A running theme of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who stories, going back to "Silence in the Library," has been writing that reveals the future. River Song's famous diary was stuffed full of "spoilers" about the Doctor's life, that he must never read. And now, with last night's episode, Moffat revealed what it's actually like to be trapped in a story that's already written.
"The Angels Take Manhattan" begins with not one, but two noir detective novels, and ends with the Doctor telling a little girl a fairytale about her own future. It's very much a story about storytelling, which makes it especially too bad that the actual story at the center of it is so dependent on hand-waving and jargon. But I'm getting ahead of myself — something that happens a lot in "Angels Take Manhattan."
So the first noir detective novel in "Angels" is written by a gumshoe (who starts off saying that half the stories in New York are true, and half "haven't happened yet.") He's hired by a man named Grayle to go to Winter Quay, an apartment block in Battery Park, where "the statues" live. The gumshoe winds up meeting himself as an old man, and realizes he's trapped in Winter Quay. (And yet, he somehow manages to type up this account of his experiences. We even see him typing. Where does he get the typewriter? Also, if he spends decades trapped in Winter Quay in the past, what does he eat? Do the Angels arrange for pizza to be delivered every day? I want to watch a story about the pizza guy who works for the Weeping Angels, and how he gets paid.)
The second noir detective novel is written by River Song herself — for reasons that never become clear. (I know, I know, she's "supposed" to write it. But still, why?) River Song describes herself as "packing cleavage that could fell an ox at 20 feet." She's in the late 1930s, playing at being a femme fatale detective, and Rory gets zapped back in time by the Weeping Angels just as she's about to be taken prisoner by Grayle's men. The Doctor and Amy set off to find Rory, but they have trouble landing the TARDIS in 1938 because of temporal distortions — until River gives them a handy landing beacon, by way of a vase in Grayle's office. And this is the last time River's novel is helpful — after this, it's entirely problematic.
Basically, it's as if River wrote another diary. But this time, instead of keeping it to herself, she sneaks it into the Doctor's pocket in a form that he'll be tempted to read. Sure, it lets him know that Rory has been sent back in time to 1938, and gives him a way to land in spite of the temporal distortions, but there are a million other ways River could have sent the Doctor a message through time. (Or she could have written a novel where the first three chapters are actual events, and the rest are a surreal adventure with the Heffalumps.)
Anyway, the rest of "Angels Take Manhattan" is concerned with the perils of seeing your own future, which then becomes fixed and immutable. Amy makes the mistake of looking ahead in River's book, and seeing that River is going to break her wrist. (Actually, all she sees is that the Doctor is going to tell River that she'll break her wrist, which seems like a pretty big loophole.) And as the TARDIS finally leaves 2012 New York, we see that Rory's gravestone is already there. Worst of all, Amy convinces the Doctor to look at just the chapter titles, which include one that alludes to Amy's final farewell.
At this point, the Doctor is desperate to change the future he's glimpsed in River's book — to the point where he demands that River free herself from the grasp of a Weeping Angel without breaking her wrist. And this leads to the most touching moment of the story by far, where River pretends that she's gotten out without breaking her wrist, and the Doctor is overjoyed. Then it turns out River was just lying, and she's actually hiding horrible agony (although not because she wants the Doctor to feel better, but because she doesn't want him to see her "damage." More on that below.) The Doctor gives up some of his regeneration energy to make River's wrist as good as new. And you start to believe that the Doctor and River really are a married couple, after a fashion. It's a really lovely moment.
(Oh, and Grayle turns out to be a collector who's keeping one of the Weeping Angels prisoner, and the other Angels want revenge. But he's basically just there to set things in motion, and then forgotten.)
So our gang is still chasing Rory, who's been zapped to Winter Quay by this point. And it turns out that Winter Quay is the Weeping Angels' battery farm — instead of just zapping you back in time once and getting one "meal" of temporal energy out of you, they zap you back in time over and over again, so you live your entire life as their prisoner. Which seems like a lot of trouble to go to, especially when they're in a huge city full of potential one-time victims. The Winter Quay setup never entirely makes sense to me, in part due to the "pizza guy" problem I mentioned above. Also, when the Doctor describes it, he refers to the Angels sending Rory back in time 30 or 40 years, which would be a one-time trip — so where do the multiple feedings come in?
To make matters worse, Rory meets his older self — at the moment of death, after Old Rory has apparently spent decades alone and trapped. Old Rory says goodbye to Young Amy, mostly just saying "please" over and over again, and it's a pretty depressing, miserable sight. Is Rory doomed to act out the horrible future he's just seen? Or can he change it? The Doctor theorizes that if Young Rory escapes from Winter Quay, then the resulting paradox might be enough to give the Weeping Angels indigestion, and kill or weaken them all.
(Oh, and at this point, they're chased by the Statue of Liberty. Which presumably gets to advance a few feet per hour, because that's how often people wouldn't be staring at the fact that the Statue of Liberty is walking around. But never mind — its a cute idea, and it's great to see a years-old Internet meme about the Statue of Liberty being a Weeping Angel come to life.)
But Rory goes one better — he realizes that he can kill himself as a young man, by throwing himself off the roof of Winter Quay, and then there'll definitely be a paradox, since he's died on the same day as a young man and as an old man. Amy tries to talk him out of it, but he says "Amy, please. If you love me, then trust me and push." And now, at last, Amy gets to do something as extreme as waiting 2000 years in a Roman Centurion costume or blowing up a Cyber-fleet to prove her love: She gets up on the ledge with Rory and they commit time-suicide together. And that's another lovely moment, where Amy repeats what River said earlier, about marriage being about "changing the future."
And then they're back in the graveyard in 2012 where we saw Rory's headstone. And yay, it seems like they succeeded and it's all good, and the Angels are defeated — but Rory sees his own headstone, and it's like temporal groundhog day. (In both senses of "groundhog day," I guess.) Rory almost instantly gets thrown back in time by yet another Weeping Angel — and by coincidence he's once again been sent back to 1938 New York, where the TARDIS can never again go because "the timelines are so scrambled" by the paradox that Amy and Rory created when they committed time-suicide.
Amy chooses to go with the same Angel that zapped Rory back in time, on the theory that it might send her to the same timezone it sent Rory to. The Doctor begs her not to, saying that she's creating "fixed time," and he will never be able to see her again. And anyway, if she just gets into the TARDIS with him they can figure something out. But River tells Amy to go for it, because it's her best shot. Amy tells River to look after the Doctor, and then tells the Doctor, "Raggedy man, goodbye." And then she's zapped back.
And here's where I have another big problem with the story — I get that the Doctor can't take the TARDIS back to 1938 New York because of the crossed timelines. But why can't he go to 1939 New York? Or 1940 New York? The Ponds could wait around a year or two, before he manages to come get them. Just how far does this timey wimey distortion stretch? We know the Doctor's able to land the TARDIS during World War II, because we've seen him do it a billion times, and this show would have a hard time swearing off World War II stories forever. So what happens to Amy and Rory should be, at worst, a major inconvenience, akin to what happens to the Doctor and Martha in "Blink." I don't get why it's goodbye forever.
(Oh but what about the gravestone, you say? Simple. Bribe a grave digger to put a gravestone with Amy's and Rory's names on it next to an empty grave. Problem solved.)
Which leads to a more global problem with the famous Steven Moffat "timey wimey" obsession — at this point, it feels as though he's telling stories about plot devices, rather than using the plot devices to tell a story. So much of "Angels Take Manhattan" consists of people geeking out about arbitrary rules, there's very little time left to have an adventure. There were points during this episode when I felt like I was watching Star Trek: Voyager and people were yelling about temporal distortions and spatial anomalies. Good science fiction is about people, not about jargon — and Moffat has gotten dangerously caught up in his love affair with widgets.
I also feel like someone should make a "Moffat Bingo Card" that includes things like people jumping off tall buildings (or out of spaceships) and surviving. (Plus all the other Moffat tropes that have been remarked on before.)
But anyway, back to "Angels Take Manhattan." There's another theme running through it, about the fact that the Doctor doesn't really age and his companions do — which is one reason he's always trading them in for a younger model. Amy is wearing reading glasses and getting visible lines around her eyes, because she's ten years older than when she started traveling in the TARDIS. And later, when she pretends not to have broken her wrist, River tells Amy that when you travel with an ageless god, you "try not to let him see the damage."
At the same time, after Amy is gone, River tells the Doctor, "Don't travel alone." But she won't be the one to travel with the Doctor full-time, because "one psychopath per TARDIS" should be the rule. (Which means, in turn, that whatever special definition of "psychopath" has been used to label River Song in the past, it also describes the Doctor, who's usually sweet and noble and self-sacrificing.)
And then River tells the Doctor that she'll send the "Melody Malone" detective novel to Amy to publish, and she'll get Amy to write an afterword for the Doctor to read. Leading the Doctor to run and find the last page of the book, which he previously discarded in Central Park because he hates endings. Amy, too, tells the Doctor that he shouldn't be alone. And that she and Rory will love him for all time — which is another sweet moment, as the Doctor reads the last page, using Amy's reading glasses.
And Amy asks the Doctor one last favor, which he grants: He goes back to the garden where Amy, as a child, is waiting for the Doctor to come back. And he tells her a fairy-tale story of her adventures (thus bringing us back to the "fairy tale" them the Amy era started with) in which, notably, Amy is the hero who fights pirates and falls in love with an epic hero, and gives "hope to the greatest painter who ever lived." Thus, instead of being obsessed with making up stories over the Raggedy Doctor, young Amelia can grow up thinking of stories about herself being an adventurer. She can be the hero of her own story, thanks to her future self.
(And then, the Doctor pops out of existence, because by telling Young Amelia a different fairytale, he's caused her to stop obsessing about the tale of the man who ran away from home in a box that was old, new, borrowed and blue, which was the only thing that saved him from being erased from time, back in "The Big Bang.")
Actually, speaking of "The Big Bang," that's the one where the Doctor tells Young Amelia that "we're all stories in the end." And in a sense, "Angels Take Manhattan" is about what it means to be a story — and how too much awareness that you're in a story can seal your own ending. Amy's fate is sealed the moment the Doctor glimpses the last chapter title. (Which is why he chides himself, "Never do that again" in the graveyard.) Moffat writes a lot of adventures about things that change when you're not looking at them — but your own life story, like the Angels, is something that becomes fixed in stone when you gaze upon it.
In any case, I did like the fact that this was an adventure that was all about storytelling, in which being trapped in a story that's already written is the worst fate imaginable — but the consolation prize for Amy losing the Doctor is to be told a story about her own future. And tucked away in all this stuff about the perils of having your life written down is a huge revelation: the Doctor's been going around erasing any mention of himself from the universe, so that River was pardoned for killing a man who didn't exist. "Didn't you used to be somebody?" River asks the Doctor playfully. "Weren't you the woman who killed the Doctor?" he responds. "Doctor who?" she says, making this the third time the show's title has been asked as a question lately. Because like the chapter titles in River's book, Moffat is saying we can learn something from the title of the Doctor's own grand story.
Oh, and apparently in the Whoniverse, the Detroit Lions just won the Superbowl. And that's much better than their real-life record. Is Doctor Who giving us all one huge spoiler for this year's football season?