Well, the moment has come, and it has come all too soon. After five short weeks, the first half of series 7 of Doctor Who has come to an end, and with it the pivotal event to-date of Matt Smith’s tenure – the departure of the Ponds. We had been promised that it would be a difficult departure; indeed, we had been promised that it would be nothing less than ‘heartbreaking’. No pressure, Mr Moffat. It was with a palpable sense of trepidation that So So Gay sat down to sample ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, not to mention a strong gin and tonic.
In scenes reminiscent of the film noir genre, we were hurtled headlong into 1930s New York, into a world of private detectives and mysterious moving statues. Grayle, a rich art collector, has engaged the services of a bemused private investigator Sam Garner to investigate a building at Battery Park where he believes the ‘statues’ live. Garner arrives at Winter Quay, the building in question, to discover what we already know; the Weeping Angels are at large in Manhattan, and they’re in fine fettle. As Garner investigates the building, he is led to a series of rooms where he discovers an older version of himself in bed, close to death, before being pursued to the roof by the Angels where he is captured by the mother of all Weeping Angels, nothing less than the Statue of Liberty itself, and all this before the opening titles.
As starts go, this is all pretty spectacular not only in terms of plot, but also in terms of cinematography. The scenes with the Angels in Winter Quay are dark, stylish and incredibly claustrophobic. The Angels are a truly terrifying presence throughout the episode, recapturing the initial impact they made in ‘Blink’ in a manner in which they had failed to do in last year’s ‘The Time of Angels’. The nighttime backdrop of 1930s Manhattan proves that the Angels work best in this sort of setting, rather than a stricken starship. The development of the cherubins added a new, and incredibly creepy, twist to the Angels’ menace; at one point Rory, whilst Grayle’s prisoner, is left to the ‘mercy’ of these evil creations in a damp basement with only a box of matches, with truly terrifying consequences. Add to this the knowledge of the Ponds’ departure and Moffat’s assertion that, of the main characters, ‘not everyone will get out’, and you have a recipe for truly atmospheric and (in a good way) uncomfortable viewing.
The script this week was Moffat’s, and as such contains all the twists and turns that you would expect. He teases throughout with the viewer’s expectations regarding the Ponds and, in true Moffat style, there is a paradox at the very heart of the story. The Doctor, Amy and Rory are visiting present-day New York, where the Doctor has found a mysterious book chronicling the adventures of private investigator Melody Malone in 1930s New York, and in the midst of Rory leaving them to get coffee whilst the Doctor recounts the book to Amy, Rory is captured by the Angels and sent back in time. It transpires that the book is, in fact, an account of the events in their personal timeline, leading the Doctor to discover Rory’s abduction. Upon this discovery, the Doctor immediately closes the book, realising that once they read ahead the events cannot be changed; in this case, time cannot be rewritten.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. The interference of the Angels has created time distortion around 1938 Manhattan which initially prevents the TARDIS from following the Angels to rescue Rory, who has immediately encountered River Song, now much further on in her personal timeline having been pardoned for the ‘murder’ of the Doctor (thanks to his efforts to remove his identity from time and space), and now a Professor. River has come to 1938 courtesy of her time manipulator to investigate the menace posed by the Weeping Angels.
Once again, the inimitable Alex Kingston gives a sterling performance as River Song, helped all the more by the fact that her character is no longer over-burdened by being the central plot element, unlike in the last series. As such, River is able to shine in her own right as an action character, just as Matt Smith’s Doctor has done throughout the series. In the midst of all the focus on the Ponds, there is still development of her relationship with the Doctor, and River’s own sadness at the predicament of her life with the Doctor, all the more heartbreaking in itself for us because we already know that River’s ultimate fate is sealed, as does the Doctor.
The central theme of ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ is one of helplessness. By the time the Doctor, Amy and River locate Rory he is already at Winter Quays and seemingly staring oblivion in the face, quite literally when the company encounter Rory’s older self, just like Garner, dying in bed of old age after having been sent back in time and kept alive by the Angels. They make the realisation that this is a form of ‘battery farm’ where the Angels send people back in time and feed off the time energy this creates, having picked Manhattan as it is the ‘city that never sleeps’ where pickings are rich, and victims numerous. The Doctor also realises that because they have encountered the future Rory, and that he has died here, this event has been ‘written’ and they are powerless to change it, just like earlier when Amy reads ahead that the Doctor breaks something, in this case River’s wrist, and despite their best attempts to avoid this, she cannot be freed from an Angel’s grasp without her wrist breaking. The plot spins around both us and the company, and it seems that none of this is under their control because it has already been predetermined by the writing of the book.
The plot is clever and multilayered, and the references to the history of the programme are intelligent and subtly done. The novelisation, itself written by River at the end of the story, is a metaphor for River’s own diary and its chronicle of future events. The fact that, despite their best attempts, time cannot be rewritten takes the viewer all the way back to River’s first appearance to us at the end of her life when she tells the Doctor that time cannot be rewritten – ‘Not those times, not any of those times’.
But this is all secondary to the Ponds, and their desperate attempts to avoid Rory’s fate and to rewrite the future. The only way to do this is to create a paradox by changing those events, a paradox that will kill the Angels too. In scenes which are truly heartbreaking to watch, Amy and Rory make the decision to throw themselves off the top of the building, Amy unable to allow Rory to sacrifice himself without her, in the hope that their deaths there, rather than Rory’s death of old age, will create the paradox.
This is, in many respects,the scene of the entire series. As Amy and Rory fall, the viewer cannot help but wonder whether this will be their end, knowing as we do that their end is to be a final one. But in yet another twist, the paradox seemingly works, the Angels are destroyed and the Doctor and company transported back to where they started, in New York, in a graveyard in 2012. Celebrations, however, are cut short when Rory discovers a gravestone with his name on it, upon which a surviving Angel appears and transports him back to 1938. It is quick, it is brutal, and shocking. Rory is given no time to say goodbye and, as the TARDIS can never return to 1938 because of the paradox, he is gone forever.
This leaves Amy with the terrible choice, looking the Angel in the eye, of whether to blink and allow the Angel to take her too, or stay with the Doctor and never see her husband again. She says her emotional goodbye in a scene for which Karen Gillan should receive universal acclaim, and blinks, her name appearing on the grave with Rory, both victims of the Angels’ ‘battery farm’. As endings go, this does exactly what it should; it tugs the heartstrings to breaking point. We are left with Amy’s message to the Doctor in the last page of River’s book, assuring him that she and Rory lived a happy life and loved the Doctor.
One of the many qualities of the episode is the way that this completes Amy’s character development; from the child who waited, through to the girl prepared to run away from her wedding to be with the Doctor, to, finally, the woman who chooses a life in Winter Quays with the man she loves despite it meaning that she will never see either the Doctor or River again. It is likely that the viewer will share the sense of loss so well-acted by Matt Smith’s Doctor, who is desperate to persuade Amy not to sacrifice herself to be with Rory, but to stay with him, an action which he later recognises for its selfishness when apologising to River for allowing his grief at his own loss to get in the way of any concern for her own sense of loss for her parents.
‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ is, in one sense, difficult to make a judgement on. In many ways, it is truly brilliant; the plot is clever, the emotional intensity raw, and the acting impeccable. In dramatic terms, the tension and suspense is excellent, with a welcome return to form by the Angels. As a companion ‘departure’ story, it ranks alongside Rose’s departure in ‘Doomsday’, or the death of Adric in ‘Earthshock’. Whilst some will probably find dissatisfaction in the abrupt manner of Rory’s departure, it is its sudden and uncomfortable occurrence which makes it so shocking and provides a counter-balance to Amy’s tearful farewell.
Nevertheless, it is possible to question elements of the plot if you think too hard, (it is a Stephen Moffat paradox after all), such as if the Doctor cannot go back to 1938 to rescue his companions, why can he not go to, say, 1937 and reintroduce himself into the timeline at a point after his own departure? Maybe the answer is provided in River’s book; having written a postscript where Amy tells the Doctor of her and Rory’s life together without him, this presumably excludes him from rejoining their personal timeline? Time, as we are once again reminded, cannot be rewritten. In any case, it probably pays not to think too hard about this.
As a culmination of the first part of the series, ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ brings to a temporary close what has been a notably strong start to the seventh series of the revived TV show. Moffat has proven himself true to his word in supplying bold plots and epic stand-alone stories. Ultimately, five weeks have gone incredibly quickly and we at So So Gay have been left itching for more. That tells you everything you need to know.
Roll on Christmas…
Check back at So So Gay for more Doctor Who news and reviews this Christmas.