Review: ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’

It was about half past ten on a Tuesday evening, and Emily and I were changing the sheets.

“The thing is this,” I said, as she poked a duvet inside its cover. “I wish once – just once – they’d kill someone properly. Permanently. Ideally in a grisly or at least unpleasant manner. And have them stay dead. No convenient get-out clause, no resurrection, no life lived elsewhere with endless separation. Just for once I would like death to mean death.”

Emily smoothed out the edge of the sheet and stared at me. “That’s horrible! Think of the kids!”
“I am! The bottom line is that’s what they did to Adric. And I was four, and it traumatised me. But I never forgot it.”

I know that Adric’s an insufferable little twerp. Nonetheless, his death meant something, not least because he has yet to make a repeat appearance outside hallucinations or dream sequences or non-canonical Big Finish productions. They wrote him out and that was that. Now, I will grant you that the death of a companion is rare – even more so these days – and that we’re talking about a show which, while not aimed specifically at children, must nonetheless tread carefully given its Saturday evening audience. But the point is we’ve heard nothing but a torrent of announcements about this season’s Big Death, and – as I feared – when it came it was actually just a Big Disappointment. I shouldn’t really be surprised when you look back at the show’s track record.

(To be fair, this sort of thing didn’t entirely start with New Who, as anyone who’s watched ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ will testify.)

Let’s get the gimmick-of-the-week out of the way first.

Seriously, the idea of the Statue of Liberty secretly being an Angel? It’s nice, but it makes absolutely no sense. Let’s ignore the fact that it’s not even stone – it’s iron and stainless steel, and the pedestal is half concrete / half granite – and concentrate instead on the fact that the statue’s ability to wander across the Hudson to Battery Park is dependent on the idea of nobody looking at it. This is in New York – the city that never sleeps, as we’re informed at least twice in a bit of needless cliché-farming; it is almost inconceivable that there could be a moment in time where absolutely none of the X million (even in 1938) home-owning residents or Battery Park hobos or Liberty Island security guards were looking at it. Even if that were the case, we then have to believe that a colossal statue is apparently supposed to be able to disappear from its pedestal and make its way to Winter Quay without anybody stopping to gawp, staring in a mixture of rapt fascination and awestruck horror, unable to move – rather like the statue itself would then turn out to be. (As Gareth pointed out, even if we couldn’t see it, we could still hear it, which counts as ‘observation’ to any scientist.) Apparently Moffat never saw Cloverfield.

Or Ghostbusters 2.

Or – well, you get the idea.

(Please excuse the crudity of these photos. I didn’t have time to do them to scale or to paint them.)

Let’s also ignore the fact that the Doctor and company know they’re going up against the Weeping Angels and choose not to bring along a sledgehammer, which would surely be the best way of taking them down. (The Tenth Doctor says in ‘Blink’ that “You can’t kill a stone”, to which I’d reply “Well, you can – ask any sculptor”.) It’s feasible that the biological makeup of said Angels means that they’re irreversibly impervious while they’re quantum-locked, presumably unless you leave them near a running tap for ten million years. I can (with a tremendous leap of faith) just about let that go.

While we’re in a letting-things-go sort of place, let’s additionally ignore the fact that the TARDIS’ translation ability “stays with you”. We can, Gareth assures me, attribute that to the wormholes that exist in 1938 when the Doctor and his Gang (“it’s new”) are shutting Hitler in a cupboard, or the fact that Rory’s in geographical proximity to the 2012 TARDIS, even though they’re on different chronological buses. It’s a stretch, but this is not new. Plausibility in Doctor Who these days is stretched farther than Michael Jordan’s arm at the end of Space Jam. I really don’t want to have to spend my evenings shouting “THAT’S NOT BLOODY RIGHT!” at the TV, not at something that challenges my perceptions of What Doctor Who Should Be About but something that’s just completely ridiculous – nonetheless, age has brought with it an increasing sense of grumpiness and I have thus resigned myself to a lifetime of armchair critique. In fact, let’s ignore everything except River’s breasts.

They really are quite smashing, aren’t they? I have never found Alex Kingston sexy (sorry Alex, it’s nothing personal) but this week I very nearly did. I should differentiate Alex from River, who was as tedious as ever, although it was late River, and so reaching her less irritating phase. However, the flirting is still there (I’ve decided that the fanboys probably don’t mind when she calls the Doctor her husband, but that they probably erupt in rage when he refers to her as his wife) and there are all manner of ridiculous moments, such as the Doctor’s magical healing touch.

It’s tedious, badly written and while this isn’t the first instance, it’s never really felt like the Doctor. Kingston also has to deliver some of the worst dialogue I’ve seen in the show since – well, since ‘A Town Called Mercy’, as it turns out, but let’s not worry about that just now. Let’s think instead about that special moment when the Doctor discovers River’s wrist is in fact broken (which was, by the way, a mind-numbingly pointless scene, but never mind).

DOCTOR: Why did you lie to me?

RIVER: When one’s in love with an ageless god who insists on the face of a twelve-year-old, one does one’s best to hide the damage.

DOCTOR: It must hurt. Come here.

RIVER: Yes. The wrist is pretty bad too.

At this point I was on the verge of snapping my own wrist so that I’d have something to throw at the TV. Anyone who thinks they can’t cut it as a would-be screenwriter – or who is frightened to get started – should take encouragement from stuff like this. If this is the final draft of what one of the highest-paid writers in BBC drama is coming up with, then God have mercy on us all.

River – the world’s most unreliable narrator – is in New York because she’s written a book about the Angels, and the Doctor thus spends most of the episode fretting about its contents. This gives Smith the chance to show off his serious acting skills by wearing, courtesy of Amy, the exact same glasses he wore in Dickie and Bertie.

The Angels are everywhere, of course, and to be fair to Moffat’s back-to-basics approach they don’t move, or speak, and are reasonably creepy looking.

So, for that matter, is Mike McShane. Sheesh, Friar Tuck got old.

They really did go to New York, you know.

There are generally good production values, and the whole thing has a suitably grimy look, even if the 1930s locations feel fake and manufactured in the same way that they did in Dark City (although that was the whole point of the film, so it’s not the best comparison). Supporting characters are also kept to a minimum, allowing the foursome more time to interact, lending the episode a sense of breathing space that was sorely lacking in ‘Dinosaurs’.

This is a story about separation and death and its inevitability, or otherwise. Moffat teases the viewer by getting the Grave Shot out of the way comparatively early, in the same manner as we witness in Back To The Future 3 (although on this occasion it’s not actually spotted until the final reel). Central to the narrative is the idea that time is sometimes in flux, and sometimes fixed, depending on the mood of the Doctor, the needs of the story and the whims of the writer. In other words, things make no sense whatsoever – motivations are sacrificed for the sake of a plot that’s almost as wobbly as the ‘Masque of Mandragora’ set. Thematically, ‘Angels’ borrows so heavily from The Time Traveller’s Wife that it’s a wonder Audrey Niffenberger hasn’t taken legal action (and she may, at some point in the future, having read in a book that she finds in her jacket that it’s her unavoidable destiny). Moffat’s also guilty of self-borrowing, of course, atoning for the disturbing lack-of-Rory-death-scenes in this series by killing him three times over the space of a single story.

When it comes down to it, this episode basically features a Doctor who spends most of his screen time rather off form. Disturbingly fatalistic when Rory witnesses his own death within the hotel, he resigns himself to the inevitability of separation with a sense of defeatism that is a far cry from the muttered but reassured “Not them – never them” in his conversation with Brian last week. It really feels like he’s given up. The scene in which the elderly Rory dies – heavily reminiscent of 2001 – is morbid and gloomy and actually quite well done, but despite the fact that it’s tonally very different from its opposite number in ‘Blink’ it’s also exactly the sort of thing we’d have expected Moffat to do, and therefore not interesting.

Told you this would happen. *Told* you.

But that’s not the end of it. What follows is a raging debate about the possibilities of generating a paradox – the Doctor’s insistence that you can’t versus River’s thinking outside the blue box, Rory’s determination to survive and Amy’s corny-as-heck insistence that she “won’t let them take him” (in another dialogue disaster). The whole thing reminded me of an episode of Red Dwarf in which the crew come across a supercomputer that informs Rimmer – reincarnated, once more naive and newly mortal – that he’s going to die. The universe-weary Lister suggests that Rimmer accept his fate, citing his own experience with parallel timelines and future echoes as evidence that he knows what he’s talking about. It’s left to Kryten to urge Rimmer to come up with a way of saving himself, suggesting that Lister’s greater knowledge is making him “pessimistic, while [Rimmer’s] ignorance and almost doe-like naivety is keeping [his] mind receptive to a possible solution”. (Coincidentally, that Red Dwarf episode also contained a Stevie Wonder gag, and an established English actress playing a disembodied head named Cassandra.)

Anyway, it’s the same thing here. You find yourself once more shouting at the screen, willing the Doctor to actually do something rather than just accept that Rory’s days are numbered (and wondering whether he’s even willing it to happen because it’s a surefire way of keeping Amy in the TARDIS for good). Amy and Rory’s gambit works, and things return to normal in a burst of white light. For one brief moment you think the chief writer’s actually going to bottle out of any sort of death, but of course the paradox that destroyed all the Angels has left a sole survivor (which, by the way, makes even less sense than the constant resurgence of small pockets of Daleks that survived the Time War, but whatever floats your boat, Steven). And Rory’s gone.

And then Amy’s gone, too. It seems a shame to cheat Darvill out of a dignified exit after he’s worked so hard to prove himself as a companion, but in a way it’s a good thing: Anya was denied a graceful, prolonged exit at the end of Buffy, and perhaps it’s better this way. It’s certainly better than the crying we get from Amy, and her insistence that Melody “be a good girl” (when River, of course, is incapable of anything of the sort). Amy vanishes, the gravestone rewrites itself along with the universe, and save a ludicrous epilogue, involving more tedious running (in broad daylight, and it’s not even as if there’s anything exploding), that’s the end of that.

It seems to me that the Doctor’s sense of fatalism is closely linked to Moffat’s. Amy and Rory must leave, permanently, and so the laws of time are once again set quite literally in stone, right after the Doctor saw fit to hop back and change the past in ‘A Christmas Carol’ for the sake of getting the honeymooning lovebirds off that shuttle. Never mind the fact that said laws are about as concrete as the Angels (well, apart from the Statue of Liberty, but we’ve already done that) and seem to be flexible to suit the occasion. What counts is the story, and on this day we needed to be able to say goodbye, which means a contrivance and a hash job. Still, the last time the Doctor got really up himself and started changing the laws of time to suit his needs the result was ‘The Waters of Mars’, which was a disaster, so perhaps I should be grateful.

But honestly, what this results in is a bit of a mess. We are given an ending which is basically ‘nice’ because, at the Eleventh Hour (you can see what I did there), Moffat was unable to kill his babies properly. As such the ending feels half-baked in a manner that Oswin’s soufflés were not. The fixed point was fixed only because it needed to be to provide narrative closure, not because it actually made any sense. Or, as Gareth put it, “Why didn’t River get Amy to write an afterword which said: ‘Hi Doctor, we’re happy here in 1969.  It was good to see you at Christmas – it’s nice that we’ve kept that tradition up for 30 years now.  Just think, somewhere out there, we’re running around doing that ‘Day of the Moon’ story.  That reminds me of when you picked us up in 1948 and we spent a decade trundling around again.'”

I’m glad they’re gone. I can never get enough of Rory, but Amy has outstayed her welcome, becoming a sassy caricature of the mixed-up girl I used to love. I wish I could believe this was a permanent exit in the manner that Gillan and Darvill and Smith and Moffat insist it will be – a promise that, roughly translated, means “We won’t be back for the fiftieth anniversary, but beyond 2013, never say never”. The potential for spin-off material is too great, for one thing – there’s a wealth of Big Finish material they need to get done before Gillan ages to the extent that she no longer sounds like a youthful version of her character. And we all thought Rose was gone for good, off to star in the thankfully never greenlit Rose Tyler: Earth Defence (when even Russell T Davies describes something as “a spin-off too far”, you know it should never make it beyond the first napkin scrawl over that liquid lunch). Two short years later, she was back, sporting teeth that would probably double for picket fencing. These are strange days.

Sad face.

All things considered, it could have been worse. This first half of series seven adhered to the Star Trek principle at least partially – tedious, enjoyable, tedious, enjoyable, heavily mixed by turns – and ‘Angels’ did at least have the capacity to scare, even if there were too many Angels and too many nonsensical plot devices. But I can’t help but feel a little cheated. I didn’t cry at the end, and I seem to be in a minority – there have been many comments, I am assured, on internet forums that ran along the lines of “oh, I was in tears – how can you complain about plot inconsistencies, have you no heart?”. To which I’d respond that no, I don’t. After I post this I will be embarking on a midnight raid stealing toys from the local orphanage and running over some puppies. But in all seriousness, I’d have probably been willing to let the plot inconsistencies go if there had been any real emotional content to compensate for the wibbly wobbly twaddle. Instead we had a lot of angst, a colossal build-up and then a let-down of Eternity Clock proportions. How unfortunate that after two and a half years of Amy and Rory their exit should occur in such a whimper, in a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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5 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’

  1. I still think the BEST POSSIBLE ENDING would have been the Doctor landing on Brian’s effing lawn, telling him that he’d FAILED THEM. Seriously, THAT would have made me cry.

    This? Not so much.

    • reverend61

      Yes, Brian was rather neatly airbrushed out of things, wasn’t he? I imagine he’s still pottering around the Williams residence, watering the plants. Maybe they felt it was just too much to fit in, or maybe they’re planning on bringing him back at some point. But I doubt it.

      • I feel like leaving him out is just this major loose end. I’m pretty disappointed that they didn’t bring him back for this.

        You want to tug on the fans’ heart strings? Show the Doctor trying to explain to Rory’s dad how he failed to bring them back.

        I was tired of Amy by the end of her first season, and I’d been hoping (I’ll admit it) that something would happen to her, and Rory would have to go it without her. This, though? I don’t know – part of me wishes they’d just killed them, instead of making this weird ending that’s not really an ending.

      • reverend61

        That’s exactly it, isn’t it? It’s as if Moffat got to the end of the second draft, thought “No, they’ll never let me actually kill them” (or decided he couldn’t do it himself) and resorted to something ontological instead. I don’t object to the ending as such any more than I object to the ending of many of his other stories, but what irks me is that there was all this build-up to “A Big Death” that simply wasn’t. When Amy was apparently killed at the end of ‘The Pandorica Opens’ it really was quite a surprise because no one knew about it (which is a surefire indication in today’s Whoniverse that there’ll be a colossal feint in the next episode) but this has been drip, drip, drip of information from a man who truly believes he’s being innovative and clever, when he really isn’t.

        Anyway, I wouldn’t rule out Brian’s return at some point. I wouldn’t rule out Amy and Rory turning up again, either, at some point. The Doctor lies, for sure, but so does the man who gives him his words.

      • Right, exactly. No one died. Well, I mean, Rory died, yes. But then it was taken back. And Amy still lived for 5 years after he died. So what?

        By the time the Angel finally showed up in the cemetery, I was past the point of caring. [shrug]

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