...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Day 3400: DOCTOR WHO: Angel Delight


This week, we watched the most powerful dangerous monster in Doctor Who history. It's Mr Kronos the Time Monster in, er, The Time Monster! This week in his incarnation as Mr Flappy, the man in the front-axial-projection bird-suit.

Yeah, that's how to do REALLY SCARY.

Meanwhile, Daddy has some thoughts on some completely-not-flappy monsters…
Steven Moffat is a memetic jeweller. His gems are ideas, some his own, some other peoples. He takes them and polishes them up and places them in a setting and creates a work of art that is, perhaps, more than the sum of its parts.

Just some of the ideas that reappear in "The Time of Angels" include:

The illuminated gravity globe revealing the catacombs and the ancient statues is the same but even more beautifully done as the one from "The Impossible Planet".

The impossibly-fast monster steels the voice of the person it has just killed, just as happened in the Library.

The Doctor casually mentions having dinner with the Aplan architect, just as he "nipped back" and had dinner with the architect of the Tersurus castle in "Curse of the Fatal Death".

And Dr River Song is "The Time Traveller's Wife". Or is she? Well, in spite of all the efforts to muddy those waters, that still seems to be where she is in the plot.

The James Bond-in-heals opening is brilliantly thrilling, the effects are glorious, the intercutting between 51st and 171st centuries works perfectly - there's a lovely pan where the camera swings and we cut between times at the same moment - and Alex Kingston is deliciously cheeky as not-yet-Professor Song.

She's a 51st Century kind of a girl, capable and capricious, straight from prison to a covert expedition.

Yet River is much, much better when she is winking knowingly at the camera than when she is smugly piloting the TARDIS. We forgive Romana for being better at flying the TARDIS than the Doctor because she's such an obvious naïf at everything else. Besides, she's immensely prissy about it and clearly the joke is on her, that the Doctor may fly badly but he does it with panache. In contrast River is superior about her piloting of the ship, and the joke is on the Doctor for not being as good as her. That's typical Moffat, to make the man the butt of the humour and for his response to be embarrassment. But the Doctor is not just the Moffat stand-in for these jokes, and you're verging on being snide about our hero. The moment where River lands the ship smoothly and casually informs the Doctor that he just leaves the brakes on actually had me groaning.

(...and wanting to write the scene where she does it again, tells the Doctor "see, there's no need to do it your way" and steps out of the door only for a great big time trap to get them and the Doctor to tell her: "I don't leave the brakes on, I misphase the time rotor to disguise my time trail so that no one can find me and do this!")

Last time she turned up, she asked among other things if they'd done the crash of the Byzantium yet. Here they are, doing the crash of the Byzantium. This time she only refers to "the bone meadows" - is that a clue as to her next appearance? Is it that we will trace her life through his by means of these clues like the hyperlinks in Lawrence Miles' "The Book of the War"?

Ah, the Book of the War again, the gift that never stops giving for a magpie genius of the likes of Moffat. He should read it, he'd find all sorts of things.

For example, conceptual beings, beings that exist as living ideas, interacting with other life forms by influencing their perceptions. One particular breed are the "anarchitects", beings that inhabit buildings, structures, statues or rather the idea of buildings and so on and make us think they are moving by altering the way we think about our surroundings. Just think what Moffat could make of an idea like that.

Okay, I'm slightly taking the mickey; I don't want to suggest that Moffatt steels because what he does is pick up other people's ideas and refashion them as something new.

So, we have angels that are not so much altering the physical structure of the statues they inhabit, as altering our perceptions of them, just as they alter Amy's perceptions of her own arm, telling her it's turned to stone; angels that can move into a recording of themselves; angels that can march right into your eyes and into your head.

The Doctor expressly describes the angels as the most powerful and deadly creatures ever evolved (which may be Mr Moffat bigging up his own monsters or, more kindly, an acknowledgement of winning all those "Best Monster EVEH" polls). Yet if we run with the idea that the angels are anarchitects, then they are survivors of the Time War, and the Doctor's particular horror and fear of them makes sense.

It almost goes without saying that Moffat has clearly answered all those who said there was nothing more to say about the angels after the perfectly-formed "Blink". Last time, I went into a bit of a rant about how tossing in the world "quantum" did not qualify as a proper explanation for the angels powers. But now, as Andrew Hickey was correct to point out, by making the angels memetic, Moffat gets away from many of those problems - because the angels exist in the perception of the people seeing them, not in the actual statue.

And likewise the whole "you can't stop watching the telly or the monster will come out and get you" is very, very clever.

Having just one angel, at least to start with, was a subtle touch of horror if you remember that the Doctor's solution last time, which was to have angels looking at each other - you can't do that if there's only one of them.

Lucky then that it turned out the haunted Aplan "Labyrinth of the Dead" was rotten with the things. The serried ranks of "zombie" angels were a rather lovely touch, though. The melted faces, showing like skulls beneath the skin were arguably more creepy than the full angel form, and their "slow" faster-than-you-can-see movement was if anything more frightening for its slow inevitability as they closed in.

As with a couple of weeks ago when I guessed - correctly - that the glasses of water were to demonstrate the Starship UK's lack of engine vibration minutes before the Doctor explained exactly that, I was again reward with a rush of geek smugness for spotting the contraction between the Aplan's description, alluded to as though it's a comedy moment, as two-headed aliens and the one-headed statues in their necropolis ahead of the Doctor and River's shared moment of horror at spotting the same.

(And the Doctor's apology for making a potentially-fatal mistake echoes the one he makes as Tom Baker in "The Horror of Fang Rock".)

I don't, incidentally, say this just to show off my own cleverness, but because it's really not me but Moffat being clever placing, Agatha Christie-like, clues that the viewer can spot ahead of the heroes and get a buzz out of it, or failing that clues that reward you for watching the repeat too.

In this case it's a good difference between Moffat and his predecessor. Russell would hand wave over details like this; Steven cares.

Another difference is that for this first two-parter of the season, Russell would have returned us to his touchpoint of early twenty-first century England. Moffat isn't bothered. That's good too, it's reminiscent of the contrast between the Earth-based, Earth-bound Pertwee era and the more nomadic Fourth Doctor of the Hinchcliffe stories that followed. In fairness, the series is much more established now, and Moffat is in a stronger position to trust the audience to stay with him wherever he goes. So after the future and the past we're now further into the future again, with no pit stop.

The 51st Century is clearly Moffat's favoured era, just as the year five billion was Russell's, and that's borrowed too, borrowed from Robert Holmes's "Talons of Weng Chiang" when he created the Time Agent, Captain Jack. He returned there for the SS Madame de Pompadour in "The Girl in the Fireplace". And, accepting that she could be misplaced in time by her adventures with the (future) Doctor, it's probably River's native time too.

It's a busy time for Doctor Who, with "Weng Chiang"'s Magnus Greel, an Ice Age in the Year 5000, possibly the one seen in "The Ice Warriors" (is it set in the future in the year 3000, or 3000 years in the future?) and the "Great Breakout" described in "The Invisible Enemy".

There is an interesting possibility that the Earth is in a state of some devastation, possibly following on from those Solar Flares that Moffatt referenced a couple of weeks ago in "The Beast Below". I'm reminded of the (implied) Earth destroyed by fire which is a backdrop to the Twilight Zone classic "Demon With a Glass Hand" which in turn is referenced by the Babylon 5 episode "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" where a post-apocalyptic Earth is covertly mentored by warrior-priests the Rangers.

Warrior priests, of course, brings me back to "The Time of Angels", where Moffat has his troops supplied by the Church, with Iain Glen investing intensity and integrity in what good have been an overlooked role as Bishop Octavian.

Although the Doctor describes the Church as having "moved on", this seems much more the Church getting back to basics with these guys as their future Knights Templar.

Nor have other Doctor Who authors avoided this idea, with some having descendents of UNIT adopting a semi-mystical system of values, while the Order of Adjudicators as depicted in the Virgin New Adventures (in particular Andy Lane's "Original Sin" and "So Vile a Sin" by Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman) has religious elements to many of its ceremonies. The Adjudicators, from Pertwee-story "Colony in Space" of course, are destined to evolve into another quasi-religious organisation, the Knights of the Grand Order of Oberon ("Revelation of the Daleks"), at least according to another New Adventure ("Lucifer Rising" by Jim Mortimore and Andy Lane again).

You see this level of bonkers interconnectedness is why Moffat is the perfect Doctor Who showrunner.

Though of course Moffat almost certainly had a much simpler idea: sending the Church to deal with an angel.

For many, the archetypal Script Editor of Doctor Who, who today would have been in Moffat's executive producer chair, was Robert Holmes. Holmes special genius was to create worlds out of sight with just a couple of phrases, giving stories like "The Ribos Operation" or "The Caves of Androzani" a sense of existing in real places and informing that reality into their (occasionally flimsy) plots. It seems to me that Moffat has almost the reverse gift: he loves to take the worlds that other people have sketched and to fill in the details to make them endlessly more fascinating.

It does seem almost rude to bring back the Daleks as great big Technicolor kiddie-toys and then follow them with the brutally, almost literally monochrome Weeping Angels. And yet what both stories have in common is that very strength of Moffat that may, in time, come to be seen as the weakness of the his era: both stories are almost entirely made of plot.

In a Russell Davis story, whether it's one of the more obvious satires like "Aliens of London" or "Bad Wolf" or the more allegorical parables like "Gridlock" or "Midnight", you can grasp, almost intuitively, what the story is about; they make you feel.

Under the new regime, there is not - yet - that underlying emotion that turns a beautifully constructed series of interconnecting devices into a story.

Ultimately, this is a brilliant jeweller's diadem, but it may yet prove to be empty.

Next Time… In Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan opines of God:

I now, of force, believe [our foe] almighty, since no less
Than such could have o'erpowered such force as ours

Or more succinctly, we'd have won if almighty god hadn't been, well, almighty. I'm just saying, if you want to defeat Angels, you need God. But will the real battle be for Amy Pond's soul, whether it be in "Flesh or Stone"


Actually, there WAS a point in mentioning "The Time Monster".

As Part Four ends, the chronovore devours Dr Woo!

But wait! The Mister Master explains the plot to Ms Jojo Grant. Mr Kronos has not LITERALLY chewed up the grisly bits, but has dumped Mr Doctor Jon into the Time Vortex.

Handily, this means that Jojo can pull the "get out of cliff-hanger free" lever to rescue him at the start of Part Five.

But, on seeing this, it suddenly struck Daddy that this is a really good explanation of why Mr Doctor Eccythump does not die when HE is eaten by the chronovores reapers in "Father's Day".

See what happens with these explanations, you blink and miss 'em.

Don't blink!

Don't BLINK‼



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