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New Who 5.4: The Time of Angels

It's taken me a few days to get round to writing this up, but I did think it was a great episode - easily the best of season five so far, even though it was only one half of a two-parter. As in The Beast Below, it was absolutely bursting with fantastic ideas (albeit including a few recycled ones), and I still feel like I could do with seeing a transcript of the first part in particular before I can be completely certain that I've picked up on every nuance of the exchanges with River Song.

River herself I wasn't looking forward to encountering for a second time. Like a lot of people, I was badly put off her in Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead because I felt that the script kept telling me how great and special she was, but without giving me any reason to agree. I get that that's partly the effect of introducing a character who has a back-story with the Doctor which we haven't seen yet, and that that in itself is a clever and exciting thing for Steve Moffat to be doing at all. But I just didn't like the way she came across. This time, though, the script is telling me some much more exciting things about her - that she is tricksy and untrustworthy and has hidden agendas. That suddenly makes her fun and interesting to have around.

What exactly her hidden identity or agenda is is anyone's guess. I've seen people guessing various Time Lords of old - and River's ability to pilot the TARDIS and knowledge of Old High Gallifreyan certainly point towards a greater familiarity with Time Lord culture than most ordinary beings seem to possess now that the Time War has taken place. Since she's female, the most popular guesses have been the Rani (femme fatale with red nail varnish) or Romana (her formal, systematic training on the TARDIS vs. the Doctor's casual but extensive hands-on experience). But I just can't see either of those characters going around calling the Doctor 'sweetie' (which I still find annoying), even as part of an act. Besides, she is clearly not actually a Time Lord on either of the occasions the Doctor has met her so far, or he would sense it. So if she is (essentially) an old-school Time Lord, she must be fob-watched into human form, which a) I think would just come across as a cheap trick if it was done a second time in New Who, and b) doesn't really explain how come she still retains a knowledge of Old High Gallifreyan and piloting a TARDIS.

So I don't think she is an old-school Time Lord, but I don't really know who she is. One possibility is Jenny, who after all was saved from on-screen death by Steven Moffat. She could have been taught Time Lord history by the Doctor - but who would have taught her to pilot the TARDIS according to the book? Also, she'd have to be fob-watched too for the Doctor not to recognise her as Time Lord - and there is no obvious reason why she would need to be. Not to mention the fact that it casts a very icky light over the flirtatious aspect of The Doctor and River's relationship! Because of the 51st-century setting, it's also tempting to think that she is a Time Agent, like Jack Harkness (and John Hart in Torchwood). Her roguish demeanour certainly matches theirs very nicely, and again some basic knowledge of the Time Lords seems a likely component of Time Agency training. But Old High Gallifreyan and Advanced TARDIS Piloting seem a bit beyond that.

And that TARDIS piloting is especially problematic, because the nature of the knowledge she displays makes it pretty clear that she's telling the truth about someone other than the Doctor teaching her how to do that. OK, so once she's told him in this episode about leaving the brake on, he could teach that particular piece of information back to her later on in his future and her past (as happened with her teaching him that he could actually open the TARDIS doors by clicking his fingers at the end of Forest of the Dead). But it doesn't seem very in-character for him to do that, since he immediately says that he likes the wheezing noise. In my view, if he had taught her how to fly the TARDIS, it's unlikely he'd have taught her the sort of text-book approach she's displaying.

So who did teach her? The only Time Lord other than the Doctor who has been active in the wider Universe since the Time War is the Master - so has she at some point somehow been his wife? As for the other Time Lords - my understanding of the Time War is that once that happened, everything Time Lords had ever done anywhere within the universe ceased ever to have happened, so that all but the 'higher beings' had no idea they had ever existed. So if anyone other than the Doctor or the Master taught River Song TARDIS flight (or Old High Gallifreyan for that matter) amd she still remembers it, then that must mean that either a) she is some kind of 'higher being' or b) the Time Lords are less lost than we think.

Of course, River could simply be someone or something we know nothing at all about yet. I very much doubt we are going to find out the answer in next week's episode, though I think we probably will find out at the end of the season. And I think that the issue of how she learnt what she knows about Time Lord culture is going to be pretty central to the revelation of her real identity.

Incidentally, if all members of the 'church' in this period have sacred names, that means that the names we know them by in this story (Octavian, Bob, Christian, Angelo, Marco) are not their 'real' (as in 'given-at-birth') names. That's a good example of Moffat's talent for detail, since a) the same certainly applies to the Doctor and probably also to River Song, so that it reinforces this theme, and b) I note that several of the names chosen have Christian resonances, also echoing the themes inherent in the idea of the church as a literal army and the idea of the Angels themselves.

As for the plot, obviously there's loads still to be resolved in the next episode. On this front, I found myself wondering about exactly what happened to the Aplans. This episode left us assuming that their civilisation had been wiped out by the Angels. But the normal way that Angels dispatch their victims is to send them back in time. If you tried to wipe out a civilisation that way, surely all of the vast numbers of people you sent back would warn everyone else, allowing them to prevent the Angels from ever getting a hold on their civilisation in the future? I'd really like to know exactly what happened to them, and whether any of them are likely to reappear or get a chance to tell their story. Also, three cheers for yet another hint that the Whoniverse and the H2G2 universe are one, since we can now speculate about whether Zaphod Beeblebrox was an Aplan. :-)

Meanwhile, I feel I'm getting the hang of Amy now. She's not my favourite companion ever - I liked Donna's self-confidence, assertiveness and explicit sense of the excitement of what she was doing better. Amy seems to me to be approaching her travels with the Doctor more casually. She's pleased to be there, and has some agendas of her own ('You promised me a planet!'). But when they arrive in a new setting, her basic approach seems to me to be to just tag along and have fun and see what happens. I guess that is a factor of their respective ages. Donna had lived long enough to know how boring normal adult life could be, and wanted to leave that behind for ever in favour of travelling with the Doctor. It was literally everything to her. But I think Amy is still young enough to accept travels through space and time as pretty cool, but fundamentally just something fun to do while putting off an adult life of her own which she does eventually want to return to.

In this episode, I felt that the scene between her and the Doctor when she thought her hand had turned to stone was absolutely brilliant for both of them. Amy suddenly demonstrated her absolute understanding of how serious the situation was and how much it mattered for the Doctor to sort everything out, which was a nice counter-balance to her teasing him and calling him 'Mr Grumpy-face' at the start of the episode. And the way he dealt with it also struck a fantastic balance between his very real fondness for her and acknowledgement of her bravery, and his light-hearted, matey relationship with her. This is a dynamic which is really working for me.

I find myself saying repeatedly in my Classic Who reviews that the way the programme uses on-screen images within the stories is almost always meta-referential - and that goes with bells on it for this story too. In-story televisual images of both River Song and one of the Angels are central to this episode - and to me the key thing about both of them is that they present us with images which are not just passive objects for us (or the characters) to gaze upon. They are active - they look right back at us, demand that we do things or even come out of the screen and attack us. This is brilliant. It not only reinforces the theme of the power and even the autonomy of images, which is explicitly addressed via the dialogue around the book which River found (and is clearly going to be pursued further in part 2). But it also plays around with the fantasy that this might somehow be true of the televisual image which we are sitting watching, at home in our living rooms. Is the Doctor suddenly going to turn round and start talking to us - as he also did in the DVD Easter Eggs in Blink, in fact? Even while our rational minds know perfectly well he won't, raising this possibility adds a lot to the excitement of watching the episode I think.

Finally, it may just be an easy way of creating an exotic-yet-familiar feel for the alien cultures featured in this story. But I really felt that there were a lot of resonances here with the ancient world. This is my list of the ones I noticed:
  • Old High Gallifreyan script looks a lot like it belongs to the same family as the Etruscan alphabet.
  • The Aplans are an extinct civilisation with expertise in architecture and a habit of burying their dead in catacombs.
  • The statues in the 'maze of the dead' turn out not actually to be Aplan - but they do look quasi-Classical, and some of the ones we see towards the end of the episode resemble the Pompeian casts both in their poses (with arms reaching forward) and in the sense that there is a real skull lying beneath the mis-shapen faces. I would draw your attention in particular to this cast, which has its hands over its face.
  • The name of Bishop Octavian recalls the civil war era of 40s and 30s BC, when Octavian was one of several major players intent on wiping out their rivals for power. I'd say that if River Song maps onto any figure from that era, it has to be Cleopatra!
  • The crashed space-ship is called the Byzantium (now Istanbul - not Constantinople).
  • The use of what we consider to be ecclesiastical terms for ranks within the army reminded me of the change in meaning which the Roman terms vicarius and dioecesis underwent. In the third century they referred to a high-ranking administrative official and his sphere of command, but they were of course later adopted by the church to describe its own ministers and territories.
As I say, that may just be an easy way of creating a coherent other-worldly feel. I also don't think I can detect any pattern in it at the moment which might help us to understand what some of the individual characters are doing or where the plot is going to go in the next episode. But there really is a helluva lot of it. Is it going to turn out to have some deeper significance? I guess we find out in the next episode.

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Comments

( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
dakegra
Apr. 29th, 2010 09:12 pm (UTC)
lj really could do with a 'like' button for stuff like this.

Cor. Where to start? I love reading your readings of the show, and I agree about the pompeii thing, which would also tie nicely back to that episode where the Doctor and Donna visit old Pompeii (the title escapes me).
strange_complex
Apr. 29th, 2010 09:23 pm (UTC)
Hehe - thanks! I've long thought that about an LJ 'like' button, too.

Amy's hand turning to stone, of course, is another obvious echo of Fires of Pompeii (which is the episode you're thinking of). Will this mean something in plot terms - for example, are the Angels and the Pyroviles somehow related, or did the Doctor cause the crack in time by saving Caecilius and his family? Or is it just a matter of structuring - giving the programme a coherent feel by having resonances between different stories? It's all very intriguing...
surliminal
Apr. 30th, 2010 12:14 am (UTC)
Amy/Karen Gillan was in fact one of the Pompeii priesteses wasn;t she, as her first Who part? so it is in fact very meta..

Were we given any reason *why* the Aplan would bury dead people in the walls of a maze? or was it just a given? is ther a classical refernce there? (I knowof labyrinthes but not ones with dead people in the walls..)
strange_complex
Apr. 30th, 2010 09:00 am (UTC)
Good point about Amy being in Fires of Pompeii - I'd forgotten about that cross-reference as well.

is ther a classical refernce there?

Yes. The catacombs in Rome are above all associated with the Jewish and Christian populations of the city, but actually burials of that type are a very old feature of Italian culture, which goes right back to the Etruscans.
ms_siobhan
Apr. 29th, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC)
On a completely shallow level I absolutely loved her red shoes and totally envied her ability to sashay with such amazing confidence in such sky high heels.

I would love to own and be able to walk in such fabulous skyscrapers.
strange_complex
Apr. 29th, 2010 09:25 pm (UTC)
Oh gods yes! They were awesome - so rich and shiny coloured! Like you, though, I could barely begin to dream of looking so confident and stable in them. My maximum on heels is about two inches.
ms_siobhan
Apr. 29th, 2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
I can do 5 inches (oo-er missus) but only if they are platform heels or wedges.
strange_complex
Apr. 29th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
Yes, having a lift at the front as well definitely helps. I think hers were strictly speaking platforms, actually - but still with a massive drop between front and back!
ms_siobhan
Apr. 29th, 2010 09:31 pm (UTC)
It's the massive drop I can't do - it's too much like walking on tip toe. My 5 inch heels have a 2 inch platform at the front and so not that bad. It's still nice to take them off at the end of the day though.
surliminal
Apr. 30th, 2010 12:03 am (UTC)
I really like this and it made me question my own assumptions about River knowing OH Gallifreyan and how to pilot the Tardis, which were initially similar to yours. But actually if River really is an archaeologist is it so impossible she could have learnt some OHG'n? And the bit about the handrake and being taught by someone else might all, I think, be taken quite lightly as Moffat jokes/lies by River being playful (many people have pointed out that ALL Tardises seem to make that noise, so it's a startling new datum if to be taken as literately true!) So perhaps we shouldn't rest too much about River's story on these facts alone. But yes I am very intrigued (I DID like her in S of the L already) and I suspect her story may be strung over the next several seasons and/or alternately that we will never find out TOO much .
strange_complex
Apr. 30th, 2010 09:09 am (UTC)
On Old High Gallifreyan, this has featured in the TV canon before, specifically on an inscription inside Rassilon's tomb chamber in The Five Doctors. There, the first three Doctors together have quite a lot of difficulty figuring it out, and I think the dialogue conveys something along the lines of it being an almost-forgotten script. So knowledge of the language and its script must have been rare even before the Time War, and is highly unlikely to have survived afterwards. I don't think even the most advanced archaeologists would know it, or indeed see any point in teaching it to anyone else, given that Time Lord culture has been retrospectively wiped out from the entirety of space and time, so there shouldn't be any surviving Old High Gallifreyan texts. However, the Doctor quite clearly does have a basic grasp of it, so could easily have taught it to River at some point in the future.

On the TARDIS, I take the point about other TARDISes making the same wheezing noise. But we actually do see River land the TARDIS on screen without it making that noise, and we also see her successfully use the blue stabilisers, which the Doctor immediately says are 'boring'. So this isn't just banter - that's two practical skills we have seen her demonstrating on screen which I don't think the Doctor (as we know him now at least) is likely to have taught her.
steer
Apr. 30th, 2010 08:44 am (UTC)
In my view, if he had taught her how to fly the TARDIS, it's unlikely he'd have taught her the sort of text-book approach she's displaying.

Ah... but we know from the Tom Baker days that the text book (manual) is about there. It's wholly possible the doctor taught her and she improved her technique from the manual. ISTR Romana improving on the doctor's piloting by reading the manual.
strange_complex
Apr. 30th, 2010 09:12 am (UTC)
Ah, good point - you mean that there is still a manual kicking about the TARDIS somewhere which the Doctor has never bothered to read properly, but which she could have learnt from? That's quite possible - and as you say another echo of Romana if so. It would also mean that when she says she was 'taught by the best', that would mean herself - which I like! Sounds very in-character. I think this is the best explanation for her knowledge that I've seen so far.
steer
Apr. 30th, 2010 10:56 am (UTC)
still a manual ... which she could have learnt from?

Yes, I'm pretty sure I remember Romana leafing through the manual and correcting Tom Baker (and being sneery about the obsolete model he had which she'd only studied in history). Also, of course, once partly taught people can often improve on what their teacher told them, so even if she was only taught by the doctor and did not find a manual it doesn't mean she couldn't figure out things that he didn't.

she was 'taught by the best' that would mean herself

I like that explanation but it sounded more like a flirty compliment than a self-compliment (if you see what I mean). It could be right though.
huskyteer
Apr. 30th, 2010 09:35 am (UTC)
Oh, good list of ancient world tie-ins; I didn't really think about that at all.
strange_complex
Apr. 30th, 2010 09:55 am (UTC)
Cheers! It's weird, though. There are parallels in this story which link Time Lord culture, Aplan culture, whatever culture the 'clerics' belong to and whatever culture the people who built the Byzantium belong to with the ancient world. It makes it difficult to discern any very clear pattern in how we are meant to interpret any of them. The best I can do is to say that Time Lord culture is linked with the Etruscans to characterise it as very ancient and rather mysterious; the Aplans are fairly straightforwardly shown as equivalent to the Romans at the height of their empire; and the culture to which the clerics and / or the Byzantium belong have links with late antiquity, showing them as belonging to a later and more modern era than either Time Lords or Aplans, and thus making it appropriate that they pick through the ruins of the earlier cultures. Actually, now that I've thought (or typed) that through, maybe it works pretty well after all!
weepingcross
May. 9th, 2010 10:10 pm (UTC)
I was very pleased with the 'clerics' and especially with Bishop Octavian. From my (very partisan) point of view I was tickled by the concept of warrior clergy who were completely ordinary rather than made nutcases, and Octavian was a great character - a believer without much being made of it, a brave soldier and yet human enough to chafe at the Dr usurping his authority. The respect he and the Dr had for each other by the end was super. How pleasant to have a positive, sane Christian character from the pen of somebody who isn't obviously writing from that viewpoint. And, if the idea is that after some future social collapse the Church takes on secular roles as it did during the decline of the Roman Empire, given that Octavian doesn't balk at the idea of being 'engaged' to River Song and therefore isn't necessarily a celibate, the Church concerned is presumably the Church of England ...!
(Sorry to come to this so late).
strange_complex
May. 9th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you liked them, and can see why. I'm not sure I read them as being 'real' believers, so much as a now secular organisation which happened to have inherited the titles once used by a religious organisation. But I think Bishop Octavian did say things like 'thank God' a couple of times. I'm sure you'd have picked up on those sorts of indications better than I would have done.
p_dan_tic
Apr. 30th, 2010 10:30 am (UTC)
I've got a massive theory, which will no doubt turn out to be totally wrong, especailly if mark gattis is allowd to write any episode involving her, that river is the human personification of some part of the tardis itself, sort of like what rose became at the end of the parting of the ways.

If this turns out to be right however, I will be all the smug
strange_complex
Apr. 30th, 2010 12:32 pm (UTC)
She probably isn't - but it would TOTALLY AWESOME if you were right! Given the way the Doctor looked round the new interior of the TARDIS in The Eleventh Hour and murmured "Oh, you sexy thing!", he is definitely hot for her.
a_d_medievalist
May. 3rd, 2010 06:27 am (UTC)
not much to say except that I loved it -- especially after the previous episode, which my Doctor-watching companion calls "The United Daleks of Benetton." One of the things I really like about the Angels is that to me they aren't really Classical -- they're horrid Neo-Classical 19th C., which fits in with all the other weird anachronisms of the last couple of Doctors (although maybe even going back as far as Jon Pertwee's jacket ...).
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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