...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Day 3407: DOCTOR WHO: Fleshed Out or Just Stoned


They say that a week is a long time in politics. Well, sometimes a bit of politics means it's a lot more than a week between episodes of Doctor Who.

I'm going to have to have a stern word with Daddy Richard. Last time he did any of his reviews, Dr Woo was trapped in the Maze of the Dead and surrounded by the Weeping Angels.

Honestly, I've not BLINKED for a MONTH!
"Flesh and Stone" feels less like part two of "The Time of Angels" and more like part five of "Doctor Who and the Cracks in Time".

The form of this two-parter eerily resembles another classic of macho posturing, "Earthshock": the first half involves the team of big, butch soldiers and one lady archaeologist running around in a system of caves, while something picks them off one by one; in the second half, the monsters, an old enemy, come out into the open while the action switches to a spaceship where the Doctor engineers a series of delaying tactics and strategic withdrawals.

The Cyberleader, though, makes for a more engaging conversationalist than Angel Bob. Which is saying something.

(And when I said that the rather nice tornado-like teleport effect looked like the Blake's Seven series four teleport "done right", Alex retorted that this was just more of the early-Eighties machismo showing up.)

Before we start, I just have to say the "previously on Doctor Who" is brilliantly edited; I've never seen a better one. Normally they're just the "important" clips strung together, but this one someone seemed to have taken the trouble. I wonder if the director was planning ahead when directing the first episode to make sure these moments could be used twice – like a post-modern nod to the conversation via DVD Easter egg in "Blink".

After that, though, the episode hangs – if you'll forgive me – between two startling moments where the effect of artificial gravity changes our perspectives with a twist of the camera: the opening escape from the surrounding angels by jumping up to the inverted surface of the starship Byzantium; and the conclusion where the crack in time swallows the fallen angels.

Is this just using the same plot device twice, or can we call it clever foreshadowing? As the Doctor says when Amy asks "What happens if the gravity fails?": "We all plunge to our deaths. See, I've thought about it".

The problem is with what we have in between, which is very little: one of the lamest "base under siege" Doctor Who stories ever. As Alex says, even the Troughton-era stories had greater depth of character and more diverting interaction than this.

With Bishop Octavian remaining stoical and mostly silent, and his remaining clerics having almost nothing to say before they "go into the light", what we're left with is more badinage between the Doctor and River about her oh-so-fabulous backstory and Amy counting backwards.

(Actually, the counting is moderately interesting – like some sort of numerological Tourettes – and the explanation, that the angels are sadists, is at least appropriate for monsters.)

The truly terrible thing about the forgotten clerics is that they are so totally forgettable. We're never given any reason to care about any of them. We were barely given a reason to care for Cleric Bob last week before he had his neck snapped – and even having his larynx borrowed by a living stone does not appear to have removed much timbre from his character – but the grunts in the forest don't even get that.

Nor, it has to be said, am I that impressed by the Church's ability to get its troops to obey (holy?) orders. They're told to defend Amy with their lives and yet by ones and twos they troop off on a pointless recce leaving her blind and alone in a clearing they know to be surrounded by hostile monsters and succeed only in getting themselves annihilated.

The purpose of this character carnage is, of course, to enable Mr Moffat to fill the middle of his story with a whole new way to terrify the kids: by transforming his deadly game of grandmother's footsteps into a fatal form of blindman's buff!

Even though doing so means completely overturning the "rules" of how his monster works.

Charlotte Gore is quite right when she rails against Moffat changing the rules like this. And she's right again when she says that actually seeing them move destroys the angels' unique selling point.

Last week, Moffat seemed to be escaping from the logical problems thrown up by his creations by having the angels inhabit the perceptions of the people looking at them; this week he has them turning to stone if they think they're being looked at. As Charlotte puts it: What?

He also seems to have forgotten the crucial rule – and it's crucial because the climax of "Blink" depends upon it – that the angels can't move if they can see each other. Aren't they called Weeping Angels because they cover their faces with their hands to prevent exactly that? And yet, in the secondary control room, the Doctor is looking from side to side to try and keep them motionless and the angels on the side he's not looking at are in motion – even though they are clearly in the line of sight of the angels that he is looking at. Later, in the forest, there are whole crowds of angels, all of whom ought to be paralysed in each other's sight, particularly once the whole place is lit up by the light of the time energy.

And that's even before we get into questions about whether the sensors of the tree-borgs ought not to be keeping the angels frozen too.

(Loved the tree-borgs by the way – loved the whole forest-in-a-bottle-on-a-spaceship-in-a-maze – and are they perhaps the start of the evolution of Jabe and her tree friends in the year five billion?)

Likewise, when Amy is "pretending to see" using the communicator as a sort of radar… how is that different to really seeing? The communicator is presumably sending out radio bleeps and receiving them back, essentially detecting the angels with a stream of photons… just like seeing them. We return to the idea that it is Amy's perception of the angels that lets them move or not.

You can't fool your own perceptions; Amy knows she can't see and by the new rules that ought to be enough for the angels to move. And by the old rules, where it was observation that froze them, they can definitely move.

But if the angels are ideas, conceptual entities, then what Amy thinks the rules are may matter more than what they actually are.

You can't fool your own perceptions, but is the scripting tight enough for the Doctor to have fooled Amy's perception or rather conception of the angels? Is it that, so long as she believes that this will work then it will work. If he tells her that "acting as though you can see means that they can't move", will that mean she has enough belief that they really can't move? It's lurching dangerously towards questions of "faith".

In which case why is the Doctor repeatedly undermining her faith in the process?

The other thing that is clearly supposed to be important in the middle of the episode is Moffat's trademark timey-wimey stuff about the crack in time, clearly there as exposition for the whole year's story arc.

Certainly, it's something of an innovation, and a refreshing one, for the Doctor to spot this year's running story before episode twelve.

But are we actually supposed to be impressed by this sort of unfocussed, muddled, unexplained "what's going on"-ness just because it's "something to do with time"?

How exactly, for example, does this un-writing of people's timelines work? We have several of the clerics – first a pair, then a third then the last of them – wander into the light and then they are forgotten because they never existed. Thing is, if they never existed then wouldn't Octavian have brought someone else along instead? Should we not have lost Marco, Pedro, Philip and immediately gained Julius, Benedict, and Nick? Of course, they go wandering off into the light too, but you see how this works, don't you.

For that matter, the Doctor, Amy, River and Octavian only survived the angels' attack in the airlock because those four clerics were there to provide covering fire. So if they ceased to have ever existed, shouldn't the angels have (retrospectively) got 'em? Or does the presence of the Doctor somehow shield people near him from that form of paradoxical time alteration?

"Sapphire and Steel" did that sort of thing, but they did it by giving us an explanation; it just happened to be a baffling one. Here it just seems that if time has gone wrong all bets are off.

One other thing that may be explained later, from the file "things I learned from the Internet": as the Doctor is leaving Amy in the care of the forgettable clerics, he suddenly reappears, leaning in close and speaks to her to reassure her, and he tells her it's important that she remember what he said when she was seven. It's a tight close up, so it's not at all obvious, but the Doctor is wearing his jacket, the jacket he just lost to the Weeping Angels. A simple continuity error? Or a clue that he's re-writing his own past?

It's possible that all will all become clear once we've seen the whole series – though "The Trial of a Time Lord" should stand as a warning of what happens when you put your explanations ten weeks later.

The Doctor, however, thinks he's worked it out already. There's a clear moment – just before the bishop is caught by an angel – when the Doctor realises, or infers, that there is a reason why no-one remembers the Cyber-King in "The Next Doctor" and why Amy does not remember the Daleks invading the Earth in "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End". His inference is that this is because he is going to end up being eaten by the time energy, that it is his timeline that will be unwritten.

This may not actually be right, but it seems to be what he's feeling, and why he's so very, very angry with River, after Father Octavian's death – another hugely impressive performance from Matt Smith, it nearly goes without saying. The bishop was confronted with an inevitability and faced it with dignity; the Doctor's not quite sure he can manage that equanimity himself.

At the end, though, he's positively skipping he's so happy that the angels fell into the time energy instead of him. Now he's starting to think again, and thinking that time being re-written may give him a way out.

And, of course, there's River – a living prophecy about his future life. He seems to find the possibility that she's his murderer intriguing. At least having a death is better than never having lived.

So is River not just the Doctor's wife but his death? Is Steve really, really taking the rise out of Lawrence Miles and stealing "Alien Bodies" as well?

That certainly seems to be the implication of all that "they say you killed a man, a good man," "The best I ever knew" bit. Although by that point Alex thought that they were laying it on with such a trowel that it had to be a double bluff.

I wonder, in passing, if every encounter between River and the Doctor is supposed to take place in reverse order. Surely not, or why would she have to consult her diary to work out where they are up to each time? There's got to be a story to tell about how she eventually gets out of this Storm Cage prison and before she gets her Professorship.

Moffat has now promised, via Doctor Who Confidential, that we will get to see the whole of the River Song story, though surely that's a promise he can't expect to keep: she must see at least one more of the Doctor's regenerations (else why refer to him as becoming "baby faced"). If she sees out two more incarnations, she can shoot his thirteenth and that'll be the end of him. Unless he regenerates into Joanna Lumley.

Maybe thatis the Grand Moff's plan, to outlast John Nathan-Turner in the producer's chair and finish the series.

Still, at least River's signoff is rather wonderful: "That is a fairy tale" "Who isn't?" And we're promised we'll see her again "when the Pandorica Opens". Which translates as "in episode twelve".

The irony, of course, is that "Flesh and Stone" is not a fairy tale. Unlike "Blink" it does not have that magical slightly-removed quality. In "Blink", the angels mean something: they're what haunts the old dark houses, the curiosity that killed the cat, the thing that moves in the corner of your eye. In "Blink", the Doctor isn't the star; he's a magician, a slightly untrustworthy force of nature with his own agenda, who provides only just enough answers for the plucky heroine and hero for them to fulfil his plan.

"Flesh and Stone" isn't like that. It is an episode in the ongoing series of adventures of Doctor Who, the monsters are just monsters and the Doctor is a Time Lord from Gallifrey, tune in if you want to find out more about Mrs Who or Timey-Wimey Why.

It’s not that it’s unenjoyable. In fact, watched again, as part of a pair with “The Time of Angels”, its weaknesses translate into sustaining and drawing out the tension that has been wound up over the first half of the story. Watched as part of the whole season it may well be essential.

But it’s not quite magic.

And then there's the tag scene. Amy tries to jump the Doctor's bones. I do wish she hadn't. It seems such a clumsy way of setting up the arc for the next few episodes of the Doctor travelling with both Amy and fiancé Rory.

As a scene from "Coupling" it was a perfectly adequate, but was deeply awkward and uncomfortable in an episode of Doctor Who. It makes me feel prudish, and I don't want to feel prudish. And I don't want to see the Doctor flapping about like Steve from "Coupling", even if he's been doing something similar ever since Cameca slipped him a cocoa in "The Aztecs". In fact, William Hartnell deals with romance and the Doctor in a more gentle and whimsical way, and a much more accepting way. And I certainly don't wanting him going "ew, ew, but you're human" when it seemed not to matter a jot to him in his ninth of tenth lives. Matt Smith's eleventh Doctor is older and wiser and deserved to have a more dignified way to put Amy off.

Or perhaps it was just in this episode of Doctor Who, where it seemed a huge emotional swerve from the "sharing secrets" moment of Amy responding to the Doctor being forced to reveal his relationship with River by showing the Doctor her wedding dress. Isn't Moffat the one who's always on about this being a kids' show? Kids' shows usually find so many more intelligent things to talk about than just sex. Sharing of deep and painful secrets is a very "kids" thing to do; casual sex is really not.

And wasn't it odd, after five years of Russell-ness, for the Doctor not to respond to Amy's advances by going all misty-eyed and to mumble about Rose?

We also have – returning to Russell-era tropes – absolute date and time confirmation: Amy's present day is 2010. Strictly: 26th June 2010, which, unless they drop a week, should be the broadcast date of episode thirteen: ominously, "The Big Bang".

Next Time… Pretty girls in veils and white dresses and Amy wants to join in. The Doctor's determined to have her remember she's marrying Rory, and reckons that a romantic trip to plague-era Venice is just the trick. Trouble is, as usual, something's a bit fishy. Altogether now: there's something in the waaaa-teeeerr… "The Vampires of Venice"


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Better late than never exists (or fallen into a crack in time).

There is some speculation that the "best man I ever knew" was not the Doctor because someone else taught her how to drive the Tardis proper like (not the Master cos he leaves his brakes on too).

And where have the time cracks gone in all the subsequent episodes (or have I not been watching closely enough)