The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (my review)

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This story is difficult to review, because I’m not entirely sure I understand it. There’s a frustrating vagueness about it.

Lance Parkin was pretty foreboding about Moffat’s promotion to showrunner, claiming Moffat hadn’t yet proven he could write a ‘simple’ story like Smith and Jones. Personally I hope Moffat never sets his standards that low. But had Moffat revived the show instead, I could see Empty Child, Girl in the Fireplace or Blink working as a pilot episode, grabbing people from the start and cleverly introducing everything they need to know. Infact if not for the promise of those stories, I think a sizeable audience would’ve dropped off.

Moffat’s never done a season finale before, but maybe Silence in the Library could’ve worked as one, with its tantalizing teases of the future and storybook conclusion.

The problem is Moffat’s season structure here is a second hand one, inherited from Russell. Perhaps if Moffat had revived the show, he’d have selected a season format best suited to his natural schedule. Maybe only eight to ten episodes. Something he could maintain his focus on. But he can’t reduce the number of episodes now.

Maybe if not for Russell, Moffat would go for Silence as his season finale model, rather than RTD’s brand of mass GCI armies, ludicrous stakes and hyperbole.

Sometimes, for all Moffat’s foreboding portents, I get the sense his heart isn’t entirely in his finales, and that he’s only doing them because he’s following a routine from Russell that he thinks the show still has to do. He’s said himself how he saw Russell’s method of showrunning as a learning model for himself.

So where does this finale succeed and where does it fail?

Well it’s rather undone by preceding stories. The lead up momentum just isn’t there. Series 5 was very top-heavy, and perhaps it peaked too early with Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. But it’s more than that. One frustrating problem has been the Doctor’s awareness of the threat of the crack, yet his continual refusal to break a sweat over it. There’s been too much of the status quo in later episodes. A perfect solution would’ve been to simply go from Cold Blood’s shocker ending to right here. The intrigue would be fresh, as would the foreboding question about what will happen to the Tardis. Somewhere between Vincent and the Doctor and The Lodger, that was lost, as the show got completely distracted elsewhere.

This two-parter is Series 5’s top-heaviness in perfect microcosm. The Pandorica Opens is an impressive set-up that delivers the impact it needs to, and gives a boost of tightness and momentum to the season. But it’s so hard to top that it almost by default sets The Big Bang up for a fall.

It demonstrates some key areas of improvement over the RTD finales. Whereas RTD gave us cartoonishly overabundant CGI Daleks attacking en masse, and then all being disintegrated by a quick fix deus ex machina, this is a refreshing return to the old school approach. Things are scaled down, so that a single dismembered Cyberman with broken parts, and a sole calcified Dalek on minimal power, are shown to be formidable, relentless threats by themselves, without needing vast armies behind them. And frankly it makes for far more involving tension than the ridiculous upping of scales and oversaturated spectacle we got with Russell. Resultantly, after the overexposed mass humiliation of the Daleks in Journey’s End, finally the Daleks feel threatening again, capable of being used in interesting ways. Proving how ‘less is more’.

Also, compare Amy’s amnesia about Rory with Donna’s. With the latter, Donna acts as though she’s deliberately trying to ignore the Doctor and is pretending not to recognize him and to be distracted by trivia just to snub him. The scene tries so hard to force the point that Donna doesn’t know the Doctor anymore that it exposes its artifice, as a part of you knows it’s not real, which devalues her tragedy. There’s nothing natural about her reaction to the Doctor. I mean yes you can possibly theorize that Donna’s evasive behavior with the Doctor is governed by her subconscious mind warning her away from the danger of remembering him, but it doesn’t feel like anything so intelligent is going on here.

Whereas Amy here, when she bumps into Rory and shows no recognition, she reacts to him as though meeting him for the first time. Trying to place him in her memory, realizing she should know him from somewhere, and even showing that she kind of fancies him by flirting with him a little, quite cringingly. It feels so much more spontaneous and real because of it, thus putting you in mind of Amy’s changed memories, and maybe even hinting at an echo of how she acted when she originally first met Rory.

Basically the usual RTD things are done much more interestingly here. The mass armies are seen here, but kept at bay, kept nebulous, only unleashed and brought to screen at the climax to punctuate the final dramatic cliffhanger. Thus adding to the sense of a ticking clock, and the episode’s pacing is meticulously spot on.

But the alliance raises plenty of difficult questions, and has been knocked by fans who complain tirelessly about it being a far too fannish idea, how this should be a show for non-anoraks and this will confuse and alienate normal viewers, blah blah blah. Most of that is utter rubbish. Series 5 as a whole has been perfectly designed as an accessible starting point for new viewers. Anything you need to know about River and the Angels is explained in Time of Angels. Likewise the season effectively reintroduces the Daleks and Silurians.

The Pandorica Opens is much like a modern version of The Five Doctors. And just like in The Five Doctors, you don’t have to be a fan to understand what all these monsters and foes are, but it just might make a fan of you. Whilst I’ve said the classic series should have ended on The Five Doctors, there’s many fans who said it was where it all started for them. This is much the same. Any questions about who are the Drahvins, Nestenes or the other aliens, are more likely to invite curiosity than confusion.

However, that’s not to say this alliance makes sense. The fact that the Daleks are involved in this benevolent alliance made me seriously wonder if Moffat actually ‘gets’ them, even on a basic level. Besides why would the Nestenes willingly work with them? Didn’t the Daleks destroy their colony worlds and bring them to the point of extinction in the Time War? Or does End of Time now mean it was actually the evil Time Lords that did that? If so, that idea can go die in a ditch. Why are the Silurians of the Roman era involved in the alliance? Not only are they Earthbound, but they’ve been hibernating. How and why did the alliance contact them?

And how and why are the Nestenes using Amy’s mind and her favourite childhood books to design the trap? Why would they even go near Amy’s house when it has a massive crack in it? And if the Daleks are here, why don’t they just kill the Doctor now?

These questions possibly don’t matter though because the story is going for something big and mythic that’s all encompassing enough to bring these disparate elements together and have them suggest an unprecedentedly wide cosmic scope. Much like The Five Doctors, forget the details, enjoy the party.

But then comes the morning after. Here is where Moffat first introduces an increasingly frustrating trend of following up a massive cliffhanger with a massive chronological leap and effectively pushing the audience out of the story so they now have to find their way back in.

Actually this was done in Dalek Empire II’s final chapter, where we skipped ahead 2000 years to two historians discussing the legendary man who caused the great catastrophe (Hmm?). This was of course after the previous cliffhanger where Kalendorf not only revealed himself to be a traitor, but he actually made sure no-one was left alive to stop him. And we don’t get to follow up what happened next until some fifteen minutes into the finale.

But there it was necessary, and it worked. If we’d simply followed Kalendorf’s treachery from then on, we’d have no way of trusting there was any possibility of a resolution, or that Kalendorf was doing anything for any greater or sane purpose or point. By framing it like this, we’re reassured that something ultimately happened which vanquished the galaxy of the Daleks, even after Kalendorf handed the galaxy to them. It’s the question of how these massive odds were overcome which makes it compelling. It also frames the theme of historical knowledge being important.

Here it’s more done as a narrative collapse. Showing what the season opener would be like in this parallel universe where the Doctor lost. It’s a bookend, but one that somewhat suffers for having too many ingredients and plotlines that confuse and upset its return to innocence. It also becomes a bit harder to immerse yourself in the momentum without having nagging questions. After all if Earth survives some thousand years later, where’s the ticking clock? This ‘apocalypse in stasis’ seems based on Moffat’s idea that when catastrophe happens, the universe itself will preserve a small bubble of itself, and will consciously hold out as long as it can to give the Doctor time to save it. I like that idea.

But the story still feels like it’s stretching time just to kill it again. As if the momentum of Pandorica Opens was discarded and replaced with a less sturdy framework, as though Moffat thought the former wasn’t good enough. Sometimes Moffat needs to trust in what he’s got.

The museum runaround with the Dalek is tremendous fun, but it’s transparently padding. Then we reach the ending, where the Doctor sacrifices himself to reboot the universe, at the price of his erasure from it.

The problem is this isn’t so much a season finale as a story to completely finish the show on. It gets to that point, where the Doctor is reduced to a fading ghost, letting young Amelia know he’ll be gone in the morning but she’ll have her family back, and a happy life.

If Moffat carefully set up the Doctor’s return, it might still feel like a tacked on happy ending, jarring with the preceding ‘real’ ending. So it has to feel just as important.

But it’s left terribly neglected. It’s set up clumsily on tenuous connections. Rory’s presence here is supposed to prove how Amy’s memories can revive people from the crack, because of her lifelong exposure to it. But she didn’t. The Nestenes revived a copy of him in plastic form. In Flesh and Stone her remembering Octavia’s men didn’t bring them back. So there’s no precedent, but the conclusion insists there is. The Doctor reminding Amy in the forest shouldn’t have worked at all because that entire event was erased.

It’s also terribly rushed through, leaving too many questions unanswered. ‘Ignore the details, let’s dance’ feels like a cold rebuff, not an inviting victory.

Like in Trial of a Time Lord, we know some great long brewing crisis happened, and the Doctor somehow survived and prevailed, going from his lowest point to his most jubilant, and that deceased companions were resurrected, in a happy ending, against all odds. We’re just not entirely sure how it happened, or if any of it happened at all, or if the writer even cares how. I feel short-changed. The more I think about it, the less sense it makes.

Obviously we must accept ‘it all worked out in the end’ over the narrative dead end alternative. But the restored status quo isn’t reward enough. It all rides on whether what follows is worth this cheat.

Unfortunately trouble’s ahead.
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