I blame the fifth Doctor, really.
If he hadn’t been so damned rigid in his assertions to Nyssa and Tegan, if he hadn’t been so absolutely certain that Adric couldn’t be saved, that going back just that little bit over his own timeline, and somehow fishing the young maths genius out of the crashing spaceship before it turned the planet below into a dinosaur frying pan, then we might not be here now. But we are.
The Angels Take Manhattan is a story all about going back over your own timeline. It starts with Sam Garner discovering the terrible secret of the Winter Quay, and finishes up with the revelation that it was Amy herself who published the story that she and the others subsequently played out. If Steven Moffat is in Series Seven becoming something of a high concept writer, then his high concept of the week is that the Weeping Angels are running a battery farm in downtown New York, circa 1938. It’s a twist as deliciously obvious, and yet just as mindboggling as the reveal of Oswin’s true nature at the end of Asylum of the Daleks. The rest of the episode follows the Doctor and his companions as the Angels gradually and inexorably (and yet apparently unconsciously) draw them in, until Amy and Rory’s fate seems as bound up in the Winter Quay as the Doctor’s has been with River Song.
Speaking of River Song, what we also have here is an author comfortable enough with his own legend to have some fun with it. The Angels Take Manhattan’s big timey-wimey idea (and it feels like there’s always a big timey-wimey idea) is the book that the Doctor has his nose in at the beginning of the episode. Ostensibly just a pulp fiction that the Doctor has randomly discovered in his pocket, it slowly dawns on the characters that they’re following their own tale, as it unfolds on screen. How very meta. It’s one of those moments of double dilemma that Moffat has taken up as a stock-in-trade; Rory has disappeared, and Amy and the Doctor discover this by reading it on the page of a book. And once again, Moffat has given us a moment of mind-popping inventiveness that might feel more at home in the pages of an old Doctor Who Annual. To see these gloriously ridiculous ideas played out on the television set is nothing if not self-assured; it’s The Mind Robber rewritten by Douglas Adams, and it’s Steven Moffat playing around with his own device of River Song and her book of spoilers. And giving us glimpses of someone typing the pages up as the Doctor and friends read them, while leaving us never quite sure until the last which of these characters it is that is going to be writing them, is a lovely touch; Moffat’s timey-wimey wink to the audience. It’s Sunset Boulevard on acid. We think we know that someone’s going to die, and that person just might just be the one whose words we’re hearing, telling the story back to us just before we see it for ourselves. For “Spoilers!”, read “Chapters!”
And if Steven Moffat is aware that the viewer must take a certain leap of faith in order to feel comfortable with a fiction that maintains a consistency only within its own inconsistent universe, then putting that leap of faith on the screen, and making his characters take it on the viewers’ behalf, is audacious indeed. If Amy’s clapping-her-hands and clicking-her-heels solution to the Series Five finale was Doctor Who leaping headlong into the territory of the fairytale, then here Amy and Rory quite literally make that same leap once again, echoing the final act of the New York set thriller Vanilla Sky (or Abre Los Ojos, if you’re not averse to subtitles). And if we’re to care what happens with the couple, then we must take that leap with them. What happens next is all very Being John Malkovich. It’s a magpie approach to storytelling that works well (and always has done) in the Doctor Who universe.
It’s a shame that Nick Hurran (whose leisurely direction is otherwise quite exemplary) has such a proclivity for the slow-mo though, as we really didn’t need to see this dramatic moment drawn out quite so melodramatically. I’m quite sure that Amy and Rory’s potential demise wasn’t designed to raise a chuckle.
Of course, being a fairytale, this all begins to unravel if you try and apply any real-world logic. The idea of Weeping Angels maintaining a huge apartment complex in the middle of a metropolis like New York, in which nobody goes out to work and nobody gets sent out for food, is the least of the quibbles that you can apply to the story. Quite why they might need to maintain a battery farm in which they only ever seem to dine the once on each of their tenants is also perplexing. But hey ho. You either surrender to Moffat’s World or you don’t, and it’s a lot more fun if you do.
There are some nice set-ups early in the piece, the ten years it has taken the Doctor and the Ponds to get here beginning to tell on Amy’s face, and that’s a tell that the character isn’t long for this drama if ever there was one. Just to rub it in, River Song (whose backwards aging at least managed to get an explanation last year) spells it out for Amy, and even if we hadn’t been quite so aware going into this story that it was to be her and Rory’s last, there can be no doubt by the time we get to the Winter Quay that the pair aren’t long for the Doctor’s TARDIS. The question is just how Moffat is going to deal them a fatal blow, and quiet how fatal that blow is going to be.
We needn’t have worried. The Angels Take Manhattan is only heartbreaking if you consider Amy and Rory to be the ultimate in Doctor Who companionship (the brief glimpse ahead to Christmas that arrives as the credits finish rolling is enough to remind us that they’re not). There are no deaths in this story (it’s by Steven Moffat after all; how could there be?), unless you count the unwritten death that Rory himself makes post-modern mention of; instead, we’re shown the graves that Amy and Rory share after having lived what we might imagine to be a full and happy life together, but the point at which we leave the story is the point at which they’re about to live those lives, so other than a dislocation in time, and the flat ruling out of a School Reunion-style revisitation, it’s essentially not that different to how companions might have finished their time-travelling in the old series (there’s an episode to be written some time in which Vicki compares notes with Victoria, about how their lives didn’t go quite the way they’d foreseen). What is different is the way the new series works to making us feel their loss; these days, we are encouraged to care about the companions’ family life – and how they might return to it (so how is the Doctor going to explain that to Brian?). It is, to be honest, just what we might have expected from the author of The Doctor Dances and Forest of the Dead. The heartbreak is in the parting, rather than the departure. Ultimately, if there’s heartache, it’s with the Doctor. Amy and Rory have one another, but River Song is there to rub it in once again; the Doctor doesn’t even get to keep the girl he’s married to, let alone the married couple he has lost.
It would be churlish to ask why, after having the lead characters survive the worst perils of the Weeping Angels’ battery farm and come out smiling (having resolved that element of the plot in the best fairytale style), there would just happen to be a lone Weeping Angel left in the place they just happen to crash back to reality, but that’s just how these things go sometimes. For once, the absolute concentration on the handful of main characters isn’t to the exclusion of coherency, but feels appropriate. And it would be foolish to try and make the mechanics of the plot fit together after just one sitting. There’s always a line of dialogue tucked away somewhere to excuse the most glaring plot contrivance.
And that’s what Amy and Rory’s fate boils down to, really. They’re lost in Manhattan in the past, and the Doctor, the man with the magnificent time-travelling machine, insists he cannot, rather than will not, go back in time and find them. It’s Earthshock all over again, and we just have to take it on trust – a contrivance to excuse the writer this time from killing off his characters, rather than the other way around. (At least it gave me an excuse to mention Adric.)
But New York looks lovely, and the pace – while a touch funereal – suits the piece, and that hasn’t always been the case this last couple of years. The Angels Take Manhattan is the perfect end to this first chunk of Series Seven: it feels like the love-child of Asylum of the Daleks’ will-o’-the-wisp storytelling and The Power of Three’s inexorable trudge towards destiny, and Amy and Rory’s story finishes in as fairytale a fashion as it began.
Steven Moffat’s self-styled mini-series of mini-movies concludes in downbeat fashion, but – other than the romp that was Dinosaurs on a Spaceship – it’s been a run that has involved the viewer in absorbing storylines, rather than filling their faces with empty spectacle. Roll on Christmas.