Warning: spoilers throughout.
Oh yes, there’s plenty of terrific humor in “The Time of Angels,” and good thing, too: this episode is unbearably frightening, the most unnerving “Who” tale since its predecessor, “Blink.” It’s also tempting to call it one of the best since “Blink,” although we should probably wait until next week’s conclusion before we say for certain.
In case you missed it, “Blink” introduced us to the Weeping Angels, those “quantum locked” baddies that become stone statues when you observe them and who creep ever more closely when you don’t, their faces changing from gentle angels to fang-flaunting beasts. One blink, and they’ll get you. That alone is enough to stir up the willies, a demonic game of red light/green light from which you can’t possibly escape. It’s such a marvel of shock and fear, the episode has become a new Halloween tradition for me.
Around that terror, Steven Moffat crafted an ingenious study of time travel, full of puzzles and paradoxes. These complexities are Moffat’s strength, using all that “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” to built intricate plots in a way “Who” rarely had before.
Such themes returned in Moffat’s scripts for the season four two-parter “Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead,” which introduced us to River Song (Alex Kingston), someone – a very important someone – from the Doctor’s future, asking the question: how do time travelers live a life outside of normal chronological order? It always seemed too convenient that the Doctor was always bumping into his enemies along the same timeline; shouldn’t an old Doctor confront a young Master, and the next time it’s vice versa?
River returns for “Angels,” combining Moffat’s two best creations, and again, we get the muddle of meeting in the wrong order. For her, this adventure comes before their meeting in “Library,” but after their not-yet-revealed relationship; for him, it’s the other way around. She’s amused by this; he’s most definitely not.
The episode’s opener complicates things further. She leaps out of a spaceship’s airlock, confident that somewhere, thousands of years forward, the Doctor will find her message, whoosh back in time and space, and arrive in just the right spot to rescue her. Yes, we know from frequent dialogue that time can be “rewritten” (a necessary story device to ensure stories retain their proper suspense), but we also know that in all that zig-zagging across time, some things are just bound to work out. Brilliant.
Kingston’s an absolute joy as River. Cocky and mischievous, she’s a perfect foil for the Doctor (especially Matt Smith’s grumpy version), their banter downright adorable. And her character can easily return often without ever diluting her mystery; we could keep going and going and going and never quite reach that chapter of the Doctor’s future. (And oh, what fun the script has at teasing. Amy asks the Doctor if River is his future wife, and he replies “Yes” – a startling, straightforward response, until we realize he’s answering a different question.)
Anyway. The Weeping Angels. Yes. I was nervous about a sequel, considering “Blink” worked so wonderfully as a standalone story. For a follow-up, it was very possible we’d either get a thin rehash of the original plot or a convoluted over-explanation of who they are that would, in effect, deflate their effectiveness. “Angels” is careful to avoid both. We get an expansion of their mythology, but it only adds, never subtracts. The baddies we met before didn’t reveal the full potential of their powers? Clever move.
And this is no rehash – the plot is as far from “Blink” as possible. In fact, it’s pretty much “Aliens.” Gun-toting future-soldiers find themselves trapped in a hive of nasties? Secondary characters bumped off one by one as they journey solo into dark corners? Yup, that’s “Aliens.”
But it’s no rip-off. It’s a tense monster yarn all its own, taking familiar concepts and reworking them into something fresh. Like the whole “that which holds the image of an angel becomes itself an angel” business, a cracking twist, allowing for three nail-biting set pieces: Amy’s run-in with the Video Angel, her later transformation (or is it?) into stone, and the Doctor’s eerie conversation with the dead. All the while, their greatest asset – sneaking up on us, while the editors have a field day with flash cuts and music stings that send us airborne – is intensified. The moment when the Doctor and River realize they’re surrounded by Angels? Oh my.
The episode ends with a most unusual cliffhanger. Yes, there’s a good deal of “now get out of that!” which “Who” does so very well, but it doesn’t end on the expected final shock beat. The Doctor has already sprung into action. It’s as if Moffat figures, well, yes, we know they’ll get out of it, because they still have forty minutes of adventure to follow, so why fuss about? The riddle here is, simply, just what is the Doctor doing? What did he shoot? The script moves the questions in a different direction, and makes the finale all the more exciting for it.