[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
So yesterday evening I watched Flesh and Stone, the second half of the two-parter that began with last week’s The Time of Angels, and the fifth outing for the new Doctor Matt Smith. It had a lot to live up to: a very creepy opening episode featuring an enemy that has quickly become iconic — maybe more so than any Doctor Who creature outside of the Daleks and Cybermen. Did it come up to expectation?
I dont know.
Of all the episodes I’ve seen, this is the one that I most need to watch again. All the things that I expected to love about it — clever plotting, a resolution that makes sense, frightening monsters — seem a little hazy in my mind now; and I couldn’t really say, for example, how I feel about the angels themselves right now. Does their development make them more interesting or less well-defined? (Well, OK, obviously it does both; but which effect is stronger?)
But the dialogue and the acting, which I’d not particularly expected so much from, were outstanding. Again and again as the episode progressed, I found myself taken by surprise by a clever insight or a moment of undiluted Doctorishness. I laughed out loud a lot of times — not because it was particularly funny, but for the sheer joy of watching. Matt Smith continues to push out ahead of the pack as my favourite Doctor, both fulfilling and transcending established characteristics of the role. He continues to exude a mostly-calm intelligence, and is much more obviously analytical than his predecessor. Much as I liked Tennant, I find I am already beginning to look back on his tenure as a little plasticky, a bit self-parodying; where he was painted in primary colours, Smith’s Doctor is subtler and richer.
Amy is also developing as a character (although see below). I’ve only now realised how rare it is to see one of the Doctor’s companions truly scared, as she was last night. And it was good to see: she should be scared. Others have commented that Amy has seemed too breezy, too confident; as though she doesn’t understand or care what is at stake in her various adventures. Last night, not so much. She knew.
As is so often the case in Doctor Who, the frightening parts are not so much the attacks of the monsters as the unexpected ideas — such as people disappearing so thoroughly that they literally never existed. Moffat is particularly strong on this kind of thing: remember Doctor Moon in Silence in the Library turning to Cal and telling her that her dreams are real and her real life is not? These ideas, when stated baldly in a blog, may not be very spine-tingling; when presented in a coherent fiction, and acted convincingly, they surely are. Flesh and Stone gave me several of these moments, and I love it for that — something that is pretty much unique to Who.
Oh, and the epilogue, back on Earth? Put me down as Not A Fan. I hope we’re going to see some specific exculpatory reason for Amy’s behaviour. I’ve liked her a lot up till now; I don’t want to lose my respect for her. The Doctor’s response suggested that something was Wrong there, and I hope it gets laid out for us.
On the positive side, at least Graham Norton wasn’t in it this time.
And so on to the rest of the season: the bad news is the the Grand Moff himself did not write any the next six episodes; the good news is that he wrote the final two-parter, in which I fully expect to see the Crack In The Universe again, and probably also see River Song killing The Best Man She Has Ever Known. But first: vampires! As always, I avoided seeing the trailer, so all I know is what’s in the title — that next week’s episode involves vampires and that they’re in Venice. It’s by Toby Whithouse, whose previous story, School Reunion, I thought was pretty brilliant, although I know not everyone agrees on that. I loved its treatment of Sarah Jane on her return, and especially Mickey’s realisation that he is the tin dog. Now we’ll see what he does with vampires.
Five episodes in, now is a pretty good time to take stock of the new season. Of those five, Moffat has written four (all but Victory of the Daleks), and of course has had overall control of the show, including the casting of Smith and Gillan as the Doctor and Amy. How does the half-term report look?
It looks very, very good. If I seem to have damned some of the episodes so far with faint praise — including Flesh and Stone, I suppose — it’s because I came into this season with very high expectations given Moffatt’s previous. Those expectations may not have been exceeded, but neither have they been disappointed. The new Doctor is outstanding, the plots are making more sense than at any previous time since the show was revived, and there are more spine-tingling moments than ever before — not fear exactly, but a sense of being close to something profound.
Most important of all, I am finding myself looking forward to each week’s episode with an eagerness I’ve not felt since 2005 (Christopher Eccleston’s season). Each episode feels like an event — something I don’t want to miss (even though I know I’ll be able to download it within a couple of hours if I do). The countdown to each Saturday’s episode is starting around the previous Tuesday. My boys and their friends are playing Weeping Angels. The monsters are iconic again.
There are, always have been, and always will be, things to dislike about Doctor Who. There will always be a segment of the population that just refuses to like it. But the deficiencies are easy to overlook this time around, and the many unique merits of the program are more apparent than ever. I’m having a great time.