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.

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.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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