21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Time Of Angels / Flesh And Stone

After the double trouble of The Beast Below and Victory Of The Daleks, Matt Smith's first season improves with an adventure that sees the return of the dreaded Weeping Angels. It's the season's first two-parter, The Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone, which not only brings back the Angels, but Miss Smug herself, River Song. It's also the story that accelerates the season's over-riding story arc of the mysterious Crack – which depending on your point of view is an asset or a curse.

Moffat was taking quite a risk by bringing back the Weeping Angels – they rose to super-stardom almost overnight in the hugely acclaimed Blink. They were and are terrific monsters, not only in their demonic visages but in the creepy, unearthly way they move around – in the blink of an eye, they suddenly zoom forward as if they're flickering in and out of existence. One minute they're in the far corner of the room, the next they're right in your face, threatening to wipe out the rest of your living days by sending you back in time.

A common comparison with Blink and its sequel is that of the first two Alien films. Whereas the first Alien was a brooding, psychological masterpiece of suggestive claustrophobia, Aliens is more of an out and out action adventure, full of flashy heroics and battles. Which is true to a point when you reassess the two Weeping Angels stories. Angels Stone is more action-packed than its predecessor, but there are still plenty of creepy moments to send the kids behind the sofa. Which is a blessed relief this season, given that we're miles away from the ghost train.

So how do the Angels fare this time around? They've been upgraded for this all-new story, so they have a number of extra terrifying gizmos at their disposal. Well, I say terrifying – half of them are, half of them are completely unnecessary, a bit like half of the rubbish that you get with an upgraded mobile phone. Scary stuff then. Well, first off, they now have the power to push themselves through TV. There's that superb sequence when Amy's keeping tabs on the lone Angel on a monitor screen, when it starts to move of its own volition – closer and closer to the camera and then it starts to flicker out of the telly and right in front of poor old Amy. It's a sequence that's similar to the horror chiller, The Ring, in which the eerie kid with the skanky unwashed hair crawls out of the TV and turns the face of each victim into a terrified, contorted mess.

But hey, homages are nothing new in Doctor Who, and this particular sequence is a great behind-the-sofa moment for kids. Given that TV technology is always improving and developing, this sort of idea isn't as crazy as it sounds. Ask me again in 30 years time whether the ultimate in interactive TV panned out, and I'll probably say that this adventure was light years ahead of its time.

And if that means that Jeremy Kyle will come slithering out of the telly, then I'm banning the box in my house right now.

I digress. Amy's having quite a rotten time of it in this one. Not only are the Angels coming at her out of TV screens, they're also making dust fall out of her eye. Another spooky sequence, and marvellously shot by director Adam Smith. An image of an Angel manages to imprint itself in Amy's mind, and so Amy is forced to close her eyes in order to halt the effects. This is another example of Moffat's obsession with kiddie party games, in this case, good old Blind Man's Buff. Having said that, it is one of the more effective game motifs simply because the concept's so chilling. There's nothing more terrifying than the thought of going blind, and Moffat plays upon this fear very well indeed, especially when the Angels seem to take such delight in this. They even take glee in forcing Amy to count down from 10 – making them evil sadists worthy of Dask and his Mickey Mouse haircut.

But then there's the problem of how they communicate, and unfortunately this is where these all-new upgrades start to fall down. Basically, whenever an Angel kills one of the hapless militarised clerics, they use the consciousness of the victim to communicate with the Doctor. Which in the first place isn't exactly an original idea, given that poor old Miss Evangelista, Dave and Anita did pretty much the same thing in the Library two-parter after they'd been stripped to the bone – but with far greater effect. So while it's a weaker retread of an old Moffat idea, unfortunately it's effectively halved when the Angel decides to use the voice of Sacred Bob.

Ah, Sacred Bob. Or Scared Bob as the Doctor puts it. Or more accurately, Boring Bob. A cowardly wimp of a lad, Boring Bob does nevertheless have one fearsome piece of weaponry at his disposal – the most boring voice in the galaxy. It's the sort of dull, monotonous mumble that could send a die-hard insomniac to the Land Of Nod in less than a second. The sort of voice that conjures up a wet weekend in a run-down hotel where all the power's gone. The sort of voice that you might find on the other end of the line when you try and ring up the tax office. Let's face it, the power of the Weeping Angels is greatly reduced when they choose to 'speak' with the voice of a bored telesales worker. It's presumably meant to emphasise how unnatural the concept of an alien speaking in a dead man's voice is – but when you're speaking with the voice of Boring Bob, your terror level's seriously compromised.

Presumably to compensate for this dull burbling, the Angels have decided to go for brute force when killing off its victims. No one in this story is sent back in time – not even Boring Bob. Instead, they decide to opt for good old-fashioned neck twisting, although inevitably we don't get to see these grisly acts of violence. Instead we get to see random shots of unmoving boots, which aren't quite as effective – although the vicious clicking sound effects do convey what's going on very well.

Also, Father Octavian's death is rather sad, especially how up until now he's been a rather surly grunt of a fellah. The Doctor muses that he wishes that he had got to know Octavian better, and even if this is a typical “I'll Buy You Time At The Cost Of My Own Life” cliché, it's still quite an effective sequence. Generally, Octavian is about the only main supporting character of note – the rest of Octavian's mob is generally faceless, only serving as gun-toting cannon fodder. Iain Glen plays Octavian well, with the right sort of surly grit, but with a well-meaning nature at his core.

The only other notable supporting personage is of course River Song, who's still mooching around with a smug grin on her face while sneering “Spoiiilllaaahhs”. Fair to say that if you like the River Song character, then you'll find much to enjoy in this two-parter. If you don't, then come prepared with one of those squeezy stress balls whenever The Song saunters onto screen.

However, Moffat slyly introduces another level to Song, in that she becomes a character that you can no longer fully depend on. She's become a shifty enigma, with a number of dark skeletons in the closet – about the only revelation she will reveal is that she's apparently responsible for the death of a good man. Hmmm, wonder who that can be? Moffat – at this point – is still keeping River Song's secrets hidden in the cupboard, and I guess that for fans of River Song, it's a neat trick to string out the mystery of her identity and her deadly secret over a long period of time. Alex Kingston is still rather good – she's being asked to deliver more smug one-liners than before, but she plays the character well, and injects a bit of humanity into what's basically a one-woman joke machine.

This was the first story of Season 5 to go before the cameras. You can tell, because Matt Smith's haircut is notably more ridiculous than in other stories – a kind of floppy, curtain cut mop that wouldn't be out of place in a 1990 indie band like The Soup Dragons. Despite the big hair, it's difficult to believe that this is Smith's first shot at the Doctor, since he plays it like an old pro. Already, he knows his Doctor inside out and backwards, reeling off a string of witty one-liners when required – I especially like his lament that the TARDIS doesn't make “the noise” - apparently the sound of a pained elephant, going by Smith's voice. Then there's all the other great lines including the City Of Death tribute “Not bad, bit slow in the middle” or his reminiscing about the two-headed Aplan chief architect.

What's interesting is that this Doctor is notably less forthcoming than past incarnations. Whereas his predecessor may have slipped in the odd bold promise to save Amy, here the Eleventh Doctor is a lot more matter-of-fact: “The Angel is gonna come and it's gonna turn this light off, and then there's nothing I can do to stop it. So do it, concentrate, move your hand!” Smith also proves that he can do gravitas just as well, most notably his big cliffhanger speech that puts a neat spin on the typical Doctor In Peril cliché: “There's one thing you never put in a trap, if you're smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there is one thing you never, ever put in a trap... Me!”

Altogether, a top performance from Smith – Moffat must have been beaming in delight at the performance of his new star on the first day of filming.

Karen Gillan too generally does well, although her character of Amy is hampered by one big flaw. Throughout most of the story, Amy is the archetypal 21st century companion, alternating between glib wisecracks and being a terrified damsel in distress. Karen Gillan makes a good fist of this, especially in the scenes in which she's taken over by the Angels. Gillan conveys that real sense of terror and claustrophobia, and it's nice to see Amy's first real taste of vulnerability – especially when you consider that she's helped to save the day in her past two adventures.

The main problem though comes in the final scenes. Inexplicably, she becomes a sex-starved monster when for reasons best known to herself, she starts to come on big time to an uncomprehending Doctor. Er... even though she's about to get married to old Whassisface in a very short space of time.

Presumably this is meant to emphasise how different this new Doctor is, given that his predecessor used to love nothing better than a quick game of Tonsil Hockey to pass the time. But in the end – and without wishing to sound like a hoity toity Daily Mail reader – the scene feels wrong, and furthermore it portrays Amy as a screwed-up weirdo, who's totally at odds with the character that we've seen so far. OK, she's been waiting around for her Raggedy Doctor, but would she really start treating her enigmatic new friend like a walking, talking sex toy? Bizarre scene, and one that feels completely irrelevant to the story.

The other big problem with this story is that looking back at it, it's not allowed to function as a story in its own right. It feels like it's a corner of a bigger picture, since lots of mysteries remain unsolved at the end – mysteries that aren't wrapped up until the end of the season. For instance, there's that odd sequence in which the Doctor comes back to Amy without a jacket – at the time, it's easy to miss and maybe pass off as a possible continuity error, but it doesn't become clear until the last few moments of The Big Bang. Plus, there's the mystery of the enigmatic Crack – which at this point feels solely like a handy Get Out Of Jail Free Card to get rid of the menace of the Weeping Angels and to cure Amy.

It's a shame that Moffat has to rely so heavily on the Story Arc – back in the day, The Trial Of A Time Lord was lambasted for not resolving loose ends until the very end, and yet, some of the stories in this season have had a far easier press. Even though it's doing exactly the same thing – and in this case, the Crack is no more than a handy caveat to defeat the Baddie Of The Fortnight.

But despite these problems, there's much to enjoy in Angels Stone. It's generally fast paced and far more exciting than the last two stories, with plenty of memorable moments and shocks for the kids, including the TV Angel, Amy's eye dust and the death of Octavian. Angels Stone does feel like a more Old School piece of Who – in particular, it feels similar in tone to Earthshock (a favourite of Moffat, judging by that DVD documentary) in which a handful of grunts skulk around lots of moody caves.

It's brought to the screen with a good deal of atmosphere by director Adam Smith, who handles the action well through moody lighting, a strong sense of pace and typically freaky camera cuts and angles for the Angels. The performances from the regulars are very impressive – especially when it's Smith and Gillan's first attempts (it's as if they've been there for a year at least) and Moffat's script contains his usual trademark wit, but as a bonus, there's a greater emphasis on creating tension and dread.

Which is the sort of feeling you would have felt as a British viewer when the first episode was shown in April 2010. The BBC saw fit to ruin the excellent cliffhanger with an intrusive cartoon of Graham Norton. Following on from their irritating habit of shrinking the credits while advertising the next programme, TV bosses have gone one step further by actually advertising what's up next during the current programme. Fortunately, the DVD release allows you to enjoy the story on its own, but still – makes you wonder whether TV bosses are even more evil than the Weeping Angels...

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