Season 31, Episode 5 – Flesh And Stone, by Steven Moffat

May 1, 2010

Review by Martin Odoni

Dr Who, throughout its very long, and occasionally glorious, history has suffered from a sad illness. It’s a pervasive illness, quite virulent and a really difficult one to kick. The series appeared to contract this sad plague in the late 1960’s, and it has been debilitated by it for much of its subsequent existence, continuing to the present day. And one has to consider that, should the disease never be cured, it might be best to end the programme’s life soon, to spare it the ongoing agony.

This disease is sometimes called, ‘Part 3 Syndrome’. It’s the phenomenon of a story that lasts around one hundred minutes, but which in practise only really has enough plot to fill out around seventy-five minutes. To this end, the mid-to-late stages of the story, which back in the old days of twenty-five minute episodes would more or less constitute episode three of a four-parter, would usually be reduced to a runaround of almost zero plot-progression, and much treading-of-water.

Nowadays we’re in the second era of fifty-minute episodes (the first one being the first Colin Baker season), and when a story lasts around one hour and forty minutes, the Part 3 Syndrome will usually infest the first half of part two. And for certain, the new era of the series has seen a number of two-parters that have had a very promising first half, but then hit the rocks with a crash of timbers afterwards.

Take as examples; –

1. The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit – an excellent study in part one of the nature of slavery, asking whether it becomes acceptable when the slaves are happy to be manipulated, a theme then totally and inexplicably abandoned in favour of a lazy ‘kill-all-the-kooky-aliens’ resolution in part two;

2. Human Nature and The Family Of Blood – fascinating speculations on how the mind of a Time-Lord might function in the body of a human being, followed in the second part by about twenty minutes of the central characters running around and shrieking a lot, and an unforgivable technobabble resolution right out of the fag-end of the Jon Pertwee era;

3. Daleks In Manhattan and Evolution Of The Daleks – Interesting, darkly atmospheric first half to set up what proved to be one of the silliest and most contrived second halves of a story in the history of Dr Who.

All of this clinical pre-amble finally brings me round to Flesh And Stone, which it pains me to say, is Steven Moffat’s first dud with the pen since taking over the reins of production. Sorry to use a stale modern Americanism, but after the superb The Time Of Angels, this one really does suck big hairy ones.

It is slightly different from the usual Part 3 Syndrome though, because in fact, the early stages of the episode are fairly good. Not up to the standard of The Time Of Angels, but it keeps things moving with a similar level of tension and terror. The artificial-gravity resolution to the cliffhanger from the previous week seems a little contrived, and the Doctor’s decision to shoot out the lights seems completely unnecessary to pull it off anyway, but it’s nothing to feel cheated over.

But then, as we’re nearing the seventy-minute mark of the whole story, the ideas start running low and the plot starts to tread water. Part of the problem is that the re-appearance of the Crack In Time almost leads Moffat himself to lose interest in the immediate plot (an attitude embodied by the Doctor’s own words at that point) in order to start information-dumping about why the Crack keeps popping up everywhere.

There’s a lengthy spell when Amy just sits in the woods with her eyes closed, while the Doctor and River stand around in the ship’s control room exchanging acid remarks. Apart from the disappearances of the soldiers – which have little to do with the plot of this story and only really involve the series arc – not a lot is really happening. The death of Bishop Octavian is quite a strong moment, well-performed by both Iain Glen and Matt Smith, and the scenario that Amy is stuck in – having to stave off creatures that can only be defeated by eyesight, at precisely the time when she is forced to keep her eyes closed – should be really fascinating. Instead, the intrigue of it is completely wasted by, firstly, the announcement that the Angels are suddenly only interested in the temporal energy escaping from the Crack In Time, and secondly, by the ‘irreparable’ teleport suddenly turning out not to be irreparable after all. (And I know we can probably think up some reasonable explanations if we want to play the game, but why is there a teleport on the flight deck anyway?)

Then of course comes the resolution, and I’m sorry, but this is a re-set button moment right up there for classic hideousness alongside Last Of The Time-Lords and Journey’s End. Okay, the artificial gravity running out of power I can buy, more or less, but all the Angels just happen to fall into the Time Crack, wiping them out, and also wiping out the Time Crack? There ‘just happens’ to be exactly the right number of Angels to fill up the Crack, without any of them being left over, but also without leaving any trace of the Crack? The two problems simply offset each other precisely, and the Doctor has saved the day without really doing anything. (This is to say nothing of why exactly the Crack sealed itself at all. Since when did pushing something through a crack cause it to seal up? Because Steven Moffat says it does? We really are drifting onto the most dismally-familiar territory here aren’t we…?)

NO! NO, STEVEN MOFFAT, A THOUSAND TIMES, NO! That is a resolution of such laziness and much-too-tidy-and-convenient contrivance that even Russell T. Davies might have hesitated to use it. Even Barry Letts would have screamed at his writers to try harder than that.

Adding to this sense of treading water is the fact that, at this point, over five minutes are still left in a story that has clearly run out of legs. So we switch over to a comic-relief scene that is totally irrelevant to the plot.

Here, the series finds a bullet lodged in its own foot, by the decision to sex-up the relationship between Amy and the Doctor after all. What was I saying only last week about sexual tensions in the TARDIS getting in the way too much over the last five years? And what happens? Amy decides on the night before she marries another man that she’s so desperate for a session between the sheets that she drags the Doctor into her bedroom and comes within about five millimetres of raping him!

I could be kind of course; maybe Moffat was just trying to tease us with a gentle reminder of how god-awful the mushy sentimentalism and crude, mis-timed humour of the RTD era was, and so perhaps normal service will resume next week. But that whole scene absolutely reeks of Doctor-&-Rose hangover, and could have been lifted from anything from a 1970’s bedroom-farce to a Confessions Of… movie. OUCH!

On the plus side, the episode continued to look very good, and Murray Gold’s music was again commendably more restrained than usual. Performances were still good too, bar David Atkins as Angel-Bob, who really did sound like he was doing exactly what he clearly was doing; reading out loud. And that chuckle from River just before teleporting back to the prison ship was painfully forced.

Uuugghhh… ropey stuff, all-in-all, and the worst episode of the new season so far by a distance, and indeed Moffat’s worst episode of all to this point. To the squeeeeee-ers who get angry when anyone dares to suggest that any episode of NuWho is not the square root of perfection, I can only apologise, but I can give it a mere 3/10. Sorry. The two-parter as a whole gets 6.

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