2 years, 10 months ago
|In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as a frankly alarming|
It’s September 29th, 2012. Script are at number one with “Hall of Fame,” with Psy, Pink, Ne-Yo, and, with an impressive seven letters, Example also charting. In news, resolution is reached regarding the lockout of NFL referees, and, the day after this story airs, the Jimmy Saville story starts to break as it comes out that ITV is planning on airing a documentary accusing him of being a pedophile.
On television today, however, the last of five episodes in Doctor Who’s 2012 mini-season. The decision to frame the first portion of Season Seven with two returning monsters is interesting. Asylum of the Daleks served as Moffat’s most aggressive feint, at least in terms of the audience, with everything it was sold as disappearing in a haze of Jenna Louise Coleman. But if that story was aggressively forward-looking, here we get the flip side: a story that cannot possibly look forward. All of this is ultimately framed by the paratext: by the fact that even before Asylum of the Daleks aired, Coleman had been announced as the next companion and the departure of the Ponds had been set for this story. To some extent this has been the major problem with this entire run of episodes: it’s clearly just 2012’s filler before we get to 2013, where the main event is, both because of the fundamentally forward-looking nature of the hype machine that fuels Doctor Who and because 2013 - 50 = 1963. But as with Asylum of the Daleks, this paratext is fundamental to understanding the structure of The Angels Take Manhattan, an episode that from the first frame only makes sense if the audience goes in knowing that it’s Amy Pond’s departure story.
Equally important, however, are the Weeping Angels. “I know how they work,” River says at one point, in a line that is more revealing than it initially appears. The Angels have always been defined, after all, as a game. The heart of their success is that they recognize that the true form of a Doctor Who monster is simply as a set of rules, and that the art comes in telling a story where those rules pay off. The Angels work according to a very simple rule, and, more importantly, one that fundamentally serves as a metaphor for the medium in which they are ensconced. They are, in every sense, governed by the act of looking. Combine with a solid visual design and you have a hit.
But the story draws equally heavily from Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, which quietly reworked large swaths of the Angels’ conception, expanding on the fundamental link between the Angels and televisual storytelling with its chilling injunction that the image of an Angel becomes an Angel. This tied the Angels inexorably into Doctor Who’s qlippothic tradition, which is to say, they represent the border of narrative possibility: an already collapsed and decayed story that is at once called into existence and fundamentally unspeakable within the confines of the existing narrative.
Within the context of The Angels Take Manhattan, however, this is linked cleverly to another literary tradition, namely that of weird fiction, a genre that has always been defined by the qlippothic, albeit usually under a different name. It’s telling that the story is set the year after H.P. Lovecraft’s death, as the entire opening sequence is essentially Doctor Who doing Lovecraft, finally paying off one of the great unrealized promises of the 1990s. The Angels are simply a lurking and pre-existing horror. Depending on your perspective, they either lack an origin entirely, serving as a sort of predator that extends from the concept of the universe itself, or their origin sits squarely in that weird intersection of Borges and Lovecraft. Either way, they function perfectly well as a cosmic horror kick, and Moffat and Hurran conspire to craft a quick and efficient bit of pulp fiction, taken from one genre over, that steadily transitions into weird fiction before, on a dime, executing an endearingly gonzo set piece in the form of the Statue of Liberty being a Weeping Angel.
But this really is little more than a cold open meant to import some genre conventions. The Moffat/Hurran collaboration is ultimately based on a sort of meta-fictional suspense. In Moffat we have a writer perpetually interested in twists based on genre conventions - the person who honed narrative collapse into narrative substitution, and who has done more than any other writer of Doctor Who to recognize that one of the basic reasons that Doctor Who exists is to let us interrogate our stories. In Hurran, we have a director who is endlessly inventive in his ability to blur the line between representation and genre. And so when paired together, invariably, the result is a story in which the primary suspense is over what sort of story this is going to be.
For The Angels Take Manhattan, however, the answer to that is already written in stone by the paratext: this is the sort of story where the Ponds tragically and heartbreakingly leave at the end. Its central genius, then, is to literalize this problem within the narrative by writing a story about the problem of narrative inevitability - one where the ending is, at times literally, written in stone. The central invention of The Angels Take Manhattan is to add yet another iteration of the act of looking to the logic of the Weeping Angels. If the Weeping Angels are, as Time of Angels made them, undead stories then the central horror of The Angels Take Manhattan is the danger of looking at a story. Ultimately, the reason Amy leaves is that the Doctor sees in the table of contents that Amy leaves. And he sees that because the paratext of Doctor Who has already announced her departure, previewed her replacement, and constructed a whacking big mystery about said replacement.
The word we’ve not used yet, that we really should, is of course “spoilers.” Because part and parcel of this concern over the act of looking is River Song, a character who is defined by the achronological nature of her appearances. But by this point in the narrative the nature of River Song has steadily flipped. At this point we know who she is. It is no longer River who holds spoilers from the Doctor and from the audience, but rather the Doctor who holds the ultimate spoiler from her, namely her death. This has hung over the storyline from the beginning - the simultaneous betrayal and ultimate act of fealty that is the Doctor’s knowledge of River’s end. “He doesn’t like endings,” she says, not even beginning, even as she gets closer and closer to her ending, to realize the implications that statement has for their relationship.
All of this is ultimately framed, however, around the Angels, who provide thematic unity to a story about the anxieties of looking and narrative structure. It is an odd sort of unity that extends as much out of Nick Hurran’s stylistic approach as it does out of any textual principles, but it works. Key to it is the return to the “proper” approach of Weeping Angels, which is killing people by sending them back in time. Another way to frame this, then, is that the Weeping Angels function by denying the possibility of an ending, especially when they’re given their feeding ground of Winter Quay. Instead of ending, one’s life simply gets caught in a nice, orderly causal loop that is a sort of sick apotheosis of Aristotelean narrative structure.
And fittingly, everyone within this story is caught in mirrors and reflections of past stories. Rory is dying again, River is confronting narratively pre-ordained events, Amy is lodged in yet another iteration of Amy’s Choice, the imagery of growing old and abandoned and of waiting is all over the story. This is fitting. It’s the end of the Pond era, and a celebration of past glories is earned. But what’s interesting is how much this isn’t a celebration of these past stories. Instead they seem to haunt the narrative, serving to map out the conceptual space of “Pond-era stories” in a way that only reiterates the inevitability of an ending.
That, at least, is the thematic content. Within that, however, is a story with its own focus - one that is structured around two marriages. This marks the first and indeed only time that a River Song story openly acknowledges the Doctor’s marriage to River and focuses on the marriage of River’s parents. At two key points in the narrative, River gives Amy advice born of life experience her mother doesn’t have, first explaining the Doctor’s aversion to endings, and then loudly and vehemently overruling the Doctor and telling Amy to let the Angel take her so she can be reunited with Rory. More broadly, The Angels Take Manhattan is about a fight between the Doctor and River - one focused in part on the key issue of their marriage, namely spoilers, but, like any marital argument, one that quickly devolves into a litany of minor aggressions. (Note, in particular, how River turns the Doctor’s harshest and cruelest line to her, “you embarrass me,” back on him, throwing it in his face with a spite that is both unappealing and crushingly human.)
What we have, in other words, is one of the purest embodiments of Moffat’s most common theme: the great man struggling to be a good one. The Doctor is consciously marginalized throughout this story. Once he manages the feat of landing the TARDIS in 1938, his only function is to explain to the other characters how their lives are now circumscribed by endings. This is, in the end, why he doesn’t like them. Because his narrative is defined by its lack of ending, endings are things he must bear witness to. He is in a sense the only character who can dislike endings, since he’s the only character who witnesses them instead of experiencing them personally. But because of this, when faced with them, all he can do is rage futilely, whether it be his temper tantrum upon reading the last chapter header and the way in which he then takes it out on River, or his selfishly poor advice to Amy regarding her final rescue of Rory.
This raises a more fundamental question, though, which is why we are ending the Ponds here in the first place. This is, after all, their second ending - they were already given a departure scene at the end of The God Complex, and have not been travelling continually on the TARDIS since. Why not simply wrap up their story at the end of Season Six, having brought them back as needed for The Wedding of River Song? Why is it necessary to end their relationship with the Doctor by force instead of by decision? Especially given the sense that this run of five episodes has given that the series is simply marking time to 2013, and that, production scheduling aside, it would have been more convenient for Doctor Who if 2012 simply hadn’t existed in the first place.
The answer comes in the particular nature of the ending. Not, to be clear, Amy and Rory getting zapped back to the 1930s, but the carefully managed circularity of the final scene, calling back as it does to one of the basic mysteries of The Eleventh Hour, namely the apparent arrival of the Doctor during the Night of Amelia’s Joy. This is in its own way another instance of the past of the Pond Era being reiterated, as it turns out to, like the Doctor’s reappearing jacket, be an intentional error to be filled in later. The ending of The God Complex is ultimately unsatisfying in this way, because it violates the fundamental rule of endings, which is that they are a necessary consequence of beginnings. The Aristotelean web, where every event sets up future ones or pays off past ones, is thus both an object of qlippothic horror and a measure of salvation, allowing the story of the Ponds to end on an act of healing and reparation. Indeed, the lens of the arc ultimately works to make their entire story one of healing, so that even before the story’s first injury, those twelve cruel years of waiting, the Doctor has already defined the story as the one in which he fixes Amy Pond so that she can be the fairy tale girl she was always meant to be. The consequences, for good and for ill, are baked into the very premise.
This has, in other words, always been a story about healing. About the healing of marital rifts, of friendship, and of companionship. About the healing of refusal to give in, of doing what needs to be done, of mothers and daughters and fathers, of female spaces, and everything else that the Pond era has ever presented. Everything within the story that is cruel and terrifying is, in other words, also a necessary part of the story’s redemption. Its moral is as simple as it is cruel. In the end, it is impossible to have any sort of healing unless one is willing to look, unflinchingly, at the wound.
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