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Doctor Who XXXI.5: Flesh and Stone

May 1st, 2010 (09:19 pm)

Amy Pond is lovely and mad and redhaired and bonkers and... hold that last thought.

This was one of the most tense viewing experiences I have had. The tension crept up on me; I was reflecting on how I expected to feel, how the production team wanted me to feel, and didn't notice that they were doing their worst until my nose was practically pressed up against the screen. The idea of a race to the death where the most lethal group of participants travel at a significantly distinct perception of time to the other is a tempting subject for Doctor Who. The idea of making the Angels threatened as well was an appealing shift in the game plan; the appearance of the crack in time pointed the way to the fall of the Angels (literally in this case) but before that added an extra layer of uncertainty to the chase narrative.

River's story develops enticingly. It's very obvious whom we are to assume she has murdered. Her fears that the Doctor will reject her - and Octavian's assumption that the Doctor will do so - suggest that this is a trauma; River is not a cold-blooded killer, and demonstrates remorse.

It is, I suppose, likely that given the Angels being creatures of thought that their belief in someone being able to see them paralyzes them as much as someone actually seeing them. It's somehow appropriate that a woman on the eve of her wedding, an eve which she is protracting in the apprehension that she is making a serious mistake, should be threatened by fear becoming tangible, that fear being an Angel to which she will as good as give birth before it rips her apart or sends her back in time; which from the Angels' point of view is as good as the same thing.

It's not clear how far the Doctor was already aware that Amy might be contaminated by the crack in time, which I'd assumed was the case from his view of the TARDIS scanner at the end of The Eleventh Hour; but he knows now. The reference back to The Next Doctor was a surprise; the Cyber-King is a concept which I do not dwell upon and the idea of it falling out of time altogether through the crack is not unappealing. Cheap shots at one of the less successful elements of the 2008 Christmas special aside, how much of what we have known of the Doctor Who universe have we lost, and how much can be restored? There has been much speculation that the Time War has confused the Doctor's time stream, Paul Cornell even suggesting on his blog a few years ago that a core Doctor Who text such as The Deadly Assassin has from the point of view of the 2005 series never happened. The pursuing crack in time, seizing on conscious beings and removing them from time and space with so little disruption that no-one notices, adds an extra layer of creative destruction.

Amy is volatile. She is resourceful and brave but deeply, deeply scared. She's been opened a way into a childhood magic which she was told repeatedly and forcefully was at best a dream, at worst a lie; and given her anxiety about her wedding, and the way in which her life has been changed by the interventions of the Doctor, her attempted seduction of him is entirely explicable. It's not the sex which she is desperate for, but the consolation of knowing that the Doctor is there. Amy's suggestive hints on her bed engendered a sense of apprehension as overwhelming as anything the threat of being dispatched by an Angel could achieve. The Doctor copes admirably; I'd venture that he's more comfortable with sexuality now than he was when he looked like David Tennant. viala_who , I think, had a word for the tenth Doctor's dysfunctionality as a romantic partner. The eleventh seems more sure of himself in the bedroom, and a one night stand with Amy would have damaging consequences for both of them. It appears that on the basis of this encounter the Doctor will appoint himself relationship counsellor.

While production techniques were modern - the oxygen factory was well-executed, the integration of tree fibres and fibreoptics made poetic sense and the forest conveyed a sense of depth even though the set was probably very small - there were many touches which seemed old-fashioned. This series of Doctor Who has a determinedly retro feel in parts; some elements of the set have the cardboard functionality of a lot of 1970s Doctor Who spaceships and outer space bases, but it would be difficult to have achieved that brief, powerful glimpse of the tableau of Angels, frozen as the gate opens, in the days of video cameras and CSO. Much of Murray Gold's score for this episode reminded me of the stock music used in The Tomb of the Cybermen. Not only does this accentuate Matt Smith's Doctor's oft-cited Troughtonness - though his brutal treatment of Amy's anxiety is reminiscent of Tom Baker's Doctor in his early years - it complements the romantic gothicism of the Angels and conveys a feeling of a claustrophobic space being torn by talons.

Not, perhaps, the greatest Doctor Who story of all, but certainly the strongest so far. Next week we get the mid-season relaunch episode, and a different personality gets exposed to TARDIS travel and learns to see time and space differently. Oh, and lots of sharp teeth.


Posted by: nineveh_uk (nineveh_uk)
Posted at: May 1st, 2010 09:44 pm (UTC)

I think I'm reading Amy differently than you (although I like her a lot, and think she's working very well as a companion). Or rather, I agree entirely with resourceful and brave but deeply, deeply scared, but I'm not entirely certain yet how I am reading the 'seduction' (I shall have to watch again tomorrow). My initial response to this, as to Amy's first running away, is that this is a narrative trope. Men and women in stories are always running away on the eve of their weddings, and indeed always having comical sexual encounters* on the eve of their weddings. So the foreground is standard comedy. The Mysterious Question is what is going on in the background.

* I think I'm reading the Doctor's reaction differently, too, as the "male panics in face of seductress, hilarity ensues" trope.

Of course, this assumes that Amy isn't still possessed by a patient angel...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 1st, 2010 11:34 pm (UTC)

I think that having digested Steven Moffat's comments on Doctor Who Confidential, I see more that Amy has been set up as someone whose sexuality is a more conversational one, so to speak, than needing great monogamous passion to set it alight. You're right about it being a narrative trope; I was wondering what purpose it was serving, though my reaction might as much reflect my hang-ups as anything else.

I agree that there's more to relationship guidance to the "sorting out"; it will be interesting to see how close the Doctor keeps Amy over the next few weeks.

Posted by: Zelanite (zelanite)
Posted at: May 2nd, 2010 09:55 am (UTC)

I too found it quite tense, which I suppose means it must have been done rather well. I would like to watch this episode, and last week's, again, which is a good sign.

I'm not very interested in River at all, though. Her James Bond routine at the beginning of last week's episode was kind of fun, and Amy's reaction to the Doctor's reaction to her was entertaining. But the whole "OMG she's going to be the Doctor's WIFE sometime in the future" angel... meh. Now she's apparently going to murder him one day as well. I suppose one could ask questions such as "before she's married to him, or afterwards?" but I don't really care. Obviously she'll also be back in the season finale.

Another problem I did have with these episodes, is that the interaction between Amy and the Doctor sometimes suggests that Amy knows the Doctor rather better than really makes sense, given the short time they have spent traveling together.

There were also a couple of irritating plot holes. Why did nobody think to improvise a blindfold for Amy, rather than just expecting her to keep her eyes shut? And why, given that the military knew they'd be dealing with an Angel, didn't they bring any sort of high-powered weapons of the sort which might be useful for reducing stone statues to little tiny pieces of stone?

I was also disappointed with the way in which the clerics looked more-or-less exactly like contemporary soldiers. It's been obvious since The Long Games that New Who is rather scared of trying "futuristic", for fear of ending up looking silly, and this has often given us a far future which looks pretty much like five minutes into the future instead. But, c'mon, they're a religious order of soldiers in the future: could we not have some sort of cross between crusader armour and a spacesuit, or something? Rather than basically pulling some army uniforms out of the wardrobe?

I liked the use of the ship's artificial gravity as a plot device, just because it's an obviously Science Fictional device. The Angels, on the other hand, clearly fall into the category of "quantum handwaves anything" - but they work well, so that's alright.

On the whole I'm increasingly sensing some Sapphire and Steel influence in Moffat's writing this season. That's not a bad thing - S&S was a fine series. Ultimately though the "crack in time" is going to need a more coherent resolution in Doctor Who than it would have done in Sapphire and Steel. But I don't think Moffat will fail on that score. Last week's revelation that the the whole maze was full of Angels was a plot twist which took me completely by surprise, and yet made perfect sense afterwards - something which didn't happen often in the RTD era, and which I welcome.

Moffat is repeating himself a lot, though. In these episodes we got River and the Angels again, and also the device of a character carrying on speaking after dying. This is a little bit worrying - I hope it's deliberate for some reasons, and not an indication that he's run out of ideas already.

This is the episode where I decided I definitely like Matt Smith's Doctor. There's a Buffyesque quality to some of his dialogue, which works well with the I'll-solve-this-problem-by-talking-about-it-very-fast.

As for Amy's attempt to "seduce" the Doctor - that could have been a disaster, but wasn't. I'm inclined to see it in much more straightforward terms than you, though - I think the sex is exactly what she wanted. She thinks the Doctor's hot, and would like to shag him. This could perhaps have been more obvious if it hadn't been necessary to stay within Saturday-evening family-viewing limits. (Or I could be wrong.) I'd rather dispense with sexual / romantic attraction between the Doctor and the companion entirely, but if it is deemed necessary for such an element to be present, then this seems like a good way to do it.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 2nd, 2010 12:56 pm (UTC)

I find it difficult to interpret Amy's sexual attempt on the Doctor as simply as that. As nineveh_uk points out, it is a jokey use of a trope, and does arouse the Doctor's imagination as he realises that Amy is at the heart of the mystery. I am sure that a lot of my reaction was very personal.

One of the things I liked about this story was the Doctor's fallibility; he forgot that the Aplans had two heads last week, which placed the party within reach of the Angels.

I'm less bothered by Moffat repeating signature devices, as long as he does something different with them, and that he doesn't outstay his welcome. I winced when reading The Writer's Tale when seeing that Russell T Davies hailed Sylvia Noble as bearing the mark of Jackie Tyler - there was clearly an archetype of mother-daughter relationships which he didn't want to vary too greatly.

I suspect that blasting an Angel to smithereens wouldn't help very much - lots of Angel particles working in unison, perhaps.

I suspect that part of the thinking behind the non-futuristic costumes has always been budgetary, and never more so than now.

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: May 3rd, 2010 12:29 pm (UTC)

One of the things I liked about this story was the Doctor's fallibility

...and one thing I particularly liked about that was that he admitted it - twice!

And also he doesn't *forget* that the Aplans have two heads, he chatters about it quite happily - he fails to notice he significance. Very human ;-)


About the re-use of Moffat creatinons:
I think that creates a sense of continuity, done at this time in the new series. Esecially with the amount of apparent deliberate discontinuity from the RTD era.

Incidentally, I hadn't read that so much as Amy being contaminated by the crack, but the whole reality they currently inhabit.

The repeated reference to rewriting time was interesting....

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: May 2nd, 2010 12:37 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

I didn't find the episode as involving as you did, but it was still very good, especially when compared to the first three episodes of the season. I don't mind wiping chunks of the RTD-era from history either (I would give a lot to have never experienced The Doctor's Daughter). I still feel as if the new production team are finding their feet, though. Hopefully more on my blog sometime soon.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 2nd, 2010 01:13 pm (UTC)

The Doctor's Daughter revealed how 2008 Doctor Who was still obsessed by the Buffy paradigm which had inspired the series revival. I think there is something to the argument that the production team really only appreciated how successful they had been when they were able to slow down a little after The Next Doctor.

These two episodes were the first ones made by the new team, and there were apparently problems, with one cast member dropping out, and Phil Collinson turning up on set to act as troubleshooter.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: May 2nd, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

I had forgotten that these episodes were filmed before the first three. I didn't know about the problems, though. It's surprising that these episodes feel more polished than the previous ones.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: May 3rd, 2010 01:04 am (UTC)

Phil Collinson's influence, perhaps - though I didn't think the execution of the first three episodes was especially below par.