Sunday, 30 September 2012

Television - Doctor Who 'The Angels Take Manhattan' review


'The Eleventh Hour' represents the pinnacle of Steven Moffat's work on Doctor Who to date, in my opinion. There was so much potential to Amy and her relationship with the raggedy man who grew up with her as she grew up dreaming of him, both trying to make sense of each other and find their place in the world. Looking back, the real sadness of Amy Pond is how she lived a life full of incident, but relatively little substance. Moffat has made her the Doctor's mother-in-law, the centre of a plot to tear apart the universe and more besides, yet despite her charmingly multifaceted introduction, she has been almost entirely defined as a character by Karen Gillan' performances.

What is there to say about her as a person? She's Scottish, she loves her husband, is vivacious, occasionally impulse and... ginger? For the many flaws in Russell T. Davies' writing, his lead characters always had purpose and enough depth to justify their place at the Doctor's side. Amy still feels like a sketch, filled in by Gillan's charisma.
 
Perhaps this is why the climax of 'Angels Take Manhattan' felt so hollow. Viewers have spent two and a half years alongside Amy on her travels through time and space, yet Moffat has given her few, if any, opportunities to meaningfully evolve. She had her daughter stolen from her, yet seemed to have forgotten all about it by the next episode. Where 'Beast Below' hinted at a closer bond with her Doctor than any companion since Romana, their relationship since fell into repetition of Donna Noble's raison d'ĂȘtre: reminding him and us why he shouldn't travel alone. He's let her down countless times, yet explorations of potential animosity have been limited to single episodes. In her final hours, her big choice was whether to keep travelling with the Doctor or make a stable home with Rory, yet few could ever have doubted the outcome. The 'Eleventh Hour' Amy - neurotic but loyal, vivacious but vulnerable, beautiful but brittle - left the series as a little more than a feisty female sidekick with a husband.

Rory is more interesting, but it's again difficult to discern how much of that is down to Arthur Darvill, who brought such pathos to a character who for a long time seemed destined for a role as dweebish comic relief. His unwavering devotion to Amy led him to protect her inside the Pandorica for two thousand years, yet aside from a centurion's oufit, the experience had little tangible effect on his personality or what he brought to the team. Initially a nurse, for a while he seemed set to act as the trio's conscience, yet once Amy transformed into the Scottish Donna Noble, this purpose blurred until he was advocating murder in A Town Called Mercy. Darvill rightly won a legion (pun) of fans for his quietly sweet performances, yet who was Rory really, beyond a man devoted to his wife and braver than he looked? (Well, and who died a lot, I suppose). For all Moffat tied them into the mythology of his first two seasons, the Ponds never had much of a character arc during their time on the TARDIS. They came, they saw, they left. Were they likeable? Certainly. Were they engaging, rounded, believable? Not quite. It was tough to get a handle on them because Moffat never really did either.

'Angels Take Manhattan' wasn't a bad episode, and it was nice to see companions bow out as a result of something other than a universe-ending catastrophe, but obviously constructed to build to an emotional finale it never really sold. Although Rory has always been of secondary interest to Moffat, his departure was disappointingly abrupt, serving only as a catalyst for the Doctor to despair over Amy deciding to follow him. Perhaps everyone's just used to Rory dying by now, but Amy seemed the only one remotely saddened by his being stolen back in time once again at the episode's climax.
  
Moffat tried to pull the same trick Davies brilliantly stage-managed in 'End Of Time Part II', aka having the departing character(s) survive the main plot only to fall victim to unexpected fall-out, but Davies' moment worked because it represented the culmination of a seasons-long arc for Tennant's Doctor in the conflict between his empathy and egotism. Despite his obsessive desire to survive the four knocks, the Tenth Doctor knew he couldn't let a sweet old man go to his death. It was a reaffirmation of the character's fundamental desire to preserve life, even if it meant sacrificing his own. The Ponds just did what they always do, follow each other to the ends of time and space. Romantic, but familiar.

The rest of the episode coasted along to that point, playing with familiar motifs - Weeping Angels; a sinister hotel; the suffering of an aged Rory; an affluent collector condemned by his cruel satisfaction in owning a torturing a dangerous creature; River Song doing her timey-wimey schtick - without finding the same potency they bore first time around. Moffat thankfully gave the Angels back their original mandate of sucking people back in time, rather than boringly snapping their necks, and River Song was thankfully less exaggerated than in last season's stories. The Angels' 'farm' was a neat idea, but their overwhelming presence in the city made confusing by the seeming irrelevance of mafia don Grayle. Had they taken over Manhattan to save the Angel whom Grayle had chained up in his office (along with cherubim Angels in the basement), or was that merely a side-product of their initial appearance? If so, why haven't they taken over a city or Earth before, since so many of them seem to live there?

The logistics of the time travel restrictions were also fuzzy at best, with the Doctor claiming to be unable to 'rescue' Amy and Rory because the timelines around New York were too screwy - meaning he'd never be able to visit again - yet one scene later, he's dashing in cheesy slow-motion across the Central Park bridge to the picnic spot where he and the Ponds began the episode. If it was only the 1930s he couldn't travel to, how did he drop off River, and why didn't he just go and pick up the Ponds a year or two later? These inconsistencies, along with others involving established continuity for the Angels (who now seem perfectly capable of moving whilst looking at each other) and the stupidity of the Statue Of Liberty Angel (apparently able to move unseen through a city which never sleeps), made the Ponds' fate feel more driven by the writer than the situation. Perhaps there's something sadly appropriate about that, since the Ponds' tenure on the series has too often been dragged down by Moffat coming undone by his habit of over-complicating and under-developing his stories. It's a pity Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill had to go out on such a flat note, since their performances have been a crucial part of in the series getting through some rough patches in recent years. It's thanks to them that the Ponds will be missed. Over to you, Jenna-Louise Coleman...

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