The first two-parter of the new series begins with a couple of red herrings. Firstly there’s the cameo from Mike Skinner (a.k.a The Streets) who doesn’t appear again. He is hallucinating about trees and grass and the open air because of the hallucinogenic lipstick River Song has kissed him with. Ordinarily, a smoking gun like that would be introduced good and early because it is going to come back at an important moment later on. But this doesn’t re-appear later, either. Although, to be fair, the story is book-ended with a different kiss, but we’ll get to that later.
What it does is proceed to a lovely science fiction idea, River Song (Alex Kingston) breaks into a safe, all Mission:Impossible stylie, and carves a message on the artefact she finds there, so The Doctor can find it thousands of years in the future and travel back and rescue her as she throws herself out of an airlock. Ingenious stuff. Bill and Ted sort-of did it first, but it’s still a lovely moment with a great idea behind it an a nice way to propel us into this story.
Of course, River Song herself is just really irritating. She can write Gallifreyan, fly the Tardis better than its owner (apparently The Doctor has been flying it with the brakes on all these years) and has the previously-revealed close relationship with The Doctor in the future – all of which suggests she is a Time Lord. But she can’t stop gloating about the fact that she’s knows “spoilers” about his future. He, on the other hand, never once gives her the merest hint that he knows hers, yet, since the last time they met he watched her die, that’s a pretty big secret to keep.
Writing of being irritating, I find the way Moffat chooses to write The Doctor’s dialogue is particularly galling. Yes, I understand that the show is meant to appeal to kids and kids don’t understand the laws of grammar so they just make words and sentence structures up. That’s fine. In kids. It was even fine when Joss Whedon started doing it in Buffy because, y’know, they’re American. One sympathises. But here, The Doctor’s dialogue is deliberately infantile and that just annoys me: “ … it’s a Boringer! … I’m Mr. Grumpy Face … They will be sorrier … I made him say comfy chair … That’s extremely not very good …” And so on. Once in a while for comic effect, fine, but all the time? No.
I think the cumulative effect of The Doctor being wrong when Amy was right a couple of weeks before, The Doctor being on the back-foot because of River Song, The Doctor losing his temper momentarily every episode now, which makes him seem panicky fallible and this, along with his dithery, graceless mumbling and ill-disciplined use of language is all, presumably, meant to humanise him. But he’s a super-hero! He’s an alien with super-powers, two hearts, an indeterminate life-span and something approaching omniscience! He’s not meant to be human. Making him human just undermines his authority, as if making him someone who has barely started shaving didn’t already severely dinted that!
Then there’s the inconsistency: When he finds that he is up against The Weeping Angels, he tells Amy that they are “… the deadliest, most powerful, most malevolent” of life forms. Funny, but he had a different opinion of them last time, he seemed to feel their habit of propelling you somewhere else in space and time (Hull, in one case) was quite quaint. What they didn’t do was kill people. Well, make your bleedin’ mind up.
Right. Got that off my chest. Now then …
He also meets Bishop Octavian (Iain Glen) and his squad of battle priests who are, if you’ll forgive the image, going commando for God. But, of course, there is no God in The Doctor’s universe, there’s only him … so they end up putting their faith in him.
They plunge into some caves, looking for stone monsters (!) and that affords some truly gorgeous scenery and photography, benefiting from some very moody lighting and clever use of matte paintings.
The statues they find in there are all in a state of considerable disrepair, their faces melted away. When, in a surprise turn of events that was only patently obvious from the very beginning, the faces start to slowly resolve and repair, that leads to some very disturbing imagery.
There’s no denying that this story is incident-packed, every new scene introduces a new element, a new problem, a new thread, but the highlight of the episode is undeniably Amy’s scene trapped in the locked room with the recording of the Angel. This is a genuinely chilling moment and the solution (which, characteristically, she comes up with on her own) is ingenious. It also employs a common thread that has run through several of Moffat’s scripts: The notion of the haunted recording device. We had the ghostly child’s voice in the radiogram in The Empty Child (2005), the communicator data-ghosts in Silence in the Library (2008) and the conversation with the video-tape in Blink (2007). Here we have both this video-recording of the Angel, which is interactive, but also the voice of dead characters cutting in on the walkie-talkies.
Then we get the first episode’s crescendo, the climax, the cliff-hanger … and you doubtless know all about the controversy when this happened:
Well, at least it took people’s attention away from the fact that The Doctor has gone to very great pains in the past to avoid using guns. Here he picks one up without hesitation. Is that another inconsistency or just me being picky?
Well, if that’s picky, how does the whole jumping up and getting grabbed by the artificial gravity thing work? And, if it did work, how come it didn’t result in them crashing into the surface of the space-ship as though they’d just fallen thirty-odd feet to the ground? Not sure I buy that at all. But the reveal shot when the camera pulls away and rotates 180 degrees is an excellent visual with which to start episode two!
As with all-together too many elements from this year’s season – the lovely idea of having Amy counting down to her own demise, just fizzles out … she doesn’t even get to ‘one’. It’s an event that doesn’t happen. Once again, we have villains who don’t do anything, a Doctor who seems to have no sense of purpose and clever plot-points like this one that just dry up or get forgotten about.
Then there is the whole issue of Amy having to fool the Angels in to thinking she can see. But it has already been established that they communicate with each other somehow, so they must surely know that she is possessed and might well even be in contact with the Angel that has possessed her. So how, then, can she walk gingerly past them without them realising there’s a problem until she, inevitably, falls over?
The moment where, finally, we see them move comes far, far, far too late. We have seen too many of them and we have seen them too clearly for them to keep holding the dread that they had at the beginning, the visual cue of actually seeing them move was, I think, needed to inject another level of horror into them. It’s skin-crawling the one time they do move but, again, comes to nothing.
However, shot through this are some very powerful, very clever lines: “Yes, if we lie to her she’ll suddenly get all better … If I always told the truth I wouldn’t need you to trust me” These are beautifully enigmatic concepts that Smith delivers well and which prove that Moffat absolutely knows what he’s doing! The moment when The Doctor faces up to the inevitability of Octavian’s sacrifice is cunningly written and beautifully performed by both actors. Smith giving long, meaningful looks that betray the depths of character that his off-the-cuff dialogue goes so far to hide, Glen being stoically determined and making a line like “I think you’ve seen me at my best” truly tug at the heart.
Finally, the show-down, where the Doctor uses gravity to dispose of both of his problems in one go, is very neatly constructed and, again, proves what a great writer Moffat can be when he lets himself be.
The coda is very interesting, with Amy being the first companion ever to openly demonstrate a desire to explore the sexual possibilities that The Tardis offers. Of course, since she is due to get married the following day, one has to wonder about her sense of commitment. Maybe her claim in episode one that she was “a kissagram” really did mean what we thought it meant.
But no. She’s a good, clean, honest girl really, who is just having the most galactic case of pre-wedding jitters.
So, over-all, whilst I clearly found much to criticise in these episodes, I do feel they constitute a marked improvement on the first two that Moffat wrote. It’s as-though he had more time to work on them, and more confidence about where his vision of The Doctor is going. It’s still not a vision I whole-heartedly buy into, though.
I imagine a more confident, more consistent depiction of the central character (such as that presented by either Eccleston or Tennant) would have carried me past a lot of these problems I have and made for an altogether more satisfying viewing experience.
I am still not enjoying Smith’s depiction of The Doctor, despite the very obvious acting skill he demonstrates which, as I noted with episode one, demonstrates a greater range and subtlety than Tennant managed. But, and it’s a huge, big but: The character as written by Moffat is just not convincing or endearing or consistent enough for me. Karen Gillan’s Amy is beat perfect, she is an excellent companion and it is gratifying to see her being allowed to play against the type that young, attractive women in mini-skirts usually are stereotyped into playing. But The Doctor … sorry, I still don’t trust him.