Monday, 3 May 2010

DOCTOR WHO: 'TIME OF THE ANGELS'/ 'FLESH AND STONE'


Who (if you’ll pardon the pun) can say? Who’s to say what counts as influence and what constitutes theft? Writer Steven Moffat has himself acknowledged the debt this two-parter owes to Aliens, and few have missed the scene stolen straight from Ringu. (Though no-one seems to have commented on the similarities to Dan O’Bannon’s original script for the first Alien film, with the spaceship crashed into the pyramid.) To which we could add River Song’s space rescue, which was reminiscent of the first episode ending from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


But counting ‘em up ain’t the same as knocking ‘em down. Genre fiction is virtually a folk art, where ideas are considered to be built for sharing. If we’re going to trace it back to Dan O’Bannon, then he commented: "I didn't steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!" (One suggested source even being the Old Who story ’The Ark in Space’!) Besides, Doctor Who has from it’s inception stolen anything from anywhere which wasn’t nailed down. (And ideas don’t nail down too easily.) The only rule is that the show has to absorb that input. It shouldn’t try to compete with Hollywood on its terms, which (as we’ve already seen) it isn’t.

But if the show’s going to start cannibalising itself, isn’t that a different story? Isn’t what we have here ’Silence In the Library’ with the bad guys from ’Blink’ inserted? Okay, so Old Who gave us the same stories every week, often even using the same quarries and chase-corridors. But isn’t that like your parents telling the same anecdotes over and over again, something you indulge? Isn’t New Who like your pub-meet mate? A different encounter, where different rules apply.

One line of defence might be that shuffling the pack like this can create a genuinely new combination. Moffat is surely right to argue that “good Doctor Who monsters have to come back - it's a rule. But... you always have to... do something different with it.”

’Blink’ has become not just a popular Moffat episode so much as the popular; it trumps polls so often as to normally be considered the highpoint of New Who. And it was of course a very good episode. But few comment that it was clearly hewn from two different sources, with monsters and storyline sticky-taped together. First we have the Time Displacement Box which has ended up in an abandoned building, innocently screwing with those who encounter it (a bit like the capsule in ’The Empty Child’.) It’s presence leads to quite an intimate storyline which ruminates rather philosophically on how time can change us but we can’t change time, we’re better off accepting what we’re dealt and all the rest of it. (Even Sally Sparrow’s solving of the mystery is significant precisely because it means she can now put it behind her, and instead start living her life.)

But in order to get some much-needed menace the Weeping Angels get grafted onto the box. They snarl and claw like they’re out to kill you. But instead they just displace you in time. It’s a bit like getting caught by a notorious serial killer, who then inexplicably decides to drop you off in Rickmansworth. We’re told they do this to feed off your displaced energy, which doesn’t add up to a lot in the way of sense. You’re still alive, after all, just sometime else. And in fact for most people it all seems to work out rather well. This disjunction is masked by lines which describe them as “the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely”, and by the fact that we think of statues as old, so in some way timeless. But masked isn’t resolved.

Moffat seems to implicitly acknowledge this by rejigging the rulebook on their return. This time they do kill you, they even get off on it. And alongside the time-displacement other rules get quietly dropped - the idea they can’t look at each other, or their hots for the Tardis. (Which they now show not the slightest interest in.) They’re bigged up, promoted in status from shadow selves, personal adversaries representing your fear of the dark and unknown, into an army raging a cosmic battle.

Some have pointed out that this in some ways normalises them, even strips them of their menace by giving them a voice. But it does give us a theme which actually matches the Angels. They represent the idolatrousness of classicism, something which looks dead to us but which gains power from being looked at. “That which holds the image of an angel itself becomes an angel”, simply to gaze into one is to become one. The Soldier Monks which combat them have no visual signifiers of their faith, which is solely an inner thing. Against these images their chief weapon is a book without pictures – a succinct a description of the Protestant Bible as there could be. There’s a significant scene where they’re lured to their deaths (in the inevitable serial fashion) by being told to come and see something which can’t be told. Finally, the ship is called the Byzantium, after the era of classicism where Christianity came to take over from idolatory. (Though, for a contrary view, check out Frank Collins of Behind the Sofa, who sees in the Angels militant jihadism, surely the most anti-idolatrous movement of history!)

...which makes them into an interesting adversary for the Doctor. ’Blink’ already hinted at the similarities between our hero and his foes. (“Their greatest asset is their greatest curse... Loneliest creatures in the Universe.”) Don’t we tend to see the residual beauty of classicism, the art and architecture, and overlook the extensive violence they were built on? Yet the Doctor is from that world; he’s not just old but a Time Lord, from one of the great ruler races who turned his back on it all. A human equivalent would be someone from the Roman empire, a Caesar who turned Spartacus. When the Romans come back, he’s expecting blood more than circuses.

...which makes it simultaneously appropriate and disappointing that the Crack in Time devours them. As the soldiers disappear one by one into it, it’s like an inverted echo of their earlier scene – this time they’re going off to see the light. It also means that their classicism is fittingly devoured by time.  Added to which, if the Crack’s going to run right through this season it’s better foregrounded rather than rumbling along in the background, as ominous as it is repetitive. There’s already been too many Bad Wolves.

But, after Moffat has done so much to present us with a refreshingly extemporising, detective Doctor it feeds some way back to the deus ex machina days of the Davies era. The Angels are killed not by some weakness of their own (as in ’Blink’), but by Something Big Turning Up. Added to which, why should “a complicated space-time event” sate the Crack? Isn’t that a bit like saying “because I said so?” It feels like the theme of the episode was suddenly pre-empted by the theme of the season pulling rank on it. (And while River Song’s story was obviously going to take a while to play out, it was never adequately explained why the statue was on that spaceship in the first place.)

And worst of all, it’s now been confirmed that the Crack is in some way centred around Amy. Old Who companions represented the everyman, however given they were to mini skirts. A companion who can rescue herself, who isn’t simply something for monsters to tie to pan-galactic railway lines, is all to the good. But while science fiction and fantasy has always been about wish fulfillment, it’s now made a cocaine-into-crack shift and become about fully fledged megalomania. It’s like the me-now society has shaped us so the only way we can react to art is if it tells us we are special, we are crucial, we are the centre of it all. Whatever is causing that Crack, I fear it to be cringeworthy.

Could River Song be a future Amy Pond? We’ve already had plays on her name (with the duckpond), so could it be she steps from a pond into a river? Yet, with so much netspace taken up by speculation on her “spoilers”, perhaps that obscures River’s real role in this drama- what she's doing right now. She does to the Doctor what he normally does to others, turn up from outside his timeline and upend his life. This even works better with the current Doctor as her foil, for he’s simultaneously less human and more fallible than his predecessor. He’s quick to impatient anger at human weakness, and generally socially awkward in anything outside life-or-death situations.

For all its more obvious formal similarities to other episodes, in some ways this feels most akin to ’Waters of Mars.’ Both felt a lot better than they had any real right to be, given how derivative they were. This may be partly down to the sheer number of cool concepts almost casually tossed in along the way. River Song’s hallucinogenic lipstick was a superlative concept. (In combining sex, druggyness and espionage, it was very reminiscent of The Avengers). Her totem and signature, her self-defining equivalent of the sonic screwdriver was made all the more appealing by being thrown into the opening as though there was much more to spare. Amy's involuntary countdown was the show understanding exactly what it can do, and doing it well. The fibre-optic forest was perhaps reminiscent of the biomechanical spaceship of ’Girl in the Fireplace’, but memorable nonetheless. 

But perhaps underlying all that, what pulled you through the episode was a deft sense of construction. So many incidents hit you along the way you took your dazzled eyes off the big picture, and forget how familiar it actually was. Yet what goes down well isn't always what's best remembered.

I entered Moffat’s tenure as Head Writer with both high hopes and deep fears. But we’re approximately half-way through and hopes are neither dashed nor realised. In fact it’s all tended towards the even, less a rollercoaster ride and more a bus trip. True the series has not just been satisfactorily rebooted, its whole conception is probably preferable to Davies’. (Though in fairness it should be compared to Davies’ early peak, not his later repetition masked by excess.) But no episode has hit the heights which Moffat earlier reached – no ’Girl in the Fireplace,’ no ’Empty Child’ - for the very reason that it is all too similar to them. 'Blink,' for all that it was a slightly awkward assemblage, a less smooth and realised vehicle for the Angels, simply hit you harder. (It will now be easier for the Angels to return again. But we will care less.)

Moffat now only has the final two-parter to hit his six. (And frankly I’m not expecting much of the intervening episodes). There may still remain the chance we’ll be hit by a final humdinger. Finales tended to run to Davies’ worst excesses, but perhaps this first finale for Moffat may well buck that trend.

2 comments:

  1. I share your concern about whether Amy is going to turn out “special” - partly because there will have to be some sort of explanation to prevent her becoming a companion from being a coincidence. But I’m not sure that being special in a plot sense stops you from being everyman. The way that Big Finish introduced Lucie Miller made her both a normal person and central to the plot.

    Actually I quite like the Doctor-Amy relationship so far. There was a traditional generation gap implicit in Amy’s youthful banter about the Doctor’s alleged romance with River Song. (Shame that the snog at the end of the second episode seemed to contradict that.) And although the two arc stories (the Crack in Time and the River Song subplot) look weak right now, they may be able to rationally rewrite some of RTD’s screw-ups. There’s still plenty of potential for this to turn out to be a good series.

    Unfortunately it’s equally possible that Moffat could be leading us straight into another RTD-style mess. It's hard to tell at this stage. And suspension of disbelief is difficult for us now that we’ve all lost our trust in the show. As Andrew Rilstone put it:-

    You're just leading us on. We've been hurt too many times before. Next week you're going to kick us in the teeth.

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  2. Thanks for the comments! (And for saving me from making a whole Who post without mentioning Andrew Rilstone, surely contravening some kind of bylaw!)

    No, you don't have to be anti-everyman to be 'special'. It's a staple of Brit SF that an ordinary fellow, thrust into an extraordinary situation by sheer happenstance, will come out as a hero. But I fear that's not the way it's going here. I quote: "Amy Pond... quite possibly the single most important thing in the history of the universe, is that I get you sorted out right now."

    Moffat's said he wanted the Doctor to be simultaneously young and old, which is probably a good idea which he's handled well.

    I'm still mulling over whether River Song's subplot will finish this season. If it wasn't for the Pond/River thing, I'd be assuming Moffat was saving it for later.

    Doesn't a snog have to be reciprocated to be classified a 'snog'? Anyway, the funniest thing about this seems to me that it distracted fans from noticing Moffat put in a 'Who' pun!

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