Doctor Who Review: Village of the Angels

doctor who flux review village weeping angels chibnall maxine alderton magnus stone division medderton

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.

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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.

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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.

Related:

Doctor Who series 13 reviews

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?

Doctor Who Review: Once, Upon Time

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Lost causes are my specialty.

What is the point of an origin story?

Often, it’s straightforwardly economic: a means to an end and little else, a way to draw a little more life out of a familiar intellectual property while at the same time replacing an actor that’s gotten either too old or too expensive to headline a franchise anymore. (There’s an aversion to risk there, too – an unwillingness to look beyond recognisable iconography or move past a particular character and try something new.) Other times, it’s about paring back something that had got too convoluted, stripping back years of mythology to hone in on one simple image or idea. (That, of course, is also usually an economic concern – it’s about providing a good point of entry for consumers both new and lapsed.)

Neither, strictly speaking, are actually necessary for Doctor Who. It’s famously a programme that will entirely recreate itself from the ground up every few years; it’s not beholden to the same pressures that might otherwise prompt a franchise to go back and inspect its own origins. Still, though, if you squint you can just about see the appeal – I’ve often wondered how Chibnall, sold to the public as a fresh perspective on a tired programme, managed to convince the BBC that his dense and continuity-laden take on Doctor Who was the one they wanted, but the answer is quite simple. “We’re going to explore the Doctor’s secret origins” is something that sounds clean, even alluring – so long as he didn’t show up with a PowerPoint detailing the Morbius Doctors, it’s no wonder Chibnall could at the very least make it sound good. (Nevermind the fact that origin stories are so often derided and dismissed – the response to Solo seemingly single-handedly plunged LucasFilm into total disarray, for example – there’s just enough of an instinctive, despite-yourself intrigue that it’s something people will keep signing off on.)

The best-case scenario for Chibnall and Doctor Who is that this is one of those very rare origin stories that can offer a genuinely new insight into a familiar character – one that transforms, and perhaps even elevates, a previous work by inviting audiences to understand it in a new way. (Which makes it interesting, incidentally, how much of this isn’t actually based on things we already know of – one wonders how it all would’ve been received if Chibnall had brought David Bradley in to play the First Doctor, working for the Division immediately prior to An Unearthly Child, showing us the mission that went wrong that lead him to run away from Gallifrey in the first place.)

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The most striking moment in Fugitive of the Judoon is when Ruth snaps the Judoon Captain’s horn off. The twist and crunch of bone, with all the implied cruelty of hurting an endangered animal, is awful and visceral – you’re not just mystified by Ruth anymore, but revolted too.

That Doctor is, put simply, ruthless: she’s immediately Not The Doctor, in a way that John Hurt’s incarnation of the Time Lord was never designed or intended to be. But there’s a haziness there too (notice later on in the episode, where Whittaker’s declaration that “the Doctor doesn’t use guns” isn’t a way to cleave a distinction between the pair, but to draw them back together again), borne of an unwillingness to commit to exploring who this character actually is. Indeed, it’s difficult to call Ruth’s Doctor a character at all – Jo Martin makes a strong impression, but that’s all it really is, an impression. She’s not afforded the opportunity to build that into a character, only ever representing a signifier for the distant past, essentially really only a plot device – given how fragmented her appearance is in Once, Upon Time, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was never actually on set this episode, filmed separately for greenscreen inserts. (Not actually the case, even though it looked like it.)

How does Once, Upon Time – offering, more likely than not, what will be our most substantive look at the Doctor’s time in the Division – inform our understanding of the character, how does it prompt us to view her in a new light? In terms of the broadest details of the plot, there’s not a lot here that’s new: Fugitive of the Judoon and The Timeless Children both established this status quo, indicating the Doctor’s pre-Hartnell life as a Division operative. Where those episodes each implied a certain moral ambiguity to the Division, Once, Upon Time encourages you to read them (and by extension, Jo Martin’s Doctor) as straightforwardly heroic – on a rescue mission, facing down the cartoonishly villainous Ravagers, and in the Doctor’s own words risking their lives to save the universe.

It renders this with the same sort of redundancy we’ve discussed before. If the Doctor wasn’t meaningfully different at this point in her life, what actually is the point? How does the knowledge that the Doctor once did everything she’d typically do – literally, actually, in this very episode, Whittaker’s Doctor taking inspiration from Martin’s to defeat the Ravagers – but with a vague military aesthetic, change the way we understand the character now? If it doesn’t add anything, does it take anything away? How does it inform our understanding of the identity crisis Whittaker’s Doctor is having now – what is it that she’s actually conflicted about?

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But at the same time, it’s actually not difficult to see why Martin’s Doctor has made such an impact, even beyond the strength of her performance: she’s written as a much more active character than Whittaker’s Doctor. (Indeed, there’s a sense that – at least on some level, if not every level – the response to her Doctor, ill-defined as she is, is a reaction against the incumbent Doctor.) It’s not that playing the Fugitive Doctor here gives Whittaker much more to do, exactly, because the character is still written in essentially the same way and doesn’t ask her to do anything new with her performance, but the character’s role in the narrative is different.

That’s the real problem with this sort of secret origin story – it’s fundamentally backward-looking, in a way that risks being (and in this case I’d argue is) dramatically inert. This isn’t a story about what the Doctor’s doing now, it doesn’t really place any emphasis on her actions now; Whittaker’s Doctor is once again being positioned as fundamentally reactive. The issue isn’t how the lore is changing, not really – though that’s certainly not ideal – it’s how the series seems to have lost any interest in its own lead character in the here and now.

(You can make the case, granted, that there’s an idea here about the Doctor becoming obsessed with her own past, to the extent that she’s neglecting her present, pushing away Yaz because she’s so intent on finding out about her time in the Division. That would be a story, and there would even be a metanarrative point to that – but it’s hard to meaningfully argue that’s something Chibnall is genuinely invested in. The Halloween Apocalypse opens with the Doctor doggedly pursuing Karvanista, and it was encouraging to see her looking for answers, but War of the Sontarans ends with the Doctor leaving Karvanisata in Liverpool, no questions asked.)

Bel and Vinder’s stories make for an interesting comparison here, actually. Both of these strands of Once, Upon Time work better than the Doctor’s – in part because Thaddea Graham is better at voiceover dialogue than Jodie Whittaker is (helped, probably, by the fact she’s talking to someone rather than just at herself), but also because we’re invested in the things they want, the things they’re doing now. For the Doctor, this was just a slightly-more-creative way of delivering the same exposition we’ve heard before. Bel and Vinder get theme and character; the Doctor only gets plot.

Ultimately, then, Once, Upon Time is another scattered chapter of Flux. There are some fun ideas throughout, and it may be easier to appreciate in hindsight if the final instalment sticks the landing, but as is it’s difficult to enjoy it as a whole particularly.

Related:

Doctor Who series 13 reviews

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?