Alright, I admit it. I’ve been putting off writing this particular review for quite some time now. I even wrote it, put it to one side, hesitated on publishing it, and then came back to it a week later to re-write. By which you can surmise, all is not well for me with the final episode of the five-part season 7 mini-series.
A small part of the reason for my procrastination is the simple unwillingness to accept that the Doctor’s long-time travelling companions Amy and Rory are now gone for good. But that’s jumping ahead to the end – which is where for me the problems of this episode lie – rather than starting at the beginning where we should.
How fantastic were those opening moments shot in location in New York which set up the shift into a glorious film noir/pulp fiction pastiche? It was the perfect riposte for any of those penny-pinchers who quibble about the Doctor Who production team going overseas, because the episode would have been infinitely the poorer without those moments. Just as “A Town Called Mercy” would have been laughable if they’d tried to shoot a western in the Welsh countryside rather than in an authentic (Spaghetti) western film location in Spain, so “The Angels Take Manhattan” wouldn’t have been a tenth as successful as it was if it wasn’t so firmly rooted at the start with genuine US locations filmed in Central Park.
Those scenes gave the story an authenticity that it otherwise wouldn’t have had;it also allowed the Gothic architecture of New York City to play a part and become a potent character in the story as it gave a new dimension to the Weeping Angels, who were otherwise rather sidelined in a supporting role in this story despite the title. The laughing, scampering cherubs were new and deeply unsettling; the Statue of Liberty could also have been an effective addition to the Angels’ lore but unfortunately the idea that Miss Liberty had strolled in from the harbour without being locked into place by the eyes of millions of New Yorkers rather overstretched the suspension of disbelief available.
River Song (Alex Kingston) also returned, but similarly lower-key than usual: like the Angels, she’s here to play a supporting role to the true stars of the episode. In fact even the Doctor (Matt Smith) is somewhat sidelined for much of the 40 minutes, being little more than a glorified time-taxi cab driver with some additional exposition duties until near the end, when he faces up to the final loss of his companions and the end of their travels together at which point Smith explodes into a marvellously emotional performance.
But really, this episode fittingly belongs to Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) who are the main focus and drivers of their final farewell story. Unfortunately, despite how successfully Darvill’s performance has managed to insert Roy into the line-up as a true companion in his own right and not merely as an “optional extra” for Amy, he still gets the short end of this final story – not even getting any final words before being blinked out of existence so that Amy can have a second long tearful farewell with the Doctor.
There had been much to enjoy about the episode up to then, and it was all just about hanging together nicely as we approached the climax of what the 2012 mini-series had been building up to over the last month. But for me – and I’m sorry to say this, I really am – the ending collapsed in on itself rather badly in multiple ways.
For one thing, it lost the dramatic finale when it threw away Amy and Rory decision to create an Angel-obliterating time paradox by their sacrifice on the rooftop of Winter Quay, and replaced it with a Fatal Attraction-style shock twist ending in the graveyard just for the sake of it. Instead of being able to make their choice and then taking the consequences, Amy and Rory were essentially victims of ‘gotcha’ carelessness on their part that made their departure far weaker than if it had ended with their freefalling through the air.
Plot logic wise as well, this ending didn’t make any sense: where have Amy and Rory gone? Back to 1938 New York, it’s heavily implied. Why can’t the Doctor ever see them again? A single earlier line of dialogue had established it to be off-limits to the Tardis because of the damage wrought there by the presence of the Angels and the time paradox. Okay … But, why couldn’t Amy and Rory have left New York, gone to Britain and sent word to the Doctor to come get them? Or if the problem extends over the whole of the Earth in 1938, then they might have to wait a year or two. But surely this isn’t goodbye for ever – unless we’re now supposed to believe that the whole of Earth in the 20th century from 1938 onwards is now off-limits to the Tardis? I find it hard to believe that prohibition is going to stick very long in the show.
When Russell T Davies needed to find a way to write out Rose Tyler, he spent half a season setting up the premise of parallel universes and the rules about not being able to cross between them, before finally stranding Rose and the Doctor on different sides of the divide. That meant when the moment came to finally say goodbye, we knew it was the end and why. (Forget the encore appearances from Rose – later missteps don’t change how well set-up that parting in “Doomsday” was achieved.) With “The Angels Take Manhattan”, series showrunner and chief writer Steven Moffat seems to expect to short-cut that and achieve it in one line of the script that does nothing to establish the plot mechanics behind what follows.
I’ve seen some critics suggest that strict plot logic isn’t important here and that what is is the emotional truth of the moment – in the same way that the Doctor’s resurrection after “The Big Bang” made little logical sense outside a fairytale but which delivered a bigger truth about memory, love and imagination. Others suggest that the ending relies on a deeper enduring truth of the show which was that once a character’s time is up, it’s up – and there is no way back: companions never used to come back once they were done in the ‘classic’ era of the show, in other words. Unfortunately that ‘series truth’ has been undermined since 2005, with Sarah Jane Smith, Rose and Donna doing just that return from their final exit: having broken free of the old truths of the classic show, today’s writers can’t just suddenly reassert them to save their bacon when a script falters in the modern day.
Anyway, the argument that the ending has an ’emotional truth’ is rather undermined by just how false the Doctor’s emotional reaction is to what happens. This is a man who defied the end of the universe, escaped the Pandorica, rebooted reality and came back from non-existence; who saw himself die at Lake Silencio but who still managed to successfully think a way around it. A man who never gives up. And yet here, within seconds of seeing Rory and Amy disappear, that’s exactly what he has gone: given up, wallowing in self-pity when really it’s River who has lost her parents and is only belatedly consoled. This does not seem to be the Doctor that we have been watching for the last two and a half years.
With the ending failing on a fractured dramatic structure, flawed plot logic and untrue characterisation, I’m afraid the ending totally failed for me just when I needed it to be a cathartic, tear-jerking moment to allow me to say farewell to some valued companions who have been brilliantly brought to life over the past two and a half years. It’s a very strange misfire from Moffat who – whether or not you agree on his general approach to the series – is nonetheless always such a reliably assured writer of such stories.
Perhaps the emotion and sense of occasion overwhelmed him – he’s admitted in a subsequent interview to the Radio Times that he found the final moments of this episode hard to write: “So many time over those mad few days, the fate of the Ponds changed. Alive, dead, alive, dead. Everything was wrong. Nothing felt right. Nothing felt inevitable.” Eventually time ran out even for the master of the ‘timey-wimey’ and he had go do with what he had, but by now the end solution seems to have become fractured and in pieces because of all the pushing-pulling in the meantime. A huge shame.
Okay, smart-aleck – it’s easier to criticise than to create. If it’s so easy, why don’t you come up with something better? With apologies for hubris at thinking I cam improve on Moffat’s ending (a writer I’ve admired ever since seeing The Press Gang in the early 90s, by the way), here’s a quick suggestion.
For one thing: it all comes to a climax on the roof of Winter Quay with the Angels advancing ever-closer until their fingertips are in even the most extreme close-up on the actors (so that they don’t just get forgotten about at the end of the story as at present.) The Doctor explains that if Rory jumps from the rooftop then it will create a temporal paradox: crucially, it’s one that is centred on Rory. Wherever Rory is from here on, the Tardis – and the Doctor – will never be able to go. Having seen one side of the paradox already (earlier in the episode, when Rory died of old age in one of the apartments), he can’t know the other side or else it will result in an even worse breakdown in space-time than we saw in “The Wedding of River Song”. And that means that if Amy goes with Rory, then the Doctor will never be able to see her again, either. He won’t even be able to find out what happens to them, since even reading about the other side of the paradox could cause the schism.
“So it’s a choice between never seeing Rory again, or never seeing you again?” asks Amy. “I’m sorry, Doctor, I’m so sorry. But that’s not even a difficult choice for me to make.” They go, and the Doctor – and we – never find out what happens next. He even tells River she can’t know – although the way that she surreptitiously pulls her Blue Diary away from him suggests that she might have done already and that the book might contain the ultimate spoiler to end all spoilers.
But Amy does does get to leave behind her final message on the final page at the back of the pulp novel, and a dedication: “To the Raggedy Doctor, who never liked to know the ending, and this time never will. From the girl who waited, and who somewhere waits still.”