5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE TIME OF ANGELS/FLESH AND STONE
Buy this Doctor Who DVD: UK
Buy this Doctor Who DVD on Blu-ray: UK
Wow, what a polariser. How you feel about this story is going to depend entirely on a single factor: how much you mind about plot illogicality.
If you’re forgiving about lapses of logic, chances are these two episodes are a totally entrancing thrill ride for you. After all, there’s a lot to like.
It gets off to a whizz-bang start, all styly and stuff, with an intriguing lipstick stain and an absolutely kick-ass pair of Christian Louboutins. Then some really terrific bits zipping back and forth in time that for once make the most of the fact that this series is about a time traveller and yay, River’s back! Alex Kingston excels herself, the space extraction is fun and dramatic, we’re all agog as to what’s going on - got to be one of the best teasers ever.
Then the Doctor actually makes the wheezing, groaning noise and we find out he’s been leaving the brakes on, moments that are probably canon-shattering but we didn’t care as we were laughing too much.
Then we have some arresting location shots in which the mystery deepens, and the clergy turn up. Now this bit we’re not so keen on. Iain Glen is an actor who can be utterly mesmerising, and we’ve seen him play psychopaths so convincing they gave us nightmares, but he’s just not firing here. Struggling with the accent is our best guess, but alas, while he’s focusing on that everything else goes out the window. Call it restraint and dignity if you like, but to us he sounds like he’s reading the news.
Oh yes, and we find out it’s Angels we’re dealing with, but we’ll get to that later.
Then the Doctor makes a particularly lovely speech about what he’s got in his day planner which makes us feel like we’re really starting to get a handle on this guy. Which is nice. The new Doctor’s character has been emerging only murkily from the mess of regeneration: sometimes he seems unique, many other times he could have been either of the last two. It does seem, so far, as if there’s much less variation permitted these days between Doctors’ characters: the first eight had wildly varying personalities, which was lots of fun, but the last three only seem to be allowed to differ within quite a narrow, bursts-of-manicness-attacks-of-boastfulness band. (Thanks to Frank Jackdaw who wrote to point this out to us.) We have the sense that the Eleventh Doctor is still crystallising, and that’s no bad thing. We’re happy to wait to see where exactly he ends up.
Where were we? Ah yes, the Angels. After Blink, the shot of the Angel on tape is enough to send the shiver down the back of a, er, stone. And Amy decides to spend a little quality time with it.
And this is the first fork in the road. For all you forgiving types, this is probably a terrifying sequence. We wish we were you, because we would have had a much better time watching these episodes. Instead, we fall into the bunch for whom if the logic is in yer face silly, that’s a giant boulder in the way. Instead of squealing and hiding behind the sofa (while still, naturally, peering over the top keeping the Angel under surveillance), we were too busy rolling our eyes at Amy not telling the Doctor as soon as she realised the Angel had moved despite having been told it was one of the more powerful and malevolent beings in the universe, and then rolling them some more when she pretended everything was OK when it wasn’t. Grrr! Oh the other hand, we like Amy’s managing to fix the problem herself, as well as the camaraderie she and River share, which is a refreshing change from the catfights we’ve sometimes seen between companions. Then there’s the creepy dark labyrinth, which yes, is proper scary. And that, it turns out, is the high point, After that, if you’re derailed by logic holes it’s downhill faster than a cheetah on skates.
Why is Blink such a success? A number of reasons, including the utter novelty of the subject matter and the intricate plotting. But a big part of it is the scariness of the Angels, and a big part of that is the simplicity of the way they’re treated: set up some simple but striking rules (don’t blink!) and then stick to them.
Whereas here… not so much.
One of us said: “You’ve got a gun that shoots two bullets. Then suddenly you find it now shoots fifty-six bullets because you have fifty-six enemies. And that’s what the Angels are.” Uh huh. We don't mind him expanding the Angels' powers a bit: after all, it's reasonable that we didn't know everything about them before. But it's not that you do it, it's how you do it. The crew are completely safe in the labyrinth until they discover they’re surrounded by angels, at which point it’s all a big panic. The angels were too busy recharging to kill them before: OK. But why did they snap the necks of two people before stripping Bob’s cortex? Where did their mysterious powers to bugger up the torches and lock doors and know what the Doctor’s noticed or not come from? Why are they trying to make the Doctor angry? It’s so random that it’s impossible to tell when to be scared.
It’s not so bad in The Time Of Angels: although there’s plenty in there that diminishes the Angels’ original impact due to wishy-washiness about what exactly the Angels can do, there’s enough good stuff packed round it to make things more or less hang together. But in Flesh And Stone, the wheels really come off.
The further we go, the worse it gets. The Angels can’t move if they look even at each other - yet they can converge on first the Doctor, then Amy, from all directions. And on and on. Worst of all, they are so well-attuned to the presence or absence of the gaze that they can take advantage of a single blink to move - yet Amy can keep her eyes shut and pretend she can see and somehow they’re fooled. Nooooooo! And the Angels might be all evil and such, but doesn’t their playful desire to make Amy count down her own death and their laughing at the Doctor make them seem awfully… petty?
It’s exactly what we were dreading Steven Moffat would do to the Angels after Blink. How can they be scary when the rules keep shifting? Even the change from the totally brilliant displacing people in time to a tediously routine neck snap downgrades them as monsters. Not to mention the whole Bob thing, which rips away the Angels’ frightening silence. It seems to be trying for poignant yet comes over not only as a complete repeat of the same device Moffat used in his Library story but kinda pointless. It's not all bad: we like the horribly shrieky laughter and the shots of the Angels moving. But that's not enough.
And after all that, the Angels are defanged anyway when Moffat wheels out an even bigger gun. After building up all this suspense (for the forgiving, at least), suddenly the air’s let out when the Angels run away. It’s one way of plotting yourself out of a dead end, but it causes a hell of a lot of collateral damage. Never mind the Angels. They’re not scary any more. Until they stop running away and dart back for a bit more neck snapping for auld lang syne. Which thing are we meant to be scared of again? We like the bringing in of the Crack Of Doom here as opposed to the more familiar hinthinthintEXPLOSIVEFINALE, but not when it neuters the Angels on the way.
It’s not just the Angels which suffer from increasingly deranged logic, either. If it’s in the Bishop’s interest as well as River’s that the Doctor doesn’t find out who she is, why does the Bishop suddenly start threatening he’s going to tell the Doctor? If the Angels can kill you in an eyeblink, why don’t they instantly kill the entire pack of ‘em in the corridor when the lights go out? Amy’s dying - from a heartbeat of 120 bpm? It’s dangerous to move her but then she can safely go for a little stroll under her own power? And then she’ll die if she opens her eyes for more than a second, then opens them for ten times that and is still breathing. Faugh. And rather than making Amy trek through a forest with her eyes shut, why the hell doesn’t the Doctor go and get her? Also, can't the Angels kill Amy any time they like anyway? (Thanks to Gareth Rafferty for this one.)
And what about the paradox(es)? Since the Angel army now never existed, what do the clerics wandering round at the end think they're doing there? R&R? And how does River intend to collect her pardon? Somehow, we can't see "I promise they were there but they were wiped out of history, honest!" cutting much ice with the parole board. (Thanks to Charles Goodwin for pointing this out.) And the paradoxes it sets up with regards to previous episodes? We're not even trying to go there. Suffice it to say that it's a timeywimeycrimey.
It’s a crying shame, because there’s so much in here to like, even in Flesh And Stone. The forest - no surprise if you’ve seen Nightmare Of Eden, but it’s pretty. The Doctor’s speech to Amy before he leaves her in the forest. The mysterious and unremarked reappearance of his jacket (we’re going to be sadly disillusioned if that was a continuity error after the fuss they made of him leaving the jacket). Actually, the Doctor in general. River, who despite being pretty much sidelined in Flesh and Stone still dishes up the awesome when she gets the chance. But all of it’s terminally undermined.
But Amy, though. We’re not going to say too much about this, because we’re holding out the hope that the next episode is going to explain all we need to know. So far, though, her character is disappointingly all over the place, including the horrifically random seduction scene (and no, one meaningful look when you’re talking about fancying someone you shouldn’t doesn’t count).
For many people we’re sure this story is a scorcher. Without the fatal flaws of lack of attention to and respect for the details of how the Angels work, and the introduction of the Crack Of Doom in a way that leaves the Angels looking a little bit silly, we would think so too.
MORAL: Nothing’s ever set in stone.
LAST YEAR'S MODEL
The TARDIS tweedling slowly around in space as River zooms towards it is the old, non-St-Johns-logo one. (Thanks to Gareth Rafferty for pointing this out.)
What’s the story with River hanging up her Louboutins in the TARDIS with prominent shots of the famous red soles, then waving them around, BBC? Not product placement, by any chance? No, of course the BBC would never do that (coughSpooksAppledebaclecough).
YOU CAN’T SEE THE LIPS MOVE
The tail end of River’s line “It’s hilarious, isn’t it” is delivered while River is smiling with her mouth closed.
START WITH ALIENS AND WORK YOUR WAY OUT
And in the same vein, there are way too many references here to catalogue. We give up.
WHERE’S BOSS HOG?
The airlock door in that thing Amy’s stuck in with the Angel is labelled: “Caution trip hazzard”.
NOT THAT IMPORTANT, APPARENTLY
While the Bishop’s saying “Sir, there’s nothing you can do, Matt Smith is blinking, and blinks again when the Bishop says “Listen to me, it’s important”.
SUCKS TO BE YOU
Yes, the Doctor has tears in his eyes when he walks away from the Bishop, but whoa. Couldn’t have tried just a little bit harder? Shouldn’t he have tried just a little bit harder?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Poor Alex Kingston: after the splendour of the Louboutins, that army outfit is hideously unflattering.
“I can’t find the communicator!” Why not? It’s fecking BEEPING!
Buy this Doctor Who DVD: UK
Buy this Doctor Who DVD on Blu-ray: UK