Friday, 19 October 2012

Manhattan Miseries

Doctor Who
The Angels Take Manhattan
Series Seven, Episode Five

Here we go, then: two and a half years with Amy and Rory, and it’s finally time for them to go.  Many are celebrating, because let’s face it, for all the stuff that’s happened to them old Pondy and big-nose haven’t become much wiser or deeper as a result.  I’m sad, however.  Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill have never been less than entertaining, they work really well with Matt Smith, and they’re owed a decent send-off.

The Angels Take Manhattan isn’t it.

Matt contemplates a future without Karen and Arthur.
First let’s talk about what works.  The Angels are back, and they’re back to zapping you through time, which was always creepier than snapping your neck.  (It’s wonderful nightmare logic to be afraid a monster is going touch or “get” you, and the Angels work superbly within those limits.)  The cherubic kiddie-Angels are terrifying, because of course they are.  And the New York setting – actually in New York, much as we all loved Wales – works well.  Cut out the Statue Of Liberty and they might as well have made The Angels Take Cardiff, but hey, if you can, do.

And Matt Smith’s good.  Of course he is!  The moment he sees a fateful chapter heading and staggers about, impotently furious, is amazing to watch.  He's great when he's angry at River.  Conversely, he manages to give her a quick kiss that doesn’t make me want to roll my eyes.

As for the plot...  Hmm.  Not unlike The Wedding Of River Song, there’s very little actual story here – Amy and Rory are doomed, the Doctor can’t intercede, the end – and the rest is windowdressing.  The guy who collects Weeping Angels?  Forget him.  The PI sent back in time at the start?  Him too.  The largest Doctor Who monster since the Cyber King?  I’ll get to that later, but for now let’s just say: pointless.

"Oh, hi. Hot water's off. And how's about some sandwiches?"
But it’s a neat, if frown-inducing idea, the Angels having a battery farm/hotel.  (Wait, so they're keeping people alive?  Is there room service?)  Their feeding habits don’t make a lot of sense since they can send Rory back a bunch of times, presumably forever, but at least it’s creepy.  Rory’s solution of killing himself to paradox the Angels to Kingdom Come is novel, if sad – seriously, things are bad when a character considers dying a life skill – and the moment where Amy agrees to go with him kind of works.  It suffers for having been done better in Amy’s Choice, and they undermine it by giving us another tragedy in the very next scene, but it’s not bad as a declaration of love, or something.

Alas, though, that plot.  It hangs on a series of predestination paradoxes, and can I say – enough with those already!  They’re a neat trick, provided you’re being tongue in cheek (which Moffat almost always is), but use them too much and the truth becomes clear: they’re just an excuse to have things happen for no reason.  The plot happens because it happened.  The important bit of a story is why it happened, and “because I read it in a book” isn’t much better than the Doctor reading this week’s script.

The dreadful inevitability of it all doesn’t even work, given how regularly the Doctor muddles about with time.  Just knowing the future doesn’t make a difference – why should it?  That’s an arrogantly Earth-centric idea that makes it reliably impossible to stop the JFK assassination, but leaves the Doctor curiously free to muck up the future of Planet Zog, which he surely does every time the TARDIS lands.  So he knows the future sometimes.  Big whoop: what is knowledge, anyway?  The show’s so inconsistent with this, it’s a wonder they ever bother to address it, and the theory here – if it’s written down, you can’t change it – is their weakest attempt so far.  Not least because they contradict it in the episode.

Anyway.  What we’re really here for is the end of these characters.  How does it fare?  Well, when your story is as long, convoluted and obviously made-up-on-the-fly as Amy and Rory’s, there isn’t so much an ending as a decision which arbitrary tragedy will randomly stick.  Let's see, Amy has clocked up years of childhood therapy, serious wedding jitters, a wedding that helped end the universe, the loss of her parents’ and her husband’s existence, the death of her husband (half a dozen times), death herself, the death of the Doctor, the sudden arrival of a baby, the loss of said baby to a space cult, total failure to go and find said baby, knowledge that baby grows up into her childhood best friend and a hardened space bitch who’s older than she is, the inability to have any more children, and a divorce resolved so suddenly you wonder why they didn't kiss and make up already.  We could justifiably have lost Amy, Rory or both of them at any point in all that, or when the Doctor already sent them safely on their way (which he tried to do in The Big Bang, The God Complex and, by omission of action, in The Wedding Of River Song), or even last week when they were angling to quit anyway.  The fact that we still didn’t makes their sudden stampsies-no-returnsies exit (getting zapped back in time by the Angels) all the more frustrating.  Why can’t the Doctor go and get them?  Well, why not?

As usual, Back To The Future did it better.
Yes, I’m aware that it would be a paradox, and we’re only allowed one magic wand make-everything-better paradox this week, because er.  But so what?  See Rory’s name on the tombstone, all by its lonesome?  That’s one timeline.  And afterwards, when Amy’s name is on there too?  That’s a new timeline.  They just changed Rory’s and Amy’s entire future in the blink (!) of an eye, so yeah, not really buying the whole “fixed event” thing this time around.

And as for the book, which is treated as 100% accurate proof of the future for no reason, and contains an epilogue that says she doesn’t expect to see him again for a while... well, what difference does that make?  What’s stopping him from popping back after she wrote it?  And hang on: didn’t the Doctor pop back to rescue Rory the first time he was Angel-zapped?  He could just as easily have lived to death in the ’30s, the Doctor just didn’t know about it.  Is ignorance the only defence against death-by-time-travel?

Pulling the rug out from under this oh-so-final ending is too easy.  It would have been more unexpected if The Power Of Three had actually panned out: have Amy and Rory leave the Doctor because, well, it’s time to go.  Sorry, Doc, but we lost our baby because of you, plus a million other things – no hard feelings.  It would have hurt, but it would have been a legitimate and organic end (perhaps even arcing back to the Doctor-as-Amy’s-imaginary-friend, with her “growing up”, something referenced in Three) rather than another timey-wimey curveball that must have taken all of a lunchbreak to conceive.  But such a thing would require an emotional decision that makes sense.  Even Amy’s decision to “Angel” herself back to meet Rory doesn’t, given the ruddy TARDIS parked behind her, plus Vortex Manipulator.  They even leave the Angel there afterwards, well-fed and off to its next kill.  Whatever, eh?

At least they went out the way they lived: in a shower of bloody confusing nonsense.  So long, you two.

"Honey, come look at this view!
It's like she's right outside the window!"
So what else is there?  Well, the Statue Of Liberty-as-Weeping Angel, an idea that withstands about as much scrutiny as an infant’s forged sick-note.  How could it move with no one noticing it?  If it was spotted anywhere other than where it’s supposed to be, wouldn’t it attract huge amounts of attention?  We know its footsteps are audible – we’re talking Mr Stay Puft – so why aren’t thousands of New Yorkers peering out the window?  Why does the damn thing need to go for walkies at all, given the hotel’s full of Angels who’ll do the job just as well?  And yeah, I’ll say it: people have been inside the Statue Of Liberty.  It’s a building.  There’s proof.  The aforementioned infant could pick this apart.

And oh goodie, there’s River.  She’s been good before, in Silence In The Library back when she wasn’t all va-va-voom, and The Impossible Astronaut when she reacted to the Doctor’s death with – I know, right! – believable emotions.  That stuff was brilliant, and Alex Kingston did wonders with it.  So often, though, River’s just a smug, super-capable femme fatale* who routinely puts the Doctor in his place.**  Which one do you reckon we get this week?  Have a guess.

River’s inclusion here is their last chance to make something of the family dynamic that never was.  It’s a tad late, and aside from a frigid cuddle and a kiss, there’s still nothing to suggest these three have anything in common.  Nothing about River suggests she grew up with these two, and nothing about Amy suggests River could be her daughter.  There’s been no mourning for the loss of Melody, and still no outright joy from River at meeting up with Mum and Dad – just Professor bleedin’ Awesome, now with trenchcoat accessory.  The sooner we see the back of her for good, the better.

For an episode intended as “heartbreaking”, The Angels Take Manhattan left me cold.  Logically, it’s built on sand.  Emotionally, it’s the victim of a character arc that’s cried wolf too often.  Karen and Arthur do their best, but Amy emoted more than this last week, and Rory’s got nothing to do but die, three times.  The Doctor hovers two steps behind the action at all times, which isn’t exactly inspiring.  River's dismal as ever.  The Angels, good here or not, are frankly way past their sell-by date.  And as a Movie-Of-The-Week, which is the focus this year in Doctor Who, it’s Blink 2: Blink Harder, with a dash of Ghostbusters II and The God Complex.  You’ve seen it all before.

Oh well.  At least it ends on a note of optimism.  The Doctor’s still got River!

*  Of course River is an actual femme fatale in this one ("River?  You're Melody?" is not Rory's shining intellectual moment) straight out of the pages of a (dreadful) gumshoe thriller.  This is probably supposed to make her seem even more yowza-inducingly awesome, but actually all it does is highlight how reminiscent she is of a trashy, paperthin fictional character.  Whoops!

Love is a many spleando-nah, just kidding,
it's people saying "Yowza" occasionally.
** I hate that last bit more than the wisecracks, more than the arch line delivery, even more than the gun-toting and the use of “psychopath” as a term-of-awesome.  River running circles around the Doctor just doesn’t feel right.  Her Vortex Manipulator’s better than the TARDIS, which she can pilot better anyway.  She always knows more about the situation than he does.  Even the hackneyed “hubbie” dialogue makes the Doctor seem more definable, smaller, less remarkable.  It’s terrible because it doesn’t feel earned, and because no character should, by their inclusion in an episode, make the Doctor seem less interesting.  Especially when it’s only in aid of bigging up a tiresome Mary Sue who’s been the focus of an entire season, has appeared in roughly a year’s worth of episodes and still hasn’t grown in any direction as a character.  She certainly doesn’t enhance the Doctor by being married to him, as all the important points of their relationship still seem to elude the cameras.  Their love story, such as it is, remains a winner-by-knockout of tell, rather than show.


  1. Yeah, I know what you mean. The line I disliked the most was when the Doctor said "we're in New York" for no reason. I like the way you get the 'good bits' out the way before ripping the episode!

    This episode generated an intense fan reaction. I'm commenting as I noticed our reviews are very similar in things we noticed, though I'm a bit more gentle:

  2. Nice review yourself. I'm another one who thought the Status Of Liberty-as-imprisoned-Angel thing made more sense than what's on screen. (Which is no more than "Oh, so you want Lady Liberty to be an Angel? Okay, she is.") I hate the handwaving way that thing is able to move; it ties in with a consistent problem I have with Moffat, his mixing apparently "clever" plotting with exactly the kind of slapdash handwaving Russell T Davies so often used. It's the City That Never Sleeps. That's in the script. As well as being totally irrelevant from the Angels' perspective - why's it valuable to them, wouldn't it just make it *much harder* to move? - it makes the Liberty bit impossible. Annoying.

  3. It may be silly to suggest it but I suspect Moffatt is unduly influenced by american comicbook and TV writers. In particular his approach to characters like Amy and River has over the last three years undergone a perceptible Whedon-isation, which is not pleasant.

    River Song has soured on me from her second appearance to the point where she queers the damn show for me when she's in it. I call her the space yenta and with good reason- she really is a harridan and as a champion of River as Mary Sue I stand by that original pronouncement. Nerdy arguments over some semantic quibble re what a Mary Sue is aside, this is a baleful wish fulfillment character with the charm of a communicable disease and the charisma of a sun-exposed dead fish. Actress and her strained acting aside, the basic character concept is pure Scrappy Doo. Also the clever time travel plotting... Isn't. It isn't well thought out, and it's now finally permanently borked the original and very cool living backwards gimmick from Library / Forest.

    The death of Rory was so inevitable and came after so many previous comicbook deaths that although it was nicely put together for Amy to schmact through it was never going to be as emotionally satisfying as UNDER selling it, bookending the scene with Rory's father by having them go back to their normal life. If they'd done THAT, then the Doctor would have been unable ever to see them again purely due to the hellacious chaos he causes / brings with him like Jessica Fletcher and murders wherever he goes. It would have also left them open for at least one more guest starring role in some future desperate series.


  4. Ha ha ha. I'm enjoying all this bile. You're smart. This episode is dumb. Let's pretend it never happened.