Now that’s more like it. After a couple of lesser episodes over the last two weeks that failed to match the level reached by “The Eleventh Hour,” showrunner Steven Moffat returns with the kind of story he used to provide once a year for the Russell T Davies era—virtuoso plotting, brilliant dialogue, and an emphasis on scares and surprises. Indeed, this one builds directly on two of those previous high points: 2007’s “Blink” and 2008’s two-parter consisting of “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” With a top-quality script from Moffat, combined with excellent production values, “The Time of Angels” is the highlight of the season so far.
The marvelous pre-titles sequence is a classic five minutes of Doctor Who. It shows Moffat’s plotting at its most exuberant; right from the get-go he’s tossing out one plot element after another at high speed, keeping the audience off-balance and challenging us to keep up. It opens with a deliberately baffling shot of a dazed security guard (an improbable cameo from British rapper Mike Skinner) staggering around in an open field, approached by a tuxedo-wearing man named Alistair. The James Bond feel of this opening is only enhanced by the fact that the suave Alistair is played by Simon Dutton, alias TV’s The Saint. In reality, they are not in a field but in the metal corridors of a spaceship; the guard has been affected by “hallucinogenic lipstick… She’s here.” Cut to a woman striding along in an evening gown and a pair of killer stiletto heels. She comes to a locked door, takes out a futuristic pistol, and shoots it open. Inside is a box-like piece of equipment; her pistol converts into a cutting torch, and she begins carving strange letters into it.
Then suddenly, a caption pops up which could surely only appear in Doctor Who: “12,000 years later.” As he did in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Silence in the Library,” Moffat is using temporal trickery at the beginning of an episode to draw the audience in. The Doctor (Matt Smith), accompanied by a bored Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), is looking through a museum when he discovers the box—now ancient and decayed, but with the letters still visible—and tells her it’s a flight recorder from “one of the old starliners.”
The Doctor: “The writing. The graffiti. Old High Gallifreyan! The lost language of the Time Lords. There were days—there were many days—these words could burn stars, and raise up empires, and topple gods.”
Amy: “What does this say?”
The Doctor: “…’Hello, Sweetie.’”
Those of us who remember “Silence in the Library” will immediately know what those last words portend—and why the Doctor says them with such hilarious resignation in his voice. The woman is River Song (Alex Kingston), using the flight recorder to send a message to the Doctor across time. Back in the TARDIS, they replay the recorder’s security footage, showing Alistair and his guards confronting River at an airlock door. She tells him she wanted to see what was in the ship’s vault, and warns, “This ship won’t reach its destination.” Then she simply says, “As I said on the dance floor… you might want to find something to hang on to,” blows the airlock open, and is launched into space. Naturally the TARDIS is there to catch her, and she lands in the Doctor’s arms, jumping up with a cry of “Follow that ship!” And so the adventure begins…
It’s a perfect teaser, somehow seeming like quintessential Doctor Who while at the same time having a style and pace that are quite new, and more akin to some of Moffat’s sitcom work. I’m thinking especially of Coupling, where he would often play with techniques like out-of-sequence storytelling, or multiple viewpoints, or in one case even have a whole episode in split-screen. The sitcom style continues into the first part of the episode, which is dominated by the comic sparring between the Doctor and River Song. When we met her previously in the Library story, it was obvious that she had had a long and intimate relationship with the Doctor, even though for him, it was his first meeting with her. As he says here, “Time travel—we keep meeting in the wrong order.” In that story she mentioned “the crash of the Byzantium” as something in her past, and now we get to see it.
So this is a younger, more playful version of River, who delights in constantly scoring points off the Doctor. Smith and Kingston seem to fall with great ease into a very funny “bickering married couple” dynamic, despite their twenty-year age difference. The Doctor is most annoyed when it turns out she can fly the TARDIS better than him. When she parks it with great precision next to the wreck of the Byzantium, he is hilariously discomfited:
The Doctor: “But… it didn’t make the noise.”
River: “What noise?”
The Doctor: “You know. The…” (makes wheezing, groaning sound)
River: “It’s not supposed to make that noise. You leave the brakes on.”
The Doctor: “Yeah, well it’s a brilliant noise. I love that noise. Come along Pond, let’s have a look.”
The Doctor’s habit of calling Amy by her surname was apparently something Matt Smith came up with in rehearsals, and it fits his “mad professor” persona very well. By this stage, it’s almost alarming how quickly I’ve come to accept Smith as the Doctor—there’s hardly been a single moment in all the episodes so far where he struck a false note.
This two-parter was actually the first story filmed for the season, but you’d never know it from the assurance of the performances, and the direction. The production team took the risk of going with an entirely new team of directors for this season, and Adam Smith (who also directed “The Eleventh Hour”) is a real find for the show. The whole story is filled with memorable, beautiful images; in particular, the stupendous effects shot of the enormous crashed ship, sticking up vertically out of an ancient temple set into a cliff face. I gather that, due to the current recession, the budget for Doctor Who has been trimmed somewhat compared with previous years, and it’s true that in the first three episodes of this season, some economizing seems to have been made—for instance, compare the bare, empty set for the Dalek ship in last week’s episode with similar sets in “The Parting of the Ways” or “Journey’s End.” This story, though, looks as though it’s had a decent amount of money spent on it—and it certainly deserved it.
It turns out that River is here to meet up with a team of soldier-clerics, led by Father Octavian (Iain Glen). The idea of religious fighters of course resonates with medieval orders such as the Knights Templar, but I suspect Moffat simply wanted the amusing incongruity of a “bishop second class” in modern-day camouflage gear barking orders like, “Verger, how’re we doing with those explosives?” Octavian and his men are here on a mission to neutralize the dangerous creature in the vault of the Byzantium—a Weeping Angel.
In 2007, Moffat scored a huge success with “Blink,” creating an episode which appears on many people’s Top Ten lists, and also won him a third consecutive Hugo award. A large part of its success was due to the stunningly original Weeping Angels. A creature which can only move when you’re not looking at it, otherwise it’s frozen into stone—a wonderful concept, executed brilliantly in the form of beautiful statues which can turn, literally in the blink of an eye, into hideous fanged monsters. However, when the news came that the Angels would be returning in this new story, there was some concern that Moffat might simply be repeating himself, attempting to take advantage of a previous success by churning out a lesser sequel. He avoids that danger, though, by putting the Angels in a completely different setting and introducing several new abilities for them, providing just as many scares—but in new ways—as their previous episode.
In particular, the very image of an Angel now becomes dangerous. River provides a four-second loop of security camera footage of the Angel in the ship’s vault, and Amy discovers that, impossibly, the recorded image keeps changing. According to a book about the Angels discovered by River, “That which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel”—and Amy, trapped in a locked shuttle pod with the recording, finds herself unable to escape as the Angel starts to actually come out of the screen, as in the climax of the horror movie The Ring. Then the creepiness gets amped up even further. Whereas in “Blink” if you made sure to keep staring at an Angel it was harmless, now if you stare at an Angel’s eyes for too long you can become “infected”—as the Doctor reads, “The eyes are not the windows of the soul, they are the doors. Beware what may enter there.” Amy manages to deactivate the recording of the Angel, but she starts to experience hallucinations such as a stream of stone dust falling from her eye (an excellently done effect) and her hand turning to stone.
Karen Gillan, like Matt Smith, gives an excellent performance in her first-filmed episode. She is greatly intrigued by River and quickly bonds with her, and enjoys teasing the Doctor over his attitude towards her. When River asks the Doctor to “sonic her” to boost her communicator’s homing signal for the clerics and he grumpily complies, her delivery of “Oooh Doctor, you soniced her” is a delight. Amy is so direct and child-like (as if part of her is still very much the seven-year-old girl she was when she first met the Doctor) as she asks the questions we all want answered, in one of my favorite sequences of the whole episode:
The Doctor: “You’re still here. Which part of ’Wait in the TARDIS till I tell you it’s safe’ was so confusing?”
Amy: “Aww… are you all Mister Grumpyface today?”
The Doctor: “A Weeping Angel, Amy, is the deadliest, most powerful, most malevolent life form evolution has ever produced and right now one of them is trapped inside that wreckage and I’m supposed to climb in after it with a screwdriver and a torch and assuming I survive the radiation long enough and assuming the whole ship doesn’t just blow up in my face, do something incredibly clever which I haven’t actually thought of yet. That’s my day; that’s what I’m up to. Any questions?”
Amy: “Is River Song your wife?”
The Doctor: (sigh)
Amy: “’Cause she’s someone from your future. And the way she talks to you, I’ve never seen anyone do that. … She’s Mrs Doctor from the future, isn’t she? Is she gonna be your wife one day?”
The Doctor: “Yes… you’re right. I am definitely Mister Grumpyface today.”
Matt Smith perfectly times the last line there, leaving a long enough pause after “Yes” for Amy (and the audience) to think for a moment that he might actually be answering her question about River Song. In fact, rather than answering questions, the episode introduces still more mysteries about River; when Amy directly challenges her about being the Doctor’s future wife, she replies, “This is the Doctor we’re talking about—do you really think it could be anything that simple?” She certainly has one particular secret she’s keeping from the Doctor, as a conversation between her and Father Octavian reveals:
Octavian: “He doesn’t know yet, does he? Who and what you are.”
River Song: “It’s too early in his time stream.”
Octavian: “Well, make sure he doesn’t work it out, or he’s not going to help us.”
River Song: “I won’t let you down. Believe you me, I have no intention of going back to prison.”
The party find their way into a labyrinth of passages leading up from the base of the cliff to the crashed ship, and begin to make their way through the maze. It’s a “mortarium” created by the Aplans, the dead-and-gone native species of this planet, and is filled with decayed statues—an ideal hiding place for a stone Angel. As with the earlier exterior matte shot of the crashed ship, the wide shots of the labyrinth interior, illuminated by a floating “gravity globe” (a nice bit of future-tech continuity with Season Two’s “The Impossible Planet”) are eerily beautiful.
We have the familiar, but always effective scenario of a small group trapped in hostile territory, being picked off one by one. Several of the cleric cannon-fodder succumb to the hidden Angel as the tension increases. And unlike the ones in “Blink,” which didn’t kill people but just banished them backwards in time, this Angel definitely kills its victims, nastily. Amazingly enough, Moffat managed to write eight episodes before this one without a single character being killed on screen—most unusual for Doctor Who which, even though it’s often thought of as a kids’ show, generally has at least one character meeting a horrible fate each episode.
And he’s still expertly controlling the mix of light-hearted adventure and sudden shocks. The Doctor is busy cheerfully burbling on about how he once had dinner with the chief architect of the Aplans, and how the Aplans all had two heads (“You’re never short of a snog with an extra head”) and how that led to the church introducing laws against self-marriage (“No offense, bishop.” “Quite a lot taken, if that’s all right, Doctor”). Then, suddenly, he and River simultaneously come to the realization that all the statues they’ve seen only have one head… One quick experiment with momentarily switching their torches off, and the truth is revealed—all the statues are Weeping Angels. Their decayed state means that they can only move slowly—in a neat continuation of the “image” theme, the fact that they’ve lost their image means they have also lost most of their power. At least, for the moment—it becomes clear that the Angel in the Byzantium deliberately cuased the crash of the ship into the temple so that these Angels could drain the ship’s power and recover their own.
One of the clerics left behind to guard the entrance, Bob (David Atkins), is used by the Angel to communicate with the Doctor and Octavian. This could be considered another case of Moffat recycling a previous idea—the data ghosts from the Library story, which also provided a means for characters to speak from beyond death. But it’s not quite the same, and in any case it’s a supremely creepy moment as his calm voice emerges from the communicator:
The Doctor: “Bob, keep running, but tell me: how did you escape?”
Bob: “I didn’t escape, sir. The Angel killed me too. … Snapped my neck, sir. Wasn’t as painless as I expected, but it was pretty quick, so that was something.”
The Doctor: “If you’re dead, how can I be talking to you?”
Bob: “You’re not talking to me, sir. The Angel has no voice. It stripped my cerebral cortex from my body and reanimated a version of my consciousness to communicate with you. Sorry about the confusion.”
The Doctor: “So when you say you’re on your way up to us…?”
Bob: “It’s the Angel that’s coming, sir, yes.”
The party finally reach the top of the maze, but the base of the crashed ship is thirty feet above them, out of reach. With no way out, the Angels surrounding them and their torches and gravity globe being drained, it’s up to the Doctor to find a way out. “Angel Bob” continues taunting him over the communicator, telling him how Bob died in fear and pain, and how the rest of them will suffer the same fate now that they are trapped. In response, the Doctor borrows Octavian’s gun and delivers a rousing, “Bad Wolf”-style speech to lead up to the cliffhanger. It’s an effective enough ending, but its impact is somewhat reduced for anyone who has seen it constantly in trailers for the past month or so:
The Doctor: “Didn’t anyone ever tell you? There’s one thing you never put in a trap, if you’re smart. If you value your continued existence. If you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there’s one thing you never ever put in a trap.”
Bob: “And what would that be, sir?”
The Doctor: “Me.”
He fires at the gravity globe, which explodes. What happens next? Tune in next week to find out...
NEXT WEEK: The story concludes, in “Flesh and Stone.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “The Key to Time” boxset, consisting of six stories making up Doctor Who’s sixteenth season. Principally because of the relationship between the Doctor and his assistant, Romana, which is very reminiscent of his sparring here with River Song.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.