Monday, May 10, 2010

The Vampires of Venice

8/5/10 “The Vampires of Venice
“Vampires—I am loving it!” --The Doctor

I was really looking forward to this episode. I enjoyed it as a whole but, perhaps inevitably, I enjoyed the costumes and the setting a great deal more! I remember two years ago someone wondered if it was worth the expense and the trouble of going all the way to Rome to film “Fires of Pompeii”—she didn’t think so, but I did. Personally I find it unquestionable that it was worth going to Croatia: this was a worthy successor to the historical benchmark set by “The Shakespeare Code” and a joy to watch.

It’s easy to say that all the elements were there and that the right person had been picked to write it: vampires, Venice, a girls’ school, aliens, and Toby Whithouse, he of Being Human fame—yet to be honest, that didn’t work for “Victory of the Daleks”—that had all the elements and an experienced Who writer, too. Maybe I’m a tiny bit biased: throughout the episode I had to keep repeating to myself, in all seriousness, “That’s gorgeous!” But to give it as high praise as I have, you must remember that the idea was originally stolen from my friend Johanna and I, who wrote about the vampires of Venice in our novella The Blood of Venice in 1997!

The teaser was classic Who stuff: Guido the boatman was sending his daughter Isabella to a school run by aristocrat Rosanna Calvieri. They are overjoyed when Isabella is allowed to be educated at the school, but Guido sniffs trouble when he is abruptly told, “Say goodbye to your daughter,” and Isabella is spirited away, not long after being leered at by Rosanna’s son Francesco. While not going into instructive detail about the period in history, bits of Whithouse’s story hint at historical precedents: I think of the schools, slightly later, where young women lived, being educated to become singers or musicians but essentially in a convent life (there was an excellent radio play on the subject in 2008, and Milton it seems became a friend of one such lady when he visited Italy in 1637). That families offered up their daughters to be educated in someone else’s household makes a subtle reference to the period itself.

Much more overtly, we gauge the tenor of the episode from the costumes and the settings. In the low light of Rosanna’s “throne room” in this early scene, her golden Elizabethan collar gives a deceptive opulence to her costume. Don’t get me wrong, when seen in full light it’s certainly beautiful and historically accurate (to the Elizabethan ideal and in a lush royal purple palette), but it’s much simpler in design than one might expect—especially considering the fabrics aristocracy during this period favored (take a look at Queen Elizabeth’s outfit in “Shakespeare Code” to see what I mean). I’m not sure if this was done for character reasons, for practical reasons (it seems likely the extras were kitted up in BBC wardrobes from previous productions), or for allowing Rosanna to get out of her costume at the end of the episode. In any case, I looked at the costumes and went “oooh.” I also thought of “State of Decay” (which is a story I like).

After all that, though, Rory phones Amy from his stag party (read: bachelor party). “It’s been seven hours since I told you I love you—that’s scandalous!” Amy’s not there, of course—fortunately the Doctor pops out of the cake intended to contain a stripper—best entrance ever! (I’ve always wanted to pop out of a cake!) He then takes both Rory and Amy back to the TARDIS and tells them that traveling the universe “blinds you to the things that are important.” Hence why he is putting Rory and Amy on a date together and chooses somewhere romantic so they can both get grounded again. So to speak!

They end up in 1580 in Venice. I don’t care if it’s really Croatia, it looks fabulous. I’ve never been to Venice but I’ve read enough about it, and though they don’t show St Mark’s Square or the Bridge of Sighs, it’s beautifully integrated filming, and all the extras going about the nitty gritty of daily life is beautifully illustrative. A picture tells a thousand words, and I think we can instantly believe we’re in Venice. This is good, because there’s no time made for the wisecracks that were said in “Shakespeare Code”—even the issue of clothing isn’t addressed; it’s odd that not even a concession toward it is made, at least until Rory and Amy dress up to foil the Calivieris. The Doctor himself is quick to provide us with the date, just because he doesn’t want to run into Casanova. This is very clever and made me laugh. (Ie it’s quite possible Casanova will be the spitting image of his last regeneration.)

Amy, Rory, and the Doctor run into an official who’s “looking for aliens,” foiled by the Doctor’s psychic paper (Amy is a Viscountess and Rory is her “eunuch”—a hundred years later, he could have been a wandering castrati in search of an opera company). The first whiff of trouble as far as the Doctor’s concerned is mention of the Plague, which connects him to Signora Calivieri. They also run into Guido, who’s trying to get Isabella back—unfortunately, she has joined the other girls of the school wearing white veils and carrying parasols and bearing their teeth at passersby. I knew the fact that the vampires’ teeth were different was a clue to them not actually being vampires (because that would be too easy, and plus, I’m sure while Doctor Who is glad of the audience that Twilight has stirred up for vampire stuff, the core audience of Doctor Who would want to distance itself from that teenage phenomenon—have I stepped on toes?). In any case, the costumes are fabulous, the scenery is fabulous. Like the Doctor, I’m loving it.

Certainly because, as we find out later, the vampires are doing their best to be true to their roles, a lot of the choreography is very iconic and stagey, especially when Rosanna is drinking from a chalice—OF BLOOD!—“Never interrupt Mummy when she’s hydrating,” says Francesco. There must be something inherently right about vampires in Elizabethan get ups, ‘cause that was one image that kept cropping up when I wrote Elisabeth Bathory into my one, long Doctor Who comic. In any case, clues are coming in that the vampires are bringing in new blood, so to speak, but that Rosanna has other children already. It’s vampire dynasty, which is again a recurrent theme, as well all know.

Rory and Amy are attempting to enjoy their date but get involved when Francesco decides to make a snack of a passing flower seller. It’s nice to have Rory on hand to pronounce “She’s okay” when they surprise Francesco in the act—the poor flower seller has been lucky. The Doctor has gone to ground, meanwhile, bringing in further vampiric motifs which are just fun, fun, fun. What would Kristeva have to say about the subterranean descent of the Doctor? Or Mrs Radcliffe for that matter? The Doctor echoes my sentiments as the Vampire Brides arrive, straight out of Dracula. Whithouse is keeping the sexuality inherent in vampirism much more subtextual than Stoker did—the Doctor is amused and bewildered by the fact he can’t see the Brides (I will call them that for fun; that is, in a sense, what they are) in the mirror—but there isn’t the seduction involved, like Lilith and the Tenth Doctor. These Brides are just interested in menacing and killing, rather than the ones that blur the fine line between pain and pleasure for poor Jonathan Harker.

The Brides speak as one, asking the Doctor who he is. He tries the psychic paper but only gets a library card checked out to William Hartnell! The Doctor manages to escape from the dozy Brides (how exactly I’m not sure) and runs into Amy and then Rory. Amy and the Doctor do a funny “OMG vampires” jig, just as Rory says, “Amy saw a vampire!” The Doctor wants to investigate the Calvieris and their school for scandal; Guido wants his daughter back; Rory wants Amy to go home to safety, and for once the Doctor isn’t disagreeing. “He said no, Amy. Listen to him.” They try to formulate a way of getting into the school—someone’s got to open the trap door. “You look about nine,” Amy snarks at the Doctor. “They’ve already seen the Doctor—you do it.” This, directed at Rory. So, Amy will be an unfortunate girl seeking education and Rory will be her brother. “They’re vampires, for God’s sake!” “Or worse,” says the Doctor darkly.

So far I haven’t said anything about the Doctor, Rory, and Amy. I’ve been swept up with the setting and the villains, which is as it should be, I think. However, are we seeing a repeat of “The Girl in the Fireplace” in terms of Mickey and Rose? Well, Amy isn’t rejecting Rory in the way Rose seemed to be constantly dismissing Mickey—but then again, Rose wasn’t engaged to Mickey. He had the right to feel mistreated and misled, but there was never a formal guarantee. Rory certainly has license to be upset at the Doctor when he freely admits that Amy kissed him. However, the Doctor/Amy/Rory relationship is a lot more inclusive, and the Doctor’s mission, without any ulterior motive (we suspect), to get Amy and Rory together again, is also freely spoken. It’s interesting, and the character shading of Rory helps distinguish this whole threesome from one(s) that have come before. It has potential, certainly.

Despite Rory’s terrible and deadpan funny introduction (wearing Guido’s clothes) at the school, Rosanna rather too eagerly takes the psychic paper and is impressed by their credentials from the King of Sweden. Amy’s peasant Venetian outfit is gorgeous again. She is accepted and taken up to the room where all the Brides are waiting, Carmilla¬-like. She’s told to change into her Bride outfit; the only one to act the least bit human is Isabella, who tells her what happens to her at night (again, very Carmilla). The set for the bedroom is a Gothic vampire paradise. It’s absolutely fantastic, and screams Vathek, The Monk, “Ligeia”—anything Gothic horror, it screams.

Amy makes her own Phantom-y descent into subterranean depths (eat your heart out, Jerrold E. Hogle) as the Doctor and Rory race to meet her halfway. I always remember that RTD said Jack and the Doctor couldn’t have a touchy-feely discussion except in that radiation room during a tense and dangerous situation in “Utopia”: it’s clearly the same dynamic for why Rory chooses this point to grill the Doctor about Amy and his intentions (certainly it’s good for dramatic tension as well). “You kissed her back!” “No, I kissed her mouth.” Oh, Doctor, you big weird face. “That’s why I brought you here,” says the Doctor. Because he was there, he argues, and not Rory, Amy turned to him out of relief. We have an inkling (or perhaps more than an inkling) that that isn’t true; nevertheless, it’s a good sentiment. They also find a vampire skeleton in a chest (!) suggesting that “maybe not everyone survives the process.” Rory is unhappy and levels a similar accusation at the Doctor’s recklessness that has cropped up a few times in the new series: “You make them want to impress you.”

Amy, meanwhile, has been apprehended and is going to be turned into a vampire. Rosanna explains that the vampires are going to suck her dry and then fill her with their own blood. When Amy admits that she’s engaged, Rosanna tells her she has hundreds of bridegrooms to choose from. In any case, again, Carmilla, anyone? Why was it that Rosanna sucked Amy’s blood first? Certainly she is the matriarch and the one in charge, but it was Francesco who was sniffing around at Amy and the most likely choice for a heterosexual reading of the vampire subtext. And as brutal as strapping Amy down to a chair that’s “like for a surgery” is, had Matthew Lewis been writing this, it could have been much, much more disturbing and kinky. Of course, this is a family program and while vampires have perhaps been rendered safe up to a point, it seems very interesting to me that the “safe” choice is latent homoeroticism rather than a more black-and-white rendering of the very obvious. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it? Explaining Amy’s eventual transformation into a vampire, Rosanna tells her, “You awake and your humanity is a dream.” (Interesting considering the subject of next week’s episode!) Fortunately the Doctor and Rory rescue Amy, but at the cost of Isabella’s life.

We eventually find out what we’ve expected, that the vampires are actually aliens and that they look kind of like a cross between a lobster and the Empress of the Racnoss. Except for Francesco, all of these “monsters” are female—this is similar to Dracula, and of course in that there was always the double standard of Lucy being critiqued for her “promiscuous” behavior and becoming a vampire and eventually being staked (read: gang raped) by her former suitors—yes, I’m going off into a tangent again, but again it’s quite interesting. There are a lot more parallels with “The Runaway Bride” than at first meet the eye. As the Doctor finds out, it’s Rosanna’s children who are her reason for turning to villainy and wanting to turn all of Venice into vampires—to keep them alive, her sons who are at the moment swimming around in Venice’s canals in fish!lobster state (I hope this doesn’t negatively impact Venice’s tourist industry!). She realizes that the Doctor is an alien from his psychic paper—“I take it you’re a refugee like me.”

Theirs is an interesting conversation, not a confrontation in the way that the Headmaster and the Tenth Doctor’s was as the poolside in “School Reunion”—there is almost tenderness between Rosanna and the Doctor. She isn’t a moustache-twirling villain (even if she had a moustache to twirl) and despite having a murderous plan, doesn’t really seem to want to gloat. The Brides come after the Doctor, Guido, Amy, and Rory, and Guido blows them (and himself) up with gunpowder he’s cleverly stored. Before Rosanna realizes what has been done, she uses her steampunk technology to make the clouds boil—their plan is to sink Venice so it becomes habitable for their species. This involves Rory in a rather charming swordfight with Francesco (“You great big Spongebob!”). Amy comes to the rescue, in a bit of anti-climax! The Doctor climbs up to the bell tower and saves the day (I always bite my nails when he climbs to great heights—I think “Logopolis” is plenty reason to worry!). Rosanna kills herself in a most gruesome and extreme way, by stripping to shift and jumping into the water where her brethren devour her. Importantly, it isn’t the Doctor who pushes her (he was much more responsible for the death of the Empress of the Racnos and her children).

Things lighten up very quickly after that, and the Doctor wants to return Rory and Amy to their wedding day. “I’ll even give you away.” Amy has the good idea of letting Rory travel with them for a bit, and Rory (and crucially, the Doctor!) agree, too. It’s a good idea for the viewers because it will be interesting; it may be a bad idea for all involved if you look at next week’s episode.

I really did enjoy this, though time will tell if I keep that level of enthusiasm up after all the dust has settled.

The Time Monster

2/5/10 “The Time Monster
The Doctor: “You’re mad.”
The Master: “Who isn’t?”

Just when I have reached the maturity level of a Who fan to not automatically assume I’m not going to enjoy a Pertwee story because I dislike the Earth-bound setting, something like “The Time Monster” comes along and smashes my confidence. At six parts, it’s way too long and manages to be both incomprehensible and dull. None of the actors seem particularly invested in it, and it’s only the final two episodes that manages to grip me at all. It’s not equal to the sum of its parts—at pitch level, it sounds a decent story for sure, but in actual execution I found it one of the least enjoyable Doctor Who stories I have ever watched (except for the purely camp factor, which you will have to read about in Back2theWhoture in The Terrible Zodin 7).

I always automatically peg Malcolm Clarke whenever there is dodgy synthesizer music but this time the culprit is Dudley Simpson; unfortunately this kind of music persists throughout the story. I wonder what difference atmospheric music could have made to the Atlantean scenes in episode 6? The first episode actually opens in a highly unusual way which is probably the strongest part of the episode: the Doctor has a prophetic dream. It’s quite freaky and rather like the fight between the Doctor and Omega’s Champion the next season. For all that’s wrong with “The Time Monster,” I’ve found few stories that highlight the effects of a good cup of tea so much. After the Doctor’s nightmare, Jo offers him a cup of tea. “Yes, I enjoyed that,” he concludes, though apparently he just enjoyed the smell because he didn’t drink any. The Doctor dreamed of volcanic eruptions and quizzes Jo on recent volcanic activity. She maneuvers through this as best she can in her tiny skirt and huge yellow go-go boots (which match Bessie’s paint job). “I know I’m exceedingly dim, Doctor, but can you explain . . .” In any case, they eventually realize that the Doctor has been dreaming about Santorini in Greece, and Jo is somehow aware of “all that Cretan jazz”—ie, Atlantis. Jo and Mike Yates have a bit of a moment.

Meanwhile, in Wootton outside Cambridge, Professor Thascals (ie the Master!) is in charge of this Newton Institute-funded project alarmingly named TOMTIT—Transmission of Matter Through Interstitial Time. This is only the second story I’ve ever seen with the Delgado Master, and sadly it’s not instilling in me a lot of confidence (though to be fair, in the other story, “Frontier in Space,” he was quite good). “Please do not call me Prof,” he mutters at Dr Ruth Ingram and Stuart Hyde, the TOMTIT scientists (shades of “Kindly refrain from addressing me as Doc”?). Interestingly, the Master here gives great precedent for the way the Simm Master behaved at the end of series 3. The restrained suit with blue tie was very Harold Saxon, as well as the fact the brainwashed Proctor is annoyed that “there is no trace of your academic career”—the Master makes use of hypnotism a lot in this story. He makes a curious statement when he tries to get Ruth to take his place at an official lunch with UNIT; he calls himself “a lifelong pacifist” and that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the military.

His scientists come off a lot more dated. Ruth is the painfully obvious harbinger of women’s lib, quite awhile before Sarah mentioned it to the Queen of Peladon or Ms Winters in “Robot.” For awhile I couldn’t figure out if her partner Stuart was a lover or her brother! While she wears a costume similar to what my mom was wearing in 1972 (if the photos can be believed) he looks like he got facial hair from BBC Rent-a-Moustache. Both of them are irritating rather than interesting; I believe Chris Boucher got this kind of banter right in “Image of the Fendahl,” proving it can be done well. Stu tries for some depth when it seems he gets aged 60 years in four seconds, but because the effects are only temporary, our sympathy similarly peters out. What they’re trying to do exactly eluded me for quite awhile. It’s not until the head of the Newton Institute comes by to inspect the project (“well, it is public money”) that Ruth and Stuart try to explain what’s going on, and it’s actually Sergeant Benton who supplies the unlikely explanation. “The crack between now and now.” They’re trying to send matter through the space between “temporal atoms.” The episode ends with the “impossible situation” coming to light and the Master shouting “Come!” exultantly up at the sky.

Actually, he was shouting, “Come, Kronos, come!”, but because he was wearing a radiation suit at the time, you couldn’t be expected to understand that at original broadcast! In any case, the Doctor determines that the Master is using the legendary Crystal of Kronos from Atlantis to capture the Chronovore. “It’s just like old times,” the Master says happily. From then on, it is pure formula UNIT story, with the Brigadier sending ammunition at the Master once he believes what the Doctor’s saying. Benton nearly gets the upper hand on the Master—“you didn’t really think you could fool me”—before the Master escapes and reactivates TOMTIT, bringing from Atlantis Krasis. Krasis thinks the Master’s plan isn’t a very good one. “No one rules Kronos!”

In Atlantis, things are looking up. The sets and costumes, by Martin Gleeson and Barbara Lane respectively, are at least making the wholehearted attempt to look Minoan—there are reproductions of the famous paintings at the palace of Knossos on the walls, and though Dalios the King of Atlantis also shops for beards where Stuart got his moustache and has taken his costume from a nativity play, the rest of the temple/labyrinth looks pretty good. A little help from lighting and presto, there is almost a believable version of Atlantis. Certainly a different direction from the far-out creations of “The Underwater Menace,” but even there, Krasis’ costume resembles Professor Zaroff’s. The actors playing Krasis and later Hippias do want to be onstage in something Shakespearean, but it’s not translating well to studio Doctor Who.

The Doctor tries to jam the Master’s “radio signal” with TOMTIT using a strange array of household items. “Another nutcase,” says Ruth. “Fruitcake standard!” agrees Stu. “Have a cup of tea and drown your sorrows,” Stu advises the Doctor, who meanwhile uses the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup to complete his machine that, for awhile, succeeds in doing whatever it’s supposed to be doing. Piqued, the Master uses time distortions caused by Kronos (or the TOMTIT, I wasn’t quite sure) to impeded UNIT’s progress. He decides to do this by sending down various historical obstacles such as a knight with a lance, a regiment of Cromwell’s soldiers (the local Civil War re-enactors, no doubt!), and a V1 plane with bomb. He is clearly getting a kick out of it.

The Brigadier leaves Benton with Ruth and Stu as he and the Doctor leave to help Yates and the UNIT people who are carrying the TARDIS across country (presumably so the Master can’t get to it). “You’re paid to the do the James Bond thing, I’m just a scientist,” says Stu, despite Ruth’s desire to join in the fray. Eventually Stu gives in, and they return to TOMTIT, but the consequence of the “interstitial time” whatever is that Benton gets turned back into a baby! In the TARDIS, Jo and the Doctor try to prevent the Master from using a “time ram,” and the infinite recursion of TARDIS-within-a-TARDIS predates “Logopolis.” Sadly, the new TARDIS interiors as designed by Martin Gleeson look a bit like a dentist’s office. The Doctor tries to talk the Master out of his plan to go back to Atlantis and harness Kronos’ power for himself using the physical crystal—“oh dear, what a bore that man is,” the Master says in response to the Doctor’s endless moralizing. The Master insists the Doctor engage in the time ram—“all or nothing!” The Doctor is sent into the Time Vortex, and poor Jo gets nauseous as the Master sends the Doctor’s TARDIS spinning out of control with her in it.

Meanwhile in Atlantis, I wonder why they spent so much of the story in Wootton when they had use of the gorgeous and more-or-less-historically-accurate Minoan set. Barbara Lane has made a real effort with the majority of the costumes, making the women’s skirts, aprons, and bodices very much resemble the Cretan statues and paintings from Knossos (not accurate to the point of having the bodies open at the front, but this was Saturday tea time!). Even the majority of the men’s costumes resemble that of the bull jumping youths’ from the paintings: the kilts and the intricate, dramatic hairdos (though the eye makeup reminds us we’re in 1972 not 1500 BC). Much has been made of the fact that Poseidon ruled Atlantis, as the guards in the employ of King Dalios and Queen Galleia carry tridents.

When the Master walks into this environment, Dalios quickly sees through his disguise as an emissary of the gods—he calls the Master’s hypnotism “a very elemental technique.” There’s a bit of Donald Cotton running through Dalios’ speech as he teases the Master for not knowing the latest Olympian gossip. Having caught a ride by latching onto the Master’s TARDIS, the Doctor and Jo shortly arrive in Atlantis where they are saved from execution by Hippias. They are taken to see the King and Queen. The Queen has rather taken a shine to the Master, recognizing in him power and ability. Despite her sci fi makeup, the Queen seems like she’d be right at home with the Julii from Rome. Hers and the Master’s is not a romantic relationship but Galleia puts her foot down when it comes to ousting Dalios. In the palace, Jo is put into an Atlantean lady’s outfit, which is a great, “groovy” tie dye/plaid version of the Minoan bodice, apron, and skirt and includes a Meg from Hercules-style wig. Captured when the Master takes over Atlantis, Jo is thrown down the labyrinth where we expect she is going to meet the Minotaur.

She does, indeed, and it’s the Doctor’s toreador skills (and the fact his coat has a red lining) that saves her. The Minotaur sequence is surprisingly effective. Despite being recaptured, they realize they have to stop the Master from release Kronos—“all order and all structure will be swept away.” It will, indeed, be chaos. With King Dalios dying at their feet, the Doctor and Jo are able to egg Galleia on to defying the Master. He escapes, but Atlantis is (obviously) destroyed by Kronos. I have thus far refrained from talking about Kronos. What is there to say? There was obviously a gap between the script and what the effects department could produce. What we get is a squawking white bird-man on a wire that doesn’t really convey the sense of dread that an agent of chaos should, no matter how fearfully the cast reacts to it.

Jo, displaying surprising bravery, throws herself onto the fleeing Master in an attempt to stop him. She only succeeds in getting handcuffed to the console, but the Doctor quickly catches up with them and wants to make the Master “see reason.” Jo then gets the chance to say something intelligent and the Master interrupts her! The Doctor threatens to time ram, but is stopped his compassion for Jo. Jo, however, bravely sacrifices herself and throws the switch. Instead of being blown up, though, she and the Doctor see another manifestation of Kronos, ie, as a big female face. “I can be all things.” The Doctor’s compassion is still not used up; he pleads for the Master’s life. “Let us deal with him in our own way.” The Doctor’s intention is to take the Master as prisoner aboard the TARDIS, much like it was (or will be?) in “The Last of the Time Lords,” but this time the Master escapes (again).

Back in Wootton, with the Master defeated and destruction in Atlantis, the scientists are pleased to have time back to normal. Benton arises, back to normal, with what could be the tagline for the entire story, “Would someone please tell me what’s happening around here?”

Jo has some good moments in the last episode, as does the Doctor with his famous “daisest daisy” speech. The Master seemed quite petty and small-minded for a Time Lord. The Brigadier was similarly quite one-dimensional, and the scientists were about as irritating as Petra and Greg in “Inferno.” The Atlanteans were either overacted or underused, and what can be said about Kronos? Well, actually, what hasn’t been said about Kronos?

Flesh and Stone

1/5/10 “Flesh and Stone

The Doctor: “That’s a fairy tale.”
River Song: “Aren’t we all?”

Picking up immediately where we left off, Amy performs the companion role to a tee by commanding the Doctor, “Explain!” He does so; by destroying the gravity globe, the natural gravity of the Byzantium kicked in, and by everyone jumping, they landed upside down (or right side up; think of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) on the outside of the Byzantium. This is indeed impressive, and the production team have worked hard to make the filmic zooms and pans look natural. They climb into the ship—“it’s just a corridor,” the Doctor says nonchalantly. Octavian pulls River aside during the escape; as she is only one who can deal with the Doctor (“he’s not some kind of madman?,” which obviously reminds us that the book in the past episode was written by a madman), Octavian wants some kind of reassurance that they are going to get through this incident, or else he will tell the Doctor what River “really is.” There is another superb suspense/set piece, where the soldiers have to fire into the darkness as the Doctor reroutes the power in the corridor so they can escape but the lights go out.

Amy is rather inexplicably counting down, which the other characters don’t seem to notice, but eagle-eared viewers will not be able to miss. As the group escapes through the ship from the pursuing Weeping Angels, they find what River calls “an oxygen forest,” but what you and I (and indeed, Amy) would call a forest. (It’s actually the Forest of Dean.) I immediately thought of “Nightmare of Eden.” The Doctor calls it an “ecopod” and is quite jazzed up about it; the trees are wired up, it produces its own rain (I wondered if the Trees of Cheem were going to be involved somehow, but they weren’t). Certainly the fairy tale aspect of this is visually played up. Being a 10th Kingdom fan, I couldn’t help thinking of Virginia’s dream as she is being drugged in the Swamp—the little girl getting lost in the forest. This will play out a bit more explicitly, as we will see.

As the heroes escape into the forest, Angel Bob tries to intimidate them. The others succeed in getting away, leaving the Doctor to be surrounded by Angels who even manage to take off his coat. “Never let me talk,” he taunts them, as he escapes. (Troughton-esque?) Unfortunately, as the soldiers and River manage to stave off the Angels, Amy is getting worse as the counting down continues. She collapses as River tries to help her. The Doctor bursts in. “What’s wrong with me?” “Everything! You’re dying!” River chides him for scaring her, but he gives it to her straight. An Angel has indeed invaded her soul and is about to manifest (and take her over, we assume). Her visual relays must be shut off but she can’t be knocked out; the Doctor determines she must close her eyes, which she does. This leaves her terribly vulnerable, as we will see. The Doctor leaves her behind as he, Octavian, and River try to find a way to escape. The last few soldiers are there to watch over her, but it is certainly a case of Amy being asked, again, to do the hardest thing. Whereas the Doctor was very keen to take on martyrdom in “The Beast Below” and Amy came up with the actual solution, the Doctor freely admits later that to leave her on her own was a mistake. “You need to start trusting me,” the Doctor tells her, in what is perhaps Matt Smith’s best acting to date. Amy certainly has reason not to trust the Doctor, which he well knows.

As he goes off, his suspicions about Octavian and River are aroused—“You two engaged or something?” “In a manner of speaking, yes.” Octavian eventually spills the beans that River has been released into his custody so that she can complete this mission and earn a pardon for crimes she committed. Bad things are happening; the Angels are retreating, but from something very bad indeed. It’s the crack that appeared in Amy’s house in “The Eleventh Hour,” a sort of Land of the Lotus Eaters, a Lethe, a “curtain of energy, shifting.” “Time’s running out . . .” The Doctor realizes that time can be rewritten, and that the crack is not only the end of the universe, it’s responsible for the fact Amy can’t remember the Daleks and people can’t remember the CyberKing (ah, Vast Toffee, correcting RTD continuity).

Amy, in her very vulnerable position, has been left with the soldiers, who have observed the crack. She opens her eyes for a second to look at it (why this is necessary to the plot I’m not sure) but eventually all of the soldiers “walk into the light” (or into oblivion; certainly into a land of forgetting). “There won’t be any you if you go back there!” Amy pleads as the last soldier walks off without her. On her own with a walkie talkie, Amy is talking into the darkness (like Miss Evangelista in “Silence in the Library”). The Doctor eventually picks up, and the only way he can get her to safety is to talk her, blind, through the forest and the maze of Angels. If you’ve ever had to do bonding exercises with colleagues, you will probably have had to play a similar trust game, being led blind by voice through a maze of some sort. Certainly the stakes to this are much higher, and Amy must have the greater courage. “Follow the sound.” Returning again to the theme of words, it’s interestingly that many of the Vast Toffee episodes rely on aural stimulation rather than written communication. My Milton-y mind, revved up by these fallen Angels, thinks of the use of music and sound in Paradise Lost and how important that would have been to the blind Milton. I’m sure there’s an essay in here somewhere!

“Do not think, become” was Snow White’s advice to Virginia in The 10th Kingdom, and again Amy’s plight and the forest imagery has reminded me of this. She is Rose Red, or Little Red Riding Hood (she’s wearing a red fleece) lost in the woods. She only has herself to rely on, no woodcutter with an axe to slay the wolf. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the fairy tale theme; perhaps it’s just another super suspense-builder. In that it definitely succeeds. The Doctor notes that the Angels are scared and therefore will assume Amy can see. If she can bluff, they will leave her alone as long as they thing she’s looking at them. “The Angels only kill you,” the Doctor assures her—there are worse things, this loss of remembrance which, incidentally (at least according to the book Library), was a driving force behind the Great Library of Alexandria: being remembered—it certainly was a concern of “Silence in the Library.”

The Doctor has had to leave Octavian behind, after being told by him not to trust River. She killed a man, “a hero to many.” In the previous episode, River told Amy she was the Doctor’s wife—or did she? Here we are led to believe she killed the Doctor. It’s nice that it’s being left ambiguous, but it constantly being mentioned is a bit grating. With River skeptical of the Doctor’s plan to get Amy out, the Doctor snaps, “What else have you got?!” The Doctor occasionally seems to be showing his age with moments of panic and anguish more reminiscent of the Ninth Doctor. The Doctor notes that the crack could possibly be slowed down by throwing a “big complicated time/space event” at it, which makes him prime candidate.

Amy is fortunately snatched from the Angels’ embrace by River’s repair of the transporter. “See? Told you I could get it working.” Angel Bob needs the Doctor to sacrifice himself on behalf of the Angels, who can’t consume and indeed shun the crack. The Doctor has a better idea, though for the life of me I’m not sure what it is; it causes the heroes to escape and the Angels to get sucked into the crack (à la the Daleks getting sucked into the Void). It looks fabulous. Is it wibbly wobbly snotty plotty? I don’t know.

Back on Southerndown Beach, River waits to be taken back to prison to see if her pardon has come through. Amy is distressed that she remembers the Angel in her head at all, even though they seem to have been erased into the Event Horizon/crack thing. In the TARDIS, Amy says, “I wanna go home.” She and the Doctor arrive five minutes after they left in “The Eleventh Hour,” and Amy shows the Doctor her wedding dress. “I’m running too,” she announces. “Why would you need comforting?” the Doctor asks, clueless. On the eve of her wedding, she has to think about “what I want. About who I want?”

I’ve just been alerted more than I was before to Amy’s possible resemblance to Madame de Pompadour, and her next gratuitous attempted seduction of the Doctor (down to removing his braces!) underlines the comparison. However, unlike the Reinette/Doctor thing, which I was never really a fan of, I was rather delightedly surprised by Amy’s seduction. When she explains that she doesn’t see it as a long-term thing, it makes a lot of sense character-wise, so I accepted it. The Doctor’s protests are amusing and similarly delightful. I think the Vast Toffee’s struck just the right tone here, and my amusement carries right on through to the trailer, where the Doctor it seems has tried to bolster Amy and Rory’s relationship with a romantic trip to Venice.

With moments of superbly engineered suspense and some gorgeous visuals, not to mention delving deep into fairy tale imagery, “Time of the Angels”/ “Flesh and Stone” kept the heartbeat racing. But for me personally, it’s proof that you can’t improve on perfection.

The Time of the Angels

29/4/10 “The Time of Angels
Time is not the boss of me.” –The Doctor

I recall not being very pleased that the Weeping Angels were coming back. I know if anyone can write them, it’s Steven Moffat, their creator, but I still wondered how anyone could improve upon “Blink.” Now having seen this two-parter, I’m not convinced it can be done, for all the Vast Toffee has said about sequels needing to be a complete rewrite of the original. An ambitious attempt to throw a lot into the mix, including River Song, but I wasn’t overawed.

First there was a man being attacked by what we learn is River Song’s “hallucinogenic lipstick” (shades of Sarah Jane Smith’s sonic lipstick, I thought) while peacocks from hell squawk in the background. When River Song appears, classy and Bond-ian in an evening gown with a derringer-like gun (and red slippers; Dorothy?) I could only think of Benny Summerfield, now that I have some concept of who she is. Not sure if that perception is entirely called for, but that was my thought. As she breaks in to steal something, the Doctor and Amy are in a museum (that looks like a Welsh cathedral, possibly) 12,000 years later. Rather like Donna in the Library, Amy snaps boredly, “What do you need museums for?” She determines that it’s like “keeping score” for the Doctor, which he confirms by traipsing through the museum nodding at objects with which he’s been acquainted. Including a black box (only metaphorically) with script in “Old High Gallifreyan” (“Five Doctors”?). He determines that it says “sweetie” and gives coordinates.

All other reservations aside, I must say this two-parter had some stunning set pieces and visual moments, like the one as River Song uses the Doctor’s quick reaction (well, in relative terms!) to her coordinates to beam her out and save her life, all the while looking cool as she zooms out into space in an “air corridor.” Now that’s an exit. Amy is perplexed by River Song but ultimately finds her rather cool. As the Doctor struggles to control the TARDIS, River tells him to use “the blue stabilizers.” “They’re blue boring-ers!” the Doctor replies. As they materialize, the Doctor is annoyed that the TARDIS has not made its wheezing VWORP VWORP noise. “It’s not supposed to make the noise,” says River. (Thus strengthening the case behind Jamie’s theory that River may be who the Doctor becomes—who knows?) “She’s from the future,” the Doctor says, rather wearied, and we are quickly brought up to speed: this River has met the Doctor before but it’s obviously before, in her time stream, “Silence in the Library.” She is surprised and gratified to learn she will become a professor someday; right now she’s just Dr. River Song. “We keep meeting in the wrong order.”

The Byzantium, the spaceship from which River escaped, has crash-landed on a planet (that looks like Southerndown Beach; I remember when the South Wales Evening Post published photos of this episode being filmed). There River, the Doctor, and Amy meet Father Octavian (Iain Glen a bit underused in this two-parter, but never mind) and his soldiers of the Church. They look like they could be combat-ready for Iraq, but the Doctor assures us, “It’s the 51st century—the Church has moved on.” We’ve had plenty of human military operations in Doctor Who’s past, present, and future, whether they are offshoots of UNIT or something else entirely (think “The Doctor’s Daughter”) and this is a rather low-key but interesting twist. River strikes fear into the Doctor (and the audience) as she announces that what also crash-landed on the ship was a Weeping Angel.

In the soldiers’ base camp, River shows Amy and the Doctor a recording of the Weeping Angel—a looped recording with the same grainy scariness of The Ring. My initial impression in this direction was proved right. In any case, Amy stays behind to watch the recording while the Doctor and River muse over a book “written by a madman.” “Anybody need me?” asks Amy, and to be sure, she has a point. Whenever River has strode into an episode thus far, she has tended to displace the other characters around her. In the case of “Forest of the Dead,” this still allowed room for Donna’s personality to do a lot of developing. Thus, it isn’t surprising that Amy’s development is also shifted slightly in favor of the second part, but like her, by this point I was wondering what she was there for. Certainly to increase the audience’s dread, as we are told the image of a Weeping Angel is equivalent in power to the Angel itself (this could drive an interesting essay—my topic was about Doctor Who and the written word, but there’s certainly a lot to be said for Doctor Who and images, in episodes such as “Fear Her” and “The Satan Pit,” for starters). In the case of the episode itself, with its emphasis on the Church, it makes me think about the forbidden nature of graven images (the way the illustrations of Angels from the book have been burnt out) and fallen angels in general (perhaps too much Milton on the brain). Interestingly, as the Doctor and River banter, she notes that “I’ve got pictures of all your faces” (recall the discussion I had in my review of “Timelash,” where Peri must have seen a picture of Jo Grant at some point).

While they’re bantering, it leaves Amy open to attack by the Angel—apparently now by looking in its eyes, you can let them into your soul. This doesn’t quite jive with “Blink” (even ignoring what Jamie brought up, ie that Sally Sparrow took lots of photos of the Angels and, as far as we know, had no further consequences from that). Amy is saved for the moment, and the soldiers, the Doctor, Amy, and River go into “the Maze of the Dead” (a necropolis for the planet’s native Atraxan population). I will say that the Maze was my favorite part of this episode—it was beautifully realized, a good blend of CGI and real FX. The statues of the “dead buried in the walls” are appreciably modeled on Greek kouroi (though those are male statues, and these were female, the postures seemed reminiscent to me). It was quite beautiful in a way, like Victorian graveyards with their, er, weeping angels can be.

Amy is alarmed at the fact sand is coming out of her eye, but not as alarmed as the Doctor when he realizes that they are not looking for one Angel; all of the statues are actually Angels in a certain state of incompletion or decay ( I wasn’t sure which) because the Atraxans had two heads. The Doctor could remember when the Maze was built—a sure reminder, I thought, of the Doctor in “Curse of the Fatal Death” bribing the architect.) Before the Doctor can reach this conclusion, however, several of the soldiers’ necks are snapped, which I’m sure we all recall is not how the Angels in “Blink” operated. The explanation for this is that the Angels in “Blink” were scavengers, or something like that—basically it is bending the narrative rules to meet the current needs of the writer, which is all fine and dandy I suppose. All but four of the soldiers are killed, and one named Bob is being used to communicate with the Doctor et al through their walkie talkies.

Data ghosting without data ghosting? I thought at first this might be a good explanation as to how River knew about data ghosting in “Silence in the Library,” but the specific term was never mentioned, and that isn’t exactly what happened. I know I did express some worries that tonally the Vast Toffee’s series would be a recycling of the brilliant stories he had done before, but a recycling nonetheless. It’s hard to say where theme and motif ends and where recycling begins. It just seemed to have lost the shocking punchiness that it inspired in us in “Silence in the Library.” (In fact I found Angel Bob to be quite annoying in the second part, but I digress.)

In any case, the remaining soldiers, Octavian, the Doctor, Amy, and River must escape from the army of Angels, but they are hampered by fizzling torches and overhead lights, as well as the fact Amy think she’s being turned to stone. A clever fake out for those of us who thought Amy was going to quickly and quite literally turn into a Weeping Angel. She is not, actually, turning to stone, only made to think so to slow her down. The Doctor manages to convince her—it reminded me a bit of Sarah in the tunnel in “The Ark in Space” or the Doctor talking to his feet in “Image of the Fendahl.” Having cornered the heroes in the big chamber of the necropolis with the Byzantium crashed above them, the Angels (through Bob; though I realize Vast Toffee had a time of it, trying to get voiceless villains to communicate, frightening by the very fact they are silent) try to anger the Doctor by highlighting his failure to save Bob and the other soldiers. “You let me down.” However, it only makes the Doctor more determined. All of us who were awed by the footage of the Doctor with a gun in the trailer at least see the object of his malevolence: a gravity globe! A good cliffhanger, but I don’t especially like the Doctor endlessly moralizing. Anyway—onwards and upwards, quite literally!