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: 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.

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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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