Saturday, May 08, 2010

Romancing The Stone

My love for any Doctor Who story is rarely unconditional. There's generally something that could have been done better, be it in the writing, the production, the acting, whatever. Of all the 21st-century Who we've seen so far, the Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone two-parter came pretty damned close to winning my unqualified admiration and affection. In fact, taken on its own, the first episode was there. I could have confined my review to something like “I absolutely love this”, those who didn't like it could have said, “Why don't you marry it then” and that would have been that.

But you know how these Doctor Who romances can be. There's the honeymoon period where you can't keep your eyes off the episode. Then you start to notice their annoying little habits and the whole thing falls apart. There's nothing quite like a two-parter to highlight this, since – with few exceptions – the second episode fails to deliver on the promise of the first. And as with two-headed beings and self-marriage, divorce can be messy.

The Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone is something of an oddity in that it does reveal some annoying habits and lets the side down in the second part, but somehow still managed to leave me on a high. If I could draw a graph of the highs and lows, the good and bad, then average out the peaks and troughs, I'd end up with a very impressive peak. It's an imperfect gem.

It's the sort of thing a jeweller might appraise, pointing out its serious flaws, and tell me it's only worth fifty quid, but ultimately it doesn't matter because for me it has a great deal of sentimental value.

Did it dazzle me? Definitely. Did it blind me to its faults? Far from it.

That said, we have already established that I loved the first episode unconditionally. I mean, really. The buzz of excitement at end of part one was palpable and as far as I'm aware I hadn't inadvertently electrified my sofa. It was a great mix of sci-fi action-adventure and archaeological mystery/horror laced with creepy atmosphere and suspense. River Song (Alex Kingston) kicks off in fine Jane Bond mode before trading her gown for camo and becoming a sort of thinking man's Lara Croft, Iain Glen blends empathy and authority as Bishop of the Church Of Ghost Recon, a Weeping Angel pays supremely chilling homage to Ringu, and sparkling dialogue keeps flowing in a script that gallops along but isn't afraid to ease up on the accelerator where it counts, allowing us to properly enjoy those suspenseful turns. And it all culminates in a singular, exceptional cliffhanger.

Loved it, loved it, loved it.

The challenge then was to contain myself for a week and the following Saturday, mixed in with the anticipation, was the question: had it set the bar too high for itself?

Are you on the edge of your seat yet? Then we'll begin.

Part Two came out of the gates running, with a great flip side to the cliffhanger. To be fair, at first I wasn't sure about the sudden jump cut but in retrospect it's obvious that any attempt to show the transition from floor to ceiling would have robbed us of what is a terrific reveal of everyone standing upside down on the ship's hull. What follows, with the chase through the interior is a Weeping Angels riff on Aliens. It's so good I would have welcomed a bit more of it: run for it, break through a bulkhead, seal it behind, run, bulkhead, seal it behind. (While Amy continues her mysterious and troubling countdown.) But no matter, because it soon emerges – in another 'blinding' reveal – that the Angels are not the major threat. Ooooooo-er.

Yes, the crack is back.

It's clear we're in crucial arc storyline territory and it's nice to see it playing such a key factor at this stage in the series, rather than just another hint. Something to make us sit up and pay closer attention, not that our attention is in danger of flagging in this story.

Pace does drop off a little here and there, primarily for the conversations between the Doctor and Angel Bob. It's a by-product of Moffat's having created an enemy whose motives are not easily shown to the audience and have to be communicated/explained. I think I would have opted for more deduction as opposed to the sit-down chats, but in its favour it does build in the Angels' need for the bodies – or part thereof – of their victims and their previous MO – that of zapping victims back in time – might not have constituted a sufficient threat for the purposes of this scenario. To say nothing of the fact that it could have led to a more complicated cat's-cradle plot where even the Grand Moff, with all his love of wibbly wobbly timey wimey, might have had trouble keeping track of all the threads.

As it stands, there's enough in this to make you go, 'Hmm...' as you wonder if it all quite works. It's a potent menace, the crack, with its power to erase everyone in its path from existence, but there are instances where it prompts the question of whether the consequences have been properly followed through. If, say, troopers 'Bill' and 'Ted' are wiped from existence, wouldn't the Church Of Ghost Recon have still fielded the same number of men on the mission and so 'replacements' would miraculously appear? Similarly if the guy who handed Amy the spare communicator never existed, how could he have given her the communicator? And if the Angels never existed, then wouldn't all their victims – apart from the ones who also never existed – reappear, although presumably elsewhere because clearly there would have been no need to dispatch the mission in the first place...

But why risk brain meltdown as long as you're enjoying the show, right? Best just to accept that the crack – since it is a fracture in time and space – does a very messy job of erasing. Rubs out the portrait of the individual but still leaves those smudgy pencil marks around it.

None of the timey wimey stuff even registers on my critical radar next to the two (count them) problems relating to the Weeping Angels themselves.

Now, this story gives us everything a returning monster story should: brings everything to the table that made them a great monster in the first place and adds things to the mix, changes things up so that we're not just doing a retread. All well and bloody fantastic.

But Part Two features one change up too many for my tastes. “Whatever you do, don't blink” was pretty much the tag line for Blink and the Doctor gives Amy the same warning in Part One of this story. In the second episode that's revised to “Make them think you can see them.” Which, on top of making no sense, makes a nonsense of that original 'tag line'. Presumably the Angels previously knew when you were blinking, so - if their awareness plays any part - why oh why oh why would they be unable to detect when your eyes were closed for a prolonged period? Also the Angels ought to be aware that Amy's keeping her eyes closed – they're very aware of what's going on with her, to the point of making her speak her countdown (“for fun”) to the moment when the Angel within took over. The Doctor throws in some half-assed explanation that the Angels are confused and scared and not especially interested in Amy, but it's unconvincing at best. Sorry, but this was, to my mind, as weak and feeble a plot contrivance as any employed by Rusty. I rather fear that Moffat was so in love with the fairytale imagery of Amy fumbling through the dark forest, unable to see, surrounded by Angels that he had to come up with a fudge to make it work. Well, it doesn't.

I'm not sure what would. And usually when you hit a stumbling block like that in your plotting, it's better to stop being so precious about a scene and sacrifice it in favour of something that works. In Blink the Angels can't look at each other, so what if Amy's last line of defence was to open her eyes? Some sort of stalemate could be achieved, but at the risk of Amy succumbing to Angelhood. So we see her start to turn to stone... but she's teleported out by River just in time. Or something like that.

Ah. but alas, Amy used up her full countdown, didn't she. And then some. In a useless bit of editing/direction, when she can only open her eyes for a second she stands there staring at the crack for (in TV terms) ages. What the hell was the director thinking? It says a second right there in the script, did he think no-one would notice the disparity? More ham-fisted than a space pig.

The good news is that there I've exhausted my reservoir of criticisms. Well, it's more of a pool really. A puddle. The word count I've spent on them is disproportionate and probably paints a more negative picture than intended. In a bad story such problems might amount to no more than a couple of beans in a hill (of beans). But here, after such a startlingly brilliant beginning it seems incredibly sloppy.

Ultimately though, for all their significance relative to the surrounding quality, they are only glitches and to its credit the story still comes out on top. I could easily spend another page or more rattling on about this shining line or that magical moment. (In fact, I started to cite some favourites, then I realised I was going on too long.) The two episodes are absolutely loaded with them. To the extent that to list them would be tantamount to reproducing the script right here.

It's true that Alex Kingston must take her share of the blame for my enthusiasm, but River's return is handled at least as well as that of the Angels. Same character, with more added to the mix and a few more pieces of the puzzle – of her past/future with the Doctor – are revealed. Those revelations are fed to us in nice bite-sized pieces throughout – from Amy's questions about her being the Doctor's wife, through to the Bishop's asides to River and his parting warning to the Doctor, to River's final admission. Of course, I can't help feeling that 'hints' like “A good man. A hero to many” from the Bishop and “The best man I ever knew” from River are too blatantly meant to make us think 'Doctor' (it's hardly Derren-Brown-level power of suggestion) that there has to be more to it than that. There's plenty of emotion behind the look River gives the Doctor at that point, but it doesn't strike me as quite the confession of a murderess to her victim. If it does turn out to be that she kills the Doctor, that wouldn't be a twist and one thing I am confident of is that Mr Moffat does like his twists. I'm partial to them myself and it adds a further note of fascination to an impressive double helping of Doctor Who.

My only other concerns pertain to the potential impact on future episodes. “Time can be rewritten” comes dangerously close to an attempt to justify some sort of reset switch at season's end. Please, no. There's a clue that there's something clever at work (a surely intentional continuity error involving the Doctor's jacket) and I just hope the Doctor turns out to have something more than a big 'Undo' up his sleeve.

And then there's the romance issue. I was worried this might surface after Amy's talk of “fancying someone you know you shouldn't” in Victory Of The Daleks. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with the idea of a Doctor-companion romance in itself; it's just that I feel that goose has been well and truly killed, plucked, cooked and served up too often already. It's tired and old and a platonic, best-pals relationship will feel like a refreshing change.

So, within this story, Amy throwing herself at the Doctor is fine. (And, after all, the girl has been dreaming about this guy for years then when he shows up, in the midst of all that exhilaration of saving the world, she gets to check out his arse.) What it leads to is a cracking, hilarious scene and the Doctor's reaction is priceless. At this stage it appears to suggest an intention to get those urges out of the system and move on past it. Amy's damaged and the Doctor aims to fix her – without a quick servicing. Which works for me, because I really felt that the Doctor and Amy dynamic was developing nicely as it was and with the best will in the world to do things differently I think there are a limited number of spins you can put on the Doctor-companion lurve cycle.

As you can probably tell, I'm enjoying my current romance with Doctor Who and it'd be too ironic if love was the thing that got in the way.

No comments: