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Doctor Who Recap Season 7, Episode 5, "The Angels Take Manhattan"

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Doctor Who Recap: Season 7, Episode 5, “The Angels Take Manhattan”

BBC

Over the course of its original run, Doctor Who seldom used to make a big deal of the times when one or more of the Doctor’s companions departed the series. There were exceptions, of course, but the majority of companions would receive no more than a brief, bittersweet moment at the end of an otherwise unrelated story. Sometimes even less—Liz Shaw, the first companion to Jon Pertwee’s Doctor, simply vanished from the show after the 1970 season, with only a brief mention in the first story of the following year to cover her absence. Such a thing would be unthinkable in the new Who series, where the increased complexity of characterization and the central importance of the Doctor’s companions within the arc of the stories has meant that all of the episodes where a companion departs have been special, emotional high points. In “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the finale for Season 7’s first stretch of five episodes, showrunner Steven Moffat takes on the responsibility of providing a fitting and satisfying payoff for two and a half years of adventuring for Amy (Karen Gillan) and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill), and succeeds brilliantly.

As often with Moffat’s scripts, even just recapping what happens in the episode can be quite a challenge because he is amazingly adept at making plot elements serve multiple purposes simultaneously, at linking lines of dialogue across the episode so that they contrast or reflect each other, and at introducing new twists that throw an entirely new light on what has gone before. The pre-credits teaser, a lovely noir pastiche from director Nick Hurran, provides a good example. We are in 1938 New York, where a private detective, Sam Garner (Rob David), is hired by a Mr. Grayle (Mike McShane), to investigate what he says are statues that move by themselves—but only when you’re not looking at them. Directed to an apartment block “where the statues live,” Garner finds something even more disturbing—a room containing a bedridden, dying old version of himself. Then the statues start coming after him, and pursue him up to the roof, where he is confronted by a Statue of Liberty whose face is disturbingly different from the version familiar to us…

The moving statues might be a mystery to Garner, but they certainly aren’t to any Doctor Who viewer of the past five years. The Weeping Angels, probably the greatest new monster created so far in the new series, have been a fan favorite ever since their sensational debut in Moffat’s 2007 episode “Blink”. With their combination of a brilliantly convincing design and (far more unusual) a wonderfully original concept, they are clearly one of Moffat’s greatest contributions to the show. I did think he mishandled them slightly when they were brought back for 2010’s two-parter “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone”, when they gained the ability to speak (at least, using others’ voices), and the clever idea that even the audience never sees them move was abandoned in favor of more conventional attempts at creepiness. Thankfully, no such lapses occur in this episode—the angels are back to their inscrutable, menacing best, with a few new developments thrown in for good measure.

But to return to my point about Moffat’s multi-layered plotting—after the opening titles, we get a whole new perspective on what we just saw as we join the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy and Rory in the present day, enjoying a picnic in Central Park. The Doctor is happily reciting to them from a book, a hardboiled detective yarn called Melody Malone (“A Private Detective in Old New York Town”)—and it becomes obvious that we have been watching a dramatization of the fiction he has just been reading. A second viewing of the episode reveals that the director has signposted this in retrospect, so to speak—a great many of the shots and camera moves in the teaser are replicated later in the episode, in the “real” part of the story. That even includes the striking final moment, when Garner is framed so as to appear within the fanged mouth of the Statue of Liberty angel (an idea, incidentally, which Moffat has said people have been suggesting to him about twice a week ever since “Blink” aired)—the exact same sequence will later occur with Rory.

The early picnic scenes have some lovely, relaxed banter between the three leads. Beneath the surface, though, Moffat is busy establishing elements that will be significant later, such as the fact that Amy now uses reading glasses, or the Doctor ripping out the last page of the book because “I hate endings.” Hilariously, Amy and Rory start kissing and then riff on the fact that (as of the end of last season) the Doctor is actually their son-in-law (“We have company” “I’ll get a babysitter”). While Rory goes off to get coffee, the Doctor continues reading to Amy, but the line between fiction and reality starts blurring as the realization gradually strikes first the audience, then the Doctor and Amy, that the book isn’t just paralleling events on screen, but actually narrating them.

The Doctor: (reading) “He said, ’I just went to get coffees for the Doctor and Amy. Hello, River.’”

Rory has been transported back to 1938, where he encounters River Song (Alex Kingston), who is investigating the angels infesting New York, under the alias of Melody Malone. The first shot of River meeting Rory (“Hello, dad”) is the point where the fictional recounting gives way to real events. She and Rory are captured and taken to Mr. Grayle, who is now revealed to be a wealthy collector who thinks his house is under siege by the statues—with good reason, since he has a basement full of cherub-like baby angels and keeps another, full-sized one chained up and badly damaged (“I wanted to know if it could feel pain”). Grayle momentarily turns off the lights, and his prisoner angel grabs River’s wrist. Meanwhile, Rory is thrown into the basement, with only a box of matches for illumination. Moffat shows he hasn’t lost the ability to come up with scary new concepts—the cherubs, with their high-pitched giggling in the dark, are unnerving, and the moment when one is suddenly right there beside Rory, blowing out his lighted match, is memorable. Another clever idea is that the angels no longer just send people back in time as in “Blink”; they have taken over an entire apartment block where they can feed off the “time energy” from their victims, keeping them imprisoned until they die.

Back in 2012, the Doctor is still reading from the book (which, as is now obvious, River will eventually write), providing a real-time narration of events in 1938. River manages to use this slender thread of communication to provide the Doctor with a signal to home in on. The ingenious “conversation” via an inanimate object recalls the DVD easter egg recording in “Blink,” while the Doctor’s method of sending a message across time using Grayle’s Qing dynasty vases is reminiscent of River’s message to him at the start of “The Time of Angels.” (Unfortunately, I have to point out some faulty research on Moffat’s part here. We see a brief flash of the Doctor visiting ancient China, and the on-screen date of 221 B.C. is indeed the start of the Qin dynasty—but the Qing dynasty, the one associated with the vases, actually dates from nearly two thousand years later.)

The TARDIS arrives (knocking out Grayle in the process), and while Amy goes off in search of her husband, the Doctor greets his own spouse, as he and River immediately fall back into the comfortable teasing relationship that has developed over the past two-and-a-half years. The Doctor’s new determination to keep a low profile in the universe has affected River as well, resulting in her pardon and release from prison:

River: “Turns out the person I killed never existed in the first place… It’s almost as if someone’s gone around deleting himself from every database in the universe.”
The Doctor: “You said I got too big.”
River: “And now no one’s ever heard of you. Didn’t you used to be somebody?”
The Doctor: “Weren’t you the woman who killed the Doctor?”
River: “Doctor who?”

Now that Grayle has served his purpose of bringing everyone together in 1938, the plot quickly disposes of him via the angels, and the rest of the episode is devoted exclusively to the four principals. Just as in previous Moffat season finales “The Big Bang” and (to an extent) “The Wedding of River Song”, the outside universe barely impinges upon the story; there are periodic portentous warnings about New York or even the whole planet potentially being ripped apart, and so on, but the focus is very much on our four central characters negotiating Moffat’s maze of plot twists. The real enemy is not so much the angels as Time itself—or rather, predestination and foreknowledge. The idea that once you know any aspect of your personal future it’s locked in, unable to be avoided, has been used by Moffat for poignant effect as long ago as the end of “The Girl in the Fireplace” in 2006. Here it’s driven home several times in succession, as characters gain insight into their future and wish they hadn’t. As the Doctor says, “Once we know what’s coming, it’s written in stone”—with the camera ironically lingering on a shot of a gravestone with Rory’s name on it, foreshadowing his final fate.

When he finds Grayle’s angel is holding River’s arm in an unbreakable grip, the Doctor is upset because earlier Amy had read a couple of lines from the Melody Malone book before he could stop her, hinting that he would have to break something—which it’s now obvious refers to freeing River’s arm from the angel. Since they can’t simply read ahead in the book without spoilers, Amy cleverly suggests using the list of chapter titles as hints to find Rory. Unfortunately, they find that Rory has already been transported by the angels to their “battery farm” apartment block (which, amusingly, the script earlier noted is located in Battery Park). Far worse, the Doctor accidentally catches sight of the last chapter title—“Amelia’s Last Farewell.” Faced with evidence that he is about to lose Amy, he angrily tells River she has to change the future by getting her wrist away from the angel without breaking it, and leaves her to it. When he comes back with Amy from the basement, he is delighted to see that River has managed to free herself, but (somewhat implausibly) fails to notice the stiff way she is holding her arm, and when he grabs it she yelps with pain.

The Doctor: “Why did you lie to me?”
River: “When one’s in love with an ageless god, who insists on the face of a twelve-year-old, one does one’s best to hide the damage.”
The Doctor (gently taking her arm): “It must hurt… Come here.”
River: “Yes. The wrist is pretty bad, too.”

It’s always great to watch Matt Smith and Alex Kingston playing these two characters, especially with the material Moffat has given them here. Smith’s ability to convey a maturity that belies his youthful appearance (which it’s easy to take for granted, now that he’s demonstrated it so many times) makes the relationship entirely convincing as one between equals—two characters that have come to thoroughly understand and respect each other. That, in turn, means the twenty-year age difference between the actors does not need to be downplayed or obscured in any way; indeed, it’s deliberately used here to emphasize River’s pain at the inevitability of her aging while the Doctor does not.

Not that she’s looking for pity—when the Doctor gives up some of his regeneration energy to heal her arm, she berates him for being a sentimental fool, and storms out in embarrassment. Amy follows her, and we have a rare moment between these two—who are, after all, mother and daughter. It’s a pity that the relationship between River and her parents has ended up receiving little emphasis compared to that between her and the Doctor. (In this episode, even the Doctor is startled, after Amy and Rory are gone, when he recollects that River has just seen her parents disappear.) I suppose there would always have been the temptation to exploit the age reversal for comedy, but scenes like River’s quiet confession of her fears to Rory in “The Impossible Astronaut” worked very well (admittedly, though, he wasn’t aware of the relationship at that point). Here, too, Alex Kingston is touching as River passes on to Amy a piece of heartfelt advice: “Never let him see the damage, and never, ever let him see you age. He doesn’t like endings.”

Eventually, they track down Rory to the angel-controlled apartment block and catch up with him, but just a little too late. The Doctor is unable to prevent disaster when Rory encounters the aged, dying version of himself, a helpless victim of the angels. It’s a moving moment when the Doctor instantly understands that old Rory was so delighted to see Amy because he had been kept apart from her for so long. To Rory, it’s a fate literally worse than death, and so it’s totally believable when, after trying to escape the angels, he and Amy end up on the roof of the building facing the Statue of Liberty angel, and Rory realizes he can create a paradox by jumping from the roof, which will erase this entire timeline and wipe out the creatures.

Gillan and Darvill rise to the occasion with the unrestrained emotion of this intense scene, as Rory begs Amy to help him, and she eventually climbs up onto the ledge with him and decides they should jump together. I suppose some could see their all-encompassing devotion to each other (“If it was me, could you do it?” “To save you, I could do anything”) as being hopelessly sentimental or corny, but it felt fully sincere to me, earned and justified by the way we have seen these two come together over the last two-and-a-half years. There’s also an unexpected shaft of humor as Rory makes a joking reference to his repeated resurrections in previous stories. Set within what is actually a very dark scene, the line is all the more effective. (In fact, with the mutual suicide idea here, and the wrist-breaking earlier, this story has some unusually grim material for Doctor Who.)

Again, the Doctor arrives too late; he can only watch as Amy and Rory fall. Indeed, from the point where he realized Amy’s fate, he has been unusually passive, carried along by events. His only contribution to Rory’s plan to create a paradox by escaping the angels was to say how unlikely it was to work. However, despite his fears, everything seems to work out—the paradox is created, the timeline is reset, and they all end up in the same 2012 graveyard we saw earlier, with Amy and Rory still alive. It would be a happy ending—except for our memory of that gravestone shot from earlier. The twist in the tale comes when Rory catches sight of his own grave; his fate is sealed, as a solitary weak, surviving angel touches him and he vanishes into the past.

After all the twists of predestination, it’s ironic that Amy is left free to choose her own fate—and yet there is of course no choice to be made at all. The Doctor’s desperate exhortation, “Come along, Pond!” no longer works, as Amy Williams gives up her childhood friend for good and lets the angel take her to her husband. Karen Gillan sells this hugely emotional climax magnificently, culminating in a final heartfelt farewell to her “raggedy man” as Amy disappears forever. Her name appears on the gravestone below Rory’s, signalling that she too is now part of an unavoidably fixed timeline.

Matt Smith shows the Doctor bereft and grieving, in much the same way David Tennant’s Doctor was after Rose Tyler was lost to a parallel universe in “Doomsday”. It did somewhat surprise me that the Doctor seemed so unprepared, though—it doesn’t seem to square with the hints dropped in previous episodes (especially “The Power of Three” last week) that the Doctor was aware of Amy and Rory’s upcoming fate. The story also insists that Amy and Rory are now as inaccessible to the Doctor as Rose was—the timelines are apparently too scrambled now in that place and time period for the TARDIS to handle. (I suppose that could be seen as a justification for the New York setting, which otherwise played remarkably little part in the story. If the Doctor can never go there again, it couldn’t be a city that the show uses regularly, like London.) Considered in the cold light of day, it seems implausible that the Doctor can never even pay a visit to them—River’s vortex manipulator seemed to be able to cope with the time distortions, and if even that is ruled out now due to the creation of the paradox, surely he could always land in New Jersey and take a bus. In the final analysis, though, for me Amy and Rory’s separation from the Doctor may not be completely watertight plotwise, but emotionally it’s absolutely the right ending.

It’s a real wrench to see two major characters depart with such finality. They’ve been a huge part of the show over the past two-and-a-half years—the longest-serving companions of the new Who series; even over the entire almost-fifty-year run of the show, only a handful of characters have been around for longer. They were given a wider range of material to work with than any previous companion, as Steven Moffat wove the companions’ lives into the structure of the stories to a greater extent even than Russell T Davies before him. My favorite Karen Gillan performance is probably her tour de force double role in last year’s “The Girl Who Waited”, while Arthur Darvill deserves particular praise for the way in which he handled Rory’s steadily increasing importance in the stories, starting as a definitely subsidiary character and progressing to the point where Amy and Rory were fully convincing as a couple. After the work they’ve put in on Doctor Who, I hope both of them go on to even greater successes.

Meanwhile, the Doctor, as always, has to carry on even after the irrevocable loss of his two close friends. He still has River, who promises to travel with him “wherever and whenever you like,” but immediately qualifies that to mean not on a permanent basis (“One psychopath per TARDIS, don’t you think?”). She helps him to start moving on, matter-of-factly talking about the Melody Malone book which she now has to write, and promising to send it to Amy to be published—and to get her to write an afterword for him. I think this story shows that River still works well as a character even now that all the mysteries of her identity and origin have been revealed, but she is definitely more suited to being someone the Doctor’s life occasionally intersects with than a constant companion.

As she says, though, the Doctor shouldn’t travel alone. Fortunately, we’ve already had a taste of how well Matt Smith works with Jenna-Louise Coleman, who will be introduced as his new companion this Christmas, which makes the wait of three months until then one of pleasant anticipation. For now, Moffat brings the story of The Girl Who Waited and The Boy Who Waited For Her gracefully to a close, as the Doctor races back to their picnic spot in Central Park to find the last page he tore out from the book earlier. Matt Smith is superb in his non-verbal reactions as Amy’s last message sounds in voiceover (and it becomes an even more impressive feat if you watch the behind-the-scenes footage, which revealed that this intimate moment was actually recorded on location with several hundred fans nearby watching him).

Amy’s message asks the Doctor to do one last thing for her. In a perfect coda, Moffat brilliantly links the end of Amy’s story to the beginning, as he ties up a loose end from “The Eleventh Hour”, left hanging for two and a half years. Footage from that episode reminds us of how the seven-year-old Amelia (Caitlin Blackwood) packed her suitcase and waited in her backyard for her magic Doctor to return from a promised five-minute trip—only to end up waiting for twelve years. But the odd, isolated shot inserted into the climactic sequence, of the young girl suddenly looking up and smiling as she hears the TARDIS, could only previously be explained as a dream premonition of the now grown-up Amy, who was about to be awakened by the return of the Doctor into her life and the chance to finally join him. Now the truth is revealed—it was not a dream; at her future self’s urging, the Doctor did return to give the little girl hope during her long wait, telling her stories of the adventures to come.

Regardless of whether you believe that Moffat really did have all this planned from the start, it’s beautifully consistent with the theme of fairytale and storytelling that has permeated his entire era. “We’re all stories in the end,” the Doctor tells the sleeping Amelia in “The Big Bang”—and at the end of that episode Amy is able to bring him back from nonexistence by remembering the story he planted in her mind. Even in this, her last episode, she wanted the Doctor to read to her from the book that would soon blend into the story of her life. The freeze-frame ending (for long-time fans, a flawless evocation of our last sight of Sarah Jane Smith in 1976’s “The Hand of Fear”) is the perfect way to finish—the little girl smiling into the sky, waiting for her adventures to start.

“This is the story of Amelia Pond.” And this is how it ends—and ends well.

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: The one occasion when the classic series did take the time to weave the departure of a companion through her entire final story was with 1973’s “The Green Death,” starring Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. It was the culmination of a three-year stint on Doctor Who for Manning and her character Jo Grant, whose gradual turning away from the Doctor as she finds a new direction in her life was marvelously written and played. The final scene is an emotional high point of classic Who, well able to stand comparison with the similar moments in the new series.

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