These are the days where writing doesn’t come easy. Why? Because the episode I have to write about is just too good, and there’s nothing particularly interesting about pointing out how good something is. You’re probably not interested in my problems as a reviewer, but they don’t end there, because Village of the Angels is an episode that is very, very good indeed, but only in one specific way that doesn’t invite much comment: it’s pure, unadulterated entertainment. There’s no deeper meaning, no themes to discuss, nothing to get the brain working in particular, and normally that would be a criticism. Typically an episode that doesn’t make us think in some way is a soulless exercise, but it just doesn’t matter with an hour of highly effective horror movie tropes, deftly adapted for a family audience.
The Weeping Angels are the only Doctor Who monster to ever beat the Daleks in a poll of fans’ favourites, and quite rightly so. They are an incredibly creepy concept. I have always considered them to be something of a one-hit wonder, and their impact has diminished with each subsequent appearance. Familiarity diminishes the fear. Village of the Angels reverses that process. Remarkably, Chris Chibnall and Maxine Alderton prove themselves more capable of writing a frightening episode with the Angels than their creator has since their debut.
What makes them so successful here is their relentlessness and the way that they always win in the end. This is an hour of people trying to escape Weeping Angels, while slowly but surely they catch everyone, even the Doctor. In the end, nobody escapes from the Angels. It’s pure horror. While this is happening, their numbers are gradually increased, until it is impossible to escape. We start with one in the TARDIS, in itself an unprecedented development, and then we have Angels emerging from the graveyard, attacking the house, creating themselves from images. The sketch becoming an Angel stays just the right side of the line of silliness, and the burning sketch becoming a burning Angel is especially horrifying, as is the half-emerged Angel from the television, accompanied by an inhuman screech. Then we get the Angels in the walls of the tunnel, and finally a huge army of them. The Angel wings growing out of their victims’ backs is also very frightening, and the cliffhanger ending is absolutely breathtaking. I’ve mentioned before how skilfully Chibnall has made the cliffhanger a key part of the show once again, and this really shows its value. How could you not want to tune in to the next episode?
On a superficial level, this episode is little more than a bunch of people trying to escape from monsters and failing, but it works well because the characters are all excellently written and performed. Best of the bunch is the Professor, who is a superb example of an outwardly ordinary and academic man, who has a steely determination inside him, because he has seen too much in the war. We also have the mystery surrounding the Doctor’s hidden past, much denigrated by fans who are far too quick to stand in judgement before giving a new idea a chance, but hugely enriching this season as a whole, and this episode in particular. The connection between the Angels and the Division, and the ultimate fate of the Doctor in this episode, reminded me of The End of Time, and the fate of the Time Lords who opposed Rassilon, to become “the Weeping Angels of old”. Let nobody say Chibnall isn’t paying attention to continuity. This is a writer who has surely done more to knit together disparate elements of Doctor Who’s history than any other writer, and has done so with remarkable skill. He has probably been criticised by fans more than any other writer in the history of the show, and looking back on his first season that’s unsurprising, but that was then, and this is now. I was one of those unhappy fans, and it’s all too easy to get stuck in an opinion of something or somebody, but seriously it’s time to open our eyes now to what Doctor Who has become on Chibnall’s watch: something very clever indeed. It has been a long time, but this old Who fan is excited about each new episode once more. Bravo, Chris Chibnall. RP
The view from across the pond:
The problem with a show like Doctor Who is that the writers reinvent the rules every year or so making it impossible to actually become an expert in the rules of the universe. I guess it’s a weakness of the genre in general, which is probably why The Expanse is so good; it seems to follow actual physical laws! In real life, you can learn about, say, spiders so when someone asks you a question about why they do a certain thing, you can give an answer that makes some kind of sense. When you watch Doctor Who and your wife says “I’m so confused! Does this mean the Doctor is…” the only answer you can say is, “ya got me!” because the rules don’t apply; they change with every episode. The Angels might be one of the biggest culprits of all and it’s especially jarring with them because they are a product of the modern era of Doctor Who. Daleks were a lost cause from their second outing but you’d expect more from the modern era considering the writers understand what fandom is. The Angels started off as scary non-murderers and in just one story, they became generic neck-snapping killers. Next thing you know, the rules change further and they can get into your head and seep out of your eyes or manifest an angel the moment they appear on paper. Some of the rules around them are totally nonsensical but hey, they started off right. And a note: not blinking isn’t really that hard when you have 2 eyes – you can close one and leave the other open, then alternate. It gets easier when you have multiple people doing the same thing! (Not to say that helped while watching this episode; I’m reasonably certain neither my wife or I blinked throughout the whole thing!) To compound my frustration, we have Chibnall destroying past continuity seeming not giving a damn about what came in the last 10 years in favor of building off an idea from 40 years ago. Seems very lopsided to me.
Having said that, when you tell a story well and actually start to make sense of what I truly thought would be Chris Chibnall putting his mark the series and then leaving, I have to pause to reevaluate the whole thing. In fact, regardless of some of the less scientific ideas behind the Angels, this episode ramped up the fear factor to 13 and kept us on the edge of our seats from start to finish. The Angels are back to a Blink-level threat! We get a “timey wimey” story with past and present colliding, very literally, in fact. We also get to have a discussion with the Angels inside Claire’s head that changes the way we look at them. Claire has some outstanding moments as she realizes she’s becoming an Angel, too. (I really like Claire and hope to see more of her!)
But when we dig beneath the surface, this episode doesn’t have a lot to it. At it’s heart, it’s a base under siege episode, and I’m not complaining; who doesn’t love those? The story is about the Angels hunting one of their own because that rogue Angel has knowledge of The Division and The Doctor that someone doesn’t want to get out. I love when we get Gallifreyan lore, but this leaves a lot of questions, and I’ll touch upon that in a second. The end is just about the most unexpected and terrifying ending we’ve seen in modern Doctor Who. This is Chibnall finally winning me over! I confess, I did wonder if perhaps it was a bit much for our younger viewers. Interestingly, as the credits rolled, the screen “glitched” and we came back to a message from Bel looking for Vinder. Was this done to soften the blow of the Doctor succumbing to the Angels? If so, I don’t know that it helped. Yeah it might have eased the age old Mary Whitehouse factor, but only slightly.
I mentioned the problem with the series; I see it as one of fit and this ties in with my question about Gallifreyan lore. I mean, if we accept Chibnall’s masterplan of a pre-Hartnell Doctor, this story is opening the door for a lot of questions. My biggest one is how does he explain where the Division has been for the last 60 years!?!? Now Chibnall may indeed be winning me over, and if he has a better idea than mine, so be it, but it almost makes sense that the Master’s discovery of the pre-Doctor Doctor might have caused the ever-present (but hidden for 60 years) Division to take notice. I could live with that, but it all hangs in the balance of two more episodes. The catch here is that this season has been so strong, it might just do for Jodie what I felt Capaldi’s last season did for him; namely spike her to a top contender as best Doctor list! I would be very happy to see that, although I won’t miss her ever hunched over movements. (Jodie never moved like that in anything else I’ve ever seen her in!)
There’s a lot to say about this episode but in a nutshell, I’ll have to leave it at: it was incredible. A great cast, a scary story, and an ending to leave us reeling for … well, at least a week. The one fear I really have is that this finale is hand-waved away like episodes one and two. I think that would be too big a mistake though and even Chibnall’s past foibles don’t make me think he’d make such a big one. If nothing more, I’m glad this one is over. I can finally blink again… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Doctor Who Flux: Survivors of the Flux