Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Time Of Angels: The Return Of The Time-Traveller's Wife

'I've got pictures of all your faces!'

After the slightly (only slightly) disappointing Victory Of The Daleks last week comes a less shouty, more reflective, and far deeper conceit. In the best 'tomorrow belongs to me' tradition, The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat (Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He) takes another age-old Doctor Who staple - 'there's something nasty in them-there caves' - and makes of it a hymn to beguiling romance in the face of unbelievable danger. But, The Time Of Angel, remarkably, is more than merely that. The criteria is delicate and precise, the aesthetics are finely-tuned and deeply thought-about, with just the proper degree of darkness and shadow amid the wise-cracking light. In short, in a smart and elegant series of wise and brilliant set-pieces, this is the best Doctor Who episode since Midnight. Possibly, since Blink. It's that good. There's a proper story holding the thing together - a specific, measurable, agreed, realistic, time-bound plot. A story about trust and, quite literally, keeping the faith (in all its forms). A story about unknown agendas and hidden futures. A story about depth. Literal and emotional.

And the episode's metaphor, when it arrives is, unlike The Beast Below's - a light, tripping, ripple of a thing the glances by waving in the middle-distance. A study on artifice. Image becomes reality. You become what you consume. It's a conceit that sees Amy turning to stone and the Doctor entering The Maze of the Dead because, well, because that's what he does, isn't it? An episode based on a throwaway one-liner from an episode over two years ago ('have we done The Crash of the Byzantium yet?') but it's also one in which the back story is almost irrelevant to the blizzarding unreality of the future-imperfect. An episode which found time for small scale sarcasm ('River, hug Amy, I'm busy!') and much bigger scale sarcasm ('ooh, you sonic'd her!'). One that took the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey to deal with big issues, medium moments and beautifully, wonderfully trivial and twatty microscopic flecks of cosmic lint billowing on the time winds. An episode about two people who keep meeting in the wrong order, and the hilarious consequences that ensue.

'I don't need you to die for me, Doctor – do I look that clingy?'

The Time of Angels is Doctor Who's hymn to wilful bravery, going into areas where it seldom dips a naked toe much less an arm and a leg. Sexual tension, the strength of religious belief, companion biting and the deliciousness of watching a - probably - married couple bickering about utter trivialities. Into the Doctor and Amy's mad-fun world strides good old River Song, all red shoes and lip gross, straight out of an episode of The Avengers ('Hello, sweetie!'). How can anyone resist an episode of pretty much anything that opens with a scene drawn from every great heist movie that's ever been made followed by a simple caption that informs the viewers 'Twelve thousand years later'?! Alex Kingston, having done all mystery and knowing winks two years ago in Silence of the Library, here puts in a big, huggably over-the-top performance, informed by experience and sheer front. This River Song is older, wiser, shockingly-brazen and yet, in her quiet moments, the wistful doomed heroine of before. And she knows it. River runs, and the Doctor runs with her.

Here we have Matt Smith, after four episodes, perfectly at home in the role. The irony that this was the first episode which he actually filmed isn't lost on this author. In a story featuring warriors monks, that the Doctor - the ultimate TV liberal pacifist - can pick up a gun to provide a cliffhanger, somehow, feels absolutely right in the way that The Seeds of Doom never, quite, did. The little scene with Sacred Scared Bob (lovely wordplay, I though), tiny and insignificant in many ways, was still the episode's soul. The assertion that fear is a positive, one the Doctor has cause to regret before the episode's end, nevertheless plays, in delightful ways, with one of the series' core values. We are, all of us, scared of death. And, we are ultimately redeemed by that fear. Usually. That's the theory, anyway. But try telling that to someone who's just died, alone and afraid like everybody else. When the Doctor hears the words 'I didn't escape sir, the angel killed me too. It snapped my neck. Sorry for the confusion,' his pain is manifest, not only for a life needlessly lost but also for a little piece of his own arsenal of universal truths that's been chipped by a thuggish unwelcome reminder that not everyone plays by the same rules.

'There's a difference between dormant and patient,' the Doctor tells River. It's a necessary rebuttal to her earlier displaying of annoying - if amusing - oneupmanship ('It's not supposed to make the noise!'). But, in half-a-story, Moffat has given the Doctor a new voice. One that he's needed, despite the great things that have been present in the last three episodes. A powerful, assertive tone which belies his callow face and huffy moments of tantrum. Dangerous. Alert. Wise. Deep thinking. That classical cocktail mix of cosmic hobo, chess player and time bomb. 'Didn't anyone ever tell you there's one thing you never put in a trap if you're smart? ... Me!' Doctor Who was a bit good tonight. If you haven't seen it yet because you were out doing something else, fire up your recording device or your iPlayer and prepare to be stunned.