Doctor Who Review: Village of the Angels

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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?

Class cast & crew on their Doctor Who spinoff, cancellation woes, & Series 2 plans

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“I loved every minute of it,” says Patrick Ness of his Doctor Who spin-off Class. “I’d be doing it now if they’d let me.”

Following a group of students at Coal Hill school, Class was Doctor Who’s third spin-off since its 2005 revival. With a celebrated young adult author at the helm, Class was a series in the same vein as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, always bursting with ideas and deeply invested in its characters. After the success of The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood, Class seemed set to reach similar heights – until it didn’t.

Five years since the show was first released on October 22nd 2016, creator Patrick Ness, director Ed Bazalgette, and stars Greg Austin, Sophie Hopkins, and Jordan Renzo look back on Class – reflecting on its complicated relationship with Doctor Who, their experiences making the show, its untimely cancellation, and the series two episodes we never saw. 

My latest piece for Radio Times, and one I’m personally very excited about: a fifth anniversary retrospective for the Doctor Who spinoff Class, including a number of never before revealed behind the scenes production details about both the show’s early development and its unrealised second series, from the BBC’s suggestion it might star Frank Skinner to just what Patrick Ness had in mind for the Weeping Angel civil war.

Class was one of the first series I wrote about professionally, many years ago; I was very fond of the show back then, to the point that when I was writing this article, trying to cite the claim it was a well-received show, I just kept running into my own old reviews. Made me laugh, that.

I’m still fond of it now: I rewatched the first episode, For Tonight We Might Die, as part of my preparation for this piece, and I loved it. Certainly, it’s not without its problems, little details here and there that I’m inclined to criticise, but on the whole I loved it – to me it felt like a show full of ideas and bursting with energy. In fact, I’d love it if the Chibnall era of Doctor Who was a little bit more like Class.

Somewhere in this show there’s the first draft of the future, I think. Or a future, anyway.

Related:

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: Blink

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Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead.

This is a difficult episode to review.

Most immediately, that’s because it’s a bit of a non-standard episode of Doctor Who, in that the Doctor isn’t really in it very much. It picks up on the same basic premise as Love & Monsters, being the episode without the Doctor, essentially a necessity of the shooting schedule required to film thirteen episodes. It’s in a bit of an odd position though because the last time they tried that Doctor-lite episode, it wasn’t very well received at all: the large majority of people seemed to hate it. I would contend, of course, that the large majority of people were wrong, but it’s difficult not to imagine that at some point in the development of Blink the successes and failures of Love & Monsters were discussed.

So, there’s an episode which is about as far removed from the Doctor Who standard as any one episode could be considered to be. That’s already one that’s quite difficult to talk about and to review, particularly if you’re trying to rank it against other episodes.

But then, of course, there’s another aspect to contend with. Rather unlike its predecessor, Blink is in fact widely loved. Arguably, indeed, one of the most loved episodes of Doctor Who ever – it’s quite routinely cited as The Best Episode. It’s won a couple of Doctor Who Magazine polls to that effect, regularly finishing within the top 5 episodes of all time, and routinely being positioned as the best episode of the 2000s.

This is in turn invites any review of Blink to grapple with that truism – there’s almost an obligation to comment on that idea, either to dispute it or to affirm it. (That is, I suspect, in part why there’s been a bit of a turn on it in recent years – it’s a nice lynchpin to base critique of Moffat around, in terms of displaying a lot of his early ideas and stylistic tics.) That of course again makes it difficult to review the episode, because there’s a huge weight of critical consensus to work against (or to keep in step with) when you’re writing about the episode.

Personally speaking? I don’t think it’s the best episode ever. I don’t even think it’s Moffat’s best episode ever – I’d be inclined to select quite a few of his other scripts ahead of this one. In turn, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years… not disparaging Blink, per se, but certainly I’ve considered it to be quite overrated, with a reputation and stature not entirely befitting of its actual quality. So watching it now, I was interested to see whether or not I was actually right – or if it was, actually, the best ever episode of Doctor Who.

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What immediately struck me is that this is, quite simply, just a very well-made piece of television.

Credit, obviously, is due to Steven Moffat in this regard. It’s a particularly intricate script – perhaps one of his most – and it has to be, to make the timey-wimey aspect work. But that’s threaded through the script remarkably well; I’m always impressed by how the earlier excerpts of the Doctor as an easter egg come to make sense when Sally eventually has the final conversation with him. However, it’s also worth remarking on the actual heart of the script, which I suspect sometimes gets lost underneath all the wibbly wobbly sleight of hand. There’s some real weight to this script in places, which is in no small part down to how well characterised each individual is – obviously there’s a greater space to do this when you don’t also have the Doctor to shift the focus, but that also speaks to just how important it was to put forward some well-rounded and nuanced characters. We needed to believe in Sally Sparrow, because this week it’s her programme – and Steven Moffat did an excellent job with writing the character. I suspect that no small part of the episode’s popularity is down to that character, who genuinely is a fantastic creation.

(Of course, that’s also largely to do with Carey Mulligan’s performance – she’s absolutely exceptional here, and you can see why she went straight to Hollywood not long after this episode. It’s rare for me to remark on the work of Andy Pryor, the casting director on Doctor Who, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to pay heed to him here – he’s clearly abundantly talented at his job, and it was a brilliant choice to cast Carey in the role. It’s difficult to believe the episode would have worked even half as well as it did without her.)

It’s also worth remarking on the work of Hettie MacDonald, the director of this episode. Blink is remarkably well-directed and edited – a huge amount of the tension comes from the direction of the episode, as well as the wonderfully clever choice to position the camera as an observer of the Angels. MacDonald invites the audience to read the scene as though they’re there, having a genuine diegetic influence on the story – which does, of course, only make it all the more involving and all the more frightening. Certainly, this is one area in which the material does live up to its reputation – Blink is scary. There’s a proper tension throughout; yes, it comes from Moffat’s writing, but MacDonald does a great job to realise this with some wonderfully claustrophobic shots. It’s clear why people found Blink so scary, and indeed why they still do.

doctor who review blink weeping angels statue wester drumlins hettie macdonald carey mulligan sally sparrow steven moffat

The other big thing that this episode is remembered for is the Weeping Angels – possibly the most iconic monster of new Who, even today. (Really, nothing can supersede them – the Weeping Angels are up there with the Daleks and the Cybermen, undoubtedly. They’re the most meaningful impact on the popular zeitgeist of the 21st Century that Doctor Who can lay claim to; certainly, not as many people remember the Slitheen, the Krillitane, or the Jagrafess.)

And, yes, they’re brilliant. How could they not be? They’re the one Doctor Who monster you can’t hide from behind the sofa. It’s a fantastic central conceit, one which is – as already mentioned – really emphasised by Hettie MacDonald’s fantastic direction. That the Angels don’t move if we’re not looking at them includes us further, invests us – that they can move when the camera isn’t on them only makes them scarier. The threat they pose is, in a sense, real.

There’s something wonderfully simplistic about that central conceit. In a way, it’s almost a shame that there’s been more autonomic monsters in years past – almost as though they’re encroaching on Weeping Angel territory, diminishing them in a sense. Certainly, it almost feels like they lost their mystique in a way – there’s something powerful about presenting the Weeping Angels as “creatures of the abstract”, as the Doctor puts it here. Did further stories diminish them? Perhaps in their ubiquity. I’m quite fond of the idea that the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel, and I remember little of Angels Take Manhattan. (Though, if we’re raising the issue of diminishing the Angels, I suspect Class likely would have – Patrick Ness intended to show an Angel civil war, as well as the planet of the Angels. Tantalising ideas, perhaps, but I’m not sure they’re worth pursuing; quite apart from reducing the mystique of the Angels, I can’t help but feel that would lead to too much introspection, robbing them of that isolation and loneliness that helps make them so interesting.)

Ultimately, though, I’ve still not quite answered the question. Yes, there’s a great monster. And, yes, there’s an absolutely fantastic premise, in a really well directed, polished episode. While I’ve never quite agreed with recommending Blink as someone’s first Doctor Who episode, you can see the logic behind it.

And yet… well, it’s still not actually the best episode of Doctor Who ever. It’s very good. I have no particular complaints. But it’s not the best.

9/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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