From the Archives: Doctor Who 'The Time of Angels' / 'Flesh and Stone'

PrintE-mail Written by J.R. Southall Monday, 25 July 2011

Doctor Who TV Reviews

(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)


Blink was one of those episodes that happen only once in a generation, when an idea and a design coincide so thoroughly, magic is made. The birth of the Daleks was another such instance in the legacy of Doctor Who, the casting of Tom Baker a further example.


It’s important, at this juncture, to note that the Weeping Angels, the token monster at the heart of Blink’s otherwise entirely concept-heavy plot, didn’t exist in the short-story upon which Blink was based (What I Did on My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow), nor did they need to. Their appearance (they simply look like, well, statues), their mode of existence (they can’t move while they’re being observed) and their back-story (they feed on the life that you would have lived now had they not sent you back in time to live it somewhen else) don’t really make a lot of sense; they only work because the three notions form such a brilliant conjunction. It’s a one-dimensional idea that can only exist in the single story it’s been created to serve, and it’s only a good idea because of the excellence of the story it’s in service to.


Fast-forward three years, and such was the success of Blink that Steven Moffat has been persuaded that the Weeping Angels deserve a return fixture – and one in which they might actually make the Doctor’s (on screen) acquaintance, at that. And that’s not all, for Moffat’s added into the mix another face familiar from his RTD-sponsored one-story-a-year days: River Song, the Doctor’s ‘wife’. River Song was another idea that would probably have been best left only to the story in which it first appeared. With this much going on, there’s little doubt that The Time of Angels would have to be Moffat’s first two-part storyline under his own, new stewardship of the Doctor Who showrunner’s office.


It all starts strongly enough, with a pre-titles sequence that’s as daft as it is lively, and just as filled with the kind of iconic and idiosyncratic imagery that could only come from Doctor Who. River Song’s reintroduction is as breathless as it is bold.


We’re then thrust immediately into Aliens territory, our gang of time-travelling wrong-stoppers married up with a platoon of heavily-armed clerics (there’s a message in there surely?); somewhere on this planet there’s a single Weeping Angel! And if it’s not found, we’ll all perish! If it sounds a little like Robert Shearman’s Dalek, then I suppose that’s because it is – to begin with, anyway. There’s even a sequence in which, rather illogically, a ‘projected’ Weeping Angel modifies itself through the use of alien (i.e. our) technology. It’s terrifying, but it makes precious little sense. But then, right from the off, it’s patently obvious that this is going to be another one of ‘those’ stories (that’s right, Steven Moffat’s up to his old trick of forgetting that the bits of story that joint the dots between the images he wants to offer us ought to at least make some kind of sense).


But hand your brain in at the door and relax, and you’ll have an absolutely terrific time. Does it matter, anyway, that so little of this makes sense? Watching Steven Moffat’s take on Doctor Who, with its energy and its brio and its brilliant, brilliant images and terrifying ideas, I’m coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t. Doctor Who post-David Tennant is like living inside an increasingly lurid nightmare, where your control over the elements becomes slacker and slacker the more feverish and frightening they become. Part of what’s so scary and effective about it is that it doesn’t, in the cold light of day, make any sense. Perhaps that’s the feeling that Moffat’s trying to evoke.


The Maze of the Dead, then, and the Forest Vault. It’s like Steven Moffat asked every child in the country what their exact nightmare would be, and wrote a story of the two most popular choices. For their part, the Weeping Angels are a really effective menace, just as long as you don’t think too hard about what they were about the last time they appeared in the show. And the acting and direction are guaranteed to frighten the life out of any unsuspecting viewer, whatever their age.


Scintillating, involving, invigorating, petrifying stuff. Almost literally, in the latter case.


But Steven Moffat makes three errors of judgement that almost completely ruin the experience. Firstly, the Doctor leaves his companion to the mercy of the Weeping Angels. It’s like the pitiful excuse he gives for leaving Amy behind midway through Victory of the Daleks, only infinitely worse, as this time he’s deliberately leaving her in harm’s way. Awful.


Secondly, the Deus ex Machina ending; and no, I don’t mean the Big Red Button marked ‘zap Amy out of danger’ that River Song finds while the Doctor’s faffing about. I mean the Cracks in Time. Simply showing the Cracks earlier than you require them to save the day, doesn’t make them any the less of an intrusion from another story when they do so.


And finally (and although it’s bound to be a bone of contention with many, I actually found the sight of a Weeping Angel in motion profoundly disturbing; so that’s not included on this list), that ending. Yes, it wouldn’t be Series Five if we didn’t have another titillating and inappropriate moment to discuss.


Russell T Davies found a fine line between sexual innuendo and loving relationships and walked it expertly; by keeping the one entirely separate from the other, he was able to write as much of either into his scripts as he felt he could get away with, and managed it with aplomb. By having Amy Pond completely unambiguously offering herself up to the Doctor on a sexual plate, however – and in a scene that bore no relevance to what had gone before or was yet to come – Steven Moffat made a huge error of gratuitous proportions. The seduction was completely out of synch with what Doctor Who has always been, and that’s a family friendly show. Let’s hope it’s a one-off.


I’ll give the writer the benefit of the doubt, though, and ignore the fact that River Song seems now to have become merely a plot device to keep the Doctor on his toes. For its atmosphere, its imagery and its chills alone, The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone (surely they got the episode titles the wrong way around though? The first episode is when Amy’s flesh turns to stone, and the second is when the Angels get sucked into the Cracks in Time...) is a huge achievement. 


(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here:

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