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May 03, 2010

Into The Woods

Doctor Who: Flesh And Stone
Review by Frank Collins

Fasa For the concluding episode of the story, Steven Moffat makes like a whirling dervish, spinning narrative plates like a mad thing and delivering them with such pace and force that, as with most of us found in the same predicament as the Doctor and his chums, it's a case of blink and you'll miss something. Flesh And Stone is pure adrenalin rush generated by a fusion of traditional Doctor Who 'base under siege' default narrative and the childhood memories of playing blind man's buff. However this version of the game, (it originally dated back to the Greeks), is definitely the biggest test of the trust that tenuously exists between the Doctor and Amy to this point.

As the episode races along what is surprising is that Moffat actually puts the inexorable attack of the all devouring Weeping Angels on the back burner about half way through the episode to switch the story round instead to deal with the series' repeated meme of the 'crack in the universe', then finally using it as the somewhat convenient way to despatch the pesky quantum locked creatures to oblivion. The Angels are seemingly less important to him than the cycle of history he's mucking about with over the length of the series. Flesh And Stone, entertaining as it is, was overwhelmingly rather like a fully loaded Gatling gun blanketing the audience with ideas and concepts. Most of these probably thrilled the fan boys and girls but left the general public slightly baffled as it blazed away at them for forty odd minutes.

Director Adam Smith continues to demonstrate that he fits this material like a glove. A number of visually impressive moments are scattered through the episode; the camera twirling round to show the Doctor, Amy, River and the soldiers all sticking to the skin of the Byzantium via the artificial gravity and then the Doctor's disorienting climb into the ship; the staccato visual flourishes and pressure cooker atmosphere of the Angels breaching the airlock and then some lovely hand held shots as they begin attacking the control room; the impressive reveal of the forest (with a witty summary from the Doctor 'a forest in a bottle, on a spaceship, in a maze. Have I impressed you yet, Amy Pond?'); and the pulsing and strobing lights deep in the forest accompanied by some amazing focus pulls as the Angels advance. Visual lyricism and fantastic use of the Puzzlewood locations that compliment Moffat's enchanted fable perfectly.

FasbAt the centre of this episode is a fascinating idea. The Doctor postulates that the crack or the time spillage that eats through the universe is eradicating or overwriting what we know to exist and what we know to have happened in the wider Whoniverse (he quotes himself about the Cyber King stomping over Victorian London in The Next Doctor as such a mind bogglingly precise moment in history that it should have been remembered by those that witnessed it).

The oncoming time spillage accelerates through the concept of 'history' itself and, rather in the way Baudrillard asserts that "the end of history should not be understood as the culmination of history's progress, but as the collapse of the very idea of historical progress", the 'reality' of the Doctor Who universe is here threatened with utter collapse. All that might remain of it is the Doctor and his fellow travellers only continuing to exist via their combined memories, forming a crisis of self-hood with the very disappearance of that reality. The trauma of forgetting is something that was touched upon in The Beast Below, and the series to date has had a Last Year In Marienbad kind of emphasis on the concept of memory and the terror of recalling things out of order or losing memories (here the 'out of time' development of the Doctor and River's relationship is also a key component).

The loss of 'real history' also explains Amy's failure to recognise the Daleks and the eradication of the Church's troops. Some have speculated, in error I believe, that Moffat is planning to use this as a way to ret-con many of the events ('time can be re-written' as the Doctor excitedly claims), or at least the implications of events, of the last five years which does seem of him rather ambitious and somewhat disingenuous of the last production team's efforts. Those RTD haters are already having a field day with this idea. Mind you, I would see it as a favour if he could ret-con The Doctor's Daughter out of existence for a start.

Fasc The idea that the Pandorica, which may well be the name of the time fissure, is itself a 'fairytale', a legend known to the Doctor, also reflects the Milton-esque quality of Flesh And Stone where the 'war in heaven' of Paradise Lost is here retold as the Fall of the Weeping Angels and their banishment from the tree-borg 'Garden Of Eden'. It forms part of the episode's eschatological vision of the end of time, flirting again, as I proposed last week, with 'war on terror' imagery. The Church and its conflict with the Angels is a battle on the fringes of this 'end-time' where both sides defend their fundamentalist principles despite living on that borrowed time. As time runs out in the forest of Byzantium (calling the space ship the Byzantium is surely a reference to the disastrous Christian crusades of the 13th Century where they sacked the eponymous city) then it is only the moment of conflict that is real to them or the desperate moment of escape when the Angels request that the Doctor sacrifice himself.

One of the key sequences in the episode is where Amy, forced to keep her eyes shut and dressed for all the world like Red Riding Hood, is 'talked' through the forest and past the Angels by the Doctor. Not only does the chilling scene play out all those childhood memories of blind man's buff but it also connects to the symbolism of forests in fairy tales and romance legends the world over. The very earthiness of the environment is described to us by Adam Smith's close ups of Amy's shoes trudging through the muddy ground, by her fall and by her near death as she curls up in the greenery.

These are very powerful sequences that trigger associations of sylvan terrors with the perils of the unconscious. It's even harder for Amy as the Angel inside her mind exacerbates her loss of reason, her dilemma evoking Dante at the start of The Divine Comedy ("In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost"). Her lost path in the impenetrable forest of Angels is her lack of trust for the Doctor and, like all fairy tales set in the 'deep dark wood', her uncertainty about the man must be resolved. It's beautifully played out in that very tender scene where the Doctor takes her hand and then rests his head on her forehead, encouraging her to trust him, to remember the trust she had in him as a seven year old. She is, however, gradually abandoned as the troops escorting her wink out of existence. It boils down to her faith in the Doctor to help make her way back to the ship.

Fasg I also particularly enjoyed the last scene between the Doctor and Father Octavian as it gave the story a much needed emotional coda. 'I wish I'd known you better', he says to Octavian as he sadly leaves him to his fate. Matt Smith and Iain Glen were quite superb as both characters acknowledge and respect each others courage as the Angel prepares to strangle Octavian. Nice too that he offers to the Doctor the fitting salute of 'bless the path that takes you to safety'. The very profound sadness in Matt's eyes is a moving contrast to the earlier witty banter with Angel Bob (the 'I made him say comfy chairs' joke is lovely) and the cute eccentrics of his analysis of the crack ('Oh, that's bad. Oh, that's extremely not very good') and the rage at both the way the Angels find delight in making Amy count down to her death and at River on the Primary Flight Deck. Like a broken record, I have to repeat myself and say how really amazing he is in this episode.

Although River Song is somewhat sidelined here, we do get some intriguing back story. There's the thundering great hint that she isn't quite all she sees to be with her doing time in the Stormcage facility for murdering a 'good man' and all the indications it was the Doctor ('the best man I've ever known') she's killed. We'll possibly see that story played out in the finale as the Pandorica opens and she's faced with that decision. But then, as the Doctor says, 'time can be re-written' so he may yet find a way around that seemingly inevitable destiny. Bound to, isn't he? Still, she gets that wonderful final line, 'You...me...handcuffs. Must it always end this way?' and their last scene together underlines the whole fairy tale ethos of the series. 'That's a fairy tale' he counters at her mention of the Pandorica. 'Oh, Doctor. Aren't we all?', she replies with a twinkle in her eye. Either good witch or bad witch, she vanishes in a veritable puff of smoke.

Fasd Finally, I was a little nonplussed by that coda to the episode wherein Amy decides to try and have a one night stand with the Doctor before her own wedding day. It's played by Matt and Karen perfectly well but I wanted to believe that Moffat was keen to ring the changes further by not having the companion fancying the Doctor. He does seem to enjoy the one-man ship of, in this case, actually having the companion throw herself at the Doctor. No romance, no unrequited love for him. I'm not against the way that Russell T Davies introduced the idea of romantic love into the series but this was a bit bizarre and, although I think Moffat did try to communicate how wrong this felt via the Doctor's own reactions, does he really think this is how young brides to be behave on the eve of their nuptials? And that companions should be seen to be having the Doctor against the door of the TARDIS! What would the neighbours think...with all that wheezing and groaning going on.

As a gay man, historically (or should that be hysterically) I've always been capable of sublimating the heterosexual (at least in Amy's case as I'm not entirely sure about the Doctor) desire of on-screen characters for my own pleasure and managed to enjoy the relationships the Doctor had with Rose and Martha but even for me this was quite a stretch. Enough to make me not quite like Amy as much as I did. Unless, of course, Moffat eventually reveals to us that Amy wasn't quite herself. She is bloody unhinged, after all. Let's face it, it was a somewhat awkward means to an end where it's really about the Doctor suddenly putting all the clues together and realising how important the date, Amy and her crack (and I could probably write a book on the subtextual meanings of that) are to the fate of the universe. An odd ending to an otherwise great episode.

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