|Oh shit oh shit I need a new caption joke.|
It’s April 24th, 2010. Usher and will.i.am are at number one with “OMG,” with Lady Gaga, Plan B, and Timbaland also charting. In news, the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, creating one of the worst ecological disasters in history, and Standard & Poor’s downgrades Greece’s credit rating, worsening the Euro crisis. Also, flights resume following the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, and we reach the last few days before the UK general election.
While on television, the first-filmed episode of the Moffat era. In the history of Doctor Who, there are two standard tricks that people have come up with to smooth the transition for a new Doctor. The first originates in 1966 with The Power of the Daleks, when Patrick Troughton’s debut was consciously and deliberately overshadowed by the return of the Daleks. Basically, you use existing characters as guest stars to lighten the load a bit on your main actor while he beds in. Variations were used in Spearhead from Space, Robot,Time and the Rani, The Christmas Invasion, and Deep Breath. The other, only ever executed once, but terribly clever all the same, is to film the first few stories out of order so that the new Doctor’s debut sees the actor self-assured and with a more developed take on their character, creating a strong impression so that the audience will subconsciously fill in the gaps when subsequently shown the earlier performances. It was used in Castrovalva. Moffat, faced with the change of the entire lead cast and most of the production team, made the sensible decision to do both, filming The Eleventh Hour as Smith’s fifth episode, and using this two-parter, featuring big iconic returning monsters and a major returning guest star, to let everyone bed in.
On broadcast, this worked well. As we already discussed, The Eleventh Hour is the one Moffat episode even his detractors tend to embrace, making the exact big splash and statement it was supposed to. And this slotted into the season order nicely, feeling like a big turning point and an event, as opposed to like a production team desperately trying to get up to speed. In hindsight, a number of gaps are present, of which Matt Smith’s hair is only the most obvious. Many are subtle and along those lines – the decision not to pare back Alex Kingston’s makeup once she’s in camouflage, for instance, was a sensible one from a realist perspective (why would she redo her makeup, after all), but it smothers Kingston’s performance.
But others are larger. Moffat is eventually going to develop a much more nuanced sense of what can be handwaved away and what needs explanation, but here he several times gets bogged down doing exposition about things that could be handled intuitively, while missing key bits of setup. The fact that the gravity globe is never explained in episode one makes what would actually have been a quite cool cliffhanger into a bit of a “blink and you miss it” moment. The reintroduction of the crack is great in terms of subverting the expected Davies-style “codeword” season arc, but its a conceptual mess, becoming a weird vent of “time energy” that works like all the other energy spilling out in this story only not. Perhaps most significantly, he falls into what, since a conversation with Rob Shearman, I’ve thought of as the Paradise Towers trap, in which you have a story that’s structured around an ascent and traversal of space, but that doesn’t emphasize the physical layout of that space enough. You don’t realize they’ve been climbing to the primary flight deck the whole time until you actually get there, which undercuts the story’s central gag of River’s “you might want to find something to hold onto” being the end solution, such that the whole story is actually about gravity and falling.
The result is a messy episode held together by the fact that Alex Kingston and Karen Gillan take to their roles like fish to water, and the fact that there are some fantastic Weeping Angel menace scenes. Smith actually has an extremely rough time in places, in particularly poorly managing the transition to anger and frustration. In many ways, as with any marriage, the central question of the Doctor and River’s relationship is how they handle their inevitable fights, but Smith isn’t getting the gradiations right yet. (It’s worth comparing this to Angels Take Manhattan, where the plot really is about the Doctor and River having a fight, and where both Smith and Moffat have a much better handle on how to manage this.) Which was the point, of course, and it’s hardly a flaw that the strings are visible once you know what the magic trick is.
In many ways, then, the more interesting angle to take is to look at the ways in which much of the Moffat era emerges fully formed here. For one thing, right from the start, Moffat is engaged in his most fundamental innovation as showrunner, which is a transformation of the show’s visual logic. Under Davies, the camera was strictly there to document – there were occasional uses of good old fashioned monster-vision, but broadly speaking what you saw on screen was an objective view of what was happening. Throughout Moffat’s tenure, though, that stops being true. And the central turning point is the Weeping Angels, who span the two eras. Under Davies, as we discussed, they obeyed an unstated rule, which is that they couldn’t move when the viewer was looking at them either. In other words, the camera was quietly an active participant in Blink.
But these two episodes expand on that dramatically. Instead of simply being monsters who the camera can see too, they become something altogether more sinister – something that is, for my money, the single scariest idea that Doctor Who has ever presented. First, of course, is the idea that the image of an Angel is itself an Angel. This is creepy, but in many ways a restatement of the basic premise of the Angels. It’s introduced to us with an Angel on a television screen – that is, with the Angels as they’d previously appeared. Ultimately, the Angel that attacks Amy only does so according to the rules stated in Blink, only with the mild twist that Amy is put in the position of the audience, with a Weeping Angel on television that moves whenever she’s not looking at it. But the idea that the image of an Angel is itself an Angel was always baked into the premise – both in the sense that the Angels were only ever fictional constructs of television and in the sense that images of Angels were bound by the same rules due to the gaze of the audience. And sure enough, this sequence is ultimately governed by the logic of Blink. That story was largely about the nature of television as a medium, and so the idea that the Weeping Angels can be defeated via a medial glitch – by pausing during a moment when they’re not on-screen – makes perfect sense.
Then we get the second twist – that Angels can attack you via the eyes. This is trickier, but makes sense both in a literal sense (if the image of an Angel is itself an Angel then the image on your retina counts) and in a symbolic one. If we can affect the Angels via our gaze then it makes sense that their gaze should be dangerous. But it also begins to rend the veil between the screen and the audience. Our gaze becomes something that can be interacted with. And this sets up the wonderfully creepy moment in the climax where the audience’s gaze unexpectedly stops working and the Angels begin to move on screen. We become helpless to impact the screen right as the companion is at their greatest peril. (In this regard, the thematic weight of River unexpectedly swooping in with a better solution is significant.)
But all of this is secondary to the quietly implied horror of the Angel’s origin story. This is never quite stated explicitly, but the broad strokes are clear enough. The fact that an image of an Angel is itself an Angel, and that Angels can attack from within your mind makes it clear where the Angels came from: their own idea. “What if we had ideas that could think for themselves? What if one day our dreams no longer needed us? When these things occur and are held to be true, the time will be upon us. The time of Angels.” In other words, the idea of the Weeping Angels took over the Aplans and converted them all into Angels.
Moffat has form in this regard – most notably with his Twitter microfiction that read, “the worm became an idea, which hid itself in words, until it could climb, devouring all, through the eye of the reader of this tweet.” And, more broadly, it’s completely consistent with his aesthetic of horror elsewhere. Consider the ending of Blink, where he goes out of his way to render all the statues of the world scary. Or, of course, the Silence, monsters who are never so scary as when you’ve never seen one. Moffat’s favorite sort of horror is concepts that cannot be escaped simply by not watching anymore.
This is what’s key about the Weeping Angels after this point – the fact that they’re fictional is no longer a useful defense against them. They are just as terrifying if they are imaginary. Indeed, they are even more terrifying. If they were real you’d only have to worry about statues. When they’re imaginary you have no protection whatsoever. They are monsters that defy the act of comfort. All efforts at reassurance fall flat, or, worse, reiterate the problem. “It’s just a dream.” “There’s no such thing as Weeping Angels.” “It’s only your imagination.”
But this also serves as a sort of structural mission statement for the entire Moffat era, and serves as the main delineation between his Doctor Who and Davies’s. Under Davies, monsters might have thematic resonance or be extrapolated out of real-world problems, but they’re still characters in stories. But for Moffat, monsters, and indeed the entire show are explicitly works of fiction. (This is, notably, also the story where the tried and true “that’s a fairytale” “aren’t we all” exchange comes up.) It would be going too far to suggest that Moffat is a conscious devotee of the Alan Moore-style “art and magic are synonyms” philosophy, but his work is clearly in the same vein, if not the same conscious metaphysics. Moffat’s work is invested in its own fictionality. Suspension of disbelief isn’t even a meaningful concept for a story like this – your disbelief is irrelevant. The ideas have power unto themselves, and are interacted with directly.
In this regard, then, we have the most overtly alchemic approach to Doctor Who ever. One of the central premises of alchemy is that the distinction between symbol and object is not absolute. This is central to how Moffat’s Doctor Who works. Because the show is consciously aware of its status as a collection of images and narrative, there’s a straightforwardness to it. If you’re trying to engage with the show on a level that doesn’t acknowledge the fictionality of all of it and the way in which narrative expectations are built up and subverted, you’re already doomed. From this point on, the show is always metafictional.
Other stories will fully sketch out the implications of this – indeed, arguably they already have in The Beast Below, which hinges on its symbolic parallels to contemporary Britain. This is not the story in which Moffat makes his grand statement on the fictionality of Doctor Who and what it can be used for. But it is the story where he makes it unambiguous how things work now – how, within the narrative, the idea of a thing and the thing itself are no longer distinguishable. It’s a new way of doing television, and certainly a new way of doing Doctor Who. But as we’ll see over the remaining ten months or so of TARDIS Eruditorum (barring any major changes of plans, we should get to Time of the Doctor at the very start of February 2015), it’s an immensely potent approach that lets Doctor Who do genuinely new things. In effect, Moffat has casually reinvented the series in his first week on the job. Good start, you’ve got to say.