The adventures of Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor and his brand new assistant Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) continue on DVD and Blu-ray with the release of a second volume of episodes from the recently screened series five -- this one featuring a two-part story by show runner and head writer Steven Moffat, in which the Moff’s intricate plotting and increasingly tangled series mythology provides viewers with the return of a favourite alien foe from the Tennant years, as well as that ambiguous woman from the Doctor’s future known as River Song (Alex Kingston), who reappears once-again to complicate the life of the time travelling hero and his new companion; plus there’s a wonderfully atmospheric third episode here too: an historical escapade featuring menacing buxom female vampires cavorting through 16th Century Venice.
Episode Four: THE TIME OF ANGELS / Episode Five: FLESH AND STONE
Steven Moffat was offered his dream job of head writer for the 2010 series of “Doctor Who” way back in July 2007, not long after he’d begun working on a two-part story for the-then forthcoming series starring the tenth Doctor, David Tennant. The knowledge that he would soon be taking up the reins of the show himself undoubtedly gave Moffat the impetus to start developing ideas and seeding story arcs for the future, and these first two episodes of Volume 2 finally see him starting to make good on the veiled hints and promises written into those earlier scripts (which became the 2008, series 4 episodes “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead”). In that story, we were introduced to the character River Song for the first time; an archaeologist and adventurer who already knows the Doctor from her many encounters with him in his future. All sorts of hints were dropped about who exactly River Song might really be, the number one “theory” at the time being that she was in fact the Doctor’s wife: intriguingly, she had in her possession a strange-looking diary that appeared to be filled with information about the Doctor’s future adventures, and which had a cover design that looks like the TARDIS’ police box exterior; she used it to try and figure out which part of the Doctor’s time-line she was currently occupying, since her numerous meetings with him tend, confusingly, to occur in the wrong order from her perspective; a further teaser in the story came with the revelation that River Song was also in possession of a sonic screwdriver which she claims the Doctor’s future incarnation once gave her as a gift! This story ends with River sacrificing herself to save the Doctor -- so it becomes her final encounter with him in her own chronology, while being their first meeting from his own point of view in time!
“The Time of Angels” starts by picking up on a throwaway snippet of information from River’s diary mentioned in that past episode when she asked David Tennant’s Doctor ‘if he knows about the crash of the Byzantium yet?’
At the start of this episode, the Doctor and Amy are perusing the exhibits in a 51st century space museum -- the Delirium Archive -- when the Doctor discovers that one of the 12,000 year old artifacts on display -- a “Home Box” flight recorder from an ancient decommissioned class of starship -- contains a message for him, written in old Gallifreyan script: River’s catchphrase ’Hello Sweetie!’ along with some co-ordinates which, when the Doctor programmes them into the TARDIS’ console, transports the ship back 12,000 years to the exact point in space and time when River, dressed in a sleek evening gown and still sporting her hallucinogenic lipstick, is affecting her escape from the storm-cage facility on board the prison-ship Byzantium in a typically space-operatic-cum-Bondian style.
River is not yet the archaeologist we met in “Silence of the Library” at this point: this story takes place long before those events, while she is still Doctor River Song. Yet she still appears to have had a long-standing relationship with the Doctor all the same, and is still very much in control of their encounter, always possessing more information than he, and unwilling to dole out ‘spoilers’. Not only is she able to pilot the TARDIS -- expertly plotting a course to follow the Byzantium to the planet Alfava Metraxis while the Doctor looks on sheepishly -- but she even appears to have a much greater knowledge of its working than even the Doctor himself! It turns out, for instance, that the distinctive rasping whooshing noise that the TARDIS has always famously made upon materialisation, is a result of the Doctor not really operating the time machine correctly and ‘leaving the brakes on’, at least according to River. (‘But I like that noise!’ mutters the Doctor!) If this is the case though, then the Master is no better a pilot because his TARDIS always made that same iconic sound, too.
On the surface of the planet Alfava Metraxis, River warns the Doctor that the crashed Byzantium was carrying the most dangerous cargo imaginable: a life form known as a Weeping Angel! This story marks the first return then, for this original Doctor Who creature created by Moffat for the series 3 episode “Blink”. Despite being one of that series’ Doctor-lite episodes (these are stories that feature the regular cast in only supporting or minor roles so that several episodes can be filmed at the same time to keep costs down. There’s usually always one per series), “Blink” is generally considered to be one of the very best “Doctor Who” episodes of all time and The Weeping Angels one of the series’ scariest monsters.
The defining idea behind them employs an ingenious reversal of the snake-haired Medusa from Greek mythology and combines it with a concept roughly appropriated from the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: Weeping Angels appear to all other life forms as immobile stone statues. But these scavengers employ a physiological ‘quantum lock’ method for hunting their prey: they can only move when unobserved by other life forms, including other Weeping Angels (hence their other name: The Lonely Assassins). When completely unobserved, though, they take on a wave-like existence which gives them lightning fast movements.
In “Blink” they hunted by sending their prey back in time to a point before they were born, and then feeding off the ‘time energy’ released by their victim’s absence from the life they should have led. Though in these episodes they also kill people outright, snapping their necks and then evoking the residue of consciousness remaining in their victims to communicate with the Doctor. We know little else about the Angels aside from the claim that they are as old as the Universe itself; but while “The Time of Angels” continues to treat these unnerving entities as mysterious and unfathomable creatures, we do learn a few more things about their abilities; and it appears that the Moff-meister’s been mining a spot of classic J-horror for inspiration this time out!
The lone Weeping Angel kept prisoner on-board the Byzantium escaped from custody when the ship crash-landed on Alfava Metraxis; but unfortunately it smashed into an imposing structure called the Maze of the Dead: an underground cave-tomb system full of statues erected long ago in the planet’s history as a tribute to its native dead -- a fact that will inevitably make tracking the Angel an even harder task than usual. River is now working for a militaristic order of clerics led by Father Octavian (Iain Glenn), a soldier-priest who seems to know a lot about River Song and her true relationship to the Doctor, warning her not to tell him to much about who and what she really is ‘or else he’ll never help us!’ Later, Octavian does feel it necessary to warn the Doctor that River had been imprisoned on the Byzantium because she killed a man. A good man. The best man she ever knew, she herself later claims, ominously.
This looks like yet more mythology being carefully seeded for development in the next series, but the rest of these two episodes play like a sprawling epic in comparison to the small-scale “Blink” -- with the other statues in the maze being revealed to be an army of decaying Angels now feeding off of the radiation that’s leaking from the Byzantium and forcing the Doctor and the gun-toting clerics into a desperate flight through the oxygen-producing ‘enchanted‘ forest which exists inside the crashed starship.
Moffat has described these episodes as having the same relationship to his former Weeping Angels story as the film “Alien” had to its sequel “Aliens”: while “Blink” was intimate and claustrophobic, “The Time of Aliens” and “Flesh and Stone” have a broad, action-packed cinematic sweep to them and play with even bigger concepts. The Angels Mythos gets expanded further when Amy learns the hard way that the image of an Angel actually becomes an Angel -- hence, a five second video loop of the once-captive creature in the hold of the prison ship becomes equally as threatening as the stone statue itself in a scene which strongly invokes “Ringu”.
The really bizarre and unnerving thing about the Weeping Angels is that, scary as they are in statue form, it’s not even clear that we could ever have any true knowledge of them in their unobserved state. But the abilities of Angels become even more horrifying and unfathomable when the Doctor discovers that even the image of an Angel stored in the mind’s eye can become one too! This leads to some interesting philosophical speculation which has a significance that goes far beyond the concerns of these specific episodes and touches upon the dominat themes that have been running throughout the series so far, and which relate back to the crack in Amy’s wall which seems to be following her on her travels with the Doctor. “What if our dreams no longer needed us?” muses the Doctor at one stage: now that we’ve seen the series finale, these words take on an added importance; there’s even a scene here which relates directly to what happens in the last episode of the series, although we didn’t know it at the time.
The crack in the Universe motif comes to play much more of a prominent role in the plot of the second episode of this two-parter than it has in any other story so far: we now learn that there has been a massive explosion at some point in time and space, and it’s so large that it has split time itself and fractured the Universe. What’s more, the cracks are getting larger and anything that gets trapped by the energy that is leaking out of them will simply cease to have ever even existed at all. The fairy tale theme and the importance in this series of memory and forgetting, will be drawn together in future episodes but for now there’s one last talking-point with this story: Amy’s infamous attempted seduction of the Doctor at the end of “Flesh and Stone“, soon after she reveals to him that she was to have been married the day after the night she first left with him in the TARDIS.
Amy’s apparently lax morals appear to have led a lot of people to lose sympathy with the character for some reason; but this discreetly written scene actually functions as a prompt for the Doctor to realise that Amy is of vital importance to what’s really going on with that time-crack ‘thingummy’ that increasingly starts to dominate the stories in the series from here on, and that her relationship with the hapless Rory might be crucial to the future of the Universe. We don’t learn exactly how Amy’s past is all tied up with the larger themes until near the end of the series and to some people she’s made to look like just a bit too much of a sex-obsessed slapper. But Stephen Moffat has always been of a mind that children prefer to watch or read about older characters who act in the mixed-up, unpredictable, non-prescriptive way that adults often do rather than the unrealistic ‘role model’ versions of children that often plague fiction intended for children; and without getting overly explicit about its subject matter, this sequence features an Amy who behaves in a plausible way to the fact that she has just narrowly avoided being killed and totally erased from history in the process.
Episode Six: THE VAMPIRES OF VENICE
Fresh from fending off the unwanted sexual advances of a horny Amy Pond on the night before her wedding, the Doctor pops up at her fiance Rory’s (Arthur Darvill) pub stag night -- jumping out of a giant cake in place of the stripper-gram his pals had prearranged. After accidentally letting slip that Rory is ‘a lucky fella … she’s an excellent kisser!’, Rory and Amy are promptly whisked off in the TARDIS for a romantic tryst in an appropriately historical setting intended by the Doctor to get their relationship back on track.
Apparently, Amy’s near-infidelity is a common reaction to being exposed to the wonders of the Universe (although it’s never seemed to affect the Doctor’s other companions in quite such a noticeable fashion before!) and the Doctor intends to bring the happy couple together once again by transporting them to Venice in the year 1580. Sounds enticing. Indeed, this episode is one of the more ravishing to look at in a series which has noticeably had to cope on a much smaller budget than that which was afforded Russell T. Davies’ team during the Tennant years. The episode takes place in a beautiful CGI-enhanced rendition of Elizabethan-era Venice, filmed in among the cobbled streets and Medieval setting of Trigir, Croatia. However, the Doctor’s intention of inducing rose-tinted feelings of romantic togetherness in his two companions is somewhat marred by the revelation that the city has been quarantined and that plague is once again ravaging the area outside the city gates!
Writer Toby Whitehouse’s mouth-watering set-up for this episode takes the main elements from the legend of Countess Elizabeth Báthory and brings them together with the gothic cinematic chic of the very Hammer horror films later inspired by the same story. The quarantine has been implemented by the mysterious patron of the city, who rules from the towering cloistered castle in the centre of Venice: the beautiful Signora Rosanna Calvierri (Helen McCroy), whose ‘School for the Betterment of Young Ladies’ now offers the only way out of a life of poverty for the daughters of a population no longer able to trade beyond the city’s walls and closed-off ports. Humble traders come to Calvierri’s court to petition entry to the school for their female offspring but only the youngest, freshest and prettiest seem to be offered sanctuary and their families must resign themselves to having no further contact with them. When the Doctor, Amy and Rory meet a boat builder called Guido whose daughter Isabella (Alisha Bailey) has not been seen since she was accepted by the Calvierri matriarch, they decide to investigate the dark doings at the castle and appear to uncover a nest of vampire women lurking in its dark vaults.
Full to the brim of dark shadowy side-streets, an imposing castle setting and elegant city architecture as well as some fantastic period costumes, this sumptuous episode proceeds to shamelessly rip ideas from as many Hammer scenarios as it can muster up in order to set the scene: the school for young ladies comes from “Lust for a Vampire”, the plague setting is pure “Vampire Circus” and the suggested Oedipus complex of the dissolute son of Rosanna Calvierri strongly invokes “Brides of Dracula”. Calvierri and her son Francesco (Alex Price) are really the last surviving adult members of a race of blood-drinking fish-like creatures called Saturnynian who have escaped the destruction of their home world (caused by the cracks that have been appearing in time throughout the series) and have been draining their female pupils of their blood and replacing it with their own so that those who survive the process can be used as mating material for the brood of Saturnynian male ‘fry’ being kept in the waters of the canals surrounding the castle grounds.
Whitehouse cleverly comes up with an ingenious series of ‘explanations’ for the vampire traits the Saturnyian converts display: the creatures use a perception filter to disguise their true appearance but the subconscious defence mechanisms of the human mind allow for the serrated teeth to bypass it while the filter is confounded by reflections and is thus unable to cast a reflection in a mirror. The creatures are of course, unable to contend with sunlight.
Although wonderfully atmospheric and bursting with great performances from Smith and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams, not to mention the wonderfully sinister Helen McCroy as Calvierri, the aliens-posing-as- fictional-monsters scenario is such a common one for “Doctor Who” that it takes a really great story to overcome the clichés associated with it; something which “Vampires of Venice” never really gets the chance to realise. There are some lovely sequences -- the Doctor being menaced by buxom vampire women in wispy nightgowns in the castle cloisters; Amy being strapped down and attacked by Signora Rosanna while her son looks on delightedly -- but the Saturnyian plot to flood Venice and the Doctor’s attempt to thwart it by scaling the castle bell tower is simply plot-by-numbers, and many people have pointed out that we’ve seen similar stuff before in previous David Tennant episodes. Nevertheless, the atmosphere carries it through in the end on a wave of stylish gothic elegance and the whole thing is simply a gorgous spectacle.
The DVD transfers on these three episodes look as excellent as they did on the previous volume and once again a ten minute featurette called “The Monster Files” is included, which this time concentrates on The Weeping Angles. Matt Smith's portrayal of the Doctor is getting noticeably stronger with each passing episode, although the inclusion of Amy's boyfriend Rory arguably detracts from the development of her character, with "Vampires of Venice" being the first episode in which she seems to take rather a backseat while we concentrate on a hen-pecked Rory's struggle to believe he can 'compete' with the Doctor for her affections. Nevertheless, the series continues to develop on intriguing lines and these three episodes all have many strengths.