Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Angels Take Manhattan: You Don't Have The Discipline

Doctor Who episodes in which companions leave the TARDIS behind them tend to, broadly, occupy two contrasting dramatic landscapes. One is the 'signposted from half-a-dozen episodes ago' conceit, which goes all the way back to Ian and Barbara's departure in the early 1960s, includes Adric doing the - very watchable - 'watch that planet! What planet? SPLAT!' thing and has, of late, become a standard theme in the Twenty First Century version of the popular long-running family SF drama. The other conceit involves the 'sudden change of character motivation for no adequately explained reason' malarkey which saw Nyssa suddenly want to spend the rest of her life helping lepers, Tegan getting sick of all the bloodshed one wet wednesday in London, Romana develop a desire to hang out with time-shuffling werewolves and, most memorably, Leela doing something as downright girly and obvious as falling in love. No, this blogger didn't believe it either, dear blog reader and yer actual Keith Telly Topping his very self was only fifteen at the time. The Angels Take Manhattan falls, massively, into the former column and features an end to two-and-a-bit years of highly attractive, if you will, Pond Life. It's been coming for a year at least and the end is now. Was it worth it?
The Doctor's 'heartbreaking' farewell to Amy and Rory (copywrite S Moffat 2012) would involve a race against time through the streets of Manhattan, as New York's statues come to life around them. We knew that much months ago. But the one, over-riding, question which every fan wanted to know the answer too was would either, or both, join the great (if short) list of TARDIS companions to bite the bullet and leave The Doctor looking a bit sad. Yer actual Steve Moffat his very self (Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He) didn't, exactly, help matters with various quotes that included teasers along the 'no one here gets out alive' lines. But then, like The Doctor, The Lord Thy God Steve Moffat is a bit of a - proven - liar with a long history of previous when it comes to malarkey such as this. That's why we love him. Come on, not even Moffat would be cruel and vicious enough to actually kill off Amy and/or Rory, would he? I mean, this is Steven Moffat we're talking about. The man whose first three Doctor Who episodes featured not a single on-screen death (at least, not a single supernatural one, anyway. Madame de Pompadour's off-screen demise and poor old Billy Wainwright's 'natural causes' notwithstanding). But, you can never be certain when it comes to TV producers. And, death sells, it would seem. Case in point, some glake in the [spooks] production office having the bright idea that the perfect way to end the popular long-running espionage drama was by having Ruth die, horribly, in Harry's arms with a piece of glass sticking out of her liver. As noted at the time by this bloggerthat was just bleeding mean. See, it's always a difficult line to straddle as some productions have discovered to their cost. When Russell Davies chose to killed off Ianto, a certain proportion of - very silly, let it be said - Torchwood fans spent much time and energy bewailing the decision on various Internet forums to anyone that would listen. And, indeed, anyone that wouldn't. Wittering on about 'unwritten social contracts' being broken and the like. It was a sight to see, dear blog reader, so it was and it would, actually have been genuinely funny if it hadn't been accompanied by a small - but extremely nasty - number of hyperbolic death threats being issued in the general direction of Rusty and his fellow writers. That somewhat removed the humour. When Tara was murdered in Buffy The Vampire Slayer Joss Whedon, one of the most liberal, humane and brilliant writers to have emerged on television in the last thirty years was accused of homophobia by various - no doubt perfect - individuals who let their disappointment that a character they liked had been written out of a series they liked get the better of their common sense. Mind you, the same could be said about the half-a-dozen bizarre people who accused Russell Davies - one of the most prominent gay writers in the world - of the same thing after Ianto bit the bullet some years later. This is the thing, many of us (and, yer actual Keith Telly Topping gladly includes himself in this equation) invest a lot of emotional energy in our favourite TV characters and that can, sad to say, sometimes lead to gross and horrific lapses of both sanity and taste when something occurs which we don't like. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
So, with most of the audience watching and expecting the worst, the episode began. It began with a series of memorably creepy scenes with a funereal atmosphere and a distinct Raymond Chandler vibe. (Okay, wrong city.) Yes, that meant, of course, more voiceover, dear blog reader. This season's main defining factor so far, it would appear. The gangster trappings played rather well against the Gothic horror which was to come. Nice juxtaposition, that. 'They're coming for you. They're going to send you back in time.'
The Angels Take Manhattan succeeds in many things but one of its most spectacularly impressive conceits is taking The Weeping Angels back to the terrifying creatures with 'the kindest way of killing possible' seen in Blink. One of the biggest drawbacks of their second appearance in the show (in series five's Time of the Angels two-parter) was the temporary abandoning of their cunningly devious form of gaining energy and, instead, turning them merely into pale Cybermen clones - mute thugs who just break people's necks rather than mess with the temporal constants of the universe. 'The city's full of time distortions.' The episode's other great - and, of course, necessary - plot contrivance was a way to shoe-horn the character of River Song into the episode in which her parents would make their last farewell. That was achieved, brilliantly, via a completely mad as toast story-within-a-story jigsaw in which a pulp novel about one Melody Malone ('the detective that investigates angels') carries much of the forward push of the narrative with a series of witty genre clichés and knowing nods to the audience. The narrative shuttles from 2012 to 1938 and back (with one brief stop off in Iron Age China for a bit of a laugh) playing clever intertextual games with viewers expectations, throwing in little false clues and one whopping great false climax to manipulate those watching into cul-de-sacs of skilfully constructed façades and trap-doors. Only gradually do a few stray signifiers point their way through the maze of disinformation, feints and decoys towards a conclusion that, with hindsight, has long been inevitable. (Not for nothing did Moffat mention in a casual moment of clarity a while ago that viewers should be looking not only towards The Eleventh Hour for clues as to the denouement but, also, to River's début episodes all those years ago. The end of The Angels Take Manhattan resembles not only the structure but also the tone of the final scenes in Forest of the Dead.) 'Time can be re-written.' 'Not once you've read it.'
'It would be almost impossible.' 'Loving the "almost".' There is much to admire in The Angels Take Manhattan. The acting, the design, the script - much of the dialogue is particularly impressive, see below - and the direction are all, genuinely, first class. There's a couple of minor queries that could've used a bit of further explanation. Like, for instance, where exactly are we supposed to be in River Song's timeline? She has, she says, 'long' been pardoned (the man whom she supposedly killed, after all, 'never existed'), so we should be further along in her personal timeline – probably somewhere between The Time of Angels and Silence in the Library. But from our point of view this is, surely, after the events of Demon's Run (A Good Man Goes To War). And she is already 'married' (and, knows that she is). Should she not, therefore, be getting younger (Alex Kingston's non-Time Lady abilities notwithstanding)? Surely, from her perspective, the astronaut shooting can't have happened yet? So, anyway, some time-anomalies which hurt the brain to even think about apart, this is an episode you could gladly sit through again and again if it wasn't for one thing. Just about the only, real, black spot of note is a very big one. The use of that God-awful dirge by Sting over a series of gently sweeping panoramic shots of New York. No. Oi, Moffat, no! No, no, no, no no, a thousand times no. Not under any circumstances. Not even if the lyrics do fit the episode's aesthetic. Which, I suppose, at a push, they do. We'll have no odious, mortgage-sensible, rain forest-saving balding ex-milkmen from Waalsend wailing their nasty cod-Jamaican tripe all over Doctor Who thank you very much. I mean, where on Earth is it all going to end? It'll be Tubular Bells next, mark my words.
'Didn't you used to be somebody?' The Angels Take Manhattan is, of course, a dialogue-lover's dream. It's Moffat, again, showing off his ability to be dramatic, funny and revelatory, often all three at once, without - if you will - blinking. 'I won't let them take him. That's what we've got,' for example. There's 'I'm only human', delivered with a genuine mixture of bewilderment and menace by guest star Mike McShane, to which River, brilliantly, replies: 'That's exactly what they're thinking.' Or, River chiding The Doctor after he uses some of his regeneration energy to heal her broken wrist. 'Nothing is gained by you being a sentimental idiot.' Alex Kingston, in fact, gets quite a lot of the episode's most memorable lines. That is, the ones which Arthur Darvill doesn't get handed. 'To save you,' Rory tells Amy as he's trying to persuade his wife to give him a helping hand in a necessary suicide, 'I could do anything.' Or, his dryly amusing: 'I always wanted to visit The Statue of Liberty. Guess it got impatient!' Karen Gillan is also given a wonderful send off, notably in the heartbreaking second scene in the graveyard in which she takes the decision about her own fate out of The Doctor's hands. In doing so, she completes a journey for Amy which began long ago, in a garden in Leadworth with a raggedy mad-man in a box.
Of course, Rory's final episode wouldn't have been complete without one of the most signposted lines in the show's recent history. 'I'm sorry, Rory,' The Doctor tells him at one point. 'But you just died.' To which the entire audience expects poor old Rory to reply, 'what, again?' The structure of the episode, of course, thanks to the false climax and the labyrinthine, Escher-like ascending and descending construction of the script, provides for an - unprecedented - three deaths for Rory in one episode (one, admittedly, off-screen and with his wife of fifty years lovingly by his side) which, I reckon, now makes ... nine 'deaths' in the show for him. 'You think you'll just come back to life?' Amy asks him when he proposes suicide. 'When don't I?!' Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Nice to see even Rory's in on the joke this time. By anyone bar a really lucky cat's standards, that's probably about eight deaths too many but, thankfully, the one that actually, finally did finish The Lone Centurion off was the one which counted and the one that the audience, probably, would have wished for him and for Amy. The Boy Who Waited being given fifty more years of life with the woman he loved in another time and beneath another sky. An example of the smart criteria. A ceremony in a lonely place, measureable and time bound. Amy and Rory together, unreachable, living their days far from the TARDIS and the stories that could have been. Should have been. But, of course, never were and now, never will be. It was a fitting end. A graceful end. A 'but ... but ... but ...' sort of an end that, I've no doubt some people will find less than satisfying. Their loss. To this blogger, it made absolute sense.
'When one's in love with an ageless God who doesn't age, one does one's best to hide the damage.' So, what are we left with ultimately? A story about fate and causality. About parental relationships and sacrifice. And loneliness and love. To those who complain that in Doctor Who love always seems to save the day of late, here's an example of how only it can also, as Neil Young once noted, break your heart. Love just - effectively - ruined everything. The Doctor will never see the Ponds again, and neither will we, the audience. Amy and Rory's bond was always going to win – it has done for a long time – but it has never been played better than in this episode. From The Doctor's point of view, however, it just tore his whole universe apart. Amy and Rory left the only way they really could. The Weeping Angels felt like they were created for this one scene: Amy and Rory zapped back in time to live out their long - and, seemingly, happy and content - lives without The Doctor. And, not for nothing, without their daughter, Melody, either. Since the TARDIS crash landed into her back garden all those years ago, Amy's story has, largely, been one about growing up - both for herself and for her imaginary friend. At the start, she chose a life of adventure with her Raggedy Man over the prospect of normality with Rory. At least once, that was the stuff of nightmares. But now, faced with that same decision again, there was no longer any contest. This was a fitting end to what may well be considered in years to come as a golden era, and jolly well played to Steven Moffat for telling it in such an involving, emotional way. That last scene, as The Doctor darted through the streets of New York – grabbing at the final page of the novel as it flapped in the wind, speeding toward the ending which he'd refused to accept was coming. Here ended Doctor Who's conceptual fairytale in the way that it had begun long ago and far away – in the pages of a book. Not only that but, here's a thought, do the events of this episode mean that The Daleks in Manhattan never happened? On that score, dear blog reader, perhaps we'll - genuinely - never care.
So, that's that then. They all lived happily ever after. In one way or another. Well, some of them did. 'I hate endings.' Me too. Was it worth it? Yes, it was. Is it nearly Christmas yet?
So, after all that kerfuffle and such an emotional rip-roaring rollercoaster ride, you're probably a bit exhausted and, maybe, a touch saddened, dear blog reader. Therefore, for today's Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day I should probably play you something really jolly to cheer you up. Tough, life isn't always like that. Here's Leonard Cohen his very self. He's suffered for his art, now it's your turn.

2 comments:

chas_m said...

Agreed on all points, PARTICULARLY THE STING ONE.

Cheers and bravo.

Leviathan's Phone said...

The one real problem with this episode is that it once again pushes the series toward the dramatically catastrophic trope of "predestination," rather than "free will" time travel. You can't have an ongoing series about time travelers if they can't change the future. There's no drama possible if our characters can't make a difference. Any individual story that rests on the trope that the future is fixed is going to be undercut by the later stories that will inevitably rewrite the future on the fly.

Making the Manhattan Time Tangle a specific "fixed point in time" works. Entangling Rory in it, with his key role in the paradox, likewise. But taking the attitude, as the episode does throughout, that time travelers can't change anything, that it's all inevitable, makes telling actual stories in "Doctor Who" impossible.

So, as the Doctor demonstrated to Sarah Jane in "Pyramids of Mars," knowing the future doesn't make it inevitable. Free will, the dramatic necessity, has already carried the day.