Being a nerd, I have opinions about the Doctor Who mid-season finale, "The Angels Take Manhattan."
The opening pre-credits sequence of “The Angels Take Manhattan” do a pretty good job of encapsulating Steven Moffatt’s entire run on the series. There’s plenty of intrigue, it’s full-to-bursting with style, and it ends with an absolutely spectacular image. An image that made me laugh out loud from recognition, the kind of thing you could easily imagine building an entire episode around. And it’s an image that completely falls apart if you think about the plausibility for even a moment.
Or to put it another way: “Don’t think. Think and you’re dead. Don’t pause the recording. Don’t second guess. And don’t think. Good luck.”
If you spend even a split second wondering how an alien being can be gigantic, hollow, metallic, and have had thousands of tourists milling about inside of it; or how a giant statue could be standing outside a hotel without having every pair of eyes in lower Manhattan on it; then you’re lost. Reality has grabbed you from behind and stolen the last hour of your life from you.
Doctor Who — at least the modern version — doesn’t pretend to be a science fiction series. But this episode doesn’t even seem to take the Star Trek: Next Generation route of using a hand-waving sci-fi concept as a metaphor for a human story; or the Star Wars tactic of ignoring the science completely, just using it as backdrop for an old-fashioned adventure story. I’m not even sure I agree with Charlie Jane Anders’s take that it’s a story about stories.
I’d say that it’s more of a series of cool images and emotional moments, loosely strung together to impersonate a narrative. When it works, it’s amazing: I still say that “Blink” is one of the best single episodes of television ever made. When it doesn’t, it completely falls apart — a brilliant opening can turn into a finale that’s so nonsensical it ruins the entire story.
I don’t think “Angels Take Manhattan” was amazing, but I wouldn’t call it a disaster, either. If you look at it strictly in terms of what it was trying to do — cap off two and a half years’ worth of stories, which covered over twenty years of a person’s life as well as the destruction and re-creation of the entire universe — it actually works pretty well.
My biggest problem with it was including the Weeping Angels at all. They’re a perfect example of the Boba Fett Law Of Unnecessary Overexposure, a cool idea that gets increasingly ruined the more you revisit it. Fortunately, the ill-intentioned business about mind-controlled corpses, or people being turned into angels after seeing a picture of them, seems to have been dropped. Unfortunately, it was dropped in favor of a few new concepts that completely abandon logic in favor or setting up some cool images and dramatic moments.
Going into detail about what works and what doesn’t requires a spoiler warning.
Aliens These Days Just Don’t Think Things Through
A gangster who sends his victims back in time so he doesn’t have to deal with them is admittedly a pretty cool enough idea — cool enough to appear in two stories over the same weekend, apparently. Tossing Rory into a purposefully dark cellar full of baby Angels makes a certain kind of sense. The most telling part of that scene, though, is when Rory asks the gangster why he’s given him a box of matches, instead of just tossing him in and being done with it. The gangster replies, “Because it’s funnier.”
That should be a clue that we’re not supposed to be assigning even Bond-villain levels of logic to any of the schemes in this episode; we’re just supposed to run with it. But still…
If you’re a gangster who’s captured an extremely dangerous and ruthless alien who is powerless as long as someone is looking at it, it doesn’t make sense to put that alien behind a curtain. Sure, it’s weak, and yes, you’ve got chains on it. But you’re still doing what is probably the stupidest thing you could do in that situation, just so you can open the curtain and make a dramatic reveal.
By the same logic, if you’re a part of that alien race, and you’re rendered powerless and incapable of movement if any eyes are on you, then “The City That Never Sleeps” is not the perfect place to set up your “farm,” as the Doctor suggests. In fact, it’s probably the worst imaginable place. I don’t care how much you liked Gargoyles, or how cool it would be to blend in with all the statues all over Manhattan; you aliens have got to stop putting your love of theatrics over your most basic survival instinct. You need to be somewhere that makes it easier to catch people alone and away from crowds, somewhere that doesn’t have a million people never shutting their eyes, even at night.
And did the hotel as “farm” idea make sense to any of the Angels when they were signing the lease papers? If you’re trying to get a steady source of potential life/time energy, sending a guy back fifty years or so, and then having him lie around in a bed until he dies, is about the least efficient way you could possibly do it. It’d make more sense to send him back five years or so at a time, and then keep sending him back every time he catches up. But if you’re doing that, then you’d end up with dozens of copies of him wandering around the hotel, not one frail old man in a bed.
Incidentally, the aliens really shouldn’t be trying to corner their prey by standing at opposite ends of a hallway. Where they can see each other.
Then there’s the idea that Rory and Amy’s creating a paradox made New York City of 1938 too unstable for the TARDIS to ever visit again. That’s a much better explanation of getting them off the show than it would be to kill them outright, send them to another dimension, wipe their memories so their brains don’t explode, or just have them leave of their own free will (which isn’t final enough for the new series, apparently). But it doesn’t mention why they can’t just take a ship back over to England, or a train out to San Francisco, and have the Doctor pick them up there. Especially since River has a personal time travel device that can take her back to visit her parents (at least they finally acknowledged that) and encourage them to write an afterword for her book.
A Broken Wrist, Because It’s Funnier
But really, all that nerdfan-kvetching is even more pointless than the usual, because it ignores why every implausible plot device was included. There are lots of statues in Manhattan, not to mention old hotels and cool old cars; it’s a natural choice for a 30s detective story. A giant fanged Statue of Liberty is a great image. A book that tells the future is a staple of time travel stories in Doctor Who, and it works well as a symbol of Amy creating her own story for herself. The hotel farm exists solely to have the moment when Amy sees Rory living out the rest of his life alone and without her.
And most importantly, the hand-waving explanations of temporal instability and fixed timelines were as good a way as any to put a conclusive end to the Ponds as part-time companions. In “Blink,” (or in other words, back before the Angels’ effectiveness as metaphor was all but completely destroyed), the Doctor calls them “the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely.” That’s pretty much exactly what was necessary here: the characters didn’t need to be killed off, but their stories did. There just wasn’t that much left for them to do, especially in a series that’s constantly raising the stakes for itself. (Which is another overall problem with Doctor Who: how many times can you destroy the universe itself before you have to go back to smaller scale, more personal stories?)
The series has been dropping hints that they can’t continue on like this indefinitely, but it always seemed like foreshadowing, the equivalent of a comic book cover promising that in this issue, someone will die! I was glad to see that it didn’t foreshadow a death, but just helped explain why their stories needed to end.
Really, the key scene for the entire episode is the one that reveals River broke her own wrist to get free of the Angel that had caught her. It showed how there’s a dark side to all of these adventures, one that often gets ignored, forgotten, or glossed over as they run on to the next storyline. The previous episode showed brief bits of Amy and Rory’s adventures during a brief exit from an engagement party; it was played for laughs there, but made sure to mention that they were in danger the whole time.
And if the Angels, who are supposed to be some of the most terrifying creatures in the universe, operate by feeding off years of people’s lifetimes, then Amy and Rory’s adventures have been every bit as horrific. They’ve made frequent mention of how Rory waited by Amy’s “tomb” for 2000 years. But they didn’t draw attention to Amy’s having to see Rory getting wiped from existence by a crack in the universe. Or the two of them having a child and having it taken away from them. Or their only friend from childhood turning out to be the psychotic version of their daughter. Or Amy having to live alone and defend herself for decades waiting for the Doctor and Rory to come back for her (even if that version of Amy got wiped out of existence). Or even the fact that was mentioned in passing in the last episode and dismissed as a minor inconvenience — they go missing for months at a time, and haven’t been able to keep many long term friends.
It’s usually described in terms of how it affects the Doctor, and how he needs to have someone to travel with, and how he hates endings. But the recurring theme of most of the past two and a half seasons seems to be that being a companion kind of sucks. So the temporal disturbance and time-stealing Angels was just a convenient excuse to cover the fact that it was finally time to go.
The other bit of characterization that finally came through is the difference between a companion and a romantic relationship (something that made the stories of Rose and Martha seem tone-deaf at best, creepy at worst). They tried the whole “Rory is jealous of Amy’s relationship with the Doctor” thing, and it was just weird and awkward and seemed somewhat played out even before they’d addressed it. But I think it was nice to see their relationship reinforced in the finale, as a contrast to the season premier. Rory said that they’d both always known that he loved Amy more than she loved him, and that was an interesting take on the “what happens after ‘happily ever after’?” idea: how can you imagine any kind of equality in a relationship once somebody’s spent 2000 years of his life waiting for you?
With “Angels Take Manhattan,” we see that again, but this time from Amy’s perspective: Rory grew old and died while she was off with the Doctor. And she had the chance to “pay him back” by jumping off a building with him, and then giving up 80 years of her life. For a love story that hasn’t always entirely made sense, and has instead just favored the dramatic moments, it’s a fitting ending.
And of course, it shows how her relationship with the Doctor had changed from the usual: she’d started out as the little girl waiting for him to come back and take her on an adventure. In her voiceover at the end, it became clear that she’d become the leading character of her own story; the Doctor had become her companion, not the other way around. “Raggedy Man, goodbye” was a pretty great line.