Then the Angels Take Berlin...
Doctor Who's The Angels Take Manhattan Reviewed

Note that spoilers follow.

In general, I liked Doctor Who’s The Angels Take Manhattan. I thought the story functioned well, I loved the characterization, and I loved how Steven Moffat gave Amy and Rory an ending that was bittersweet and final without being tragic… at least, for us. It was certainly tragic for the Doctor.

Was the episode as good as it could have been? Personally, I think it was. There are logic issues that people may complain about, and there are high expectations that some may feel it did not me. For me, I got what I wanted out of this episode, and I will happily watch it multiple times.

Let me start this review by describing the opening teaser. The full spoilery review will go after the break…

Suddenly, we step into a Philip Marlowe novel. Sam Garner, a private dick in 1938 New York, is commissioned by a rich and eccentric (and spooked) collector to visit a building on the lower East Side (at least I think it’s the lower East Side) called Winter Quay. Something strange is happening here. Now, a lot about this case may seem weird to the detective… such as, why does the collector care? But the collector’s paying the bills, and the detective is happy to play along, so he goes and checks things out.

Winter Quay is the epitome of spooky in this strangely depopulated New York City. We have creepy stone statues (one of which switches plinths when the detective isn’t looking), and we have a creepy kid making peek-a-boo faces out the window. We have a suitably ominous musical score (kudos to Murray Gold who, after seven years with this program, still manages to give us something effective, fresh and new), and a cool vista including the Statue of Liberty that was clearly shot in New York.

Well, most sane people would probably leave at this point, but if that happened, we wouldn’t have a story, so Sam Garner steps inside. The doors open by themselves to let him in. He heads up the elevator and walks down the corridor to a room — a room with his name on it. Spooked, Garner still investigates. There’s a wallet with his ID on the counter. And there’s an old man who looks… yes, it’s him, with a warning that “they’re coming for you. They’re about to send you back!”

The angels attack, and director Nick Hurran ably captures their freaky menace. Even though you never see them move (probably the worst mistake of Time of the Angels and Flesh and Stone), the Weeping Angels produce some definite speed here. Sam Garner is driven to the roof, when suddenly there’s a big THUMP, and the camera shakes. Garner looks out over a sheer drop while, behind him, we get one of the best reveals ever in a teaser:

The Angels Take Manhattan

(Image courtesy the BBC)

Now, here’s a question: are the events in the teaser real? Because after the opening credits we switch to New York in the present day, with the Doctor and company enjoying a grand day out in the city that never sleeps. A grand day out that involves sitting around in Central Park while the Doctor reads a Philip Marlowe knockoff starring a sassy woman detective named Melody Malone.

The presence of a woman typing while Sam Garner engages in his investigation and ends up on the roof is implied to be the first chapter of the book, entitled “The Angel’s Kiss”. Intriguingly, the Doctor doesn’t clue in that this book is about the Weeping Angels. Perhaps he isn’t 100% familiar with 1930’s style detective fiction and how, in general, it doesn’t cross over with 2010’s science fiction. He doesn’t notice anything is amiss until Rory goes off to fetch some coffee, and walks into the pages of the book.

I suspect the Doctor realizes then and there that he’s walked into a tricky potential paradox. He knows how the Angels operate, and he knows that the book is now part and parcel with the same twisted timey-wimey loop. Rory has been sent back to 1938 New York, where he meets up with Melody Malone (in actual fact, River Song), and reading the book further runs the risk of solidifying the timeline into something he can’t manipulate.

It’s important to note that Amy and Rory have been with the Doctor for years, now. Karen Gillan is now tasked with playing a character that’s at least eleven years older than herself. Director Nick Hurran helps with reading glasses and Steven Moffat helps with a nice little scene about age lines around her eyes, but I have to say that I’m not seeing it. No, they didn’t have to duplicate the fantastic makeup they did for 60-year-old Amy in The Girl Who Waited, but I do think this may be one of those rare instances where an actor has to play over a longer term a character who’s significantly older than they are.

I expect I’ll be corrected on this in the comments.

The Angels Take Manhattan is a story about endings. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor hates them (going as far as to mutilate a book so that it doesn’t end), but I get the distinct impression that he knows — mores than any other episode in his tenure — that he runs the real risk of losing Rory and Amy here. The year 1938 proves to be almost impossible for the TARDIS to access, due to the presence of multiple crossed timelines. He is only able to bully his timeship into place by homing onto a signal from River. And when he arrives, he angrily challenges her to extract her arm from an Angel’s grip without breaking her wrist — a challenge that is as much to the fates as it is to River, since Amy read ahead and learned that the Doctor had no way of getting River out of the Angel’s grip without breaking her wrist.

The story of The Angels Take Manhattan is actually pretty simple. Steven Moffat has taken the Weeping Angels back to their roots, and apparently ditched the additional accoutrements he provided in Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone. There’s no more Angels entering through the eyes of onlookers, although there is a nice hint that the picture of the Statue of Liberty in the elevator may be a means for the Angel statue to look in on potential victims.

Take these elements away, let the Angels get back to zapping people backwards in time, and the Angels become far creepier again, in my opinion. And they are perfectly suited to this tale where the Doctor gets tortured in a very personal, very esoteric way.

The departure of Amy and Rory is very well handled. I might quibble at not giving Rory a proper goodbye scene, but he acquits himself well when he comes up with the solution to the problem. He shows off his bravery, and Amy shows off her love. Once again, despite all of the questions of the triangle, and Amy’s divided loyalties, in the end Amy chooses Rory over the Doctor. That shouldn’t be a surprise after seeing Amy’s Choice, but it is no less satisfying.

And while I may quibble at how scrambled Steven Moffat’s season-spanning arcs have been (more on this in a subsequent post), his story of the Doctor, Amy and Rory is told well, and brought to a satisfying conclusion. I had worried when it was announced that Amy and Rory would be coming back for the seventh season of the revival. As far as I was concerned, their story was done. They were home. I was frankly resentful at Steven Moffat for bringing them back with the implication that Amy and Rory were about to be killed.

But while Amy and Rory’s story might have been completed with The God Complex, the Doctor’s story with Amy and Rory was not. Moffat has explored the perils of travelling the fast and slow paths before (see The Girl in the Fireplace). Before him, Russell T. Davies touched on the inherent tragedy of human-Time Lord relationships from the human point of view (see Rose’s arc). Moffat turns this around, and through the Doctor’s relationship with Amy from seven-year-old girl to thirty-five-year-old woman, shows how tragic these relationships are for him.

Matt Smith handles this wonderfully. His cry of pain at Amy’s departure is heartfelt and heart-rending. We see in that moment how truly alone he is, and how scarred he must be, to have this happen to him over and over again.

And yet, as Amy and River both emphasize, it is vital that the Doctor not travel alone.

Yes, there are legitimate complaints to be had about the logic of this story. The Angels, despite their creep, play second-fiddle to the tale which is solely designed to separate the Doctor from his companions forever, so several questions get unanswered. Such as: do Angels infest statues now? Do they shape themselves into statues they replace, or were the statues always Angels to begin with? And what happened to an Angel turning to stone whenever observed by any living thing? How could a 93 metre tall statue ever move at all in a city of 7,454,995 people (the population of New York City in 1940, according to the US census)?

And how, exactly, did the Statue of Liberty send people back in time? Did it extend a little pinky finger and touch Sam Garner on the forehead? Or did Sam Garner go back in time as a pancake?

I am inclined to overlook these flaws for the most superficial of reasons: it’s just so darn cool to see the Statue of Liberty as a weeping angel. I can see how others might not be so inclined.

But the main part of the story, seeing the Doctor forced to accept the end of his partnership with his two beloved companions, is immensely satisfying to watch. I’m grateful that Moffat didn’t go the cliched kill-them-off-bloodily route. The Angels, killing people nicely once again, delivered an end that was bittersweet rather than tragic, and no less creepy.

Further Thoughts

  • Interesting to see River Song later in her timeline (a professor rather than a doctor, and pardoned for her “crime” of “killing” the Doctor). Now that the points of her story have been mapped out, perhaps we may now look forward to some visits between her and the Doctor which are out-of-order. Perhaps some hilarity might ensue.
  • The baby Angels were absolutely, delightfully creepy. A far better extension of the Angel mythos than the book trick, or the don’t-look-them-in-the-eye gambit.
  • So, did the events with Sam Garner actually happen? Nick Curran doesn’t cheat on us. Though the opening voice-over is read by Sam, it’s clearly Amy’s fingers typing on the typewriter. And if she’s writing River’s story, she could know what happened from River’s point of view, but how would she know what happened with Sam’s point of view? Did she make it up as an in to get the Doctor to read the book without realizing, right away, that it was a letter to him in the past/future/timey-wimey location?
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