Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Flesh and Stone

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We stare at them to stop them getting closer. We don’t even blink, and that is exactly what they want. Because as long as our eyes are open, they can climb inside. There’s an Angel in her mind.

It suffers somewhat from the same flaws we discussed last week, of course. There’s that same imprecision to the script, the same roughness to Smith’s performance, the same struggle in the direction to balance the two. The imperfections to Flesh and Stone are easily highlighted and difficult to miss; the first-production-block inexperience is as obvious here as it is in The Beast Below or Victory of the Daleks, if not even moreso.

Equally, though, there’s a lot that really works. It’s full of really nice little details, from the Angels’ screeching laughter to the casual sadism of Angel Bob, and where the performances are strong, they’re really strong. Father Octavian’s death scene is a particularly nice moment, in fact: Iain Glen gives a very affecting performance, balancing the pathos of the scene well, to the point that it’s surprising he’s not cited more often as one of Doctor Who’s better guest stars. It helps centre Matt Smith, too, and this scene – his first, I think, attempt at a Doctor Who staple – is probably amongst his best of the two-parter as well. You get the sense of him marking out his approach, marking out what makes his Doctor distinct, lending the scene a much quieter sorrow than Tennant’s more mournful “I’m so sorry” apologies.

You can see the beginning of Moffat working through some ideas about how two-parters work, too, making real steps to differentiate Flesh and Stone from The Time of Angels in a way he didn’t quite do with The Doctor Dances and Forest of the Dead when compared to their counterparts. There’s this real emphasis on making Flesh and Stone feel like something with its own identity, a distinct whole on its own terms – it’s not exactly that you could watch one without the other (they’d each be poorly served by that, I suspect) but rather than they very pointedly don’t blur together. That new, forest setting is a really clever idea, disrupting what we’d become familiar with already while also adding a neat little sci-fi quirk to the wider story: Flesh and Stone is really densely packed with different ideas and concepts, lending it an appreciable energy that obscures the roughness. (It also follows on, somewhat, from what we discussed last week about reinventing the Angels as recurring monsters – it’s as much about translating them to a new iconography as it is expanding the concept, taking them out of the Wester Drumlins haunted house and demonstrating how well, and how easily, they can work in other contexts too.)

More interesting than that sense of an inexperienced production, though, is a little quirk that never reappears – a clever little trick that doesn’t compare to anything before or since.

What was ostensibly a production mistake – the Doctor’s conversation with Amy, wearing his jacket even though he’d just lost it – was actually a tie-in to The Big Bang, an appearance from a future version of the Doctor. It’s a result of more forward planning than Russell T Davies had ever been able to undertake, or that Steven Moffat would ever really be able to do again; as the (brilliant) Shannon Sullivan archive notes, Moffat finished writing The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone towards the end of 2008, roughly a full year ahead of completing his scripts for The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (which themselves had to be written ahead of schedule anyway). He’d never have that amount of time again – indeed, several of his scripts for Series 6, most notably The Wedding of River Song, were functionally filmed as first drafts – and it’s interesting to see Moffat’s inclination towards that sort of structural playfulness fits around a full series, rather than individual episodes, manifests itself on the one chance he gets to attempt it. (The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone are also significant in a wider sense, as Christa Mactíre notes, for being at once a sequel and a prequel to the events of Series 6, the first episode filmed at the same time sitting right at the heart of the Moffat era as it stretches outwards in both directions.)

There’s this oft-repeated truism that Steven Moffat is a good writer of individual episodes, but a poor showrunner. It’s a suggestion that, perhaps, has a kernel of truth to it, but not strictly in the sense that it’s meant: the argument is about the creative obligations of his showrunner role, and not the production responsibilities it entails. Which is to say, if there’s any insight to that now-banal comment, it’s one that’s being approached from the wrong angle: Moffat-as-showrunner is a much more interesting figure, I think, to consider as a producer than a writer. (Or, at least, it’s a vastly underexamined area of discussion.) We’ll consider this again over the next few years – particularly, as aforementioned, with those hastily-written Series 6 scripts – but it seemed worth raising here with an episode that’s almost their inverse. It’s interesting to wonder what Moffat might’ve done with Series 6 – or indeed Smith’s tenure as a whole – if a similar sort of lead-in had been possible (either by result of different producing partners alongside him, a different broadcast schedule, or indeed no Sherlock).

It’s also worth spending a little time talking about Amy, if only because I’ve not really done that enough of late. We’ve spoken a few times now about how she’s a character that exists in two worlds, an almost Doctor-like figure in her own right; there’s also, implicit in the subtext at least, this idea that she’s been grappling with abandonment and trauma. (Vincent and the Doctor, as we’ll see, is a big part of this.)

How that manifests here, though, with that last scene, doesn’t work. It’s a deeply uncomfortable way to present what perhaps could’ve been… well, it’s hard to imagine it straightforwardly working in a programme like Doctor Who, to the point that the whole concept feels like a mistake, but in theory there’s a version of this scene that’s much more thoughtful, that casts the kiss much more obviously as a response to trauma. Moffat has since said much the same, commenting “I don’t like Amy coming on to the Doctor at the end of Flesh and Stone. I mean the idea is good and sound – young girl reaches out after hours of deranging terror. But I played it for Coupling-style sitcom laughs. And it doesn’t work. Brilliant episode up till that point […] and then I screw it up with sniggering sex comedy. Bah! [Script editor] Lindsey Alford (as she was then) called me out on it, and I disagreed and stuck to my guns. And I was wrong, damn it.”

The scene sits awkwardly here, as much for what it could’ve been as for what it is – again, my instinct is that it’s better removed entirely (or, perhaps, played much more subtly as well as less comically, but I wonder how in-character subtlety would be) but it’s a shame to miss out on the potential it offers. It’s rare to have a relatively quiet moment of something resembling reflection for these characters, simply because of the momentum the show often demands – the better version of this scene, if it could’ve existed, would’ve been a genuine triumph. (Perhaps tying into that real/fairytale dichotomy through spending time on the consequences of the adventures?) As it is, though, while it doesn’t quite ruin the episode, it comes far closer than any individual scene ever should.

Still. We’re now almost at the halfway mark of Series 5; Vampires in Venice will be the first episode we’ve seen filmed after The Eleventh Hour. It should, in theory, be the start of a show that’s much more confident in itself, lacking the roughness and imprecision we’ve seen this week.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Time of Angels

What do you know of the Weeping Angels?

The Time of Angels on one level is about the return of the Weeping Angels. The inevitable return, in fact; after the huge popularity of Blink, the episode that secured Steven Moffat the job as Russell T Davies’ successor, there was an expectation that they’d appear in an episode alongside Matt Smith fairly soon. (After all, if Blink secured Moffat as showrunner, by extension the same is true of the Weeping Angels.) But at the same time, it’s also about reinventing the Weeping Angels – taking them out of Wester Drumlins, and recontextualising them such that a neat, one-off idea to sustain a haunted house story can become the basis for an iconic returning villain.

We’ll look at this more next week, but suffice to say it’s a successful reinvention (or, maybe more accurately, evolution of the concept.) The Time of Angels grows naturally out of Blink, playing with similar ideas while at the same time managing to offer a genuinely new story – there’s a really clever reuse of the same camera trickery from Blink with the looping video, that same central conceit repeated but presented (literally) through a new lens. Unsurprisingly, the Angels fit really nicely with that storybook aesthetic Moffat introduced as showrunner (“the image of an Angel becomes itself an angel” is a real stroke of brilliance, because it’s at once entirely new, but also, of course that’s how it works).

If – hypothetically, of course, with no spoilers whatsoever – the Weeping Angels were to return in Series 13, it’s difficult to imagine how Chris Chibnall might opt to reinvent them. Moffat makes it look easy here (though, again, it’s not a surprise – of course his monster coheres with his wider concept of the programme) but you do get the sense it’d be easy to go wrong, to overcomplicate what is at its core a very simple idea. (I often wonder about Patrick Ness’ plans for a second series of Class, and that idea of going to the planet of the Weeping Angels, and a Weeping Angel civil war – maybe it would’ve worked, but I’m immediately very resistant to the idea of the Weeping Angels even having a planet!)

Of course, it’d be perfectly possible to do something much more closely aligned with Blink, and maybe even desirable in 2021 in all the ways it wouldn’t have been here: The Time of the Angels needed to reinvent the Weeping Angels, but any hypothetical future appearance wouldn’t have the same obligations. And, again, The Time of Angels is very successful in that respect – but we’ll pick up on that next week.

Otherwise, the episode itself is a little rough. We’ve noted a few times over the past few weeks that there’s a certain lack of polish to the episodes filmed before The Eleventh Hour, and The Time of Angels – which formed the very first production block of Series 5 – is no exception to that. There’s a real sense of things being worked out in real time on screen, of a style that hasn’t quite settled and an approach that hasn’t entirely cohered.

For the most part, that’s obscured by the big ideas in the episode: the return of River Song and the Weeping Angels. Just like last week with Victory of the Daleks, it’s a sleight of hand, a known (ish) quantity to take attention away from what’s still being worked out in the margins. Matt Smith’s performance here isn’t quite what it’ll eventually be, and Adam Smith follows in the footsteps of Andrew Gunn by not living up to the standard set by Adam Smith’s direction of The Eleventh Hour. (It’s an instructive comparison in a lot of ways, not just because of how much smoother the earlier-broadcast-but-later-produced episode is, but because of that Doctor/director union – watching one then the other, it’s plain to see which aspects of the former are built on the latter. There’s a better sense of the Doctor’s spontaneity, of those idiosyncrasies and thought processes, the mood swings that Matt Smith doesn’t quite nail here but are pitch perfect in The Eleventh Hour. It’s not a problem particularly – as intended, the strength of the impression left in the earlier broadcast episodes is enough for the viewer to fill in the gaps here – but it’s noticeable if you’re looking for it.)

Perhaps oddly, though, the most apparent roughness (or maybe more accurately here, imprecision) is in Steven Moffat’s script. For all his strengths in writing clever, engaging exposition, The Time of Angels struggles to convey important details at the right time – the reveal of the Aplan statues is underplayed, for example, and the gravity globe cliffhanger isn’t telegraphed strongly enough ahead of time. Again, it’s not exactly a problem: there’s a certain a rough, unfinished quality, things being overlooked here that wouldn’t be in the future, but the episode as a whole still works, there’s no question of that.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Forest of the Dead

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Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor – but I do think that all the skies in all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever accepts it.

The attentive amongst you will probably have realised that I didn’t post this last week, since I am in fact posting it today. That’s because I uploaded Silence in the Library a week too early, it turns out; there was a week delay after The Unicorn and the Wasp that I wasn’t aware of, I assume for Eurovision or a sport or something. I’m a little annoyed, because it’s the first time I’ve got a date wrong across the whole project, but not massively so, because it was ahead of time rather than too late, and if any story works as an echo of the future it’s that one.

[In another instance of the future infringing on the past, kinda, I fixed the dates on the wordpress site.]

Anyway, though. Forest of the Dead. Let’s start at the end, as this story has been inclined to do.

River’s death is, of course, a deeply affecting moment. A lot of that comes down to the fact that David Tennant and Alex Kingston give great performances; this, much moreso than The Doctor’s Daughter, is the episode of series 4 that gives Tennant the opportunity to push the character in new directions and find more of a limit point for his performance. Certainly, there’s no character quite like River in terms of how they interact with Tennant’s Doctor, and if you think that The Doctor’s Daughter should have been more along these lines, it’s not a comparison the earlier episodes come off well in. Obviously!

Equally, though, it’s not just about Tennant; I spoke last week about just how good Alex Kingston is, but it’s worth pausing again to focus on just how good she is here. Here especially, actually, because this is arguably the most important scene the character has, given it pretty much defines our understanding of River as a character full stop. If her death in this episode hadn’t had weight – both as a poignant moment on its own terms, but also the weight to sell a shared history we’re not yet aware of – then it likely wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well as it did. But, as we know, it did work, and acted as the emotional cornerstone of the next five years.

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Parts of the ending of the episode could come into a little bit of criticism, admittedly; there’s a sense that setting River up with a life within the Library, while very nice for a while, probably isn’t something she’d actually be especially interested in for long. (How close was she with the rest of the crew? I got the impression she’d only started working with them recently on a freelance basis, so they’re probably not friends she’d want to spend forever with. And that’s a very specific sort of domesticity that you don’t really imagine River wanting – flip the script and imagine the Doctor was saved in the computer, leading that life, and it’d have fairly different connotations.) That said, I’m less than inclined to make much of it, particularly since we return to it in The Name of the Doctor and find out that River has plenty of stuff going on to keep her occupied.

In terms of the broader resolution of the episode, too, there’s something of an argument to be made that it’s a little… not incoherent, but certainly less coherent than Moffat’s usually fairly tightly-plotted episodes have been historically. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, or anything quite so significant, but rather that there’s this little sense that, as the plot shifts and picks up momentum very quickly, it was motivated by a desire to start wrapping things up first and foremost; it’s the bit where Cal starts to reject her surroundings, and the planet goes into self-destruct mode. Indeed, it’s the self-destruct mode part especially that feels like it’s a little out of nowhere – shouldn’t the increased peril at the end come from the Vashta Nerada? They end up a little forgotten anyway.

To be honest though, it’s not actually all that important. Mostly because the episode is still entertaining enough to pull it off; while watching it, that sense that there’s only fifteen or so minutes left and it’s time to pick up the pace is very much secondary to what’s happening on screen, and that’s the more important thing.

Also, though, there’s the fact that the Vashta Nerada and the Library aren’t reallythe heart of it, they’re just the set dressing – it’s the final scene, where the Doctor runs to save River, that matters most. (Indeed, that was going to be the title at one stage, The Doctor Runs.) It’s the most triumphant scene of the episode, as you’d expect, and it’s really the apotheosis of Moffat’s understanding of the Doctor; never giving in, never giving up, and always saving people.

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One of the other interesting things that struck me about this episode – just in the sense of an idle thought I’d like to pick at more in future if ever I do a proper analysis of this episode (unlikely but not impossible; there’s only one episodic project left I’d like to do with Doctor Who at this point, but, you know, spoilers) or something I’d like to read an essay on if someone’s already written it – and that’s the fact that, for all the significance of the library, large swathes of Forest of the Dead play out by television logic more than anything else.

What I’ve got in mind specifically is Donna’s life in the dream world – the place functions by taking the television style literally, making the narrative leaps of jump cuts into something discomforting and offputting. It’s a really neat trick, and quite effective here; Euros Lyn does a great job making this technique work. In the broader framework of the two-part story, it feels like it calls back to the opening of Silence in the Library, where Cal was essentially watching Doctor Who; this is a literalisation of that, putting Donna within a television world. Arguably – given there’s some interesting ideas about escapism going on in the background in terms of Cal’s character – you can look at this as a union of the two ways Steven Moffat would’ve experienced Doctor Who: books, and television.

I don’t know. I mean, like I said, it’s an uninterrogated observation, just something that occurred to me while I was watching it. In terms of the broader analysis, there’s probably much more interesting stuff that can be said of it – how it fits with Russell T Davies’ engagement with television as a medium, how it fits with Moffat’s interest in glitchy technology, how it fits with Moffat’s engagement with the idea of storytelling (which is the more overt and obvious idea running through the episode).

Ultimately, anyway, it’s a really good episode. Very entertaining and engaging to watch, lots of memorable scenes and imaginative concepts, and an episode that stands on its own terms even outside of the significance it gained in later years.

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Silence in the Library

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Spoilers.

In a very real sense, the Steven Moffat era begins here.

That, admittedly, is not the most unique or original observation that you could make (on a related but probably less obvious note, I’m inclined to argue that the Capaldi era actually begins with The Name of the Doctor, or even really actually Asylum of the Daleks) but it also, of course, isn’t any less true as a result.

Admittedly, up to a point you can say that of any of his episodes. There are just certain themes and ideas that Moffat is always interested in in Doctor Who, and styles and patterns that recur as little echoes of the future. Aspects of The Girl in the Fireplace feel almost like a first draft of Amy in The Eleventh Hour, while Blink is time-y wime-y in a way that presages various puzzle box plotlines, and The Empty Child is of course the first time that “everybody lives” (and actually, in light of that, probably hasn’t been given enough credit in terms of how indicative it is of Moffat’s later approach). Everyone has seen the old forum post from the nineties where he put forward an idea that turns up in A Good Man Goes to War, there’s the whole theory of time travel from Continuity Errors, and, of course, literally everything about The Curse of Fatal Death, which has been weirdly and unintentionally prescient in more ways than one.

But Silence in the Library feels rather different to those, in a way. Again, there’s the debut of ideas Moffat returns to in future – the library feels like it foreshadows some of that focus on stories, for one thing – as well as the obvious. Up to a point, it might just be because the announcement that Moffat would be taking over after Davies left was first announced on the 20th May 2008 – it would’ve been part of the paratext of this episode. Here offers us another opportunity to delve into memory lane, because I do broadly speaking remember the reaction to it – in my own circles, limited to real life interactions alone. Reaction was generally pretty positive (I was still a year away from being presented with my first ridiculous fan petition, an anti-Matt Smith piece I was wise enough not to sign) given Moffat was largely well-liked. Everyone thought Doctor Who would be much scarier; for my part, I thought it’d be funnier, which isn’t a bad insight from a nine-year-old.

(There were actually two such opportunities to check out memory lane with this one; around a year, maybe two, after the broadcast of this, I was in a queue behind some people talking about how their friend was in this episode and played CAL. I immediately decided I should befriend this person too, because then I’d have a friend who was in Doctor Who, and then promptly did not make any effort to do so because talking to people was, and remains, terrifying.)

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With ten years of hindsight, though, there’s one aspect of Silence in the Library that stands out especially: River Song.

This is, I’d guess, probably the first time I’ve rewatched Silence in the Library in years – I’d be surprised if I’d watched it between now and The Time of the Doctor, and I don’t think I’d seen it for a few years before then anyway. In short, today was the first time (probably) that I’ve gone back to watch River’s introduction after having seen her episodes with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi.

What’s most impressive, I think, is how fully formed a character River already feels. Not just in terms of the storytelling, and the in-universe backwards character development that was going on, but from a more practical production standpoint – imagine for a moment that Kate Winslet, who was initially offered the part, accepted the role. Would she have come back? Probably not, and if she did, almost certainly not with the frequency and enthusiasm of Alex Kingston. The seven years River appeared and developed as a character, while there was undoubtedly a lot of plate spinning and improvisation going on behind the scenes, are in fact a pretty remarkable achievement – I think that’s something we forget, being so used to the final product, which does seem mostly seamless.

On the basis of this episode alone, there’s an obvious potential to River as a character – there’s a real frisson to Alex Kingston’s performance, and River Song offers a genuinely fascinating limit point for the character of the Doctor. It’s a dynamic we’ve not seen before – not just in terms of the obvious time travel aspect, but also just the way she speaks to him. One of my favourite lines, actually, is when the Doctor is berating Lux, going on about how he won’t let one man’s arrogance endanger people’s lives – and River responds with “why don’t you sign his contract then?” It’s a fantastic line, because it’s one of those rare moments where a character gets to critique the Doctor, and the critique lands. (Of course, there’s something notable about how he then doesn’t sign the contract, essentially letting his arrogance endanger everyone’s lives – in discussions of the arrogance of the Tenth Doctor, this one doesn’t tend to crop up as much, but it’s probably one of the most direct examples of such.)

In a broader sense, though – considering the episode in hindsight, in light of the rest of River’s story – it’s a deeply emotional piece. There’s a real poignancy to River’s realisation here that this is the first time the Doctor has met her, calling forward to her discussion with Rory in Day of the Moon about the moment she fears most. It’s genuinely quite affecting; I’ve already mentioned how good Alex Kingston is in the role, but honestly, it bears repeating. It really is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role; I often talk about how actors elevate material, and yes, that is what she does here, but also it’s perhaps more accurate to say Kingston accentuates and embodies a script that’s already strong, and together the result just sings.

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When it comes to the rest of the episode, it’s perhaps more difficult to talk about; as ever with two-parters, it feels like seeing the conclusion is necessary to offering a fuller commentary. (Not just in terms of the basic plot stuff, for what its worth; one of the things I wanted to highlight was just how well Steven Moffat writes Donna, before deciding to hold that for next week, where she’ll be a bit more of a focal character.)

The Vashta Nerada are a fairly neat concept – an escalation of the ending of Blink, pervasive and ever-present, and easily translatable into a playground game to boot. (I’ve got no memory of actually avoiding Vashta Nerada, but equally, I went out of my way to eat fish custard, so I probably did this too.) It’s well directed, too, by Euros Lyn; there’s some effective lighting going on to sell the Vashta Nerada as a concept, and just generally a pretty nice control of tone throughout, creating some genuinely pretty tense moments.

Same goes for the Library, actually – an entire planet, turned into a library. (Although 4022 people really isn’t very many, is it? Perhaps it’s a very small planet.) Someone once remarked upon the number of concepts Steven Moffat will throw into any given episode – the majority of his stuff is just bursting with ideas really, and that’s particularly apparent here as he throws together several different high concepts that could justify episodes on their own. As, indeed, some of them later did!

Ultimately, in any case, I really liked Silence in the Library. I suspect I’d have enjoyed it more, actually, if I let myself watch Forest of the Dead immediately afterwards – I’ve been trying to preserve a degree of fealty to transmission, so it’ll be a week before I watch the next one. But, yeah, this was a great episode – the first properly great one in a while, to be honest. As evidenced, I suspect, by the fact I’ve had a lot more to engage with here!

9/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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