The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone

TARDISBy the time I was writing about this story, I was feeling more conscious of packing ‘added value’ into these reviews. My thinking was that, although I was probably  among the first Doctor Who fans to see the tales (courtesy of preview DVDs), my reviews were the last to be read, popping onto the newsagent’s shelves weeks after everyone’s dissected them online. So, I felt they needed  an additional element, in the hope that would help them remain worth reading. A gimmick, really.

From DWM #422, this one is full of  business. It sports a seemingly superfluous opening para, which is paid-off by a call back at the end. An old cheat. It’s superficially impressive, and gives the impression the whole thing’s been terribly well thought-out. Try it! I also covertly threaded a countdown device into the text (riffing off that bit in part two, when Amy does the same) and marked the relevant words in red for the benefit of Tom and Peter at DWM, so they could be assured these weird mispellings weren’t just typos. I’ve done that here too.

I was well-pleased with the final thing. Less so upon re-reading it now. You just kind of want it to get on with the job in hand. At the time of writing this blurb, I’m about to review ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, and I’m far more relaxed about differentiating my reviews with others online, even though this year, Den of Geek, Tachyon TV and SFX are publishing pieces both before and after stories air. Thing is, I hadn’t realised the implicit added value I already had: I’m lucky in that my reviews appear in DWM, the galaxy’s greatest mag. (See how, even here, I call back to my first line?)

DWM #422

It’s winter 1983, nearly pub opening time. The Doctor Who production team have been firming up plans for season 21. It’ll be terrific. Everyone’s going to go nuts about the new look Sea Devils and Silurians, the Daleks are returning and writer Robert Holmes is also staging a comeback. He’ll be penning Peter Davison’s swansong. It’s got the working title Chain Reaction.

Producer John Nathan Turner has written up all the episodes-in-progress on the whiteboard and it’s time to leave for the day. But as he closes up the office he fails to notice Eric Saward still slumped in his chair. A shocking scarlet lip-smack plastered across the Script Editor’s cheek has sent him into a happy reverie, dreaming of acid one-liners and acid baths. There’s someone else here too. Someone who’s been lurking in the shadow cast by the Master’s iron maiden TARDIS prop (from The King’s Demons, now requisitioned for personal use). A pair of fabulous red Christian Louboutin shoes clack across the floor. A smile. Devilish eyes behind Grace Kelly glasses. Leave the man, it’s the whiteboard she wants. With a swipe, the words ‘Chain Reaction’ are erased. And ten

Twelve thousand years later – give or take – the Doctor and Amy, plus an old friend, are venturing into the Maze of the Dead. Here, a familiar foe waits.

This reviewer doesn’t mind admitting he had doubts about the wisdom of resurrecting the oh-so-scary Weeping Angels. Granted, I could understand the lure of bringing back the Dalek-beating baddies (as per a 2007 poll), but they did seem like one-hit wonders – in the best possible way, of course. The Angels had been perfectly tooled to fit the puzzle box that was series three’s Blink, and in many ways were more a plot point than a fully-fledged species. Lifted out of that ornate mechanic, could they really work? Or, to put it in clunky terms, weren’t they actually a bit of a gimmick?

Well, shut up, me. The Angels are back, they’ve been refashioned and – against all the odds – they’re scarier than ever. This second run-out locks them into an even more intricately crafted story, one where writer Steven Moffat is almost working at a quantum level, there’s just so much detail here. You can’t discard a thing.

And, as if to prove he totally knows what he’s about, he revisits Blink’s keystone sequence – the Tenth Doctor on a TV cautioning viewers, “Do not blink” – inverts it and then weaponises it. This time it’s the statue who’s on the screen, the flickering and grainy texture lending the image an unnerving verisimilitude. It’s possibly the most terrifying moment in Doctor Who history. While it looms down on Amy who’s stuck in the room, it also strains at the fourth wall. Bloody hell, could the Angel come through our tellies at home too?

“That which holds an image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel”, we’re told. At this point DWM must make a formal apology. Sorry. Yes, we’ve put Weeping Angels on this page, meaning this issue is now an Angel itself. Look away! No, don’t look away! And, you reading this in WH Smith’s with nine intention of buying. Yes, you! Is that something in your eye?

This most peculiar, high concept foe becomes, if anything, an even more potent threat for the Doctor across the two-parter. There’s something simply terrible about seeing so many of their number eroded and mottled into a crude approximation of humanity. Then there’s the sequence in the second episode where Amy must pick her way past the statues with her eyes closed. It’s a brilliantly clever take on that bit from Aliens (okay, we had to mention it sooner or later) where the marines try to navigate past blobs on the radar representing the film’s nasties. Doctor Who’s version is all but static and yet the sense of a real, kinetic threat is somehow even more palpable.

Then they move. We see the Angels move!

Okay, there was a brief glimpse of something when they snagged the Doctor’s collar earlier on, but here a head turns, an arm flexes. It’s a brilliant moment, but a risky one, cos there’s the fear of throwing away the statues’ USP. We don’t really want to see their stealthy game of Grandmother’s footsteps devolving into a generic monster’s lumber. But, actually, this plays out like we’re witnessing something forbidden. A one-time only glimpse past the quantum lock. A head turns and an arm flexes – a tiny moment wrought large. It’s a great pay off, truly eight.

That the Angels survive the story with their reputations not just intact, but enhanced, is enough reason to love it. (Although, let’s be sensible now Moff – you really can’t ever bring them back again, okay?) But what about the other returnee?

I think it’s fair to say that unlike my own trepidation with the Angels’ comeback, many fans were fitful about seeing more of River Song. It’s not that Alex Kingston or the character – last seen in series four’s Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, of course – was considered a failure. It’s more that what River represents for the Doctor is something some of us fear. She could be the old ball and chain, the nagging tug of responsibility and normality that grounds our hero. Moffat has lots of fun with this.

“Is River Song your wife?” asks Amy. “She’s kind of like, ‘Heel boy!’.” But there’s never a straight answer. She might just be. Her reintroduction to the series posits her as nothing less than an icon; a close-up of her shoes, her sunglasses, a smile before the big reveal. River’s a character with the stature befitting of Future Mrs Doctor. Plus, and this is breaking all the rules, she knows more about the TARDIS than our hero… although his lack of expertise in landing the ship is mitigated by the “brilliant noise” it makes as a result.

The couple – and let’s call them that, shall we? – also share a clear shorthand. River asking the Doctor to sonic her communicator, calling him “Sweetie”, them both twigging the relevance of the one-headed statues in the Maze (“How could we not notice that?” exclaims the Doctor) and talking in truncated sentences – The Doctor: “What do [the Angels] need?…” River: “Of course!” Whoever or whatever this adventurer is, she’s absolutely the Time Lord’s equal – and they’re both the stuff of fairytales. sEven more than that, she’s the Time Lord’s destiny, who’s serving – ahem – time for killing “the best man I’ve ever known”. It can only mean one thing. Can’t it? Guess we’ll find out… when the Pandorica opens.

Eagle eyes will have strafed across this two-parter, inspecting everything to the nth degree. We informed ones know it was the first story the new Doctor Who production team filmed. Like River, we’ve been meeting Matt Smith and Karen Gillan out of sequence. But does it show? Well, there’s the Doctor’s extra floppy, extra Doctorery hair here, which helped propel Matt through the audition process. But aside from the quick interim trim between Alfava Metraxis and Chez Pond, there’s nothing for spotters to jot. No blue book required to log and make sense of inconsistencies. We’re travelling on the same continuum we jumped aboard at The Eleventh Hour. Both our leads power through the story like they’ve always been in Doctor Who. The Eleventh Doctor remains grumpy and urgent. And does he have a plan yet? “I don’t know, I haven’t finished talking.” Amy, meanwhile, is every inch of that much-maligned word, sassy, “creaming” her first encounter with the Angels and taking huge pleasure in seeing the universe’s most alpha male (well, in a professorial sort of way) cowed by a member of the “weaker” (we can’t stress those inverted commas enough) six. And after teasing her travelling companion, Karen Gillan then goes on to steal every heart in the second episode when she’s left alone in that Brothers Grimm forest, hopelessly clutching the communicator: “Hello? Hello?” She’s simultaneously so brave and so scared, it’s a bravura performance.

About a thousand words back, there was a mention of how intricately plotted this story is. It’s true. Nothing truly arrives out of the blue although Moffat does enjoy obscuring the signposts. But then, any tale that flings up the caption “12,000 years later” is never going to be all that straightforward. Cross cutting frantically between aeons is something only Doctor Who can do. But be attentive, it’s all there. The Doctor tells River in Flesh and Stone, “Octavian’s dead. So’s that teleport. You’re wasting your time”. It’s like a Derren Brown feint. We’re still occupied by the cleric’s death (and, by the way, wasn’t Iain Glen great?), so while the remark both highlights and discards the teleporter, we don’t pay much attention. Until the device is then used to rescue Amy, of course. The sleight of hand just makes you smile. Every word is working hard, even though some have yet to deliver – the absent ducks on the Leadworth duck pond? Anyone?

There’s also conceptual playfulness here, with gravity on board the Byzantium bending in much the same way Moffat’s stories refract time. And yet we, the viewer, are able to keep up. That’s five quality work. Sorry, fine.

The story, much to my relief, also tackles the series’ ongoing McGuffin. Four while the crack in the universe could easily have been kept back as a constant but – let’s be honest – easy portent of oncoming threat, that conceit is now dispensed with. This is a story that’s huge, encompassing both the CyberKing from the 2008 Christmas special and those damn ducks, and suddenly it’s really motoring. Doctor Who is looking its plot arc in the eye. That’s bold.

From threethere! – it’s back two reality. The one – sorry, wonders – of a far flung alien beachhead traded in for Amy’s bedroom, the place where Prisoner… Prisoner…

ZERO!!

Oh dear. We seem to have counted down to something. Something really combustible. By dint of DWM’s schedule, these reviews are written before the episodes air on BBC One. How the final scene will be received is something I’m genuinely fascinated about. Because, this is it. This is actually sex in Doctor Who! While Martha and Rose’s feelings for the Time Lord felt real and human, they were also somehow pure. Clean. Dreams of romance and a bit of hand-holding. Amy? She’s a normal, lustful woman… and all she wants is to have the Doctor. Blimey!

Let’s say no more and retreat back to that winter of 1983. The pubs are now open and in the Doctor Who production office there’s a sudden implosion. Rushing air turns a stacked pile of Lanzarote travel guides into a blossom of paper, but Eric Saward dreams on, and the intruder makes her escape, discarding a stubby pen as she exits. A Cheshire cat smile momentarily persists. There’s something new written on that whiteboard.

Coming up in Doctor Who (someday): ‘The Doctor’s Wife’.

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