Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone written by Steven Moffatt and directed by Adam Smith

This story in a nutshell: Prepare to be scared...

Geek Chic: Astonishingly this is Matt Smith’s first performance but you would never be able to tell because he attacks the role with such confidence. It's easy to see why he was so daunted by such a demanding script as his first to film, it's possibly the most dynamic take on his character in the first year and he has great swathes of dialogue to learn. What an initiation. This is the eleventh Doctor that I fell in love with in series five, the older man in a younger mans body. Not quite knowing what to do with his gangly arms and legs, a burning intelligence raging inside and a terrific sense of childishness that informs his every move. It's a far cry from the clown he would evolve into in series seven.

Museums are how the Doctor keeps score. His theft of the home box is hilarious…he looks like a little pixie skipping through the Archive back to the TARDIS. I love what a total child he can be at times – ‘They’re just blue boringers now!’ he screams, stabbing at the console in frustration. I'm sure Moffat was just being facetious but I rather love the idea that the Doctor fails to put the breaks on the TARDIS just because he loves the vworp vworp grinding of the engines. His detailed atmosphere check consists of the Doctor sticking his head out of the door. That's real science, you know. The Doctor is very wary of River and her knowledge of his future, like all Time Lords he is wary of anybody having as much foreknowledge as him. He's not used to being at a disadvantage like that. I really like how nasty he can be to Amy at times, she's one companion (like Tegan) who needs putting in her place more than others but it's also nice to see him showing his teeth. Again that would all but drop away come his final season. He’ll never get around to saving all of the human race because they spread like rabbits. Standing in the background pretending you are busy whilst listening to every word of your friends talk about you - who hasn't done that before? There is another mention of how the Doctor flies away from events and leaves the survivors behind to deal with the consequences. It's easy enough to be the magician in the blue box who gets to save the day and bugger off at the end. He manages to undo Amy’s conditioning by biting her hand - wonderful! If you’re smart you’ll never put the Doctor in a trap and he's got a stunning speech to explain why. It's when he is at his most dangerous. I always admire an actor in a lead role like the Doctor when they are prepared to shirk off their cool and show real fear which is precisely what Matt Smith does when the Angels manage to catch up with him and grab his collar. It's never a good thing when the Doctor is this visibly terrified. His ruthlessness towards Amy extends to being honest about her about her impending death. There is a moment in this story where the Doctor realise what has happened to Amy’s parents and why she is living in an empty house alone – he suddenly realises that time can be rewritten and he pauses to consider the consequences. There's clearly some serious shit brewing around this girl. The scenes between the Doctor and Octavian at the moment of his death are quietly very powerful because the Doctor knows he cannot save this man. Probably my favourite moment of the entire story for the Doctor (and there are many, many great moments for him here - Moffat is clearly going out of his way to make the character shine) is his shockingly vicious attack on River when the going gets tough. He really can bit of a bastard when he wants to be. I would have loved to have seen that side of him nurtured a bit.

Scots Tart: Oh Amy. How I loathe thee. Series five was, however, expertly woven around her character and there is no denying that she is an essential component of the fabric of what was easily Matt Smith's finest year on the show. My problem at this point was that she was still a virtually unknown character whereas Rose, Martha and Donna were open books with lives, families and friends. What I didn't realise what that the crack in the wall in her bedroom had swallowed her life up - that it was deliberate obscurity. It felt at the time that Moffat had simply forgotten to fill in the details and the result was something of a vacuum, a character that was enthusiastic to travel with the Doctor and with plenty of attitude but who felt only half formed. Even when that life is handed back to her in The Big Bang it isn't as though we got to experience much of it beyond that episode. If Moffat was trying to ditch some of the soapier elements of the Davies era he needed to make sure that his companions were still people with substance as a result. She was promised a planet and will not let this opportunity slip through her fingers. Amy smugly takes the piss out of the Doctor and River’s relationship, the irony being she's talking about her best friend and her daughter in a perverse way. Amy is really put through the wringer throughout this two parter and it's the first time that I have felt any great sympathy for her character (whereas the younger Amy I clicked with in seconds). The sequence where she is trapped in a room with an Angel emerging from the screen is downright terrifying and Gillan plays it to the hilt. Gillan’s mad Ohica eyes are perfect to trap an Angel inside. She manages to pause a recording of an Angel, surely the most obvious thing to do under those circumstances and yet all and sundry act as though she has done something truly spectacular. Her funniest line of the whole year is ‘have you got space teeth?’ She doesn’t want the Doctor to die with her. Imagine having to keep your eyes shut and circumnavigate the Angels? Brrr. As a time traveller the way she looks at the universe will change.

Enigma: The return of River Song was inevitable as soon as Moffat's name was confirmed as showrunner and this is easily her finest appearance in Matt Smith's run. After this I was sure she would be an occasional special feature in the show. Little did I know she would come to dominate, especially in series six. I love that for River this takes places after the climax of the season – Moffat is always getting us to look at things in new ways. River looks gorgeous in her dinner dress and trusts the Doctor implicitly to jump out of an airlock and assume he will be there to save her. ‘I’m going to be a professor one day? How exciting!’ The Doctor doesn’t know who or what she is, it’s too early in his time stream.  She’s a sucker for a man in uniform. She’s killed a man, a good man, a hero to many. ‘You’ll see me again soon when the Pandorica opens…’ Lots of clues are put in place to power the seasons to come. I personally wish that Doctor Who hadn't become as obsessed with her as it did but there were certainly moments where the awesomeness of the character shined through. And this was one of them.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Wait until she runs. Don’t make it look like an execution.’
‘Like I said on the dance floor…you might want to find something to hang on to.’
‘There’s a difference between dormant and patient.’
‘We’re in the middle of an army! And its waking up…’
‘A forest in a bottle in a spaceship in a maze, have I impressed you yet Amy Pond?’
‘There’s an Angel in her mind!’
‘River Song I could bloody kiss you!’
‘You. Me. Handcuffs. Must it always end this way?’

The Good Stuff: The first disorienting swing around a sunny park is hypnotic and a really good sign of the stunning direction that was to come. It was an overused trope in later years (especially in series six) but Moffat's love of kick starting a story with a myriad of locations begins here and it is probably the best example. The leap to 12,000 years later certainly grabs the attention. Old High Gallifreyan are words that can burn stars, raise up Empires and topple Gods and River Song writes 'hello sweetie..' This teaser is inventive, exciting and beautifully directed – how will they ever top this? I really liked the idea of the Delirium Archive being set up inside of a church, it gives the scenes an impressive look. The spaceship crash atop the church is worthy of a movie, especially that pan through the flames to the ruins of the monolith…who said the budget had been cut this year? What are those creepy screaming birds on the beach? A lovely detail. Even simple effects like a transportation beam is given a new twist here, it looks like people arrive in a sandstorm. I remember the day after this aired a friend of mine at work was left traumatised by the scene where the Angel leapt from the TV to grab at Amy. She was not amused when I taped a picture of an Angel to her monitor and left it there for her to discover after lunch. Gillan plays it for real and the editing is razor sharp, the music perfect. Monsters that can reach out of the TV is not an original one but it hopefully is for the kids (as I have only ever seen it done in movies that aren't suitable for little ones) - there's something of Robert Holmes' glee at frightening the kiddiewinks in Moffat. The most heart racing moment is probably how we cut from an Angel with blank eyes staring outwards to a snarling creature with bared teeth and raised claws. That which holds the image of an Angel will itself become an Angel…that's quite a sophisticated idea for the kids to get their heads around but absolutely terrifying for the adults. The Aplands temple is another gorgeous visual; immense and epic, littered with statues, tunnels and shadowy hiding places. It's the perfect place for nasties to plant their attack. There’s even some room for good old-fashioned secondary characters being menaced in tunnels because where would Doctor Who be with a bit of menace in the corridors? I foresee messy divorces for the Aplands if their heads want to part. What is it about a disfigured human face that fills me with dread? The half melted Angel faces plagued my nightmares for weeks after this was broadcast. Just when you think this story cannot get any more butt clenchingly terrifying somebody suggests turning off the torch with the Angels advancing. Moffat has always been the master of epic ideas and the thought of the Angels trapped in the Maze of the Dead for centuries, slowing losing their identity and their minds, is a memorable example. Bob on the intercom haunts the Doctor (‘I died afraid in pain and alone’)...the Time Lord hates being reminded that he failed to save somebody. Flesh and Stone opens on a suitably disorienting moment, the Angels reaching up to the characters standing on the ceiling. Moffat is truly trying to impress with this one. Hurrah for the genuinely nightmarish images of the Angels lit up by gunfire flame. A forest inside a spaceship? I'm running out of ways to describe how cool this story is now. How distressing is the Angels laughing? It's something that should never be heard. Adam Smith’s staging of the reveal of the crack in time over the Doctor’s shoulder is faultless, a very important plot point, captured dramatically. I love the poetic image of the Angels reaching out for the end of the universe. One day in the future there will be a big bang so cataclysmic it will cause the cracks in the past and future - what on Earth is Moffat alluding to? He's promising far more than he can deliver but what a promise. Octavian's death is surprisingly graphic for Doctor Who, an Angel with its arm fixed around his neck and if the Doctor turns away it will be snapped clean off his shoulders. Moffat never shies away from the horror of that and it is to his merit. The Angels only kill you; the time energy will snuff you out of existence. Wow who would have ever thought the Angels would be the lesser of two evils? The two plots meet at the conclusion (the Angels and the crack) and cancel each other out which is typically efficient Moffatt plotting.

The Bad Stuff: I hate The Streets and anything that reminds me of their music is unfortunate. The music after the title music is so loud it actually obscures the dialogue, a common Murray Gold feature that seems to have gotten worse as the series has continued. ‘Ooh Doctor you sonicked her!’ – sometimes I really want Amy to fall down a well never to return. I personally don't think that we should have ever seen the Angels move. They lose something of their USP and become any other bog standard Doctor Who creature. It doesn't help that the scene in which they become mobile is the one moment of duff direction in the whole piece, lacking conviction. The last scene is a subject of much controversy and I just want to add my tuppence. I don’t like it. It feels tacked on and ends a perfectly fine story on an appalling note. It's not that somebody wants to shove the Doctor on a bed and have their end away with him because I’ve had some very naughty thoughts myself about David Tennant and Matt Smith! Nope if the Doctor wants to get his end away I don’t mind…the fella deserves a bit of loving considering all the work he’s put into the universe. Its Amy’s characterisation that bothers me. It’s actually made worse the more we get to know her. Rory is such a lovable loser you cannot help but hiss at her for even daring to throw away what she has with him. Let's not beat around the bush, she is attempting to have a fling on the night of her wedding because she thinks she has found something better. What an ungrateful cow. Rory should kick her to the curb at the slightest hint that she is doing the dirty. And the Doctor should kick her to the curb because she tried to make him the instrument of her infidelity. It appals me to see a Doctor Who companion behaving in such a way because (I'm going to go all Mary Whitehouse here) it is sending the wrong message to the kids at home. The way she continues to play the two men throughout the season is a dirty stain on a pretty decent year of Doctor Who. This was the point where it was over between Amy and I.

Result: My favourite story of season five, Steven Moffatt has written a near-flawless script which is is skin crawlingly scary and epic in scope and packed it full of memorable characters who all get a moment to shine. It's one of the only times he has managed to pull off a really strong narrative and a substantial character tale during his era. Adam Smith deserves a medal for his avant garde direction, the production is approaching movie standard and there are plenty of delicious visuals and set pieces to devour. The atmosphere is tense and frightening; my friends daughter was traumatised by the first episode, literally petrified. Her mother was left in quite a state too. Few Doctor Who stories are as dynamic was this without jettisoning their integrity and it manages to feel traditional (dark tunnels, ship under siege) and uniquely NuWho at the same time (exquisitely realised, achingly emotional). This is the point where the bubbling arc plots are at their most mouth watering and I don’t think the season is this interesting again until the finale. Moffat promises is stacking up his mysteries and promising an awful lot. That he fails to deliver isn't a problem at all here because (like the early X-Files seasons) it feels like we are riding the wave of a genuinely exciting and mammoth arc. If they don’t rival their initial appearance the Angels are consistently innovated throughout and provide more than enough chills to justify their return. Suitably, this story also showcases the eleventh Doctor at his finest. If only we could jettison Amy and replace her with a human being for a companion we would be in perfect shape. What a shame the bolted on final scene should leave me on such a sour note after so much richness: 9.5/10 


Anonymous said...

I don't mind the occasional companion falling for the Doctor but this was getting ridiculous (that final scene, bleurgh)

ali said...

I remember this episode, and while most agreed Amy's behavior was beyond the pale, the most frequent comment I ran into online was, "well, it's wish fulfillment for the fans". That clicked right away. I've never forgotten how Amy (and later Clara) were audience surrogates for the drooling fan girls and what a brilliant marketing strategy that was. Unlike, say, Dana Scully, you have a half-sketched character who can be anything you want to be. Of course, this being Moffat, even that wicked plan got away from him... somehow I doubt every girls watching Wholock dreams of becoming a dominatrix (surely there must be some subs?), but that's the extent of Moff's understanding of female sexuality.

Anonymous said...

I remember a time where the 8th Doctors innocent kiss was frown upon and the entre fandom threw a tantrum about it.
I read a very interesting discussion online recently about why t'he modern audiences seem incapable of cope with an asexual show and there is this obession of forcing romance and snogging and sex everywhere (the person cited Dr Who and Sherlock as exemples). And yes, I prefer JNT's "no hanky panky" politic.. Whats wrong with having an alien explore time and space with friends only? That makes Doctor Who unique, you have sex and romance everywhere else

Tango said...

For Ed Azad: Do not assume that the true purpose of the companions are the surrogates audience? To be honest, especially Rose and Martha Jones fell into the same trap of falling in love with Doctor.

David Pirtle said...

This is I agree the best story in the fifth series. I didn't know before I read your review that it was Smith's first full story. He seems more thoroughly committed here than in any of the previous adventures. I really think this is both he and Alex Kingston at the top of their games, which is kind of sad in a way because you don't want to peak during your first filmed story, but he nearly does. There are a couple of times where I think he's even better, but I also think that by series Seven he's just a caricature of what he is here, all affectation and no sincerity.