Don’t blink! The weeping angels are back!
In the promotional trailers that have circulated around this season, one monster above all has generated more buzz than the others. No, it’s not the Daleks; everybody knew they were coming back, whether we wanted them to or not. It’s safe to say that the returning monster in question were the weeping stone angels from Steven Moffat’s third season episode Blink. That surprise hit, with super-fast creatures that turned to stone the moment you looked at them, etched itself into the popular culture of the United Kingdom, and they’ve been a playground favourite ever since.
Of course, creatures that powerful from a story that popular have their own curse to overcome: the curse of high expectations. Blink was as popular as it was and the angels as frightening precisely because nobody expected them to be. Now that we know what to expect, will the scares be as intense? Will the ride be as thrilling?
Steven Moffat is no fool. He reserved the angels for himself for this reason. He knows what makes them tick (or, more accurately, creak), and he is especially adept at bringing in the frights. And while the two parter Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone isn’t quite as scary as Blink, it is about as satisfying. What the angels lose in fear factor, they gain in raising the stakes. And just when you think you know which way the episode will turn, Moffat pulls a bait and switch, brings the season-spanning plot to the fore, and provides us with something that’s more frightening even than an angel.
A full spoiler-filled review occurs after the break.
With Time of the Angels, were you expecting a night scene in a rainy cemetery, or a creepy old house? Instead, while we get some spooky noises as a poor, delirious man staggers around in a sunny hallucination, we quickly move into a pace more suited for Indiana Jones. Everybody say hello to Alex Kingston, a.k.a. Doctor River Song, who we met at the end of her life in Moffat’s final tenth Doctor two-parter, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.
Song has put on the ritz (and manages not to stagger in wholly inappropriate stilettos), to trick the wealthy owners of an interplanetary ship called the Byzantium into letting her come aboard and have a good look at the relics in their vault. One item in particular leads her to conclude that the ship will never make land, and she sets about calling in the Doctor as only one well versed in the peculiarities of time travel can, before blowing herself out of an airlock into open space. Twelve-thousand years later, the Doctor gets her message and rescues her just in time.
Song proceeds to take over the operation of the TARDIS, much to Amy’s surprise and the Doctor’s chagrin. They follow the spaceship, only to discover that it has crashed on an Earth colony, into a gigantic and ancient alien stone temple with associated catacombs. River Song calls in the cavalry, and Father Octavian arrives with twenty armed clerics (the church in the 51st century as “moved on”), ready for a fight. The Doctor, of course, realizes that they’re bound to go into the catacombs and, of course, they’re the catacombs of doom (or, rather, the Catacombs of Doooooom!). When he learns that a lone weeping angel is on board the ship, his day just gets better and better.
The presence of River Song continues the long term plot thread established by Moffat in Silence in the Library, of a woman from the Doctor’s future who knows the Doctor’s name and who may, or may not, be his wife (author R.J. Anderson has an interesting theory about this. Continuing the thread of the Doctor and River meeting out of order, actress Alex Kingston plays Song quite differently from before.
This episode’s River Song is clearly younger, which you can tell not only from the fact that she’s (a) alive and (b) Doctor Song rather than Professor Song. But more than that, River seems brasher, less experienced and more exuberant. The whole scene of River making her escape from the spaceship whilst in high heels and a low-cut dress has the feeling of a woman who hasn’t quite cut herself off from her young and wild years, and accepted older age gracefully, as River so clearly had done by Silence in the Library.
This is actually a risky move. Not only is River played differently, the Doctor, of course, is very different from the last time we’ve seen him with River. The chemistry seen between David Tennant and Alex Kingston differs from that seen between Matt Smith and Alex Kingston, with the potential here to alienate the audience. Moffat compensates for this with some sparking dialogue, and the definite sense that Matt Smith’s Doctor resents having his future not only on display, but dangling her stilettos from the TARDIS console, and piloting the ship better than he does. It doesn’t help poor Matt that, of course, Amy and River Song get along famously. The scene where the Doctor describes his love of the TARDIS noises by imitating the TARDIS materialization sound is a particular delight, even though Moffat downgrades 47 years of television history in a single line.
But Matt Smith is really in fine form, here. He displays a range of Doctorish attributes, from sullen resentment, to that thinking-from-the-seat-of-his-pants frenzy that he employs when the poop is really hitting the fan.
Doctor: I’ll do a thing. It’s a thing in progress. Respect the thing!
There’s also moments of considerable compassion. Notice how he cries when he learns that the soldier character Sacred Bob has been killed by the angels. And then, of course, there’s that wonderful scene where he consoles a very frightened Amy (more on this in another post). Matt Smith had a wonderful launch in The Eleventh Hour, but the moment when he really became the Doctor for me came in Flesh and Stone when he’s sitting in the Byzantium’s secondary flight deck and talking to the angels by communicator. Director Adam Smith has a lot to do with this, framing Matt Smith in a hero shot, but the rest of it’s all Matt. It’s incongruous to see someone as young as Matt Smith look so old in his eyes and so in command, and it’s in that incongruity that you find the Doctor.
But what most viewers were coming for were the weeping angels, so how do they fare? After giving us a wonderful reintroduction with a scene that recalls moments from The Ring, Moffat ups the stakes. The angels are even more dangerous than they were in Blink and, of course, there are a lot more of them.
Director Adam Smith is up for the challenge of creeping us out. Adding to the angel’s marvellous design is the appearance of the proto-angels, that look extra horrifying when revealed because they clearly look sick. And I also have to comment on the show’s use of sound effects, here. I don’t recall ever taking note of the ambient sound on this program, but I did here. Much was accomplished simply with the sound of stone dragging over stone.
Of course, in upping the stakes with the angels, Moffat ends up conflicting with, if not outright contradicting, certain elements of the angels’ first story, Blink. The actual abilities of the angels come across as inconsistent. You don’t notice this in the heat of the moment, what with all the screaming, but looking back on the episode, you can’t help but wonder if all of the implications have been thought through.
An important thing to remember about Blink was that it wasn’t originally supposed to exist. That year, Steven Moffat was supposed to write the Dalek two-parter that would become Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, but had to beg off because of other commitments. Instead, he volunteered to tackle the budget-saver episode that season. So Blink was written in a bit of a rush, under serious creative constraints, meaning that it was one of those miraculous bursts of brilliance that sometimes comes from writing under pressure. (edited to add: Moffat took the plotline of a short story he’d written in 2006 entitled ‘What I Did on My Christmas Holidays’ by Sally Sparrow. and added in the weeping angel threat. Thanks to Chas for the correction)
But it also means that the Weeping Angels weren’t planned. They weren’t fully formed when Moffat put them to paper — and while this lends them that air of inspired originality, it’s also why they tend to move at the speed of plot. It’s also why the resolution to that episode — the angels are defeated when the Doctor tricks them into looking at each other — ends up directly contradicted here on numerous occasions. There are so many angels, and they are so often in attack mode, it’s clear that the “they’ll freeze forever if they catch sight of each other” meme has been quietly dropped.
And while the new additions to the angels’ repertoire are welcome (don’t look into the angel’s eyes, lest you become an angel, and whatever image holds an angel becomes an angel itself — an excellent opportunity for Doctor Who to ape The Ring I might add), I’m still left to wonder exactly what Sally Sparrow is going to wake up next to one morning. Mr. Nightengale most definitely looked into his angel’s eyes. And weren’t there pictures of weeping angels in Sally’s package at the end of the story? (Does a quick check) Yup!
And that’s not the only thing that’s been fudged here. Not only do the angels move at the speed of plot, some of the other things they do make little sense other than the fact that they are creepy. Why did the angel have to call to Christian and Bob in order for them to come and meet their maker? The whole “come and see” meme reminded people of Moffat’s “Are you my mummy” line from The Empty Child, but what’s the reason for it, given that the angel is already so fast and so strong? I was half expecting a conversation to go like this:
Angel voice: Hey, Bob! You’ve got to see this! Come and see!
Bob: What? What is it?
Angel voice: Come and see!
Bob: No! I bloody well won’t come and see! If it’s so important that I see something, why don’t you come over here and show me?
Angel voice: (long pause, then…) Okay! (click!)
A lot of these things come up in Time of the Angels and aren’t really resolved in Flesh and Stone. Why, for instance, other than to provoke a nice, cliffhanger-ready rant, do the angels decide to taunt the Doctor and make him angry? Why don’t they zap people back in time and feed off their temporal potential as they used to back in Blink? (The Doctor asks this question himself, but the Turkey City Lexicon would list this as a case of “Message from Fred” and “You can’t fire me, I quit”. Moffat draws attention to the contradiction but doesn’t resolve it; possibly because he wants it quietly dropped, since it served a dramatic purpose in Blink that has no place here)
The only explanation I can come up with for these things links to the question of why the Angels make Amy count down her condition (another frightening scene, brilliantly executed): it’s a little flimsy, but it’s workable, to say that the Angels are simply malicious. They don’t need people’s temporal potential when they have the ship’s radiation to suck up, so they simply waste a few redshirts for the fun of it.
There is a definite sense of glee in the angels, especially when the radiation-spewing rescue ship reveals a previously unexpected source of rampant time energy, but before the unexpected source of rampant time energy proves to be scarier than the angels are. You don’t get that sort of glee from the Doctor’s other monsters. The Daleks are arrogant and triumphant. The Cybermen pretend to be coldly logical. The Master is a villain, not a monster, so he doesn’t count. There are hints here that the angels are more a force of chaos than, say, the Daleks or the Sontarans are, and ike the other winged creatures of legend, the faeries, they’re mischievous. They like to frighten small children.
And this sort of explains why the angels sometimes move at the speed of plot. Yeah, sure, an angel might say, I could cross the floor and send these two silly humans watching their DVD player back to the dawn of time the moment they turn their backs, but I’m going to slow up a bit, because I want to see the looks on their faces before I eat their temporal potential. Ah, here we go…
Okay, that was good. Now I have their attention. All I need to do is wait for them to blink, and they’re mine. But, hey, I haven’t quite gotten the scream I’m after. The guy looks terrified. I’ll wait for him to turn his head, and then I’ll lunge just short of his face and make him poop in his pants. I think he’s about to turn… one… two… three GOTCHA!
This would be a good character point if the potential for authorial abuse wasn’t considerable. Indeed, it seems more than likely that said abuse has already taken place. Moffat needs to take care that the weeping angels don’t become like Star Trek’s Borg: an extremely powerful and frightening monster race, whose ruthlessness and power ends up working against them as as writers run out of credible ways for our heroes to defeat them. A popular set of monsters whose credibility ends up killed through overuse.
But the best part about Flesh and Stone, in my opinion, is how deftly Steven Moffat turns the tale from a monster thrash with weeping angels into a major skirmish with the mysterious forces at work behind the season-spanning plot. It really is quite effective. For the past hour or so, Moffat has successfully delivered thrills and chills as an army of super-fast, nearly indestructible creatures attacks our beleaguered crew. Then a crack opens up in the wall and suddenly the angels aren’t the most frightening thing in the room. It’s a testament to Moffat’s skills as a writer that he can make a jagged grin of light feel more frightening than stone statues that move when you aren’t looking at them. Even better, it’s done subtly, primarily through hearsay, as the audience slowly figures out that the soldiers who have walked up to investigate the crack of doom aren’t just dead, they’ve never been alive.
With this episode, Moffat’s use of the season-spanning plot surpasses those that Russell T. Davies put together during his years on the program. Bad Wolf and Torchwood were basically just mentions, shoehorned into otherwise unrelated plots. Here, the crack of doom is a major player in Time of the Angels and Flesh and Stone, and it complicates the plot nicely, and not just in terms of its impact on the angels. There are other hints here that the season-spanning plot is developing, and Moffat is a more adept plotter of the superstructure, than Russell is with his visceral stuff.. The only season-spanning plot comparable to what we’re seeing here is the Saxon plot from the revival’s third season, where the forces of Mr. Saxon had more of a direct influence on a number of stories, including The Lazarus Experiment. Here, however, the season-spanning plot isn’t limited to Earth. The crack could have serious plot ramifications in any episode, anywhere in the universe.
Finally, after the baddies are defeated, and people have calmed down, Amy decides she has something to tell the Doctor. We return to the bedroom and we have “that scene”. It’s an odd duck. It doesn’t feel in tune with the mayhem that has come before, but it is no less important to the development of Amy’s character, and possibly the season spanning plot that Moffat is developing. It’s funny in a way that the rest of the episode hasn’t been, and it feels deliciously like a parody of the romantic feelings Rose and Martha have had for the Doctor in the past.
Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are responsible for making it all work — Matt especially. When Amy acts out on her reservations about getting married, not to mention the stresses she’s had over the past few days of being on brink of death, and tries to seduce the Doctor, he just doesn’t get it until she practically jumps him. Then he madly runs through every objection that anybody even remotely uncomfortable about hanky-panky in the TARDIS has ever voiced. It’s a wonderful moment, even if it feels as though it belongs to a different episode…
…which, perhaps it does, as the Doctor decides to “sort Amy out”, pushing forward next week’s Vampires of Venice and the season spanning plot all in one go.
In spite of the flaws I highlighted, I loved, loved, loved, Time of the Angels and Flesh and Stone. It really is quite rich, and there’s much here that I haven’t mentioned that It’s as good as Moffat’s earlier flawed masterpiece Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. It’s not perfect, but that’s fine, because it’s still very, very good, and there’s still a sense that things could get even better in the coming weeks. This is Steven Moffat totally on his game, and it bodes well for all the episodes to come.