Companion departures have been a tricky business since Doctor Who came back in 2005. It wasn’t quite so much of a problem for the classic run because we had limited expectations of the character development and story arcs that the companions would follow. In fact, until Doctor Who became a prototype for its own revival in 1988 and 1989 and made genuine efforts at a story arc for Ace there were virtually no examples of doing anything other than giving a companion some defining features and then forgetting about them. Sometimes you get the impression of a story arc but this is nearly always confined to a companion’s opening and closing stories, so we get, for example:
- Jo’s first story: ditsy girl whose uncle got her a job in UNIT. Jo’s last story: environmentalist who wants to change the world and get married to somebody she just met. Nothing much in between.
- Sarah Jane’s first story: a journalist. Story arc: occasionally a journalist. Last story: gets possessed and then kicked out of the TARDIS.
- Nyssa: intelligent scientific orphan. Story arc: sometimes an intelligent scientific orphan. Last story: intelligent scientific nurse.
- Turlough: untrustworthy and might kill the Doctor. Story arc: sometimes untrustworthy but doesn’t want to kill the Doctor any more. Last story: all of his origins explored in one go just before he leaves.
And I haven’t actually picked the bad examples there. Those are the ones with something interesting to say about them. The majority of the companions have a story arc that looks no more detailed than this:
- Dodo: Northern. Story arc: becomes less Northern. Last story: disappears for no reason without saying goodbye.
- Liz: scientist. Story arc: scientist. Last story: disappears for no reason without saying goodbye.
So let’s compare this with Amy, who has a story arc that includes setting up the Doctor as her childhood hero, wanting to cheat on her fiance with him, getting married, losing and regaining Rory, having a baby and seeing her get kidnapped, rediscovering her as an adult and finding out she is a woman who is married to the Doctor, etc, etc. Rory has had a similar arc, but minus wanting to bed the Doctor, and with the addition of sharing a dad with Ron Weasley.
The approach to a companion nowadays is therefore much more detailed and they have epic story arcs to follow, so the moment they are written out has to be significant. Also, both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have gone out of their way to stress how big a deal it is to travel in the TARDIS, and quite right to, so there has to be a big reason for anyone to need to leave and it has to be realistic. Let’s have a look at some of the options that were used in the classic series:
- The companion finds a new mission in life. This was probably the option that worked the best in most cases. Good examples are Steven and Nyssa. The problem with it is that it is a hard sell for us to believe that somebody would think that tying themselves to one place and time would be a better option than travelling around with the Doctor, whatever the mission. Nonetheless, RTD used this option with Martha, who joined UNIT. To make it make more sense he also combined it with…
- The companion doesn’t want to travel with the Doctor any more. For this to work the companion has to be unhappy travelling with the Doctor and to achieve that has to be put through some major trauma. Examples of this are Victoria and Tegan. The problem with it is that it is terribly negative and downbeat, and gives us the opposite impression of Doctor Who than the series normally shoots for.
- The companion gets married. In the days when the Doctor had no control over the TARDIS this was just about acceptable. But it really can’t be done any more, because it comes from an era that presupposes the following: when a woman gets married her life ends beyond staying at home and looking after her husband. So what if she is getting married? Keep travelling anyway, or bring hubby along for the ride. We were eventually shown a good approach to this with Amy and Rory, and it doesn’t involve the companion no longer travelling in the TARDIS ever again. However, it has been used successfully to transition them to being a different kind of companion – part-timers – which has allowed different kinds of stories to be told.
- The companion gets killed. This was rarely done, the only examples being Katarina, Sarah Kingdom (both of which only appeared in a handful of episodes) and Adric. RTD absolutely ruled out ever taking this approach because it is far too negative for Doctor Who, and he was exactly right.
- The companion leaves for no reason, sometimes written out between stories or even episodes. Clearly this is not an approach that should ever have been used and certainly can’t be used nowadays!
- The companion is forcefully removed from the Doctor. Examples of this are Jamie, Zoe, and Sarah Jane, who apparently isn’t allowed on Gallifrey. This might appear to be a good approach, but it’s a tricky one because the Doctor is a time traveller and it is bound to lead to questions about why the Doctor never goes back and picks them up again to put things right. It is absolutely horrible that this was never addressed with Jamie and Zoe. Sarah got to be angry with the Doctor about it and at least got a “people get old and die” bit of chickening out for her troubles. But this the approach favoured by RTD, with the addition of making really really sure that the Doctor couldn’t go back. Rose is trapped in a parallel universe that the Doctor can’t go back to, and Donna’s head will explode if she remembers her adventures. Again, this runs the risk of being a bit too downbeat. Donna’s departure is worse than killing her off. At least Rose gets her almost-Doctor to set up home with.
Steven Moffat’s approach is very different to Davies. He kills off his companions but tries to do it in a nice way. You’ve got to admire the ambition of that approach, and it is one that he only really gets spot on with Amy and Rory, and that relies on the brilliant concept of the Weeping Angels causing kind deaths, by sending people into the past to live their lives. Now he has already messed that up by this point by having them snap necks in the previous story, and you can’t put the genie back in the bottle: the Weeping Angels have been totally screwed up as a monster, but I’ve already written far too many words about that in The Time of Angels review, so let’s gloss over all the laughing cherubims and giant not-made-of-stone statue stuff, and look at this for what it is: probably the most successful companion departure there has ever been. Because it ticks all the boxes. His later efforts will be less subtle, all about killing people and then finding ways to bring them back to life, but we’ll get to them in due course.
Amy and Rory’s final adventure offers us a sort of greatest hits of Amy and Rory, returning to a lot of the themes that have been explored in their most memorable stories: Rory being separated from Amy, Rory dying, Amy facing growing old without Rory, and of course River Song, whose story has been so intertwined with the Ponds, is back to see them off and is facing events that she cannot change.
Appropriately for an episode in which the Doctor loses his companions, he is shown to be frustratingly powerless here, but this is a necessary side effect of a story that by its very nature has to see him lose. And sometimes the Doctor simply has to lose. We see him at his most selfish here: content to move on after Rory’s death and declare it something he can’t do anything about, and trying to persuade Amy not to go into the past when it is obviously the right choice for her, simply because he doesn’t want to lose her. But ultimately Amy does make exactly the right decision, and what she does has a powerful message for the viewers. It is a message that has been at the core of Amy and Rory’s story throughout their time with the Doctor: whatever life throws at you, tread your path together and you can face any fears. RP
The view from across the pond:
The Weeping Angels, one of the most popular creatures in Doctor Who, are back. Their first appearance was a resounding success. Their second was (by this reviewers standards at least) an unmitigated disaster. The Angels take Manhattan is our third encounter with the Angels; how does it fare by comparison?
I might as well address what doesn’t work first. Luckily there’s not a lot but one thing is pretty substantial.
- Since when can the Doctor call upon regeneration energy to heal people? There are countless times this would have been useful. How many ankles could have been saved? It’s introduced with the casual attitude of someone asking for a handkerchief, as if it’s an ability he’s always had. I think this is poor writing. Oh, it works well for the scene and contributes to some great dialog, so dramatically I get it, but it’s unfair of Moffat to ask the audience to simply accept it.
- And then there’s the infamous “fixed time”. If you read something aloud, it’s suddenly fixed and immutable. WRITE it and … not so much? Is it me, or does that make anti-sense? I would think the act of writing it in a book read by many would make it more “fixed in time” than a two people speaking the word aloud. Again, Moffat seems to use convenience when writing, and that is not good. If you don’t have a good rationale for it, there’s probably a better way to incorporate the idea!
- However, the biggest complaint in the episode is the reveal that the Statue of Liberty is a Weeping Angel. Let me get this right: since an Angel can’t move while being observed, it managed to move across all of Manhattan without being seen? HOW?? 1930’s NYC was, in fairness, less populated than it is now, but it was not empty! Someone (probably many “someones”) would have seen it. Or is this because we learned in their last appearance that you can look or not and they can still move… or not? Bottom line is that for Moffat to ask us to suspend disbelief to such an extent was outright rude. I know the show was originally pitched for children, but many adults watch it now and it’s not what it was at the beginning; it’s so much more. Treat us like we have brains or we can just move over to watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey for mindless entertainment!
But there are good things that balance it out. There’s a bad guy who has an Angel chained up and River is investigating 1930s New York – what’s not to like? This leads to some absolutely fantastic moments: Rory walking to get coffee and hearing creepy giggling before turning up in the book the Doctor is reading. Or the cherub angel blowing out the match Rory is holding in the dark basement. There’s the arrival of the Doctor in the TARDIS that knocks out said baddie (Julius Grayle, played by Mike McShane) that packs a real “superhero punch”. Fun things that basically can, more or less, drown out the complaints. So that may put as at a very neutral rating…
Well even the good bits are overshadowed by something else, as if by a giant statue, that this episode has more of than almost any episode to date: character. Amy, Rory and the Doctor have something special; it’s what made them so good together. They care about each other tremendously, like a family. The picnic in the park is a wonderful, touching, sweet scene! Take, for instance, Amy’s wrinkles; they may not make sense to the Doctor but her husband knows she has them… and he can’t even see them! It’s these little touches that truly jump out about these characters. The Doctor wearing Amy’s glasses is also a heartfelt touch.
But it’s the end of the episode that nails it. To watch this and not get choked up (read: become a sobbing wreck) means you were brought up on Vulcan by the head logician… and you’re also part cyborg! The scene with Rory and Amy on the roof (“What the hell are you doing?” “Changing the future. It’s called marriage…”) leads to some incredible acting from Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan. It also gives us a piece of music that is absolutely soul-crushing in its intensity. As if not content with breaking our hearts once, Moffat gives us a second ending in the cemetery: “Raggedy man, goodbye!” At this point, the angels aren’t the only things weeping! But like the host of a good infomercial, Moffat springs one more “but wait, that’s not all” moment – the Doctor gets a note from Amy telling him to go to the garden where her younger self is waiting and tell her a story. “This is the story of Amelia Pond… and this is how it ends!” Wrecked…
The Angels take Manhattan is a wonderful goodbye to the family that existed between the Doctor, Amy and Rory and it will be hard to beat. The absolutely raw emotion behind those scenes make this episode a stand-out, utter success.
I’m so glad I’m writing this and not speaking it; I would have had to pause many times to collect myself. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Snowmen