Doctor Who – “Flesh and Stone”

“Flesh and Stone”

May 1st, 2010

As I expected after last week’s extremely engaging “The Time of Angels,” philosophizing about the meaning of said episode was sort of impossible: I spent most of my review last week talking about the Weeping Angels and River Song in general (especially since I had just gone back and watched the earlier Moffat entries introducing them), but you could tell that this creepy thrill ride was not just leading to a simple resolution.

“Flesh and Stone” confirms these suspicions, delivering a continuation of last week’s action which communicates a very different sort of message. There are a lot of pretty substantial ideas at play here, and I think I’m probably a bit too new to the Doctor Who universe to grasp their meaning, but the hour managed to integrate them into the story without seeming out of place amidst the simpler pleasures (or terrors) of the Weeping Angels. The contrast between Moffat’s interest in finding fear in the ordinary and the extraordinary circumstances ends up serving the series extremely well, as despite a very forward-reaching focus “Flesh and Stone” remains incredibly engaging television, even when I don’t know what half of it means.

Okay, let’s talk about this for a moment. The cracks are, as far as I can gather, the result of two periods in time which should never have come together colliding (this was established way back in “The Eleventh Hour,” I believe). However, in “Flesh and Stone” we seem to learn why these cracks are following the good Doctor, or more accurately why they’re following Amy Pond – something happens the day of Amy and Rory’s wedding, and by taking her away the day before that significant time event the Doctor has disrupted time to the point where it is now chasing them. The best I can understand it is that the time crack is like a mouth, and it feeds off time events: since whatever happened on June 26th, 2010 didn’t happen with Amy being absent, the time crack has been following them in an effort to satisfy its hunger for huge, time-altering events.

That sounds really bizarre to me, and it doesn’t entirely account for the whole notion of rewriting or “running out” of time. It does explain, though, why Amy didn’t remember the Daleks, and Moffat even ties it into “The Next Doctor” (the first of the final Tennant specials) in regards to why people don’t remember the Cyber-King rampage over Victorian London. However, while “Flesh and Stone” shows us some small-scale examples of how it works (the clerics disappearing from both space and the memory of the other cleric), and I accept the reasoning that River, the Doctor and Amy all remember because they’ve traveled through time and have become “immune” to the memory loss aspect of things, I don’t really know what it all means. Does this explain why some of the Doctors’ past escapades (including run-ins with the Daleks, or the Cybermen, or any other attack) are not remembered by those who came after the fact?

If this is the case, I guess I don’t quite know what the ramifications are: while it provides a convenient explanation for why the show has no continuities outside of the Doctor, his companion and some important recurring characters, I’m struggling to place the revelation into context. It provides plenty of mystery at the moment, as we struggle to understand why Amy Pond is so important (I’m presuming it all goes back to her first interactions with the Doctor and that first crack in her wall), but I feel like I’m missing part of the bigger picture. Either way, it’s certainly got me thinking, and it also opens up some really interesting avenues for the show in the future as the Doctor struggles to deduce just what it is about Amy Pond that has time quite literally trying to swallow her life whole.

As for the resolution to last week’s cliffhanger, I thought “Flesh and Stone” offered a nice extension of “The Time of Angels.” The Weeping Angels themselves are, perhaps, not quite as interesting as they were in “Blink” (the lack of the “transport back in time” element makes them slightly more one-dimensional, as compelling as that dimension is): the introduction of the Mind Angel is a nice touch, and the Angels remain plenty creepy/terrifying (like in the first corridor once they get into the Byzantium), but it seems like there was more potential in the “Blink” angels that wasn’t necessarily tapped into here. There were still a few great scenes, like the Angels closing in on the Doctor or Amy struggling to trick the Angels in the forest, but the initial uncanny quality of the Angels was largely replaced by first a horror-driven version of the character and then the larger considerations of the end of the universe and all that jazz.

However, I thought that Moffat made a nice extension into the initial meaning behind the Angels as he continued to find terror in the ordinary. Having Amy start counting down to her death was the creepiest thing in the entire episode, and having Amy Pond be unable to open her eyes through an entirely new (and logical) fear into the mix. The idea that things as simple as counting could become so terrifying, or that the inability to open one’s eyes could so paralyze someone, is the sort of fear that Moffat does so well (like the fear of the dark in River’s opening episodes). It’s hard to believe that there could be so much tension in scenes where Karen Gillan is just standing in a forest with her eyes closed, but the show draws some of its most compelling material from those sequences, and so the Angels’ role as more of a typical horror antagonist was nicely matched with some unique situations (the crack in time, the countdown, the mind Angel) that kept things from actually seeming like typical horror.

As for River Song, I’m a little bit up in the air on how the episode handles her character. On the one hand, I loved the foreshadowing (or, for the Doctor and the audience, reminders) of River’s willingness to sacrifice herself, or the importance of handcuffs within their relationship (which is apparently also foreshadowing for us, as it seems like it will recur). I like that she is a creature of habit, and her dynamic with the Doctor remains enormously compelling. My one issue is how blatantly Moffat nods towards the future, as River mentions that she’ll be seeing him soon at the opening of the Pandorica and refuses to reveal who it is that she killed. I get that River is all about mystery, and that solving those mysteries is the Doctor’s future and thus can’t be discussed, but it was a little bit too cute. I love the little details about the character, like how she says “See you, Amy” in such a way that leaves it ambiguous whether they will actually be seeing each other in the future, but the broad strokes of the character could get tiresome with time. Every season having a “River” two-parter isn’t a terrible idea, but I think that the end of this one plays a little bit too cleanly into a “Next time, on Doctor Who” sort of structure within the narrative of the episode itself.

The episode’s other remaining element, of course, is that final scene as the Doctor takes Amy Pond back to the night before her wedding and she expresses her desire to snog him. Fans have been complaining about the sexual tension between the two for the past few episodes, but I don’t think the show can avoid it: here’s this girl who had this strange man sweep into her life and offer to carry her into the stars, who spent the next decade obsessing over him, and then suddenly gets swept into the stars by that same man. The Doctor was her childhood crush and became a romanticized image of adventure, so of course she would be attracted to him. “Flesh and Stone” also seems like a good episode to bring this to the surface, as the scene with the Doctor comforting a terrified Amy as he leaves to try to find a solution to their problem was really well played by Matt Smith; you think he’s gone after his initial discussions, but then he comes back, tearful, asking for her to just “remember” (realizing that was is in jeopardy are her memories more than her life). It’s an extremely meaningful scene, especially when your remember that her love for the Doctor is more a function of memory (romanticizing her childhood past and her brief interaction with the Earth-saving Doctor a few years earlier, not unlike a fairy tale) than a function of emotion. Throw in the fact that she both nearly dies and is saved by the Doctor himself, and of course she’d decide that she wants to snog him.

What’s important is that the Doctor has no interest in it: he immediately recoils, and while I thought Gillan overplayed her lust a little bit it was worth it for Matt Smith’s squirming. The show clearly has no interest in a simple romantic connection, but this sort of dynamic fits with their complicated past and still feels like it has plenty of potential moving forward. By getting this initial moment out of the way, and immediately making it seem very small in context of the larger meaning behind Amy’s plans for June 26th, the show reminds us of that unique balance between the end of the world and the people around the Doctor. The Doctor obviously cares about Amy (who is as much a past of his memory as he is of hers), but he now needs to discover what it is about her which has placed the universe in such danger. That’s the sort of situation that complicates a relationship, and this seems (at least to my eye) to be one of the most immediately complicated relationships between the Doctor and their companion since the Davies era began (you can correct me on this, if you like).

“Flesh and Stone” feels less like the resolution to last week’s story than a start of the rest of the season: the Angels disappear into the crack in time, swallowed by a larger threat that they don’t entirely understand themselves, and the show moves on with a new goal in mind. That’s a trick balancing act to handle, and I thought Moffat remained as confident as ever in handling this sort of material. The one change I’m seeing is that Moffat is now in charge of the big picture rather than simply stand-alone installments, so the real test will be how his deft touch pulls together the universe-ending material to come.

Cultural Observations

  • As Daniel T. Walters pointed out on Twitter, the resolution to the cliffhanger was really well done: it literally turned the world upside down, as the Doctor’s strategy of releasing the energy from the ship and thus shifting the gravity creates a completely different situation that buys them the time it needs and gets the episode started in a new direction with ease. I don’t entirely know how it worked, but as a narrative shift it was great stuff.
  • I was a bit surprised that we didn’t get some sort of “point of view” look on Amy’s struggles in the dark – it’s weird not to actually get any sort of blindness from the audience’s perspective when it was such an important part of Amy’s experience, but perhaps they didn’t want it to get too gimmicky.
  • Some nice exchanges in Octavian’s final moments: his solace in the fact that the Doctor had “seen him at his best” made me wonder if there was some more characterization left on the cutting room floor. Sure, the line works as a near response to the Doctor’s comment that he wished he had gotten to know him better, but it still seemed like the character was underwritten in the grand scheme of things.
  • And yes, it seems that June 26th is the date on which Series Five’s finale will air in the U.K. – this should shock no one.


Filed under Doctor Who

9 responses to “Doctor Who – “Flesh and Stone”

  1. Tom

    They never seem to have the time to characterize characters like Octavian. Luckily the actor brought something special to the role, otherwise it would have just been an oversentimental death for a character no-one cared about. It reminded me of the death of a character in the Impossible Planet two parter in season 2, which was handled in almost the exact same manner.

    Incidentally, anyone who hasn’t seen Impossible Planet should definitely check it out. One of my favourite Tennant episodes.

    • mothergunn

      For real! The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit are my favorite eps, after, of course, Blink, and possibly Midnight.

  2. I had a great big comment written but then my computer became feral and wouldn’t let me post, so I’ll try and salvage what I can remember.

    There was a lot to think about in this episode — contrary to “The Time of Angels”, which seemed very short, “Flesh and Stone” had a lot more to deal with. This, considering the time constraints, made it seem a bit messy – but not Davies era messy, which I think is important to note.

    As a Who fan since 2005 (my dad was also a fan, so it runs in the family) I’ve been thinking about what Moffat has done with the template Davies established. Some changes have been more subtle (like the portrayal of children, shifting from mere devices in “School Reunion” and (pains me to mention such a horrible episode) “Fear Her” to more rounded depictions in “Eleventh Hour” and “Beast Below”), but one of the more obvious changes has been what Moffat did with the companion(s).

    Davies was very fond of the “most important woman in the universe” idea, of which the original manifestation is Rose. It was a blessing – Series 1 was a great series – and a curse; when he tried to shake it up by making Martha more of a bit player in series 3, it seemed disappointing. He recycled the “super-woman” arc with Donna, who, despite offering a refreshing change of dynamic, still ended up in a very similar situation to Rose (who he even brought back) in “Journey’s End”.

    Moffat has recognized that tradition, but has also done some fascinating things with it – part of the reason I’ve fallen in love with this era. We know immediately that Amy is an important person, unlike with Rose or Donna, whose importance only became apparent later on (and it felt more natural with Rose; for Donna, it felt like a retread). We get a companion that’s in a relationship – but it’s not just a “boyfriend” situation, she’s actually getting married. Like I mentioned on Twitter, there’s a “fairytale” aspect to this series, but it’s also – and this is crucial – grounded.

    Davies, for all the wonderful scripts he wrote, had a tendency to descend into utter absurdity. (See “The Doctor’s Daughter”, the endless returns of Rose, “Tooth and Claw”, “The Runaway Bride”, “The Christmas Invasion”, etc. etc. etc.) Moffat has a justification for almost everything he does plot-wise, it seems, and is even cleaning up after Davies (the Cyber-King comment relates to “The Next Doctor”).

    I’m almost glad we had “Victory” this early in the series. It’s as if Moffat is showing us “You want RTD back? Well, here’s what he did, and here’s what I’m doing, and which do you prefer?”

    Frankly, I prefer the latter.

    This will probably end up on my blog sooner or later, in a revised form.

  3. Gillianna

    Note too, that the Doctor lost his jacket previously to the angels. He goes off with River (and only in his shirt), leaving Amy in the forest alone with a rather casual goodbye. When he comes back to ask him to trust him- he’s wearing his jacket. Seems that this is the Doctor crossing his own timeline here to return to Amy for some reason. šŸ™‚ Subtle and well played I thought.

  4. Evamarie

    I agree. This was an excellent episode.

    It’s not just since you have only watched a handful of episodes – I’ve seen them all many times and I’m not exactly sure what is going on. I’m thinking something along the lines of a paradox the Doctor creates, since that was a problem in the past.

    Also, I thought that River not wanting to say whom she killed meant that she kills the Doctor. The “Greatest Man she ever knew”. The references to how the Doctor wouldn’t want to help her if he knew. Altho… she’s a bit too smug and comfortable with him to entirely fit that idea.

    Paul M. – I prefer the latter, as well. I also prefer that Moffat is revealing the “thing of the season” at least some of it, in the middle of the season. Davies always left it to the end. I also like that he doesn’t wrap up everything in a neat package at the end of each episode or episode-set (like the Daleks getting away). Davies seemed to love his deus ex machina reset button.

    Did anyone else flashback to the end of Season 2 when the angels were being pulled away?


    • Digital Spy said there would be a “Doomsday”-like moment in the episode. I saw it as a nod to the way Davies approached the Doctor/female companion relationships – as (mostly) very melodramatic soap operas – before Moffat turned that on its head with the bedroom scene.

      It also had the unfortunate effect of making the Angels seem… I don’t know… pathetic. Like pieces on a chessboard. Perhaps that was the intent?

      • Evamarie

        Yeah, at the end, I was no longer afraid of them. Which is unfortunate, because I kind of enjoyed being terrified of them.

  5. mothergunn

    Why, all of a sudden, has it become so fashionable to hate on Davies? I’m not going to deny that Moffat is better, but Davies’ stuff is really good (mostly). Yes, he does love his deus ex machina but with a character like the Doctor it really works (it works slightly less better with a character like the Captain- I’m looking at you Exit Wounds). Davies also wrote Gridlock and Midnight, two eps that are up there in the pantheon of the Doctor mythos, IMO. Yeah, his plots are mostly kinda weak, but his characters and their relationships with each other are amazing complex.

    And, as much as Smith really has blown me away, he really ain’t no Tennant. Just sayin’.

    • Evamarie

      I did enjoy Davies, I did. I’ve just grown tired of him. The early stuff I was nuts about. It was mostly the last bit of Tennant that bugged me. The Gallifrey coming back? All the tension was missing for me because I knew in about 10 minutes the Doctor’d have it fixed like it never happened.

      But I cried when they were in the coffee shop, and I watch the last 3 episodes of Season 3 over and over and over again. Some of his stuff has been breathtaking.

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