Friday, June 11, 2010

Fish Custard (4)

Or take the one with the statues. It's a "sequel" to Blink and "brings back" the Weeing Angels which were one of the "scariest" monsters in New Who.

Actually, the minute you start describing things as "scary" you've side-slipped away from the actual TV series and into another virtual Who clone in idea space -- "that programme which children watch from behind the sofa". Kids can be scared by anything and everything – Big Bird and Laurel and Hardy and the India Paper edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica -- but a glance at, say, Robot would be enough to blow away the theory that Doctor Who was always and irreducibly a horror show. The editors of Doctor Who Adventures, Radio Times, and other children's publications continue to ask whether this story is, or is not, as scary as that story. But they all agree that the scariest story ever was Blink, and that Blink was, coincidentally, the work of the present incumbent, sir, Mr Moffat, sir.

Blink was a good story. (I think that it was a very good story, but dissent from those who think that it was a very, very good story.) But the Angel itself was a very small part of the success of Blink. Steven had, in fact, written an angel-free version of the story in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual. The story was – like The Gel In the Fireplace and the Eleventh Hour – and, come to think of it, like Silence in the Library and Curse of Fatal Death and everything else the Moff has ever written – about Time Travel. Not from the point of view of historically accurate portraits of Winston Churchill, or even from the point of view of marrying your Grandad and stepping on a butterfly, but from the point of view of events confusingly starting to happen in the wrong order. Which, come to think of it, is what Time Travel in the context of a story pretty much has to be: a way of disrupting the narrative, foreshadowing, putting effects before causes and carts before horses.

So Blink is about people who are young at one moment and old the next because they've been sent backwards in time; and the Doctor trying to get a message to himself about something which hasn't happened yet. The Statues concatenate all the wibbly wobbley timey wimey ideas that Moffat wants to muck around with into a bloody great lump of plot device. Making them statues which can only move when nobody's looking at them (manifestly a stupid idea) is as good a way as any to signify to us that they are only a plot device and we shouldn't waste too much time thinking about them. It would be a bit like giving your hero a huge and inexcusable lump of technology and signalling the fact that it's never going to be explained by making it look less like a space ship and more like, I don't know, a phone box. (People who have invented something called a Doctor Who Universe go on and on about something called a Chameleon Circuit and thereby miss the absurdity, and, arguably, the point.)

So: bringing back the Angels is pretty much a category mistake, as if there was anything that was bringable backable. Everything which was angelly about them – the fact that they don't move (by the end of the second episode, they have) and the fact that they send people back in time (these ones don't) the fact that you can defeat them by making them look at each other (you can't, for some reason) has been dumped. They have randomly acquired new powers. It turns out that whatever carries the image of an angel becomes an angel and it turns out that Angels can turn people's arms to stone and it turns out a bit later that they can't turn people's arms to stone after all but only make people think that they have turned their arms to stone and it turns out that they can talk to people through the bodies of people they've killed which is only a bit identical to the invisible telepathic alien piranhas in the library.

And – you know where I am about say next, don't you? – none of this matters in the least.

My god-daughter says that she had "always wanted" to see a story with the Angels in it. Well, three years is a long time in television and an awfully long time when you're ten. Having always wanted to see the Angels in 2010 is no odder than having always wanted to see Yeti and Cybermen in 1973. (I never did see any Yeti.) The Angels are things which happened in Doctor Who a long time ago, and things which everyone knows are really, really, scary, even people too young to have seen them the first time round.

The story was as everyone has boringly but correctly persisted in pointing out, a remake of Aliens, plucky marines being picked off one by one by indestructible monsters. The idea of space marines fighting statues that don't move is manifestly absurd. The imagery of stone angels massing in spaceship corridors is manifestly absurd. And that's fine. Daleks are manifestly absurd. Daleks never made the slightest sense outside of the corridors of Skaro. Angels are Moffat's Daleks. They are the scariest thing in the universe because Moffat says they are the scariest thing in the universe. We have a race memory stretching all the way back to 2007 that says that they are the scariest thing in the universe. Even though they can't go upstairs


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Mike Taylor said...

What does the m/f at the end of this and the preceding articles mean? I am trying to persuade myself that it means something like "more to come"?

Andrew Rilstone said...

More follows.


Salisbury said...

Some fine thinking, Andrew. And I say that not just because I bunged something quite similar on The Forum Formally Known as the Forum Formally Known as GallifreyOne:

'All the best stories are about something. The wonderful ‘Blink’ is easy to mistake for a story about demonic teleporting statues, but it really has more in common with that John Lennon line, ‘Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.’ The second-worst thing the weeping angels do is take you away from everything and everyone you love. The first-worse thing they do isn’t actually to their victims in the show. It’s to the audience. The angels steal potential energy in a timey-wimey way; and while they’re doing that, they let you know that life is made up of a billion lost potentials, what-could-have-beens; even the life well lived (Billy Shipton’s) rides on the back of all those lives lost. Blink and you really will miss (all of) them.

'We can only wonder what would have been if Terry Nation and Raymond Cusack hadn’t thought up the daleks in 1963. Their first story, ‘The Daleks’, isn’t much more than a board game with dialogue, but something about the idea or the look of the daleks must have tapped into something base, like our instinctive fear of snakes and spiders. (I’d be curious to see what would happen if you showed footage of them to rhesus monkeys.) The second story, ‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’, was quite pointless except as the 1964 version of event TV. Their one note had already been played out without so much as a harmonic (and their monotone scream is one of the cheekiest aural metaphors in TV history), yet here was more of the same and nothing beside. There wasn’t even a story; all the business about resistance fighters and magnetic cores is background, there to give the director something to point a camera at.

Despite the obvious and envious talents of the chap writing it, ‘The Time of Angels’ and ‘Flesh and Stone’ stood the possibility of being Steven Moffat’s ‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’, with which it has some things in common. What ‘Blink’ told us through the weeping angels is now sequalised with a story about the weeping angels, and I am still undecided as to whether they justify the attention. For one, they run a decent risk of losing their enigma, and if a quantum locked angel monster from the dawn of the universe that can only move when you’re not looking doesn’t have enigma, I’m not sure what it does have. There is also the possibility that the nature of the things—the weeping angels are a monster made out of two or three plot devices, cemented together—might seem a little too precarious on close inspection; the illusion that a story isn’t a made-up thing might be broken while we watch it being contrived around them. And then there is the great dalek problem—that the evil, vicious, horrid statues are just evil and vicious and horrid and nothing else. In fact they might be even less—the daleks, ‘human’ to begin with, are at least a kind of allegory on castors.'

Oh, and Leadworth = Dr Who Tale. Brilliant spot.

Gavin Burrows said...

Salisbury said:
”The wonderful ‘Blink’ is easy to mistake for a story about demonic teleporting statues, but it really has more in common with that John Lennon line, ‘Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.’”

Entirely agree! In fact I very nearly used exactly the same quote but finally plumped for David Bowie instead. I didn’t know before Andrew mentioned that the original short story didn’t even have the Angels in it, but hearing that made so much sense.

Anyway, so now we’ve thought alike, can we claim that makes us great minds?

”Their first story, ‘The Daleks’, isn’t much more than a board game with dialogue, but something about the idea or the look of the daleks must have tapped into something base, like our instinctive fear of snakes and spiders.”

Well here we entirely disagree! Even down to the bit about the Daleks being base but scary, which seems to ignore the common observation that children would play at being Daleks. Clearly the Dalek design hits on something quite fundamental, but I’m not sure it’s a fear reaction. It may have to do with the reason why there are still dodgem cars on Brighton Pier. It’s more the thing where a child will play at cars by being a car.

As Alan Moore one said, if you’re going to react you may as well over-react. So I have to admit that the ‘induced fear’ hypothesis does seem to me a symptom of our me-now therapy culture. It’s okay to have monsters which say something about me, that I should lead each every day to the full in case one days a statue moves and I find myself in Hull. But isn’t there also room for monsters which reflect us, our society. Begat by a previous era, this is what the original Daleks did.

the illusion that a story isn’t a made-up thing might be broken while we watch it being contrived around them

My take was that this story was precisely about the Angels being streamlined for production. This does indeed run the risk of things getting tedious. If each season has to have a Dalek story, a Cybermen story, a historical figure story, a couple-get-together-despite-nerdishness story and an Angels story, this doesn’t leave much room for good new stories to come along.