SCARVES AND CELERY – “The Image of an Angel”: a thematic dissection of “The Time of Angels/ Flesh and Stone”

Remember early series five? When Matt Smith was all baby faced, we didn’t know who River was yet, and the Moffat era was in its infancy. What an exciting and new time that was. Today, we’re to revisit the story I feel best captures that time in Doctor Who’s history: “The Time of Angels/ Flesh and Stone”, and examine the key themes and concerns animating the story, and the Moffat era as it was just beginning.

The Weeping Angels and the Act of Looking

“The Image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel”

This may just be one of the most potent and terrifying ideas Steven Moffat has come up with in a writing career defined by concepts that have terrified children and adults alike. The sequence where the angel climbs out of the camera becomes a metafictional extension of the way the camera frames the Angels in “Blink”, conceptually making the Angels even scarier than they were in their original appearance, as a fictional representation of the angels can become a real monster. It’s a fascinating commentary on the relationship between text and audience, the way a scary Doctor Who monster can live on in a fan’s mind: once a scary fictional monster gets ahold of your imagination, you can’t turn it off, just as Amy and the Doctor cannot simply turn off the image of the Angel. A different take on the (I’d say overstated) idea that the companion is the audience avatar, as Amy becomes a fictional embodiment of the viewer watching a Doctor Who episode when she is attacked by the footage of the Angel. Amy stops the image from coming to life by pausing it on a glitch, beating it by understanding the nature of the visual storytelling medium it is tied to: an excellent demonstration of Amy’s brand of cleverness and intuitive thinking, an important aspect of Amy’s characterisation.

Amy Pond, Eye Motifs, and Mental Health issues

The Weeping Angels become a great source of character development for Amy throughout this story, starting with their latest link to the the eye motif that runs throughout Doctor Who in the Moffat Era. As the Weeping Angels are monsters whose concept is tightly bound to the medium of television, and visual storytelling, it is incredibly appropriate that this story links them to Moffat’s recurring theme of eyesight, perception, and the act of looking. “The Eyes are not the windows to the soul, they are the doors”, reads the Doctor, and when Amy looks into the Angel’s eye, the Angel makes its way into her soul, becoming intertwined with her internal world. A disturbing result of this is seen when the Angels make Amy count down, hijacking her speech, her ability to express herself and communicate with others: Amy is a character who is tied to fairytales and storytelling, and the Angels threaten her ability to articulate and tell her story, a threat that is deeply personal to the specific core aspects of her character.

The eye motif, and its ties to Amy and the weeping angels, is further expanded on when Amy thinks she feels stone dust coming from her eye, and later comes to believe her hand has turned to stone. Notably, this belief has a physical effect on her: she cannot move her hand, because she sees and feels it as stone: a useful rebuttal to the idea that mental health issues are just imagined, something you can simply “get over”. In response to her belief, the Doctor helps Amy by biting her, giving her physical proof that her hand is still made of flesh: a nice demonstration of the way mental and physical health are linked.

The stone hand sequence also provides a clear demonstration of Amy’s abandonment issues. When the Doctor starts to preemptively apologise for biting Amy, she assumes he’s apologising for leaving her to die, saying “It’s okay. You’ve got to leave me. I understand”, assuming he’s going to leave her and not challenging the possibility, because, in her mind, people have always left her: her parents have been erased from reality by the crack in her wall, leaving a gap in her life she doesn’t come to understand until the season finale, and the Doctor failed to come back for her when she was seven: she’s come to believe people won’t stay with her because she sees people leaving her as a fact not to be challenged.

The emergence of mental health related themes tied to Amy’s character in this episode is significant, as her character arc, particularly this season, is frequently read as a metaphor for the complications of recovering from mental health issues. This theme comes both explicitly in the story, with Amy admitting to being taken to see four psychiatrists as a child, and subtextually, through her links to the various sci-fi concepts that become a metaphor for her trauma. The most prominent sci-fi concept linked to Amy’s mental health issues is the crack in the wall, which to a significant degree is the in-story cause of, and out-of-story metaphor for, her childhood trauma and abandonment issues. Her arc in series 5 is about her recovery from her childhood trauma, represented by the loss of her parents to the crack in her wall, and as a result, it is significant that “The Time of Angels/ Flesh and Stone”, the story that gives the most explicit engagement with Amy’s mental illness to this point, is the story where the crack-in-time season arc takes on a prominent role in the season.

Therefore, it is also thematically relevant that this story sets up the source of Amy’s healing, by sneakily setting up a key beat for the finale, while famously disguising this set up as a continuity gaffe : 

“DOCTOR: Amy, you need to start trusting me. It’s never been more important.

AMY: But you don’t always tell me the truth.

DOCTOR: If I always told you the truth, I wouldn’t need you to trust me.

AMY: Doctor, the crack in my wall. How can it be here?

DOCTOR: I don’t know yet, but I’m working it out. Now, listen. Remember what I told you when you were seven?

AMY: What did you tell me?

DOCTOR: No. No, that’s not the point. You have to remember.

AMY: Remember what? Doctor? Doctor?”

Amy’s trauma and metal health issues are made more explicit than they had previously, just as the past source of her trauma (the crack in time) becomes more integrated into the season’s story arc, and the future source of her healing – the Doctor helping her recover her memories of him and her parents – is also foreshadowed.

So somewhat suitably for a River Song story (and we’ll be getting on to the themes inherent to her and the Doctor’s non linear romance next), the past, present, and the future of Amy’s arc all merge into one in this story. But what is it saying about the her mental health in the present? The climax to story’s exploration of Amy’s subtextual status as a neurodivergent character centres on the sequence where, one by one, the clerics are erased from time, and only Amy notices what is going on. Gives an accurate account of what is happening to Marco, but he doesn’t believe her, because his memories of the other Clerics is getting erased, telling her “it’s only ever been the two of us” here, dismissing her reality. It’s reminiscent of the way neurodivergent people’s mental illnesses are used as way to discredit their perfectly correct account of events: Marco sees Amy as a sick, scared civilian, traumatized into making up people who don’t exist, and as a result, doesn’t listen to her entirely correct warnings about what will happen if he walks into the light: a warning that is tied to her fear of abandonment, as she begs Marco to listen to her and stay instead of leaving her alone. As a result, it’s hugely important that, at the end of the story, the Doctor explains that Amy being a time traveler, the thing that gave her a different perception of events to the clerics, is what enabled her to see understand what was happening when they dismissed her. The Doctor offers her something she’s been desperately lacking so far in her life, having been sent to four psychiatrists for her belief in her imaginary friend, and having had her understanding of the events of this episodes questioned and treated as wrong by the guest cast: a validation of her perspective. The story makes it clear that Amy suffers from mental health issues, but after establishing this, also makes it clear that she is still capable of understanding the world around her, even in a situation where people question her understanding of said events. It’s a powerful rebuttal to many myths about mental health issues.

 

River, the Doctor, and Free Will in a Non-Linear Romance

The first thing of note about the Doctor and River in this story is his initial antagonism towards her. The first scene after the credits sees the Doctor complaining about her flying the TARDIS, with perhaps the most notable disagreement being the Doctor’s anger at the use of the blue stabilisers that he didn’t know existed, calling them “blue boringers”: his specific objection to River flying the TARDIS better than him is that flying the TARDIS properly makes chasing a crashing starliner much less exciting. Obviously, he mainly makes this objection to hide his embarrassment, but the way said objection links to his specific fears about River is significant. When Amy asks the Doctor why he initially intends to leave Alfalfa Metraxis instead of staying and helping River, the Doctor responds “Because she’s the future. My future”: the Doctor’s antagonism towards River comes, in part, from wanting to resist having a fixed future, making his relationship with River in part a philosophical examination of the tension between the concepts of determinism (the idea that every event or state of affairs, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable and necessary consequence of previous states of affairs) and free will, though I’ll leave it to people who better understand philosophy than myself to analyse those concepts in more detail. It is understandable that the Doctor resists this future, as getting to know River probably means getting attached to someone he knows is going to die: having seen her die the first time he meets her, every subsequent meeting will only make his loss more keenly felt.

This story also marks a significant development in River’s narrative, as we’re teased with all of the major plot points the audience will witness over the next two seasons: her probable marriage to the Doctor, her murder of a good man (who is most likely the Doctor), and her subsequent imprisonment, which we see her earning her pardon for in this story. And the Doctor learns about these events alongside the audience. Notably, Amy even uses the Doctor’s knowledge of his future meetings with River as a reason for him to leave her so that he doesn’t die with her when she believes she’s been trapped by her stone hand: “you’ve got all that stuff with River, you can’t die here”. And even more significantly, it’s here that the Doctor responds with the phrase “Time can be rewritten”, which the Doctor says as a rebuttal to Amy. The concept of time being rewritable, therefore, is a way of giving individual actions meaning in the context of a world where Time travelers meet their future selves and know what events are coming in their future: the Doctor and River’s choices may lead them to a set future with the other, but they still can, and have to, make the choices they want to make in a given moment, even if said choice may contradict their potential future together.

The story resolves this section of the development of the Doctor and River’s relationship, with a neat use of foreshadowing, when River’s “you might want something to hang onto” becomes the resolution of the main story, as the Doctor, Amy, and River hold on tightly to the wreckage while the Angels get sucked into the crack in time, the Doctor echoing River’s sentiment when he says “get a grip”. The main story of “The Time of Angels/ Flesh and Stone” is framed by the Doctor and River echoing each other’s words, symbolically coming together as his initial antagonism towards her, and the deterministic future she represents, fades over the course of the two episodes.

The other resolution to the key tension in the Doctor and River’s relationship comes in River’s response to the Doctor asking who she is: “It’s a long story, Doctor, and it has to be lived”, a response that alleviates his fears of the fixed and unchangeable future a relationship with River represents. The mutual guarding of future “spoilers” is the way the Doctor and River keep their personal agency in a relationship where their foreknowledge threatens their free will: a careful give and take, where each withholds as much information as possible about the other’s future, so that the other can make choices about their relationship with as much agency as possible. This give and take is arguably not unlike the way we have to respond to the idea of living in a deterministic universe: whether you believe the universe is deterministic or not, you still have to make the choices you are presented with throughout your day to day existence.

As well as being tied to philosophical concepts of free will and determinism, the Doctor and river’s impossible sci fi relationship is tied to everyday life at the end of the story. Amy links the Doctor and River’s relationship to her own relationship, saying “you’re running from River, I’m running from this” about her impending marriage to Rory. Just as the weeping angels and the crack in her wall provide sci-fi metaphors that run alongside her in story mental health issues, the Doctor’s fear of a known future relationship with River forms a metaphor for the everyday concern of being afraid of an impending marriage through its parallel to Amy’s own fears. We don’t have to meet people from our future to know with relative certainty what will happen in our future, and we don’t have to know what’s coming in our future to be afraid of what will be happening in said future. This metaphor is then further linked back to Amy’s mental health: “Amy Pond […] the single most important thing in the history of the universe is that I get you sorted out right now” says the Doctor, recognising that helping Amy heal the problems that define her life is the most important response to the season’s story arc, which, once again, is the cause of and metaphor for her ongoing trauma in series five, with the link being made even more explicit through Amy’s wedding day being the day the universe is set to explode: a classic case of the post-Buffy style of storytelling, where the sci-fi plot becomes a metaphor for the human lives of the protagonists. The story of Amy Pond, and the early Moffat era, is ultimately about healing from trauma, reconciling with the cracks and tears that linger in the background of our lives.

3 thoughts on “SCARVES AND CELERY – “The Image of an Angel”: a thematic dissection of “The Time of Angels/ Flesh and Stone”

  1. Hey! I’ve been following your blog for a while now, and I absolutely love it! I came across you when I began watching Season 10 and I love the amount of insight and detail in each and every post.

    I hope it’s okay for me to point out that “neuroatypical” is a term that should only be used in relation to people on the autism spectrum – I think “neurodivergent” is the appropriate umbrella term to use for people with mental illness. I understand that there’s a lot of debate around these words and I hope it’s okay for me to bring this up here.

    Divya

    Liked by 3 people

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