Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE TIME OF ANGELS” and “FLESH AND STONE” – Series 5, Episodes 4 & 5, Story 206 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Andrew Smith – The Eleventh Doctor and Amy find a flight recorder in a museum with a message for the Doctor scribbled on it in Gallifreyan. How does he know it’s for him? Well, the message says, “Hello, sweetie,” and no one calls the Master “sweetie.” They call him, “honeybunch.” So like the good puppy dog he is, the Doctor goes running off to save River Song, who gets him embroiled in a death maze throwdown against the Weeping Angels. That’s right. Weeping Angels. River Song. A creepy voice. Moffat’s pulling out some of his faves from his bag of tricks. He even goes all the way back to Coupling. It’s a good thing he does, too. Because This Two-Parter Works Best Because Of The Words That Come Out Of People’s Mouths.
THE TIME OF ANGELS and FLESH AND STONE is the most cinematic story in DOCTOR WHO history. Every second of this Steven Moffat-written and Adam Smith-directed two-parter has that larger-than-life vibe, gorgeous cinematography, crackling dialogue, and thrill-a-minute pacing that screams out for your $10 and a box of popcorn. It’s not brilliant in the moody, atmospheric way THE EMPTY CHILD is brilliant, but it is fantastic as blockbuster escapism.
The first 13 minutes of THE TIME OF ANGELS is some of the sharpest, fastest dialogue we’ve seen in DOCTOR WHO. Moffat uses bang-bang dialogue as his action scenes and then his action scenes as the segue, with a bit of creepy angels standing around to give it all a sprinkling of horror. It all makes for a wonderful episode, full of rich characters interacting in a complex web of shared histories, potential futures, and the dangerous scenarios they find themselves in.
The story and stakes are big and dramatic in ANGELS/FLESH and it feels important from start to finish. There’s a wide array of scene shifts that plays into this feeling, and Murray Gold’s phenomenal score is cranked across the episode, heightening the intended emotion in every scene. This is clearly not meant to be an ordinary, solid DOCTOR WHO story and the fact that it comes right after the rebirth of the Daleks makes it a pretty gutsy decision in terms of the schedule.
There is a moment early on when it looks like A/F is going to be hurt by what just came before. In VICTORY OF THE DALEKS we had the Doctor freaking out over the appearance of the Daleks and calling them his oldest and deadliest enemy, and now here we are one episode later with the Doctor telling us that the Weeping Angels are a perfection of deadly evolution. It’s the moment that screams out for Amy to say something flip like, “What, don’t you ever face a normal bad guy?” but we don’t get it. I really dislike when characters in a show tell you how big and important something is – show us or don’t bother. Just because a character says, “These are the deadliest killers in the universe” doesn’t mean we suddenly feel what they feel.
Moffat’s script moves so fast (even when his characters are standing still) that it quickly moves past this missed opportunity to get to the next rapid-fire sequence. A few times in A/F, Moffat uses this to mask some plot holes – like how the Weeping Angels seem to only move as fast (or slow) as a scene needs them to move in order to fit all of the desired dialogue in. Like Russell T Davies before him, Moffat seems to be using pace to mask plot, which is perfectly fine if you think of this program as escapism and perfectly not fine if you want your Moffat all Timey Wimey.
I don’t mind when writers start changing up their style, and for all of the standard tricks Moffat pulls out here, this is not a typical Moffat script. There’s a million directions to go in this review and I know I’m not going to hit everything because so much of what is good in this story is the dialogue. I could watch and listen to the Doctor, River, and Amy stand around the TARDIS and chat for an entire hour. When any combination of the three of them is chatting the screen positively crackles. This is Moffat drawing on his sitcom stylings from his Coupling days, where the plot would simply serve as the function that allowed the dialogue to exist.
It’s not quite that simple here, but unlike Moffat’s standard DOCTOR WHO Timey Wimey method of story construction, the plot of ANGELS/FLESH is decidedly simple. The Doctor agrees to help River and some cleric soldiers (an veritable Army of God) take care of a Weeping Angel that’s trapped in the belly of a starliner that’s crash landed. They go through a Maze of the Dead to get to the ship. Statues turn out to be Angels. Everyone gets frightened. Most everyone dies. The Doctor does a thing and saves the day.
There’s a real energy at play in A/F, too, that I find infectious. For all of the problems, for all of the horror, you never get the sense that the Doctor, River, and Amy want to be anywhere but here. Well, sure, Amy’s got an Angel living in her brain so she’d rather be somewhere else once that gets revealed but for the most part these are confident adventurers doing what they love to do, even with the danger involved. I don’t mean to say they laugh in the face of danger or anything like that, but there’s no, “I want to go home!” pouting. They’re in danger and they’re going to get themselves out of it and I love that.
I’m really starting to like Amy with this two-parter. She’s adventurous enough to want to do this, but honest enough that she doesn’t mind admitting when she’s afraid. She becomes a bit of a chore to listen to in FLESH because she can’t open her eyes or else the Angel inside of her will get out and kill her, so she spends five minutes asking the soldiers with her to tell her what’s happening. It’s the one part of the episode where Adam Smith really drops the directorial ball. On the whole he does a fantastic job juggling a script that is part rom-com, part horror movie, part action movie, and all DOCTOR WHO, but when Amy is asking to be told what’s happening when we can all see what’s happening, her existence becomes repetitive and derivative.
When I think of A/F, I think of all of the small character moments that make me laugh or smile or giggle. Here’s a few of them done all bullet-point like:
1. River flying the TARDIS. It doesn’t just work because she can do it and the Doctor is flustered she can do it, but because of Amy watching in this fascinated state of joyous disbelief. It makes me laugh every time I watch River bring the TARDIS under control as the Doctor gripes, “Now it’s boring!” When River lands the TARDIS without the signature whoosing sound, the Doctor is insistent she didn’t just land his ship because it didn’t make “the sound,” and then proceeds to wheeze an approximation of what he means. “That’s a brilliant sound,” he says, defending the TARDIS more than his own flying technique. “I love that sound.”
2. The character of Father Octavian, the Religious Soldier. Octavian kind of looks like Corbin Bernsen, but he’s a great character, willing to stand toe-to-toe with the Doctor and dominate River. Octavian has a few really great scenes. Early on, the Doctor takes a jab at Church policy and says, “No offense, Bishop.” Octavian replies, “Quite a lot of offense taken, Doctor.” Later, after the Doctor apologizes for calling Octavian an idiot, and then rationalizes what he’s done by saying “but there was nothing we could do to save your clerics,” Octavian gets right in his face and in a calm, measured voice that has just a hint of anger rumbling up from down deep, says, “I know that Doctor. And after you’ve flown away in your little blue box I’ll be the one to tell their parents that.”
3. The subtle changes in this regeneration’s Doctor. For instance, the Tenth Doctor hated when soldiers saluted him, but the Eleventh salutes first and allows people to call him, “sir” without correcting them. He’s also much more comfortable with River; instead of constantly fretting over who she is as Ten did, Eleven seems to enjoy the back-and-forth. There are moments when he gets this boyish grin on his face that’s just wonderful to watch; likewise, it’s great that River continuously disrupts his moments of victory by cutting him back down. When River tells Amy that she can fly the TARDIS because she was “taught by the best,” the Doctor is flashing a goofy smile that says, “She’s talking about me.” River gives a rather stock, “Too bad you were busy that day” answer that you could see coming a mile away, but Alex Kingston, Matt Smith, and Karen Gillan make it all work beautifully. Next time you watch this scene just pay attention to the people who aren’t talking in a scene – good stuff with their reactions.
Eleven’s rage, too, is something to see. He can be all charm and cleverness but man, when he gets angry he’s positively volcanic. He unleashes twice at River for the crimes of Trying to Help and Asking a Question.
4. The ending. You know how sometimes these two-parters feel like they’re a bit bloated and stretched out to fill the time? A/F doesn’t have this feeling because it actually invests some time in the opening and closing sequences. The actual adventure here doesn’t come close to filling up two whole episodes, but it doesn’t need to. The pre-adventure bits with the Doctor saving River and the post-adventure bits where Amy tries to get the Doctor to sleep with her are both really well done and a really good use of program time. Instead of bloating the adventure, Moffat takes the last 10 or 15 minutes and just lets the characters talk.
On the DVD there’s even an extra scene that takes places chronologically at the end of the episode. The Doctor and Amy go spilling into the TARDIS and Amy still think they’re going to have sex when the Doctor cools her down by explaining why he doesn’t see some things. “The problem with making time and space your backyard,” he says to her, looking and sound like a tired old man, “is that it literally becomes a backyard.” Amy has her, “There have been others?” moment and cleverly asks the Doctor how many of them were attractive younger women. It’s just a really nice, wonderful scene that sees Amy watching a playback of past Companions. When she sees Leela she asks, “is that a leather bikini?” in such a way that also asks, “And you’re going to stand there and tell me you haven’t noticed that?”
5. And most importantly, the interaction between the Doctor and Amy. It’s really something to watch. Amy loves that River can get under his skin to the point where she totally has a woman crush on the older River. When Amy thinks her hand has turned to stone, the Doctor stays with her despite the approaching angels, and later when he can’t be with her, he’s beside himself with rage. When Amy shows the Doctor her wedding gown and then tries to seduce him, she’s like, “I’ve been thinking about who I wont. Do you understand?” “Yes! … No.” As she tries to take his clothes off he’s trying to put them back on. When he tells her it will never work because he’s 907, Amy tells him, “Oh, you are a gentleman. I wasn’t thinking so long term, though.”
6. Let’s not forget the interaction between River and Amy. River is an absolute joy to watch in how she treats Amy, playing Big Sister the whole episode. Knowing the Doctor can get so focused that he misses things, it’s River who gives Amy a shot to protect her body against the radiation emanating from the downed craft. When Amy asks River if she’s the Doctor’s wife and River tries to avoid her by asking, “Oh Amy, this is the Doctor we’re talking about. Do you really think it could be that simple?”, Amy fires back a, “Yes.” Alex Kingston plays River’s response – a smiling kid-with-her-hand-in-cookie-jar look with aplomb, telling Amy, “Oh, you’re good. I’m not saying you’re right, but you’re very good.”
Addendum: Since Jason and I have been speculating on this over on Facebook, I thought I might as well give voice to my entry in the “Who is River Song?” raffle. I think, based on this episode, that River is Amy’s daughter. Or mom. Or, as Jason pointed out, River is Amy. It’s long been my thought that River was Romana based on the way she gets under the Doctor’s skin, but re-watching ANGELS/FLESH makes me think of the familial connection between River and Amy. For instance, why doesn’t River, who loves to show off how much she knows as a means of getting under the Doctor’s skin, make any mention of knowing who Amy is? We know she knows her – doesn’t River come out and reference this adventure specifically in SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY? We definitely know that SILENCE takes place after ANGELS/FLESH so why is River pretending she doesn’t know who Amy is? That makes me think there’s a reason. Doesn’t River’s actions come off as incredibly maternal towards Amy? She’s always there to comfort her and tell her she’s brilliant and refuses to leave her behind. It makes me think there’s a connection. Plus, there’s that whole bit in the TARDIS about River bragging that she was taught to fly it by “the best” and that “it’s a pity” the Doctor was busy that day. Given how Moffat loves his Timey Wimey plots, having River say that would be one of those time … thingies where a future you ends up teaching the present you how to do something. Moffat totally did that in the Peter Davison/David Tennant special, after all.
7. The Crack. Instead of saving the big Crack story until the end of the season, Moffat goes ahead and gives us what feels like the season-ender practically at the start. He manages to tell a story that works on its own and then sees the stakes raised by the appearance of the crack that we first saw back in Amy’s bedroom.
While ANGELS/FLESH never really becomes an all-time great, it is a highly enjoyable episode. I think Davies made a bit of a mistake using the angels because they’ve lost something here. Seeing them in BLINK when they were moving around our world really worked, but seeing them in space, moving about a lost civilization loses something. They become less human and more Just Another Villain.
(Originally Published April 15, 2011)