Monday, 26 April 2010

Dr Who: The Time of Angels - TV Review

"I promised you the equivalent of an army...this is the Doctor."

And...relax. After the unfortunate misstep of last week's Dalek episode (let us speak of it no more) Dr Who is right back on track - and more - this week with the first sizzling episode in a two-part Steven Moffat story which has all the hallmarks of becoming the very first absolute classic adventure of the new Smith/Moffat era. Moffat's previous two scripts for this fifth season have been sturdy, workmanlike affairs but this double-length story gives the writer the opportunity to really spread his wings and enthral the show's audience with more richly-drawn characters, a more languorous storytelling pace and, best of all, the return of two of his (and the show's) finest creations in the modern era. Not only are the terrifying Weeping Angels back from 2007's 'Blink' but we also get a more than welcome reprise for River Song (Alex Kingston) from 2008's 'Silence in the Library' two-parter, probably the most charismatic and dynamic single character the show has given us since the relaunch (sorry, Captain Jack). Together with a stunningly-realised alien planet backdrop, a supporting cast of who's-for-the-chop-next redshirts and a cliffhangar to die for (or not) and endlessly-quotable smart ass dialogue, the ingredients are in place for something very special indeed. And 'Time of the Angels' doesn't disappoint. With Matt Smith now fully imbedded in the lead role (he's no longer 'the new Doctor', he's just the Doctor ) there's the very real sense here that the gloves are off now, a few teething troubles are out of the way and the show can fly again.

The episode kicks off with a cocky, audacious extended pre-titles sequence which expertly sets the tone for what's to come. The extravagant, exotic figure of River Song (for it is she) is fashioning an unlikely distress signal which her close future friend the Doctor will interpret 12,000 years later in a museum on an asteroid. After a breath-taking escape from the Byzantium spaceship River's aboard the TARDIS and the ship sets off in hot pursuit. Landing on the planet AlphAlpha Metraxis the Doctor, Amy and River are soon joined by River's comrades - a bunch of futuristic clerics in combat gear. River tells the Doctor that something very nasty was lurking in the vaults of the Byzantium, which has spectacularly crashed into an abandoned temple set high into the cliffs above them. It's a Weeping Angel...and with the ship crashed, it's on the loose.

Moffat has been selling 'Time of the Angels' (and its second episode, 'Flesh and Stone') as 'Aliens' in the way the first appearance by the Angels in 2007 ('Blink') was 'Alien'. In the earlier story the threat was more localised, a handful of scavenger Angels on Earth. Here the threat is much broader and wider (albeit a bit more distanced by taking place on an alien planet centuries in the future) with, it appears from this episode's stunning cliffhanger, thousands of the weeping Angels taking many inert forms all over the 'catacombs'. The similarities, structurally at least, between 'The Time of Angels' and 'Aliens' are undeniable; a small group of human troopers trapped in an abandoned settlement whilst all around them the deadly evemy is closing in for the kill. Certainly the story evokes many, many classic Dr Who stories dating way back to the era of the first Doctor where something nasty is picking the cast off one by one - the so-called 'base udner seige' stories so popular particularly in the Troughton era. For these reasons alone there's something very comforting and warmly familiar about the structure and setting of 'The Time of the Angels' but Moffat, to his credit, has taken the familiar and added his own dashes of wit and innovation into the mix. Clearly relishing the prospect of writing for his two greatest Dr Who creations again, he allows himself to indulge in some dazzling wordplay between the Doctor and River Song. River is cool, calm and collected where the Doctor is edgy and uncomfortable in her presence because she knows too much about him and his future. Matt Smith and Alex Kingston are on fire together, trading banter and black looks - Smith looks suitably deflated and crestfallen time and again in his one-sided exchanges with River where she's almost always one step ahead of him. Their exact relationship, still undefined but open to much conjecture, really is that of the bickering old married couple who know each other and their place in their relationship only too well. Amy can only look on, amused, as her new best friend seems to have found his match in this powerful, commanding, glamourous woman.

So to the Weeping Angels, appearing only sparingly in this first episode. Moffat has brought them back purely because he's thought of new things to do with them and he's opened up their mythology brilliantly here with the idea that "that which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel" which leads more or less directly to the hair-raising sequence, channelled from 'The Ring' movies, of an Angel creeping up on Amy inside the dropship and 'emerging' from the TV. Don't blink Pond! Moffat's also half-inched a cocnept or two from 'Silence in the Library' too, with the Angels killing troopers and then using their bodies to communciate with the Doctor. It's a cheeky steal but a sensible one; the Angels are scary enough as is it, how much scarier when they're speaking using the voices of dead men?

But good as Moffat's script is, and as accomplished as the acting is, the episode's greatest strength in behind the camera. New name director Adam Smith (who so memorably powred 'The Eleventh Hour' a few weeks back) gives 'The Time of Angels' a real cinematic quality, with wonderful ,long shots displaying the superb CGI work of the crashed Byzantium, the dropship and its troopers and the statue-strewn catacombs. This is the first episode of the season which doesn't show signs of the BBC's enforced 10% budget cut as Smith really puts the money on the screen and makes maximum use of the gloomy, claustrophic cave settings.

Faults? Well, churlish to go looking for any in what is essentially half a story but I remain a bit frustrated by Amy who still isn't really stepping out from the Doctor's shadow. Despite Karen Gillan's lviely performances, Amy remains the most generic companion figure of the 21st century era of Dr Who although it looks as if we're going to find out more about her as the seaason progresses. One missed opportunity here, though; after making much fuss of Amy's excitement at stepping out onto an alien world, the episode doesn't really follow it through as the next we see of her is a long shot as she stands outside with the Doctor, listening to the exquisite bickering between the Doctor and Amy.

'The Time of Angels' is easily the most rewatchable Dr Who since 'The Eleventh Hour' and with what promsies to be a run of strong episodes ahead, the show's back on firmer ground again, viewing figures are as strong as ever and it looks as if the series has made a successful transition from the David Tennant era. The second part of this yarn, 'Flesh and Stone' sees the series move its crack-in-the-wall plotline move towards the centre-stage again,earlier than I'd anticipated, and I'm confident that Moffat, now relaxing into his characters,, will deliver a satisfying and thrilling climax to this dense and edgy story. And remember, the Pandorica is about to open...

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