Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone
|Story No.||223 and 224|
|Production Code||1.4 and 1.5|
|Dates||April 24 and May 1 2010|
With Matt Smith,
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Adam Smith
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis.
|Synopsis: A ship has crashed with an angel on board, but something even bigger is threatening them.|
A Review by Gavin Smith 3/5/10
Blimey! Matt Smith's first two-parter has a lot on its plate! There's the return of the Weeping Angels, and of River, a massive exposure of this series' story arc, a body count - in a Steven Moffat script - and the coup d' etat at the end. I liked it! But with the ambitions of this series as considerable as they are it remains to be seen whether they can be achieved.
Let's begin with the story arc as these can be quite dangerous. In New Series 1, we had Bad Wolf; in essence a deus ex machina escape, but redeemed by the enormous sacrifice of the Ninth Doctor. In season 3, however, the Master has his legacy corrupted by a Russell T Davies power trip. What was the point in all that Mr. Saxon nonesense? Therefore, this series is already treading on dangerous ground. So much emphasis has been placed on the cracks in time that the series overall may hinge on its concluding episode. Series 3, as already examined, had a pathetic ending - in my opinion, at least - but was redeemed by some excellent standalone serials. Series 4, by contrast, transpired to be lazy, one-dimensional and riddled with plot holes. Part of this, I feel, was Davies' insistance on using the series to highlight the importance of Donna by using her as the story arc; not entirely unlike what this series is doing with Amy. So far this series has placed only good cards on the table, but how many are left in its hand?
Now let's look at the Weeping Angels: they're quality. Still a long way off being the new Daleks or Cybermen, of course, but, I feel, at least, that they're already on par with the Ice Warriors and the Sea Devils. The problem with recurring appearances is that sooner or later the foe/character in question will have a lame episode: Destiny of the Daleks, The Wheel in Space, Last of the Timelords! The Angels do run into trouble during the second episode. Firstly, they are seen to move. Thankfully it's only brief; I hope Moffat and co will write it off as a failed experiment. Worse, however, is their demise: they are subordinated to the story arc! This is why I think it's such a dangerous gamble; anything that can terrify and destroy the Weeping Angels needs to be bloody terrifying itself, it has to seriously impress; so not those Smartie Daleks! In spite of these misgivings, however, the Angels do well: the scene were one shifts out of the screen in episode one, the way they pick off and then animate the clerics, the demise of a central character. In short, the Weeping Angels provide an excellent adversary for the eleventh Doctor's first two-part battle. Long may they continue.
River Song? Yeah, she's good. But if the Weeping Angels were made to play second fiddle to the story arc, then she played third fiddle to them.
Now for setting and pacing. It is very much a case of episode one build-up, episode two break-down. The Time of Angels provides the monsters with a playground in which to kill the rolling stock and shock the audience; I felt the stone temple atmosphere of this episode was more their element and it was certainly made good use of. In the second episode, however, they seem a little like sharks on land. Certainly, the mechanism for establishing the forest is a clever one but I definitely preferred the maze. Nevertheless, Flesh and Stone has much to its credit, doing well to answer some questions, but raising many others. The two episodes are linked by a cliffhanger that, while not the best since the show returned, is far from being the worst.
Matt Smith? On form as usual: I love it that he isn't always right, that he can't save everyone he promises to. This is evidenced when the Angels dispatch Bob - which they gleefully point out - again when the worn-out statues come to life, and again when he can't save the central character. Nevertheless, where would the universe be without him? Unlike Tennant, who knows the answer before any puzzle has been presented, Smith examines the puzzle. Then he explains it to the audience. Then he solves it. Clearly, he is in the spirit of Troughton but he is his own Doctor, his quirky temper is evidence enough of that.
In conclusion, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone is a well-thought-out action/horror, the darkest Matt Smith story so far. The best thing about this two parter is that it has made me hungry for more. However, I'm not sure how satisfied my appetite will be when it comes to the closing credits of the final episode.
Military Efficiency by Mike Morris 16/4/11
The first two-parter of a Doctor Who season tends to be deceptively important. Not because they're weighty stories in themselves - they tend to be the lightest of any given season's two parters - but because they lay down a marker. After this story, things generally get serious, with the early-season stories functioning as curtain-raisers. This clearly holds up for Series One (where the next story after the Slitheen 2-parter was Dalek, which highlighted the Doctor's inner turmoil and got the series really motoring) and Three (where That Rubbish With The CGI Blob In It kicked off the Mr Saxon plot angle in earnest). If it's less true of Series Two and Four, these are also the seasons whose structure is less satisfying.
So far, one of the most notable things about the Steven Moffatt revolution is basically how little the series has changed. It's easy to forget, for example, that there's no reason that Doctor Who has to have three two-parters per series; however, not only did Moff keep this makeup, he put the stories in exactly the same place. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this repeating structure is a serious problem, but it does mean that the rhythms of the season arcs become predictable, to the extent that any throwaway sentence about, say, bees disappearing is seized on with a cry of "A-ha! That's an Arc-Plot, that is!" The new template, with the season being split in two, effectively acknowledges that the format had become a limitation.
And yet Crash Of The Byzantium is - as well as being a tense, effective, nuts-and-bolts thriller - the first story of Series 5 that varies the structure from what came before. Uniquely for 2-Parter 1, it isn't an earth invasion story - a point which, more than anything, gives it a nice feeling of identity. Rather than launching or ignoring the season meme, this one actively progresses it. This is another difficult one to discuss without running smack-bang into the Guide's spoiler rules, so let's take an analogy; imagine that an unidentified politician called "Mr Saxon" had shown up and resolved Evolution of the Daleks by using powers no human should have, then vanished, leaving the Doctor speculating that this Saxon character could destroy the universe but having no clue who he was.
Actually, that sounds rather good, doesn't it?
And there's the point about Crash of the Byzantium, really; the fact that it's heavy on arc-plot, as well as complicating its brief by bringing back River Song and the Weeping Angels, tends to overshadow the story itself. It's most obviously similar, in new series currency, to The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit; a squarely straightforward tension-fest that borrows heavily from classic Doctor Who serials (Earthshock is the most obvious motif). It's fashionable amongst some fan circles to dismiss That One With The Devil In It, although as it happens I think it's rather good in an undemanding sort of way. However, I'll also say the following without any compunction: Crash of the Byzantium may be as straightforward and limited as its Tennant-era bedfellow but it's so obviously superior to The Impossible Planet, as well as to the majority of stories in Series Five, that it positively hurts.
Okay, first things first: look, it's Mike Skinner!
Moving on... the pretitle sequence, including the return of River, is trying far too hard to be to cool (not an unusual fault in Series 5), but it's also so daring that it just about pays off. If it's a touch self-satisfied, the recasting of Dr Song as a sort of intergalactic jewel-thief is rather more satisfying than her previous incarnation. I don't think I'm alone in saying that, despite a perfectly decent performance from Alex Kingston, River annoyed the hell out of me on her debut. Here, the characterisation's more successful, simply because it's not clear whether we're supposed to like her or not. Kingston really seems to be having a ball in the role, the revelations about her past / the Doctor's future are genuinely intriguing, and the age gap between Kingston and Matt Smith somehow aids the Doctor/River dynamic; she doesn't feel like a future girlfriend, more as a slightly meddlesome presence for whom the Doctor has a thinly-veiled ambivalence. A friend of mine said - approvingly - that she was the first attempt in years to "do a Romana", although my fanboy-background causes me to say she's more like a reworking of Iris Wildthyme (albeit without any of the funny quirky bits). That comparison does highlight how slicked-up and demographically-aware Doctor Who is these days, but maybe I've grown tired of being disappointed by that fact. Either way, River Song is an unexpected success.
The other returning element also scores a hit. I was sceptical about the return of the Weeping Angels, who struck me as a successful, but slightly gimmicky, monster that would be good for one story. Here, as well as placing them at the core of the plot - a Weeping Angel causes a spaceship to crash, its motives unknown - their abilities are expanded and their motivations made clear. It also has the effect of ironing out some of the more baffling aspects of Blink: this Angel doesn't bother its arse zapping people back to the past, for example, and their clearly expressed sadism here makes more sense of their actions in general. They work. There's also a brief section where the "rules" are broken and they're seen to move; you'd expect it to be crap, but we've become so used to seeing them frozen that it's actually a shocking moment.
The Angels are... well, at the very least, they're worrying. Moffatt's pretty good at recognising a scare, and he milks it here. Riffs from his previous stories crop up, most notably the after-death speech from a supporting character, but without the obvious greatest hits feel of Silence in the Library. The plot is pretty light - the story isn't shy about the fact that a fair chunk of it is a glorified chase - but there are just enough twists and turns to keep it diverting (Amy's angel, the nature of the destination, the crack, the angels' miscalculation, and the resolution is clever). Plus, showy as the cliffhanger may be - and oh, I do hate these "don't you know who I am?" speeches by the Doctor - it's kind of cool anyway. And the incidental touches, like the presence of the Church, are rather wonderful.
Smith is... well he's glorious, isn't he? It's easy to forget how the sheer unpredictability of Smith's performance, the speed with which his mood changes from joyous to thoughtful to furiously out-of-answers (the yell of "What else am I supposed to do?" to River took me hugely by surprise) is a damn difficult thing to pull off. There's no doubt that they cast the right man. Matt Smith is comfortably the show's best asset - just the nature of his character nudges the stories in a likeable direction - and this is one of his best turns. The only odd note is an out-of-kilter farewell speech to Amy, and this turns out to be a rather brilliant callback in the making.
Amy also works well here. She's less sitcom than in her earlier appearances, her knee-jerk secretiveness really comes back to bite her on the arse, and she's convincingly more terrified as the story progresses. There's a definite feeling in this one that Amy's shit just got real, leading to the story's final scenes, which I found rather hilarious, particularly when it becomes clear that she just fancies a rumble.
Crash of the Byzantium plays such a key role in the season's arc-plot that many have forgotten to take it on its own merits. This is a shame, as only ,a href=eleventhhour.htm>The Eleventh Hour and the not-really-comparable The Lodger could claim to be better stories. It's easy to think of this sort of thing as a standard-issue Doctor Who plot, replete with crashed spaceship, cannon-fodder soldiers and chase-scenes with monsters. To an extent this is true, but it's also hardly ever so well-realised. It may be a limited macho genero-plot underneath the arc-based touches, but it's also near-flawless in its realisation; like the church-soldiers it presents, there's enough beneath the efficiency to hold interest. That may sound like faint praise, but it's not intended as such. This is a very good story indeed.
The time of brilliance by Richard Evans 11/7/11
After a string of untrustworthy showings, Matt Smith finally gets into his stride in his fourth story, with a manner of speech that perfectly cements him in his role. The Doctor, so synonymous with an inimitable eccentricity (especially in his second, fourth and tenth incarnations), shines through properly, unlike in Victory of the Daleks (remind me not to start ranting about that one again). "This is extremely very not good," he mutters at a devastating moment of jeopardy; I have tried and failed to dig up a more memorably characteristic line spoken by the Time Lord during his life. Aside from such quirky moments as this, Moffat skilfully manoeuvres the character to so many important extremes that it is no wonder Smith delivers a top-quality performance. Curiosity turns to frustration and secrecy in an instant, with the timely arrival of the seismic River Song turning proceedings on their head and prompting the Doctor to indignantly evade the question of his relationship with her.
Think of those numerous, decisive moments in Doctor Who in which he dodges other uncomfortable subject matters - Utopia, The War Games, Remembrance of the Daleks, and an attractive, selfless turn from Nyssa in Castrovalva - and replicate them in a swampy cave, and the mystery of River (not to mention the calibre of the Eleventh Doctor's character) escalates. The key difference here is that the Doctor genuinely has no answer to the questions. Suddenly, the Eleventh Doctor begins to come across as the counterpart of the Seventh: superbly dark and sinister, but certainly not all-knowing. In the denouement of Flesh and Stone, this observation is magnified when the Doctor fails to defeat his adversaries; they fall foul of their own miscalculations. (This scene in question may be incredibly analogous to the close of Doomsday, but it is comparatively underplayed. I like these "quiet epics", because there's no danger of the material being overblown.)
As is expected from the new series, the location work and set pieces are marvellous. In addition to providing a disturbing look at what the mechanisation of the human race could soon lead to, the artificial forest in which the latter part of the story takes place detracts from the overall intensity. After many minutes of extended peril at the hands of the psychotic Weeping Angels, this is a welcome touch, and when the (dazzling) major danger penetrates into the forest, Flesh and Stone becomes all the more mystifying, allowing for several silent comeuppances to pack a punch. The aforementioned "story intensity" benefits from the use of sinister, ancient caves, which may be slightly obvious, but The Time of Angels more than justifies their prominence by following a clever, logical plotline, and culminating in a downright unsettling cliffhanger.
Admittedly, the story borrows countless elements from previous Moffat and non-Moffat scripts, but they never stink of unoriginality. There's the "largest museum ever", a throwback to Silence in the Library (perhaps this means that every time River Song appears in a serial, I can expect a "largest" something to turn up). River slyly paves the path towards her own rescue from the Byzantium in scene one, a path which lasts for 12000 years, but which is resolved in a matter of minutes. The Doctor leaves Amy in the artificial forest, walks away and is seen speaking to her seconds later. In conclusion: Mr Moffat likes his predestination paradoxes. No wonder they were predominant in Blink and would become pivotal in The Big Bang. All the deaths in The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone take place off-screen, but they are as excellently written as I should expect, especially one involving a Weeping Angel and a stranglehold. As well as being shocking and agonising, this incident elevates the River Song mystery to new echelons. My speculations about it have started, and I think I have a plausible solution...
Questions are officially raised in Flesh and Stone about Amy Pond's character, attributable (in the real world, at least) to THAT final scene. I would rather not discuss it in any great detail, because commenting on a controversy always puts you on one side of an issue and magnifies the whole saga. Either way, the final scene seems incredibly misplaced, being out of touch with the rest of the story; compare it with Fury from the Deep's closing moments, which are more than believable given events seen. The big question is, of course, why is Amy attracting so much trouble and attention? Credit can only go to Karen Gillan, whose performance is just as diverse as Matt Smith's. No wonder they have become such a formidable TARDIS team. By displaying so many sides of her character, Gillan makes the final minutes credible, despite her lamentable outfit.
If I remember correctly, one reviewer commented that "Flesh and Stone can lay credible claim to being the best episode of Doctor Who there has been." Provided they have not seen The Curse of Fenric, this is more than reasonable. Why was this conclusion reached about Flesh and Stone? Well, just refer back to the title of The Time of Angels for that answer. Frustrated as I may have been at the over-excessive hype about Blink, I have seen the Weeping Angels become titanic foes in Doctor Who, because showing them at the height of their powers was exactly the right thing to do. In The Time of Angels, they are enigmatic, sharp-tongued terrors, and they don't fall into any of their opponents' traps. Then they laugh... and I thought Midnight was frightening.
With all of this in mind, a suitable endnote on the subject of The Time of Angels would be a reference to three Britain's Got Talent dance troupes: Diversity (the story has that), Flawless (it nearly is that) and A3 (artistic, atmospheric, Amy). Let me also warn you not to blink while watching Taylor Swift's music videos and appreciating her wondrous vocal talents, particularly Love Story, the only song of hers that us Brits seem to know about. Why am I saying all of this? (HINT: the answers are in the review somewhere!)
Kobayashi Maru by Thomas Cookson 4/7/12
The TARDIS lands here on the world of the Weeping Angels. Conveying a sense that this era will be a lot more adventurous and a lot more dangerous.
River Song's airlock escape was spectacular, exhilarating and done with a sense of wonder. It really conveys how this new era is stretching the show's legs at last. It kind of nagged at me that this River feels like a completely different character from the one we saw in Silence in the Library who seemed more caring and professional. This River seems positively sociopathic and reckless. But at the same time River still works here because there's so much we still don't know about her and she works as a rich enigma because of it. Something that was lost in Series 6. This River feels flexible and slippery, and the banter she has with the Doctor in the TARDIS is nicely reminiscent of the Fourth Doctor and Romana, harking back to the days of wit and fun. I still love the joke about leaving the brake on.
The scene where Amy's trapped in the video booth with the image of the Angel is so thrilling because of how it breaks the rules, in a way that makes the story's monsters more powerful. It's playing dirty, struggling to get out and attack. It's seemingly set up as merely a jump scare, but it gets progressively more relentless from there.
Afterwards, the pacing does slack a bit, but that's okay because this is a slow-burner set up. Besides, I really like the cinematography of the archaeological layers, and the interplay and banter between River, Amy and the Doctor. I love this team. Matt Smith is finding new and interesting ways to play this irrepressible character.
As for the plot, I think I'm right in that the Weeping Angel caused the Byzantium to crash but I was thrown by the hints from River herself that the sabotage was her own, which left me questioning why the Doctor is helping her. It's never quite explained what the initial crew of the Byzantium were motivated by in bringing the Weeping Angel home.
But I can appreciate the experience of being trapped on this world within these layers of caverns with no escape in sight, in at the deep end and hemmed in by hundreds of the stone statues. It's like this story is simply a day in the life of this dangerous Moffat Whoniverse. Which is enough for any unexplained backstory to not matter to me. Even little things like Amy's pain at River's injection makes this all feel so tactile and conveys the vivid sensations of this environment. I can't quite dispute that the guest characters here are pretty neglected in terms of character writing or dimension, but I can believe in and care about them enough for the purposes of the survival horror story and the euphoria that comes with it. The Angel kills are rather lightly done with almost clinical restraint, but the implications are horrifying enough. The body horror aspect with Amy, when she rubs her eye only for sediment to fall from her fingers is very effective and unnerving indeed. The Doctor's realisation that the perched, still statues are, in actuality, 'chasing' them is a chilling moment.
The cliffhanger is never going to have the impact it did on first viewing but it's still a great moment.
But something nags at me about part two. When I first saw this story it was immediately my favourite. The curse of RTD had finally been exorcised. Finally I could watch this show and be completely invested and be sure that it would all hold together.
So what's my reasons for not loving it as much now? Well, I was thoroughly gripped by the scene in the forest where Amy is walking blind between the Angels, and is nearly pounced upon by them before being teleported away to safety. It still utterly hits the spot. Then minutes later the Doctor unveils his secret plan to flush out all the Angels in one swoop. Which is again a great scene. A clever pay-off. But it's the rather ridiculous premise of the Angels actually coming to the Doctor with a request for him to sacrifice himself. And maybe something's structurally missing between those two predicament moments which would carry the predicament from this incidental to a proper urgent climax.
Maybe it's just how the portents of River's future murder of 'a good man' actually now take me a bit out of this story and instead put me instead in mind of the Series 6 finale, which frankly I'd rather forget. Maybe stories after have diminished this one.
This is still really exhilarating, thrilling stuff and actually goes far further in the realms of pure dread than any other TV story I can think of since Genesis of the Daleks. It hits on a purely primal level. From the moment the Angels start smashing the bulbs on the outer hull, it doesn't let up. When the first security seal can only be broken by cutting the power to the lights, I still feel the sense of dread for everyone there.
Amy's subtle counting down is genuinely discomforting. The idea of the Angel in her mind forcing her to speak against her will, without her awareness, is very uncomfortable. Again it's an incidental moment of threat continuing to haunt the story and have inescapeable consequences. Even the soundtrack is perfect.
Amy's slowly dying and the Doctor having to think on the spot as to how to postpone the countdown is intense stuff. The sense of fear and her mortality hanging by a thread is very palpable. There's such a fragile delicacy to the scene with all three lead actors, especially Karen Gillan making that moment so believable, so tender and riveting. Rarely has New Who managed to make the Doctor seem this magnificent against such crushing odds.
The actual wired-up technological forest grown by starlight is awe-inspiring stuff, and harks back to how Silence in the Library suggested a beautiful, enchanting vision of our future being a progressive one where the natural gifts, beauties and comforts of Earth can be taken with us into the stars.
The scene of the Doctor urging Amy to walk blindly through the path of Weeping Angels is thoroughly riveting and directed in such a way that it feels like being with Amy every blind, awkward, perilous step of the way, with the presence of death breathing on her throat. Some complained the scene ruined the Angels' intelligence. But the whole point was that fooling the Angels was a desperate gamble that could easily go wrong, and indeed did. The Angels were distracted for a time by the crack, but they weren't fooled for long. The suspense of the scene was in no way false.
The story took liberties with the concept of the Weeping Angels, but still maintained their unknowability. The central aspect of them - of having the perfect predatory advantage over humans and the humans either being only able to guess at their greater deadly powers, or just being perilously unaware of them at all - is what made them so feared. Again Karen really gets across that paralysis of fear and the courage of having nothing to lose, making that one moment cathartic in and of itself. The deaths of the surrounding characters have the right kind of impact too, such as Bishop's declaration that he is content and that the Doctor knew him at his best before embracing his fate. Or the soldiers disappearing into the crack. It's the unnaturalness of their memory being forgotten by their comrades that makes their very lives, experiences and existences feel vividly real and cruelly robbed.
However what did bug me is the most obvious intrusion on this story. The crack itself. First time viewing, it was introduced early enough to be part of the jeapordy, and to still work at neatly wrapping it all up in a way that makes sense. Now its arrival just feels too convenient. There's a sense of it coming along and sabotaging an excellent Weeping Angels story, in the same way as the Daleks in Doomsday sabotaged a fairly passable Cyberman story. Maybe that's what held me back from giving this top marks or feeling totally impressed this time. The Crack slowed the Angels down, distracted their attention so the good guys could slip away and eventually became the means that the Angels were thoroughly vanquished. I can't help wonder about the other, more thrilling version of this story in which the crack didn't show up and the Angels' threat and the overall drama increased rather than dissipated. A version of this story in which the Doctor had to think up another way to defeat the Angels. And it's frustrating because I feel Moffat could have pulled off such a story. There's a nagging sense of him taking the easy way out, in a story that seemed to initially promise that there'd be no such thing.
There is something 'punch the air' galvanising about the double-meaning line 'no seriously, get a grip'. And a nice logical neatness to Amy's cure being brought about by time's erasure of what she'd seen. I do hope this is the Weeping Angels' final end because I'd like them to retain that sense of being seen only briefly and at their best, rather than to become another overused villain that ends up a mediocre shadow of their former glory. It'd be a fitting final concert for them here, at their best and scariest.
Unfortunately, River's compassion over Amy's vulnerability gives way in her final scene where she comes across as smug in a rather tacky way, given all the deaths so far. And the hints at Series 6 sit wrong with me. If she's talking about the day she killed the man, or suffered the Silents' brainwashing, why is she being so chirpy and smug about it?
But that could've still been an appropriate wrap-up ending scene. Maybe it's the fact it didn't stop there that perhaps deflated me a little from the impact of the main action, and even downright disconnected me from it. I like Karen Gillan's spontaneous, forward flirtatious manner. She makes me feel comforted and tantalised, and in safe hands. She seems so in touch with her nature and needs and the nature and needs of others. But something about the seduction scene strikes me as rather too flippant. And I have to say I've always had problems with the way she forces herself on the resisting Doctor, given how sinister that scene would look with the genders reversed. It makes sense that she wants the Doctor in that moment because of her near-death experience. In fact, there's always been that erotic frisson to the show and its traditions of the damsel in distress being saved by the firm hand of her male protector. The sense of jeapordy being an excuse for the leads to experience excitement together and cling onto one another. But the scene here feels too comical and mispaced to quite convey that sense of animal instincts taking over. Maybe the bedroom scene would have been better taking place in the beginning of the following story, but it had to happen here for the sake of the Doctor's realisation of the dateline for the crack being Amy's wedding day. Thus revving us up for the finale.
Overall, this must rank with me as the best Moffat story of the Matt Smith era so far (given Moffat's latest worrying track record, that's unlikely to change). There's a somewhat nagging sense of it promising slightly more than it delivers and, unlike Moffat's previous stories under Russell, it's not a story suited for watching in any kind of mood. It's intense and it's a mind puzzle. But I'm glad it was made, and that the show has cast off its populist limitations to now be capable of stories like this.