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.


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:

Or alternatively here:

On Her Majesty’s Marty McFly Scape

What a droll old cove that Christopher Nolan is. He claimed with Inception that he wanted to create the same kind of effect that Star Wars had had on him as a child. He had no idea, he said, what Star Wars was about when he went to see it for the first time, and that sense of explosive discovery was what he wanted to emulate with his first movie since 2008’s The Dark Knight.

Well, I can’t speak for Christopher Nolan’s childhood, but I do know that by the time Star Wars opened in Leeds (and I went to see it first pretty early in its first run) I already had the souvenir magazine, four poster magazines, the soundtrack and 65 of the 66 bubble gum cards.

I had read the novelization by “George Lucas” four times through. Man, I was pretty much word perfect the first time I took my seat in Odeon 1, and I was still blown away.

With Inception Nolan has done more of a job of emulating one of science fiction’s more recalcitrant movies: Back to the Future Part II. And I mean that as a compliment of the highest order.

Back to the Future Part II confounded quite a lot of its audience in 1989 with its stark refusal to adhere to narrative convention. It did quite a lot of literal retreading as the characters time-travel back to events they already time-travelled to in the first film, and then have to avoid meeting themselves. It is still an astounding coup of interstitial narrative, predating Lost by decades.

But what Back to the Future Part II has, beyond all other films, to make me love it is that half way through the film one of the characters brings things to a halt and has to draw a map of the film’s plot on a blackboard.

It’s not a monumentally complicated time tripping story, but from an original starting point several alternative presents and futures have branched off, and Doc Brown has to sketch out for Marty (and sadly quite a lot of the audience) exactly what is happening. It is an elegant solution to what could have been a problem. They side-stepped the whole issue in Part III by sticking everything on train tracks. Actual, non-metaphorical train tracks.

Inception does not go quite so far as to draw a map, but Nolan’s deft script never lets an opportunity pass to have a character tell you where you are in the nested oneiric realities. This is never artless, and is frequently useful, particularly as, towards the end, some of the sequences are taking place in a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream within what may or may not be consensus reality.

Not exactly like Star Wars then.

I cannot praise Inception too highly. It is not an intellectual movie in the way that Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Kubrick’s 2001 are intellectual movies, but if you stick Inception next to Avatar and let them compete as blockbusters it is quickly apparent which one has an informed intelligence behind it and which is a derivative linear spectacle.

Nolan has never made a film that is less than wonderful (Memento, the Insomnia remake, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), in fact the only director currently working who matches him for consistent high quality is David Fincher. Nolan has a meticulous, assured style verging on the obsessive, and a repertory company of devastating power: Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy and Ken Watanabe to name but three.

I don’t want to write too much about the plot now. The film has only been out a matter of days. But I do want to enthuse about the structure a bit more. This is a script which has no qualms about adding layer after layer to the characters’ perceived reality, and that was a real thrill for me.

Although the Matrix won me round eventually (mostly through its uncompromisingly dense sequels) I found it hugely unconvincing the first couple of times I saw it. I couldn’t credit that the characters were raised from one reality to another, and just quietly accepted the fact without ever wondering whether or not there were other “more real” realities above that. No time I guess. Too much shooting to be done.

Anyway, it’s almost the first concept introduced in Inception. If we can dream within dreams, then why can’t we dream within dreams within dreams? Which is what they proceed to do, with abandon. I love the fact also that each layer of dream down is much madder than the one above.

The third one down is a brilliant and sustained James Bond joke, complete with convincing music cues, and it offers one of the characters an opportunity for heroism well beyond anything he was capable of in any of the higher realities.

This is above all great fun, and the funnest bit is the satisfaction of watching Leonardo Di Caprio revel in his transition from childish parvenu to one of the most flexible and interesting actors of his generation.

Oh and it reminded me of the terrific 1985 flick Dreamscape starring faces of the eighties Dennis Quaid and Kate Capshaw. I haven’t seen that in ages. Oh, Amazon…


Predators is a slightly different kettle of fish, can of worms, bucket of frogs… Whatever.

Bottle of newts?

The original Predator (1987) is a phenomenal work. A film which is actually beyond criticism. One which transcends its idiocy so effortlessly that if it doesn’t actually reach the level of art, it certainly reaches the level where it can look up art’s skirt.

In Predator an elite bunch of mercenary-types are sent into the jungle to rescue some political hostages. They are led by Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a character called Dutch, possibly a half-arsed attempt to explain his variably-penetrable accent.

“Vhy don’t you use the reg-uh-larmy?” he asks at one point.

Anyway it turns out the thing with the hostages (“har-stitches” as Arnie calls them) is a ruse. The soldiers get stalked and killed by an elaborately-mandibled alien bounty hunter until last-man-standing Arnie kills it. The end.

This bald narrative encapsulation makes it sound like pretty thin gruel, but believe me Predator is a master-class in action film directing. It is a key film in eighties American cinema and it is endlessly re-watchable. The characters are all fleshed out just enough for you to care about them as they become imperilled, but they are played by tough guys and wrestlers giving the whole film a semi-cartoonish sense of hyper-reality.

One of the mercs, the only one who isn’t an out and out tough guy, is played by Shane Black, the writer responsible for Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

The film was directed by John McTiernan who would then go on to direct Die Hard, another key movie and the primogenitor of an entire genre of film.

These guys weren’t just messing around.

Predator has had several sequels over the years. I am quite fond of the urban-set Predator 2 starring Danny Glover and Gary Busey, but it didn’t find favour with Predator fans generally and now appears to have been written out of the continuity.

And then there are the two Alien Versus Predator films which are perplexing to say the least. Sparsely populated with humans, the films instead rely on the supposedly thrilling spectacle of two feebly rendered special effects duking it out for an hour and a half.

There is a fundamental problem with these “wouldn’t it be cool if…” fight stories be it Alien Versus Predator, Batman Versus Judge Dredd or Cloverfield Monsters Versus the bloody Clangers. And the problem is that there can’t ever really be a winner. The status quo will be preserved and the tedious spectacle of the two parties scrapping at feature length is difficult to enjoy for anyone not quite far up the autistic spectrum.

With Predators (2010) the film-makers have junked everything from Predator 2 and the two Alien Versus Predator films and have made a direct sequel to the original. Fair enough. The obvious touchstone here is James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) which successfully inverted the shape of Alien (1979) whilst simultaneously providing a satisfying sequel.

Predators is not quite in this league, but it acquits itself admirably. Produced by the economical and energetic Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal (Kontroll and Vacancy) it avoids the pitfalls of hubris and grandiosity, functioning instead at a down and dirty level.

It was interesting watching this immediately after Inception. The Nolan film makes specific reference to the way that there is no transition time in dreams, that you are just suddenly there. And this follows in the film with scene after scene starting in the middle of the action.

Exactly the same happens in Predators with perhaps one of the most extreme in media res openings I can remember seeing. As the film begins Adrien Brody is plummeting through thin air, unconscious.

He awakens in time to deploy his parachute, and once on the ground realises that there are other people in the same position as he is. There isn’t much cocking around. No-one acts like an idiot and, with gratifying speed, we get to familiar ground. The eight humans are all killers of some sort (Spetnaz guy, Yakuza guy, Special Forces guy, woman guy…). They all come to accept quite quickly that they have been kidnapped, plonked on to an alien planet, and they all get on speedily with the business of being hunted by Predators.

It is a little bit by the numbers. Even though the eight characters are all pretty reprehensible the script, nevertheless, establishes an approximate hierarchy of worthiness. This will be familiar to anyone who is a veteran of stalk and slash films, and it will come as no surprise that the characters are then bumped off in order of nastiness.

It is, exactly what it purports to be. If you spend your money expecting a Predator movie then you will not be disappointed.

It is disturbing though how Adrien Brody, once he’s been roughed up a bit, starts looking like a young Jimmy Nail.

Predator Shoes…


Doctor Who news.

Everybody stop complaining about Doctor Who’s “inappropriate” sexiness now, please. It was ever thus.

My favourite Doctor was the third. Jon Pertwee’s interpretation happened along just when I was at the right age. And I had such a crush on his assistant Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning) too. There was something just very cheerful and decorous about her.

Katy Manning disarming a Dalek

She’s reprising the role in the next series of The Sarah Jane Adventures y’know.