Doctor Who – “The Time of Angels”

“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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.


Filed under Doctor Who

14 responses to “Doctor Who – “The Time of Angels”

  1. Haz

    Great and extensive review as always. Loved the episode! Matt Smith is making me forget all about that tennant…something guy. However what made my day was the Doctor using a GUN! What?

  2. deborasouza

    Well, a bunch of precious doctors used guns for pratical/non-violent purposes, including Tennant, in “End of Time”…

    I really appreciate Moffat’s work in it’s abillity to bring the fear into the ordinary, but I just love that how great every other line is. “Blink” is pratically a vault of t-shirt phrases, and there’s just so much great quotes in it. Apart from the classics, I love ‘Time travel without a capsule, nasty tinhig, hold your breath, don’t go swimming for half an hour”’It’s not pretty when they blow”

    It’s really to judge the first half of a two parter, and I agree with everything ou said. I also loved the ”Hello, swettie” callback and wished that the promos hadn’t sopiled that final monologue. Hopefully next week we’ll have a great conclusion and little more development on the crack sittuation.

  3. Loved the episode, and your review is great. This felt much more like an Eleventh Doctor story to me than “Victory of the Daleks”: the nonsense about Amy having fallen in love with the Doctor (which felt like Mark Gatiss had written the episode for David Tennant and replaced Rose or Martha with Amy) is, thankfully, on the shelf — Moffat specializes in much more complex and interesting relationships than Russell T. Davies, who finally came round, in my opinion, with the return of Donna.

    But I digress. I love the sexy, sassy version of River we had a glimpse of — that “oooh, exciting!” cracks me up. However, the Doctor and Amy seemed a little less, I don’t know, “formed” than in, say, the premiere — but considering this was the first episode they filmed, it’s understandable.

    Like you said, Amy is starting to become exposed to darker and darker elements of the universe, which I think will prove pivotal for the eventual conflict over her wedding that will arise. This is really the first time this season that Amy’s been in any real personal danger, and I think the fact that this is a two-parter accentuates that nicely.

    Looking forward very much to next week. It’ll help me keep my mind off there being no Lost.

  4. Tausif Khan

    From your review it seems like the writers for How I Met Your Mother could take a page out of River Songs Tardis book to learn how to develop good romantic relationships over time. However, if the next episode of Doctor Who begins with the narration: Now kids it was fall of 2010…

  5. belinda

    I thought I’d be disappointed by this episode because of how highly I (and many fans) regarded both the Weeping Angels as the MotW and River Song and the nature of her relationship with the doctor, and this episode would have the burden of serving both stories in a way that won’t disappoint fans of the former episodes.

    But, nicely done. After one solid premiere and two quite mediocre episodes, this is the first time in this season I’m dying to see the next episode. It was fast paced and exciting, and again for the first time this season, I was actually a little (or a lot) creeped out. And that’s good to have in DW. I think what you say about Amy Pond is spot on – she’s a little too cheery for the DW world, so it’ll be great if this two parter is the episode(s) that finally place her firmly in the role as a companion.

    My initial problems with Smith at the beginning was that he reminded me too much of Tennant, and certainly has retained some of Tennant’s mannerisms and speech as well, which was especially prominent in this episode. But it’s also this episode that I’m finally picking up the nuances of this similarity to really notice the difference in temperament and personality between Ten and Eleven.

    In a way, he’s really doing a pretty fantastic job of being what the Doctor truly represents – always the same man who’s also a different man in each regeneration. It’s a lot more subtle than the jump from Nine to Ten, but it’s a very interesting choice.

  6. Austin

    I am in a unique position, since I am (very slowly) going through the first four series with a friend at work, and we are only on S2 E1. I have however been watching the new Series (to use the British terminology) as they come out since it is always harder to find them online the further the air date gets.
    So for me all I have to compare this to is S1, which to me is a HUGE jump in quality in every aspect, I have to admit, I really didn’t like Dr #9, however I think Tennent will probably be pretty good, everyone seems to think so. Either way I think they did an amazing job casting Dr #11, he is brilliant.
    Same goes for Karen Gillan, reviewing her IMDb page, this looks like her first big break, I think she has a bright future ahead of here. I am enjoying the wide eyed way she is playing Amy, since if you think about it, she is unique from every other companion (heh that word will always have a different meaning for browncoats) in that she has actually grown up knowing about the Doctor and the fact that she has a time machine. We know that she spent countless hours playing and imagining about the Doctor, so for her this is a lifelong dream come true, whereas most companions simply are having their eyes opened for the first time about the true nature of the world. I think it is interesting how we are seeing her contribute more to the resolution of the problem from day one rather than just tag along and play damsel in distress for the first few episodes (she does do that some) like Rose did.
    I like the new “Doctor has an idea” musical theme they play when ever he has solved the problem or is just about to do something cool/stupid/heroic.
    Overall it seems that S5 has a big budget, big ideas, big talent and a big future. But that’s just my opinion.

  7. I have a feeling that River may be exaggerating things a bit when it comes to the exact nature of her relationship with the Doctor. I think she may not know as much as she implies she does about his future, but like you I find it fun to go along for the ride.

    My first thought when I heard the Angels were returning was–do they need to? They were only meant to be a one-time monster! That is until I recalled that the Daleks themselves were only meant to be a one-time monster way back in 1963 and early 1964…..

  8. Evamarie

    Hmm… I guess I’m quite alone in my dislike of River Song. I didn’t enjoy seeing her – she’s rather arrogant. I hope that whatever she did that was bad is at least interesting and not another What Kate Did.

    I did LOVE the episode! The angels are creepy, Amy is awesome! She might become my new favourite companion (My old one was actually a tie of the 3 women). I like that they brought River back even if I dislike her, she needs to be brought back to fill out the story.

    I did disagree with you on one point, Myles: I didn’t like how they used the voices of the dead people. That was the other monster’s thing – for me it makes the angels less unique.
    I’m also very sad about them killing the people – transporting back in time and stealing their potential was such a beautifully menacing idea.

    Good review as always


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  13. James

    Loved “Blink”; the return of the Angels not so much. Here we have all this mob of Angels – looking at each other and not turning to stone.

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