Saturday, May 01, 2010

Flesh & Stone: Her Eyes - She's On The Dark Side

'A forest in a bottle on a spaceship in a maze. Have I impressed you, Amy Pond?'

Flesh & Stone might, just, be my new favourite Doctor Who episode of all-ever, bar none and all that malarkey. One of Moffat's witty ones, this ('we have no need of comfy chairs'). One of Moffat's tense, scary, dark ones too ('that's extremely very not good'). One of The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat's properly dramatic and thrilling ones, brilliantly structured and full of tension and secrets and big SF ideas. 'Keep your eyes shut and keep moving.' Appreciate that. Appreciate him. Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He. This is the whole of The Law.

The best Doctor Who stories often start off with such a basic - and very human - premise. Something small and twatty, personal and rather insignificant that gradually works its way through your defences to suddenly become the most important thing in the universe. The Aztecs' simple exploration of what faith means. Tomb of the Cybermen's slinging claustrophobia. Inferno's juxtaposition of the difference between the familiar and the unfamiliar and of the mess that comes from mixing the two. The Talons of Weng Chiang' mixture of social comment and historical bluff and evasion. Castrovalva playing with the concept of perception. The Doctor Dances providing that death doesn't, always, have to win if there's a bit of magic in the air. The Girl in the Fireplace' finding both love and grief in unexpected places. Flesh & Stone did a bit of that. That is, it started off with witty one-liners to the fore ('get a life, Bob!', 'respect the ... thing!') but, as it progressed, the humour took a back-seat as the danger and the tension increased.

'How can a crack in the wall be the End of the Universe?' asks the Doctor, numbly. For once, here is a Doctor whose cocktail of brilliance, wan self-aggrandisement and sarcasm also includes new elements to the chemical mix. Vulnerability and chaos and, most impressively, rage. The latter is almost incandescently drawn in the sequence where he is, quite literally, running out of time. And, before he realises the significance of that phrase. Something which River cannot provide him with any obvious answers to avert. He can stop the Angels and close the bleeding rift in time, he notes, but only if he sacrifices some 'major time event.' Like what, for instance, she asks, innocently? 'Like! Me! For! Instance!' he replies, boiling with anger at both her so spectacularly missing the point and the cruel ironies of fate and inevitability.

But, that's only the episode's second best scene. The best - and possibly the main reason why I'm currently thinking about reshuffling my Asperger's-like list of favourite Doctor Who stories - is the one between the Doctor and the doomed Father Octavian. A scene about hope and regret, about failure, about solemnity. And, magnificently, about redemption and grace. 'I wish I'd known you better,' the Doctor tells the Bishop as he prepares to leave him to the Angels. 'I think, sir, you knew me at my best,' comes the chillingly well-delivered reply (Iain Glen, take a bow). For an essentially humanist TV show, Doctor Who often shares a rather uncomfortable relationship with ideas of faith. But on the odd occasions that it has gotten over its inherent embarrassment at the concept of intelligent people surrendering their trust to nothing more than a simple faith in something bigger - in The Curse of Fenric, in The Satan Pit, in The Unquiet Dead and The Girl in the Fireplace and, briefly, here - it reaches out for some form of eloquent acceptance and, magnificently, finds it. And, that moves me in ways that I sometimes have real difficulty in articulating.

So, a story about doing the right thing even if it isn't, necessarily, the easy thing. About the inherent aridity of life without fun. About running away, and then running back. It's the old Buffy standby 'be careful what you wish for, it might just come true.' The resolution required a bit of a MacGuffin, I'll admit. Don't care. Not in the least bit important in the overall scheme of things. The direction, by Adam Smith, was beautiful. Genuinely haunting and shadowy in the forest, harsh and venal - almost antiseptic - on board the Byzantium. The two halves of Doctor Who, complete. Base-under-siege versus horror-in-the-darkness. It was an episode in which the Doctor placed his trust in others, within limits. ('If anything happens to her, I'll hold all of you personally responsible. Twice!') Here, we had an episode that set the scene for further adventures in a clever and unexpected way ('River Song, I could bloody kiss you!' 'Maybe when you're older!') Flesh & Stone - full of Angels and clerics, murder myths and taunting about the cracks in the universe. And it still found time for two huge revelations, a sweet little scene about innocence lost (and, sort of, regained) and a bit of mild snogging. There are people, intelligent people an'all, who will tell you that Doctor Who isn't, actually, a very good TV show. That it's 'just for kids' and always has been. That it's an age-old idea which is well past its sell-by date and is now just recycling ideas from its past. If the imagination, the invention, that punning social comment and brash, cheeky fire in its belly that Flesh & Stone had, in abundance, isn't enough for you then you're a lost cause, frankly.

I'd like to thank St Jude for favours granted. And, next time such people pass one of your statues, let them not blink, there's a good patron saint.

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