the time of angels

Time was one of the reasons it took me a while to warm to New Who.

Classic Who, as you may know, typically ran stories in four installments of about 25 minutes each, so that a complete story would last 100 minutes. That’s somewhere between the length of your average contemporary Hollywood comedy and your average contemporary Hollywood science fiction movie, which seems entirely appropriate for this show. Prior to 1980 or so, it wasn’t unusual for some stories to take 6 episodes (150 minutes, a blockbuster epic fantasy by Rowling), 8 episodes (200 minutes, getting into director’s-cut Tolkien territory), or in a couple of cases 10 or 12 episodes (a full afternoon marathon or three months of Saturdays, depending on your approach). There were only a handful of stories that were told in 2 episodes (50 minutes — a generous episode of Star Trek), and few were satisfying.

New Who has just 42 minutes to tell a complete story every week. That’s nothing.

A lot of people will tell you that the old show had plenty of padding, which usually took the form of running through corridors for no good reason, or the Doctor and friends getting tied up and escaping. It was also a little slower-paced in general, because back in those days a lot of British directors still thought in terms of theater, and MTV wasn’t invented until the show was already close to 20 years old. Nowadays the show zips along like lightning and looks like it was edited by Edward Scissorhands.

This sounds like a good thing — it keeps the episodes dense with excitement, right? Well, sometimes. It can also mean that the show can either tell a good, interesting story, or maintain a cool, scary mood, or have still moments of genuine emotion, but not necessarily all three at once.

Thus I’m always a little pleased at the prospect of a two-parter. 84 minutes is still pretty scant, but it allows enough breathing room for the show to approximate the feel of its history.

That’s the first thing I noticed about this week’s part 1, “The Time of Angels”: it breathes. After last week’s incoherent “Victory of the Daleks,” it comes as a great relief.

New Who seems to be developing a fixation on objects stolen or liberated from museums (which for some reason never fails to remind me of The Great Muppet Caper), but it’s fun this time instead of stupid and obvious (Planet of the Dead). The Doctor and Amy are lively and fun now that Moffat’s writing them again, and the first half of the episode is chock full of the little moments that make this show worthwhile, many of them including River Song. Refreshingly, Amy’s relationship with River Song becomes conspiratorial rather than jealous when she discovers that Song and the Doctor have a prior/future relationship of some kind.

Amy, still trying to fit the Doctor into a typical human family scenario, seems convinced that Song is the Doctor’s future wife (or rather that the Doctor is Song’s future husband), but my money is on “con woman.” If so, though, she’s a con woman who does know how to fly the TARDIS, and seems to know a lot about the machine (though the joke that it makes that signature noise because the Doctor “leaves the brake on” is revisionist; if he does it, so does the Master in 70s Who story Terror of the Autons and probably more after that). We get a nice long shot of the console room. I’m warming to the new interior design, though I still think (e.g.) the early-20th-century bathtub fixtures on the console itself are too self-consciously cute.

So things are pretty lively up through the reasonably spooky Ring homage, but about halfway through, things start to bog down a bit for me. Part of the problem is that this part felt padded for me, ironically; instead of running through corridors we’re creeping through catacombs, but same difference. Plot points do appear but somehow it doesn’t feel like much is happening, and it climaxes in another of the action-hero bravado speeches Moffat likes to give his Doctor and which frankly diminish the character.

The other problem that causes this second quarter to bog down for me is that I never much liked the Weeping Angels. Great image, sure, and those look-back-and-they’ve-moved shots are still pretty cool. But the concept of the creatures themselves seems really far-fetched even for this program, and it doesn’t help that the Doctor specifically mentions in passing that they’ve “evolved.” Really now, check out what happens with the first angel Amy sees and tell me something like that evolved. I’m good at suspending my disbelief for Doctor Who but the Angels really push it.

Nevertheless, this story’s really working for me so far. I’m looking forward to the conclusion more than I’ve looked forward to any episode this season so far, including the opener.