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WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!
A crashed spaceship, a shattered temple and a terrifying climb through the maze of the dead - River Song is back in the Doctor’s life, and she’s brought more trouble than even he can handle. A Weeping Angel is loose, and the Doctor is recruited to track it down...
One of the most remarkable things about the two-part The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone is that it was the first story Matt Smith and Karen Gillan recorded for this series. You wouldn’t know it from their performances, as they both appear to fully inhabit their characters straight away.
It probably helped that writer Steven Moffat gave them such marvellous dialogue to work with, such as the Doctor’s fumbled response to River Song’s observation about the search for a Weeping Angel in a temple full of statues being like trying to find a needle in haystack: “A needle that looks like hay. A hay-like needle of death. A hay-like needle of death in a haystack of... statues. No, yours was fine.” And on DVD, of course, unlike the original UK transmission, there’s no annoying animated Graham Norton to spoil the dramatic final line of The Time of Angels!
This two-part story is very much a showcase for the talents of the Series 5 cast and crew as a whole, and Moffat in particular. It’s excitement all the way, right from the James Bond-style reintroduction of River Song (Alex Kingston). Not ashamed to revisit the show’s past just one week after the return of the Daleks, he brings back not one but two of his most popular creations: not only Dr Song but also the Weeping Angels.
For the purposes of the plot, the nature of the Angels is altered slightly (as is touched upon in the not very in-depth behind-the-scenes featurette, The Weeping Angels - Monster Files, also included on the disc) from their previous appearance in Blink. Their reactions are slower this time around (which is explained as the result of years of starvation and inactivity) and now they kill rather than transport their victims back through time (which is attributed to the Angels in Blink being mere “scavengers”). In an unfortunate similarity to River’s previous adventure, Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead, the Angels can now also steal the voices of their victims. That is my harshest criticism of this two-parter, though I accept its necessity, and it does allow for some powerful exchanges between the Doctor and his enemy, especially during the second episode...
In the ruins of Alfava Metraxis and the wreck of the Byzantium, the Weeping Angels are coming back to life. Everyone tells Amy, “Whatever you do, don’t blink,” but as she is about to discover, not blinking might just be the worst thing you can do...
Flesh and Stone has an even greater abundance of classic lines than The Time of Angels. From the Doctor’s “We’ll all plunge to our deaths. See, I’ve thought about it,” to River Song’s “I absolutely trust him,” to the Doctor’s “It’s a thing in progress. Respect the thing,” the list just goes on.
When I watched this episode again, some of the Eleventh Doctor’s fallibility reminded me of two of my favourite former Doctors, Peter Davison and Patrick Troughton - though by this point I have largely ceased to regard Smith’s performance in terms of other actors who have played the role. To my mind, he is now very much his own Doctor. For instance, I cannot imagine any other incarnation reacting in the way that the Eleventh Doctor does to the difficult decisions he faces here.
Similarly, no other companion has ever carried on like Amy does at the end of this episode! Seeing a companion behaving so overtly sexually towards the Doctor is a real shock to the system. For some viewers, it crossed a line in terms of what constitutes acceptable family viewing. For me, it was like getting an unexpected drunken snog from an attractive and hitherto chaste friend - it feels somehow wrong yet also irresistibly good! Moffat writes the scene well, taking a humorous approach (as you might expect from the writer of Coupling), having paved the way beforehand by having Amy lustfully observe the undressed Doctor in The Eleventh Hour, an incident that was also played for laughs. As I said in my review of that episode, this is arguably more realistic than Martha’s and especially Rose’s celibate adoration of the Doctor. I also believe it’s no coincidence that the scene occurs in a River Song episode. It’s as though the writer is saying to us: “OK, so you’ve bought the idea that maybe the Doctor will have a wife in his future. Well, how about this...?”
The episode also boasts a neat spin on the idea of not blinking when the Angels are nearby (here Amy cannot open her eyes for more than a second or she may die), fresh questions about River just as we thought we’d figured her out, and a major advancement of the “cracks in the universe” story arc that I didn’t expect so early on in the season.
It’s a show in progress. Respect the show.
The House of Calvierri has the whole of Venice under its protection, but something is very wrong. There are blood-drained corpses in the street, something lurks in the canal, and the Calvierri girls are the loveliest in town, except when you glance in the mirror...
Following the sheer brilliance of the Weeping Angels two-parter, The Vampires of Venice is merely good.
The production values are high, with Trogir in Croatia standing in convincingly for 16th-century Venice, plus some impressive CGI monsters. However, there is a nagging sense of having been here before. As in School Reunion, writer Toby Whithouse’s previous contribution to Doctor Who, shape-shifting fanged aliens are in charge of a school and are exploiting young humans. OK, so the Saturnynians use perception filters rather than actually changing shape, but the result is the same. The mysterious Silence has made refugees of the Saturnynians in much the same way that the Gelth in The Unquiet Dead were displaced by the Time War. As in The Curse of Fenric, the vampiric creatures are in fact water-dwellers.
However, Whithouse crafts clever explanations for characteristics that appear to resemble vampires, such as their fangs and lack of reflection.
This episode also sees the welcome addition of Rory (Arthur Darvill) to the TARDIS crew. His interaction with the Doctor and Amy effectively deconstructs the typical Doctor/companion relationship, particularly his accusation of the Doctor: “You know what’s dangerous about you? It’s not that you make people take risks: it’s that you make them want to impress you... You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.”
The Vampires of Venice charts the reconciliation of Amy and Rory, from Rory’s initial shock as the Doctor tells him, in a comical pre-titles sequence, about “that kiss”, to his attempt at heroism and the reawakening of Amy’s love for him. Things don’t get too slushy, though, as the episode ends with the Doctor and Rory resigned to the fact that they are both Amy’s “boys”. Despite the fact that a romantic relationship is explored, things never really get “domestic” in the way that certain episodes did during Russell T Davies’s reign, because apart from a brief, minute-and-a-half stopover at Rory’s stag do (following three minutes spent at Amy’s house at the end of Flesh and Stone), the events take place in the midst of an adventure in another time and place.
Like Amy and Rory, the two stories on this disc go well together (indeed, the stag-night scene would have fitted in as well at the end of the under-running Flesh and Stone as it does at the beginning of the longer-than-usual Vampires of Venice), even though one is clearly dominant over the other.