The Angels Take Manhattan

Spoiler warning: watch the episode first.

One of the more interesting answers to the question “Doctor Who?” that I’ve read goes all the way back to the 1968 story “The Mind Robber.” The theory (which I first read on TARDIS Eruditorum, and you should read it there too—go on, I’ll wait here for you), as I understand it, states in a nutshell that the Doctor Who universe is fictional not just to us but also to the Doctor; that the Time Lords are the uninvolved overseers of the stories within it; and that the Doctor ran away from his home planet because he didn’t want merely to observe these stories unfolding, but to become involved and help create them.

I favor the less postmodern viewpoint that the Doctor is a clever alien, a lot like us but biologically and technologically gifted, and that River Song’s description of him as an “ageless god who insists on the face of a 12-year-old” is a colorful exaggeration. But it’s hard to deny that the new series in particular (see especially “The Big Bang”) seems to favor this interpretation at least implicitly: the Doctor is at least as much a god as the author of any story, and that stories and ideas and memory can create and reshape reality.

It’s not that much of a stretch when you think about it. The difference between fiction and history is no more than the difference between imagination and real life. Time travel in a book is as simple as flipping back a few pages. And in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” we have a book in which what is apparently fiction becomes reality through the simple method of seeing it on a page or reading it aloud. The Angels can only trap you when you don’t look; Melody Malone’s novel can only trap you when you do.

In some cases it seems as though the trap results from jumping to conclusions: for example, one of the passages Amy reads to the Doctor doesn’t actually say “Melody broke her arm,” it just says that she asks “Why do you have to break mine?” As always, the episode left me full of questions, perhaps inevitable in a situation as timey-wimey as this. The biggest one for me was just making sense of when the Angels and Winter Quay existed. If they kept sending people back in time, wouldn’t they eventually hit an era when the building wasn’t there? Or if they kept yo-yoing people from 1938 to, say, 1908 and letting them age, what did their victims eat for the 30 intervening years? The Angels are a fabulous horror-fantasy concept, but they’re harder to read as science fiction, and just one more reason this show (now more than ever) really doesn’t qualify for that label. Instead, this is Sandman in space, which is not a terrible thing at all.

Speaking of space, every single setting for this story looks fabulous. I’m biased here, because I love noir as much as I don’t love westerns (probably one reason I didn’t cotton to “A Town Called Mercy”), and even though this didn’t quite feel noirish to me—it needed a steadier camera, for a start—it at least felt sumptuous and atmospheric. I love watching the TARDIS crew skulk around darkened hotels or foreboding mansions. The only visual element that didn’t really work for me involved the Statue of Liberty, but even there I have to applaud the ambition.

The other theme “The Angels Take Manhattan” keeps bringing up is age. It starts innocently enough, with the Doctor noticing and then trying not to notice that Amy (presumably not much over 30, and of course Karen Gillan isn’t even 25) is getting crows’ feet. He seems oddly squeamish about it, given that he’s married (and evidently attracted) to a woman who looks middle-aged and has never, in past incarnations, seemed all that concerned with age before. But we’ve already seen this Doctor deal with nightmarish old people in “Amy’s Choice,” and shut an older Amy out of the TARDIS in “The Girl Who Waited.” More than that, we haven’t seen him travel (on TV, anyway) with any regular companions who appeared to be past their twenties since 1966, with the possible exceptions of Grace, Donna, and the second Romana. It’s easy to forget, especially when the Doctor is played by a younger actor, that his companions really are typically very young. So it doesn’t seem entirely strange for River to be concerned about her place in her husband’s life, and to distance herself from the possibility of travelling with him full-time. I don’t quite follow whether they’re still meeting in reverse order or if they sometimes go forward now or what, but it seems clear they’ll never have a stretch where they’re together long-term.

Which brings us to the ending of this episode, and if you didn’t heed the spoiler warning before, you’d better heed it now. If you haven’t seen this episode yet, don’t read any further until you have.

You may have known ahead of time that this was finally to be Amy and Rory’s last episode, and you may have been wondering what would finally break up this seemingly inseparable trio if not death. Several episodes this season have already foreshadowed the death of the Ponds—or, as we’re led to think of them by story’s end, the Williamses. But we also know that Moffat is rarely if ever that obvious. So rather than kill them off straightforwardly (as we’re teased once more to think he might, after their rooftop resolution), Moffat sends them back in time to live out a full life in 20th century Manhattan. According to the Doctor and River, the TARDIS can’t ever visit them again due to all the timey-wimey paradox action required to dispatch the Angels (save one, and do they kill that one too? if so, how? if not, what’s to stop it preying on Manhattan in 2012?). I’m still fuzzy on whether the TARDIS is excluded from the city limits of Manhattan in every time period or just 1938, or why the Ponds couldn’t just leave Manhattan and visit the Doctor in Poughkeepsie or Boston in 1947. Couldn’t they just use Vortex Manipulators again to “motorcycle through traffic?” Perhaps we just have to accept that it’s been written—by River in the Melody Malone book, or by Moffat, take your pick—and that’s all the explanation we’re going to get.

When the Doctor declares “I hate endings,” it sounds like he’s speaking for every Doctor Who writer since 2005, except maybe Tom MacRae. Say what you like about the sometimes-abrupt goodbyes of the classic series: at least most of them saw companions actively deciding to stop traveling with the Doctor. Sometimes they opted to stay and help the people they’d been saving, sometimes they were swept up in less-than-convincing whirlwind marriages to characters they’d barely spoken to. But as a grownup who can’t seem to say goodbye to the Doctor myself, I should probably have more sympathy for companions who won’t leave until they’re forced to, like Rose (trapped in another dimension) and Donna (compelled to forget). To be fair to Amy, she did have several chances to say goodbye to the Doctor (“The God Complex,” every other story this season) and it seems clear that, more often than not, he’s the one who kept coming back to her. He even does it one more time at the very end, at her posthumous request, in a pretty wonderful coda.

“The Angels Take Manhattan,” then: not a perfect goodbye, and perhaps only truly heartbreaking if you’d managed not to know it was coming, but mostly satisfying, even beautiful if you look at it through the right glasses. One story—two and a half seasons of the girl who waited and the boy who waited for her—ends. And at Christmas, another begins.


  1. Jeffrey Lampert · September 30, 2012

    The Moff has said that he rewrote the ending multiple times, since it never seemed to work for him. And in the end, as many have commented, from a plot POV it still doesn’t work, as there are a million ways they could have rectified this (especially considering the Doctor escaped just this sort of predestination trap LAST SEASON! You don’t even need a shape-changing robot, just write the damn book and leave a gravestone without an actual body. Done and done). And you’ve already pointed out the holes in why he can’t visit them.

    Given that the “time can be rewritten, except for fixed points, except it’s not really the fixed point you think it is” era gives us an effective get-out-of-jail free card, it’s very hard to make something final. However, the show has often had plenty of plot holes – enough that I pretty much just roll my eyes and add another tick mark to my wrists and see how long it takes me to forget – so I find that it comes down to how is it handled from a *character* POV. And in that regard, I thought it was well done. Matt and Karen made me feel how utterly gut-wrenching this was.

    (of course, since we’ve all thought of possible solutions, I maintain that, despite her comments to the contrary, Amy & Rory could show up again, even if they never leave their current location, or, like River in Stormcage, always end up back there…and how is that for symmetry? River’s no longer trapped, but Amy is?)

    I still maintain that the best way to handle this would have been for the Doctor to simply swear off his companions once he’s seen them definitively die (why not go back in time a few months and have that drink with the Brig?), saying that it’s hard to look someone in the eye and not change history after that [with one exception, but they’ve already met in the wrong order a million times anyway]. Have the last episode simply dedicated to visiting Amy and Rory for long periods of time, even imply that they’ve spent 30, 40, 50 years travelling with them, on and off. And then, have them actually get too old for it, or ill. And end the episode at Amy’s deathbed, as she’s in her 90’s and having travelled her entire life with him, having watched the Doctor spend more time travelling with her than anyone else. He’s given her as long and as full a life as anyone could and yet, at the end, she’s still only human, and he’s nigh-immortal. [Kind of a Highlander moment, I suppose]. No crashes to prehistoric earth, no time disruptor, no Weeping Angels, just the cruel march of time. For the last shot, show the Doctor, at Amy’s bedside, with young Amy’s hat and suitcase sitting off to the side.

    Now *that’s* gut-wrenching.

    • Jeffrey Lampert · September 30, 2012

      Oh, and have that red pinwheel, too.

    • encyclops · September 30, 2012

      Yeah, unfortunately, the more I think about this story the less I like it. That actually goes for almost all of new Who, and oddly seems to work in reverse for most of classic Who. I don’t think that’s because classic Who was better written — it usually wasn’t, in many respects — but because it tended to have a more solid foundation, even if it was stolen from something else (Quatermass, Hammer Horror, etc.).

      Still, even if we take this only as a character piece, it really doesn’t contribute anything we didn’t already know: that Amy would choose a mundane life with Rory over an exciting one without him (and though anyone who’s been in love can relate to her reasons why, the show doesn’t spend much time explicating them, except in “The Power of Three”). The ending you describe above is infinitely better, not just because it would be far cooler to anyone above the age of 12, but because it would actually mean something, be an actual ending to their story. It’s not “clever” in the Moffat sense, though — it’s just interesting and thoughtful and something that could last beyond the moment and say something about the Doctor. So maybe the reason Moffat kept rewriting it was that he had a 12-year-old audience in mind.

      It’s hard to shake the feeling that the show’s regressing. The title character has certainly never seemed more immature.

  2. Jeffrey Lampert · September 30, 2012

    PS While reading wifeinspace today, when I read the words, “The Experiment Continues”, the first thing that popped into my head was, “So who’s Crow and who’s Tom Servo?”

    (I suppose Neil=Joel, although maybe Dr. F as well…)

    • encyclops · September 30, 2012

      Maybe Gary is Servo and Nicol is Gypsy, or vice versa.