Review: Doctor Who – 7×5 – The Angels Take Manhattan

And they took the script editor, too

Angels Take Manhattan

In the UK: Twas on BBC1 on Saturday. Available on the iPlayer
In the US: It was on BBC America on Saturday, y’all

Vroomfondel: I think our minds must be too highly trained, Majikthise

From the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

So here we are. The end of an era. Exeunt Ponds, stage right, chased by a baby Angel. Stevie Moffat introduced them to us two and a half years ago with the first of his stories, The Eleventh Hour, and here he is, writing them out again.

Should be quite a moving moment, shouldn’t it? Rusty usually managed to make companion departures the big tearjerkers they should be. Maybe not Martha, although who cared about her. But the ‘death’ of Pipes? The ‘death’ of Donna? Pass me a snivel-rag now.

Except, while there was a certain degree of sadness right at the end, this wasn’t quite the tour de force I was hoping for from our Stevie. The trouble? I think that Stevie might be getting too clever for his own good. And working too hard.

About
The Doctor’s heart-breaking farewell to Amy and Rory – a race against time through the streets of Manhattan, as New York’s statues come to life around them…

Was it any good?
I’m not saying Stevie’s overworked yet still trying to maintain the high level of intellectual content that he’s renowned for on Doctor Who… Well, actually, yes I am.

See the basic problem I found with The Angels Take Manhattan is that there were a lot of good ideas. A lot.

Too many, in fact. So many that when stuck together they all stopped making sense and working quite as well as they might have done individually.

So Stevie throws a lot of excellent ideas at us. The hard-boiled detective investigating the house of Angels. All the statues in Manhattan are actually Angels. The Statue of Liberty is an Angel. Baby Angels that like to play. The Angels setting up a time-energy farm from humans they keep sending back in time. River Song and the detective book with spoilers. River Song being pardoned because she never killed the Doctor. The Ponds committing suicide to create a paradox. Amy sacrificing herself to be with Rory.

Each of these, as well as many of the other ideas that Stevie threw at us, like pellets from a sawn-off shotgun, could have been excellent on their own and given room to breath.

Except they weren’t. They were all lumped together. As a result, every other line of dialogue ended up being NerdFilla™ to try to glue it all together. Why can’t the Doctor go back and rescue the Ponds, asks the audience? Because New York in 1938 is a fixed point and inaccessible to the TARDIS, says the Doctor immediately we think of that. Why can’t the Doctor read the book that has all the information in it that would be utterly useless read after the fact? Because that would fix things in time and he can’t do that, says the Doctor, immediately we’ve thought of that. And so on.

But that NerdFilla™ only goes so far, because fundamentally none of these ideas works together. Why can’t the Doctor land in Philadelphia in 1938 and get a train to New York? How can the Statue of Liberty, in the city that never sleeps, possibly manage to walk from Liberty Island across most of Manhattan to get to the Ponds without being seen, even at night? How can the Angels set up a battery farm in a single building, unless they go out grocery shopping for everyone so they don’t starve to death?

Then there’s the death of the Ponds. Twice. Did we need them to die twice – a noble suicide to save New York and possibly the world, followed by an entirely unnecessary cock-up in a graveyard? Not really. All that gives us is an ending that makes no sense (cf train journeys from Philadelphia), just so Amy and Rory can live to old age together (assuming they didn’t just mock up a gravestone – cf The Impossible Astronaut/The Wedding of River Song – and leg it with River Song’s time manipulator to Metebelis 3) unless the Doctor is bullshitting because he really can’t stand watching people grow old, as River Song suggests.

As it is, because we have these two endings, the possibility of our having one of the story’s most tragic moments of all – River Song having to watch the death of her parents – gets squished down to “Oh, they were your parents weren’t they, River. I forgot.” Five minutes of the Doctor and River getting used to the death of Amy and Rory thrown away in favour of a get-out clause because Stevie’s magpie tendencies got the better of him and he couldn’t stomach properly killing two of his own. Yes, they die – of old age. But that happens to everyone.

It’s a shame really. As a story, it just needed room to breath, time for emotion to sink in and fewer concepts strung together ADHD-style. The direction was lovely. The acting was great. New York looked fab. It was great to have River Song back. And there were some very spooky moments right at the beginning.

A proper script editor or even a writers room that could have helped to break down the story and simplify it could have made this superb. Instead, it was a rush that didn’t have as much impact as it could have done. A lovely little end shot of young Amy – and the mere acknowledgement that it was the end of an era – was the only thing that came close to making a tear well up for me.

Like Rory leaving was going to make me do that. Even Stevie took the piss out of his number of deaths.

So The Angels Take Manhattan shows the problem the show currently has in spades. With Stevie working so hard, it seems like he hasn’t got time to edit his material as much as he used to. Showrunner of two shows, writing a third of each? No one else on either side of the Atlantic tries it without an awful lot of help (have a look at how many producers even a 10-episode cable show needs in the US, let alone a 13- or 24-episode series), and that’s not something that Stevie has, unfortunately. What both Doctor Who and Sherlock need is for Stevie to either step back and let someone else become showrunner on both shows, leaving him to write the stories unhindered, or for him to be a showrunner and do as other showrunners do – not much writing and a lot more editing.

Because at the moment, Doctor Who isn’t quite the show it could be. Rusty may not have made anything as intellectual as Stevie, and he couldn’t make a plot make sense with a decent conclusion to save his life. But he did know how to write something that engaged at emotional and visceral levels. Stevie stories are smart, but he never really engages as well at either level. The result? Well lets just say that my lovely wife, who never used to miss an episode of Tennant Who (and not just because of David Tennant) hasn’t bothered watching the last three episodes of this series. Hell, I haven’t even watched A Town Called Mercy yet either. If she’s representative of the nation in any way, then Doctor Who is losing its grip on popular culture.




  • Thing is, I don't believe RTD's approach was inherently better. In his case, we had illogical bollocks strung together with emotional highs. Roller-coaster rides of crap, peppered with episodes by better writers. With Moffat, we instead get an emotionally stark show with tons of clever ideas that are never really fleshed out.

    Really, we need two things. First, double every singe story. I suspect that's simply not possible due to time and money, but every one of the five episodes this series would have benefitted from more room to breathe. Secondly, get a better script editor in and, crucially, give them a LOT of power. This is what's been missing from the very beginning of New Who, but then it's something that's clearly a massive problem in modern TV (and, yes, in US shows, too, despite their bigger team numbers).

    As it is, I've quite enjoyed this series, even if the cubes episode essentially made no sense and felt like it should have been in the RTD era. The Ponds� exit was handled well, with a sense of tragedy for the Doctor, but it just needed more. One scene: his cunning plan of “going back to get them anyway”. Finding the TARDIS cannot breach New York, and that the Ponds could not escape the boundaries of the city. That could have also mirrored Rose's farewell nicely. Still, the guy I really feel sorry for is Rory's dad, who's presumably now immediately forgotten and will never see his son again, nor the Doctor.

  • I'd agree with much of that. The only thing is that US showrunners are essentially script editors – they're former writers who now set the direction of the show and take the work of the other writers and polish it. They're more like the film world's directors, too, in that very often they'll be in charge of the final edit to make sure it's what they want it to be.

    Rusty was actually a very good showrunner, I thought, a really quite phenomenal re-writer who's just terrible at the logistics of plots and shouldn't have written so many episodes himself.

  • If it's true that Rusty basically wrote the Human Nature/Family of Blood two-parter, then yes, phenomenal re-writer. However, I can't rewatch his Who episodes these days (with the exception of Utopia and Turn Left) because they make so little sense and seem so cheaply emotionally manipulative. Especially as he didn't have the courage of his Doomsday conviction and brought Rose (in annoying series 2 mode) back for a dreadful rerun. The last Tennant two-parter just makes me yell and throw things at the screen.

    I think you're probably right that Stevie needs a better script-editor on board, but as we've seen, Who is far from immune from BBC cuts. Maybe the new DG will be open to some process innovation in the way that shows are written and edited.

  • The Writer's Tale actually has samples of original scripts and Rusty's rewrites so you can see what he did in some cases. Worth looking at.
    You're right that Rusty's stories aren't really worth rewatching, but in a sense they're a lot like Earthshock – aimed at being viewed only once because of the surprise and shock that you lose on repeat viewings.
    As for the cuts, without me starting a “this wouldn't happen it a commercial organisation” debate, it staggers me that the Beeb would impose across-the-board cuts, even on its most popular programmes that make it masses of money around the world. I'd rather have lost all six episodes of Paradox, for example, so that DW could have a budget boost, because that would be money worth spending, and would probably have made money.

  • Lisa Rullsenberg

    A gree with this – possibly something we didn't fully appreciate until he'd left and we read The Writer's Tale: “Rusty was actually a very good showrunner, I thought, a really quite
    phenomenal re-writer who's just terrible at the logistics of plots and
    shouldn't have written so many episodes himself.”

    But I think you're being too harsh on Moff: I can see your points and don't necessarily think they'd harm the show to be put in place, but it does suggest there is more wrong with the show than I believe.

    You guessed it: I still loved the episodes and i cried.� What can I say?!

  • John Seven

    The problem with this episode has been the problem with this series – come up with premise, stretch it half way, end it suddenly, and pad out with sassy dialogue and so-called character development. I found these five episodes completely lazy, especially falling back on the old “don't travel alone” stuff that was covered in Tennant – even though we've seen 11 travel alone and he really hasn't seemed �much different. And, as far as the Ponds go, they should have just ended it with the Doctor giving them their nice house and having them live a nice life together. That was sweet and seemed natural within their context. This was forced, out of nowhere. Not quite as bad as the injustice served the character of Donna, but close. I saw someone say that the old series was too busy telling a story to say goodbye to companions and the new series is the exact opposite. Lazy, lazy, lazy writing, very disappointing. And the new companion, if the Dalek episode is anything to judge by, is just one more lazily written snarky female – really, again? Is that all Moffat can write anymore?

  • TemplarJ

    Hey Rob, i've been denied the wonders of your blog for a while due to being restricted to using a dodgy notebook that couldn't handle your power.
    I agree with you, mostly, about Who. My big trouble is that it's all felt a bit like a contractual oblibgation more than anything else. The ponds were over and done with, I thought 'The God Complex' wrote them out perfectly. Since then, it's just been treading water.
    At least 7b or 8 or whatever it is looks better. Time for a new aesthetic,and Victorian Gothic is as good as any.

  • Few things can handle my power. Glad to have you back!

  • Mark Carroll

    I actually thought it was quite a good episode, though, yes, fitting all that into the allotted time does cause suboptimality. (My more general problems with the series, I've already mentioned previously.) Somehow the sillinesses didn't bother me quite as much though, yes, the Statue of Liberty seemed on first viewing to me rather more silly than scary.

    It did hang together rather better than the previous, and was actually engaging for the most part.

    I was a bit irritated that the angels seem to have slowed down rather. What they could do in one blink now takes them an extended looking away.

  • Mark Carroll

    Hang on, isn't Rory made of relatively ageless plastic any more? Now I'm confused.

  • Mark Carroll

    Oh, my son explains that the Pandorica light fixed that. He has rationalizations for everything else I asked him too, and I guess he's the target audience.

  • bob

    It never made much sense that Rory should be the same Rory as was the Centurian… But anyway.

    I flicked my brain to the stupid setting and highly enjoyed this episode.

    It's the only way to do it.

    I totally agree with Rob's criticisms in principal. And would throw into that a vague dissatisfaction with the Doctor being written as such a child.�

    But in the end, I had Rory and River and I quite adore them both.

  • I loved it. I can see where you're coming from Rob, but I thought it was intensely, quietly moving. I didn't have a problem with them dying twice, because the suddenness of Rory's going was quite a shock. And I was squeeing so loudly when little Amelia turned up my family had to tell me to shut up. I thought it was a perfect ending for them, as it really finished their story, and the Doctor's pain felt very real. Thought all the actors did a terrific job. And I think River dismissing the loss of her parents completely ties in with what she said to Amy about never letting him see the damage. Also, as you haven't seen A Town Called Mercy yet, the reason the Doctor shouldn't travel alone is self explanatory from that… although I thought his behaviour in the dinosaur episode was a bit UnDoctorish myself.

    I agree that some of this has been uneven, but all in all I have really enjoyed the series so far. I think ONE of the biggest problems for nuWho is we always know when the companions are leaving, and so we're waiting for how and when. I can remember not even realising it was Sarah Jane's last episode when the Dr dumped her off to head off to Gallifrey. Although the arrival of Leila was trumpeted a great deal in the red tops I think – nothing to do with her dress sense:-)

    I would really really rather not have known that Amy & Rory were bowing out, that the Dr's getting a� new companion, that we'll know as when Matt Smith leaves… It makes it really difficult for the show makers to surprise and shock us, which is a pity – and makes the introduction of Oswin into episode 1 all the more remarkable.

    I have disagreed with you all along that Stevie doesn't do emotional. I think he does, it's just quieter then Rusty's, and quite often I found Rusty OTT, so I prefer Stevie's approach. I think that it's probably quite subjective.

    Oh and I loved River. But then. I always love River:-) Thought the scene when they were painting the Tardis was fabulous.x

  • Oh and straw poll of the Dr Who fans among the teens I know suggests they are still loving the show and there were plenty of tears for Amy & Rory's departure. Eldest has grown up with nuWho, and had a wobble when Matt Smith took over, but got over that and is as enthusiastic as ever. Most of her friends (16/17 yos) still watch and love it. My 14yo doesn't, but it's far too uncool for her now to watch a kids' TV show. The 12 and 10 yos still love it, as do their friends.12yo had to leave the room she was weeping so much:-)�

    16yo and her mates had a Dr Who party on Sat night to watch. If they are representative, I don't think the franchise is dead in the water� yet. But maybe they need to think hard about the script editing, and you're probably right about the Beeb's stupidity at not putting more money into it…

  • Re having two 'deaths': Steven knows there's no way he could have ended on a suicide pact in a child-oriented family show. He was probably pushing it as it was, but writing them out with the jump would have been too dark.

  • Whereas, say, having someone think they could save the whole Earth from the impact of a spaceship and then having that spaceship smack straight into the Earth with them on board, followed by the end credits playing silently afterwards would have been light and breezy?



  • true, but not sure they'd go that bleak these days. that was quite an unusually brave episode back then.
    One of the biggest influences on this storyline is Lost, where the line between 'genuine character motivation' and 'move the pawns around & make them do something startling in service of the bigger plot' is gleefully and repeatedly transgressed. The decision to jump in particular reminded me of some of the things the Lost characters did to reset timelines, such as re-crashing the plane

  • Doctor Who in the old days had companions die all the time. Katerina got chucked out of an airlock



    Sara Kingdom got aged to death and turns to ash on-camera (ish).

    http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/S

    We've already covered Adric but a few years later, Peri appeared to be shot after having her brain removed and dumped down the waste disposal, to be replaced by someone else's brain.



    It's only modern Who that finds the idea of companions actually dying in horrible ways unacceptable. Whatever the reason – the BBC getting very tame, Doctor Who's writers falling in love with their own creations, etc – but it's been done several times before and it's only their own choices that stop it happening again. They managed to kill off most of Torchwood (thankfully)�

  • I think it's partly a slightly misguided idea that children can't cope with death. YES THEY CAN… Personally I found what Rusty did to Donna and Stevie did to River worse then them dying, and I think my kids would agree…

    btw anyone with kids, or just enjoys kids tv, there's a new series called Wolfblood which my 10 yo and her best friend are obsessing over. They think it's brilliant. Haven't watched it yet, but her recommendation as good as Dr Who but different, makes me think I should… Kids who are sort of werewolves, fantasy adventure.

  • I think it's partly a slightly misguided idea that children can't cope with death. YES THEY CAN… Personally I found what Rusty did to Donna and Stevie did to River worse then them dying, and I think my kids would agree…

    btw anyone with kids, or just enjoys kids tv, there's a new series called Wolfblood which my 10 yo and her best friend are obsessing over. They think it's brilliant. Haven't watched it yet, but her recommendation as good as Dr Who but different, makes me think I should… Kids who are sort of werewolves, fantasy adventure.

  • I'm still hoping that the Moff will revisit River's ending somehow and give her a better resolution. It would actually do justice to the character, rather than Rusty's rewriting of Rose's ending and the horrible brain-assault of Donna.

  • I'm still hoping that the Moff will revisit River's ending somehow and give her a better resolution. It would actually do justice to the character, rather than Rusty's rewriting of Rose's ending and the horrible brain-assault of Donna.

  • �I think he got reset when the Pandorica reset the universe

  • �I think he got reset when the Pandorica reset the universe

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Toby O'Brien

    The timeline for this story was messed up from the get-go, apparently.� I was too excited from finding a crossover with that newspaper's name to actually notice the headline.� But if it's the day after the Detroit Lions�win�the Super Bowl (O'Bviously a parallel dimension!), nobody's going to be sitting out on that rock outcropping in picnic mode.� At least not dressed the way they were!

  • Toby O'Brien

    The timeline for this story was messed up from the get-go, apparently.� I was too excited from finding a crossover with that newspaper's name to actually notice the headline.� But if it's the day after the Detroit Lions�win�the Super Bowl (O'Bviously a parallel dimension!), nobody's going to be sitting out on that rock outcropping in picnic mode.� At least not dressed the way they were!

  • Toby O'Brien

    The timeline for this story was messed up from the get-go, apparently.� I was too excited from finding a crossover with that newspaper's name to actually notice the headline.� But if it's the day after the Detroit Lions�win�the Super Bowl (O'Bviously a parallel dimension!), nobody's going to be sitting out on that rock outcropping in picnic mode.� At least not dressed the way they were!

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()

  • Pingback: The Medium is Not Enough TV blog()