This review is for the episodes “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone”, which together form a single Doctor Who story, and what an amazing story it is… when looked at in isolation. When Steven Moffat wrote Blink he achieved something that had not really been done since Robert Holmes created the Autons in 1970. He created a Doctor Who monster that is every bit as frightening as the Daleks. Depending on your point of view, this has only ever been done a couple of times, the other notable example being the Cybermen. So at this point Moffat appears to have stumbled into a blind alley over what to do next, because either
(a) he didn’t realise that he had created the perfect Doctor Who monster, or…
(b) he didn’t know what to do when you have done that.
Just look what happens with Daleks, Cybermen and Autons when they first come back in their respective original sequels (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Moonbase, Terror of the Autons). Do the writers try to find lots of extra special powers to give them, or change the nature of how they work as a monster, in an attempt to make them even more frightening? No, because when you have created something that functions perfectly as a scary monster the last thing you want to do is change it in some major way and risk having the opposite effect to the one you are looking for. If you have been enough of a genius to create the Daleks, Cybermen, Autons or Weeping Angels, all you need to do is find new interesting stories to tell that they can slot into. The monsters themselves don’t need to be made more interesting.
So what Moffat does here is inadvertently takes some of the defining aspects of the Angels that make them really frightening, and changes them for the worse. Let’s look at the three big mistakes, before we look at what he actually gets exactly right.
- The Angels snapping necks. I can’t argue with the logic, although it is not made absolutely specific, but it is easy to join the dots. In an era where radiation is not easily available the Angels get their “food” by sending victims back into the past. Here they don’t need to do that, so they find a more gruesome way to kill. But here’s the important thing: more gruesome does not equal more frightening, and it certainly does not equal more interesting, clever and thought-provoking.
- The Angels speaking. It would have been so much better if they had retained more of their air of mystery, and in any case this is simply a rerun of the same tactic used in Silence in the Library.
- The Angels moving. Again, logical within the context of the story, and a big exciting moment for the viewers, but it discards an aspect of Blink that worked incredibly well. While not exactly breaking the fourth wall, Blink made it transparent. As viewers we were invited to be part of the story and the childhood instinct to hide behind the sofa was subverted because that is exactly what you shouldn’t do when faced with a Weeping Angel. Not only did they not move when somebody on our screens was looking at them, they didn’t move when we were looking at them either.
… and that all culminated in that cheeky ending where we were encouraged to be scared of statues in real life, which leads us to the big thing that Moffat gets exactly right. He takes an Angel and turns it into Samara from The Ring. The concept of the image of an Angel becoming a real Angel is an incredibly scary one, and does exactly the same thing as that collection of shots of real statues at the end of Blink, but turned up to eleven. It also makes perfect sense in terms of what has been already established about the Angels. These are the ideal monsters to play this trick with because we already know that sight has power over them, so it follows on naturally that there would also be some reversal of that in place, and then things get even scarier again when we realise that the human eye contains an image within the retina that can be exploited by the Angels.
The reason this works where the other innovations don’t is that it flows naturally from what we already know about the Angels, rather than taking a clever idea and substituting a monster-of-the-week one, which is what points (1), (2) and (3) above all do. The attempts to keep upping the stakes when they are already up will eventually lead to Doctor Who’s marshmallowman moment, but this is the bigger picture, and these two episodes in their own right are still compelling and exciting, with a lot going for them. So let’s enjoy them for what they are, but let them stand as the perfect example of that old truism: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. RP
The view from across the pond:
When I wrote about Victory of the Daleks, I commented on conviction in storytelling. The Time of Angels is another chance to take a look at one of our favorite races, the Weeping Angels, but I once again question the writers’ conviction.
The Time of Angels, frankly, has it all. Interesting opener, great characters, a popular and very scary enemy, a heck of a cliff hanger, tension, humor and our first big hint for our newest game, “Track the Crack”. So what’s to dislike?
- A great opener: River’s entrance is utterly memorable as she requests an air corridor to the TARDIS and gets blasted out of an airlock.
- Great Characters: Game of Thrones’ own Iain Glen as Father Octavian adds something everywhere he goes. He has some fantastic moments against River when he asks if the Doctor is mad and recognizes the Doctor’s reputation. “Bob” gives us a bit of humor when goaded into talking about comfy chairs. River is still a mystery at this point so she’s fun to watch. Karen and Matt (Amy and the Doctor) are developing a great chemistry that really shines especially as she teases him over River’s sonic request. In short, the cast is fantastic.
- Popular, scary enemy: the terrifying weeping angels, introduced in the superb episode Blink are unnerving. It should be great to get a chance to know more about them. The tension they create in the caves is marvelous. So is Amy’s strange countdown throughout the episode; tense and disconcertingly eerie as she is being changed.
- That cliff-hanger with the Doctors speech about what to never put in a trap is wonderful. This Doctor will get those occasional chances to really impress the fans with some great speeches.
- First of all, Moffat throws away decades of continuity for the sake of a cheap laugh right in the first few minutes. The “wheezing, groaning” sound of the TARDIS apparently is because the Doctor “leaves the brakes on”. I would have preferred River saying she was using stealth mode just to maintain continuity; instead we’re lead to believe the Master, the Rani, even that Time Lord who appeared floating in Pertwee’s Terror of the Autons all have their breaks on. Nope, idiotic. A cheap laugh, for no payoff. It’s not like we stopped using the sound.
- The Doctor, a super intelligent being so vastly complicated that all of the angels don’t equal him in complexity, is on a planet previously inhabited by beings with 2 heads but fails to notice that every statue he’s seeing has only one head and it doesn’t dawn on him that something is wrong? He’s the one who mentioned that they have 2 heads!
- Now my biggest complaint: storytelling conviction and this is with the Angels themselves. “Whatever takes the image of an angel, becomes itself an angel.” So if we make an angel out of Lego, it can become one? Sand too? And wait, how does that translate that Amy would start to become one because she looked at it too long? Everyone who looks at them looks at them “too long” because, news flash, you have to keep looking at them to prevent them moving or killing you. Oh, and there’s that: they kill now. Before they sent you back in time and let you “live to death”. That was the brilliance of this species, they didn’t do what a typical enemy does! But now they break your neck! Why? And as if unsure how to keep the fear factor high, for Amy, she has to walk through a field of them with her eyes closed. This is the EXACT opposite of what we had learned about them. Yep, these quantum locked creatures can effectively be tricked by closing your eyes. So what actually keeps them at bay? Open and closed eyes? Ah, eyes wide shut, that must be it! They can also talk through others now (hence “comfy-chair-Bob”). Again, if they can communicate, why haven’t they before? (And why don’t they again?) Effectively, Moffat undermined his own creation… And it STINKS because he does do a good thing with this episode. The Doctor’s jacket and Amy’s inability to see him leads to a phenomenal reveal at the end of the season! So if only he had the conviction to keep his creation true to itself and find another way to tell this part of the story, I could have let go of the TARDIS breaks and even the Doctor’s oversight.
Conviction in storytelling is important and the worst part is Moffat created these creatures for the show but within just one outing, has already started to change things about them. And those things don’t even make sense. Come up with an idea and stick to it. Never do it again if it doesn’t work, do more of it if it does. Don’t do more by changing all that worked! It’s poor writing and lacks conviction. It’s the idea that you can suspend disbelief in fiction for a given conceit but when you’re asked to suspend disbelief based on multiple conceits, they begin to crumble in on themselves.
As for our game of Track the Crack, we are finally given something to work with. Here’s what we’ve learned: it’s the fire at the end of the universe. It can erase anything it touches from time. It appears in multiple places the Doctor has been, and it has something to do with an Atraxi prison and can devour the Angels. But more on this as our story develops…
Lastly, there’s a hint that something is coming on June 26th 2010 which was a genius move to incorporate the audience into the show; since that would be the date of the season finale.
Considering how popular the Angels were in Blink, I was wholly disappointed by them in this two-part story. And it’s a shame because now I don’t know what to do if I encounter one: blink or don’t blink? I’m so dead… or so sent back in time. Or possibly sent back in time dead with one eye opened and one eye closed… I’m going to look so stupid when I died. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Vampires of Venice