1 May 2010

The Zero Room #2- Angels & Daleks

Yeah, by reviewing two-parters as one story, this feature will seem fairly intermittent, but plunging back into the TARDIS, I've got reviews of Victory of the Daleks and the angelic double whammy The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone (to be referred to by the former from here on, for speed).

Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.
Picking up from the tease at the end of the previous episode, Victory of the Daleks finds the Doctor facing the metal meanies during the Blitz, with an excitable Winston Churchill ready to deploy them against the Nazis and win the war. The Daleks are generally keeping their eyestalks down, serving tea and submitting to being fitted out with camo-gear and a Union Flag ID tag, but the Doctor knows better. As usual with the Daleks, there's a much bigger plot at work, and Churchill seems oblivious to their true nature. The problem is, matters only get worse once the Doctor actually reveals the truth...

A better title might have been The Daleks Have Landed, because it's the feel of the similarly titled Michael Caine adventure that writer Mark Gatiss has lovingly recreated. It's an interesting spin on the Doctor's oldest enemies, and one that sees them undergo a new paint job and a design overhaul. Ah yes, that redesign. Decried by many as awful shit, I really can't agree. Although people have called them Power Rangers and the like, they reminded me more of the latter day Minis- they're a meaner and somewhat more hefty spin on a classic design. And come on, they look good, really. Embrace change, when it's this good!

The trouble is that Gatiss is terribly eager to get this new Dalek paradigm, which is in no small part responsible for the uneven pacing. In the first 15 minutes, I was impressed by how it was zipping along, but the plot peters out before the last 10 minutes.
Although I really liked Bill Paterson as Bracewell, and appreciated the way his character developed, he's not my idea of a barnstorming climax in an episode called Victory of the Daleks, even if it does make more sense as an ending than some of Russell T. Davies' Dalek episodes. It's great that the Daleks win for a change, but they win far too early. This feels almost like the preamble to the next Dalek story of the Moffat era, rather than a memorable adventure in its own right.

As a result, Ian McNiece's Churchill is also sadly sidelined. What we do see of him is brilliant though, and I think there's real potential for him to be a recurring historical character- he has the Doctor's phone number after all. Karen Gillan doesn't have much to do either, Matt Smith continues to prove his mettle with his indignant attitude to the Daleks- to him, their survival is obscene, and at one point he loses his temper with them altogether. A Doctor can often be defined by how he interacts with his greatest enemies, and he eschews both Christopher Eccleston's outright rage and David Tennant's righteous and weary approach. It's also fitting that Smith's first Dalek story evokes Patrick Troughton's debut, The Power of the Daleks, in having the Daleks pretend to be benign in order to entirely ruin humanity's shit.

To fall short in the most anticipated episode since the Daleks' inception, finally placing the Nazi allegories in a WW2 setting, would be unforgivable if it weren't for the witty script and the great performances. It collapses under the weight of tremendous expectation, but it's certainly not bad. It's an action packed episode that doesn't skimp on story and, despite the more obscure ramblings of fans online, it isn't a merchandising ploy to sell more multi-coloured Dalek toys. Victory of the Daleks could have been an all-time classic, but it's perfectly fine as an enjoyable early entry to the series, evocative of those films on Sunday afternoon telly as much as the Daleks' inexorable progress.The following two parter also has a returning monster of course, but The Time of Angels is head, shoulders and everything else above the previous episode. Opening in a particularly bombastic pre-credits sequence in the first part, the Doctor meets his possible future wife River Song again as she jumps out of an airlock. The ship she's just escaped has a deadly cargo- what is reputed to be the last Weeping Angel in existence- and it later crashes on the planet Alfava Metraxis. The tables are turned on the Doctor and a group of soldiers sent into the wreck to recover the Angel, and Amy Pond is pushed to the very limit as she struggles to survive.

Steven Moffat has said that this story's relationship to the Weeping Angels' debut Blink is as Aliens was to Alien. It expands the monsters while bringing in new, seemingly disparate elements to make it into more of an action story than a horror. The horror is still there for the stone gribblies, whose menace is as indelible as ever. A minor criticism is that they no longer "kill you kindly", as the Tenth Doctor put it first time around. Luckily, the far less interesting modus operandi of snapping necks doesn't weaken their fear factor at all- instead the uncomfortable provision of a voice via a murdered soldier just undercuts the fact that you couldn't negotiate with them before.

That said, we learned here that whatever holds the image of an Angel is itself an Angel. Someone finally decided to create a Doctor Who monster that can come out of televisions to kill you if you look at them- why has no-one thought of this before?!
It's not the Angels' show though, and we still get a great deal of interaction between Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. They each remain note-perfect for the entire series thus far, and Gillan in particular shines out here. She really sells the horror of a blind walk through a horde of Angels just as much as the innuendo of the surprisingly risque closing scene, which threatened to put the "Flesh" in the episode's title if Amy got her way with the Doctor. Less endearing is Alex Kingston as River Song, especially in the first part. For instance, note how a lovely trailer-friendly line about the Weeping Angels is delivered as smugly as the rest of Kingston's dialogue. You'd think any normal person would sound a little more apprehensive about "the most malevolent creatures evolution has ever produced". She knows more than the Doctor does, and thus more than the viewer, but I'd like her more if she didn't bloody act like it so much.

Moffat almost seems to have anticipated that neither River Song or the Angels themselves would leave as much of an impression on their second go around, and it's a good thing he never solely relies on them. To wit, we see the series arc begin to pay off at a point in the series earlier than ever before. Rather than continuing to vaguely pan across the crack in time for the rest of the run, it's embedded at the heart of the story here, and the potential ramifications of its presence will surely loom large for the rest of the series. It also provides a satisfying fan moment when one of the more confusing aspects of 2008's The Next Doctor is explained away, albeit with a mechanism that might allow many more stories to be completely retconned.
His writing continues to bewitch though, whether through one-liners or chills or wonderful character interaction. Here it's best typified in a wonderful final scene for the unfortunate Father Octavian. Even in an angelic headlock, the drama is incredibly potent between him and the Doctor as the two exchange warnings and condolences. The Time of Angels is also brilliant for having been helmed by director Adam Smith, who really makes this one look cinematic rather than televisual. He also delights in terrifying the young audience as much as the Moff does, and keeps the adrenaline going for 90 minutes in a way that the Dalek story couldn't manage for 42 minutes.

The Time of Angels excels as an opening two parter, a slot that's traditionally been a weaker point for the show since 2005, the Series 4 Sontaran adventure excepted. It's as witty and scary as we could expect from Moffat's writing, posturing for a broader story through the entirity of Series 5 without ever disrupting the story at hand. There's an energy here that most blockbusters can't even muster. It's mysterious, atmospheric and truly one of the best two parters Doctor Who has ever given us. Don't blink. Or... open your eyes. Or look at their eyes. Or-- (gets sent back in time)
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I'll be back in three weeks' time with reviews of the next two stories. Until then, why not share your comments below?

The next episode of Doctor Who, The Vampires of Venice, airs on BBC One and BBC HD on Saturday 8th May at 6pm.

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