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May 01, 2010

Amy and the Audio-visual Angel in the Airlock

Doctor Who: The Time of Angels
Review by Tom Dickinson

It was all right. A strong story, if you like that sort of thing.

Yes, yes. Witty script. Brilliant direction. Remarkably assured performances by Matt Smith and Karen Gillan in the first scenes recorded for the series. The return of the most beloved and feared monster created for the BBC Wales production of Doctor Who. An excellent performance by guest star Alex Kingston. It doesn’t go too fast, and it doesn’t go too slow. It involves some excellent scenes of exploration while the menace is allowed to build and build to a tense and thrilling cliffhanger.

All in all, it’s probably the strongest “part one” since Human Nature. In fact, it's everything a Doctor Who story ought to be. Yawn.

Who cares? It’s like flying using the blue boringers. Like landing the TARDIS without the wheezing-groaning sound. A ship shouldn’t run this smoothly. Real boats rock! There needs to be something in there to rile up the fans. To get the press talking. The reference to the TARDIS’s brakes isn’t going to cut it. Sure, it violates decades of canon, and under ordinary circumstances it’s the kind of thing that fans will grump about, but that moment is too damn delightful to really upset them. There has to be something that can be done to this episode to engender controversy. If only there was a way we could take that cliffhanger and... I don't know. Do something to make it seem less tense.

It's everything a Doctor Who story ought to be. Yawn.

Okay, I kid. The animated Graham Norton thing wasn’t some sort of conspiracy, nor did it even detract from the episode for those, like myself, who watched the BBC HD version. It’s really just a tragic coincidence that the one episode that got saddled with the black mark that fans will remember for the rest of their lives and write about in reference books was the best episode so far this series, beating even the phenomenal The Eleventh Hour. I can barely find fault with this episode at all.

It doesn't take long to run out of ways to say that Matt Smith and Karen Gillan are a joy to behold. The fact that this was the first episode recorded matters not one iota, because each of them is entirely on the ball. I mentioned in my review of the second part of The End of Time that David Tennant is the Doctor for me, but in a very real sense that is no longer the case. I still love David, but now when I talk about who the Doctor is and what he is like, images of Smith pop up into my mind, not Tennant. It took Tennant 'til Doomsday to fully displace Eccleston. Smith is already there and just keeps adding loads more unnecessary proof. Meanwhile, Karen has a brilliant moment facing down the Angel, and I can’t wait to see her take center stage, as next episode’s trailer indicates she might.

Bringing back the Weeping Angels must have been tricky, as their modus operandi was specifically tailored to the plot of Blink. That episode works like an intricately-constructed (and not at all wibbly-wobbly) puzzle box. Removing the angels and placing them in another context was by no means a guarantee for success. For the Angels to work outside of their original context, they had to be fleshed out a bit, and I worried that this would ruin what made them great. I needn’t have, of course. There are four new elements here: first, the image of the angel. This is marvelously postmodern-creepy and while it might sound a bit implausible it’s actually quite a feasible extension of the rules of the quantum-lock established in Blink. I mustn’t have been the only one wondering what would have happened if the Angels were viewed through CCTV. Moff's answer was brilliant. The second new element is also an extension of what we already saw in Blink: any statue could be an angel, taking the cue from that episode's closing montage of statues looking at one another.

The third (and admittedly weakest) development is the ability for the Angels to take on the voice of the dead. It feels a bit to samey to the Forest of the Dead, and it does detract a bit from the menace of the angels by providing an opportunity for them to be reasoned with. Still, by preserving not only the voice but also the personality of Sacred Bob, the Angels are still held at a distance, unlike the Vashta Nerada which addressed the Doctor in a way a mite too personal for me.

Oh, and of course, the fourth development is new to Moffat as well as the Angels: now they kill. This seems an odd choice: the angels are built for timey-wimey, and this story involves timey-wimey as well and so it’s a little disappointing not to see them “kill nicely” in this episode. Even so, their new tactics seem to serve a purpose, and there’s more to come, so this may be justified yet.

Moffat would do well to keep the Smiths around.

And speaking of timey-wimey, River is great in this episode. Her character seems more fun and adventurous than the older version we saw in Silence in the Library, and this softens some of the more annoying awestruck elements of her character in that story. Moffat does a great job of developing River Song as a mystery. Instead of getting answers about her, we’re getting newer, more interesting questions. I wonder whether Moffat has a strictly defined arc for her during his era, or whether she’s his Captain Jack, a recurring companion. Either way, she works great in this episode, but I have a feeling that we’ll have a new perspective on her role here after what we see next week.

But perhaps more important than the return of the Weeping Angels and River Song is another welcome return: the amazing director Adam Smith from The Eleventh Hour. Adam Smith may be the perfect Moffat director, and Matt Smith might be the perfect Moffat Doctor. Moffat would do well to keep the Smiths around. Like Matt, Adam came out of nowhere to dazzle us, and the sheer brilliance of their debut owes as much to his direction as to the acting and writing. By contrast, these last two episodes, The Beast Below and Victory of the Daleks, have been comparatively lackluster in the direction. While each of those episodes featured an incredibly detailed and well-realized setting, the framing of the shots was rather ordinary.

Here we have quite the reverse. The setting is not an intricate reconstruction of another time in Britain’s history, but a beach and a cave and not much else. And yet it works so well because it’s so eerie. Unlike Andrew Gunn, Adam Smith makes surprising choices, which adds to the tension and in general makes the whole episode more enjoyable. My favorite shot is when Matt and Karen are walking through the museum toward the camera, and it pans and rotates sideways as it does so. It really conveys a sense of mad, uncontrollable motion that suits Matt Smith’s Doctor so well. I have a feeling Adam Smith’s talent is crucial in selling the menace of the Weeping Angels. Had Moffatt chosen a lesser director, the Angels may have failed to live up to the direction of the Angels in Blink, but Adam Smith is more than up to the task.

So overall, The Time of Angels is just a damn solid episode and one of the most enjoyable pieces of Doctor Who I’ve ever seen. I can’t really say much more than that until I’ve seen the second half of the story, but at the very least this was one hell of a ride.

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