Doctor Who: 705 “The Angels Take Manhattan” Review
Reviewed by Adam James Cuthbert
The Angels Take Manhattan continues Series 7’s filmic leitmotif by delving into the ‘wartime period’ of film noir: the private detective being paid by a crime boss to investigate a mystery forming only the backdrop for the heart of the story. It’s to Steven Moffat’s credit that his opening sequences this year have been phenomenally dramatic, successfully luring the viewer in with their striking imagery. This is enhanced by atmospheric direction and evocative narration that informs the foundation of the story: “New York. The city of a million stories. Half of them are true. The other half, just haven’t happened yet.”
From the beginning, Angels reminds us of the omnipresent presence of statues, with two statues ‘weeping’ in the rain, foreshadowing the real thing. The detective, Garner, is appointed by Julius Grayle, a man who prides himself on his collection of antiques and art, to look into an apartment complex called ‘Winter Quay’, “where the statues lived”. Garner willingly takes up Grayle’s generous offer. Grayle notes Garner’s disbelief that the statues of New York are alive. In a subsequent POV shot reflected through a window, the fear on Grayle’s face is evident as one of the two statues outside his home has vanished from sight. This draws a parallel with Blink and the implication any statue can be an Angel.
Outside the complex, Garner sees two women and a young girl observing him through the windows, the little girl mimicking a Weeping Angel’s stance. It’s an intricate detail that could easily go unnoticed, but it’s implied that this is the same woman at different points in her timeline, another victim of the Weeping Angels, as it’s revealed that the Angels inhabit the building after all. Garner enters the building, the elevator descending into the hallway, as if expecting him, a Weeping Angel stalking him as he enters the elevator, which ascends, seemingly, of its own accord. The accompanying music is suitably eerie as Garner walks along the red carpet of the hallway to his unsuspecting fate. Garner sees his name emblazoned on a sign outside the door. Inside, he discovers a copy of his possessions. An old man in the bedroom motions to Garner (“I’m you”) before dying.
It’s later revealed that Winter Quay is a “battery farm” operated by the Weeping Angels, feasting on the cyclical ‘food supply’ of time energy. Their victims are sent back in time, forced to live their lives in the same room, before encountering their past self on their deathbed, and repeating their actions. Winter Quay is a disturbing concept that has emotional resonance for the main characters.
Unfortunately, any sense of dramatic tension created by the opening is tested when Garner, escaping from the Angels onto the rooftop, is confronted with the Statue of Liberty – itself an Angel. This raises questions. How does no-one not notice it’s moved, especially when it can be heard stomping its way through the city? Also, why don’t they dispatch an ordinary Angel? His only escape, after all, is to commit suicide; and if no-one’s watching the Angels, as they’re chasing him, wouldn’t it only be a matter of seconds before they caught him?
I do believe a line has to been drawn somewhere between the earlier implications and the grandiosity of scale this series is directed towards; otherwise, I interpret it as a tawdry gimmick. While it may be an elaborate demonstration of the Angels’ powers, it lacks both the gravity and depth it ostensibly aims to project in its defamiliarisation of a famous icon (isn’t that the purpose of his ongoing story-arc; so why the need to extend it here?)
My interpretation of Moffat is that he aims for the grand and ambitious. While he undeniably triumphs in his objective – constructing complex, engaging, significantly emotional stories, grounded within a distinct sense of world-building exercises, occupied by strong supporting characters (e.g. Liz Ten, Canton), and complemented by their atmospheric and sophisticated use of setting – it appears to elude him that sometimes simplicity is the key to success. Angels could quite easily have been a noir pastiche, tracking Garner through the streets of Old New York, as he, like Canton before him, participated in an adventure with the main characters following a catalysing mystery (the blue envelopes in The Impossible Astronaut; the Angels’ presence here).
As it stands, Garner was a likeable, underdeveloped character (within the context of a noir pastiche, he could have been the focaliser of the narrative, the audience’s ‘outsider’ perspective, so to speak, to the tragic events which follow, symbolic of our own inability to deny the external reality). I enjoyed Garner’s narration as it enhanced the sombre mood, without being overtly dark. I would have appreciated more screen-time for his character.
Whatever Moffat’s tendency to experiment, his ‘timey-wimey’ signature is prevalent. Whether intentional or not, he does, occasionally, over-emphasise his trademark to the detriment of organic storytelling. This leads me to discuss the plot device: the Melody Malone novel which foretells future events. It’s a convenient means to render the Doctor powerless throughout the story. I would have preferred a more organic development of the Doctor’s powerlessness, resulting, not from reading a novel, but through solely happening upon the Angels in 30s New York. The chapter titles themselves serve little purpose but to reinforce Amy and Rory will leave. There’s also unsubtle foreshadowing when the camera lingers over Rory’s gravestone in the initial cemetery scene.
One of my major criticisms this series is the Doctor-as-childlike. I find it embarrassing for the character to be portrayed as if he’s a child, resulting in inconsistent character development, especially given his darker turns. I’ve postulated myself whether or not the Doctor as he appeared in Dinosaurs and Mercy was a future Doctor, travelling back through time, darker and less merciful from his experiences in this story, tortured by the loss of the Williams in his life. I would have preferred more closure, some poignant visual cue signifying a confirmation, not necessarily to my theory, but the start of the Doctor’s descent into darkness. I would be chagrined if his darker side was simply for the purpose of dramatic effect in these earlier stories, rather than a longstanding development in the character. I find it hard to believe the man here who shows a sentimental, childlike adoration of River Song is the same man who pointed a gun at someone and was prepared to kill them, in his eyes, in an act of justifiable murder. Some connection would have been appreciated, seeing as The Power of Three failed to do so. Regardless, Matt Smith gives his usually excellent performance, conveying the Doctor’s anguish as the Williams are forever lost to him.
The focal point of the story was the departure of Amy and Rory. It goes without saying that Karen and Arthur will be remembered: both have been brilliant actors. It’s been exciting to watch these two mature in their own performances, bringing such a bright, absorbing dynamic to the show that will be missed. Although I found the scene where the characters discover an older Rory to have fallen victim to the Weeping Angels in Winter Quay to be lacking in the emotional intensity it aimed for, Arthur Darvill did deliver the shocking news with a suitably naturalistic conviction: a slight choke in the throat, the news not fully sinking in. It was by the time of the suicide, in defiance against destiny, that I was gripped. The beautiful and haunting simplicity of the dialogue (“It’s marriage”), the slow-motion fall, the dramatic music, all the while the Doctor looks on, would have been a suitable ending for them: an eternal love; together in the end. It’s my personal preference as well: a bittersweet ending that makes their departure unquestionably definitive. The gravitas of such a dark ending, though it sit uncomfortably with some, would have given the story the closure I feel it needed, seeing the Doctor turn volatile with rage and bereavement, resolute that this won’t recur in future.
Their actual ending feels lacklustre in comparison. The paradox erases the Weeping Angels from history. Finding themselves in the cemetery, Rory is suddenly zapped by a survivor Angel. Amy decides to join him in the past, to the Doctor’s grief and River’s insistence. I do find River’s lack of emotion to be a little upsetting and the banter between the two feels tacked-on; as if the scene should play out in silence, the Doctor channelling his myriad of emotions through body language, while River, rigid, sheds a single tear, wipes it away, and, in a single sentence, tells the Doctor to find someone who he might listen to – cut to the last page sequence.
Lastly, I have to discuss the situation of River Song. I wholeheartedly disagree with how the character has been developed. That aside, the story did attempt to add a layer of humanity to her sociopathic, flirtatious personality of late, during the scene where the Doctor learns she in fact snapped her wrist to escape Grayle’s captive Angel’s grasp, her hand bloody from the damage. It certainly put the Doctor’s dearth of maturity into perspective when she hotly slapped him for being a sentimental fool, using regeneration energy to heal the wound.
Overall Verdict: 8/10
In conclusion, The Angels Take Manhattan was a fairly emotional and atmospheric story, returning the Weeping Angels to form, with the Cherubim being a delightfully sinister addition to their mythology. As the end to an era, I’m ambivalent: I prefer the original death. Events may come full circle with a photographic finish on the young Amelia Pond, a sophisticated freeze-frame, but the noir aesthetics didn’t feel enriching enough and could easily have contributed to a more ‘Gothic’ evocation of the Angels’ menacing design.