Don't read on unless you've seen "The Angels Take Manhattan," "Doctor Who's" fall finale. And if you don't want to read my thoughts on the State of "Doctor Who," you can skip the first section and go to Talking "Angels."
Before I get into the meat of this episode -- the last "Doctor Who" outing until this year's Christmas special -- I thought I'd write a bit about not just the season so far, but the status of "Doctor Who" as an American observer and a longtime fan.
I've been watching "Doctor Who" since I was about 12 years old; I have a memory of being at a sixth-grade school dance and sitting in the bleachers with the another female nerd from my sixth grade class (who was sporting a Tom Baker-era long scarf) and talking about the show. If you grew up in the U.K., this is a fairly standard geek memory. In the U.S. in the late '70s and early '80s, this made you an outlier, in my experience. A string of PBS stations broadcast the program for a while, but it was very, very far from well known, and while "Doctor Who" is long-established as a popular cultural entity in the United Kingdom and in other parts of the world, in America, for decades it remained among the cultiest of culty nerd fixations.
That all changed with the reboot that the BBC kicked off in 2005. Russell T. Davies' updated take on the classic brought the Doctor and his companions into the modern era and re-established the show's brand, but in America, it was still something of an uphill slog for "Doctor Who" to get noticed. The show first aired erratically on Syfy, which didn't do much to promote it, and eventually "Doctor Who" moved over to BBC America, a well-regarded but small network that had its work cut out for it in terms of promoting a charming but fairly obscure science-fiction program.
Like the "Doctor Who" franchise itself, BBC America never had a ton of money, but like the Time Lord, with pluck and creativity it managed to make "Doctor Who" more well known here, even as the show's profile in the U.K. and around the world followed a fairly steady upward trajectory. RTD's time at the helm of the program won't win any awards for consistency, but his best episodes had a cheeky wit, a romantic sense of possibility or a chugging sense of momentum, and his tenure helped gain the show notice among critics and media observers in the U.S. It helped that the Christmas specials and high-profile episodes had a scattering of moderately famous actors, that BBC America aired the show relatively consistently, and that David Tennant was a more electric presence in the role (I'm not slagging off Christopher Eccleston's tenure as the Doctor, but he was more suited to the show's dramatic tendencies, not its fizzier, funnier aspects.)
By the time Matt Smith took over as Doctor and Steven Moffat as showrunner a few years ago, all the pieces were in place for an all-out "Doctor Who" charm offensive -- and it worked. Here in the U.S., the show is finally on the media's radar on a consistent basis, and the recent Entertainment Weekly cover story is the culmination of many different promotional efforts, which have included rapturous Comic-Con receptions and an array of promotional work by the "Doctor Who" actors and creative team. The clever Moffat episodes (including the all-time classic "Blink") were catnip to viewers and critics who'd just come off years of chewing on the complexities of "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica," and the fact that the network was willing to spend the dough to send the cast to America to film episodes and talk to the press helped raise the show's profile even further.
Again, speaking as an American observer, it's been clear for some time that the BBC regards "Doctor Who" as one of its chief assets. It's also been clear for a while now that the BBC has big plans for the franchise, and its not hard to connect the dots between the rise of "Doctor Who" and the relative decline in the BBC's fortunes (there have been cutbacks aplenty during the economic contraction of the last few years). Though hard news on this front has been difficult to pin down, "Doctor Who" movies have been discussed. The show has shot parts of a few episodes in the United States in recent years, and one episode this season was filmed in Spain. There are clearly huge plans afoot for the show's 50th anniversary next year.
And this season in particular makes me wonder, have we begun to witness the "Star Wars"-ization of "Doctor Who"? In other words, have the show's commercial possibilities begun to overtake the things that made it so lovable in the first place?
I say this not because I want "Doctor Who" to remain obscure and for nerds only. I've done my bit in terms of promoting the show -- I've interviewed the cast and Moffat and Davies repeatedly and written a lot about the series ever since it popped up on Syfy years ago. But this season in particular, "Doctor Who" seems to have gone big and broad and shown less regard for the folks who plant their bums on the couch and want to see a well-made adventure once a week.
This season seems to be all about the promotable titles and concepts; BBC America even commissioned a series of movie-style posters to commemorate each episode. "Dinosaurs on a Space Ship!" The Doctor and Amy head to the Wild West! The Weeping Angels again!
Let's face it, when the cool, creepy villains from "Blink" are, a few years later, hundreds of feet high and rampaging around Manhattan, you have to wonder if a show's gotten too big -- and if that size is coming at a cost.
As I wrote earlier this season, for the most part, I liked the season opener, which I thought was both clever and moving, and it even managed to put a welcome new spin on an old enemy, the Daleks. Still, in that episode, though Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan did great work as Amy Pond and Rory Williams, the key aspect of their relationship felt rushed and off-kilter. We were told that they'd divorced, but we didn't get to see how or why that had happened. The show had done a great deal to establish the deep bond they had, but it didn't do anything to show us how that profound connection was lost. Once again -- and this is a pattern on the show of late -- "Doctor Who" relied on shorthand, a speedy pace and the passionate acting of the cast.
We had to settle for shorthand, in addition to sloppiness, for much of the next four episodes as well. "Dinosaurs on a Space Ship" had some fun moments -- I especially liked meeting Rory's dad -- but it underused not only the Ponds, but the episode's other guest stars as well (Rupert Graves' appearance was especially wasted).
Overall, the slight "Dinosaurs" seemed like an excuse to use that title; the episode itself was nothing to write home about. I'm willing to tolerate the occasional space pirate or triceratops if, in the main, "Doctor Who" remains a show that both kids and adults can appreciate. But my 10 year old was picking out plot holes in "Angels" before we'd even gotten to the last act ("How is nobody noticing the Statue of Liberty walking around?" he asked. I wondered the same thing.)
We've recently rewatched all of the episodes in the current "Doctor Who" era, and I'm not here to bash Moffat, but to wonder what happened to his ability to trust his audience. I frankly wonder if the BBC, in its quest to get more and more worldwide viewers for the "Doctor Who" franchise, is asking him to dumb things down. Moffat has always said he thinks audiences are smart enough to keep up with his puzzle plots (which, to my mind, are sometimes a litte too convoluted). And, whatever its occasional downsides, that devotion to jaunty smarts and quick wit has often been one of the best things about the show. But lately, ideas and themes have been telegraphed with all the subtlety of, well, a dinosaur blundering through a space ship.
We got the message in that episode, for example, that the Doctor turns murderous when he travels without companions. And just for good measure, that message was hammered home again when he visited a "Town Called Mercy" and then again several times in "Angels." Speaking of "Mercy," I think the Doctor shoving the war criminal outside the town limits in that episode was one of the most problematic moments in the modern "Doctor Who" era. As was the case with Amy and Rory's divorce, we were just meant to accept the Doctor's sudden status as a bloodthirsty guy bent on vengeance, when, for 50 years, the character has very much not been that.
The Doctor can get tremendously angry, of course, and he can be arrogant, devious and even mean. Quite often he acts like a child who is used to getting his way, and the audience has always known he needs a companion around to keep him from going to far in one extreme direction or another. Even so, one of the best aspects of the modern "Doctor Who" era has been the way the showrunners have allowed this old, ravaged soul to display a range of emotions, from despair to self-hatred to child-like amusement and enthusiasm. The darkness is always there (as it has been during his five decades on television), but one of the things that makes the Doctor admirable is the effort he expends in keeping himself from becoming a callous murderer.
In "Mercy," viewers were just supposed to accept this sudden acceleration of the Doctor's darker tendencies, which hadn't been adequately set up by the previous episode (or episodes). I loved seeing Ben Browder on TV again and there were elements of the Doctor in the Old West that were enjoyable (mostly to do with visuals), but this shoddily handled aspect of the hour bothered me, as did the fact that Amy and Rory were really inessential to it.
And that's what has bothered me most about this shortened season; not just the shortcuts and compressions, but the fact that the shortcuts and compressions didn't serve a Pond-worthy exit arc. A lot of time has been devoted to what the Amy and Rory mean to the Doctor -- and there were some sweet moments along these lines in "The Power of Three" -- but what about what they mean to the audience? We not only care about them as a couple, we respect Rory's steadfastness and devotion as well as Amy's courage and fearlessness. Why didn't we get to see more of those qualities? Why not show us more about what we loved about them -- not just their love for each other, but their bravery and agility as companions and characters?
The sad fact is, Amy's been inessential to "Doctor Who" for some time now, and time that could have been spent on making her the emotional core to these five episodes was spent on other things. Amy wasn't crucial to much of anything that happened this season, and in "Angels," the character was crowded out by the distracting presence of River Song and by the fact that Rory was the one to make the essential choices first. Amy Pond went from being the girl who waited to being the girl who followed. She deserved better than that.
The previous episodes didn't do much to set up a galvanizing departure, so maybe I should have expected the subdued reaction I had to "Angels." In any case, my sneaking suspicion is that the season as a whole played out the way it did because the BBC wanted big, promotable episodes with snazzy titles and easily digestible concepts. Are any other "Doctor Who" fans out there also worried about what this means for next year's 50th anniversary festivities? Moffat is a very intelligent man and his tenure has had its share of low points, but his episodes and his vision for the show have generally been pretty smart, scary and inventive.
But think back to "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances," "The Girl in the Fireplace," "Blink," "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead," "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" and "A Good Man Goes to War." Can you honestly say that anything in this season, aside from possibly the premiere, even remotely deserves to be in that company? "The Angels Take Manhattan" certainly didn't, in part because it felt like it was made to be promoted, not enjoyed. River! New York! Weeping Angels! Timey-wimey! Added together, these things felt like the less than the sum of their parts, and I wish my deep affection for the Ponds hadn't got lost in that shuffle.
Let me be clear: This is not like some fan of an obscure band saying he wants his favorite band to remain obscure forever. It makes me happy when people recognize the Dalek on a T-shirt I often wear, and I own the TARDIS bathrobe, teapot and a full set of minifigures. But I can't help but wonder if some of what makes this show so lovable -- the ingenuity, the intelligence, the very British reserve slipping to reveal deep emotion, the wit, the imagination -- is being lost along the way, as the BBC pursues a higher profile for the show, and greater revenues from it. This is a show about an eccentric man in a tweed jacket whooshing around the universe and fiercely protecting the people he loves and cleverly rescuing compelling rescuees. This is not a show about spectacle and explosions; at its best, it's a witty, philosophically and emotionally rich chamber piece set in space. It's about the sonic screwdriver, it's not about 300-foot Angels.
"The Angels Take Manhattan" was not the show at its best. The title made for a great poster. The episode itself was hit and miss.
I wish I had liked "Angels" more than I did, but there was a lot of throat-clearing before we got to the meat of the story: We met a couple of characters (the rich guy and the hard-boiled detective) who didn't matter in the end, and River simply took up too much space, plotwise and emotionally. She got in the way. And normally, I love film noir, but the big and operatic tone the director was clearly going for clashed with the mood of film noir, which is all about bittersweet cynicism. The scene in Central Park was fun, but it felt like it was from a different episode. "Angels" simply didn't cohere.
Part of the reason the episode didn't fully work for me was because I dislike the kind of timey-wimey machinations on display here. It's just a personal dislike; I'm willing to concede that others may not share it (and yes, I get that this kind of thing is somewhat baked into the premise). The detective novel, the Angels, the apartment building, the clues -- I more or less understand how all that worked, but the episode featured yet another Moffat-style house-of-mirrors plot that buried the emotional beats in time math. Trying to figure out how it all worked and what it all meant stopped me from being able to fully bask in the Ponds' exit.
At least this overly busy episode was less frustrating than "The Power of Three," which absolutely should have been a two-parter (but then the BBC wouldn't have had its promotable dinosaurs and cowboys). "Three" felt very much like a "Torchwood" episode, from the pulse-pounding alien invasion to the ending that didn't make any damn sense. Why introduce an interesting set of bad guys only to dismiss them with an preposterous handwave? It was a frustrating hour, only because it had so many interesting elements to it -- all of which were compressed and cut short for external reasons. The whole idea was to get Amy and Rory back into the TARDIS, and so a lot of promising story threads were just snipped off.
The scenes of the Doctor attempting to come to terms with the loss of Amy and Rory in "Three" were affecting, and the two scenes of Amy choosing to be with her eternally loving Roman soldier in "Angels" were very well performed. We know by this point that this cast can do wondrous things, and Amy's decision to jump off the building with Rory and the Doctor's horrified pain in the final Amy-Rory scene were especially affecting.
But the Angels felt less menacing than they ever have in this hour; as villains, I think they've lost a lot of their mojo, and I'm not entirely sure that their apartment-building/stomping-around-Manhattan gambits made a lot of sense. Overall, the pace was a little too frantic, and, as I said, I wasn't especially fond of River Song this time around. I've generally been a fan of the character, but here, she mostly felt like a distraction to the business at hand. We got an admission that she's "in love" with the Doctor -- but to what end? Given that Moffat doesn't appear to like stories that delve deeply into emotion, this seems like another blind alley the show won't fruitfully explore.
As for River's declaration at the end of the episode -- "it doesn't matter" was her response to the exit of her parents -- it felt tonally wrong, especially in an hour that was all about marriage, connection and literal leaps of faith. It made this character, a passionate woman who has always seemed to understand the cost of love and the full depth of heartbreak, seem especially callous. Yes, she could have been hiding her emotions under bravado, but why do that, at that point? What would be the point of repressing those feelings?
UPDATE: I understand that various events may not feel fixed to River since she can travel in time, hence her comment. I still feel like that was not the line she should have said in that moment, it was just a poor choice of dialogue for a few reasons. (A side note: What about Brian? Will anyone ever tell him where his son and daughter-in-law disappeared to? That thought has lingered in my head since seeing the episode.)
All in all, the choppy ending was of a piece with a season that has often felt as though it were running in several directions at once. I wish the Ponds had had a more satisfying send-off half-season, but too often, these episodes have felt both too meandering and too crammed. We didn't need dinosaurs on a space ship, we didn't need a shoot-out at the OK Corral, not really. We needed to feel that the Amy and Rory, two of the best companions in the history of "Doctor Who," got a deeply resonant and fitting send-off, one that would leave us with thoughts and feelings that would last a long time.
Time appears to be the one thing the show couldn't spare them.