Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Angels Take Manhattan written by Steven Moffat and directed by Nick Hurran

This story in a nutshell: Au revoir to the Ponds!

Nutty Professor: The Doctor’s chemistry with River continues to impress, he steps into her hellish situation (being clasped by a screaming Angel) as though he has just walked through the front door after a days work expecting dinner. His furious anger at reading the last chapter of the book didn’t quite work for me, he felt more like a petulant child rather than a man crumpling under the weight of the future. A God with a 12 year olds face? That’s a really naff description of the Doctor. Kissing River’s hand gently after healing it was lovely but their subsequent tiff failed to convince (especially Matt Smith screaming ‘River!’ like he was auditioning for a part on Eastenders). What has happened to Smith this week? He's remarkably off his game. Until now this has been by far his most consistent year, performance wise. I didn’t like the assertion that the Doctor doesn’t like to see people ageing because he doesn’t like endings…I don’t understand why this should be an issue now when he has confronted endings throughout his entire life. All I got from this was an image of the Doctor as an unpleasant Hugh Hefner type character with River and Amy having constant cosmetic surgery to try and maintain their youthful looks to please him. It was a really discordant observation. Again when the Doctor tells Rory that he has just witnessed his own future, Smith sounds under rehearsed. Fortunately where it counts he manages to pull it together and his final scene with Gillan is so agonisingly portrayed it would take a stronger man than me to resist. Ultimately Amy and Rory choose each other and not the Doctor, and it breaks his heart. He cannot fix everything and Amy knows that his promises to solve this are empty and is not willing to waste her only chance to be with her husband. Even if that means losing the Doctor. Unlike his stunning characterisation when he first met Amy, the eleventh Doctor is hardly at his best when he finally said goodbye. Proof that things have gone awry slightly. 

Winding River: As I suspected, River’s story began before her mothers and will continue after it. It has the odd effect of making Amy’s time on the show somehow less relevant than her daughters but Moffat is in a bit of a quandary because he clearly doesn't want to lose touch with a character that he has put so much effort in to. As soon as I heard that Melody Malone was the writer of the book the Doctor was reading (and the filthy tone of the prose) I was certain that River was the writer but that didn’t stop it being a fantastic device. In what is probably River’s finest moment since her decision to kill herself in the Library, she tries to give the Doctor hope by pretending to have extradited herself from the Angel without breaking her wrist. It must have hurt to buggery but she pretends otherwise to feed his impression that the future can be changed. To willingly hurt yourself to help someone else, that’s real love. River telling Amy to go and be with her husband and damn the consequences is another phenomenal moment. This temporal trickster (the sort of person who is willing to deface the oldest wall in existence to get the Doctor’s attention) willing her mother to defy the Doctor and the Angels and to be with her father in the past. It's perfectly in character and turns a moment of tragedy into a moment of triumph. It would have been the perfect note to leave the character on...but I seem to keep saying that. 

Scots Tart: Something came to me in The Angels Take Manhattan that was like a dust sheet being lifted from my brain…looking back across her two and a half seasons (crikey) I find that I have only liked Amelia Pond when she was written by authors other than Steven Moffat. That’s not to say that his approach is wrong (he created the character after all), it's just not to my liking. In his hands she always wound up being a selfish, sassy, smart mouthed Scot with little in the way of sexual morality. When I think back to the times when the character has clicked with me (Amy’s Choice, Vincent and the Doctor, The Doctor’s Wife, The God Complex, The Power of Three) none of them were written by the current show runner. I would have loved to have seen what Russell T. Davies would have done with the character, just for one episode, because he had a way of making people both sassy and terribly likeable at the same time. A feat that seems to bypass Moffat. In the last episode Chibnall made Amy a temperate, winning character who I was starting to feel sorry about losing. At the beginning of The Angels Take Manhattan she’s back to being cocky and in-yer-face and treating the Doctor like a mild annoyance. A character who is at her least appealing in the hands of her creator? It strikes me that the only way Moffat can make me feel for Amy is to torture her (which he did ad nauseum last year…and it almost worked) whereas the stronger writers since he was handed the show (Neil Gaiman, Richard Curtis) manage it even in the quieter moments. She wanders around the early scenes whilst her husband has been stolen back through time as though it is little more than a mild annoyance. It's not until Amy takes hold of her husbands hand and defiantly states that she wont let the Angels take him that I felt anything for her in this episode, for good or for ill. It capitalises on the strongest aspect of her character – her marriage to Rory. To capitalise on the incredible bond that has built between the two characters Steven Moffat has Amy choose to (potentially) sacrifice her life twice over for her husband. Both scenes are unforgettable, exactly the sort of emotional high you would expect from the departure of a long running character but all the more effective because it sees Amy leave the series making an entirely selfless choice and affirming her love for her husband. Frankly I cannot think of a better place to leave her.

Loyal Roman: On the other hand Rory was easy to like from the off because it is so much easier to sympathise with the underdog and tethered to Amy Pond that description has rarely felt more apt. He’s emerged as the real hero of the Moffat era, fighting for the attention of the audience when the far less interesting Doctor/Amy relationship has dominated proceedings and succeeding in winning the affections of a nation. He’s managed to die several times over and he’s still with us. He has stolen back the love of his wife and gained the respect of the man he nearly lost her to. Arthur Darvill has never given less than 100% and when all hope has been lost with regards to Amy I have always had an emotional connection with Rory. Given everything he has had to scale, it’s a damn impressive achievement on Darvill’s part. When it comes to the older Rory dying in bed, it wasn’t Amy’s reaction that gave me goosebumps but the horrified look on Rory’s face. He looks absolutely haunted at the fact that this is all his life will become. That growing horror in pit of stomach was all for Rory and the fact that the Angels are coming for him and he will have to outrun them for the rest of his life. It’s a terrorizing realisation. When it comes to him choosing to end his life to save everybody else I had reached the zenith of the love I have for the character. The fact that we never get to see him beyond his snatching by the Angel at the climax is gutting (especially that he never got to say goodbye to the Doctor) but I understand why it went down that way. The Doctor and Amy needed their moment. At least we learn that he had a happy life in the past. The ambiguity of never seeing it is that I have this image of a content man working his way through the 20th Century, smiling.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m only human’ ‘That’s exactly what they’re thinking…’
‘Didn’t you used to be somebody?’
‘Do you think you’ll just come back to life?’ ‘When don’t I?’

The Good:
  • I am holidaying in New York in January for the first time so the setting could be any more prescient and appetite whetting for me. There seems to be an abundance of statues just waiting to be exploited and once again its not until it is pointed out that I realise just how creepy they are. I really like how Moffat manages to have his cake and eat it, setting the story across two time periods and thus capitalising on the contemporary buzz of the New York setting but also indulging in the classy atmosphere of the more storybook, noir-ish New York from the past. This coming from a series that has already visited the city twice since the series returned (Daleks in Manhattan and The Stolen Earth).
  • The most effective element of this episode beyond the devastatingly emotional scenes is Moffat’s handling of the Weeping Angels. Suddenly I am hearing an awful lot of complaints about their appearance in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone when I only recall there being a deluge of praise for that two parter upon its broadcast. In hindsight they were used more as foot soldiers, harbingers of death rather than focusing on their modus operandi that was set in Blink (the ability to send people back in time) and Moffat redresses the balance here by making that ability even more terrifying than ever. The design of the creatures has never been better either with the scarred and screaming Angel that grips River’s wrist proving particularly paralysing to look at. The whole idea of Winter Quays being a battery farm, a trap that their victims walk into and spend the rest of their lives in waiting to meet themselves again upon their deaths is probably my favourite Steven Moffat idea since he took over as frontrunner. The claustrophobia that that building exudes when you realise that walking inside is like stepping into temporal quicksand is stifling. The episode rewards repeat viewing because going into this knowing that for Rory all roads lead to Winter Quays proved more affecting than it did on its initial broadcast when I thought he was just walking into any old building. The image of the Angel smiling when it realises that it has them all trapped within the building chills the blood. Once the Angels are on the move the editing is astonishingly good, with some real jump out of your seat moments of terror (I especially love the Doctor and River trying to run out a door only to be confronted with an Angel that leaps forward as the light blinks out for a second).
  • I really approve of the longer than usual pre titles sequence that is bursting with a gorgeous noir-ish atmosphere (the voiceover comes straight from a 1950s detective movie). It cleverly tells a mini story in its own right; setting up the idea of the Weeping Angel battery farm without giving anything away, re-introducing the Angels themselves and their ability to fuck with peoples timelines, establishes the New York setting with real panache and kicks off the episode with an unsettling and ominous tone. It's like a beautiful little short story attached to the main novel.
  • The Doctor ripping out the last page of the book. It completely flew by me when he did it but when it was revealed to have the most important significance it broke my heart. So simple and so clever, its an example of Moffat shooting and scoring with regards to foreshadowing with emotional results.
  • The book dictating the events of the plot is a device that I have seen used before (it was quite popular with Justin Richards at one time in his novels The Medusa Effect and Time Zero) but remains very engaging and dexterous. Simon was quick to figure out that it was Rory’s actions being read aloud and as soon as you realise the narrative is going to play out in two time zones with the book bridging them it allows Moffat the chance to indulge in his usual narrative trickery in an inventive way. The danger of reading ahead and cementing those events in time is cleverly played out through the sequence with River’s wrist. It brings to mind River’s own little blue book and the Doctor and Donna pondering over whether to read it at the end of Forest of the Dead. You can only read what is happening parallel with your timeline and if you skip ahead time is fixed. What if you don’t like what you read? Amy suggesting that they only read the chapter titles is a gorgeous way of pre-empting the events of the latter half of the episode.
  • It's wonderful that Moffat is constantly innovating the Angels rather than just allowing them to resting on their laurels. In A Time of Angels he took the destabilising step of having the creatures actually leaping from the screen to attack people. In The Angels Take Manhattan he introduces the cherubs, giggling, cutesy simulacrums that terrorise Rory in the cellar. Whilst there might be a case of chasing the success of Blink about these sequels, Moffat uses his time to wisely to broaden the horizons of his most popular monsters.
  • I might have complained an awful lot about Moffat over plotting his stories but I can almost forgive him any previous infractions thanks to the stirring notion of Rory killing himself to create a paradox and poison the Angel’s well of temporal energy. It's a massively complex (overly elaborate if I'm honest) set up but fundamentally comes down to a simple, emotional decision to unravel it all. It reminds me of the similarly heartbreaking conclusion to The Doctor Dances, the horror of the situation in Moffat’s debut came down to the simple acknowledgement of a mothers love for her child. The only hope of a possible happy ending for Rory is for him to commit suicide. It's bleak but also oddly uplifting as he takes control of his own future and sticks a finger up at the Angels. To then have Amy take his hand and decide that if he is going to risk his life then she is going to go with him because she cannot bear the thought of living without him practically salvages her character entirely. It’s a beautiful moment, defining them as a couple deeply in love right up to the moment of their death. Speaking as one half of a married couple I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing if I was in Amy’s place and I have never empathised with her character more. Hauntingly played by both actors, this is as realistic a declaration of love as I have ever seen on television. Its exactly the sort of passionate conceit that The Wedding of River Song lacked to bring its story to a satisfying conclusion (it instead pivoted on a not so clever piece of sleight of hand) which makes The Angel Takes Manhattan a far more involving drama.
  • Murray Gold’s music never fails to impress me but he gave me goosebumps all over when Amy and Rory jumped from the building.
  • Cutting to the graveyard after Amy and Rory’s ‘deaths’ was a cute piece of misdirection but we’ll let Moffat have that one because of the unbelievable nerve of creating a second tragic ending for the Ponds. He turns this bit of emotional pretence on its head and as we watch transforms the graveyard into what we thought it was all along…the Ponds final resting place. It’s a heartbreaking double bluff and another example of Moffat’s chicanery at its cruel best.
  • Taking us back to Amelia Pond in the garden waiting for the Doctor to come back for her is just about the perfect ending for her character. It’s a picture perfect snapshot of the fairytale adventure that Amelia is about to experience (well maybe not a fairytale…she witness the end of the universe, has her baby stolen away and commits suicide). The voice over is beautifully written and reduced my husband to tears. I literally had to cradle him for a couple of minutes when this episode ended. I’ll never forget that Doctor Who made him do that.
The Bad: There were so many aspects to Amy and Rory’s departure that left me feeling unsatisfied it almost completely justified my complaints about how Steven Moffat’s clever-clever approach to the show can be detrimental to its success…
  • I never got the impression that River was Amy and Rory’s daughter here. Because season six took such a scatterbrained and complex approach to plotting out Melody’s story to ensure that the surprises were well hidden (the triple whammy of Amy not being Amy but pregnant and in Madame Kovarian’s clutches, her daughter turning out to be River and Mel’s also turning out to be River) we actually never got to see mother, father and daughter spending any quality time together (aside from a brief scene at the end of The Wedding of River Song). It was all obfuscation and adventure but ultimately Amy never, ever got to enjoy that mother-daughter bond with her own child and experience the best of her growing up. That’s really, desperately sad. And don’t start banging on about how she grew up with Mel’s because she never knew that was her daughter. That’s entirely different. The fact of the matter is that from birth to about 12 years old Amy never enjoyed being a mother and she never will again. Why Moffat would make their relationship so estranged is beyond me. Here River is entirely unmoved at the thought of being ripped apart from her mother forever, shrugging it off as something that happens because that’s how her life has always been. Its so cold I almost got emotional whiplash. The Amy/Rory/River story doesn’t come to a close with a warm, cosy, it-was-alright-in-the-end vibe but a clinical, dispassionate was-it-all-worth-it one instead. Frankly I felt far more of a connection between River and her husband than River and her mother in Amy’s final episode. Considering they will never see each other again, that’s a shocking oversight.
  • Whilst we’re on the subject of family members how disappointing is it that Brian should not get to find out what happened to his son. Perhaps the Doctor will go an visit him after the events of this tale and explain what happened but I doubt we will ever get to see it now. The Pond’s story is over and it would be pointless to end it quite as definitely as Moffat does here and let it bleed into future episodes by tying up loose ends. All of that should have been dealt with here. I’m not entirely sure what the point of introducing Brian was for. Just to have him convince Amy and Rory to continue travelling with the Doctor only for us to never see the emotional consequences of that decision biting him on the butt. Plus beyond a few fun lines his inclusion was ultimately pretty superfluous. I thought he was being set up as ‘the new Wilf’ but he pales in comparison. For a start Davies allowed the Doctor to bring Donna home and face up to her family. Moffat is so busy being a smart arse that he doesn’t have time for that.
  • I also have a massive problem with Amy and Rory’s story that has been set up on Earth since The God Complex last year. What was the point of giving them that house and allowing them to build their own life, only to have them change their mind at the last minute and go travelling with him, only to be blasted back in time by the Weeping Angels? I rather like how the Pond’s are forced away from the Doctor…but the idea that we have wasted so much time witnessing their domestic life when ultimately that all comes to nought leaves me irritated. Why did the Doctor give them the house and tell them to leave to protect themselves if he still wanted them to come travelling with him? What was the point of the near divorce in Asylum of the Daleks? Why even suggest that they would move on when it was never really on the cards? The whole ‘companions with two lives’ angle doesn’t feel especially well thought through when their eventual fate has absolutely nothing to do with it. It feels as though Amy and Rory’s story has been stretched out half a season too long…that this could have happily (if depressingly) been the Christmas special (wouldn’t that be just awesome if they produced something this terrifying for Christmas?). The Ponds story came to an end in The God Complex…what we have witnessed since is an exercise in running on the spot.
  • Beyond discovering that he is a crime boss with a penchant for theivery I never got a sense of who Grayle was or what his purpose was in the story. It’s the sort of role that should be far more prominent than it is but because Moffat has a million other things to be getting on with Mike McShane’s character gets shuffled into the pack and winds up being quite unmemorable. He’s summarily forgotten after fifteen minutes and removed from the plot in a blink and you’ll miss it (hohoho) moment when he is no longer relevant.
  • The Statue of Liberty turns out to be a Weeping Angel. Well of course she does. It would have been terribly disappointing had they missed that trick and yet paradoxically it is all a bit obvious for its own good. It is a lose/lose situation. What I really object to is playing the same trick twice, having her appear all fanged up in the pre-titles sequences and thus completely blunting her shock appearance later on in the episode. This should have been saved for the sequence where Amy and Rory are hunted through the building rather than squandered during the prologue. The visual is mightily impressive but ultimately she does nothing but stand there and look nasty. She doesn’t actually do anything. It feels like this awesomely powerful Angel should have made a greater impact on this episode somehow. When Garner cries ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’ they could have excised the appearance of Liberty and cut to the theme music…the opening set piece is so strong would have held up regardless and it would have whet our appetites for her appearance later in the episode. Shame.
  • Her introduction is so brilliantly timed that you barely notice…but why was River in 1930s New York if she hasn’t written the book yet? Rory just happened to be taken back to a point where his mother was vacationing? And how does the book wind up in the Doctor’s pocket? I might have missed some      explanations…
  • Simon was nodding with approval at the ‘Yowza’ Chin dynasty diversion. It's cute but we’ve seen this trick done a few too many times now to impress.
  • Ultimately there is no reason whatsoever that this has to be set in New York. There’s some discussion of the Angels taking Manhattan because it’s the city that never sleeps but that could be anywhere. Its as relevant as the water pressure nonsense in the Amsterdam set Arc of Infinity. Of course there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be set in New York either. I think I would have enjoyed this taking place in Leadworth though, to bring things full circle. With the Angels battery farm being the house that Amy grew up in. But filming in a quaint village probably wouldn’t have the wow factor of this American metropolis and it couldn’t really be billed as a blockbuster. 
The Shallow Bit: River absolutely looks the part of a smoking hot detective with a fedora disguising her eye line. Those glasses look oddly uncomfortable on Amy’s nose. Impressive make up for the older Rory – making actors look older has come on in leaps and bounds.

Result: ‘Together or not at all…’ A chilling, expensive, imaginative mini TV movie, yes. An effective tying up of Amy and Rory’s story, no. The first half of this episode is typical Moffat madness; leaping from one location to another, packed with knowing narrative tricks and trading character drama in favour of over-processed plotting. You can literally feel the gears grinding into place so its fortunate that Nick Hurran is on hand to ensure that every scene is packed with visual goodness, chilling imagery and a tone that will keep you on edge. At the halfway point the episode suddenly takes a terrifying turn and develops a horrifying pit-of-the-stomach feeling that wont go away. Even though we know this is going to be Amy and Rory’s last episode (I don’t think a companions departure has ever been this widely advertised) there is a discomforting feeling that this is not going to end well no matter how our heroes approach the problem. It’s a prolonged feeling of unease in a show that by its very format doesn’t allow for such things as a rule. The final fifteen minutes of this episode are possibly the finest of the entire Moffat era to this point with Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvil doing their damdest to tear your heart in two. Their last moments on the show are just about perfect and given the expectation that weighed against this finale that is a real achievement. Stylishly directed and with unforgettable performances, The Angels Takes Manhattan is a fantastic television experience that stumbles when it comes to its functional set up and the niggling threads that are left dangling with the departure of two frustratingly handled companions: 7/10


Anonymous said...

Can something be scatterbrained and complex?

Joe Ford said...

If written by Steven Moffat given inadequate time to write a script, definitely :-)

Thomas Marcus said...

In the episode Grayle says that River is a detective who investigates angels, or something like that, so that's why she's in New York.

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