“Anybody in this room who isn’t scared is a moron.”
Caves! So many good Doctor Who stories feature caves. The Silurians, The Daleks, Earthshock, The Caves of Androzani, Underworld… Well, maybe not that last one.
Steve Moffat plainly knows this is a good ingredient, and has used it as the basis for a stunning return of the new series’ most memorable original monsters, those creepy Weeping Angels. Now facing the Doctor properly for the first time in a two parter that’s already shaping up to be excellent, they compete for fanboy heaven with the return of another classic Moffat creation, Dr River Song.
After a disappointing couple of episodes, it’s a relief to see that Moffat still knows how to make a great Who story. This time, he’s gone for the creepy, spooky style that he is probably best known for, and channelled another couple of classic ingredients – homaging/ripping off a classic story (in this case Aliens) and including the nasty idea that, against your will, you can be transformed into one of the monsters yourself.
In their debut story, the Weeping Angels were an unforgettably creepy creation, but they seemed too quirky an idea to become an ongoing monster. But the same could have been said of Alien, and taking that film’s sequel, Moffat has turned it into something very British and very Doctor Who.
From the pre credits teaser on, it was clear that this was going to be a good one. I never really pictured River Song as a kind of combination of Bernice Summerfield and Lara Croft, but this younger thrill seeking version of the character is, if anything, more charming than the more mature woman we met in Silence in the Library. The usual sparkling Moffat dialogue was present and correct, and Matt Smith had an immediate and electric chemistry with Alex Kingston, who was initially glammed up like Rita Hayworth. Their early scenes together crackled with the same kind of energy that Moffat always brought to romantic scenes in Press Gang, and as with that show, the actual ‘romance’ was never explicitly brought out. Is River the Doctor’s future wife? “Nothing so simple.” She’s certainly more than a match for him, effortlessly landing the TARDIS. “It only makes that noise because you leave the brakes on!”
She’s a great character, but at least part of that stems from the mystery surrounding her. We were offered some tantalising hints throughout the episode as to who she really was, with Bishop Octavian threatening what seemed to be a return to prison, but I actually hope we don’t get any answers. Whether she returns or not, the allure of the character is that hints about her are all we have, and it would be a shame to lose that mystery.
With Smith and Kingston chewing up the screen, it might have been a hard job for Karen Gillan’s Amy to get much of a look in, but the script actually gave her some of the best – and creepiest – sequences. The early scene with the Angel moving in, and then exiting from, River’s recording was masterfully played and directed (and an obvious steal from The Ring), and that was followed up by the increasing suggestions that Amy was turning into an Angel herself. Was it just an illusion that dust streamed from her eyes, as it was when her hand seemed to have turned to stone? I guess next week’s episode will tell, but it also led into the genuinely affecting and perfectly underplayed scene in which the Doctor refused to leave her.
Despite being in the first recording block of the series, Matt Smith’s performance here seemed far more assured than it has for the last couple of weeks, effortlessly combining authority and awkward comedy . “Environment check? Nice out.” I’m really liking his ‘young fogey’ approach to the part, with the Doctor often seeming like a sheltered young academic, yet full of enthusiasm for ‘keeping score’. I also love the way he tends to refer to Amy simply as ‘Pond’, just as a schoolmaster would – it’s nicely incongruous with his youthful appearance. If their relationship is going to develop into the sort of pseudo-romance we saw between Tennant and Piper, Steve Moffat’s handling it in a far more subtle way. Mind you, I could live without having the Doctor boast about how great he is for at least one episode!
Some surprisingly effective CG vistas of the ‘Maze of the Dead’ led into a genuinely unnerving and tight teatime horror story. The formless, almost melted statues in the Maze were, if anything, even creepier than the fully formed Angels, and it was a clever reveal when the Doctor started going on at length about the Maze’s original, two headed, builders. That was nicely written and played, and oddly reminiscent of that moment at the end of part three of Horror of Fang Rock when the Doctor realises he’s actually locked the monster in with the humans.
Of course, the previous methods of despatch employed by the Angels were not, in themselves, that scary. Yes, you’re displaced from your own time, but you don’t actually die. So this time around, they’re snapping people’s necks – far scarier – and there’s a good explanation for the change. This also gives rise to another mountingly creepy sequence in which the Doctor is speaking to ‘sacred Bob’ over the radio – “I didn’t escape, sir. I died too.” The Angels now have a voice, and it’s a chillingly malevolent one, taunting the Doctor about the fear Bob felt when he died. That it’s delivered in the victim’s own voice is all the more disturbing.
All this skilfully written spookiness demands very good direction, and it’s got it from Adam Smith. With this and The Eleventh Hour under his belt, Smith is looking like a real find for the show, and I hope to see more of his episodes. A whole new team of directors for the new series was always going to be a risky gamble, but in Smith’s case at least it paid off.
Unlike last week, we also got supporting characters we actually cared about. Partly because it was a better structured script than Victory of the Daleks, but also, I think, because a two parter allows you more room to explore the little details and characters of a story. The militarised Church is a weird but enjoyable concept which definitely distinguishes this from American style military romps,and the characters are nicely detailed even when they only have a few lines. It’s a measure of how well this was done that it was actually a bit of a shock when Bob was killed – though I at least was hoping to see rather more of him. Glad to see pretty young men are still on the casting agenda even under the rule of ‘the straight one’.
Obviously, it’s hard to make an overall judgment on a two parter until the second part’s been aired, but the glimpses we saw of next week’s look promising, and Steve Moffat has a great track record in writing second parts that live up to the promise of the first. I’m glad to say that I’m back at the stage of breathlessly anticipating next week’s episode, with my enthusiasm for the new show undimmed by the previous two lacklustre episodes. I’m also glad to say that I watched it on BBC HD, which meant that unlike many BBC1 viewers, I didn’t have the last minute of the action ruined for me by an animated Graham Norton exhorting me to watch yet another overhyped talent show! Roll on next week, and for heaven’s sake BBC Presentation, have a little respect!