Doctor Who reviews: The Angels Take Manhattan

In last night’s Doctor Who episode “The Angels Take Manhattan,” Amy Pond and Rory Williams, after years of traveling through time & space with the Doctor, bid farewell to the man in the Police Box.

The news that actors Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill would be leaving Doctor Who in this episode had been circulating for several months now, leading to much speculation as to how exactly Amy and Rory would be written out of the series.  I was personally wondering if they would be given a dignified exit that didn’t feel silly or nonsensical, because, to be honest, I always found the two characters to be inconsistently written over their two and a half year period on the show.

At times Amy could be very likable, one of the best companions the Doctor had; at other times she was just plain annoying.  My feelings ran hot & cold for her from episode to episode.  Rory, likewise, was great as the unassuming everyman who became a heroic figure, the immortal Last Centurion who guarded over Amy for two millennia while she was in suspended animation in the Pandorica.  I wasn’t quite as enamored with Rory when certain writers cast him as a bumbling fifth wheel whose presence felt extraneous to the friendship between Amy and the Doctor.  So it was actually very fortunate that writer Steven Moffat brought his A-game to “The Angels Take Manhattan,” giving both Amy and Rory a very good script to exit on, one that really highlighted their strengths as characters.

Another character whom I’ve have fluctuating feelings towards is Amy and Rory’s half-human, half-Time Lord daughter, the time traveling archeologist River Song, portrayed by Alex Kingston.  Part of the reason why I think the character has been so variable is because the Doctor is always meeting her chronologically out-of-order.  And when she is a younger individual, River is just, well, annoyingly smug and ridiculously impulsive.  I like her better during her appearances from later on in her personal timeline, when she’s mellowed out and become less bat$#!+ crazy.  Given that “The Angels Take Manhattan” is the last appearance of her parents on the series, it makes sense for River to pop up in this episode.  Fortunately, we mostly see her in a more low-key, introspective state here.

The Weeping Angels

This episode also sees the return of the Weeping Angels.  Their 2007 debut story “Blink” is probably the all time scariest Doctor Who episode ever made.  I was underwhelmed by their return to the series in the 2010 “Time of the Angels” / “Flesh and Stone” two-part story, though, and subsequently wondered if they should have been a one-off villain.  But “The Angels Take Manhattan” definitely restored the Weeping Angels to the status of one of the Doctor’s most terrifying foes.

In “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the Weeping Angels have infested New York City.  This time, though, instead of simply sending people back in time decades and feeding off the energy of their lost lifetimes, the Angels are also imprisoning their victims in an apartment building near Battery Park, keeping them trapped there for the rest of their lives, using them as living batteries.  It takes an already horrible fate and makes it infinitely worse.

The Doctor is completely unaware of all this, of course, when he lands the TARDIS in NYC in 2012.  Relaxing in Central Park, having a picnic lunch with Amy and Rory, the Doctor is reading a mystery novel he happened to find in his jacket pocket.  Then Rory disappears on the way back to the Park from a coffee run, and the Doctor realizes that he is reading no ordinary book.  It’s actually penned by River Song, and it tells him that Rory has been sent by the Weeping Angels back to the 1930s.  Taking the TARDIS back in time, the Doctor and Amy meet up with River and track Rory to the apartment block in downtown Manhattan, where they hope to rescue him from a lifetime of imprisonment by the Angels.

The quality of “The Angels Take Manhattan” that meant the most to me is that it finally, after two and a half years of episodes, cemented Amy and Rory’s relationship.  For all the time Rory has been with Amy, he has been plagued by doubts that Amy really loved him as much as he loved her, that she would rather be with the Doctor than with him.  As a viewer, I have often wondered which relationship is supposed to be the closer, stronger one, Amy and Rory’s marriage, or Amy and the Doctor’s friendship.  It really is a very moving scene when Rory, to escape being trapped by the Angels, is willing to take his own life, thereby creating a temporal paradox which will wipe out their presence in New York City, and Amy decides to join him.  We see that she would rather die with him than live without him.  Moffat’s writing, buoyed by Darvill and Gillan’s acting, movingly demonstrates Rory’s very human bravery and Amy’s strong, passionate love & commitment to him.

Rory and Amy’s goodbye kiss

If there was a weakness in the story, it would be that I find it difficult to wrap my head around the idea of the Doctor and River Song being married.  River more than once refers to the Doctor as her husband, and it feels odd.  The best scene between the two was their final one, where it is the Doctor and River in the TARDIS by themselves.  I realized then that when Moffat really needs to do is write at least one episode with just the Doctor and River traveling together, to really give Matt Smith and Alex Kingston an opportunity to explore the rapport that is supposed to exist between their two characters.  There is a lot of potential there, especially the fact that the Doctor knows how River is eventually going to die, knowledge he cannot share with her, and with that an awareness that any time he has with her is limited.  “The Angels Take Manhattan” makes the point that the Doctor hates endings, hates to say goodbye.  So how must he feel about River, having already seen her demise?  There is a lot to explore here, but I feel Moffat really needs to do it in a story without any other companions taking up the spotlight.

As an American fan of Doctor Who, I do appreciate the fact that the new series now had the budget and technology to either make the occasional trip abroad to film a story here in the States, or at least make it appear to be set somewhere here.  It was definitely cool to watch the characters walking about Central Park and the streets of Manhattan, actual places that I see in my daily life.  It definitely makes a pleasant change from having all the Earth-bound episodes set in Great Britain.

Actually, this reminds me a bit of Doctor Who in the 1960s, when often the production teams’ reach may have exceeded their grasp, and they strove to recreate all manner of geographical & historical settings in a tiny studio with a shoestring budget.  The creators of those early episodes may have been overambitious, but they were not afraid to try and achieve the impossible.  There’s a lot of that same quality to the present-day series.

Doctor Who reviews: Asylum of the Daleks

Dalek Prime Minister: What do you know of the Dalek Asylum?
The Doctor: According to legend you have a dumping ground. A planet where you lock up all the Daleks that go wrong. The battle-scarred, the insane, the ones even you can’t control. Which never made any sense to me.
Dalek Prime Minister: Why not?
The Doctor: Because you’d just kill them.
Dalek Prime Minister: It is offensive to us to extinguish such divine hatred.
The Doctor: Offensive?
Dalek Prime Minister: Does it surprise you to know that Daleks have a concept of beauty?
The Doctor: I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick. But hello again. You think hatred is beautiful?
Dalek Prime Minister: Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.

“Asylum of the Daleks” is the premier episode of Doctor Who Series Seven, featuring Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams.  I have to say, it’s great that here in the States we are now getting to see brand  new episodes of Doctor Who so soon after their first airing in the UK.  For a long time, there would be a wait of two or three years for the shows to make it across the Atlantic.  But now they are aired on BBC America within a matter of a couple of days.

In any case, “Asylum of the Daleks” was a pretty good opening episode for the new season.  The Parliament of the Daleks has discovered that the human spaceship Alaska has crash-landed on their Asylum world, breaching a supposedly-impenetrable force field.  And if something can get in, then it follows that something could likewise get out.  Fearful that the insane inmates of the Asylum will break loose and attack their captors, the Parliament forcibly recruits the Doctor and his companions to travel to the planet and shut down the force shields, which will thereby enable the Dalek fleet to then obliterate the planet.

The Daleks have always been experts at manipulating other beings into doing their dirty work, often using deception, fear, or mind control as incentives.  All of these tools are on display in “Asylum of the Daleks,” taken up several notches.  They manipulate the Doctor, their arch-nemesis, into aiding them, something they already did once before in “Victory of the Daleks.”  More insidiously, we see the Daleks using nanogenes to convert innocent people into Dalek/human hybrids, twisted creatures that can be used as sleeper agents or weapons.  Even dead, these mutant beings are still useful, becoming zombies armed with Dalek technology.  There is some unsettling material in “Asylum of the Daleks,” as the Daleks casually twist and pervert humanity into tools they can use.  Writer Steven Moffat very much restores the Daleks’ stature as beings of almost pure evil in this story, and Nick Hurran’s excellent direction imbues them with a real sense of menace.

I did think it was rather clever that at least some of the inmates of the Asylum were Daleks who had survived encounters with the Doctor during their past campaigns.  The Doctor has the unique ability to wear down the patience of even his closest friends.  So for a species such as the Daleks, who are obsessed with overcoming him, being defeated by him would no doubt be enough to drive them insane.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum

One of the reasons why the Doctor agrees to go along with the Dalek Parliament’s plans is because at least one member of the Alaska’s crew survived the crash, a computer genius named Oswin, portrayed by Jenna-Louise Coleman.  Oswin has been stranded on Asylum for a year now, wrecking havoc with the planet’s infrastructure and baking soufflés while zinging witty bon mots.  At first, with her unnatural grace under fire and her quick-witted repartee, I had almost written off Oswin as yet another of Moffat’s uber-competent heroines along the lines of Amy and River Song.  But right from the start, there are hints that all is not what it seems with Oswin, and the Doctor picks up on these right away.  When he finally discovers the truth about her, it is a truly horrifying, tragic revelation.  I don’t know if other viewers saw it coming, but I certainly did not.

There is also a subplot concerning the impending dissolution of Amy and Rory’s marriage.  Amy has become a high fashion model and is seemingly ready to chuck her relationship with Rory in the rubbish, casually signing divorce papers right before the two of them are kidnapped by the Daleks to join up with the Doctor.  Towards the end of the episode, we finally learn why Amy is so ready to throw in the towel.  It does seem incredulous that this is a topic that she never even attempted to discuss with Rory before, putting up a false appearance of indifference.  That said, the actual scene where Rory forces Amy to admit what is going on is in and of itself well written, and both Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan play in marvelously.

I mentioned before Oswin’s flair for witticisms.  If there is one overriding criticism that I’ve had with Doctor Who since its revival, first under Russell T Davies and now with Steven Moffat, it is that both of them have often made too much of an effort at penning this sort of rapid-fire, clever, ultra-self aware dialogue.  I much prefer it when the scripting goes more low-key.  Some of the best scenes in “Asylum of the Daleks” are the more restrained ones.  Matt Smith is especially good at taking these very big, emotional moments of anger, excitement, or sadness, and underplaying them.  It is much more effective than playing it loud and broadly.

The music by Murray Gold was, for the most part, effective.  However, it did seem a bit too whimsical at times for what was such a dark story.  On more than one occasion, I wondered to myself how much different the mood of show would have been if it had been composed by Peter Howell or Roger Limb, both of whom were composers on Doctor Who in the 1980s.  I think it would be interesting to have either one of them contribute to the revived series, especially on one of the more atmospheric episodes such as this one.

So, though not perfect, “Asylum of the Daleks” is a decent episode.  It’s good to have Doctor Who back on our television screens, and this opening episode leaves me anticipating the rest of the forthcoming season.