...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, November 30, 2012

Day 4290: DOCTOR WHO: The Angels Take the St Michael

Saturday (flashback bonus):

In their own way, the Angels are like history: they look fixed, but that's only our perception.

The opening of "The Angels Take Manhattan" is narrated, in character, in film noir style, by "private dick" Sam Garner. But the fingers we see typing his voiceover are manicured with scarlet nail varnish, which Mr Garner is not otherwise seen to wear. This is a first allusion to the writer's power.

In the Moffat-verse, it seems, history is contingent, memory unreliable, time itself as he keeps endlessly saying can be rewritten. But once it's written down it is sacred.

In an odd way, it's like the flip-side of "Logopolis": there, the ability of "living minds" to perform Block Transfer computation – to make TARDISes work, to Time Travel even – depends on a certain flexibility. A computer would be altered by the process as it made the calculation; the implication is that it would suffer a critical paradox. And thus the link from Russell's Paradox to Existential Mathematics is made via the Turing Test.

Does Moffat see the structure of time, that big ball of timey-wimey stuff, in similar fashion? Is it that same flexibility of perception that allows you to alter the past that you think you know, while the written record, like the "computer mind" with "absolute knowledge", is fixed and invariant? Is this, essentially, the central paradox of writing: the ability to know something is fiction and still true?

When they were first introduced in "Blink" the Angels were specific, living creatures that turned to stone when you looked at them. In "The Time of Angels" we heard that they were actually living ideas, idea-shaped holes in the continuum that we just perceived as statues – and in return, anything that we perceived as an Angel could become one. Now, they seem to have evolved again, into, it would seem, ideas that choose to occupy statues, any statue (and not just stone ones, as the enormous metal lady from Liberty Island attests). River certainly seems to say that the Angels have "occupied" every statue in 1938 New York.

And possibly the more powerful the idea – or the more "time energy" it has fed on – the larger the statue it is able to occupy, hence the "baby Angels" using smaller cherub bodies… and you need a really big Angel, who's had all the energy of the Winter Quay battery farm to feed on, to occupy Lady Liberty.

We're left with the same puzzles: do the statues actually move – as we saw them start to in "Flesh and Stone", and as the thunderous "Statue of Liberty sized Grandmother's footsteps" imply – or is it just the idea that moves, incredibly quickly, so that when we look again we perceive the statue in a different place. That is, not that the atoms and molecules of the statues actually translate from place to place, but that the way we perceive the arrangement of those atoms changes, the original statue ceasing to have any meaningful pattern, and a whole new statue being created from different atoms just by how we perceive their (usually much closer to us) arrangement.

This might also explain how they displace you in time: it's not the physical atoms of your body that get sent back, only your conscious mind. Your perception of yourself includes your body around you, so naturally you perceive the atoms at your arrival point as a you-shaped body. The "you-shaped arrangement of atoms" at this end ceases to have any perceptual meaning as a person, and that – if you like – is where the Angels get their conceptual dinner from.

Alternatively, adding information – i.e. you – to an earlier time zone is the same as adding entropy to the Universe: almost whatever you do will interact chaotically with your foreknowledge of events, making the Universe more random, which is the definition of entropy. The trade-off, so that the Universe remains consistent, is a sharp decrease in entropy of the Angel at the same time as an increase in entropy of everything else.

Or possibly it's all a load of nonsense.

The thing about entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as explored extensively in "Logopolis" and summarised as "things fall apart", is that most people react to it with denial or horror. The Master himself reacts this way – "Horrible! Horrible!" – on seeing the leader of the Logopolitans, the Monitor, reduced to a drifting ember by the entropy wave, and this from a man who shrinks people to death for a living. Underlying "The Angels Take Manhattan" is a clear horror of ageing.

Of course, there's always been something of that about the Angels, the fear of your life being snatched away by time: literally "Blink" and you miss it. From that point of view, they're the world's fastest ever zombies. But this time it's really hammered home, from Mr Grayle with his collection of old things to River's philosophy of her relationship:

"Never let him see the damage," she says, and she refers to the Doctor as an "ageless god who insists on wearing the face of a twelve-year-old".

It's not really strong enough to be a proper satire on our youth-obsessed culture, but it certainly looks like it's playing on Mr Moffat's personal demons.

But it's the institutionalisation of old age that is particularly Moffat's fear, as we see all the Angels' victims trapped into living out their days in an old folks' home from Hell.

A better writer than Steven Moffat – yes, I know about all the awards – is Charles Dickens, and we recently watched a modern-day take on his third novel, "Nicholas Nickleby". As Alex pointed out at the time, it's one of the best adaptations of Dickens we've seen because it got past the "look at the gorgeous frocks"-ness that so overwhelms such rightly-acclaimed recent Dickens as "Bleak House" and "Great Expectations" and gets down to the brass tacks of what Dickens was writing about: a sharply direct critique of the society he was living in.

Adapted by Joy Wilkinson, she recognises, like Moffat's own take on Conan Doyle, that Dickens was writing a contemporary drama, not a period piece.

So, "Nick Nickleby" based on "The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" is set in 2012 and addresses itself to a contemporary concern: old age care. "Dotheboys Hall" becomes "Dotheolds Care Home"; Nick's companion, the simple Smike, becomes traumatised old lady Mrs Smike; wicked uncle Ralph and the infamous Wackford Squeers profiteer from the mistreatment of the abandoned elderly rather than unwanted offspring; and so on. All very broad brush, I'm sure you'll agree, but actually the kind of sharp social satire that Doctor Who ought to do from time to time (whether in "The Green Death" or "Bad Wolf").

The point is that it's actually making a point; it's not just taking something that scares the Mister Moffster – being the child left out in the cold, the monsters under the bed, and now, getting old – and using it to add a frisson of feeling to the clever mechanics of the plot.

Well, to a certain value of "clever".

Over the many deaths of Rory Pond, I've been increasingly reminded of, ironically, his first time, during the encounter with the Dream Lord in "Amy's Choice" (a lot of that referenced in "The Angels take Manhattan" as well – Amy twice more not willing to live in a world where Rory is dead). Most pertinent is this particular exchange:

The Dream Lord: You die in the dream, you wake up in reality. Ask me what happens if you die in reality.

Rory Williams: What happens?

The Dream Lord: You die, stupid. That's why it's called "reality".

Tossing in post-modern references to the Rory's many returns from the dead ("When don't I?") doesn't actually excuse the fact that each time you do it you're basically writing "It's a dream, it's a dream, it was all a dream" all over your script like you're a five-year-old who's never been told what a crushingly banal cliché that is.

Why do they so-conveniently wake up back in 2012?

The Doctor says it would take "incredible power" to create a paradox enough to destroy this timeline and set them all free. Or, apparently, jumping off a building five minutes later.

(And it's not like the Angels couldn't save the Ponds from falling. They've got wings haven't they? Or that big Lady with the Torch could just catch them.)

Why not wake up Captain Jack-like on the sidewalk in front of Winter Quay. Still in 1938 (i.e. you can't get killed because it would be a paradox, but you don't escape from the Angels that easily. An outcome that could save Rory but leave Amy dead, actually, and then he surrenders to the Angels and lives out his life in Winter Quay as ordained.)

Ultimately we're left with Moffat as the boy who cried (Bad) Wolf, protesting "no, this time I really, really mean it!" after an episode full of even his own characters saying "yeah, I always come back from the dead". Why should we invest in this instance? What have you done to convince us that this time it's different?

We're supposed to believe that once it's "written in stone" it is impossible to save Rory. And yet the very next thing that Amy does is change what is literally written in stone.

How exactly is the Doctor prevented from ever seeing his friends again?

Yes, I get that something about 1938 makes it difficult to land the TARDIS in that time and place, and that the paradox used to defeat the Angels increases that to "impossible" but... what's to stop him landing in 1932 and just living the difference? Or in Boston in 1938 and just taking the train? He could, quite literally, get there before them and be waiting to rescue the Ponds with no time wasted (from their point of view).

But that isn't really the problem.

Actually, there is a question of whether they're in 1938 at all.

The evidence for just how far back you are sent is, obviously, just as contradictory, with both "Blink" and "Angels take Manhattan" supplying examples that they send you back by the exact amount of life you have left to live (Billy Shipton and P.I. Sam Garner are both seen to expire within minutes of the moment when their younger self is touched) or that a given Angel sends you back to a given point in time (Billy arrives in 1969, the same year as the Doctor and Martha were displaced to; everything points to Amy arriving in the same year as Rory).

So could Rory and Amy get sent back fifty years (based on Rory's age: 82 on his gravestone and 31 in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship") not to 1938 but probably the early sixties? Well, in fact no, not if we take into account "P.S." which reveals that they adopted a son, Anthony, in 1946.

But let's be fair: the Doctor doesn't say that he can't get to when Amy and Rory are (whenever that is). What he says is that one more paradox will tear a whole in the fabric of time and drop New York right through it. It's not that he cannot get there, but that he must not.

Except, except, except... even this is just a different spin on "The Impossible Astronaut", a "fixed point" in time that depends on what we think we've seen, but like the conjuror's art, could be a case of misdirection, something the Doctor himself could do just by "popping back in time" and commissioning that headstone himself – a variation on his Tesselector "you only thought you saw me die" gambit.

It would not establish a paradox for the Doctor to find and collect Amy and Rory from the relative past. It would not change anything that he personally knew.

(Ironically, if the Doctor had met Anthony then there would be a paradox in rescuing Amy and Rory because it would contradict the implied history of bringing up their adopted son.)

Basically, you do not get points for cleverness for beating the rules of time travel if you made the rules up in the first place, you're changing them all the time and you won't tell us what they are anyway.

That's why "The Impossible Astronaut" feels like a cheat and this feels like a cop-out.

I have to confess, the prospect of reviewing "The Angels Take Manhattan" did not fill me with overwhelming joy.

It's beautifully filmed, contrasting the sunlit Central Park with the noir-toned nights in 1938 and the overcast graveyard in Queens where the Ponds final resting place catches up with them.

The film noir theme works very nicely. Alex, who loves a film noir, was particularly pleased to see an effective evocation of the era and the appearance of Forties films. He also praised the decision to use River as the hard-boiled gumshoe and not as the more obvious femme fatale. With the Angels present, the story had quite enough femmes fatale anyway.

And Mike McShane's Mr Grayle (film noir reference "Farewell My Lovely") is an interesting stooge, his relationship with the Angels slightly ambivalent – the opening sequence could be read as him feeding private detectives to the Angels' battery farm; and he knows enough about their M.O. to place River literally within one's grasp.

Matt Smith and Alex Kingston are as top-notch as ever. He gets to wear the "brainy specs" by stealing Amy's reading glasses. She gets to spell out what we've mostly already guessed this year: that he's erased himself from every database in creation (annulling her prison sentence into the bargain). In spite of this being "Professor" River Song, she's not as smug and unlikeable as she appeared back in "Silence in the Library", perhaps because she can now be more honest with us about who and what she is but I suspect largely because Alex Kingston has more control of the role now, and her relationship with Rory is rather sweet in the brief scene they get together when we first discover who Melody Malone really is.

Murray Gold does everything he can to yank on your heart-strings. It's too much really; I don't need the music to be forcing me to feel the emotion. I remember back in 2005, Christopher Eccleston could break your heart with a single glance and it was all the more moving because he did it in absolute silence. But some of the references to Amy's theme – and there are many – are quite poignant, for example the long moment as the Ponds fall, Amy's hair streams up around her and I wonder if it's not a visual and musical reference to the first scene of "The Beast Below" where she floats in space with her hair floating about her.

But it's so... predictable.

Apart from the whimsical introduction of the "cherub" Angels, and the monstrous error of the Statue of Liberty (I mean seriously? ) what does this actually add that "Blink" didn't already do? Grandmother's Footsteps with live (if Timey-Wimey) ammo, defeated by a paradox (this time a Grandfather Paradox rather than an Ontological Paradox, but they're both classics!). All it needed was the addition of a scene where the lost Ponds' offspring deliver a letter to the as-yet-unaware Brian... oh, wait... Here comes Mr Chibnall to prove he can run the photocopier over a Moffat script with as much aplomb as he can ape an RTD episode.

Why would the "Lonely Assassins" even want an army? Given that their Achilles Heel in "Blink" was what happened if they were caught looking at each other, is it entirely wise to have filled the statues of an entire city with Angels? In particular one really, really big one? Surely she paralyses half the Angels in the Big Apple whenever she decides to saunter over to Winter Quay. And with her staring at that roof, with her big snarly face, no other Angel can sneak up behind you, making that surely the safest place in New York!

It was a good send-off to give the Ponds, but it was way past time for them to have gone. One of them long-suffering and exasperated with all things Who, the other Scottish, spikey, smart and very occasionally incredibly selfish... but enough about Sue Virtue and Steven Moffat, Amy and Rory have been the longest-serving companions of the recent Who era, and yet it's still incredibly hard to say we really know them, what with their secrets and altered histories and all. And such a shame that, at the end, Moffat undoes all the good he did by keeping Mrs Pond a Pond, finally subsuming her to the identity of her "man".

Time for something fresh and, in the form of Jenna Louise Coleman, engaging and cheeky. And let the Ponds go to their Big Sleep at last.

Next Time... It's Christmas and what could be more Christmassy than Moffat the Grinch pinching another Christmas favourite. Never mind Aled Jones, the Doctor is walking in the air and Kim Newman's wintery "Time and Relative" is the next book to look suspiciously familiar when we face a not-so lick-the-mirror-gorgeous Richard E Grant and "The Snowmen".

1 comment:

Andy said...

Basically, you do not get points for cleverness for beating the rules of time travel if you made the rules up in the first place, you're changing them all the time and you won't tell us what they are anyway.

Exactly. It's getting like timey-wimey Mornington Crescent, only not played for laughs.