Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 5: "Flesh and Stone"

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<em>Doctor Who</em> Recap: Season 5, Episode 5: “Flesh and Stone”

“Flesh and Stone” maintains the high quality displayed by the first half of this two-parter, “The Time of Angels”. To start with, it's a straightforward, satisfying continuation and conclusion, as the story of the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy (Karen Gillan), with River Song (Alex Kingston) and her party of solder-clerics, being pursued by Weeping Angels through the crashed spaceship Byzantium makes for an exciting, action-packed roller coaster. But as the episode progresses, more and more elements of what is obviously a much larger, season-spanning arc come to the fore, and although the story ends with the immediate threat defeated, many questions remain unanswered.

The first part of the episode is all action. Last week's cliffhanger is quickly resolved, as the Doctor's shooting out of a “gravity globe” provides the party with the impetus needed to reach the base of the ship, thirty feet above them. As with “The Time of Angels,” director Adam Smith provides top-notch visuals throughout. In a lovely effects shot, the picture rotates to show them standing upside-down on the hull of the ship, held there by its artificial gravity. They have escaped the Angels for the moment, but the respite is only temporary—the Angels are still absorbing power from the ship to restore themselves, and before long they are right behind the party as the Doctor struggles to open the internal doors of the ship.

They make it through to the secondary flight deck, where the Doctor settles into an amusingly Star Trek-like command chair to have a chat with 'Angel Bob' (David Atkins)—the soldier whom the Angels killed last episode and reanimated to use as a mouthpiece. The idea of giving the Angels a voice was a risk on the part of writer Steven Moffat; their silent, inscrutable nature was a major part of their success in their first appearance (2007's “Blink”), and by allowing them to communicate with the Doctor, their menace could well have been diminished. I think it works, though, because of Bob's calm, almost apologetic demeanor. The Doctor has some fun mocking the Angel's seriousness, but you never get the sense that he's not worried about the situation.

Bob: “The Angels are feasting, sir. Soon we'll be able to absorb enough power to consume this vessel, this world, and all the stars and worlds beyond.”
The Doctor: “Well… we've got comfy chairs, did I mention?”
Bob: “We have no need of comfy chairs.”
The Doctor: (grinning) “I made him say 'comfy chairs.'”

Then things take a sinister turn as the Doctor realizes that during the last few minutes Amy has been injecting numbers randomly into her dialogue, counting down from ten without realizing it. Bob admits that the Angels are behind it—Amy's experience in the last episode of looking into the eyes of an Angel has affected her, and the Angels are in her mind.

Amy: “What's he talking about? Doctor, I'm five… I mean, five… Fine.
Bob: “We shall take her. We shall take all of you. We shall have dominion over all time and space.”
The Doctor: “Get a life, Bob.”

Bob tells the Doctor that the Angels are laughing at him for not realizing what's going on—notably, using almost the same phrasing (“The Doctor in the TARDIS hasn't noticed”) as Prisoner Zero did in similar circumstances in “The Eleventh Hour”. Suddenly, the overarching season plot moves into the foreground as a crack in the universe like the ones we've seen in previous episodes opens up in the wall, with bright light spilling through it.

The four previous seasons of Doctor Who under Russell T Davies also had season-long arcs, but always very loose ones which didn't really have much impact on the individual stories—mostly just a quick mention of something (like “Bad Wolf” in season one) which would be tossed into each story but not paid off until the season finale. The most substantial of these arcs was probably the Saxon thread in Season 3, but even there it tended to hover around the edges of the stories, touching minor characters but going unnoticed by the Doctor and companion. Here, Moffat is deliberately calling attention to the ongoing plot and placing it front and center—in fact, the crack ends up being crucial to the resolution of this episode's threat. It could be said that this is a long-overdue innovation for Doctor Who—for well over a decade now it's been standard practice in sci-fi series to have long-running arcs threaded through a season's worth (or more) of episodes. It will be interesting to see whether this more complicated season structure results in any reduction of the casual, non-genre audience—which is very much in the majority, in the UK at least.

The Doctor stays to examine the crack, while he sends the others to find a way through the ship's oxygen factory to its primary flight deck. This provides another lovely visual, as a wall slides up to reveal a huge forest which occupies the heart of the vessel. The concept of “tree-borgs”—trees with technology embedded, sucking in starlight for power and giving out oxygen, is brilliant. Fundamentally this story is mainly a simple chase, with the Angels in pursuit of our heroes, but the variation in setting—from caves, to corridors, and now to this dense forest—stops it from becoming monotonous.

The Doctor discovers that the crack is releasing pure time energy into the universe, which can erase the existence of anyone it touches (“Oh, that's bad. That's extremely very not good”). Then he looks up to discover he is surrounded by Angels; in the course of carefully making his way out from among them, one of them grabs him. Up until now we have never seen an Angel move on screen, so it's a nearly subliminal moment of shock—it happens so quickly you almost doubt your own eyes—when we see the hand of one of them suddenly close on his collar. But the Doctor manages to escape into the forest after the others, and the Angel is left holding just his jacket.

In the forest, Amy collapses, with the image of an Angel now visible in her eye. The praise I gave last week for Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Alex Kingston's performances applies equally to this episode. Smith is again excellent at showing the Doctor's mind working at top speed, and he's not afraid to have the Doctor be abrupt and shouty with Amy—knowing she has only seconds left, he simply tells her to shut up while he's thinking. He realises that Amy must now keep her eyes closed in order not to succumb to the Angel within her, so the Doctor has to leave her in the forest while he and River go ahead to the primary flight deck. Father Octavian insists on accompanying River, and—much to her horror—tells the Doctor her secret:

Octavian: “Doctor Song is in my personal custody. I released her from the Stormcage containment facility four days ago, and I am legally responsible for her until she's accomplished her mission, and earned her pardon.”

Later on, Octavian will warn the Doctor not to trust River Song, revealing that she was in prison because she killed a man—“a good man, a hero to many.” It's beginning to look less and less likely that the relationship between the Doctor and River will turn out to be a simple case of time-crossed lovers, as most people assumed before this story.

The Doctor: “I'll be back for you as soon as I can, I promise.”
Amy: “You always say that.”
The Doctor: “I always come back.”

With a brusque “Later,” the Doctor heads off after the others, leaving Amy sitting alone, eyes closed. And then, strangely, he's right back there again, holding Amy's hands and telling her she needs to start trusting him. The first time I watched the episode, this sequence seemed a bit odd and out of place, but I thought nothing more of it. It was only after subsequent viewings that I grasped what Steven Moffat is up to here. This isn't the same Doctor as the one who just left; it's all shot in extreme close-up, to disguise the fact, but if you look carefully you'll see that he's wearing a different watch, and a jacket (and not the same one that got taken by the Angels, either). He's quite different in manner, too, almost desperately tender as he tells Amy it's vital that she remembers what he told her when she was seven. Clearly this is a later Doctor who has crossed back into his own timeline here, for some dire reason to do with Amy's memories, which will be revealed at the appropriate time (probably in the season finale). I suspect that once the whole season is over, all sorts of earlier events which might have seemed weird at the time will take on new meanings. For instance, remember last week's joke scene about the TARDIS making its characteristic noise because the Doctor leaves the brakes on? What if it wasn't there just for the joke, but as a way to give the Doctor a way to arrive silently if he needed to? Moffat even goes so far as to make the Doctor muse about an event from back in the 2008 Christmas special (”The Next Doctor”):

The Doctor: “It's been happening all around me and I haven't even noticed. … The CyberKing—a giant Cyberman walks over all of Victorian London and no one even remembers!”

Is Moffat cleaning up something which I remember many people complained about at the time as needing just too much suspension of disbelief? Or did he get together with Russell T Davies and plant some seeds for this season two years ago? Or is he just having a laugh? I guess we'll find out in a few weeks' time…

In the forest, the Angels are closing in on Amy and the clerics—they are attacking the tree-borgs in order to destroy their light, leading to the wonderfully surreal line, “The trees are going out!”—when another crack appears. The Angels disappear, apparently scared of the uncontrolled time energy the thing pours out, and the clerics are mysteriously drawn, one by one, to investigate the crack. As they get close, they vanish, erased from time, and their remaining comrades cannot even remember them. I found the creepiness of this sequence very well done, and reminiscent of one of my favorite episodes of the original Twilight Zone, “And Then the Sky Was Opened,” where a group of three pioneering astronauts likewise disappear one by one, yanked out of existence. At last, Amy is left alone.

As Father Octavian, Iain Glen has been very good throughout this story, making the most of a part which doesn't actually have all that much for him to do. He's mostly just a smoothly competent military leader, albeit with the interesting wrinkle that he's a leader of clerics—and it's refreshing to have a character whose religion is portrayed positively, yet not overemphasized. In his final scene, he is at last given some material to work with. The Doctor has used River's computer to pinpoint the moment of the cataclysmic explosion which caused these cracks all through time; he tells Octavian, “Never mind the Angels, there's worse here than Angels.” The lights go out momentarily, and when they come back up Octavian replies, “I beg to differ, sir,” as an Angel has its arm in a stranglehold around his neck. It's a moment of brilliantly combined laughter and shock. The Doctor realizes there's no way out—while the Angel is frozen, Octavian is trapped, but the moment he looks away it will be free to kill him.

Octavian: “Sir, the Angels are coming. You have to leave me.”
The Doctor: “You'll die.”
Octavian: “I will die in the knowledge that my courage did not desert me at the end. For that I thank God, and bless the path that takes you to safety.”
The Doctor: “I wish I'd known you better.”
Octavian: “I think, sir, you know me at my best.”

The cast of characters has now been whittled down to just the Doctor and River in the primary flight deck of the Byzantium, and Amy alone in the forest, surrounded by Angels. She still can't open her eyes, so she has to use her communicator as a proximity detector as she attempts to join the others. This section was the weakest part of the whole story for me, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Moffat is rather gratuitously changing the rules as we understood them from “Blink.” In that episode, the Angels' freezing into stone when they were observed was an unalterable, involuntary aspect of their nature. But now, it seems to be something they can control—which immediately makes them much less original and interesting. Also, one of the cleverest ideas in “Blink” was that the Angels didn't move while we the audience could see them, even if none of the characters in the story were observing them. That idea is also discarded here, as Amy stumbles and falls to the ground, and several Angels slowly turn their heads to look at her. The movement is creepy and well done, with nice grinding-stone sound effects, but again it's an original idea being thrown away in favor of something more commonplace.

Secondly, in order to explain why the Angels don't simply attack Amy, there's a speech from the Doctor about how they are more interested in running from the crack than they are in her, and that if she simply walks as though she can see then the Angels will believe her and “their instincts will kick in.” It's an uncharacteristically weak justification by Moffat's standards, made more annoying by the fact that the whole sequence turns out to have no significance at all—it's just a bit of time-filling jeopardy for Amy, until River eventually manages to teleport her to the flight deck in the nick of time. At least the scene does end with a nice exchange between the Doctor and River: “River Song, I could bloody kiss you.” “Maybe when you're older.”

The final defeat of the Angels, though, is a very nice piece of plotting by Moffat, making use of the fact which the viewer has probably forgotten (I certainly did) that they've actually been moving up through a vertical ship all this time. Indeed, near the beginning of the episode he puts the solution right out there in plain sight, disguised with humor:

Amy: “What if the gravity fails?”
The Doctor: “I've thought about that.”
Amy: “And?”
The Doctor: “And… we'll all plunge to our deaths. See, I've thought about it.”

As the Angels drain away the last of the ship's power, the artificial gravity disappears and they fall back into the advancing crack. River gets another opportunity to display her cleverness and quickness of understanding—all that's needed is for the Doctor to tell her to “Get a grip” and she instantly gets what's about to happen. She, Amy, and the Doctor hold onto the flight deck consoles for dear life as the Angels tumble away from them through the suddenly side-on forest (another wonderfully memorable visual) into the crack, which closes.

In the mop-up, there's a farewell—or rather, an au revoir—to River on the beach, as the Doctor confronts her with what he learned from Octavian. She admits that she was in prison for killing “the best man I've ever known.” From her reluctance to give any further details, the implication is clear that she means the Doctor, but I'm quite sure there are many more twists in this tale to come. You get the sense that these two have come to enjoy sparring with each other. She tells the Doctor that they'll meet again soon, “when the Pandorica opens”—a name which was previously mentioned by Prisoner Zero in “The Eleventh Hour.” The Doctor dismisses the Pandorica as a fairy tale, to which River teasingly replies, “Aren't we all?”

The Doctor: “Can I trust you, River Song?”
River: (laughing) “If you like. But where's the fun in that?”

And so they part, with River's future leading to an ending we already know, while the Doctor is heading into the unknown toward their next meeting (“I look forward to it.” “I remember it well”). The Doctor, left brooding on the beach after her departure, seems to cheer up at the thought that “time can be rewritten.” Is he thinking about River's fate?

The final scene closes the first part of the season's story as the Doctor and Amy return to Amy's bedroom five minutes after she left at the end of the first episode, and she shows him the wedding dress hanging in her wardrobe. She confesses she's getting married to Rory in the morning, and shows the Doctor her engagement ring.

The Doctor: “Why did you leave it here?”
Amy: “Why did I leave my engagement ring off when I ran away with a strange man on the night before my wedding?”
The Doctor: “Yeah.”
Amy: “You really are an alien, aren't you?”

Now Amy moves into territory not previously entered by any of the Doctor's companions, in displaying an obvious sexual interest in him—which he hilariously fails to pick up on until she actually goes to kiss him.

The Doctor: “Amy, listen to me, I am 907 years old. Do you understand what that means?”
Amy: “It's been a while?”
The Doctor: “Ye-no! No, no, no!”

As a long-time Doctor Who fan I should probably have been having palpitations at this point, but I'm afraid I was too busy laughing. Anyone familiar with Moffat's comedy work will recognize this sort of scene, and Smith and Gillan, with their brilliant chemistry together, play it perfectly. But it's not just thrown in as a joke out of nowhere—Amy's direct, uninhibited character was established back in the first episode as she watched approvingly while the Doctor was changing clothes, and her near-death experiences on the Byzantium have only sharpened her desire to seize the moment.

No doubt to his vast relief, the Doctor is able to divert Amy's attack when he suddenly realizes that the day of her wedding is the day of the explosion which created the cracks in time. The last shot is a flashback to River Song's computer screen, showing the critical date, 26-06-2010—the date on which the finale of this season is scheduled to be broadcast in the UK, and no doubt the date on which Moffat's grand design will be revealed.

The Doctor: “Amy Pond. Mad, impossible Amy Pond! I don't know why, I've no idea, but quite possibly the single most important thing in the history of the universe is that I get you sorted out right now…”

Next Week: The Doctor takes Amy and Rory on a romantic interlude, which naturally ends up going horribly wrong, in “The Vampires of Venice.”

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: As I mentioned last week, the six-story Key to Time boxset makes a good companion to this two-parter. Not only does the Doctor have a rather River Song-like assistant in Romana, but the third story, “The Stones of Blood,” even has monsters of living stone.

Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.


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