By this point, if viewers haven’t been paying attention while watching the new Doctor Who, The Time of Angels is when things really start to get a little “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.” Devotees are rewarded with tight, intricate plotting and wildly imaginative concepts, but casual viewers might find they’re having a hard time holding on. This isn’t a complaint. The Time of Angels and its second part, Flesh and Stone, begin revealing everything Doctor Who as conceived by showrunner Steven Moffat was intended to be. It’s unevenly paced and bloated to justify the running time, but – other than a few missteps in series five – things only get better from here.
The Time of Angels begins with a dazed soldier swirling about an idyllic field with an obvious lipstick smudge across his face. A tuxedo-clad man and two other soldiers approach him, and it quickly becomes clear he’s imagining the grassy meadow, having been drugged with “hallucinogenic lipstick.”
“She’s here,” the man in the tuxedo says, with a mix of fear and awe.
Fierce scarlet heels clank through the decks of a starship and a mysterious woman, holding a laser blaster of some sort, cuts her way through a large door and begins carving symbols into a cube of advanced technology.
Jumping ahead 12,000 years, the Doctor and Amy stroll through the Delirium Archive, the largest museum ever, or so the Doctor claims. He comes across the same piece of technology – now dusted and ancient – with a complicated series of symbols engraved into them. He recognizes it as Old High Gallifreyan, the powerful language of the Time Lords. Translating it, he finds a message to him across time and space: “Hello, sweetie!” along with a time, location and coordinates.
Back in series four, Moffat introduced the character of River Song (Alex Kingston, best known in the U.S. from ER) in the two-part Tenth Doctor adventure, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. An archaeologist already acquainted with the Doctor, she immediately began interacting with the Doctor as if she had known him for years, though he had never seen her in his life. Her worn diary resembled the Doctor’s TARDIS. She carried a sonic screwdriver, one of the Doctor’s most trusted – and more difficult to use – tools. Song explained in Silence in the Library that her and the Doctor’s relative timelines are out of order: The first time she meets him is the last time he meets her, and vice versa. Because of this, they never meet in the same “place,” and are always privy to information the other doesn’t have. Despite varying degrees of reliance, they have informally agreed to keep things quiet to avoid “spoilers.”
In The Time of Angels, the true depth of the Doctor and River’s relationship begins to crystallize: “Hello, sweetie!” is a phrase of immense trust and endearment. Immediately stealing what he says is the flight recorder from a crashed spaceship, the Doctor whisks away to 12,000 years earlier, where River, this time decidedly more seductive and dangerous, faces capture. To escape, she blasts her way into space only to be rescued by the suddenly – and conveniently – present TARDIS. It is a time machine, after all.
The relationship between the Doctor and River is halting and awkward. River is flirtatious and teasing toward the Doctor, but he approaches her with apprehension and mistrust. At their relative points in time, she knows more about him than he does about her, and that can’t sit well with a Time Lord. Nonetheless, she’s able to convince him to follow the Byzantium to where it has crashed, on the planet Alfava Metraxis.
River’s not alone. In one of the more clever conceits of Moffat’s Doctor Who, “the Church” has become a religious and military organization that River is helping with a covert operation in restitution for an unspeakable crime she committed in her past (and the Doctor’s future). She calls in Father Octavian (Iain Glen) – 20 clerics at his command – who descends upon the planet with his troops and materiel to investigate the crash and its dangerous cargo: There’s a Weeping Angel lurking deep within the wreckage of the Byzantium.
First appearing in another Moffat-penned Tenth Doctor story Blink (starring a pre-Oscar nominated Carey Mulligan), the Weeping Angels are some of the better monsters to come out of the revived Doctor Who. Appearing to be made of stone, the Angels are a race of assassins “quantum locked” to exist only when seen. In darkness – or in the nanoseconds of a blink, even – they move fast enough to kill (this being a science fiction show, though, the Weeping Angels notion of “killing” is displacing somebody from their own time stream to live out their days centuries away from everything they’ve ever loved).
According to the Doctor, the Weeping Angels are some of the most powerful and malevolent creatures evolution has ever produced. The crashed Byzantium is leaking radiation from its damaged engines, which the Weeping Angel can use to become more powerful and threaten the millions of human colonists on Alfava Metraxis. Of course, since the ship has crashed in a long-abandoned monastery built by the two-headed Aplans, the Doctor, Amy, River and the soldiers must trudge their way through a “maze of the dead” under the damaged engines and into the ship itself.
Due to the overarching threat of the Angel and the uncertainly surrounding River, the Doctor insists Amy say away from the action, but her impetuous nature results in her tagging along. Eventually, she watches looped footage of the Weeping Angel from the Byzantium’s security cameras alone, naturally. The Angel onscreen manages to come alive and attack her, and an alarming truth about the Angels is revealed: That which holds the image of an Angel is capable of becoming an Angel. Amy, as always, proves crafty in a crisis and escapes immediate danger, but can’t quite figure out why she has something in her eye …
The Time of Angels spends a lot of time telling the audience how afraid of the Weeping Angels they should be, but not really demonstrating it. As an assassination tactic, time displacement seems inconvenient, but not particularly horrifying. Moffat seems to address this by having the Doctor establish the Angels don’t really kill unless they need a body, which raises the question of why the Doctor is so concerned with them in the first place. When they really do start killing – something about needing a reanimated neurological system to communicate – it seems designed for the sole purpose of raising the stakes. When the statues in the monastery are exposed as an army of Angels using the leaking radiation to regenerate, there’s certainly a tangible fear but no clear reason, other than the skillfully realized suspense of the acting and staging itself.
With the presumed safety of the Byzantium in sight but no way to reach to it, the encroaching Angels trap the Doctor, his companions, and the surviving soldiers. Because he’s the Doctor, he has an idea – an incredibly stupid idea, he says – that might save or kill them all. He asks for their trust and, in defiance of the Angels using the plight of a dead soldier to anger him, fires a gun into the air. Like any good cliffhanger, the audience won’t know the idea – or whether it worked – until next time …
Behind the Sofa: Blink is to Alien as to The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone is to Aliens. There are many more Weeping Angels this time around, and all the advanced weaponry of the Church can’t prevent their advance. They’re a more visceral, menacing threat than anything seen up until now in series five, with the peaceful, pretty Angels becoming fanged monsters in the blink of a flashlight. But they also represent a more abstract threat: Out-of-control ideas and imagination. Lore surrounding the Weeping Angels speaks of a time when “dreams don’t need a dreamer” – The Time of Angels – and it isn’t good news. Amy, even, looks an Angel in the eyes and begins to believe she’s turning to stone. Is she hallucinating? Is she becoming an Angel because her eyes have “held” the image of an Angel? The Doctor convinces her she’s all right but, because he’s the Doctor, there’s always more going on than he’s letting on.
Next week: The Doctor, Amy and River Song uncover the secrets of Flesh and Stone!