“The Time of Angels”
April 24th, 2010
This afternoon, I spent a few hours doing what I guess I’d call “Doctor (W)Homework.” After last week’s episode, it was clear from the preview that the show would be returning to two key parts of Steven Moffat’s oeuvre, and so many suggested that I take a look back into recent seasons of the series in order to follow the continuities. Since I am not one to doubt the intelligence of my Twitter followers and blog commenters, I took this suggestion to heart, and so I sat down with Series Three’s “Blink” and Series Four’s “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.”
Inevitably, this created quite an interesting experience going into this week’s new episode of Series Five, as both the Weeping Angels (central to the Carey Mulligan-enhanced “Blink”) and River Song (introduced in the two-parter) effectively pick up where they left off, as odd as that particular phrase may sound when considering Professor (or Doctor?) Song. “The Time of Angels,” the start of a two-parter itself, delivers on the promise of those earlier episodes, heightening the terror surrounding one of the universe’s most dangerous creatures while proving that River and her magical blue book are both just as fun and just as tragic as we imagined when reintroduced in this fashion.
Some thought on “The Time of Angels,” although probably not before I write out some thoughts on the episodes which came before, after the jump.
“Blink” is one spectacular hour of television, isn’t it? I’ve known the name of the episode for quite some time, as part of conversations about Tennant’s run on the series and a reason for excitement when Moffat took the series over, but I never really knew what it was about – heck, before someone mentioned it last week, I didn’t even know that Carey Mulligan (who has since moved onto Oscar-nominated fame in the fantastic An Education) was in the episode. However, while I knew the episode’s reputation, I really didn’t have any context for why it was so successful, but I know now. For a show about time travel, it completely captures the potential of the series’ “timey-wimey” approach to temporality without feeling burdened by it all – the show sends characters back in time, has characters communicate with Sally from the grave without blinking an eye (yeah, I went there), and intricately works the Doctor’s video message into the narrative without feeling like a distraction from the real story.
While we obviously want the Doctor to escape from 1969, the story is about Sally fulfilling her fate, and Mulligan is unsurprisingly terrific throughout the hour; when she eventually gains closure, realizing that it is she who closes the timey-wimey circumstance by passing on the “Don’t Open Unless You’re Trapped in 1969” file to the good Doctor, there is a sense of satisfaction which shouldn’t be possible when we just met the character forty minutes before. It’s not as if the narrative really surprised us or anything: as soon as Lawrence shows up in the video store, it’s clear that the two are destined to be romantically linked, and yet when she grabs his hand it felt like an ending to a story far longer than the one we’d been shown. That’s really the challenge of any Doctor Who story: with only an hour or two to tell a story, the most important thing you can do is make that story feel as large as possible, to make it seem like what we’re seeing is part of a tale far longer than what we’ve actually seen without making it seem as if we’ve missed something. The show uses continuities (like recurring characters or recurring monsters), but it also implies continuities and uses those to its narrative advantage.
In the case of River Song, Moffat demonstrates that he isn’t interested in just implying or creative linear narratives: another reminder of the timey-wimey nature of time within this universe, River Song’s non-linear relationship with the Doctor is a stroke of pure genius. The idea that there is this woman in the 51st century who the Doctor visits (and rescues) at various points in her life seems like something that the show could simply use as a source of continuity: there can be “River Song” episodes in each season, and fans will be able to place them within the series and watch the relationship grow over time. However, by introducing us at the very end of their narrative, the story becomes about continuity rather than a continuity in and of itself: while “Silence in the Library” is the first time the Doctor has ever met River Song, it is the final time (of many) that River Song will meet the Doctor, a fact which throws the Doctor for a loop. Here is this woman who knows his deepest secret (his name), and who has a Sonic Screwdriver, and who is effectively his timey-wimey companion that he is just meeting for the first time.
The episode itself is all sorts of terrifying, the Vashta Nerada serving as definitive proof that the most terrifying monster is that which manifests as something we see in our every day lives (see also: the Weeping Angels), but it’s really about River Song, or more accurately the parts of the River Song book that we haven’t yet seen. Not only does it imply that they’ve had many adventures in the past, which gives the show some ready-made storylines in the future, but it also creates a conundrum for the Doctor: the episode’s conclusion, as River sacrifices her own life in order to save the 4022 souls who were “saved” to the Library hard drive, reveals that all of the Doctor’s previous interactions with River have been done with prior knowledge of her eventual death. And so the Doctor realizes that he wouldn’t have done nothing to try to save this woman he clearly trusted, downloading her into the Library to live with the rest of her friends in CAL. However, while it’s a happy ending of sorts, it’s an ending to a story we haven’t been told yet, and the beginning to the same story from a very different perspective.
“The Time of Angels” is not as intrinsically about the timey-wimey nature of this universe, but rather uses the terror of the Weeping Angels and the complexity of River Song’s relationship with the Doctor to craft a compelling hour of television (which will likely lead into another compelling hour in next week’s conclusion). Alex Kingston gets to have a lot more fun as River this time around: sure, she got to toy with the Doctor last time, but that was a more mature River (who was a Professor, which surprised the River we meet this time around). This River is, as far as we can tell, a prisoner who is being forced to work as a spy for a militarized 51st Century Church where Bishops are Generals and Clerics are soldiers, and who calls for the Doctor’s help amidst an almost James Bond-esque scenario onboard a star cruiser. It’s one of my favourite sort of openings, and one which fits perfectly into the timey-wimey nature of the series: that story has no beginning, but seeing the ending makes us imagine the sort of storyline it was, and drops us into the narrative without having to provide a laboured introduction.
Every Doctor Who episode has to do it (in that they’re introducing new stories), but this one seemed particularly jaunty, perhaps because the rest of the episode was about to descend into a horror of sorts. The Weeping Angels were extremely creepy the first time around, but they were arguably more uncanny creepy than “terrifying” creepy. While scenes like the Angels closing in on Sally and Lawrence in the cellar were definitely suspenseful, the story was more about the uncanny terror of the Weeping Angels than about the actual danger they represented: the ending montage of statues in “Blink,” which reminded me of the end of Battlestar Galactica’s “Daybreak,” picked up on that uncanny fear. This time, though, the Angels are evolving: they’re not just sending their victims back in time, and their emerging out of video tapes in an almost Ringu-like fashion. It’s not just that there are more of the Angels, the entire maze of death filled with dormant angels being brought back to life by the nuclear energy from the crashed starship; rather, the way the episode was shot and edited seemed to be more oriented towards horror than what we saw in “Blink,” reinforcing the sense that they are effectively zombies made of stone within this scenario.
It’s a bit too early to judge where the show is going with the Angels (who had everyone cornered when the cliffhanger hit) or River (who seems to be hiding something from the Doctor which will come into play later on), as next week’s “Flesh and Stone” will be the real test of how those elements come together. However, the real challenge Moffat had here was integrating Amy Pond with these characters who have a pre-existing relationship: while on the acting side of thing Alex Kingston is starting over with Matt Smith and Karen Gillan both, River Song “knows” the Doctor and so there was a chance that Amy would seem “out of place” if the narrative became too much about River and the Doctor. However, like with Donna in “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead,” Amy is nicely integrated into the story by proving resourceful enough to shut down the video tape Angel but not quite resourceful enough to avoid looking in its eye and getting stone on the brain. She remains a little bit wide-eyed and innocent about it all, which is something that Moffat tends to like in terms of keeping elements of light-hearted comedy (like the Doctor biting Amy to break the “stone hand” perception), but she’s seeing something a bit darker this time around, which will be good for the character and helps keep her from seeming too out of place.
Overall, “The Time of Angels” is just really nicely executed: it isn’t trying to be as timey-wimey as “Blink,” nor is it trying to entirely encapsulate the Doctor’s relationship with River in a single episode. It just wanted to take us on a creepy and unnerving ride, using small hints and effective setpieces to drive us further into a particularly terrifying alien race from the series’ past. We’ll see how “Flesh and Stone” brings it all to a conclusion, but thus far this is a nice extension of Moffat’s previous stories, merged together with a keen eye towards creating a distinct narrative rather than desperately clinging to the previous ones.
- While it’s a bit of a cheat that the Doctor or River didn’t think about it sooner, I liked the “two-heads” foreshadowing which should have tipped them off sooner. It’s not complex, but it nicely rewrites previous scenes as more unnerving than they were at the time.
- It’s not quite clear how the Doctor intends to get out of this particular situation: “Blink” was dealing with a much smaller group of Angels, and so the Doctor’s solution (forcing them to look at each other forever) was on a small scale. It’s not clear what can deal with a group quite this big in a state of growth and renewal, but we’ll see what that purple stuff is going to do when it hits the ground.
- There were some subtle connections made between the previous episodes to help bring the two narratives together: the Angels are obviously pulled from “Blink,” but the idea of a monster using the consciousness of one of their victims was a major part of “Silence in the Library,” so it was a nice touch to include that here as “Bob” becomes the voice of the Angels much as Dave/Anita became the voice of the Vashta Nerada.