“The Angels Take Manhattan” Review

6902298030_5f7ff59c89_o.jpgHmm. I’m not sure what to write about this one.

The problem, I think, is expectations. It may have been a good episode, but I’m trying to put my finger on why I found it so unsatisfying.

The Doctor Who hype machine has reached such a pitch that a certain effect was required from this episode. “The will be tears” was the line persistently pushed by the production team. Well, maybe. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are some people who cry watching Total Wipeout. But it seems to me that how I react to what they put on screen is between me and my nasolacrimal ducts.

Sentimental

I’m not going to pick on the plot-holes – it’s easy to confuse poor plotting with bad storytelling – and of course the emotion should drive the story. But it should be conveyed through it; I couldn’t help feeling that the music and the direction were telling me how to react as insistently as Caro Skinner and all the pre-show publicity. (A smart friend once described a scene in The English Patient as a “give me an Oscar” moment.) I’ll admit a lack of subtlety in this department isn’t completely new in New Who, but it’s far more effective when the pace gives the story more room to breathe.

The hype was all about the Pond farewell, which is how this episode was billed. But in fact there were two parts to this episode, the main story which was an adventure with the Angels, and the departure which was the final scenes in 2012. They are essentially separable because by the time we are back in the graveyard we are back at square one. At the start of the adventure, Rory got zapped back to 1938 while Amy and the Doctor are stuck in 2012. Ditto in the graveyard. All we need to know to view the final scenes as a stand alone is that angels hurl you back in time, and the Doctor can’t go back to 1938 New York. Those are the only things that matter to the departure story, which is thus entirely crammed into those last few minutes (without even time to explain why Rory and Amy couldn’t get in a boat, leave NY and meet the Doctor somewhere else on Earth – oh, sorry, I said I wouldn’t pick at the plot).

The main story’s emotional climax is the scene on the rooftop. The resolution to the story is when Amy and Rory jump. The narrative could go either way: they could die saving NY from the Angels. Or they could survive to continue to another adventure. Either would provide a resolution, satisfaction, closure, call it what you will. The epilogue detracts from an otherwise powerful moment.

I blame Doomsday because it worked then. This isn’t the first departure ruined by the writer trying repeat that trick of inserting an extra farewell scene; it happened in Voyage of the Damned and the least said about The End of Time the better.

Having expectations but being surprised is no bad thing, however, if (as Moffat has shown) we’re blind-sided by something startlingly new and clever…

Derivative

Perhaps it is expectations of a finale of this nature that oblige the writer to do a kind of ‘greatest hits’ effort. Doing a ‘Doomsday’ is just part of that. Bring back The Angels. Bring back River.

It’d be great if the last episode in which we see these characters that we’ve enjoyed so much to be the very best they’ve appeared in. However the best stories are often those which do something new and original (rather than re-hashing old favourites). They often scale down, rather than up (among the very best stories written by Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat were the constrained Midnight and Blink respectively).

The Angels are something of a one-trick monster. Moffat showed his considerable skill by getting another two-parter out of them, but in Angels the concept seems to have lost some definition. They cannot move if someone is staring at them, so at the end Amy didn’t just need to blink, she needed to the Doctor and River to look away too (if that was acknowledged I missed it). Their diminishment as a threat required new variants (the babies) in an effort to keep them fresh. And the Statue of Liberty… When I first saw that poster in the lift, I thought ‘please, don’t do that’. But, as with the cybermen in The Next Doctor, a new far bigger version of the monsters seemed to indicate a complete loss of confidence in the originals.

melody-malone-mystery-ebook-angels-kiss.jpg River, too, seems to have lost some of her element of danger now her mystery is resolved. She and the Doctor are almost moving in the same direction, here: is this the ‘oldest’ version of River we’ve seen apart from The Forest of the Dead? The Doctor’s edginess around her has evaporated; he even invites her to travel with him… I’d like to see River return, but only if some of that tension does too.

The only ‘new’ element was something I’d been hoping for: a gumshoe story in Doctor Who. But it was only really a side story, and was diluted by having two detectives. I was hopeful at the start, and enjoyed the extract from The Angel’s Kiss which the Doctor read. I’ll certainly be picking that up when it’s released on Thursday. Review to follow…

Loose Ends

Then there were the expectations created by the previous episodes. Perhaps, most obviously, in The Power of Three in that a choice between ‘real life’ and ‘Doctor life’ was set up, advanced by Brian’s farewell speech (‘just bring them back safe, Doctor’) only to prove irrelevant to this episode.

Less obviously there were also some timer-wimey clues picked up by @thedrwhopodcast and @fusionpatrol who noted that A Town Called Mercy takes place after (or during) The Power of Three. Perhaps we’d all inferred too much from it, but I’d imagined a scenario something like this:

The Doctor, at an elderly Amy’s deathbed only moments after he’d seen her at 31 before being zapped by an Angel, is told she’d waited, wondering if he’d come for her. But as she recounts some of the adventures they had – with the space whale, and Van Gough, the Doctor realises he doesn’t remember the dinosaurs on a spaceship or the asylum of the Daleks and that he has yet to go back and have these adventures…

Mr Moffat is so timer-wimey we expect a lot from him.

It probably wasn’t a bad episode, and when, free from this baggage, I watch it some time in the future, I’ll probably find much more to enjoy.

But right now, it has left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. Still, at least I can go back and watch The Eleventh Hour. Brian Williams, however, is still waiting…

“No parking, or blinking” photo of Cardiff School of Astronomy and Physic by Alan Vega CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

About Simon Wood

E-learning officer, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more…

5 thoughts on ““The Angels Take Manhattan” Review

  1. “…it’s easy to confuse poor plotting with bad storytelling…”?

    Could you explain under what circumstances poor plotting isn’t completely a subset of bad storytelling?

    1. Ah, I didn’t say not ?, I said not ?.

      I’m a bit thrown by this idea of subsets… Is it really applicable? And even in a situation where it were – the paintwork on a car being part of the car – just because a car had good paintwork wouldn’t make it a good car (eg. the engine might not work) and you might think a car is great even if its paintwork isn’t the best.

      However… An example might be the circle of wood and stone around Mercy. It might be argued that it was a weak plot point, that the gunslinger’s motivation was insufficiently explained, and then a range of more suitable alternative strategies would have been available to him. But it’s wonderful storytelling. It does more than create the claustrophobic siege atmosphere, the imagery of the circle is very powerful, not just in giving us a visual cue for the encapsulation of the town but also in imagining the psychological effect of such a potent symbol. And it’s clever staging for the confrontations on the town’s edge. Yes, there could have been a lot of additional explanation to make the plot bomb-proof, but it wouldn’t have enhanced the story, it would have dragged. Anyway, you’ll probably disagree that this is an example of good storytelling, but I’m not trying to make the case for it, just show that it must be judged on different terms.

      In the farewell segment of Angels the central plot device – that foreknowledge determines an unchangeable future – is completely violated. It is literally set in stone that Amy is not buried in the same grave as Rory, and she sees this. The future still changes. But that’s not really the problem; we’d ignore or forgive a plot hole if the story justified it. The weakness in the story is that although it has a beginning, a middle and an end, it has already had all of them by this point. Rory has been zapped back before. The Doctor couldn’t follow him back before. Yet he tried, and prevailed, and we saw that. Now, suddenly, we have exactly the same situation but words are being thrown around to rapidly explain why Rory is irretrievable this time when he wasn’t last time. It seemed an unusually threadbare moment for a Moffat story. The plot showed through, and yes, it was found wanting, but it’s the hole in the story that really mattered.  

  2. Using the car analogy, I think you might be confusing car ownership with car manufacturing, and similarly story enjoyment vs storytelling.

    While you might love a car with bad paintwork, making a car with bad paintwork IS bad car manufacturing.  Bad as in shoddy, deficient or inadequate.  It may not be a critical flaw but it is invariably a flaw.  I can think of no way to argue that a bad factory paint job is not a flaw.

    Similarly, poor plotting is invariably bad storytelling.  It might not be critically bad storytelling, but it’s never a good thing.

    I used subsets to to express the notion that while all examples of poor plotting are instances of bad (deficient, shoddy, inadequate) storytelling, not all examples of bad storytelling are plot problems.

    1. I’m not claiming a flaw isn’t a flaw. The platonic ideal of a Doctor Who episode would have an irreproachable plot, I’m sure. Just as all things being equal, a car with two beverage-cup holders would be better than a car with just one (I imagine). But in the real world, there are trade-offs…

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