Doctor Who: The Angels Take Manhattan

They look damn good in a baseball cap, though.

Yeah, a city famous for never going dark is the perfect place for beings who require dark places to live.

I dislike “The Angels Take Manhattan” even more than I did last week’s “The Power of Three”, but it’s not a worse episode: On the contrary – the heady heights it climbs to are wonderful, but only serve to underline the depths of inconsistency and stupidity it falls to, especially around the last act of the episode.

Like “The Power of Three”, the episode suffers from having too many ideas to squeeze into 40 minutes – the most glaring of which, of course, are the departure of longtime companions Amy Pond and Rory Williams. I loved these characters, and was hoping that “The Angels Take Manhattan” to be a climactic, dramatic swan-song.

Which is where we run into the big problem. This episode isn’t about Amy and Rory leaving, it’s about…well, the Weeping Angels in Manhattan. Both these ideas are rock-solid concepts for classic episodes, but they just don’t work as well when crammed together, and neither the malevolent statues or ebullient Scots can get enough focus.

But neither of them are in focus as we begin. Our setting – New Yawk City, da oily nineteen-toities. Mornful jazz music plays, as Noir Protagonist, Private Eye, is hired to investigate reports of living statues.

Protagonist has obviously graduated “Summa cum laude, and I didn’t tell ya that, shamus” from the John Constantine School of Supernatural Film Noir Pastiche: He wears the full trenchcoat and hat ensemble indoors as he treats us to his typewritten, world-weary, Brooklyn-accented internal monologue. He’s been hired by a fifth-generation Sydney Greenstreet clone, who directs him to a hotel surrounded by Weeping Angels. This may be a coincidence, but the hotel is obviously based on the Dakota, that other final resting place of a beloved British icon. Trying to put Amy Pond up there with Dr. Winston O’Boogie, eh, Moff?

The genuine article can be seen here in the background, for reference.

Protagonist enters the hotel, finding a room with his name on it, which contains an aged version of himself, who warns him to get out. Protagonist is attacked by the Weeping Angels, and runs up to the roof, where he encounters – yes, yes, let’s just get it out of the way – The Statue of Liberty as a Weeping Angel. I’m guessing that Lady Liberty here was the seed of the entire episode, and I’m not qualifying my statements: It’s stupid.

See, the Weeping Angels aren’t just one of the revival series’ most memorable concepts – they’re up there with the most iconic enemies of the series, right up there with Romulans and Klingons.

Oh, sorry, I meant, of course, Daleks and Cybermen. But I’d like to take a moment here to compare the Weeping Angels to the Borg, of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame. The two are not only similar from a story standpoint (a completely malevolent and inhuman enemy, with absolutely no information on its past or defence against it) but out-of-universe too. The Borg, like the Weeping Angels, were so good because they were used so sparingly. Both enemies were mentioned plenty of times, but rarely appeared. This is only the Angels’ third appearance, just as the legendary “The Best of Both Worlds” (a must-see for any fan of serial sci-fi) was the Borg’s second.

The point I’m making with this? The Weeping Angels’ prestige as an enemy comes from their mystique – and tying them to an unrelated, everyday thing like the Statue of Liberty doesn’t only compromise that, it turns it on its head back into comedy.

Remember that part in Superman 2?

Y’know, the lighthearted comedy movie?

That was the concept for this episode. The heart-rending tragedy, the death of half of the show’s recurring cast…

winterquay

I’m simply melting.

After the titles, we find the Doctor vacationing in the opening credits of Friends, along with Amy Pond and a trashy detective novel. Amy banters with the Doctor for a while about books. Amy’s put-upon husband Ron Weasley makes an excuse and leaves the two, wandering around the city for a while and eventually getting lost down a deserted street…

…and here’s my first real quibble with the episode. It’s a sunny summer afternoon, in the middle of Central Park. Speaking as a lifelong New Yorker (which, come to think of it, is probably why I like this episode so much less than most), it’s impossible to find a deserted anything in the city, much less an entire street at 5 in the afternoon. At night, things get quieter, but even my homey Queens neighborhood is still filled with lights, cars and people – and this is midtown Manhattan we’re talking about.

But Ron does find himself lost and alone, until he encounters enigmatic kinda-sorta Time Lord and kinda-sorta love interest River Song. Meanwhile, the Doctor discovers that River is the narratrix of his detective novel, and the chase is on. We cut between River’s perspective – where she and Ron are captured by a squad of hats dressed in their finest thugs – and the Doctor’s, where he takes Amy to the Tardis (which is parked on the banks of the East River, almost impossible to reach on foot) and tries to go back to the time of the novel, but fails due to technobabble, eventually landing in a graveyard in present-day Queens. The Doctor uses a humorous and very clever bit of time travel to subvert the technobabble that I won’t go into because I’m focusing on the negative today, eventually landing just in time to rescue River from an angel, who’s under the control of the Sydney Greenstreet knockoff from earlier.

Amy goes off to look for Ron, who’s been shoved in a dark basement with a box of matches and a horde of angels because gosh-darn it, “Blink” was just such a great episode! After a recap of the ongoing plot for Series 7, The Doctor uses his Private Eye’s Guide to the Galaxy to find where Rory is, but goes into a tantrum after he sees a hint that Amy will die, leaving River trapped by an angel with no way to get out.

“I can see you two are having a girl’s night – I know when I’m not wanted.”

As Amy and the Doctor find out that Ron has been taken to the not-Dakota by Mark Angel Chapman, River appears, having mutilated herself to escape the angel. Now, last time, I glossed over the fact that a lot of the episode’s character stuff – the Doctor and Amy’s uncertainty tainting their years-long friendship, Rory and Amy’s love for each other shining through their outlandish adventures – was actually pretty darn good. And this was written by Steven Moffat – I don’t think he should stay in charge of the show, but I don’t deny the man’s a good writer. River has a touching scene with Amy and the Doctor, talking about how being the love interest of a childlike, wildly emotional immortal alien can really mess a gal up. If there was more of this sort of tragic, introspective stuff, I’d have much less ill will towards the episode.

But, alas, it’s not to be. As our crew speed away to the not-Dakota, the Sydney Greenstreet knockoff – who has apparently been here the whole time, but was too polite to say anything – wanders around the house as the lights flicker out and the angel that River escaped from breaks free. Why is this here? Because gosh-darn it, “Blink” was such a great episode!

At the not-Dakota, Ron goes through the same older-self schtick as Noir Protagonist did in the beginning. This is another big issue I have with the episode: The Weeping Angels’ abilities. In “Blink”, they sent people back in time, plain and simple. In “Flesh and Stone”, though, this was largely discarded to make them a more basic threat: They don’t send you back in time, and instead they get inside your mind and turn you into more of them, even being able to communicate with people, via a dark parody the people they had killed. Now, this departure from the original concept was pretty Locutus…

"Huh?"

“Huh?”

…Ludicrous, I was saying. Ludicrous. Anyway, it was pretty ludicrous, but still made sense in terms of that unstoppable threat I mentioned earlier. And the Borg changed a lot from their original appearance to “The Best of Both Worlds” too, but both changes were a pretty natural progression and made for good horror stories.

In this episode, the angels are back to their time-displacing old selves…except no, they’re not. Now, instead of being “The nicest killers in the universe, just zapping you back into the past” as they were originally, they apparently do it over and over and over again to the same person trapped in the same room, with no regard to the fact that people, y’know, need food and water to live. Even disregarding that, if you establish that they can feed off the same person for eternity, the question becomes “Why don’t they do that all the time?” In practice, it’s just an excuse for some half-hearted deathbed drama.

After the rest of the gang catches up to Ron, the Doctor explains the angels’ latest superpower, until River offers some hope: If Ron escapes, he can cause a temporal paradox that will erase every Weeping Angel in Manhattan from existence, because it worked in “Flesh and Stone”. Unfortunately, he’ll have to be on the run from the Angels for the rest of his days – and considering the events of Book 7, he doesn’t have the right mindset for that kind of thing. But that’s a problem for later, as Amy and Ron run up to the roof and see the Statue of Stupidity, cracking some lame jokes – even the characters know how stupid the concept was, how did Moff not realize it?

Ron realizes he can’t take life in a world where this sort of thing happens, and prepares to jump off the roof. There’s a great scene, as he argues his reasoning with Amy – either the resulting paradox will erase this entire episode from the timestream (Too good for it, I say!), or he’s fated to spend the rest of his days alone. Amy eventually agrees, and prepares to jump with him, hugging him as they fall. As they fall, the Doctor arrives just too late, and screams as the two fall in slow motion.

If the episode ended right here, it would still be an above-average episode with a satisfying and bittersweet conclusion – maybe Amy and Rory make it out alive, but the sheer magnitude of the paradox they caused means that any more time travel is unsafe. Or just have them straight-up sacrifice themselves, if that’s how you want to play it.Whatever – you’ve obviously built up the emotional climax of the story, that everyone knows has to end in defeat for our heroes…

…and everyone comes out just fine, lying around the Tardis. “Everything’s fine! You did it! The wicked old witch at last is dead!” Our heroes say goodbye to River, prepare to leave…

…and having gotten word of Karen Gillan’s departure, Steven Moffat sits down and frantically opens the file for the teleplay on his computer, racking his brains in frustration. As he buries his head in his hands, a thought comes to him. “A graveyard!” He shouts. “Blink was such a gosh-darn great episode, and it used a graveyard!”

So a graveyard it is – the mysterious Queens graveyard, where the Tardis has landed for reasons of convenience. As Ron prepares to leave, he turns around – and is promptly Photoshopped from existence by a weeping angel disguised as a gravestone. “A survivor!” The Doctor shouts. “How?” I reply. “Paradoxes can’t just miss a spot! Don’t you remember ‘The Time Of Angels’ – you know, the very last time these guys appeared?”

And how did it get all the way here from Lower Manhattan anyway?

Amy sees Rory’s grave, which is now literally written in stone – no coming back from this one. Y’know, totally different from the seven other times he died. Amy makes a tearful speech to the Doctor and River, as she cries and the audience yawns.

This is where most people agree with me on the episode’s failing: It’s not just having its cake and eating it, it’s having it’s cake, eating it, and then demanding to know what happened to its cake. You can’t have two bittersweet emotional climaxes within five minutes and expect us to be more emotionally invested in the second one – it’s just not how feeling works, because we’re desensitized to it. And so the final farewell just comes off as overdramatic and trying too hard.

Also, this image should have been much less emphasized – we already have an actor playing an older Rory, use him!

There’s some winding down, with the Doctor getting one final voice-over from Amy, but I just can’t feel too invested in anything they show me after that huge fumble, and we go out not with a bang, or a whimper, but a “Ehhh.”

As much as “The Angels Take Manhattan” left me disappointed, it was still a critical success. And I’m quite happy to admit that despite the poor ending and beginning, the middle of the episode was still enjoyable and touching.

If you had tasked me with coordinating the departure of Amy and Rory, though, I would have made the plot more focused: I have the suspicion that when the writers learned they would be leaving midway through the season, they tried to cram the entire half-season of episodes they had planned into the final two outings. So I would have probably thrown the entire Weeping Angel and New York plots out, and converted the non-mystery bits of “The Power of Three” into a standalone episode. It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a threat that limits the use of the Tardis, so the Doctor has to stay with the Ponds to fix it, eventually realizing that he can’t stay forever.

Since only one outspoken fan can have the run of the show at a time, though, I guess I’ll just have to wait my turn.

TWO THUMBS UP: Most of the second act, the first climax, and much of the dialogue

THUMBS UP: The acting and cinematography

THUMBS DOWN: The underuse of the period New York setting, the retconned Angel powers

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The unemotional exit of half of our main characters

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2 Comments

  1. potch1214

     /  February 27, 2014

    Good article, but I have to make a correction… That’s not the Dakota, but the Plaza. It’s one of the most famous hotels in New York City and at the corner of 59th street and 5th Avenue.

    Reply

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