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Sunday, 30 September 2012

Doctor Who 7x05: The Angels Take Manhattan

Previous reviews can be found on the Doctor Who tag.
Maybe it was a bad idea to watch Doctor Who on the same day as going to see Looper, because Looper was so goddamn amazing that most other time-travel stories pale in comparison. But Looper issues aside, this episode still wasn't terribly impressive. I avoid Doctor Who spoilers as much as humanly possible, but if you live in the UK it's very difficult to ignore widely-reported information such as the departure of the Ponds. All the coverage seemed to focus on "This episode is a real tearjerker!!" which annoyed me because a) you're not my dad, Steven Moffat, don't tell me what to do, and b) show don't tell, for god's sake! Surely it's enough that most viewers already knew that this would be the Ponds' final episode -- why bother hammering home all the stuff about how upsetting it's going to be? Let the story tell itself.
The end result was one of those TV moments that made me feel like a sociopath -- ie, a screen full of people crying hysterically to an overwrought orchestral soundtrack while I sat there, utterly unmoved. I find it increasingly disappointing that while Moffat's episodes were some of the very best in previous seasons, now that he's the showrunner I find myself practically groaning out loud when his name comes up on the credits. Of the five episodes we've had this season, the two that were written by Moffat have been laden with speedy emotional conflict/resolution subplots and the kind of sudden U-turn revelations that are beginning to remind me of M Night Shyamalan.

In theory, I was an ideal audience for The Angels Take Manhattan. I love Amy, I love the Eleventh Doctor, and I'm invested in the Amy/Rory relationship. I should have been weeping along with Matt Smith in the final scenes, but instead I found it to be rather anti-climatic. A lot of this was, I think, down to pacing, since the entire story had to unfold in a single episode and the latter half seemed very rushed. The rooftop scene was a particular problem for me because it took place so soon after the Doctor's uncharacteristically pessimistic revelation that Rory would "have to" live out the next 50 years in the Angel hotel. Plus there was the added distraction of the Statue of Liberty, which I have no doubt will be a bugbear for New Yorkers because when is there ever a time when no one is looking at the Statue of Liberty? Even if there was some moment when no one was looking at her, people would definitely stop and take notice when she began stomping across the city.
I wouldn't give the episode a wholly bad review. Even if I did find the supposedly tragic tearjerker scenes to be rather forced, the facts of the Amy/Rory epilogue were satisfyingly final. What interested me more was the Doctor's increasing neediness, with him noticeably freaking out over Amy getting older. I really enjoy the way the Doctor has come to value Amy and Rory as a unit without undercutting Rory's importance, even though the Doctor clearly has a far closer relationship with Amy than with Rory. Actually, I've come to think that the foreshadowing towards this episode's emotional arc was better than the episode itself, because the sense of foreboding had been ramped up so much that it couldn't really be resolved in one single episode. Even without the knowledge that this would be Amy and Rory's final adventure, the emotional focus of this season has been Amy and Rory getting older and growing away from the Doctor, and the Doctor trying to grab some time with them while he still can.
The slow-breakup story was engaging and well-timed but the ultimate breakup itself seemed weak and rushed, which to me is emblematic of Steven Moffat's main flaw as showrunner. With no one to rein him in, he tends to write stories that put huge weight and significance on the run-up but then fail to live up to expectations when it comes to the payoff. Season 6 was the most glaring example of this because the first couple of episodes were so fascinating and exciting that I didn't realise until the finale itself that Moffat had written himself into a corner and the show had been going downhill all season. I'm hoping that the truncated nature of the next companion's half-season run will avoid this kind of thing happening to her -- at least, not at first.
My feelings on River are very mixed, because while some of her appearances are entertaining, an equal number seem forced and random. She's an archetypal Awesome Side-Character, like Spike in the early seasons of Buffy, and Jack Harkness in season one of Doctor Who. Like the Weeping Angels, River is intriguing in moderation, but the more she appears the more irritating she becomes. The problem is that if you want to turn an Awesome Side-Character into a regular, you need to give them some flaws or else they just seem too larger-than-life, which is extra problematic in DW because the Doctor is already such a huge personality. This makes me irritated at myself because I really want to love a badass lady space-archaeologist, but the nature of River's role so far has been so one-note that I still don't view her as a fully-realised adult character. In this particular episode I rather liked her, which is just as well because the other Moffat favourite -- the Angels -- are reaching saturation point. The concept of the hotel/farm was scary, but the Angels themselves are a true horror-movie monster in the sense that their power lies in the fact that the audience can imagine their existence in real life. The whole idea of statues moving while you're not looking is a perfect horror-story, but the more they appear onscreen (particularly in that earlier episode where we actually saw them move, which I hated), the less frightening they become.
Tangentially related to River, there's one ongoing characterisation detail for the Doctor that I found particularly noticeable in this episode. It's never 100% clear just what goes on within the Doctor/River relationship, but I'm pretty sure that the Eleventh Doctor is supposed to be sexual in a way that Nine and Ten really weren't, as indicated by the way River flirts with him and the Doctor's reaction to that as the series progresses. But in complete opposition to that characterisation, he seems utterly baffled when it comes to other people in sexual/romantic relationships, particularly Amy and Rory. There are tons of little moments where he reacts to Amy and Rory's relationship with blank incomprehension (Why don't they want to sleep in bunkbeds? Bunkbeds are cool!) or a kind of comedic, childlike disgust (ie, he gets grossed out by them kissing), whereas any problems the Ninth or Tenth Doctors had with their companions' boyfriends were more to do with jealousy. I guess this characterisation may tie in with Eleven's strange mixture of childish and grandfatherly traits, but I still find it confusing.
Looking toward the Christmas episode, well... you know as much as I. The one comment I do have is that I wish the new companion wasn't being introduced this way, because Christmas episodes are by nature so different from a typical week's Doctor Who. Christmas episodes tend to be rather hackneyed because there's a built-in audience of drunk-on-Christmas-spirit adults and small children to entertain, and the story kind of has to fit in with various sentimental Christmas-story cliches. I suspect that the new companion may end up getting a negative reception from adult Whovians for this reason, which is unfortunate because it's already difficult to get audiences to like a new companion right off the bat.

(P.S. Am I the only one who found themselves singing the episode title to the tune of "First They Take Manhattan" by Leonard Cohen? No? Anyone?) 

Previous reviews can be found on the Doctor Who tag.


  1. I was so sure the title was a Cohen reference I was actually surprised I didn't hear the song in the episode, despite the fact the Who soundtrack is almost always instrumental. Maybe the angels will take Berlin later in the series?

    I actually genuinely didn't know that this was the last episode and maybe because of that all the emotion really worked on me. At least this once that very common trope of 'you think it's over and everyone's laughing but OH NO THERE'S ONE LEFT' totally worked, but I think you are probably right, the modern publicity world really has to be taken into account when you decide to write one of those, and I don't think a valid reaction to your complaints would be to say 'well, you shouldn't have read any spoilers then'.

    Also I found this companion ending satisfying, they went out on one last heroic act, then Amy being brave and faithful and independant (she chose to touch the angel even though she seriously had no clue where she would go). Basically I will forever be angry about what happened to Donna, and so I like that this ending felt like a tragic ending with resolution, not a cruel demolition of a character...

  2. I'm actually putting off watching this episode, simply because I know it was written by Moffat. I love Amy and Rory, I love Eleven, but Moffat's episodes are always such a disappointment. Which is somewhat irritating to me, because I also genuinely love Blink, I just think the Weeping Angels have become overused (like most recent DW villians, actually. As soon as there is a genuinely scary one, it gets overdone. Creativity, show, come on!)
    Guess I'll have to take the plunge and watch it! (I have been avoiding most spoilers, but as a UK resident it's been sort of impossible not to know that this episode is a Moffat and Amy/Rory leaving.)
    Also, I love your blog+reviews+general awesomeness.

  3. One thing that confused me is: yeah the Doctor can't go back to that exact date in Manhattan...but what's keeping him from going back a couple of years after that and collecting the Ponds from that time? I guess I just am not getting the timey-wimey of it all this time around.

    On another note, glad to hear Looper is amazing. Hope to see it this afternoon.

  4. i am listening to leonard cohen now ;aklsdjf;asd SERIOUSLY i want to know whether they were thinking of cohen when they titled it?? surely the must have done?

    i'm jealous that you're not in the uk and therefore missed out on the unavoidable DW spoilers. i'm not in DW fandom at all so i avoid MOST stuff, but obviously just picking up the Metro on the train or whatever, you end up seeing some stupid fluff article about the new companion's hairstyle or whatever. it's not even so much "spoilers" as what the showrunners deliberately reveal, because there are some things that are kept secret on purpose (and sometimes get leaked, like rose's appearance in the fourth season, which was originally intended to be a complete surprise until someone leaked filming details or something). Moffat is a bit of a show-off and likes to taunt fans with stuff like, "this episode is going to make you CRY YOUR EYES OUT", which i find highly irritating because a) it comes off as incredibly smug to say you can predict the audience's emotional reaction to something you wrote, and b) saying stuff like this actually lessens the reaction, because we've been warned in advance?

    so i guess the knowledge that this was amy and rory's last episode was almost unavoidable, but all the "YOU'RE GONNA BE SO UPSET, PUNY MORTALS" stuff was steven moffat letting his ego go unchecked. the "oh no there's one left" revelation was probably great for the small number of viewers who weren't aware this was the ponds' final episode, but i think a lot of viewers were just waiting for the other shoe to drop at that point?

    i totally agree re: amy's ending. donna's ending was a total life-ruiner, so i'm glad that amy's was relatively happy, and in fact is what the story seemed to have been leading up to until now? ie, amy prioritising rory above the doctor, and the doctor being sad about this but still letting it happen. so the doctor's reaction was very personal -- almost selfish, although not in a bad way? because with Rose you knew that she wanted to be with the doctor but was forced away from him by circumstance, whereas with amy as of season 7, it's pretty clear that she wants to be with rory and only travel with the doctor on occasion. with donna and rose the relationship didn't really have closure (ESPECIALLY with donna), whereas this time round amy's priority is rory, and the doctor is the one being left behind.

  5. Absolutely on River Song. I think it really boils down to something Sarah Rees Brennan pointed out: if you start out wanting to make an awesome female character, you cannot simply say, "she is just like the male lead! only MORE SO!" which is pretty much exactly what Moffat did with River Song. She is just like the Doctor! Only more so! More clever! More chaotic! More smug! And I find it increasingly irritating the more she comes back. I love the Doctor, but one is quite enough. I do not need to see two of them on-screen, out-smugging each other.

  6. This was a wonderfully eloquent write up. I felt like I was supposed to cry by the end of the episode considering how much I adore Amy and Rory, but while there were moments that did affect me emotionally, I couldn't. Seeing everyone else I know gush about how they were sobbing wrecks as they watched made me wonder if there'd been something wrong with me!

    As for the Christmas episode, for all we know the lady we saw might be yet another future-companion-look-alike a la Asylum of the Daleks. If so, I do hope there's a good explanation for why different iterations of her seem to be scattered across time and space.

  7. Excellent post as always.

    I don't think I'm fit to comment on the whole companion issue at this point, since I never really got attached to either Amy or Rory, or Smith's Doctor really (this may sound like blasphemy to some, but I utterly loathe the way Moffat builds characters), but I too was hoping for a better performance this week.

    Side argument: the fact that the next Christmas special has to introduce the new companion could spare us another Moffat adaptation of a classic Christmas story, although my money's still on the Doctor vs. the Grinch.

  8. thanks! :) i really like amy (although i don't really know...why...) but i do think she was kind of mistreated in the latter part of season 6? i have some problems with moffat's writing, but the doctor isn't wholly his so i don't find that as noticeable as with river and amy, who are both moffat's own creations.

    haha, grinch probably wouldn't happen in the uk. ;) but it does look victorian/dickensian, as per usual. :///

  9. ooh, i love that SRB quote! :) totally agree. sometimes it really does feel like river's charm is really being hauled up by how good alex kingston is as an actor.

  10. eh, timey-wimey stuff. i don't think it makes sense either, but the timetravel stuff on doctor who barely ever makes sense, and TBH i don't think that matters as long as it stays true to characterisation/emotions. which this episode did, JUST ABOUT, because it felt like closure to the amy/rory journey.

  11. As a quick question -- why would an episode titled "____ Take Manhattan" necessarily be related to the Leonard Cohen song, as opposed to any other iteration of that phrase? I confess that from the start of hearing this title, what I couldn't put out of my head was "The Muppets Take Manhattan", which was a movie made in 1984, thus predating the Cohen song by a few years.

    What the earliest iteration of "_____ Take Manhattan" is, I'm not sure. I'd be interested to track it down. Right now, unfortunately, a quick search is complicated by a 1986 Judith Krantz novel ("I'll Take Manhattan"), the Cohen song, and a recent BBC mini-series ("We'll Take Manhattan"), so I'm having trouble getting past those results to something earlier; not to mention that it's such a familiar construction in the U.S. that I'm also running into a lot of auxiliary uses (any special-interest convention held in NYC, apparently, wants to title their article "Quilters Take Manhattan" and so on).

  12. Just wanted to agree, shortly, with the :-/ for Yet Another Victorian Christmas. I mean, I get why it's so popular, but honestly, DW, you're a time-travel show. I would have so much more respect for them if they did a Christmas episode featuring an adventure related to, say, 10th century Bohemia (Wenceslaus, anyone?). Or, you know, any other tradition. Dig deep!

  13. Doing that thing where I am posting before having seen the episode itself (and obviously unconcerned about spoiling myself for it), but just wanted to agree on several points.

    * Show, the more you harp gleefully on how I will feel, the more contrary I am inclined to be.

    * I felt that bringing the Angels back the first time wound up being a mistake, and reduced their effectiveness. I just groaned when I heard they were going to do it AGAIN.

    * I feel the same about River Song, i.e. "moderation"; and I agree fully that a lot of the success of the character is probably due to Alex Kingston being awesome and not the character being awesomely written.

    All three of those things above have made me not really look forward to this episode. That isn't why I haven't watched it yet. (It's because I watch with friends and we haven't gotten together yet to do so.) But still. Erg.

    Finally, it's not so much the question of "when is anyone ever NOT looking at the Statue of Liberty that bothers me. She's kind of way out in the harbor and I might buy the idea that at 3:38 am there could be a moment where she has no eyes on her, or something.

    What bugs me about saying that she's a Weeping Angel is... okay. The original Weeping Angels seemed to be based either on cemetery monuments, or church monuments, which are either/both items that are somewhat generic (there are a lot of them around and they look similar), and often quite old, so that their manufacture is lost to the mists of time. Because they are often old they successfully feel like parts of the landscape that have always been there and it is hard to say when they were "new" or imagine a time when they were being installed new. So the idea that some of them were in fact space aliens was quite effective.

    Meanwhile, the Statue of Liberty's construction and installation is extremely well-documented. While she is old, and has been there a long time, there has never been a time when she was "generic". There is only one of HER, even if there are skillions of her likenesses floating around as souvenirs. We have photos of her in stages of construction and installation. We know exactly how she got there. She isn't part of a larger number of Giant Copper-Clad Statues scattered around the landscape such that you could imagine a few extra of her appearing and nobody noticing.

    Plus of course, we all know that she is hollow; has relatively recently been completely refurbished top to bottom; and people go up inside her all the time.

    Granted, I haven't yet seen the episode to see how they dealt with some of these ideas -- i.e. that she has stairs and an elevator in her; or that we "know" who "built" her (in the show's estimation, is that information somehow wrong?); or how to account for all the souvenirs of her. It seems to me that the souvenirs of her offered the better subject for this theme. The original actual Statue of Liberty should not be a Weeping Angel, but you could easily imagine that some of her reproductions are, because there are so many that you wouldn't notice a few more scattered around. Perhaps the episode actually addresses these questions, though, in which case, fair enough.

  14. I have to admit, my first association with "The ______ Take Manhattan" is not Cohen but rather the Muppets. Although would be kind of an odd reference in context. But I don't think the Cohen reference is all that well known in the grand scheme of things, for all that Cohen has been undergoing a hipster resurgence. I suspect the "The ______ Take _____" phrasing is just drifting around in the cultural ether.

  15. As a Manhattanite, I couldn't help but think of the line from Rodgers and Hart's song "We'll Have Manhattan" "We'll have Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too..." No, please Weeping Angels, no.

  16. Beautifully written! I agree with most of what you're saying about Moffat's characterisation and narrative arcs (especially Season 6) but I actually liked this episode. I cried and it was a shock for me because Moffat can't usually make me cry - it's like you said he rushes it and he's so obsessed with having a twist that he often misses the emotional resonance.

    I thought this episode finally got the balance right, especially with River - it was her that really got to me and I've always been a bit iffy about her character. I mean she lost her parents and she's the one that has to be strong for the Doctor? It just highlighted that the Doctor was incredibly selfish in that episode (which is something that comes up from time to time especially since the end of ten's time). I think that was why he was so uncharacteristically negative about what happened to Rory because all he was thinking about was that he didn't want to let go of Amelia Pond.

    Anyway, I really like you're review.

  17. Raising the intriguing possibility that Leonard Cohen was also influenced by the muppets...

  18. If you are still interested in this, as trivia...

    The popular theory is that the "___ take Manhattan" meme originates with a 1925 song by Rogers and Hart, simply entitled "Manhattan". The original version of the song does not contain those lyrics, however. The line from the refrain is originally, "We'll have Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island too" (or "I'll have Manhattan"). However, at some point, the song starts to be called, erroneously, "I'll take Manhattan".

    It's a little difficult to pin down exactly when that shift occurred. Some sources online claim it was Frank Sinatra whose version changed the lyric... but I can't actually find evidence that he ever recorded that song.

    However, on YouTube there is a version sung by Dinah Washington, which would have had to have been recorded between 1950 and her death in 1963: She uses the "take" version of the lyric. Pushing it a bit earlier, singer Blossom Dearie records it on her 1959 album "Once Upon a Summertime" with "take" as well.

    In 1967, one episode of a legal comedy entitled "We'll Take Manhattan" was aired on American television. In 1976, jazz drummer Jake Hanna put out an album called "Jake Takes Manhattan", with "Manhattan" as the first track on the album. Then in 1981, in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, NY Yankees athlete Dave Winfield sang the song on a float in the parade (and apparently we actually have footage of that, too:

    This at least matches the sense I have that when the Muppet film came out in 1984, they were using the title as a construction that was meant to seem familiar.

    Your pardon for the digression; I just get really fascinated by popular meme-like phrases that seem familiar, and you suddenly realize that you don't know where they originated.

  19. (See my long reply below, where I traced the song's history to show how it did evolve into "I'll take Manhattan", with some further YouTube clips. Fun!)

  20. Or that Leonard Cohen secretly IS a muppet. IS LEONARD COHEN A MUPPET-AMERICAN???

  21. Thank you for great commentary! I was also feeling really weird with Mr. Moffat's... bragging?
    Though I did tear up during Amy and the Doctor's last scene - which is more of a credit to Matt and Karen's acting and chemistry than anything Moffat did for the episode.

  22. And am I the only one who thinks the Doctor should adopt Amy's reading glasses regularly? It would totally complete his ol' professor look.

  23. Amy and Rory's ending was *relatively* happy, compared to Donna's... until you remember that Rory has a dad who'll never see him again. And after the Universe was rebooted, Amy also has parents, though they haven't reappeared since. That makes it seem a lot sadder - at least Rose and Donna got to stay with their families. I guess we weren't supposed to think about that.

    Anyway, I basically agree with everything you said here - I found the episode disappointing and lacking emotional impact. Part of the reason it wasn't very sad for me is that Amy and Rory have been Companions for a long time now, so it doesn't feel like they're going too soon - quite the opposite. And even then, their departure was foreshadowed over several episodes so even if I hadn't known it was coming, it wouldn't have come as a surprise. Any impact it might have had was deadened by the gradual buildup to it (and associated hype).

    Besides which, as has been widely commented, it just didn't make much logical sense, even for a Doctor Who plot written by Steven Moffat. Here's one amusing take:

    I also agree about the Eleventh Doctor's inconsistent attitude to sex and romance. Just pick one characterisation and stick to it! He can be the sexy, flirty Doctor who makes dirty jokes, or the childlike one who finds intimacy weird and repulsive, but surely not both in the same incarnation...

  24. I don't think I get alerts when I comment on these things! Thanks for that! I adore that tune and I'm glad that someone else found a connection to this episode of Who.

  25. Christine Sutcliffe4 October 2012 at 06:40

    Looper = win. :D Totally not what I was expecting but wow, SO GOOD!

    Anyway, I'm afraid I was one of the many who ended up in tears at the end of this episode - I agree that the writing wasn't the best but the way they went, just...gahhhhh.

  26. Christine Sutcliffe4 October 2012 at 06:42

    I think the implication is that normal statues can *become* Angels - like in the doublebill from the other series. I still don't like the Statue of Liberty as one though, it's really tacky. :/

  27. :)) glad you're enjoying the blog! did you watch it in the end?

  28. thanks! :)

    i feel like we're pretty much on the same page re: preemptive tear-warnings. STOP TELLING ME TO CRY AND JUST MAKE ME CRY, DOCTOR WHO.

  29. i think it's pretty unlikely that a christmas-day episode will ever be anything other than christmas-themed, but yeah, i do want one that is outside the realm of modern-family-christmas or dickensian snow-covered london.

  30. I now want an 'Oh, druids!' Christmas special with maybe another trip to Stonehenge.