Thursday, 4 October 2012

Doctor Who - The Angels Take Manhattan


When the weeping angels first appeared in Doctor Who in “Blink”, they were an instant hit. And not surprisingly. They were one of the most inventive and original new alien races to appear on the programme. While never speaking a word or making any sound at all and while literally just standing there, they left viewers with an incredible sense of dread. The idea of things that only move when you’re not looking was downright terrifying. The simple phrase, “Don’t blink,” suddenly took on a terribly ominous quality. For very good reason, “Blink” was widely regarded as a masterpiece, and many fans still consider it one of the best (if not the best) Doctor Who episodes ever.

It was inevitable that they would return. And return they did two years later in the two-part story, “Time of the Angels”/”Flesh and Stone”. It was also inevitable that any such return would eventually weaken the concept, and that happened perhaps faster than might have been expected. “Time of the Angels” did well building on the mythology while not contradicting it, but in “Flesh and Stone”, the rules started changing. Suddenly, the fact that the angels freeze when observed (described in “Time of the Angels” as an involuntary quantum lock, something part of the very nature of the angels) became something that could be “fooled”. As long as you could convince the angels you could see them, even if you couldn’t, they would freeze. And so we got blind Amy walking amongst dozens of angels trying to convincingly look as if she could see them. She was not in the least convincing, and yet the angels remained frozen until she tripped. On top of that, suddenly the angels could see each other without freezing. The entire resolution of “Blink” centred around the fact that the angels couldn’t even look at each other, thus why they spend most of their time with their hands over their eyes, yet in “Flesh and Stone”, there are entire swarms of them moving in sight of one another, yet not freezing. (I’ll ignore for the moment the directorial decision to show them moving to the viewers. “Blink” was much more effective for not doing that, but this is something that doesn’t really affect them “in-world”.)

Now, the weeping angels have returned for Amy and Rory’s swansong in “The Angels Take Manhattan”. The episode manages to regain the oppressive and ominous atmosphere of “Blink” (a very good thing) while maintaining the plotholes of “Flesh and Stone” (a not-so-good thing). It has some very effective sequences and some genuinely chilling moments, along with good performances and some genuine emotion, but in the end gets bogged down by its plot gimmick, that of the overused sci-fi cliché of the time loop and the predestined future, resulting in a story where characters do things for no real reason other than “they’re supposed to”. What could have been a very powerful episode ends up something of a let-down in the end.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

First off, I should say that I did enjoy “The Angels Take Manhattan”, both on my original viewing and on my second viewing while preparing to write this review. Somewhat surprisingly, I actually enjoyed it more on second viewing, even though that was the one where I was being more critical of what I was watching. As such, I don’t consider this a bad episode. Nonetheless, I don’t consider it a good episode either. During both viewings (and even more so following the viewings), its problem areas constantly stuck out like a sore thumb without me even trying to find them. Exactly why can’t the Doctor ever visit Amy and Rory again at a point after the 1930’s? Since when has reading something (especially as vague as the Doctor breaking “something”) made the future set in stone? And what was the point of the Statue of Liberty?

The Angels Take Manhattan” hinges on the concept of “fixed time”, something well-established in the series by now, especially after last year. The basic concept is simple: while most moments of history can be rewritten, there are some that cannot and must always happen the same way. We are told at the end that the reason why the Doctor cannot go back and save Rory again is because they have created a fixed point in time. Okay, fair enough. Last series, we saw what happens if someone tries to change a fixed point when River refuses to kill the Doctor, thus changing the fixed point that is his death. The entire universe gets messed up. However, there was a further theme woven throughout last year’s episodes, and as critical as I have been of last series, the theme is actually quite clever: what you think might be the truth isn’t always the truth. We were told repeatedly last year (and often quite literally told, rather than shown) that the Doctor lies, that River lies, that many things are not what you think. This culminates with the fixed point of the Doctor’s death turning out not to be his death after all, but merely something that appears to be his death, something that fools the universe into thinking he’s gone. So with this central point of lying, why is it suddenly the case in “The Angels Take Manhattan” that something you read is now set in stone and unchangeable? Since when has anything ever written down been the absolute truth?

There are many cases in the real world of history books being flat-out wrong or, in some cases, even flat-out lies. People have often gone to great trouble to deny that something happened. Admittedly, why would River write a book meant to help out the Doctor and lie about what happens? However, since the book is being disguised as a work of fiction, there are many ways in which something she intended as truth could easily be misinterpreted. Indeed, I fully expected this when I first watched it and the business of breaking River’s wrist came up. When Amy originally reads out the lines from the book, there’s no mention of River’s wrist. “Why do you have to break mine?” River asks. “Because Amy read it in a book and now I have no choice.” The Doctor then snatches the book from Amy and forbids her to read any more and tells her that because she’s read it, it has to happen. If Amy ever read that it was River’s wrist, it’s not stated on screen. When the actual scene is reached, it could at first appear to be that he has to break River’s wrist, but then the Doctor could suddenly say, “Wait a minute! Let’s break your scanner instead.” Or something like that. Except that’s not the way it happens.

Then there’s the gravestone with Rory’s name on it. All that really tells us is that there’s a gravestone with Rory’s name on it. Perhaps it’s what Rory initially thinks it is: the grave of someone with the same name. If I do a Google search for my name, including my middle name, I find not just myself but a whole bunch of other Michael Ray Johnsons as well. There’s even a band called the Michael Ray Johnson Experiment. Go figure. As such, it’s not much of a stretch that there was another Rory Williams who died in New York. There might not even be anyone actually buried there. It’s not uncommon for people to buy a grave plot and stone before they die. Admittedly, Rory’s age is on the gravestone, indicating this is not something bought before his death, but my main point is that he doesn’t need to buried there just because the gravestone is there.

There are a whole bunch of ways for that gravestone to turn out to be something other than it appears, meaning Rory’s fate is not “written in stone” (pun intended). But for the moment, let’s assume Rory and Amy really are buried beneath that gravestone. This still doesn’t preclude the Doctor ever seeing them again. The Doctor can’t go back to 1930’s New York because of the time distortion. Fair enough. But how far does that effect spread, both spatially and temporally? The larger it is, the more the show suddenly limits the Doctor’s travels (although I’m sure it would be conveniently forgotten about in future episodes). It presumably can’t extend more than a few years in either direction and maybe a short distance outside the city. But let’s make it a bit more extreme and say it encompasses the whole planet, making the idea that Rory and Amy just hop on a bus and go wait for the Doctor somewhere else not possible. But if it’s that huge spatially, it can’t cover much time or else the Doctor can’t go anywhere. So why doesn’t the Doctor pop down a couple years after and pick up Rory and Amy then? They’ve had to wait long times for him before, and he could always send River to warn them that they’ll have to wait a couple years. (That, of course, brings up another problem. Why can’t River just save them? We know she can go see them as Amy publishes the book for her. Why can’t she use her vortex manipulator to get them out, since it can apparently go where the TARDIS can’t? Can it not transport more than one person? Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator could. I guess River got an inferior model. But I digress...)

Returning to the gravestone, if Amy and Rory really are buried beneath it, all it proves is that they go back to New York at some point and die there. They could still travel with the Doctor for many years before this happens. It’s a time travel show, after all. They could die in the far future and the Doctor could just bring their bodies back to early 21st-century New York and bury them there. Alas, the tragedy that Steven Moffat is so desperately trying to create requires that the Doctor never see them again and so we’re simply told he can’t. Because it’s a fixed point. And a fixed point can’t be changed.

This is the gimmick in “The Angels Take Manhattan”—people encounter things they will do before they have done them and are caught in a causality loop. It’s a popular concept in science fiction involving time travel, and one that Steven Moffat has shown himself very fond of. Alas, it’s a science fiction concept that is often done very poorly. It ends up taking over the story at the expense of the characters. Instead of being a hook that the characters react to naturally, it becomes the decider of actions, resulting in characters doing things because they have to. Moffat has fallen into this trap with “The Angels Take Manhattan”. It’s a shame because he can do much better. “Blink” uses the exact same concept, but does so in a way that feels natural. The predestined events are things that the characters are likely to do anyway. Thus, even if some of their actions are predestined, the audience still gets the impression that the characters have some say over their actions, that they still have free will, and can still affect the outcome in some way. In “The Angels Take Manhattan”, we get a group of characters running around, doing things only because they “read it in a book”, and basically not making any difference whatsoever. All their actions come to naught.

The idea of characters being powerless to prevent actions happening can be an emotionally potent one. Indeed, the episode has some moments of genuinely heightened emotion. Rory and Amy’s decision to jump together so that Rory’s death will create a paradox is actually a hard-hitting moment—or rather, would be if one of two things were true: either we believe there’s a real chance of them dying, or they actually do die. Since Steven Moffat took over Doctor Who, there’s been a substantially smaller body count. We’ve even had a Dalek story (“Asylum of the Daleks”) in which the Daleks never kill anyone except themselves! A lower body count isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Doctor Who has traditionally had a lot of death in it and decreasing that could show the Doctor getting better at what he does. Unfortunately, to do this effectively, the deaths that do happen have to have more impact, and they don’t because people who do die frequently don’t stay dead. We’ve seen Rory die several times before and then come back due to rebooting the universe, being resurrected as an Auton, and so on. While reducing the body count in Doctor Who, Moffat has simultaneously taken away the threat of death. As such, when Amy and Rory decide to sacrifice their lives, we don’t really believe that they’ll die (even Rory says he’s come back before, he’ll probably come back this time). It’s hard to feel for their plight because we know they won’t die. Of course, Moffat could have then hit us with the whammy of making them actually die and not come back. That would have been powerful and shocking. But it doesn’t happen. (As an aside, this moment also makes use of another over-used time-travel plot device: committing suicide to fix the timeline. Not only is it an overused trope, I fear that it’s a horribly misplaced one here, considering the number of impressionable children who watch the show. Killing yourself fixes all. Not a good message to send.)

Returning to the idea of powerlessness, the Doctor being powerless to save his friends could have been the ultimate in emotional statements. This is a man who pulls off the miraculous on a regular basis, a man who has stopped invasions just by announcing his name and having the invaders run off in fear. A situation where he has no control could be—should be—intense and terrifying. But it isn’t here, and that’s because we never really see that the Doctor can’t do anything. Sure, he keeps telling us that he can’t. But we never see it because he doesn’t try. I can’t help but think how much better the ending might be if the Doctor actually tried to go back for Amy and Rory. After Amy disappears, he could suddenly run into the TARDIS and start flinging switches and setting controls.

What are you doing?” River would demand.

I’m going after them!” the Doctor declares.

But you can’t! You’ll destroy New York!” River protests.

Just watch me!” the Doctor says and throws the last switch. The TARDIS dematerialises. Then the view switches to 1930’s New York. The sound of the TARDIS can be heard in the distance; the night sky alights with displays of lightning and thunder and explosions. Perhaps we even see Amy and Rory looking up, hope in their eyes. The TARDIS fades partially into sight and fades out again with a bang.

After that...

Well, lots of things could happen. The Doctor might well fail. Perhaps the TARDIS is flung off to some distant place, maybe the moon. But at least we would see the Doctor try.

Of course, I can’t really review an episode based on what I would have written. That’s hardly fair. But I can point out what I see as flaws in what was written. The Ponds’ departure just doesn’t work because we are never shown a reason why the Doctor can’t go back and rescue them or, at the very least see them again. The tragedy is forced, and as a result, it’s not really tragic at all. If there’s going to be a tragedy after the tragedy of their attempted suicide, it has to raise the stakes, and the ending as shown doesn’t raise it at all. The Doctor basically says, “Yeah, can’t do anything,” and then really does nothing. As a counter-example, look at “The Waters of Mars”. Although a very different style of story, it too hinges on the idea of fixed time and an event that cannot be changed. It is so much a stronger story because the Doctor tries to change that event anyway. He almost succeeds, and when he fails because Adelaide kills herself (alas, yet another example of committing suicide to fix the timeline), it’s so much more powerful because we actually see the Doctor screw up. In “The Angels Take Manhattan”, the angels win because the Doctor never really tries to stop them.

As for the angels themselves, if you ignore the fact that they can look at each other without problem, they are actually quite effective in this episode. The angels are much more frightening in small numbers rather than the huge army seen in “Flesh and Stone”. They remain sinister and creepy. On a meta-level, the viewer once again sees them in the same way as the human characters, and this is so much more ominous than actually seeing them move as in “Flesh and Stone”. The introduction of the baby angels, the cherubs, was also quite effective. It’s good to see angels in different forms. I’m not too fond of their chittering (the weeping angels have always been totally silent, so why do the baby ones suddenly make noise?), but that’s a minor point and not really a big concern.

While I like the idea of angels in different forms, the Statue of Liberty as an angel is just overkill. She serves no purpose to the story at all. She also introduces a whole pile of problems that the episode simply ignores. Ever since “Blink”, Doctor Who fans have postulated that it would be “cool” if the Statue of Liberty turned out to be a weeping angel. It seems Moffat either had the same idea or read it online and also thought it cool. But let’s look at the logistics for a moment. Angels can’t move if someone is looking at them. The Statue of Liberty is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world. She’s also huge. I find it extremely unlikely that there’s ever more than an isolated moment here or there in which no one is looking at her. Even allowing for one of those isolated moments so that she could move, she would be observed again quite soon after, or at the very least, someone would notice that she’s not standing in her usual place anymore. In the unlikely event that she’s able to cross the water unobserved to the Winter Quay building, we then have to assume that that area of New York has been mysteriously abandoned (even though we can actually see cars driving on the street below when Amy and Rory are about to jump) as apparently no one sees her there or even hears her loud, heavy footsteps that the Doctor and company hear quite easily. Believability is starting to stretch just a little here. Why isn’t there widespread panic when the Statue of Liberty comes ashore and looms over Winter Quay, her face bearing sharp teeth?

But even if you ignore all the problems of getting her there, she then proceeds to do nothing at all. She glares at the detective in the pre-titles sequence, and she glares in exactly the same pose at Rory and Amy. For a little while, Amy keeps her eyes firmly on the statue, so that would keep her immobile. Then Rory keeps his eyes on her. But when Amy climbs up on the ledge with Rory, they proceed to look at each other and have a heart-to-heart conversation. As I mentioned above, it’s an emotional one, but they forget all about the Statue of Liberty, and they don’t look at her. And Lady Liberty does...nothing at all. I suppose she’s being held in place by the panicking people on the street staring at her—except, as I said, there are no panicking people. Really, what’s she doing there? A couple of other angels on the roof would have worked just as well.

There are a few other problems with the story. First, it’s never really explained why River was in New York in the first place. It seems a rather big coincidence and one I expected to be retroactively explained as her having been forewarned by the Doctor. It would have fit with the structure and theme of the story. Second, since when has the Doctor been able to heal people with regeneration energy? Third, exactly how were the angels keeping their farmed humans in Winter Quay? How were they feeding them? (A review on IO9 makes a rather humorous reference to the angels’ pizza delivery guy.) Finally, the supporting cast serves little to no function in the episode. Grayle serves as a sort of human villain, experimenting on the angels and torturing them, but he’s discarded pretty quickly and the implications of what he was doing are never fully explored. The pre-titles sequence with him hiring the detective is very good. It does a great job setting up the atmosphere of the story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t serve much other purpose, especially as the detective is never seen or referenced again. I can’t help feel that leaving the sequence out would have allowed more time for the main cast to actually do something. However, I can’t deny that it’s atmospheric and chilling, so this is a minor point overall.

After being so heavily critical, it’s important that I reiterate that I did enjoy watching the episode. Despite the plotholes, I do think there have been worse episodes of Doctor Who. There are some very effective moments, including strong performances from the main cast (even when they need to behave in completely nonsensical ways), and some effective use of the angels themselves. In short, “The Angels Take Manhattan” is a collection of good set-pieces that, unfortunately, string together to make a rather incoherent whole, and as a result, make a rather displeasing departure for the Ponds. While I’m not a fan of Amy, “The Power of Three” did manage to make me like her a little, and I do think she could have used a better send-off. This is doubly true for Rory. Oh well, perhaps the introduction of Jenna-Louise Coleman as the new companion in the next episode (which doesn’t air till Christmas) will bring with it a return to better story-telling in which gimmicks are not the focal point, but instead the jumping-off point for good character development and stories. I can but hope and wait.

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