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May 07, 2010

Defying Gravity Globes

Doctor Who: Flesh and Stone
Review by Tom Dickinson

I always quite liked The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, but if there was one thing I hated then it was the Gravity Globe. Well, okay, that story did have some of the series's most annoying Rose moments in it as well, but at least they made some sort of internally coherent storyline sense. I think. But the Gravity Globe didn't, and it wasn't even the device itself that bothered me, but the name. Sure, a floating lamp is nifty and useful but why not call it something like... say, Floating Lamp? Globe describes the shape of the object and Gravity describes... well, pretty much nothing about it. At best it describes the very thing it defies. Surely the marketing suits at corporate HQ could have come up with a name that was descriptive of its function rather than just alliterative. Was this device named by the same executive who came up with "Megabyte Modem"?

Then in last week's The Time of Angels this accursed device reared its ugly spherical head again. Just ask the people I was watching the episode with: when the Doctor asks Father Octavian for a Gravity Globe, I audibly groaned, "I hate the Gravity Globe!" I'm sure thy thought I was mental (or, more likely, they ignored me). But look at these morons, still using the Gravity Globe in a story set nine hundred years after The Satan Pit (is the church really that technologically backward?), and they're still calling it that! I didn't bother complaining in my review last week because it was such a minor gripe about an otherwise stellar episode, but why did Moffat bring back the Gravity Globe when he could have just made up a new, more sensibly-named light fixture? All he needed was a light that would hang above their heads so the Doctor could dramatically shoot at it, right?

I love it when Moffat proves me wrong.

I can't believe I was so thick as to miss it. It's like what Gareth Roberts was saying about The Doctor Dances in this week’s Doctor Who Confidential. Of course you tell the child "go to your room." Of course! The only reason I didn't see it was that I'm nowhere near as clever as the Doctor. Last week, I assumed (and I'm sure I'm not alone in this) that the Doctor had shot the Gravity Globe because he saw some benefit in turning out the lights. I was so caught up in how backward that idea was, wondering why the Doctor needed it to be dark, that I missed how obvious the connection between "jump" and "gravity globe" was. The Doctor wasn't trying to put out the lights, but to create a gravity anomaly! Duh.

And what's more, this resolution does more than the usual share of storytelling. Usually a resolution does one thing and only one thing: relieve the tension of the cliffhanger, but this resolution goes further. It provides the set-up for how the entire story will eventually be resolved: clever use of gravity. The way it all works is so Moffat: this episode plays with gravity like Blink plays with time (not that this episode doesn't also play with time). You can't accuse Moffat of using the gravity and the crack as a deus ex machina: everything is so clearly and cleverly laid out over the course of the story that it was all pretty obvious in retrospect. But only in retrospect (for me, anyway), because the script’s initial harping on the gravity seems more like a justification for what just happened than a set-up for the conclusion.

The list of greatest Doctor Who stories ever is already thick with Moffat’s entries, so it’s no real surprise to see another entry into the category. That and the rather refreshing new approach to story arcing in Doctor Who only make me optimistic for the rest of this series. At the same time, though, I have to temper that optimism with the fact that, of the five episodes we’ve seen so far this year, the only ones I’ve enjoyed whole-heartedly have been those directed by Adam Smith. Moffat’s writing, potent as it is, isn’t solely responsible for the brilliance of The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels, or Flesh and Stone; Adam Smith deserves an equal share in the glory. This is his final episode this season and while I’m interested to see what’s in store from the other directors Moffat has picked, I will miss Adam Smith and I fervently hope to see him back on the list of directors for next year.

I know that there are fans that call this episode a disappointment. Some will accuse it of pushing River and the Angels (the main selling points of the episode) to the margins of the story in favor of focusing on the crack. This is a fair criticism, but what little we get from both is brilliant. The Angels are more dangerous then ever in the scenes where Amy can’t open her eyes to look at them, and the hints about River are made all the more tantalizing by Moffat’s reassurance in this week’s Confidential that he fully intends to follow through on them.

Others will decry the controversial bedroom scene, and this objection, I think, is more reasonable. I’ve heard arguments put forth that it makes perfect sense given the situation and what we know about her, but I can’t quite buy it. Amy’s defining trait is that she’s emotionally invested in the Doctor to an extraordinary, even unhealthy extent: it makes sense that this would manifest sexually or romantically, and probably in a more overt way than with any of the Doctor’s previous companions, but as Paul mentioned that’s precisely why her wanting a casual shag makes so little sense. Nor does it make sense that she should be quite so aggressive, but the scene seems to be played for laughs and it falls a bit flat. The only thing that really makes sense to me is the Doctor’s startled, befuddled reaction to it, wonderfully played by Matt Smith and only one of many brilliant moments for him. It’s just a shame it comes during a scene that otherwise still puzzles me, and I’ve had to re-watch several times to form an opinion on it (a bit of an uncomfortable experience).

Still, that thread ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I’d like to see where it goes next before I pass judgment on it. So I’m not quite on board with the poster on Gallifrey Base who started a topic entitled “So Amy’s character is ruined, then?”, particularly with the rest of Karen Gillan’s performance in the episode being up to the high standard set so far. I’m willing to give the story a chance to go where Moffat wants to take it, and if it’s anywhere near as good as what he’s had to show us so far, I’m sure I’ll be able to come to turns with the one scene in this story that doesn't sit quite well with me.

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