Early June, 2007. Emily and I are coiled on the sofa, watching Carey Mulligan stumble through the cracked remains of an old building – “You live,” says Finlay Robertson, erroneously assuming that the mansion in which they’ve gathered is her permanent residence, “in Scooby Doo’s house”. There is a fizz of background noise on DVD, as a bespectacled man from a film shot forty years ago mutters a warning. In the shadows, statues lurk. Until you turn your back. Until you blink. And then…
Well, then you get to go back in time a few decades and live out the rest of your life in the village where you grew up, before meeting yourself as a young child. Which isn’t such a bad way to go, really. We could think of worse. Drowning, electrocution, live burial. Over-exposure to the theme from Barney. And this is why the Angels only really worked in one story, where the novelty was enough and where the stakes were raised by the Doctor’s warning about what would happen if they managed to get hold of a TARDIS. When all is said and done, that’s the extent of their appeal. Everything else – the neck-snapping in the wreck of the Byzantium, the makeshift factory farm at Winter Quay – is merely commentary.
Having actually got hold of a TARDIS in last week’s finale, the Angels elect not to switch off the sun (something the Tenth Doctor had feared), but instead dump the battered old police box in 1960s rural England so they can pick up a stray. Because it turns out that not all Angels are wrong ‘uns, if we can really say that any of them were. Some of them have tired of their work with the Division and have gone on the lam, where they can hide out on Earth, ensconced within the mind of a young woman who –
Sorry, wait a minute. Back up. Slowly. Stand clear; this vehicle is reversing. Say that again. They do what? Angels have jobs? With the Division? How does that even work? How do you arrange a performance review for a direct report when you can’t make eye contact with them? Is remote working an option given that every time you arrange a Zoom meeting they accidentally pop out of the monitor? What about salary? Do they zip back in time to deposit their pay packets into hundred-year-old accounts and then live off the compound interest? What happens at the Christmas party when it’s time to form the conga line? These are all serious questions, and I think we should be told.
But unanswered questions are par for the course this series. And there are loose ends a-plenty this week, and most of them concern the Doctor. In the sort of bait-and-switch that Chibnall has made one of his staples, she turns out to be the target the Angels were looking for all along, ending the story on the mother of all cliffhangers, frozen like a Medusa victim as Yaz and Dan look on helplessly from sixty-six years ago and twelve feet away. Quite why the Angels weren’t able to do this earlier in the story is anyone’s guess, but we may assume that it’s because the image of Jodie Whittaker turning to stone in a graveyard stuffed full of statues looks ridiculously cool, so perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it. And while it’ll be undone in a heartbeat, there is something captivating and utterly chilling about that final image. Bet B&M are lining up the figure rights as we speak.
‘Village of the Angels’ is the sort of haunted village horror story that 70s Who managed brilliantly, only with the pacing cranked up to eleven and the pathos at a big fat zero. I know we’re supposed to care about poor Peggy, who vanishes from the home of her irritable great-uncle and his long-suffering wife (played proficiently, if with a certain shallowness, by Vincent Brimble and Jemma Churchill), only to be discovered by a displaced Yaz and Dan wandering around Medderton in 1901. But it’s difficult to care too much when she radiates the same level of glacial calmness displayed by one of the Midwich children in Village of the Damned. There’s something freakish about her. She barely even breaks a sweat when her hapless great-uncle crumbles into rubble (I was going to say she barely even blinks, but let’s not go there). Instead she merely stares at the spectacle, and then notes “He was never kind to me”. We should have seen it coming: an earlier scene has her seated at the table in a seemingly abandoned farmhouse, chickens pecking at the butter and the gramophone still running, lit from behind in a serene halo, like a divine child. You might even say an angel.
Perhaps surprisingly for a base-under-siege tale, visual flair is a cornerstone of the episode’s construction, Robin Whenary’s cinematography working in a delicious tandem with Jamie Magnus Stone’s tight direction, emphasising angles and corners and the feeling of being under constant surveillance. The troubled Claire grows a pair of wings in a mirror, delicately foreshadowing the story’s finale, before facing off against the Doctor on the other side of a windswept beach (in quite unsuitable footwear), the sky a turbulent maelstrom. Closeups are abundant, and the stony denizens scream out of the darkness with a lustre and ferocity we haven’t seen in some time. It doesn’t all work: the Scribble Angel and Fire Angel are supposed to breathe new blood into old enemies, but there is a certain silliness about them, a gimmick that serves little purpose beyond a brief visual cue. Perhaps I was just thinking about ‘Fear Her’.
Still, the best scenes in ‘Village’ occur in that poorly-defended house, the doors rattling as unseen fists pound and blank-eyed faces loom at the window like a dozen extras from a Romero film. It’s terrific stuff, and it almost seems a shame when we have to leave it behind for 1901, in which Dan and Yaz have a bit of a wander and a chat and do not a lot else. Maxine Alderton managed to keep everyone busy during ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’, but she struggles here to find substantial roles for the Doctor’s companions, beyond having Yaz yell out “No!” at opportune moments, something Mandip Gill admittedly does rather well. Faring better is Thaddea Graham (Bel), saving the life of an ungrateful refugee on another decimated planet before hopping off into the stars, reappearing for a cannily placed credits scene. She’s tremendous fun to watch, and whatever the murky truth behind this inexplicably lengthy pregnancy, the romance between her and Vinder is genuinely touching, and you really do hope they manage to survive the universe’s implausibly lengthy destruction.
It’s wobbly and a bit uneven in places, but as a whole it works. For every magical reforming picture or jarring snatch of audio (Brimble’s scream when he is first zapped by the Angel is particularly unnecessary) there is a feast of dimly lit churchyards and frantic, elegantly composed set pieces. Guest performances, too, are largely sound – Kevin McNally and Annabel Scholey excel as stuffy academic and frightened woman out of time respectively – and there is a cohesiveness to the story that survives beyond the oddities; a mesh bag, crammed full of rocks, a few rough edges poking through the holes, but essentially intact. Chibnall’s run on Doctor Who hasn’t been without its problems, and the jury is still out on whether Flux is going to pan out as successfully as we’ve been promised – but this week he made the Angels scary again. That, in itself, is something of a triumph.