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April 24, 2010

The Alfava Metraxis Complex

Stuart Ian Burns checks Doctor Who: The Time of Angels

When the BBC often says “Viewers in Wales will get their own programme” I didn’t think it would ever apply to Doctor Who (with the exception of Torchwood).  I gather that the English broadcast of The Time of Angels experienced its second ever Norton invasion with an animated version of the character (presumably the one from the tacky new ident) turning up to trail the series long advert for a musical during Matt’s final, amazing hero speech (in fact I know it did, here's the proof on YouTube).  Living in Liverpool where the Welsh Freeview signal has overwhelmed Winter Hill since the switch over for some reason I was able to enjoy the cliffhanger perfectly unfettered with the exception of the usual squeeze but Twitter is apoplectic as is Gallifrey Base as is anyone else who saw this common sense malfunction.  As @charltonbrooker noted, “Why don't the BBC just wipe shit all over the screen during the final scene of Dr. Who next week?”  Now back to my original opening paragraph, which is a bit of an abridgement, but has some useful circular logic and an only half decent joke at the end.

From the off The Time of Angels was something special, something cinematic, something you’d expect, to paraphrase, to be "too broad and deep for the small screen".  From the misdirect of what looked like a man lost in time but it turned out in reverie through to the manic slipping between time zones leading to River and the Doctor meeting for the fnargth time we were presented with what might have been the most kinetic episode teaser in quite some time which challenged the viewer to keep up with the narrative in that way that only Moffat firing on all cylinders can.  We’ve only just about grasped the idea of a museum hewn into an asteroid and the concept of the Doctor keeping score before we were whisked to that doomed ship, whatever Song’s story was, space and well we’re back were this synopsis began.  This is confident, muscular storytelling, perfectly executed visually, of the kind that classics are built on whilst building on classics entirely justifying the return of Professor Bernice Summ… Doctor River Song.

too broad and deep for the small screen

The rest of this first parter was indeed, as Moffat suggests in Doctor Who Magazine, Aliens to Blink’s Alien following much the same quest discovery narrative with the Doctor in the Ripley role and are we to expect River as Carter Burke seeking to aid in weaponising the weeping angels?  Of course, it’s retrofitted with Moffat’s fantasy features.  The mission briefing is given by the dusty poetic rambling of an apparent madman printed in some old manuscript, the marines are clerics (perhaps a nod to the original concept for Alien 3 which was set in a monastery?), naturalistic catacombs instead of the decaying metal of LV-426’s harsh colony and Amy filling in for Bishop, I suppose, though like Kane in the first film, something is happening inside of her and with that amount of dust dropping from her lacrimal gland, some Optrex and an eye bath from Boots aren’t likely to save her.  Like Aliens, it makes use of our familiarity with the monster, then adds a range of new terrors and abilities, to keep us guessing as to what else they might be capable of.

You could argue that it was the simplicity of the slow death which gave the angels their original menace and that piling on other random bedevilments lessens their impact (not least because as we watch Blink we'll be wondering why they weren't used then, why Sally Sparrow wasn't turned herself into a statue).  But whilst this story too does have something to say about life and longevity, this time in the relationship between the Doctor and River, as a more straightforward thriller Moffat needed to make them a much more immediate and tangible threat.  As well as (surprise!) varying their design, this reproductive method suggests something akin to the old Tenth Doctor novel The Stone Rose in which a mediocre Roman sculptor was gifted the abilities of Medusa through his hands; that Greek legend returns again here as a look in their eyes leads to much the same fate, albeit slower than in Clash of the Titans.  Their new found ability to speak suggests the device employed by Moffat and Vashta Nerada though it's matter of fact appropriation of a squady/cleric is chilling.

a facsimile of the Journal of Impossible Things

Throughout the episode we’re reminded more than ever that it’s taking place in a much wider story, in a larger universe.  Whereas in the previous few television series visits to other planets were rationed and always treated with some reverence, here we find a matter of fact approach to the ruins of Alfava Metraxis, archaeological aspects and the process of time travel and indeed, the Doctor and River.  Perhaps surprising some, this is not their first meeting.  Perhaps we’ll never be told that story.  Perhaps Moffat’s ironic idea is that River’s first meeting with the Doctor is his last.  Perhaps as is my suspicion there are far less meetings between the two of them and (sorry) that she’s some kind of confidence trickster and if the timelord had opened the diary after his first meeting with her he would have found hundreds of blank pages or a facsimile of the Journal of Impossible Things (“borrowed” from an archive) accounting for why she couldn’t tell that it was Tennant’s face that she gazed into during the picnic at Asgard given that she was supposed to have images of all their faces so that she could keep track.

I’ve already weirdly seen odd criticisms of Alex Kingston’s acting online and though it’s true she seemed to channelling Joan Collins in this opening few scenes but Kingston’s a good enough actress for me to think that it’s a feature rather than a malfunction.  This is supposed to be a much younger woman than the version we’ve already met and she’s no doubt keen to delineate the two.  There’s a casual ease with which she speaks to the Doctor and confidence trick or not this is the kind of larger than life character which lends itself a certain comic book portrayal.  It’s a challenging role; we’re effectively watching a prequel wrapped in a sequel and though it’s not unknown for actors to be called upon to play younger versions of themselves (see the entire mad cast of Lost) it’s fairly unusual to do so in these circumstances with so much brain-jangling wibbly wobbly timey wimey...stuff.  

a sort of walking Gallifrey Base

The companion triangle was handled – well – though clearly Moffat had to steal himself from concentrating on the dialogue between the two Doctors and giving Karen something to do.  Moffat being Moffat, he’s well aware of the how fans viewed the previous episodes, and in this celebratory death match between two of his previous best loved characters and monsters he effectively turns Pond into a sort of walking Gallifrey Base, voicing our ideas of who River Song is and how to beat a weeping angel.  And so there she is pointing out the possible Audrey Niffenegger intertextuality (albeit without an on the nose namecheck) ribbing the Doctor about his future whoopee making and winking away at the onslaught from the simulated statuary.  In an episode which relies so much on past glories, Amy fulfils the traditional companion role of being an exposition conduit for the casual viewer, but through the sparky dialogue and Karen’s perfectly pitched confident performance you simply don’t notice it until you have to sit down and put it into words and sentences like these.

Amazing considering that due to the vagaries of television production these were the first couple of episodes filmed; if the scenes on the beach are so familiar it’s because in still form, they were our first images of Matt and Amy and the new TARDIS and the spoiler of River’s return.  How we commented on this Matt Smith bloke looked with his bow tie, his stance and hands evoking Troughton (a premonition born out by his love affair with Tomb of the Cybermen), the set-up screaming classic Who.  If we didn’t know this, if every aspect of the production wasn’t under this scrutiny, we might imagine that over the past few weeks we’d been watching an actor developing into his role but in fact it was all here already fully formed, the humour, the petulance, the unpredictable line readings, the chemistry with Karen.  When he re-greets River we see the implications in his eyes, it’s as though Tenth is still in there somewhere looking out and remembering her fate and knowing that for all the history of his future she has literally in her hand, he sees her final end each time he looks at her but mustn’t offer any spoilers.

the past four hours and eight paragraphs

The problem is, in the future, even when everyone has watched the blu-ray release a couple of dozen times, diddy Norton will be one of the reasons people remember this broadcast of the episode with is an utter tragedy because it was fairly bloody fantastic.  I’ve tried to spend the past four hours and eight paragraphs not looking for some deeper meaning, because until the results of next week’s poll are in, sorry, we’ve seen next week’s episode (the election is getting to me) with all of its Moffatty twists and turns, as ever its impossible to really say what this story is about.  Silence in the Library was good, but it was Forest in the Library which made it special and though it’s certainly true that across new aand classic Who if a story is rubbish to begin with its rare to see a massive increase in quality and vice versa, The Space Museum also starts well in a museum (obviously) and look what happened there.  We fans don’t forget. 

Just you remember that BBC presentation. 

Next Week:  Everybody must get stoned …

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