Doctor Who Review – 7.5 ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’

To follow our ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ commentary, James brings you his review of the episode. Don’t forget to let us know what you thought too. Come along Pond!

So, goodbye Ponds. Over the course of the last two and a half seasons you’ve been exceptional. You and Matt Smith have consistently been the best things about nearly every episode of Doctor Who for the last few years, and I will sorely miss you.
From Amelia Pond waiting in her garden, to the introduction of Amy proper, waiting for her Doctor to return for her entire life, making the choice of Rory over the Doctor, then Rory and the Doctor – at the heart of Karen Gillan’s portrayal of Amy Pond has been true character growth. It’s easy to feel like Amy really has grown up with the Doctor over the last few years, and she’s turned into a kick-ass woman and half of one of the best relationships in sci-fi (up there with Han and Leia, Adama and Roslin or Zoe and Wash).

Rory meanwhile has gone from confused comedy side kick to stone cold badass, a change that revolved around what was arguably his only character trait in The Eleventh Hour; his love for Amy. Arthur Darvill frequently doesn’t get the credit he deserves for turning Rory into a character you never wanted to lose. Saddled with death scenes for episode after episode he managed to elevate Rory from Amy’s “sort of Boyfriend” to a character in his own right, one who could have as easily have travelled with the Doctor alone like Amy.
Doctor Who is often carried not by the person playing the Doctor but those playing his companions. They’re the audiences way into the show, the ordinary human alongside an alien genius. Both Christoper Eccleston and David Tennant shone with Billie Piper by their side, whilst Martha was so underwritten (and, it has to be said, so poorly cast) as to nearly sink the third season despite Tennant’s continuation as the Doctor. The reason so many of the specials have bombed is because the companions are either not present or are overshadowed by the non-panions, the guest stars bought in to act as the Doctor’s partner for a week before dying or retiring from adventures.
On that basis, the success of Matt Smith’s Doctor is not just down to his ability to play a totally convincing extraterrestrial – a space horse in human clothing – as much as it’s about a pair of companions who have been the best since Piper. The decision to have not just one companions but a pair, and making that pair a couple, has allowed the show to explore some great storylines which would otherwise have been impossible. Whilst it extended beyond its ability to interest the ‘time-baby’ and extended Pond family wasn’t something we’ve seen before, with the closest we’ve had to a companion bringing a partner along being Rose and Mickey – a relationship that didn’t make it through a dozen episodes, never mind thousands of years of waiting and a kidnapped pregnancy.

This episode had been billed all along as the ‘end’ of the Ponds and the return of the Weeping Angels. It certainly delivered on both those things, containing a definite end to the Pond storyline and lots of stone baddies.

Other than that though, this was an awful, awful episode.

For a show about a man travelling through space and time Doctor Who really does not care about time travel at all. As long as the TARDIS gets the Doctor to a place which includes a period costume or reference, or allows the team to say we’ve been to a particular place in the course of the season the show is reasonably happy to ignore any exploration of the mechanics or intricacies of time travel.

In part that’s probably because those issues tend to devolve into either parallel time streams (Back to the Future) or self fulfilling prophecies (Terminator). Doctor Who has never managed a better exploration of Time Travel than Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where every situation is got out of by travelling back to that point afterwards to solve the problem, usually by providing the heroes with a nearby prop for convenience. If it seems surprising that show about a time traveller hasn’t made it as far as a 20 year old comedy starring Keanu Reeves, it’s worth reminding yourself that Doctor Who isn’t actually about time travel, any more than it is about space. These are the settings, but they’re less important to the show than a stately home is to Downton Abbey.

As a result, whenever Doctor Who does bother with an actual Time Travel escapade it’s usually either stupid, or stupid-masquerading-as-smart through unnecessary overcomplication.

The Angels Takes Manhattan gets round the problem of how to make a bad guy who sends you back in time interesting when up against a time traveller by making up rules about what can and can’t be done with time travel.

So, new rules of time. If you’ve read it, it has to happen. There’s no way to prevent it. Case in point, having read that he would have to break River or an Angel’s arm, and would choose River’s, the Doctor gets to that situation and agrees that he has to, but asks River to try and find a way to change what happens.

Here’s an idea Doctor – why don’t you change what happens by smashing the Angel’s arm off? Congratulations, you just changed time. It wasn’t hard. It was pretty easy. Now Amy doesn’t have to leave. You’re a hero.
By effectively removing the ability of the Doctor to change any events in the timeline Moffat has moved us away from a Doctor who doesn’t, or can’t, interfere in fixed-points towards one who just may as well not bother at all. Just give up. It’ll all happen anyway. No fate but what you read has replaced ‘spoilers’ as the reason why we shouldn’t just find out what happens next, something that never prevented the Doctor from meddling in historical events he was aware of an outcome of before now.
Of course, the problem with this is that it doesn’t hang together at all. Either you can change history or you can’t – but it’s not an either/or situation. Once we reach the end the Doctor abandons Rory because they saw him die and saw his gravestone. They can’t go pick Rory up because it’s literally written in stone, but Amy sacrificing herself and thus CHANGING HISTORY is heralded as a triumph for her relationship with Rory.

Lets walk through this. Timeline 1 Rory is from the present day, Timeline 2 Rory is dying in bed in 1938.
T1 Rory sees T2 Rory die in a building which he is presumably unable to escape from. He dies alone, desperately happy to see Amy because she’s not been there for years.
T1 Rory and Amy leap to their death, thus causing a paradox (as T2 Rory now can’t die in bed as previously seen). This kills the weeping angels and frees T1 Rory from his (almost impossible to change) fate. He will no longer become T2 Rory.
The last weeping angel sends T1 Rory back at the last minute, he will now die in bed as T2 Rory again. The paradox erased T2 Rory, deposited T1 Rory back in the present, but was then undone and created T3 Rory. In this timeline the Angels have been erased by the paradox (that still happened and isn’t averted by Rory returning to 1938) but Rory still dies in bed alone. It is T3 Rory who is buried in the grave.
Amy sacrifices herself to go back in time. She will now live with Rory. The dying Rory they discovered is no longer accurate, he was in T2. Amy should still be alive at that point in T3. The change to the gravestone demonstrates that time has been altered to include her presence in Rory’s life at this time.*

It might seem like I’m making too big a deal of this. It’s a show about a time travelling alien fighting haunted statues and there needs to be some suspension of disbelief. The problem is that this is the WHOLE POINT of the episode. If time can’t be changed, if it’s static, then Amy CAN’T be sent back to be with Rory if she wasn’t there already. If Amy can go back (which she does) then the Doctor has just abandoned his two best friends, the parents of his wife, because he wouldn’t travel back 50 years and take them back home.
This isn’t a minor point. The entire plot hinges upon the idea of the timeline having solidified, and breaking it to tack on a semi-pleasant ending unravel the whole narrative. It’s sloppy writing, and it’s not just visible in the time travel explanations.

In order to make the plot work Moffat has to fundamentally alter the way the Angels work. Time of Angels twisted the danger by making prolonged eye contact with the Angels dangerous, an ingenious and scary ability that worked within the story. But Manhattan’s twist is a step too far by tweaking the way that the Angels ability works altogether – they can now teleport you anywhere in space as well as time, can appear as any statue (not just Angels) and come in a range of sizes.
When I said the CGI for the Dinosaurs was bad I was wrong. The special effects here set new levels of can’t-be-arsed, whilst also suggesting that the population of Manhattan are so out of touch that they don’t notice that the statue of liberty has got off her plinth and gone walk about, using foot step sound effects borrowed from Ghostbusters II. How did she make her way across the city, and why? She doesn’t touch anyone and send them back in time, it’s simply there because that’s a statue in New York everyone knows. Is it the same species as the other Angels? Why is it so big? They’re biological in nature. The cherubs are referred to as Young Angels, a lovely touch, do how did they end up with one who’s 100 times the size of any other Angel? Do they replace statues, or convert people to become statues? None of these questions are answered, but all come up in the episode, without any attempt at answers. Like Lost, the programme introduces things that look cool without feeling the need to have them make sense.
“Like Lost, the programme introduces things that look cool without feeling the need to have them make sense.”
That’s incredibly lazy writing. It’s Alan Moore’s ‘sloppily defined magical principle’ writ large. Even little things like how the cherubs can blow out the candles if they’re frozen solid become bothersome once the internal logic is lost.

There’s much here that could be incredibly interesting. River and Rory leaving clues from the past – something the Doctor did in Blink, the Angels creating a farm for time energy, even the collector of curiosities keeping an Angel in chains (imagine Asylum of the Daleks with Weeping Angels). Any of these could have been expanded, but instead Moffat tries to create forced pathos and a ‘trick’ ending so hollow and foreshadowed that it was possible to call it from ten minutes in. The fact is that this episode did nothing interesting with the idea of Amy and Rory leaving because they’re stranded in time, because it doesn’t care to think through what that would actually mean.
“Moffat tries to create forced pathos and a ‘trick’ ending so hollow and foreshadowed that it was possible to call it from ten minutes in”
Instead, it leaves us knowing that the Doctor will go find a new friend, whilst River will go and write a book for the Doctor and avoid travelling with him because he’s also a psychopath.

This somehow managed to make my theory of what was happening seem less awful than it would have been. In my head, when Amy and Rory jumped off the roof, Amy died instantly but Rory survived with a broken back. Immediately caught and touched by an Angel he is sent back in time whilst he lies broken on the ground. Unaware that his wife is dead he is left alone and paralysed, trapped in bed in a room he can’t leave, waiting for Amy and the Doctor to come for him, at which point he dies, dooming himself again and again.

The thing is, judging by the early reviews and Twitter response everyone else seemed to love this episode and feel it was a great way for the Ponds to bow out, somehow fundamentally misunderstanding the true horror of the fact that The Doctor just abandoned them to a half-life of misery and loss. I imagine this is why we don’t get time travel stories very often.

*Rory is marked as 82 on his grave, Amy as 87. As they went to secondary school together the absolute limit of their age difference is 5 and it seems reasonable to expect that it would be lower as they’re friends throughout. Having turned up 12 years too late for Amelia Pond the Doctor meets Amy in The Eleventh Hour when she is in her teens or early twenties – based on the fact that Rory is a qualified nurse at this point he’s either slightly older than her or the same age. It’s therefore unlikely that Amy died before Rory. I can’t begin to describe how much I hate that I worked this out.

11 thoughts on “Doctor Who Review – 7.5 ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’

  1. James’ thorough analysis is kind of like the Doctor’s in Asylum of the Daleks, when he asks, “Seriously, is no one else wondering about that?” And to quote the now-departed Rory, “No! Frankly, no. Twice.” I can’t see the issues that James does. I’m solidly in the “good story – great acting and directing – fitting ending” camp on this one. The best of the series (so far) and ranking up there with one of the better I’ve experienced during the New Who era.

    Put another way, I don’t care where the milk and eggs come from, as long as there’s a soufflé in the end to enjoy.

  2. I didn’t like this story much. The whole story was focused on the leaving of the Ponds, and because of this a plot was sacrificed for the sake of them leaving. Did the Angels do all that much during the story? No they mainly acted as a plot device. Plots should never be sacrificed for leaving, but rather the leaving should be incoporated into the plot. I also think this story was left with some rather major plot holes, and I didn’t even find the ending of the Ponds that sad. It was too obvious that the whole story was made to feel you sad, and cry. Leavings shouldn’t be like that. Leavings should be wriiten to be sad, and if they wrote it well enought you in turn will feel sad, because you are in touch with the story. In this case, they weren’t trying to create a sad ending, rather they were trying to create something to make you cry.

  3. I can’t say I agree with James’s review! Yes, there were gaps and inconsistencies in the time-travel logic, and they detracted from the episode slightly, but not so much that it wasn’t still a stylish, scary and well-acted episode that gave Amy and Rory an interesting exit.

    It’s not inconsistent for the Doctor and co to be able to change history in general, but not to be able to change their own timelines as time-travellers, because of the dangers involved – tha’ts fairly standard Doctor Who lore, see Father’s Day for another example.

    Once you know your own future, that knowledge becomes part of your past, which is why it can’t be changed – at least, not without risk of paradox. If you find out you’re going to die, and change your actions to avoid it, then because you lived, you no longer gained the knowledge that would save you, so you had no reason to behave differently, so you would die after all, and so on…

    To make a stable change to history, you need to create a closed loop – it has to be consistent with what you already know will happen, otherwise you will make different choices. The problem in this episode is that apart from Rory’s death in the hotel, it would be quite easy to do that – in the case of Amy reading about the Doctor breaking River’s wrist, they could have done something different but made sure that River wrote that the Doctor broke it – no paradox involved. Similarly with the gravestones: all they needed to do was to set up a gravestone for Rory, but it could be a fake one, and that would be enough to preserve the timeline. It’s only Rory dying as an old man that was really inescapable in these terms, because they saw that directly.

    To be fair, it was said that Amy and Rory were creating “fixed time” but this wasn’t very well explained. Even if the Doctor couldn’t return to New York in the 1930s because of the time distortion (and does that mean he can never go back there?), why couldn’t he drop in to visit them in 1940s Conneticut, for example, even if they do have to eventually end up in the graveyard? But it’s underexplained, not inconsistent.

    • I disagree with that final bit Caleb. It is inconsistent.

      As I mentioned, the problem for me was that Amy went back in time, thus changing the present.

      If that’s possible then changing the past (by removing Rory) should change the present too (Rory doesn’t die, no gravestone)! Likewise, if Rory and Amy dying created a paradox where Rory didn’t die in bed, but survived they should be able to do the same thing by killing him earlier than his gravestone says, thus paradoxing the Ponds out again.

      So in conclusion. Writing Time Travel is very complicated.

  4. Every time I’ve heard “The Angels Take Manhattan” it always pops in my head as Muppets. Luckily for us it wasn’t too Fozzy this week. Ouch! I liked this episode but didn’t love it. The cast did well and Nick Hurran did the best he could. More of a B+ this time out. Why? Well once again it felt like a two parter compressed into a single episode. Something was missing.

    Mike McShane’s extended cameo didn’t add anything, he was just a shady gangster that liked collect statues. River Song was a convenient homing beacon to get the TARDIS into the right house. I wondered what it might have been like if Amy had went for coffee instead Rory? Oh they did that last year. The emotional depth Nick Hurran found in both “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex” wasn’t as effective this time.

    I did like the gag about Rory’s multiple resurrections, although killing him three times in one episode is a bit much. Ok the last time was of old age. I think the discrepancy in the ages might be due to the fact that women do live longer, nothing else.

    As for paradoxes, Doctor Who writers are notoriously inconsistent. When Rose saves Pete in “Father’s Day”, the Reapers appear. When the Doctor cheats death in “The Wedding of River Song”, nothing.

    The only thing I have issue with is that the scrambling of the timelines caused by the Angels is localised. All that Rory and Amy had to do was to write a time & a place far from New York to be picked up. I know they had planned to stop travelling, but in a time years before they or anyway of their relatives were born. Perhaps that was deliberate? The distortion caused by the Angels is the perfect way to keep a TARDIS at bay. Let’s hope no-one else figures that one out.

    • “As for paradoxes, Doctor Who writers are notoriously inconsistent. When Rose saves Pete in “Father’s Day”, the Reapers appear. When the Doctor cheats death in “The Wedding of River Song”, nothing.”

      Yep. This entirely. I get that over a series spanning decades, with multiple (lead) writers, there are bound to be inconsistencies but it does feel like the laws of Time, far from being stable are set up to be a hodge-podge of what works this week.

      This episode, unfortunately, seemed to try and set too much store by certain bits of Doctor Who Time Travel ephemera without really explaining away the bits that don’t work. Or to put it another way, they did everything they needed to to get rid of the Ponds then finished the episode and called it The End.

  5. A couple of gripes.
    “By effectively removing the ability of the Doctor to change any events in the timeline Moffat has moved us away from a Doctor who doesn’t, or can’t, interfere in fixed-points towards one who just may as well not bother at all. Just give up. It’ll all happen anyway. No fate but what you read has replaced ‘spoilers’ as the reason why we shouldn’t just find out what happens next, something that never prevented the Doctor from meddling in historical events he was aware of an outcome of before now.”
    Actually “a Doctor who doesn’t, or can’t, interfere in fixed-points” is one who can’t “change any events in the timeline”, and “spoilers” is entirely because there’s “no fate but what you read”, so he can’t look at River’s diary without fixing his own future.

    “Manhattan’s twist is a step too far by tweaking the way that the Angels ability works altogether – they can now teleport you anywhere in space as well as time, can appear as any statue (not just Angels)”.
    Actually, this isn’t a tweak, it’s been there since Blink, in both cases. Kathy Nightingale was teleported from London to Hull as well as back in time. There’s a montage of miscellaneous statues interspersed with the “Don’t blink” speech right at the end, implying they’re all Angels. So nothing’s changed in either case.

    • Thanks October, these are totally fair comments – especially about the fact that Blink has transportation by location as well as through time, which I had totally forgotten about. I always took that final shot in blink less as a reference to ‘any statue could be an Angel’ and more than ‘any statue could be replaced by an Angel’ – frankly, I think it’s stupid that they take over existing statues. They aren’t really weeping Angels in that case, so much as any-old living statues, and that explicitly being stated doesn’t work for me.

      In terms of the wider point about The Doctor engaging with changing time (despite spoilers, etc), I’ve always seen it that if he really wanted to he COULD; he has the capacity to do so, but doesn’t. Much of the Tennant years was about The Doctor learning what was and wasn’t ok to change, and his elevation through successfully averting disaster and eventual failure (especially in Waters of Mars, an episode that otherwise has NOTHING to recommend it) was more poignant for the fact that he recognised that interfering wasn’t always right.

      Much like the Fathers Day point from Kevin above though, the problem is that in different episodes different outcomes are given, and then these are hodge-podged together to create canonical explanations for why The Doctor doesn’t interfere all the time, all of which should really be summed up in ‘because he knows better than to do that.’

      Still, I do hate (and don’t really accept as anything other than truly lazy, get-to-the-outcome-at-all-costs writing) the idea that Time can’t be rewritten, especially as we just spent TWO SEASONS rewriting time once written. If we had to take anything from the death of The Doctor, surely it was that Time can (and is) rewritten, ignored, worked around or altered.

      As Caleb mentioned in the podcast, there are pretty easy ways around the strictures of you can’t change what was written – reading River’s diary in a limited extent fixes certain points, yes, but doesn’t prevent working around. Someone else breaking River’s arm, for instance (so sticking to the letter of the rule, rather than the spirit; a very Doctor thing to do to break out of a law of Time) or simply retrieving Amy and Rory and then putting them back later in their lives to close the loop. These are the kind of things which The Doctor CAN do, without breaking the (quite arbitrary) demands of the plot.

  6. For a programme about time travel the timey wimeyness of this episode didn’t really add that much to it. In “Blink”, it was clever as RTD really used the Tardis as a means to get the Doctor to his next adventure. In “the Pandorica opens”, it was comical as the Doctor zipping back and fro with a Fez was fun. I think we become so distracted in trying to figure out which Rory is which that we are in danger of becoming cross eyed. As Basil Exposition and Mark Kermode (when describing Looper) says “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.”

    I’ve just re-watched “The City of Death”, nice location, a plot which didn’t matter, a quick hop back to Leonardo’s time and the marvellous Duggan. Great lines like “If YOU wanted an omelette, I’d expect to find a pile of broken crockery, a cooker in flames and an unconscious chef” or “such a wonderful butler: he’s so violent.” That’s the best example of just enjoying yourself.

    • As I said in my review, Doctor Who is rarely a show concerned about the mechanics of time travel. It only features time travel in order to get the cast to a new location. It may as well be a train for all the care and attention shown to what it means to be a time traveller.

      My one problem with ‘just enjoying [myself]‘ is that it SO desperately wants to be a clever, incisive use of Time Travel, so when it fails (and doesn’t make sense) it CAN’T fall back on ‘why are you taking this seriously’ as an argument – it’s admitting that the plot doesn’t make sense and the outcome doesn’t work.

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