The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang

TARDISHere endeth the first series of Matt Smith’s time in the TARDIS. And my first sustained stint reviewing televised Doctor Who. Always one for a spot of self referential nonsense, this piece contains a few callbacks to my summary of The Eleventh Hour. No-one ever commented.

I first watched The Pandorica Opens in the office of Premier PR – the show’s publicists. (Preview discs were not being sent out for the finale.) I was in the company of fellow journalists from TV listings magazines. As I left, one asked me, “Was that good Doctor Who?” It was.

This is from DWM #424.

DWM #424Once upon a time there was whiteness. Until…

Phut! There’s a box. Within lies – who knows? Magic? But this box is also a trap. One that lures prey to it. The bait is a compelling, but completely fictional, reality of mad adventures, monsters and fairytales. And it’s all spun from the slightly crazed, crazily complicated dreams of a Scot who won’t grow up.

Steven Moffat, obviously, spilling out his own fantastic take on Doctor Who through our TV sets.

Over the last 13 weeks, your reviewer has been happily entrapped by the byzantine machinations of what’s been – and I am going to say it – the best run yet of modern Who. And now it comes to this.

Since the series’ return in 2005, we’ve been schooled to expect a big pay-off (a big bang, even) at the end of each run. A grand accumulation of all that’s gone before, turned up to ‘11’. But this banquet approach is risky. We kind of think we want everything on the menu, however overindulgence will make you bilious (“And finally for monsieur, a wafer-thin appearance from K9?”).

Extending this weird restaurant analogy we’ve somehow wandered into, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, thankfully, plays out like an exquisite set meal. Treats – River Song, Amelia Pond, Roman soldiers, a stone Dalek and every DW baddy worth a Character Options figure – arrive at palatable intervals. Okay, some courses never make it to table (I was miffed to have resolution of The Silence deferred to the next sitting, and those errant Leadworth ducks now seem to be off) but come the final shot of the TARDIS hurtling into the end credits, I was well satisfied.

It’s been a big to-do, though, hasn’t it? Looking back through the notes I took during these episodes, “France 1890” feels forever ago. Before we even get to the title sequence for The Pandorica Opens we’ve seen Provence, the Cabinet War Rooms, the Stormcage Containment Facility, Liz 10’s Royal Collection, a space cantina, the oldest planet in the universe and Roman Britain. I’m knackered just writing that.

Thankfully it’s all set up with a throwaway brilliance. These scenes waft in, nail their punchlines and waft off. Meanwhile the central storyline thunders on. One moment the Doctor and Amy are getting a plot précis from River, the next they’re galloping across Wiltshire for a smashing reveal of Stonehenge. This thing rarely stands still. Although when it does, it’s at its deadliest.

The Doctor’s chat with Amy about the Pandorica legend feels like so-much detailing, sketching in the grandeur. But, of course, it’s doing a hell of a lot more. While we’re distracted by preconceptions about what might be inside the box, Moffat can be shockingly direct regarding its true content. From this perspective the Time Lord’s yarn of a creature trapped within – who would “drop out of the sky and tear down your world” – is obviously a description of himself. I never saw it coming.

Maybe that was because I was busy craning my neck at UFOs over Stonehenge, lights in the sky buzzing like the cover of some alien conspiracy potboiler. “Everything that’s ever hated you is coming here tonight,” says River to the Doctor. Ah, now this is fab. A Legion of Super-Villains-style team-up is a concept that surely originated back in Moffat’s schoolboy doodles. Or maybe I came up with it first when I was eight. Or was it you? Whatever, much like the glorious Daleks vs Cybermen trash talk-off in Doomsday, it comes straight from the bowels of fan-fiction. But now it’s legitimised by being on TV. Guess what? We were right! Pitting all the monsters together is the most exciting thing ever.

If I make that sound like a no-brainer, that’s because it isn’t. It could have been horrible. One fibreglass creation is a hard enough sell, put loads of different types together – stomping and harrumphing – and they accentuate the absurdities in each other. Moffat thus marshals the Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans et al carefully. Much like Jon, Peter, Pat and, er, Richard in The Five Doctors, the mighty egos and elbows only share the same set for a short time. Anyway, all you really need is that tracking shot of the lot of ‘em together and you’re sated. The most exciting thing ever – but not actually scary…

No, scary is a decapitated Cybermen’s head. Who knew? In the most unlikely way the sinister silver noggin restates all that’s frightening about its species. With robotic entrails doubling-up as tentacles and a face as a snapping cage, its reminds us the Cybermen will never stop. They will always be coming to get us.

Treating old stock with such imagination is absolutely the reason why this story can also get away with the indulgences of a monster mash-up. But that’s just the first audacious scam it pulls. The next is the return of Rory. It’s a moment many of us were second-guessing, but, actually, Moffat’s been second-guessing our second-guessing. And then second-guessing it again.

Firstly it’s in the way he undersells the resurrection; the Doctor taking an age to twig and then treating the occasion like a stiff reunion of former colleagues. Next, of course, it’s revealed the NHS nurse-turned-Roman Centurion (only in Doctor Who) isn’t actually Rory at all. He’s an Auton killing machine. An infinite number of fans posting on an infinite number of internet forums couldn’t foresee that one.

However, the scenes between Rory and Amy are extraordinary. It’s a hell of an ask for any actress to turn from light banter to the realisation the man sat beside her is her deceased husband-to-be, whom she forgot. How do you prepare for that? But Karen Gillan (Amy) is never better, her laughter dissolving into heartbreak, followed by tentative joy. Across this series, there have been instances where I’ve found Karen’s performance a bit too glib, pouncing on the one-liners. Moments like this remind me she’s got the range to do basically anything. A huge asset to the show.

Arthur Darvill (Rory) isn’t half bad either. It’s due to the combination of his sheer likeability and Moffat’s keen characterisation that when Rory, the real one, is finally restored we don’t begrudge it. Even though we knew it along. So, yep, Steven Moffat, you win that one too.

What follows is even naughtier.

The Pandorica Opens exits on the most cataclysmic cliffhanger of all time… which Moffat has the nerve to resolve by breaking the absolute core rule of Doctor Who. The very thing the programme steers away from in fear of breaking its format. The Doctor must never – never! – use time travel to get himself out of a scrape.

Naturally, that’s exactly what he does here, journeying from the future to give Replica Rory the sonic screwdriver with which he can free the Doctor – who’s then at liberty to journey from the future to give Replica Rory the sonic screwdriver… Yes, it’s doomed to look rubbish in synopsis. But it really works. Again, that’s due to the way it’s sold on screen, beginning with a natty rerun of The Eleventh Hour, which culminates in the boggling revelation Amy’s inside the Pandorica. That’s then followed by the out-of-sequence stuff of the Doctor in a fez, brandishing a mop. As these puzzling non-sequiturs resolve to form an impossible escape, it feels too damn satisfying, clever and – let’s not forget – funny to be a cop-out. Although it is. Now there’s a paradox to ponder upon.

“I found you in words”, says Amy when the Time Lord returns at her wedding. If ever there was a slogan for this year’s series, that’s it. Because it’s all about being smart. Unsurprisingly, then, in The Big Bang the threat becomes conceptual, with the Doctor and friends alone in a museum while the lights are reportedly going off throughout creation. No villain to speak of – other than that beautiful stone Dalek. From hereon in it’s exposition. In the main, I approve of this approach. We’ve had 12 weeks of meticulously placed plotting to get us to this point. I’m hugely invested in the story, exposition is what I want. But I did pine for a little of the panic and pizzazz Russell T Davies offered up at the end of days. Not aliens over Chiswick, but a bit of a flap, maybe.

The trade-off, though, is the marvellous conceit of the Doctor staging a few walk-on spots in previous adventures. Wasn’t it great how the ‘continuity error’ in Flesh and Stone was left hanging until this point? Meanwhile, for those who want heart, there’s his wonderful speech to the sleeping Amelia: “The daft old man who stole a magic box… brand new and ancient and the bluest blue ever.” It sums up the mythos wonderfully. And, damn it if it’s not another clever bit of Moffat coding.

Again, we’re left considering another concept that looks limp on the page – Amy remembering the Raggedy Man back into existence via that old wedding homily. On screen it’s sheer poetry and I bet you Moffat’s had “something borrowed” tucked away in his back pocket for years.

This has been the best run yet of modern Who. That’s what I said way back when. The success has been built on two tenets – razor sharp writing (we’ve heard enough about that), plus a version of the Doctor that embodies the old-young ethos like never before. Matt Smith’s Time Lord has just been right from the very beginning. While Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant were wonderful in the role, he’s the one who – with his crankiness, silliness and bravery – feels like the Doctor I first knew as a child.

So let’s all be upstanding for Series Fnarg, a joyful union of something old (the monsters), something new (the Doctor and Amy), something borrowed (the aesthetic of fairytales) and something blue (her designs on the time traveller). Off they all go, lurching towards Christmas for a new adventure. Fade out the confetti, bring on the snow! Who knows what will emerge next from the whiteness?

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