Flesh and Stone

7th May 2010 • Review by Seb Patrick •

It’s a little moment in the great scheme of things, but for me, it’s the most telling few seconds of MoffatWho so far. About two minutes and twenty seconds into “Flesh and Stone”, with the assembled cast stood atop a hatch in the crashed Byzantium, the Doctor drops inside. An astounded Amy looks down to see him stood at right angles to her, on what for him is the “floor” – an artificial gravity system having “corrected” him.

It’s a simple trick. It’s not the most original thing in the world (if you want playing with gravity, watch 2001 some time). But by gum it’s inventive – it’s an idea. A small, neat idea for a quick and simple gag, but an idea nevertheless. It plays with expectations, teaches you not to sit back and take what you’re looking at for granted. And this is the sort of thing that already drives this series, and exemplifies its sheer, effortless quality.

Doctor Who has to be inventive, simply in order to be true to itself. Episodes throughout Russell’s era certainly managed this, although it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s an aspect that was lost as those five years drew to a close – culminating in “The End of Time”, a story that (while enjoyable for plenty of us) relied entirely on returning characters and ideas (whether of RTD’s own, or plucked from the nostalgia vault). It’s part of the reason why it was about time for a change, and almost certainly part of the reason why Moffat’s stories already feel so fresh. To take another moment – the clerics being written out of history. Again, it’s quite straightforward – if you know much time travel fiction, you’ll have known exactly what was happening as soon as the soldier speaking to Amy began to look puzzled. But it still unfolded beautifully, and it’s still something that I don’t recall Who ever playing with before. Furthermore, it looks like it’s going to act as a microcosm for the overall theme of Moffat’s first great story arc. And that, again, is a piece of experimentation with form that previous years never really did – to have an individual event in small-scale, partway through an episode, that serves as a representation of what’ll happen to everyone else if the Impending Threat doesn’t get sorted out.

That a story should be so filled with invention – and “Flesh and Stone” packs almost an entire series’ worth of set pieces and classic lines (“I made him say comfy chairs”; “A forest in a bottle on a spaceship in a maze. Have I impressed you yet, Amy Pond?”) into its 45 minutes – at the same time as playing to a relatively straightforward story type (it’s Base Under Siege, isn’t it? One of the most archetypally so that New Who has yet done, in fact) itself speaks volumes about Moffat’s tenure so far. A frequent criticism aimed at him, after all, is that he relies heavily on formula – “you don’t know me, but I’m going to be a contrived love interest in your future” and all of that – and it’s a point that’s hard to refute. Except, of course, to say that it doesn’t matter. Moffat’s already come up with four of the most brilliantly off-kilter monsters in the show’s history – the monster that isn’t a monster but a piece of medical equipment, the robots made out of clock parts, the killer statues that only move when you can’t see them, and the shadows that eat you – which should alone be enough to defend him against accusations of a lack of originality. But when called upon to bring back one of his creations for the first time, even then he does something entirely new.

Utterly perfect as an immediate antagonist – and absolutely the ideal creature for a claustrophobic, haunted-house kind of story – there’s always been that slight niggling doubt over the Angels (pretty much the only fault, such as it is, in the otherwise faultless “Blink”), in that what they do to you isn’t actually that bad. In an attempt to avoid a retread, then, Moffat removes the “sending you back in time” method of “killing”, replacing that piece of ingenuity with a simple neck-snap. The implicit in-story explanation for this is that they don’t need to feed off the energy of a wasted life – not with bigger fish to fry – but that also removes all motivation for their killing at all. Except, of course, for the fact that they’re simply pure evil. “Why are you making Amy count down?” the Doctor asks Angel Bob. “To make her scared,” is the reply. “But why?” “For fun, sir.” Ouch.

Yet as chilling as this development makes them, it could also be argued that another expansion of their myth is one of the rare things that lets this story down. After all, there’s such a thing as an overabundance of imagination, and it’s almost as if Moffat wants to throw every idea he’s ever had for a monster at the ones that made his name, rather than saving some for somebody else. So, yes, the idea of the Angels being able to appear out of a video screen is  immediately, viscerally brilliant – telling the kids that the Something might come out of the telly to get them if they don’t keep watching, that’s just all kinds of inspired – but as the story goes on, they begin to take on a mythical quality in terms of their power and ability. More than that, even – they’re memetic. They’re an idea, personified and passed around, even able to spring out of the mind – in this case Amy’s – fully-formed. And it’s difficult, because you can’t tackle a threat like that – well, unless you have a convenient time-rewriting crack in the wall that happens to manifest itself in a similar manner to the Canary Wharf Void Hoover, so I suppose you can’t tackle a threat like that in a credible way.

But this is the point of the manifesto that Moffat makes clear in River’s parting speech to the Doctor. “The Pandorica?” he says, bringing this year’s plot keyword front and centre. “That’s just a fairy tale.” To which the only answer, of course – as Murray Gold’s lovely recurring bit of Harry Potter-esque score strikes up – is “Aren’t we all?” We know this is how Moffat sees Who (hasn’t he just hired the world’s foremost writer of fairy tales for series six?), and it’s an approach that can work beautifully – it’s why a bright-blue TARDIS, all white lights on the windows, sitting neatly in the corner of a girl’s bedroom can be such a wonderful, arresting image.  But while the fevered, almost limitless imagination of a man who wants to put pure story first is a thing to be cherished for as long as he’s around, and although it feels a churlish thing to complain about when he also happens to be giving us one of the most pure and perfect personifications of the lead character going (Smith already, astonishingly feels like he isn’t a Doctor – he’s the Doctor), it’s important to remember that it’s not the only aspect of the show. I suspect Moffat gets this – if you want to see just how deeply he understands Doctor Who and its tropes, then ironically the best place to look is probably Curse of Fatal Death – but I think we need to see that on screen.

And yet, having said that – when you find yourself reaching for something negative to say, and all you can come up with is the suggestion that maybe the showrunner’s general view of the series is a little too fanciful and twinkly and that a science-fiction programme about an immortal man in a blue box hopping around time and narrative needs to be a bit more grounded and logical, it probably tells you all you need to know about the quality of what you’ve just seen. “Flesh and Stone”, then. Effortless masterpiece. The real flaw, of course, being that the next six weeks can’t possibly live up to it. And the comfort is the knowledge that the one after that probably will.

Seb Patrick once met Paul McGann, who immediately pretended to be Mark McGann. He writes for Den of Geek, BBC America, Film4 and the official Red Dwarf website, among others. He owns over thirty toy Daleks and wishes the Dapol factory tour was still open.


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