On Monday evening, I went round to visit Molly and Jonny to talk about this week’s Doctor Who episode – I managed to get lost on the way to and from their flat, but luckily in between that we were able to successfully record an episode of Galactic Yo-Yo. You can listen to it below:
(I should probably note, because I guess this is technically nominally a family-friendly blog, there are some NSFW jokes around the 20 minute mark, which continue for ten minutes – so you can either skip those, I suppose, or listen to them and laugh as I try desperately to steer the conversation back to Doctor Who.)
Big thanks anyway to Molly and Jonny for inviting me onto the podcast – it’s always a huge amount of fun, both as listener and guest, and it was nice to join them to get into some more detail about this episode and our theories for the rest of the series.
A succession of disconnected images. A stone angel. You. A blue box called a TARDIS.
The least interesting thing about the Weeping Angels is that they’re scary.
They are scary, of course: it’s them as much as the Empty Child that secured Moffat’s reputation as the writer of “the scary ones” during the Davies era. They’re the first and certainly most iconic alien of the new series, one of relatively few to really make an impact in the public consciousness in a way that’s comparable to something like the Daleks or Cybermen. In part, that’s because of their simplicity and clarity: right at the heart of the fantastical and the mundane, the Weeping Angels are the Doctor Who monsters you can’t hide from behind the sofa. It’s also because of how well-directed Blink is – on the strength of that episode alone, Hettie MacDonald is probably quietly one of the best directors Doctor Who has had.
But scary isn’t the only thing they are, or in fact really the main thing that they are: Blink feels much more of a piece with The Girl in the Fireplace than either of The Empty Child or Silence in the Library. There’s a poetry and a poignancy to the Weeping Angels that’s fascinating, that makes them more than just particularly fast killers – the reason why they’re worth bringing back but the Raston Warrior Robot is not, if you like. “Feasting on the quantum energy of your unlived life” isn’t just a bit of empty technobabble (or it shouldn’t be, anyway): it’s a name on a gravestone, it’s a last letter from someone long since dead, it’s Billy Shipton in his hospital bed waiting for the rain to stop. There’s something desperately sad about the Weeping Angels, in a way that isn’t really true of a Dalek.
Village of the Angels understands the Weeping Angels as scary first and foremost, though. That’s fine: they are scary, after all. While at times it risks feeling a little like a greatest hits package, the lack of straightforwardly new ideas about the Angels is offset by Maxine Alderton’s knack for coming up with striking images: Claire with Angel’s wings, the Angel set alight as it manifests from a sketch, the Angel drawn by the polygraph, and, of course, that cliffhanger. This is also comfortably Jamie Magnus Stone’s best effort as a Doctor Who director too, an improvement on his previous episodes by some margin – encouraging, given he’ll be directing Whittaker’s regeneration.
There is a sense, though, that Village of the Angels has suffered for being part of Flux – or perhaps that Alderton has been somewhat short-changed when asked once again to write an episode that leads into the series finale.
The temptation is to try and do some speculative archaeology here and ask what this episode would look like had it been produced under normal circumstances, and start making excuses there. However it doesn’t, as War of the Sontarans did, have quite the same sense of being constructed out of whatever partially-completed scripts could be rearranged and salvaged for a new episode – again, actually, for the most part you wouldn’t be able to tell this was filmed during a pandemic if you didn’t already. (For the most part: the stock photo snarling Angel isn’t as effective a workaround as they seem to think, and it does prompt a sneaking suspicion that something necessitated Jodie Whittaker being apart from Mandip Gill and John Bishop for long stretches.)
No, more likely than not this episode survived basically intact during the redevelopment of Series 13 into Flux – planned, presumably, to function as this year’s equivalent of The Haunting of Villa Diodati and Fugitive of the Judoon, and therefore the obvious candidate for a non-Chibnall episode to prioritise during production. (Working from that assumption would put this in the episode eight slot, suggesting perhaps that Survivors of the Flux and The Vanquishers may well be the finale as originally intended.) Either way, whether this is an impact of Flux or not, the underlying issue is the same – Village of the Angels isn’t really an episode that’s allowed to have its own themes and concerns, or even really its own identity, the whole thing ultimately obscured by this year’s wider serialised plot. Arguably that speaks to a weakness of this overarching structure, but it’s not a new problem: the same was true of The Haunting of Villa Diodati, an episode that entirely drained of oxygen the moment Ashad turned up to tease Ascension of the Cybermen and take attention away from anything else.
Of the three new writers to debut in Series 12, Alderton perhaps wasn’t the most exciting – that was Charlene James, writer of the undeniably ambitious Can You Hear Me? – but it’s difficult to be, given the demands and constraints of an episode designed solely to establish the finale. Given essentially the same brief again, though, you can start to see her skills emerge more obviously: the striking imagery we’ve already noted, but Alderton also has a stronger sense of Yaz than a lot of other writers, and that opening scene with the polygraph offers introductory exposition with flourish. If Russell T Davies does look to invite back any Chibnall-era writers for Series 14, it’d be genuinely worthwhile to give Alderton an episode that’s more fully her own to see what she does with it.
All of which, in any case, makes it a little harder to write about this episode.
In part, obviously, that’s just because the wider story isn’t finished yet – there is, at the very least, still another two weeks’ worth of exposition and also more exposition to follow. (At the very least, and perhaps also at the very most too; it’s difficult to imagine the upcoming specials, which by design are a much more mass-audience affair, getting too involved in this story, but then it’s about as difficult to imagine this not playing some role in Whittaker’s regeneration story.)
But it’s also because, at this point, there are just fewer and fewer things left to say about the Division. (Or sometimes just “Division” now.) It remains a largely uninspired idea: the basic shape and texture to all of this, while ostensibly new to Doctor Who, feels deeply familiar by virtue of how generic it is. There are fragments of it all through pop-culture, and it’s often easy to frame it in those terms – it’s Jason Bourne, it’s “what if Joran Dax was a part of Section 31?”, it’s exactly the generic science fiction hero invoked by Captain Jack Harkness in 2005, right down to the missing memories – because it’s just so prevalent already. Yes, it’s notable that the Timeless Child aspect of the reveal is essentially an afterthought by now; there’s something striking about how it ties into the religious themes of the Chibnall era; it’s odd that, when doing a secret origin for the Doctor, Chibnall largely actually hasn’t touched on why she left Gallifrey in the first place.
But once you’ve set all that aside, the core of this week’s cliffhanger is still the Doctor being recalled, and presumably next week she’ll be asked to do One Last Job to stop Swarm and Azure (who you’d expect to be surprisingly Good, Actually, if the Division is so evil, but nevermind) in exchange for her missing memories – the bedrock of all this is just a fundamentally derivative hodgepodge of genre tropes, and whether Bel is the Doctor’s mother or Susan’s mother is just set-dressing.
At a certain point, it’s just difficult to particularly care about all that anymore.