The Time of Angels aired on Saturday on BBC and managed to singlehandedly demonstrate that Stephen Moffat is the master of scary Doctor Who and also that the show’s budget cuts were nowhere near crippling. Looking absolutely stunning in High Definition and looking every part, as Moffat alluded, like a big budget Hollywood blockbuster, The Time of Angels also offered the second appearance of Moffat’s own creation, the Weeping Angels, following their initial appearance in Blink a few years back. Part of me wonders if Moffat has, four hours into his first season, done what Russell T. Davies spent his entire run attempting – has he introduced a classic recurring Doctor Who monster?
The show has been around nearly fifty years. That’s a long time. The character has endured a whole host of iconic villains, but most have been around since his early days. The Daleks and the Cybermen both date from his first incarnation in the sixties, with his archnemisis and rogue Timelord the Master appearing in the early seventies opposite Jon Pertwee. The new series has enjoyed gradually reviving old foes, but these seem to be more focused against the earlier run of the original series. Pertwee’s tenure also gave the show the Autons (living plastic which appeared in the first episode of the relaunch), the Sontarans (who appeared in the fourth season) adn the reptilian Silurians (who will appear later this year). Very few creations since then have really caught on, with one or two making token second appearances before fading from memory.
As a show with such a long memory, Doctor Who has a tough tightrope to walk. It has to seem fresh and new, but pay homage to what has come before. Moffat himself has openly stated that he believes the show needs new blood in order to properly function. His immediate predecessor, Davies, attempted to introduce any number of recurring aliens with varying degrees of success, from the Ood to the Slitheen. None really caught on as a genuinely credible threat across appearances (you might argue the Slitheen never appeared a threat at all).
Bringing back monsters (or villians in general) is always a risky decision in any medium. It’s easy to undermine the original menace of the creation, as the temptation is to reveal more and more about the creation. The more knowable it is, the less inherently terrifying it is. It’s a special varient of the law of diminishing returns. You can understand the urge to trade on one-off characters and foes – particularly when the show trades off the scariness of the unknowable.
So it’s a bit of a surprise that Moffat would revisit one of his own creations so soon (this is the first two-parter of the show during his tenure), but the Weeping Angels as imagined by the writer are so damn interesting it’s hard to blame him. There’s also a rather spectacular shift in tone between the two episodes (Moffat himself used the comparison between Alien and Aliens as an example – indeed the presence of a prominent Bishop in the cast underline the conceptual similarities).
Still, Moffat has constructed truly interesting conceptual villains. In their original appearance there was enough to make them compelling. Imagine a stone statue that could move while you weren’t looking, but became solid stone when you could see it? Every time you blinked, the monster would move, but would end up looking like any other statue. That’s brilliant, isn’t it?
And then he ups the ante. This time the creatures become objects of pure potential (in fairness an idea alluded to before). “What if our ideas no longer needed us?” a guidebook on the monsters ponders, as the Doctor and Amy discover that anything which captures the image of an angel (a photo or recording) becomes itself an angel. The creatures are inherently conceptional – they exist not as objects physically possible or comprehensible, but as sheer concepts. They exist purely as ideas rather than in any tangible form (which kinda fits with them not existing when seen). Indeed, because ideas and concepts can’t express themselves (they need us), the climax of the episode was wonderfully chilling as they use a dead man’s voice to give themselves expression. Scared Bob politely explains that the angels killed him alone and terrified (contrary to the promise the Doctor had made to him), humbly adding that “the Angels were very keen for you to know that, sir”. That’s the stuff of shivers, right there.
Not only does Moffat have an absolutely amazing concept for the creations, he also has an astonishing visual. There’s just something creepy about angel statues, even ignoring the idea that they are moving when you aren’t looking. The wonderful effect used in The Time of Angels with the creatures moving as the lights pulse (getting closer, yet remaining frozen, everytime the light comes up) is a powerful one.
I think Moffat may have crafted the first truly iconic long-term villain of the new show. Not that we’re too surprised – this is a man who made “Are you my mummy?” a terrifying catchprase when uttered by a three-foot lost and lonely child. I’ll be waiting until next Saturday, but I think we have the first tried-and-true classic of the Moffat era.