The Angels Take Manhattan

“I could write a book and this book would be thick enough to stun an ox.”

Thus intones New York art-kook Laurie Anderson in the song Let X=X on her 1982 album Big Science. It’s a great song on a great album by a woman who once chose Lou Reed over me without ever even doing me the courtesy of knowing I exist. Nonetheless she is great also. You should buy Big Science. You’d like it.

She recorded a very fine album called Strange Angels too.

The Doctor Who episode The Angels Take Manhattan has its characters taking their cues from a book which one of the characters will write subsequently. This book, Melody Malone, contains the line “I was packing cleavage that could fell an ox at twenty feet”.

There is no obvious dramatic connection with Laurie Anderson, but I was struck by the closeness of the wording, by the idea of the narrator being aware of their book, and by the evoked imaginary New York space.

For a not particularly old city New York has a great deal of accreted history. This is very visibly evident in Manhattan where, in the absence of archaeological depth, there is an extensive stratified narrative moving upwards in the borough’s architecture.

Horror movies have made great use of this from King Kong’s energetic trapezing round the Empire State Building in 1933, through the vitrified implacability of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, to the post-9/11 trauma of Cloverfield.

The city’s adorning accoutrements have not escaped the attentions of filmmakers either. The Art Deco style and radiator cap finishings of The Chrysler Building make a brilliant location for Larry Cohen’s 1982 horror film Q – The Winged Serpent. It’s a mad, skippy movie about an Aztec god biting the heads off window cleaners above, whilst the street cops investigate down below. Cohen filmed it semi-guerrilla style. Presumably this was a financial consideration first and foremost, but it has aesthetic advantages too, keeping matters fast and character-based.

Is there much left to be said about the two Ghostbusters movies? I shall let a picture take a stab at representing a thousand words instead.

Doctor Who itself has had fun in New York before. A brief segment of the chaotic 1966 story The Chase takes place on top of the Empire State Building. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicky land and then take off in short order pursued by a Dalek Incursion Squad. It’s a long story. Really quite a surprisingly long story. The only witness to events is the gawky Arkansas tourist Morton Dill played by Peter Purves, still a long way from the subsequent dignity of, oh let’s say Junior Kickstart.

In her brisk, endearing two-parter Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks (2007) Helen Raynor gives us a surviving Dalek faction using the construction of the Empire State Building in the thirties to cover a project in which the Dalek and human races are being hybridised. Makes kind of sense too, which is a thing we expected from stories back in the olden days of five years ago.

And now we are back for The Angels Take Manhattan, the final Amy and Rory story, the hype for which has been, candidly, ridiculous.

Now, I love Steven Moffat. He is a witty writer who has managed to keep the Russell T Davies fun-times going whilst simultaneously introducing his own subverting, necrotic darkness. In particular he has proved himself to be breathtakingly adept at the impossible PR tasks that are ancillary to his job as show-runner. Writing well, structuring a series, keeping secrets, engaging with an unimaginably frothy fan-base. He has done it all with some verve.

The run up to The Angels Take Manhattan has however felt a little galumphing to me. For the last six months Moff appears to have been bobbing up and down everywhere, a chuckling psychopomp, promising Amy and Rory’s demise and averring constantly that we, the audience, will cry.

I personally don’t like audience manipulation like that, but if that was his brief, to provoke a grief storm, then the job has most assuredly been done. The wailing and gnashing of teeth has nearly broken Twitter. The dread beforehand was touchable. The subsequent emotional outpourings make the Lamentations of Jeremiah look and sound like a tiny, sad face emoticon playing a quiet kazoo.

That’s impressive. Left me a bit cold though.

My inability to engage with the story feelinglingly is my shortcoming, I accept. Maybe it is my age. Certainly as an eight year old in 1973 I sobbed my tiny, adorable eyes out when Jo Grant (Katy Manning) eloped with that Welsh hippy from the Wholeweal.

I have clearly lost a lot of sentimental ability since then.

So what do we have here in The Angels Take Manhattan?

Once more a voiceover sets events out for us. That’s happening a lot this series. There are some pleasing semiotic pointers straight off the bat which tell us we are in fictional detective country:

In the opening narration the city is referred to as having “a million stories”, a self-conscious allusion to Jules Dassin’s The Naked City with its closing lines “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

Our detective’s rates are taken almost verbatim from Marlowe’s tariff in The Big Sleep of “twenty-five a day and expenses – when I’m lucky”.

Even our detective’s name, Garner, to someone of my age (and the age of the Moff) means one thing above all others: The Rockford Files.

This bit of the story never happens. Literally. This brilliant detective set up culminating in the pre-credit climax of a looming Angel of Liberty is all part of the book River will eventually write to alert Amy and the Doctor as to what’s going on. I think. (Though it doesn’t seem to fit well with the other book excerpts we are treated to.)

I absolutely missed that first time round.

In present day New York Rory is zapped back in time by the city’s infestation of Angels. The Doctor and Amy become aware of this through the novel the Doctor is reading. They travel by TARDIS back to the thirties, discover that the Angels are effectively battery-farming humans using looped time. (A chronic hysteresis we used to call that.) Rory kills himself, taking Amy with him, causing a paradox. Everything snaps back to where and when it should be. Except there’s one last Angel which transports Rory back again. Amy follows. The Doctor says they are fixed in time now and lost to him.

OK.

It is brilliant. Obviously.

I want to state that clearly because I am about to list a couple of things I flat out don’t understand. That does not mean I am down on the story. It doesn’t mean I don’t understand how important the closure of Amy and Rory’s saga is. All it means is that I want to ask these questions so that they are off my chest.

What is River doing in the thirties?

How does the Angels’ battery farm work exactly? You lure someone to a trap. They see themselves as an old person. You zap them back in time, and then what? You get that “time energy” once and once only. Now you have the corpse of an old person on your hands. It’s not a self-starting causal loop at all.

Why does the guy from off of Whose Line Is It Anyway keep all those statues in his house anyway for Christ’s sake?

How come the Angels can do stuff whilst they are being watched now? Blowing out candles, zapping Amy away and so forth? Is there ever actually a point when no one is watching the Statue of Liberty and it is free to go for a walk around?

If the Doctor can’t see Amy any more then how come River is able to give her the manuscript of a book for publication?

And how would a book get published with that daffy afterword anyway? It’s a device that makes sense with the DVD Easter eggs in Blink, but which is much more of a stretch here. And how does the Doctor end up with the book? The scripted line “explaining” it is awful.

None of this matters of course. It is stuff from the top of my head based on two fairly casual viewings. Some of it may be stuff I just don’t get. The rest of it is trivial. The validity of this episode lies in its emotional truth rather than in any ideas I have about what constitutes coherent storytelling. And whilst I may find that emotional truth somewhat elusive at the moment, millions of others don’t.

And it is worth my while remembering that my eight year old self would not have taken too kindly to your telling him that chemical waste doesn’t make maggots mutate into giant versions of themselves, because in The Green Death it just did.

This is a story written for the adoring fans of Amy and Rory and in that role it succeeds one hundred percent.

I did not much care for the way the Doctor was sidelined, emasculated, rendered powerless and petulant, and slapped by his wife. Poor me. That’s just the way the programme is this week.

It has changed before. It will change again.

The podcast episode commentaries I recorded with Lawrence Sutcliffe are available to download for free from iTunes here:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/feexby/id557694053

Or alternatively here:

http://feexby.podbean.com

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship

There was a point about sixteen minutes into the bonkers funtime of Dinosaurs On A Spaceship when I abruptly and vigorously applied the palm of my hand to the face of my head, irked that for the second week running I had missed all the clues in front of me. Well I hadn’t missed them so much as failed to put them correctly together.

Writer Chris Chibnall had previously scripted a two-part Silurian story for Doctor Who in 2010 (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood) and this new episode of his was to be called Dinosaurs On A Spaceship.

“Hur hur,” chortled my, well, let’s call it a brain. “Chib’s certainly your go-to guy for cold-blooded scaly action.” Didn’t make that final five millimetre leap in logic to work out that this was going to be a Silurian story though, did I? Oh no.

Once again thanks are due to the kind-hearted reviewers and members of the Who community who knew this but did not spoil the surprise. The reveal that the spaceship was a Silurian ark on its way back to Earth was masterful.

They are a bit of a victim race are the poor Silurians. They first appeared in Malcolm Hulke’s 1970 story which seems now to be known by the rather weird, over-conjunctioned title “And The Silurians”.

Their sea-faring cousins the Sea Devils (which is surely not what they call themselves when they are sitting at home with their fins up, enjoying a plankton supper) appeared in Hulke’s 1972 follow-up story called, simply enough “The Sea Devils”.

Both stories were, as was so often the case with Malcolm Hulke’s stories, moral conundrums with some pertinent political questioning thrown in for good measure.

Briefly: In prehistoric times the Silurians and The Sea Devils, the dominant species on Earth in that era, both put themselves into deep subterranean hibernation to avoid a forthcoming planetary catastrophe. If memory serves it is the approach of a body that looks set to crash into the Earth but which instead settles into orbit, becoming the Moon.

This last minute non-occurrence of the catastrophe leads to both species sleeping through their alarm clocks. When finally awoken in the twentieth century they are understandably peeved that upstart chimps have taken over the place and they seek to eradicate us.

In both stories the antagonism resolves itself in the destruction of the older races. Hulke was an intelligent, liberal man though and did manage to raise the point, so often missed in the binary simplicity of science fiction TV, that maybe the apparent “baddies” actually had a bit of a point. They were here first after all.

This goodie/baddie dichotomy is a thing I always found a little bit problematic about the first three Star Wars films (IV, V and VI) too. We understand that the Empire is evil because all of its authority figures are quite ugly and dress in dark clothes. The rebels in the alliance, on the other hand, are quite sexy looking and wear light coloured clothes, so clearly they are the good guys.

Looked at objectively though it’s hard to see what the Empire is doing that is so objectionable. Life still seems pretty sweet down the space pub, and there’s always loads of blue milk in the fridges of the sand farmers. The revolutionary rage of the Rebel Alliance is obscure to me, and their phased regime change strategy seems lacking too. Politically they seem less astute than the People’s Front Of Judea and the Judean People’s Front put together.

But I digress.

My point is that it was nice to see a bit of moral ambiguity in Doctor Who even if the end result was the preservation of the status quo.

I am skipping over Johnny Byrne’s presumably well-intentioned 1984 story Warriors Of The Deep not because I don’t like it (I do), but because I don’t really understand it or what it is trying to say. It’s a clumsily executed Cold War allegory I think. Fifty percent Fail-Safe, fifty percent Rentaghost Series 9.

Hey, hey, it’s the Myrka

 

 

The Silurians’ reappearance in 2010’s two-parter was welcome though the ending, again, left me a bit unsatisfied. The reptiles return to hibernation after another bruising encounter with humanity, vaguely hoping that some sort of rapprochement between the species might be possible in the future. A two hundred million-year sleep and they still go for the snooze button.

The Silurian Ark in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship is a tremendous idea however, and full points to Chris Chibnall for being the first, as far as I know, to come up with it. A spiffing notion to have an off-screen homo reptilia equivalent of When Worlds Collide have taken place.

Extra points too for not then, having set it up, proceeding in that direction, but instead turning ninety degrees and giving us something different: the putting together of a team for a fight. Narrative gold dust from The Seven Samurai (and its western and sci-fi remakes The Magnificent Seven and Battle Beyond The Stars) through Kelly’s Heroes, and Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 to Avembers Assengle. I loved it.

I also enjoyed immensely Mark Williams’ portrayal of Rory’s dad, Brian. Close family is not a thing that classic-era Who ever concerned itself with much, other than Ace’s mum’s brief appearance as a baby in The Curse Of Fenric. It has, however, been a defining feature of new Who since episode one, Camille Coduri’s barnstorming performance as Jackie Tyler kicking open the door through which Martha and Donna’s kin came merrily later.

Nothing was mentioned, unless I missed it, of Rory’s mum. But there was a shot which dallied deliberately on Brian’s wedding ring. This may signify plots yet to be. I hope so. Mark Williams is drily loveable in the role and I will take as much more of this as he is prepared to provide.

Brian’s very specific wedding ring

That character’s inclusion gave Arthur Darvill a number of opportunities to exhibit his amazing comic timing; a great many more certainly than he has had so far in his scenes shared with Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond.

Now, Karen Gillan is a good, confident actress and this does not reflect on her at all, but I have found the depiction of the Pond marriage to be a tiny bit unsettling recently. I had hoped to see some sort of evolving affection between Amy and Rory, but that has not happened. Their relationship seems instead to be descending into a borderline abusive one.

Amy can be stroppy, belittling and controlling. Her leaving Rory in the Pond Life mini episodes was put down to her wanting to spare him the pain of not being able to have kids with her. How passive aggressive is that? To hurt someone and then say it was what they wanted, even when it clearly wasn’t.

Also she is a slapper. And not the good kind of slapper either. She hits Rory an awful lot. It wouldn’t be acceptable if he were to be seen hitting her. I think that holds the other way round too. A personal opinion.

It’s not the kind of thing I care to see in real life. I worry about the depiction of it so lightly in this context, and I worry about the normalising effect that that might have.

You wouldn’t see it happen with Ian and Barbara. Or Ben and Polly. Or Jamie and Zoe. Or Sarah Jane and Harry. Or Jo Grant and absolutely every man in UNIT.

The Doctor is not above a bit of bullying behaviour either. Seconds after kissing Rory for having a good idea (a clinch that will launch a thousand fanfics) the Doctor is slapping him about the face because it didn’t work.

He has previous form in this matter does the Time Lord. Affecting not to remember the (entirely blameless) time-cuckold Mickey’s name for most of the first series in 2005 the Doctor finally gets it right, only to start calling him “Mickey the Idiot”.

If I was eight and this was happening in a playground I would be on Mickey’s side, but possibly I am missing a finer point here. Please leave a comment below if you would like to put me right.

It certainly seems not to fit with every single other aspect of the show, which is a gleeful jamboree. A ceaseless parade of positivity.

I love that.

I am constantly delighted that, in what I increasingly perceive to be a doom-inflected, angry, selfish world, Doctor Who just bulldozes through an agenda of joy, tolerance and love. It advocates that change happens, but that this need not be a thing to fear. Soap operas will portray change as darkening degradation and an unstoppable progress towards extinction. Doctor Who on the other hand will show change as a chance for evolution, improvement and ascension.

We see it in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship most obviously in Brian who changes from an anxious traveller into a trotter of the globe. But we also see it more subtly in the character of John Riddell (Rupert Graves) who moves from being an uncouth hunter to someone who takes his hat off when a triceratops is pointlessly butchered in front of him. In his final scene he seems to have found romantic fulfilment with a bazooka-wielding queen of the Nile.

And that’s just in one fifty minute episode. It’s been doing this for forty-nine flipping years!

Queen Nefer-what now? Sorry… I wasn’t listening

A final note of appreciation for the epically bad villain Solomon. I am not, I’m ashamed to say, very familiar with David Bradley’s Harry Potter work, and I am struggling to place him as one of the long-haired, bedraggled misanthropes of Game Of Thrones. I do however clearly remember his heart-breaking turn as Jim Broadbent’s brother in Mike Leigh’s ace film Another Year. It’s utterly compelling. Please consider giving it a watch, even if Mike Leigh isn’t on your usual wish list.

I hope that Solomon and his argumentative, sarcastic robots are not as dead as they appear to be. That was some high quality ruthlessness and I would like them all back please.

There was some fluttering on Twitter that maybe Matt Smith’s Doctor had behaved rather cruelly in his aiding in the dispatch of Solomon. I don’t buy this though. It was a final sanction after all possible alternative solutions had been offered and rejected.

It is certainly far removed from the still-troubling acid-bath-and-a-quip combo of Vengeance On Varos.

Next week it’s cowboys, which can mean only one thing.

SINGSONG!

Last Chance Saloon

So fill up your glasses and join in the song

The law’s right behind you and it won’t take long

So come you coyotes and howl at the moon

Til there’s blood upon the sawdust in the Last Chance Saloon

Asylum Of The Daleks

When we were being clever in the seventies sometimes we would stroke our chins and say things like “Ah yes, you see Terry Nation writes about blank-faced figures of totalitarian authority.” This was based on a fairly simple reading of Blake’s 7 and the knowledge that Nation had invented the Daleks.

It didn’t really stand up to examination. There aren’t themes of political oppression in Nation’s peerless TV series Survivors. And whilst I am unfamiliar with his radio scripts for Terry Scott, Eric Sykes and Frankie Howerd I can’t imagine that they staggered under a weight of doomy metaphors for despotism.

I could be wrong.

Another stupid thing we used to say about Terry Nation was that Blake’s 7 was somehow a British Star Trek, which was a bit thick of us. The two shows are entirely antithetical. For instance, in Star Trek the idea of a rigidly hierarchical expansionist Federation manned by thugs in uniforms was deemed to be a good thing, whereas in Blake’s 7 it wasn’t.

Space Commander Travis and Captain Kirk. The same bloke. That’s all I’m saying.

(I utterly, utterly adore Blake’s 7 with its bunch of sarcastic new romantics. Not so keen on Wagon Train To The Stars.)

What is true is that the Daleks were intended to be symbolic Nazis when they originally appeared. The first Dalek was glimpsed towards the end of 1963, a short eighteen years after the end of the Second World War. And whilst the sight of a bombed out London in 1964’s Dalek Invasion Of Earth looks eerie to us, to a child watching the story as it was first broadcast that was just the way their parents would have recalled the city looking during the blitz.

Daleks have always, accidentally or otherwise, held a mirror up to contemporary society. As the baby boom generation began to more confidently assert itself during the sixties and memories of the war receded so the Daleks became less feared and more mocked.

This loss of reputation, partly stemming from their sheer ubiquity, led to the Daleks being sidelined for several years before reappearing in the colourful Pertwee era of the early seventies. Their impact had undeniably diminished though.  They were by now mere totems of evil. Their motivations and agendas were as opaque as those of THRUSH or Galaxy or the Mysterons.

In the persuasive 1975 Tom Baker story Genesis Of The Daleks, however, a new direction was found. There are blatant First World War trappings but underneath that what the story clearly is is a Cold War parable. This theme was carried over into 1979’s Destiny Of The Daleks in which the irresistible force of the Daleks has fought itself to a standstill against the immoveable object of the space-disco empire of the Movellans. It doesn’t matter which represents the West and which the Soviet Bloc, this is self-evidently John le Carré in space.

S-K-A-R-O! We are S, super-sexy. We are K, komplicated…

As classic Doctor Who started tripping over itself so too the Daleks lost their way. What were they now? Funeral directors? Bank robbers?

In the last classic era Dalek story, Remembrance Of The Daleks (1988), the action is relocated to 1963 London in a dizzying spin of self-reference and pantomime. It’s a really enjoyable story but if the Daleks had arses this would be the point at which they finally disappeared up them.

When Doctor Who came back on the telly (hooray!) in 2005 we were initially told that there would be NO Daleks. This was misinformation clearly. In fact they reappeared quite quickly in Robert Shearman’s wonderful story simply called Dalek.

How contemporary was it? Well, unlike any previous Dalek stories this was the story of a lone survivor of the Time War; a single Dalek on a journey of self-discovery, struggling against appalling odds to achieve its destiny. It is the Peoples’ Dalek. The Dalek Of Hearts. It is the winner of Britain’s Got Daleks.

The Daleks even lowered themselves to become involved in TV production before ultimately, in the delightful Victory Of The Daleks (2010) refreshing their brand proposition as the New Dalek Paradigm. You just cannot get more of the moment than that.

(Briefly and parenthetically on the subject of the New Dalek Paradigm: I can broadly understand the Scientists, Strategists and Supremes. The Eternals are pleasingly mysterious. But the Drones? Really. What are they? Drones don’t actually do too much in a hive. The word basically means idler or slacker. There is a reason that Bertie Wooster is a member of The Drones Club. Did the writers intend this, or have they just confused Drones with Workers? This is a genuine question. Please feel free to answer.)

After the Daleks’ appearance in Victory Of The Daleks Stephen Moffat announced that they would be retired for a while.

Mr. M. is a puckish, playful show-runner however, and here we all are now at what, for the sake of simplicity, I shall call Series 7 and what do we have?

Asylum Of The Daleks.

To emphasise their tail-end-of-2012 credentials and maintain that zeitgeistiness I’ve just been bibbling on about for eleventy-twelve paragraphs the Daleks are now revealed to be heavily reliant on outsourcing.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the universe DALEK PUPPETS! The G4S of Doctor Who monsters.

They have always tendered some work out to third parties have the Daleks. One thinks fondly of the Robomen and the Ogrons. This is something a bit more though. The Dalek Puppets are a genuinely clever innovation (though they have an antecedent of sorts in Lytton from Resurrection Of The Daleks) and they can do all sorts of stuff that actual Daleks can’t do. Applying make-up. Driving double-decker buses. That kind of thing.

Their focused obtaining of the Doctor, Amy and Rory at the beginning of Asylum Of The Daleks is a rather wonderful thing. It’s so much better than the usual method the Daleks use to apprehend the Doctor which tends to involve designing a bewilderingly complicated trap and then hoping the Time Lord somehow walks into it.

Which to be fair he usually does.

It is magnificently creepy that the puppets can have access to their own memories when required. The best thing though is the sprouty eye-stalk they develop as they become fully conscious.

We have had third eyes before in Who (the Silurians, Davros, the upgraded Adam) but this is the first time I can recall it being so symbolically purposeful. Also known as the Ajna chakra in Hinduism, the third eye is associated in mystical traditions with enlightenment, religious visions and communication with higher planes of existence. It is supposedly stimulated by the process of trepanning.

I love the fact that that image is just dropped into a kids’ teatime TV show.

I liked Asylum Of The Daleks very much, but rather than just pointlessly recapping the story for you or embarking on a bit of febrile speculation as to what happens next I’d like to list just some of what I loved about the story. It’s a bunch of spoilers really. Mind how you go. (Though honestly if you’re reading this before seeing the episode my question to you is: Why are you reading this before you’ve seen the episode?)

1) There’s a Parliament of the Daleks. So there must be elections of the Daleks and maybe Expense Scandals of the Daleks too. Floating Slyther Islands. Trench cleaning. Bunker flipping.

2) There are broken, ill, lunatic Daleks but they aren’t destroyed because that would offend the Dalek aesthetic.

3) The most deranged Daleks turned out to be the ones who have been defeated by the Doctor: Spiridon, Aridius, Kembel, Vulcan, Exxilon.

4) Jenna-Louise Coleman showed up several episodes before I expected her to. As a Dalek. A sexy, witty, elfin Dalek.

5) The script was smart, giving us clues as to what was happening. Soufflé, milk, eggs… “Are those things eggs?” No Rory, those are etheric beam locators.

6) The Rory/Amy dynamic took a turn for the unexpected and, in conjunction with the Pond Life mini-episodes that have been available on the BBC website, that moved me a little bit. Which was unexpected.

7) Arthur Darvill’s comic timing was superb on the line “What colour? Sorry. There weren’t any good questions left.”

8) Matt Smith’s galloping confidence is glorious. His entrance, a shadow in profile, was epochal. You can already imagine this stuff being fondly written about in forty years time by today’s seven year-olds.

9) The visual language is fabulously sophisticated. I like the clue we get that every time Oswin sees anything on her monitor it’s through a Dalek sighting reticule. And I outright love the reflective compositions that accompany the Dalek Puppet abductions of Amy and Rory. This visual shorthand for a fractured, unreliable sense of personal identity is straight out of the Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammell movie Performance (1970). Top directoring.

Amelia Pond acquired

Rory Williams acquired

10) I knew what I was expecting and I was wrong-footed. Completely. Happily. Excitedly.

By any standards this is high quality television. For a crowd-pleasing, family-oriented, ratings-sensitive Saturday night it is pure platinum.

There was a singing competition on the other side.

Next week it is Dinosaurs On A Spaceship. This half-reminds me of a Calvin & Hobbes strip but I can’t immediately source it.

Also, apparently, it will feature the voices of David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Are they the baddies?

Stephen the Special Weapons Dalek, in case you missed him