So, for the 433rd time in the new series of Doctor Who, someone was definitely going to die. They didn’t, of course, just as they never have; just as we never believed they would.
I’ve complained before that the habit of Moffatt and RTD of teasing deaths, then backing out of it with a big emotional pay-off in the hope that no-one would notice, was drawing diminishing returns and weakening the satisfaction that these stories deliver.
That’s perhaps why the departure of the Ponds – two companions I’ll genuinely miss, played by two actors who really seemed to get their roles – didn’t have the emotional impact that it should have.
Because we’ve been cheated, misdirected, swerved and conned so often over the last few years that there’s no faith in the production team – Moffatt is most guilty of this as a writer – not to simply defy the internal logic of the show.
People will argue that complaining about a show like Doctor Who not making sense is willfully obtuse. “It’s a show about a time traveller in a police box – of course it doesn’t make sense!,” they cry.
Needless to say, this is either a disingenuous or a genuinely stupid line of reasoning. Of course Doctor Who is a show that has departed quite significantly from reality; we shouldn’t hold its observation of reality to the same standards as those for Holby City, but when programmes stop making sense according to their own established rules they lose their impact, their agency, their reason to exist.
The new series of Doctor Who has been predicated on emotion, by both Davies and Moffatt. I’ve no real complaint about that either, though I think it’s been rather over-egged. My chief problem is that the narratives that spawn the emotion are overthrown, ignored or cancelled out again and again.
The result is the boy who cried bad wolf. You simply don’t believe what you’re told; what you’re shown. Even when apparently final something happens – a companion dies, leaves or is lost to a dimensional macguffin – we don’t really believe it.
When Doctors and companions die again and again and again we simply don’t buy it, so there’s no meaningful emotional pay-off when it happens. We’re inured to it and have been taught to disbelieve what we’re told by the successive show-runners.
I guess that’s why I didn’t really feel especially sad when the Ponds departed, even though I think they were easily the best-drawn characters of the new series. I’m conditioned to expect a swerve, to suspect a cheat, to feel like I’m being fooled.
The fact that the Ponds’ consignment to history and a life without the Doctor didn’t really stand up to scrutiny either didn’t make help. Couldn’t the Doctor just go back to Boston and get a train? Why does seeing a grave or reading a book mean that time can’t be changed? Within the confines of The Angels Take Manhattan it may be established that time can’t be changed, but narrative rules have been chucked in the bin so often over the last seven years that these arbitrary rules don’t seem to mean much anyway.
Time can be rewritten. Death has no sting. The irrevocable becomes… revocable. It’s possible to overlook this from time to time, but when it comes to default setting for a series it’s hard to invest much emotion in it.
So, while I enjoyed The Angels Take Manhattan, with its spooky cherubs and dashes of timey-wimey-ness (although thoroughly nonsensical, as it seemed to me), the Moff’s sparkling dialogue and the performances of all concerned – it simply didn’t amount to that much by me.
Doctor Who has become something that’s gratifying in a fairly shallow, instantaneous way. Not because of the dearth of strong characterisation, performances or (occasionally) some clever scripts.
Because the rules of Doctor Who, the rules of honest narrative and internal logic, have been stripped away to the point where it becomes impossible to invest anything more than the most scant care over what is happening and to whom.
As a result, what should have been a devastating climax to the episode felt like the latest in a long line of false endings. That, for me, is the inevitable result of the deliberately tricky, breakneck, crash-bang, watch-the-birdie style of storytelling that RTD and Moffatt adopted by relentlessly upping the ante and relying on ersatz emotion to paper over the cracks.
Doctor Who works when viewers can suspend their disbelief; where River’s confusing timeline, the apparently arbitrary nature of what can and can’t be done within the laws of time and causality and the difficulty in believing that the Ponds have actually gone for good can be ignored in favour of the whole. I think the series is now reaping the whirlwind; as a result I’m finding it hard to believe in Doctor Who, or care about it.
The Angels Take Manhattan fails, not because of the story itself, but because of the previous seven years.
The setting – Manhattan looked great and Moffatt made better use of it than previous foreign excursions had.
The tone – The noirish/gothic atmosphere and devices were a nice tic that worked well in relation to the story.
Performances and characterisation – Even River was less smug in this one. As ever, Arthur Darvill imbues Rory with genuine character, believable emotion and makes him perhaps the best companion of the new series.
Fear factor – The Angels are clearly far and away the best monsters to come from the new series; they’re novel, imaginative and very frightening. The addition of the giggling, cherubic Angels was another sinister aspect to these monsters.
Big screen moments – I’m fairly non-plussed by the ‘film poster’ idea as it’s turned out mostly underwhelming episodes in this odd series. But moments like the Statue Of Liberty as an Angel, even though it doesn’t hold up the slightest scrutiny, and the baby Angel blowing out Rory’s match worked well as iconic moments.
Angel food – I liked the conceit of the Angels farming humans, with Battery Park as a kind of rest home for zapped victims.
Timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly – Previoulsy I thought Moffatt’s time-travel tricksiness was well worked out, but this time there was too much that didn’t seem to make any sense to me. Moff’s stories always seemed to have more care lavished on them when RTD was show-runner; nowadays he seems to be employing some of RTD’s less desirable tricks to bring confusing stories to a conclusion; here the timey-wimey stuff just seemed to serve to create a dramatic conclusion – and it didn’t really stand up for me.
River – River’s timeline doesn’t seem to make the slightest sense to me any more. Beyond that I don’t really like the character. She was written as much less smug this time around, but I’m not sure this character has ever been likable, sympathetic or especially interesting.
Won’t Get Fooled Again – As mentioned above at length, the cumulative impact of several years of dishonest writing and media chuntering robbed the Ponds of their deserved exit.
The Ponds’ exit – In many ways this was a nice conclusion to their story but, aside from all the dubious logic of it I thought there was a stronger ending that had been teased in previous weeks, with its origins in The Time Of Angels. The suggestion was that Amy would turn into an Angel in this episode and, while that was perhaps never a realistic alternative, I think it a much stronger one.
Direction – Some great moments here, but somehow the way Rory and Amy eventually departed didn’t seem quite right; like an amusing punch-line delivered with timing that’s slightly off.
• Caves and Twins? What are you dribbling on about?
Go here: Caves and Twins