’s true that the Weeping Angels may have lost a small amount of their perfectly constructed mystique, but Moffatt sensibly realized the one thing he couldn’t do was a Blink re-run, so instead we get big, grand science fiction, and a variety of gorgeously played scares. The creative highlight is definitely the Angel-out-of-the-Television sequence, and the moment which may have gotten a few people to say “Hang on a minute…” is the sequence with Amy in the Forest with the Angels. The ‘Walk like you can see’ sequence is, technically, stretching a lot of the pre-engineered assumptions about the Angels (especially since we essentially get to see them unobserved her) – it’s a bit of a stretch, but about the worst crime against storytelling this two-parter commits, and it’s one I can live with, especially since it does still manage to be eerie and massively unsettling, transposing Moffatt’s fairy-tale stylings into a completely different environment (and no, I don’t think Amy’s red hooded top was in any way an accident…). But the story works because of its differences, and the Angels are still a set of brilliantly horrible adversaries, especially combined with their hi-jacking of the voices of the dead (which, yes, is an idea Moffat has used before, but what makes it work so well here is that Angel Bob is so unsettlingly polite when he’s talking to the Doctor, which makes those sequences a hundred times more effective than the “We are evil bad guys” dialogue of the Vashta Nerada in S4’s Forest of the Dead).
This is, in short, a top-notch story – containing some excellent performances (Iain Glen does very well with not very much, making Father Octavian into a genuinely rounded character, and his final scene with the Doctor was a lot more affecting than I was expecting it to be), brilliant dialogue, well-executed special effects and some gorgeous visuals (especially the Mines of Moria-esque shots of the Labyrinth). Indeed, there’s a certain thrill for this old-school Who fan to see a Doctor Who story set in lots of tunnels that actually uses real tunnels, rather than charming but slightly creaky sets. The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone is, at heart, a full-tilt Doctor Who story of the highest order, pulled off by a writer who knows what he’s doing, and is able to balance very traditional Doctor Who storytelling with some out-there storytelling and some deliciously bizarre moments. It’s only prevented from being this seasons’ best so far by the fact that the hanging plot-threads mean we’ll have to wait and see how certain aspects pay-off; that, and the fact that such a dark story is never going to be quite as much giddy fun as The Eleventh Hour. But this is definitely Moffat’s strongest ‘scare’ episode since Blink, and further proof that Matt Smith was absolutely the right man for the part of the Doctor.
Of course, we’re now entering the six-week non-Moffat zone – the quality may rise and fall, but I’m still remarkably upbeat. And whatever happens, we’ve already had some genuinely outstanding episodes of Doctor Who. Let’s just hope that they can keep the Victory of the Daleks-style misfires to a minimum…