5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE ANGELS TAKE MANHATTAN
Well, thank God for that. For the first time this season, an episode we think really works.
Not that it's perfect, obviously. Far from it. But for once, the stuff that's not great doesn't really matter. There's enough goodness to carry the day.
So what's so amazing about it? First of all, they sucked us in right away with the noir teaser: we love noir to death, so we were totally entranced. It's moody and atmospheric in approved noir fashion, and the icing on the cake is that with Mr Grayle's name they even reference the classic Raymond Chandler novel "Farewell, My Lovely". (Which could easily be the title of the episode.)
The teaser's also incredibly intriguing, not to mention horrifying: the Angels regain a lot of the menace chipped away by post-Blink episodes. And the Statue of Liberty as an Angel? Killer. Yes, we know it's actually made of copper and that there's no way nobody was looking at it, but who cares? It's irresistible. We couldn't wait to see more.
And it's not just the teaser that looks nice, either. In fact, the styly, debonair good looks of this episode are one of its greatest plus points. It's gorgeously cinematic: we were blown away by how it looked on a cinema-sized screen. And the Manhattan locations are used to terrific effect, even if they take some liberties with geography (the Chrysler Building's on 42nd St, and we doubt it would have looked so close from the Battery).
So it looks good. It's also very, very scary. Although Steven Moffat couldn't resist twiddling about with the Angels' modus operandi yet again, he keeps it to a minimum and lets them get on with the business of terrifying the bejesus out of the audience. Which they accomplish in spades. There are some genuine behind the sofa moments in this, including the scenes with the delightfully evil Cherubim. OK, we don't know how they manage to giggle either, but whatever.
And the other factor that makes this episode a success is its emotional impact. The Ponds have been iffy about the whole companion thing for a while, making us iffy too, and their story seemed to have come to an end anyway, so we weren't exactly welling up at the thought of their much-ballyhooed departure. Yes, they've been good companions - sometimes even great companions - but no companion should hang around forever and we agreed with Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill that it was time for them to go. That, however, in no way stopped us from blubbering like tiny children as they stood on the roof, as Amy made the decision to join Rory and, especially, at the final scene with young Amelia. All of it works really well, and the final scene in particular, paying off as it does a setup going all the way back to The Eleventh Hour, is simply perfect. We particularly like the freeze frame, which echoes the same device used, to similar stunning effect, when Sarah Jane leaves the TARDIS.
We also love the depiction of the Doctor in this. He's no shining hero, that's for sure. Not by a very long shot. When it turns out Rory's fate is to die in the Angels' room, the Doctor simply accepts it: there's not the tiniest hint of him even attempting to come up with a cunning plan. What's more, he tries to shoot down the others' cunning plans too.
When Amy and Rory jump from the roof, you'd think Rory was invisible, since the Doctor is screaming "Amy! Amy!". Then, when Amy decides to let the Angel take her to Rory, the Doctor does everything in his power to dissuade her. Selfish to the nth degree, right? Not only is he ignoring Rory's welfare, he's ignoring Amy's wishes too: all he cares about is that he gets his own way. Awesome. We hate it when the Doctor's portrayed as some sort of noble do-gooder. Yes, we're sure he's learned from experience over his long lifespans, but think about how selfish, cunning, vain and arrogant the First Doctor is. Some of that's still definitely in there, and a good thing too. Plaster saints are about as interesting to watch as a paint-drying competition.
As for the Ponds' fate, it's an excellent choice. We were wrong that all the fannying about with time would mean their existence would be cancelled: instead, Moffat goes with a softer ending, which works just as well. There are elements of sadness about it, in that they've been separated from the time they know and as a result from people they care about, but there are many positives too. We know they lived a full and happy life, and at least Amy can stop spending her life half-listening for a wheezing groan. Which after the anguish of years spent, in one way or another, waiting for the Doctor, must come as an immense relief.
So, emotion, scary villains, and flashy good looks: all of those add up to a juggernaut of goodness that flatten the thing's faults into minor annoyances. Pointing out those faults, therefore, does not imply that they sink the episode. We have to do it, though, because that's the gig.
Let's start with the plotular problems. What drives the narrative is the idea that if your personal history is written down it's written in stone as well as on paper. This, we have to say, is madly silly, is contradicted by many previous episodes, and opens a lot of unwelcome traps for future time travel stories. We suspect it will be quietly forgotten about, and a good thing too.
However, there it is, and for this story at least we have to live with it. Rory's death is a fixed point, but only the gravestone existing at a certain time part, apparently. The paradox created by his double death in the Angel building is enough to blow most of the Angels out of the water, return our heroes to the present and release Rory from the fate of spending the rest of his life in that room, but not to stop him from dying back then.
It's therefore pointless for Rory to try and run, because he's the number one tasty snack on the Angels' menu. Hence all the flickering lights in the other episodes as they presumably chased him through time and space with outstretched sporks. Why Rory, we're not sure, since the others aren't exactly slouches in the time travel department either and you'd think they'd be trailing as much toothsome timey-wimey goodness as he is. Oh well.
He has a go at escaping anyway, though, trying with a conspicuous lack of success to get out of the building. But hold up a minute. River is wearing a vortex manipulator. When Rory decides to run, why doesn't River give it to him? If we were Rory, we'd have used it to bolt for the TARDIS and wait for Amy to prod the Doctor into coming up with a plan to stop the Angels hunting for him.
Also, the Doctor can't return to New York because the TARDIS would apparently send it up in a sheet of flame. What's stopping him, however, from calling her on her mobile before the charge runs out and arranging to meet them in New Jersey? He could pick them up in the TARDIS and they could live wherever they wanted before the Doctor returned Rory to New York to cark it at the appointed hour. Well, there is something stopping them, one thing and one thing only: the book's epilogue that makes it clear they never met the Doctor again. That being the case, why in Chthulu's seven underwater hells does the Doctor get River to encourage Amy to write it?
Then there's the Angels' evil plan. In Blink, the Angels whizz people through time and munch on the resulting energy, but once the whizzing is over, the whizzees proceed about their lives unmolested. These Angels, however, are hanging onto the humans they transport. Huh? Someone does ask whether the Angels built the place, but nobody answers. We'd sure as hell like to know too. All the neatly typed labels and stuff are hardly in the Angels' remit, are they?
Yes, it's annoying that Moffat is switching them up yet again, but shrug. Maybe they're another subspecies or something. What really puzzles us is why in Rory's case they double-dip him. Why speed him back to 1938, whisk him to their building and then prepare to send him back yet again? Why, come to that, drop him outside the "farm", and why does Rory trot inside instead of legging it rapidly in the opposite direction?
Also, why's the lone surviving Angel continuing to target Rory after the farm's closed for business? And why would she transport him back to New York?
And they're very inconsistent with the whole Angels only moving when unobserved business. As well as the Statue of Liberty moving, for which there's no in-universe excuse at all, the last Angel grabs Amy in full view of River and the Doctor just because Amy turns her back on it. And aren't some of those Cherubim, and the Angels in their building, in each other's sightlines? Tsk, tsk. Sloppy.
So much for the Angels. What else falls flat?
Sadly, given the admirable way Alex Kingston throws herself into it, one of the things is River. This certainly isn't Kingston's fault: the character just seems fatally flawed in the concept, and no matter how well Kingston does with it or how fab she looks in that dress, she can't fix that.
We've made no secret of our opinion that the relationship between River and her parents has been spectacularly botched. This episode, alas, does nothing to undo this. Rory and Amy have had plenty of time since they discovered River is their daughter to forge some kind of relationship with her, yet when River and Rory meet in 1938 they're just as strained and awkward with each other as ever. And that's the same all the way through. It's clear River's meant to be on their side - check out the way she tries to stop the Doctor from wet-blanketing their plans to save Rory in the Angel building and to stop him from trying to persuade Amy into the TARDIS. However, there's nothing else that makes a familial relationship believable. Other than that single touching moment where River kisses Amy's hand, we just don't see any kind of attachment at all.
And River herself still falls far short of believability. It wasn't until Amy's line "She's got ice in her heart and a kiss on her lips and vulnerable side she keeps well hidden" that we realised that Moffat sees River as a noir dame. We hadn't picked it up before, because most of the time she…just…isn't. You only have to look at her interaction with the Doctor in the Library double to see how silly the "ice in her heart" part is. You can show different sides to a character, but they do at least have to be able to reasonably coexist.
Still not going with the psychopath thing, either. It just doesn't fit with the rest of her character, including the vast majority of her behaviour, whatsoever. Besides, would the Doctor really marry someone you could comfortably describe as a psychopath? Not in a million years, or to the end of time and back for that matter, if you ask us.
Like we said, fatally flawed from the get-go. As correspondent Greg Chadwick so wisely puts it: "That bit where River is locked in the Angel's grip sums up what is wrong with the character for me. Because the whole point is to keep her from finishing the episode in twenty minutes flat! River is basically the best bits of the Doctor (she can do almost everything he can and better) and the best bits of Captain Jack and extra cool (and with added cleavage). She's too powerful a character for the show: it's like having James Bond or Superman in 24 or Sherlock Holmes in a cop show (or 7 of 9 in Voyager!) In most of the stories she's been in she's basically been the lead. It was OK when we had Romana and the 4th Doctor, partly because he clearly had a lot more experience than her and partly because Gallifrey was still around and there were other Time Lords off-screen. Now it's just the two of them, it creates problems."
We'll leave our lesser nitpicks to the Outtakes section, but one more thing: the emotional pacing of the action's not quite right. Amy choosing to die with Rory is the full-on, to the max tearjerker. Nothing could possibly punch you in the solar plexus harder than that. So when Amy comes to choose again, it doesn't have quite as much impact. If she's chosen to die with him, it pretty much stands to reason she's going to live with him. (On the other hand, if you want a happyish ending, that order's pretty much forced on you.)
Is it perfect? Nope. Does that matter? Not really. It would be nice if everything with a ragged edge had been tidied up, but it doesn't stop it from being a very strong episode. A lot of love and care has gone into it, and it shows. If every episode had shown the evidence of the passion and craft that's gone into this one, this would have been a very different season.
MORAL: A chapter a day keeps the Doctor away.
"Only you could fancy someone in a book." What the hell's he talking about? As far as we're concerned, and we know most booklovers will agree, it's not only a possibility, it's practically mandatory.
The Melody Malone book Amy is holding when they first get to the graveyard is actually Dashiell Hammett's classic "The Thin Man". We're kind of disappointed that they didn't custom print a few Melody Malone pages, but this, especially with the book's reference to Rory as "the thin guy" is nearly as good.
"They've never had a food source like this one: the city that never sleeps." Sorry? How does that work?
ONE OFF THE WRIST
What's all the big deal about the wrist-breaking? The Doctor says he has to break something because Amy read it. Then he repeats that to River. Then River breaks her own wrist. Wasn't the Doctor supposed to do it? And if he just had to break something, why not break the Angel's hand? Also, how does breaking her wrist help River? The Angel's hand is wrapped almost completely round her wrist. She'd have to crush the bones in her hand and wrist down to a circumference smaller than her wrist to get her hand out.
TWO OFF THE WRIST
In the shots from the Angel's side of River, the Angel's thumb is shown held out straight, but in the shots facing the Angel her thumb is completely wrapped around River's wrist.
THREE OFF THE WRIST
Why, exactly, does River lie about her wrist again? One does one's best to hide the damage? Never let him see the damage? Huh? It works on the metaphorical level and all, but in practical terms it's just mad.
Poor old Rory yet again gets shortchanged, disappearing without enough time for so much as a see ya. What with that, the time when the Doctor got rid of the Ponds the first time without bothering to say goodbye to Rory and all the deaths, he's got to be one of the saddest companions ever. We know it underlines the point that as far as the Doctor's concerned he's only there because of Amy, but still, we think he deserves better.
DRAINING THE POND
And finally Amy becomes a Williams. Which shows that at last she's truly committed to her marriage in a way no woman who kept her own name could ever be. Oh, sorry, were our eyes rolling there?