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May 03, 2010

Angel Eyes

Doctor Who: Flesh and Stone

Review by Paul Kirkley

Stephen Moffat has spoken of his vision for Doctor Who being inspired by “fairytales before Disney de-fanged them”. Flesh and Stone is a fairytale with fangs, alright, and never more so than when young Amelia Pond – who’s wearing a red hood, just in case we missed the allusion – is left lost and alone in the middle of an enchanted forest. (In fact, the only thing that could have sustained the tone more was if Amy had been confronted with series one’s story arc instead of series five’s.)

Flesh amy log Everything about the sequences filmed at Puzzlewood (even the location manager’s sticking to the fairytale brief) was magical, from the moment Amy lays down on the log (see – or rather feel - how Adam Smith draws the viewer into her sense of frightened disorientation) to her heart-stopping blind journey through the (oh sweet Lord, moving) Angels. And has the guiding hand of a writer with Doctor Who in his very DNA ever been more apparent than when the Doctor brusquely tells Amy she’s dying (“Yes you’re right – if we tell her everything’s alright she’ll get all better”). No-one who isn’t a fan and doesn’t have the ability to mentally replay entire scenes from Pyramids of Mars would ever have written something so fundamentally, so thrillingly true to the history of the character.

You can’t help but note the irony at the Doctor’s righteous anger over the Angels putting Amy through hell “for fun”; if you think they're bad, you should see the kicks the writer is getting.

If one thing keeps Flesh and Stone simmering just under all-time, top five classic status, it’s the feeling that it’s less than the sum of its parts: a sequence of ruthlessly, even sadistically, well-engineered scares strung together like the world’s most brilliant ghost train, but which don’t entirely hang together as a story; in fact the story it starts out telling is pretty much abandoned when another, bigger bit of breaking news emerges (“Well, we’ll have to leave the Angels there because we’ve got some details just emerging about that crack in Amelia Pond’s wall. Our correspondent Doctor Who is there: Doctor, what can you tell us?”).

At least, that’s the way the script treats it - though, for the viewer, those blank-eyed bringers of death still seem a much more terrifying and exciting prospect than some heard-it-all-before flannel about “time running out”. After all, how often have you had nightmares where you find yourself running away from a metaphysical space-time event? Show me a statue with fangs, on the other hand…

Throughout, it’s hard to escape the impression of Moffat coming up with the scares first and then working backwards to see how he can fit them into the story (“Why would the Doctor suddenly plunge an entire corridor full of advancing Angels into pitch blackness? Oh, I know! He needs to divert the power to the door!”). Poor old Amy suffers particularly badly from this tickbox terror approach: watching her subjected to various forms of torture across these 90 minutes feels a bit like watching a pre-watershed version of Saw. (“Let’s see, we’ll have her all alone in the middle of a forest full of Angels where the one thing you can’t do is blink… Nah, too easy, let’s also say she can’t open her eyes…” I’m surprised he didn’t tie her shoelaces together while he was at it.)  Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, though you can’t help but note the irony at the Doctor’s righteous anger over the Angels putting her through hell “for fun”; if you think they're bad, you should see the kicks the writer is getting.

Weeping Angels encouraging you to keep your eyes open feels a bit like the Daleks joining a rainbow alliance or The Ice Warriors installing central heating.

Flesh angel By the end of Flesh and Stone, I have to admit I was a bit confused by the whole blinking/not blinking thing. Previously on Doctor Who, we were told the Angels are powerless if you look at them. Now we’re told they want you to look at them. Is this just a difference between Sally’s “scavengers” and Amy’s Avenging Angels? Have they evolved a way to turn a weakness into a strength? Or is the Moff just busking it? Either way, it seems a shame to have muddied such an elegantly simple premise – Weeping Angels encouraging you to keep your eyes open feels a bit like the Daleks joining a rainbow alliance or the Ice Warriors installing central heating. (Though the sight of the statues actually turning their heads was a genuinely thrilling, Dalek-up-the-stairs moment).

Phew, that’s a lot of time and energy expelled on explaining why this story wasn’t perfect. Here, then, are quite a few more reasons why it nearly was:

The jokes. I’ve never understood those weirdos who complain about “too much humour” (like it’s sugar or salt) in Doctor Who. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality, and whereas until recently “Allons-y Alonso” was considered a gag, now we get: “What if the gravity fails?” “I’ve thought about that.” “And?” “And we’d all plunge to our deaths. See, I thought about it.” Or: “Nobody panic! Just me, then.” Or: “Made him say comfy chairs.” Or: “You’d slow us down.” “Don’t want to sound selfish but you’d really speed me up.”

Amy in the forest surrounded by the Angels, with the light streaming through the trees at the top of the frame, was possibly the most beautiful example of the mise en scene (us reviewers love saying mise en scene – it’s probably our favourite cultural theory term after dues ex machina – and yes, this had one of those as well) ever seen in Doctor Who, run a very close second by the shot of The Doctor and Amy looking out to sea at the end.

Iain Glen’s voice – like a cross between Swiss Toni and Patrick Ryecart in Mindwarp. Fruity doesn’t cover it. Get that man an audiobook now.

Iain Glen’s death scene. “Never mind the Angels – there’s worse here than Angels.” “I beg to differ.” “I wish I’d know you better.” “I think, sir, you knew me at my best.”

River Song warming up to be a genuine mystery. She killed a man! A good man! A hero to many! What can it all mean, readers?

Service hatch – it’s a ventilation shaft by another name! And, yes, an actual, genuine wobbly set (when the Doctor’s trying to open the entrance to the forest). And people say this show has betrayed its roots.

A forest on a spaceship – just like Nightmare of Eden, only not really, really boring.

Amy taking the Doctor to her bedroom to get a second look at her crack was Who’s horniest scene since Nicola Bryant slipped into something less practical in Planet of Fire 26 years ago

Oh, and then there’s the sex scene. Or the nearly sex scene. Do I file that under the good bits or the not so good bits? I genuinely don’t know. Cos, you see, I like a bit of romance and snogging and the hint of sex in Doctor Who. It’s another aspect of its increased emotional maturity these days. A universe without sex – which, lest we forget, sits on the first level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, alongside breathing, food and water – is a bit like a universe without shoes, or sitting down: it’s just silly. And, on a very basic level as a heterosexual male, I’d say Amy taking the Doctor to her bedroom to get a second look at her crack was Who’s horniest scene since Nicola Bryant slipped into something less practical in Planet of Fire 26 years ago.

But I do feel the Smoochy Smoochy Stuff needs to be embedded… sorry, I’ll rephrase that, needs to be seeded in… hang on, that’s worse… What I’m saying is it needs to be logical and consistent. (I adore The Girl in the Fireplace but I’ve never understood why it was plonked in the middle of the Doctor-Rose (deniers look away now) love story arc; it was almost as if doing A Love Story was such a novelty in itself it was enough just to have it there and not worry about the context.)

And while it’s certainly true that increased sexual desire is a common response to great trauma, it still stretches credibility that Amy should treat this mysterious, brilliant, sexy man she has spent her whole life dreaming of, even to the extent of making little Doctor-Amy dolls, as a no-strings casual shag. Which probably puts me in something of a ming-mong minority as I’m actively hoping this won’t be The End of the Matter – especially if the only reason not to have Amy fall for the Doctor is because Rose and Martha already did.

Flesh M&K And besides, who wouldn’t fall for this Doctor? In fact, who wouldn’t fall for either of them? I said it last week but it bears repeating: This was the first story Matt Smith and Karen Gillan filmed, and they don’t put a foot wrong between them. For evidence, look no further than the scene where the Doctor (complete with jacket – continuity goof or a timey-wimey taste of things to come? Discuss) presses his wise old head against hers and promises her he’ll come back for her. Even with his track record of vanishing acts, she believes him, and so do we, because he’s a hero you can believe in; a very good man - the best man we’ve ever known.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.

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