Post Game TV Recap: DOCTOR WHO S5E4 "The Time of Angels"

Two of the most fascinating creations from Steven Moffat's work on Doctor Who so far; The Weeping Angels and River Song.  Seems rather obvious to team them to guarantee an exciting story, wouldn't you say?  So would he, and so he has this week on the show.  Spoilers may never be more prevalent, and it's time to come back from the shadows again...

THE TIME OF ANGELS

by Steven Moffat

Directed by Adam Smith

A mysterious woman has incapacitated a guard on a starship, and has now broken into a room containing a very important-looking device.  She proceeds to carve a message into it, a message that The Doctor and Amy find 12,000 years later in The Delerium Archive, the universe's largest museum.  The device is essentially the Black Box of the ship, and the message is in High Gallifreyan.  It reads, "Hello, sweetie".  The mystery woman is River Song, whose relationship with The Doctor is a long and winding story.  Back on the ship, she now starts winking at the security cameras, almost wanting to make a record of herself.  Indeed, that's exactly what she wants.  The Doctor appropriates the device, hightails it back to the TARDIS, and recovers the security recordings from 12,000 years hence.  He finds footage River being pinned down by a security detail.  After warning the guards that the cargo they're carrying will keep them from making it to their destination, she recites a string of numbers, seemingly to no one.  They're temporal co-ordinates, and The Doctor jumps to them just as Song opens the hatch of the ship, blasting herself out into space...and into the open door of the TARDIS.  All this before the opening credits...

Amy is gobsmacked by this woman who can seemingly fly the TARDIS, let alone better than The Doctor can.  She tracks the starliner and lands right near its final destination, smooth as you please.  He shows off in turn by identifying the planet without needing to touch a scanner, and they exeunt.  The ship, The Byzantium, has crashed on the planet Alfava Metraxis into the ruins of a massive temple.  The Doctor is loath to remain in River's company for fear of...well, spoilers.  Even as he introduces her to Amy as "Professor River Song", she is surprised and delighted to hear she'll be a professor some day.  There's no survivors on the ship...well, except for  the mysterious something in the cargo hold that can't ever die.  Song contacts someone and tells them to home in on her signature. A military team teleports down and its CO, Father Octavian ("The church has...moved on", the Doctor explains) is pleased to learn that the assistance she's provided is The Doctor.  They are all here to investigate the cargo of the Byzantium...a Weeping Angel.

The ship is unsafe to access directly, so they plan to blow into the entrance of the temple, a large network of catacombs know as The Maze of the Dead.  They can work their way up through the dark confusing halls of the maze, around any which corner could be hiding the Angel, a plan The Doctor is (not) happy to be a part of.  Amy can't stop asking about River, a topic he's loath to discuss.  River calls to them both to show them a brief clip of the angel she's captured off the security cameras.  It's clearly an Angel. He mentions he's dealt with them before, but the ones he fought were scavengers, just living on virtual scraps. This one will be feeding off the energy and radiation streaming from the crashed ship, and will soon be quite healthy indeed. Everybody swings into action, Amy remains in the room with the video clip...which has started to move.

River has a book written about the Angels centuries ago, the only one ever written.  The Doctor notices that it has no pictures - why write a whole book about a threat and never show what it looks like?  Upon further examination, he finds a passage that explains that any picture or representation of an Angel, due to their quantum-based existence, BECOMES an Angel.  So no pictures, no iconography...and Amy's alone in a room with a video clip of one, which has decidedly shifted position on the monitor. She can't turn the screen off, the door has locked behind her, and every time she blinks, the video Angel creeps closer to the camera...and eventually out of the screen.  She can't get out, The Doctor and River can't get in, he checks the book again.  There's a passage about the eyes being a door to the soul. He warns Amy not to look directly into the Angel's eyes, advice that appears to have come a few moments late.  Thinking quickly, Amy is able to stop the projection by pausing the clip at the instant it loops back, at the frame or two that the screen just holds static.  Success, the door open, and she seems fine.  Meanwhile, Octavian and his men have broken into the base of the catacombs and will start to explore.

The maze is filled to bursting with statues, a haystack for a very dangerous stone needle to hide in.  As they begin to explore, Octavian has a very brief but fact-laden conversation with Song - she was furloughed from prison to assist in this expedition,  and if The Doctor knew more about who she was and what she'd done, he'd surely leave them in the lurch.  Song assures him that won't happen.  And Amy...has something in her eye.  As she rubs it, handfuls of ash fall from her face, which obviously worries her.  River comes up behind her and as they explore, Amy pumps her for more information about her relationship to him; River is Sphinxian in her reticence. 

Two cleric solders are exploring a room filled with statues, as their flashlights begin to flicker, and suddenly there's only one, and just as suddenly, only one.  Another cleric, known as Bob, starts shooting wildly at shadows, and The Doctor advises him that being scared is perfectly fine, it keeps you alert.  Cleric Bob is told to stay behind and guard the entrance along with the two other guards...who are no longer around.

The Doctor starts talking about the race that created the catacombs, a race with two heads.  It's then they realize...all the statues in the catacombs have only one.  ALL of the statues in the catacombs are Angels - the party are surrounded. The crash wasn't an accident, it was a rescue mission...by the Angel.  The leaking stardrive is feeding the trapped Angels, allowing them to recover their form and mobility, and time is running out. Cleric Bob contacts Octavian and reports that his compatriots are dead...and so is he.  The Angel took his brain to allow them to talk to The Doctor, to let him know they're on the way for them. Since the angel from the ship is now in the catacombs helping to restore the rest, that means the wrecked ship is angel-free, so they head for it.  Amy, however, can't move - her hand has turned to stone and is gripping a railing.  The Doctor realizes she's looked at an Angel's eyes, which means it can start playing with her perceptions.  He assures her that her hand is still flesh and blood, and when she's unable to believe him, he bites her, shocking her loose of the suggestion, and annoying her to no end.

At the top level of the catacombs, the Byzantium is at least 30 feet in the air above them, inaccessible, and the Angels are moving in, draining the power from both the ship above, and their flashlight batteries.  It's all been a trap, and The Doctor warns them that you should never put him in a trap.  He takes Octavian's gun, fires in the air...and we'll see what happens next week.

Combining River Song and the Weeping Angels into one story seems an obvious way to guarantee a riotous adventure, and it's certainly succeeded.  You always have to give the audience more when you bring back a character, and they've done that here - an army of Angels, and more of a peek at Song's life with perhaps a reason or two she shouldn't be trusted.

The expansion of the power of the Angels is quite logical, and adds to their chilling nature.  We don't get a real solid explanation of exactly how the army of Angels arrived on Alfava Metraxis and whether or not they're directly connected to the disappearance of the bicranial Maze designers, but it's likely best to take a page from MST3K and "really just relax".

Unlike the episodes Moffat's written before, this is the first time in one of his stories The Doctor hasn't been able to save everyone - people die here, and in one case that failing is thrown in his face.  It only serves to steel his resolve, and probably wasn't the best idea to poke the hornet's nest like that. 

GUEST STAR REPORT

The Weeping Angels are easily the most chilling monster Moffat has created for Doctor Who yet.  First appearing in the Hugo and BAFTA-winning episode Blink, they're a race of creatures who live in a state of Heisenberg uncertainty - they only exist when they can't be seen.  If they are seen, they transform into stone, rendering them immobile but indestructible. Legion of Super-Heroes fans might quip that they may have come from Stone Boy's home planet of Zwen.

In Blink, The Doctor describes them as "The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely".  They kill their victims by casting them into the past, where they live out a full life (presuming they can find somewhere to live, etc) and the Angel "eats" the potential energy of their victim's unlived future.  It's an amazing concept, one that is more chilling by the mystery of it.  It was amped up here by adding the concept that the image of an Angel can itself become an angel, as in the recording from the ship. 

There's a short story from 1984 called Bones by P.C. Hodgell that features a race of creatures called Vhors, skeletal ratlike creatures who, like the Angels, can only move when they're not being observed.  Surely a case of parallel evolution, but a pointed lesson in how there's only so many truly original ideas, and how it's all based on how you use the ideas and tropes we've been recycling since Og the caveman first set in stone (literally) the tale of a young boy who was destined to bring down a great kingdom run by an evil monarch.

ALEX KINGSTON (River Song) - Best known for her starring role on ER, Alex also had a short set of appearances on Flash Forward as Fiona Banks.  This is her second appearance as River, and will (allegedly) be returning later in the series for the season ender story.  Alex plays River as utterly sure of herself, able to handle almost any situation, and for the ones she can't, she's got one hell of an ace in the hole.  It's rather similar to the Lois Lane and Superman relationship on many levels...very possibly down to the marriage.

SIMON DUTTON (Alistair) - There are no small parts, they say, only small actors. Simon Dutton is an example of getting a very good actor for even the shortest of roles. In addition to a long career in TV and film Simon most notably had the honor to be one of the men to play Leslie Charteris' gentleman thief Simon Templar, AKA The Saint, a role most famously played by eventual James Bond Roger Moore.  In an anthology series called The Mystery Wheel of Adventure, he played Templar for a six-episode run, the episodes run as a stand-alone series in the UK. 

BACKGROUND BITS AND BOBS - Trivia and production details

I WAS SO MUCH OLDER THEN, I'M YOUNGER THAN THAT NOW - This is one of the few examples where we are not seeing The Doctor's life being presented in the proper order.  Most of the events with recurring characters in his life, good and bad, are presumed to be shown to us in the right order to both parties.  Even in his various meetings with enemies like the Daleks or Cybermen they are presented as if they know about all of their "previous" battles and none of their "future" ones. A notable exception there is Genesis of the Daleks, where he is there for their creation (a story that was in fact supposed to be the last Dalek story).  But here we're dealing with two very non-parallel timelines.  River has met The Doctor many times at this point in her timeline, with many to come before their final meeting in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Contrariwise, this is only the second meeting he's had with her, the aforementioned library meeting being the first in his personal timeline.

Perhaps I should say only the second presented meeting.  The Doctor had an unspecified period of traveling alone between the events of The Waters of Mars and The End of Time (indeed, in between each of the special episodes from last season); it's quite possible that he met up with her (any number of times) in that unseen narrative gap.  If we're very lucky, there's ample ground to be tilled in future Big Finish radio plays or novels.  She claims to have pictures of all (ALL, suggesting future ones as well) of his faces in her diary - Is it possible she's met his past regenerations and he's forgotten, or been made to forget (likely by himself)?  The mind boggles.

It's River that really starts to open The Doctor's eyes to exactly what he can do and the power he can wield.  It starts with the subtle snapping his fingers to open the TARDIS doors (which he does for Amy as he invites her in) and it gets rather out of control in Waters of Mars.  But look at the positive glee the current Doctor feels as he does clever things - more so than any incarnation in quite a while, he's really having FUN.  That may well be a result of her telling him that his increase in skill and power will happen, which rather sets up an ontological paradox.  Similarly, he may have a freedom being with River that he's never had with anyone else - he absolutely knows that she will survive every adventure they have together, because he's already seen her "death".  It's similar to the freedom Arthur Dent felt once he learned that he will not die until he arrives at the mysterious "Stavromula Beta".  Of course, he doesn't have the same surety for Amy or any of his other companions, and even the situation with River may not be sure...

River and The Doctor's relationship is a complex and intertwined one, as is proper for a time-traveler.  Indeed, a comparison to the book and film The Time-Traveler's Wife is not untoward.  In it, the time traveler bounces uncontrollably through time, meeting his eventual wife at random points in her life at similarly random points in his.  She first meets him when she's a child, but after he's known her for quite some time.  He eventually meets his own daughter at a point in his life before she's even born.  It's a complex thing to have to keep in mind for the viewer, and it's a testament to the faith Moffat and the BBC have in the audience to present them with such a complex concept.  I'll lay odds an American show would never try it, or would explain it to death for fear of baffling the Lowest Common Denominator.

THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE RIGHT JOB - River does not have The Doctor's Sonic Screwdriver in this episode, or at least does not use it as she did in Library.  Instead she has a very versatile pistol that becomes a welding torch and odds are a number of other settings as well.  This suggests that she's earlier in her personal timeline than the point that he gave it to her.  And if you want to play more with guessing The Doctor's half of the timeline, considering that Screwdriver looked more like an advanced form of his previous incarnation than the current version, perhaps it was his previous regeneration that gave it to her, at some point in her future, and oh, dear I've gone cross-eyed.

"The crash of the Byzantium, have we done that yet?" The events of this episode were alluded to in Library/Forest, as River checks her diary to see which adventures the pair have seen together.  River had already been through this adventure at the time of the last one; The Doctor, obviously, had not.

One of the questions this raises is how much River knows about what order The Doctor has had his regenerations.  If she had known conclusively that this incarnation happened after the one she met in Library, she would have known that he couldn't possibly have been through the Byzantium events yet, and wouldn't have asked.  Now something like that sounds like something that would be discussed with a person you've gotten so close to to tell your secret name.  So maybe...just maybe...her story doesn't hold water?

"Oh, I see, it's how you keep score" - An interesting parallel between this story and that of Song's first appearance is that one takes place in the universe's largest library and this one starts in its largest museum.  Both are essentially giant reference works, allowing people who know what to look for to see how The Doctor has affected the universe.  He dares the Vashta Nerada to do so in Library, and is basically Googling himself in this walk through the Archive.

There are other parallels to the first River Song episode as well - The monsters use the body (or parts of same) of their victims to come after the rest.  Both grab its victims under cover of darkness as well.  However, while the Vashta Nerada were somewhat justified in their actions by the destruction of their forests, the Angels are just killing machines, granite forces of nature with no cause to feel pity for them.

"The graffiti, it's Old High Gallifreyan" - We've seen two "alphabets" the Time Lords use.  The one from the current series is the one made of circles with cutouts rotating and flashing all over the TARDIS consoles, which was specifically designed to suggest the high-back collars of the Time Lord robes, first seen in The Deadly Assassin.  The other alphabet was first seen in that Tom Baker episode; The Doctor leaves a note for the security force in Old High Gallifreyan, which Castellan Spandrell translates and  reads aloud (for the audience's benefit).  A careful examination of the text on the page reveals that one of the characters is a small drawing of a mouse - a joke by the art designer. Check the text on the Home Box - there's the mouse again.

In that scene in TDA, the actor George Pravda was to be handed a piece of paper containing the English text so he could read the somewhat long speech from it verbatim.  He was "accidentally" given the prop one with the unintelligible text - on the first take he gets flop sweats as he tries to recall  the lines from memory.

"I love 'Bob', it's a great name." "It is a sacred name" - The only sacred "Bob" I know is J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, charismatic leader of the Church of the SubGenius.  Of course, I imagine in the next few centuries we might see a number of religions merge as large companies do now.  The clergy here are clearly descendants of the priest who "kicks ass for the Lord" in Peter Jackson's Dead Alive...

"Time can be rewritten, it doesn't work like that" - That line, almost a throwaway, is the dropped stitch in the fabric that allows there to still be drama in River's adventures.  Moffat's dealt more with the real mechanics of time travel than any other writer on the show.  In most cases, a DW story is rather static - land on a planet, solve the problem, move on.  But many of Moffat's stories use time travel within the tale, opening up another dimension to the narrative, namely the fourth.  That's something you'll need to pay attention to for the rest of the season...especially next week. Which leads right into the...

BIG BAD UPDATE - This is the first episode of the season so far that has had no connection to the story arc, save for the aforementioned line about time being rewritable.  That will be changing in a BIG way next week, and even more so in weeks to come.  So enjoy the respite, because from here on, don't...well, you know...

NEXT TIME ON DOCTOR WHO - What's the worst way to walk through a crowd of monsters who can only attack you if they can't see you?  Walk through with your eyes shut, obviously.  That, and possibly the biggest event to serve the Big Bad story so far, if The Internet has guessed right.

 

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