Doctor Who complete reviews: The Angels Take Manhattan
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Adiós to The Doctor...until Christmas, anyway...
A common feature of TV these days is to entice viewers to tune in by staging a competition. You too can win a luxury holiday in a swanky spa on the borders of a sunny, unspoilt beach. Or how about a big fat cheque for an amount of money that could bank you for your next nine lifetimes? The great thing about these competitions is that the questions are not exactly brainteaser material. An average question goes along the lines of: “What do people drink tea from? A – A crane grab? B – A cup? Or C – A vase?” The phone bill at the end of the month is more likely to give you a thumping headache, however.
A shrewd Doctor Who fan could have worked out how the latest thrilling adventure will conclude. Let's look at the facts: It's Amy and Rory's swansong. It has Weeping Angels in it. Amy and Rory are rumoured to die. Weeping Angels can kill by feeding off the potential time energy of their victims. For a very short while, it looked like Amy and Rory might have left on a happy note, but of course, it wasn't to be. If you guessed how The Angels Take Manhattan ultimately panned out, award yourself a pat on the back and a cardboard cut-out head of Leslie Crowther.
So The Angels Take Manhattan essentially revolves around the departure of two of the longest-serving companions of recent times. It does so in typically timey-wimey fashion from the pen of Steven Moffat, but pleasingly, it's not one of those stories which requires a pen, a hefty decoder device and a couple of anti-headache pills. Better still, it's a story that doesn't forget its heart, and as promised, the more weepy of you out there will need a jumbo-sized box of tissues as The Doctor is forced to come to terms with yet another goodbye to beloved companions.
Frighteningly, for a moment, it looks as if The Angels Take Manhattan starts by paying homage to that supremely annoying car advert in which a confused-looking bloke with a pudding basin haircut is stalked by his exact double – Sam Garner, a private detective gets to meet his own aged self at an apartment block, whose sceptical attitude to moving statues comes back to haunt him in the worst way possible. Still, it could have been worse: thankfully, there are no creepy Ron Weasley lookalikes extolling the virtues of cheap broadband systems – nor are there any malodorous choirs of bankers who have the uncanny ability to turn a classic song into a trough of saccharine sewage.
But thankfully, the return of the Weeping Angels makes this another solidly frightening adventure for the kiddies – they're memorable monsters for two very good reasons. One, their appearance remains suitably grotesque, all bulgy stone eyes and waggling tongues. There's always something a bit creepy about statues, and in this episode, those cherub gargoyles have just confirmed to me that kids will never look at these statues in the same way ever again. The other reason is the way in which they are shot. Past directors such as Hettie McDonald got it right on the nose when shooting the Angels – all quick, scary cuts and flashes, and luckily, Nick Hurran gets the technique right too. As a bonus, luckily, none of the Angels speak with the voice of Boring Bob from the previous Angels escapade – a man who could win a gold medal for sending the population of Britain into a deep sleep with just one mumbled sentence.
This two-pronged attack of success relates to The Angels Take Manhattan as a whole. Some Doctor Who stories can follow the pattern of having a great script and lousy production values, or vice versa. When you get stories that score high on both counts (and there's many of these dotted throughout Who history), it's cause for celebration, so break out the party hats as Nick Hurran does justice to Steven Moffat's well-thought-out, witty and emotional script with considerable panache. It helps that the story's filmed in New York, and there's a certain filmic quality about it. The New York architecture provides a suitable backdrop for the Weeping Angels, and Hurran makes the most of his resources and budget to produce some breathtaking imagery. He also manages to get the best from his cast – it's generally small in number, with only one big guest name (Mike McShane from Whose Line Is It Anyway doing a great job as Grayle) to be had. The regulars I'll come to in detail a bit later on, but needless to say, they put in some of their best work – and yes, that even includes River Song.
"Blimey, even The Doctor now seems to be infected by this honey-speak disease"
Now, the two regular readers of my reviews (me and the office cat called Cho-Je) will know that in the past, I haven't been that charitable to River Song – mainly on the grounds that she keeps cropping up all the time and that she always comes across as irredeemably smug. And yes, maybe in The Angels Take Manhattan, she's dispensing self-satisfied lines with all the efficiency of a steamroller(“It means, Mr Grayle, just you wait 'till my husband gets home”), and yes, maybe, there's way too many “Honeys” in the script – blimey, even The Doctor now seems to be infected by this honey-speak disease (“Sorry I'm late, honey, traffic was hell”). There's more honey in this script than in Winnie The Pooh's pantry.
But it's River's latest pulp fiction novel that gets the wheels in motion for this story. Melody Malone is fortunately not an alternative pen name for that eerie choir bloke who seems to be on TV all the flipping time these days, but in fact, River Song herself - “Melody Malone, the detective that investigates Angels”. When River's magnum opus starts including a plot about a chap called Rory, that's when alarm bells start to ring for Amy. It's no longer a book that makes The Doctor start quoting from old Chic classics from 1977, but a book that contains lots of “handy hints” about upcoming events. It's that very book that flips the plot of The Angels Take Manhattan into fate and destiny mode.
The Angels Take Manhattan looks at how some fates are inevitably and appropriately cast into stone. Events are written down and fixed in time – and after The Doctor reads the chapter entitled Amelia's Last Farewell, he's suitably rattled by what's going to happen. The story becomes a challenge to make the inevitable unpredictable – for example, River's wrist. In the book, she breaks her wrist, and so The Doctor urges her not to do the same in real life, even when she's trapped by a pesky Weeping Angel (“Just change the future!”). When events follow the same course in the book (including River's broken wrist), that uneasy feeling that not everyone may make it out alive suddenly surfaces. It's March 16th 1982 all over again.
In fact, only a paradox can get rid of the curse of the Weeping Angels – it “poisons the well” of the Angels, ridding them of their timey wimey food source. Although it would take unimaginable power to create a paradox that huge, in the end, it's left to Amy and Rory to create it with that old devil called love. Having seen his elderly self, Rory refuses to accept that his fate is sealed, and so urges Amy to push him from the roof of a high apartment block. But instead of doing so, Amy proves how much she values her marriage with Rory by jumping off the block with him (“It's called marriage!” she bellows at a horrified Doctor) – it's a neat full circle from the start of the season which saw Amy waving divorce papers around, and also a neat full circle from the early adventures in which Amy treated Rory with shouty contempt.
"This is possibly the best farewell scene that we've had since the new revival of Doctor Who"
It's the same love that causes the final goodbye to The Doctor. The ending of The Angels Take Manhattan is one of those cruel ironies that Doctor Who does so well. Just when you think that a crisis is over, it isn't by a long chalk. The Tenth Doctor thought that he'd cheated death after The Master gave the Gallifreyan President a belly-full of fire, only to realise that Wilf had trapped himself in a deadly phone kiosk. Same goes for this story – just when you think that the paradox has worked, and The Doctor wants to go and play video games in a pub, a rogue Weeping Angel appears in a graveyard, causing Rory to blink for just one fleeting second. And so that means that Amy chooses the same path as her dopey husband – it's The Green Death all over again in that the companion chooses the loving partner than a mad man with a police box. With a final “Raggedy Man, goodbye” Amy fades away to reappear as a name on a gravestone.
Could Amy and Rory ever come back? Well, The Doctor thinks otherwise, since the pair are creating fixed events in time (“I will never be able to see you again,” he says), but then, Rose could never come back from a sealed parallel universe – supposedly. And look what happened. I suppose it's conceivable that a bit of timey wimey jiggery pokery could see a cameo from the Ponds one day (Karen Gillan herself is said to have answered “Never say never” in a magazine article), but for the moment, this is possibly the best farewell scene that we've had since the new revival of Doctor Who. It's sudden and abrupt, but all the more moving for that – one moment Rory's there. The next he's gone – he doesn't even get to say goodbye. In the end, it's left to Amy to make a sudden choice, despite The Doctor's pleas. The other reason that it works is the acting from Karen Gillan and Matt Smith. Both sell the emotion of the moment in their voices and their facial expressions – Smith's crumpled face after Amy vanishes speaks volumes.
All of the regulars are on top of their games – Matt Smith turns in one of his best performances, bringing out the manic side of the Time Lord, who's desperate not to lose his two best friends. Both Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are fantastic in this one – both have improved considerably since those shaky early days of shouty sarcasm and wimpy vibes, and here, they prove how easy it is to make your average Who companion into a real, fully-formed person, not a cipher. Alex Kingston also does sterling work here – her muted but pained reaction to her parents' departure is just as effective as The Doctor's grief.
The Angels Take Manhattan had so much to get right – it needed to tell a good, solid story and get rid of two of the most popular companions in a fashion that was just right – not too slushy and cloying, but at the same time, not a cop out. The Grand Moff proved that he could still keep the title with a script that powered along, and a final goodbye to Amy and Rory that was pitched at the right level. When you have acting talent from the likes of Smith, Gillan and Darvill, it would be rude not to really, wouldn't it? Already a classic in its own meagre lifetime, The Angels Take Manhattan meets all the requirements and then some. Whether you're a fan of noirish action, time conundrums or good old fashioned weepies, you'll be satisfied with the results.
So long Ponds, and so long readers, until Christmas – when we might find out who Oswin actually is...
John Bensalhia limbered up for his Shadowlocked writing with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here. His Twitter feed is @JohnBensalhia.
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