Thursday, 4 June 2015

This Time It's War

Doctor Who
The Time Of Angels and Flesh And Stone
Series Five, Episodes Four and Five

How much do you like the Weeping Angels?  Most Doctor Who fans like them a whole heck of a lot – even the rumoured "normal" folk seem to have heard of them – and Steven Moffat knows this, so he does the logical thing.  Give them what they want.  Which is Weeping Angels by the busload.  Probably.

There are 6 billion colonists on this planet.
Why are the Weeping Angels starving in a cave?
The result is the Who equivalent of Aliens, minus the gore.  Seriously: take a small, terrifying story (Alien, or Blink), then make it a great big action movie.  There's atmosphere (and Angels) by the busload, and it doesn't try to be the same as Blink.  This is a whomping great two-parter with guns and armies, not a creepy timey-wimey tale set in a house.  It's very exciting.  However, with all due respect to not repeating yourself, some of what worked about Blink is rather missed.

We open in showy-offy, Steven Moffaty style, ping-ponging back and forth across 12,000 years.  River Song (pre her Library death) is investigating a spaceship's cargo.  She summons the Doctor to rescue her from certain death, and follows the Byzantium until it crashes on an alien world.

How incredibly flashy is that for a pre-titles teaser?  River is, admittedly, rather annoying: showing up the Doctor's TARDIS-flying skills is about as Mary Sue as it gets, but Matt Smith sells the awkwardness and curiosity of the situation, and does a wonderful impression of the TARDIS noise into the bargain.  With the arrival of Father Octavian and his army of clerics (less lame than they sound), River is kept from going into full Smug Mode by the constant threat of having her sordid past revealed.  It's one of her better episodes as it keeps her reluctantly in check; slightly fearful characters are more interesting than Me So Perfect ones.

So, the ship was carrying a Weeping Angel.  It caused the crash, now it's escaped and they must recapture it.  There's a real atmosphere here, as we build up the threat of the Angels by reputation.  A bit like Aliens (you don't say!), or the TNG episode The Best Of Both Worlds, it's a while before you actually see them, so we spend that time imagining the worst.  Soon we're in some caves, so that's dark places and stuff moving in the corner of your eye.  All very snazzy and well-directed.  Little do they realise there's an entire army of Angels here – they were, um, too busy recharging to attack... seems legit – and before you know it, the hunt for an Angel becomes a race to the flight deck of the Byzantium.  It's curiously not as big on plot as you might expect from Moffat, but it's an exciting ride.

Besides, there's some cool plotty stuff.  I've already mentioned the opening – any excuse to show off the cleverness of time travel is worth a punt – and even better, this year's arc plays an unexpectedly significant part.  Remember the crack in Amy's wall, which also appeared on the Starship UK and in Churchill's bunker?  Now it's on the Byzantium, attracting the Angels and causing all sorts of havoc.  It's a seriously canny move to take something you're expecting to see in the finale and plonk it in Episode Five, and it keeps the story from just being an exciting dash from A to B.  The crack adds a whole other layer of threat: people getting "unwritten" – although that detracts massively from the Angels, who are as frightened of it as everyone else.  Anyway, it serves as a handy way to get rid of the Angels (turn off the gravity, the crack gobbles them up) as well as a snazzy recall of the opening scene, with River getting sucked into space.  That's very nice work.

There are some brilliant blobs of Matt Smith here – definitely lots for him to work with.  He's irritable, awkward and occasionally angry around River; heroic, then heartbroken around the clerics; cocky and furious against the Angels; and genuinely affectionate towards Amy.  There's a wonderful bit where he refuses to leave her behind (despite her puzzlingly selfless insistence to the contrary – seriously, Amy?), and bites her hand to snap her out of a trance.  Even better, there's a clearly arc-hinty scene where he returns to give her some mysterious words of comfort.  (Spot the reappearing jacket!)  All in all you'd need a spotters's guide to know it was Matt Smith's first episode; he's instantly brilliant.  It's also a good one for Amy, once she gets past generic wide-eyed excitement and Girl Power camaraderie with River.  (Nope, not buying it.)  She has a lovely chemistry with Matt.

Oh no, he's got him by the throat!  He's... touching his throat.
And his hand.  Why not send him back in time?  Is he on a diet?
Of course, what you're really here for (apart from The Doctor And River: Round #2) is the army of Weeping Angels.  And that's arguably where these episodes fall down, or at the very least, ominously wobble.

Like any good horror movie monster, there are rules.  They can't move when you're looking at them; when they do, it's incredibly fast.  When they touch you, you go back in time and they feed on the time energy.  It's all a bit abstract, and the "send you back in time" bit has a soft edge (because their victims tend to get married and live happily ever after – aww!), but it's still incredibly effective, because it's simple.  Don't blink!  They.  Will.  Get.  You.

Perhaps in an effort to keep things fresh and interesting – because things were getting stale and boring, I guess? – The Time Of Angels fiddles about with all that.  Now, instead of sending you back in time, they snap your neck.  Instead of feeding on time energy, they feed on radiation at a crash site.  They still want to kill you, but it's less about survival – which is terrifying because it's only natural and you can't reason with it – and more about good old fashioned, rather boring, evil.  They even "reconstruct the cerebral cortex" of a victim so they can call the Doctor and mock, upset and generally rile him.  That's a bit desperate and attention-seeky, isn't it?  Kind of like a Dalek trolling the Doctor's Facebook page?  (It's also suspiciously reminiscent of the "data ghosts" from Silence In The Library.)  Why on earth would they bother?  They were much more mysterious and scary when they didn't say anything.

They're adding all sorts of stuff to their repertoire here, which dilutes those precious rules even further.  "That which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel," apparently.  So take a photo or a video clip and it's going to climb out of the frame and get you.  That's a nifty idea for kids, who are going to get even further away from their televisions as a result, but it strikes cynical old me as trying to fix something that ain't broke.  Weren't the Angels scary enough without adding photo Angels?  And didn't Sally Sparrow take a few pictures of them with no apparent consequences?  (I checked.  She did.)  They also have a new thing about looking into your eyes, which allows them to get inside your head.  Okay, but don't they generally want to avoid eye contact?  Why do they need all this climb-inside-your-head gubbins if all they want to do is feed on your time energy?  Why don't they seem bothered about that any more?

If all the Angels are unwritten, what happens to all the Applans they killed?
Do they come back?  What happens to the 6 billion humans who moved in afterwards?
They seem to do a lot of things here just because.  After "infecting" Amy, the Angels make her count down slowly from 10.  When she reaches zero, an Angel will come out, presumably killing her.  Okay, this is effectively sinister and body horror-y, but when the Doctor presses them on it (during one of Angel Bob's regular "Nyer nyer!" phone calls), it turns out they're only doing the countdown for kicks.  So... it's pointless.  Just how petty and bored are these guys?  The Doctor's solution is to "save up" the remaining countdown by closing Amy's eyes.  If the countdown's a joke, though, why would that do anything do stop them?  Later, he has the even more frown-inducing idea of making Amy walk past them with her eyes closed.  She's in no immediate danger because "they'll assume you can see them."  Bloody hell, so they're stupid now?  Didn't we just establish they have a whole thing about eye contact?  Presumably they know when you're not looking at them, or they'd never be able to move!  And the Doctor explains that Amy is faking nice and loud over the radio.  Christ.  So they can't hear you now?

There's some absolutely needless buggering about with the rules here, and when they're being transparently evil, petty or stupid, "scary" just gets further and further away.  Still, logic doesn't always get in the way of simple effectiveness.  When the Angels finally cotton on to Amy's bluff, they begin to move.  I know this is stupid – River helpfully reminds us that every Angel is "a statue when you see it", which means they're something completely different when you can't see them, I can't stress this enough, they are not moving statues.  I know, I know, but this bit still reduces me to quivering hysterics.  It's seriously well-directed.  Maybe that's it: direct something well enough and it won't matter how stupid it is.

When the dust has settled and River has dropped a few more portentous hints about her future with the Doctor, he takes Amy home so she can reveal her big, weddingy secret.  This is a nice moment, at least until Amy reveals her intention of a one-nighter with the Doctor.  This scene is, um, a bit of a mix?  Matt Smith is wonderful, giving about as Doctorly a response as you could hope for: baffled, grossed out, finally worried.  What it does to Amy, and poor old Karen Gillan, is less good.  We are supposed to like Amy, yes?  She's the companion, our stand-in.  Throwing in a largely unprovoked attempt to bonk the Doctor A) on the night of her wedding and B) with no intention of a relationship afterwards is just... ick.  She already seemed scatty and impulsive before, but this pushes her into downright horrible.  Yes, they've obviously Doing A Thing here that will pay off in the subsequent episode, but we're meant to follow this character's emotional state – the point of a companion is largely that their emotions are easier to read than the Doctor's – and going from a near-death experience to wanting to shag your imaginary friend during your extended pre-wedding night is just an ugly mess.  Take it away.

All done shuddering?  Right.  Action movie, thrill ride, roller coaster – choose your analogy or cliché.  These episodes are (apart from that dodgy last scene and the generous plot holes) very flashy and a bit clever, though ultimately they're far more exciting than thought-provoking.  And... that's okay once in a while.  Really, this is a solid and entertaining two-parter.  But the attempts to reinvent the wheel are wholly unnecessary.  The Angels worked fine.  If you're bored of them, Steve, just don't use them.