And, just to prove that Doctor Who is one of those subjects I’ll never run out of things to talk about, here’s even more, looking at last Saturday’s episode and the fact that I really, really liked it. A couple of theories, and a whole ton of spoilers to fear…
That was, to be honest, my reaction on hitting the end credits of The Pandorica Opens. My hopes were up, and I was very intrigued to see exactly what Moffatt served up for his first big-scale season finale, and I’m happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. It hasn’t quite managed to eclipse the pacey, barmy and sheer insanity of S4’s The Stolen Earth, but it’s pretty damn close, throwing in some genuine full-scale surprises, a sense of epic myth that New Who has rarely managed, and a cliffhanger that certainly has to rank as one of the most ludicrously extreme I’ve ever seen.
What’s nice is that while there’s plenty here that’s rather RTD-esque – Moffatt isn’t completely reinventing the wheel in terms of big-scale threats – it’s done in a very Moffatt style. The plot backstory is arguably a little too twisty and loopy for its own good, and there are a selection of plot holes that flap about (and may or may not get dealt with in the finale), but there’s a sense of newness here. First up is, of course, the opening teaser, an absolute belter that essentially reprises the time-hopping of The Time of Angels’ opening but in a slightly left-field way, and which also does the unprecedented move of linking directly back to previous episodes. There’s some very nice advance thought going in here, pulling off storytelling tricks that Who’s never done before, and which really open out the story and make it feel genuinely epic. We also get another in River Song’s entertaining hallucinogenic escapes, and a wonderfully pulp SF Star Wars-style cantina/Barter Town scene – it’s all delivered at a ferocious pace, and gets the episode off to a truly stunning start.
Indeed, it’s possible that the start of the episode is a little too fast – as one of the only major flaws is that the pacing is a bit off. Once we reach Stonehenge and discover the Pandorica, the plot essentially has to run in place for a little while – hence the attack of the dismembered Cyberman, which is a fantastic sequence yet in plot terms doesn’t really do much other than fill space and provide a bit of juicy threat (and while I love the line “Never underestimate a Celt”, it’s close to being an RTD-style “Oh, I can’t be bothered to explain this in depth so here’s a quick glib response” line). However, it does at least mean that the production team can get the maximum atmosphere out of the truly fantastic Pandorica set (with its Spielberg-style flaming torches and cobwebs), and Murray Gold gets to reference John Williams’ Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack like it’s going out of style. His influences may be obvious, but at least he does it well – after an off-form week with The Lodger, Gold is back on Eleventh Hour-style form here, especially in the beautiful and elegiac track that covers the closing sequence of the episode, and even manages to add some John Carpenter-style synths at certain appropriate moments.
Of course, a lot of this we’re not going to be able to completely assess until we get to the 26th of June 2010 – the date of the explosion – but one of the nicest things about the Season finale is that there are surprises, and the surprises are dramatic, effective ones which enhance the whole episode. RTD finales have had their fair share of surprises in the past – but aside from occasional moments like Captain Jack’s extermination in Parting of the Ways, the appearance of the Daleks in Army of Ghosts (dramatic even if it had been spoiled for you), they have tended to be the kind of surprise presents that you instinctively want to give back. I certainly wasn’t expecting the Master to unleash CGI globes of death and then dance around to ‘Voodoo Child’ by dance act Rogue Traders in S3’s The Sound of Drums, but it wasn’t a pleasant surprise – here, we’ve gotten the exact opposite, a selection of well-paced surprises that are built into the storytelling, and effectively build the episode up towards its climax.
Top of the list is, of course, Rory’s reappearance, and it’s the kind of storytelling that Moffat is really, really good at. Because of course, we’ve known since his death in Cold Blood that Rory was bound to turn up at some point, and The Pandorica Opens completely blind-sides us by having him just arrive out of the blue, as a Roman soldier no less. The Doctor’s absurdly delayed reaction to Rory’s arrival was one of the episode highlights (giving Matt Smith yet another chance to prove himself the master of oddball), and Arthur Darvill does a splendid job with Rory, making the character hugely relatable, and thus making the eventual twist even more of an emotional gut-punch. We get the scene that I was expecting, with Rory meeting an Amy who doesn’t know him anymore, leading into the episode climax where they’re properly reunited only for it to all go horribly, horribly wrong. It’s beautifully played, touching and epic and utterly bonkers at the same time – and it’s just a pity that Rory is also the source of the one plot hole which is unlikely to get completely sorted. In short – how can there still be a picture of Rory existing in Amy’s bedroom if he’s been wiped from history? How complete is the wipe? When was the scan of Amy’s mind made? Or is it possible, going from the Doctor’s comments (and his admission, finally, that he was lying back in The Eleventh Hour when he said there was no reason for inviting Amy along) that Amy might not be completely real? (And, as a side-note, maybe the ‘No ducks in a duck-pond’ line (which got referred to in Flesh and Stone) means that not only might Amy be a construct, but maybe the entirety of Leadworth is as well?) It’s the trouble with ‘History Alteration’ plots – they’re really, really easy to tie in impossible knots, and I’m preparing myself for the fact that the eventual resolution may not make a lick of sense.
The other two surprises were also examples of the show finally getting two classic Who villains completely right. Back in 2005, one of the reasons I got to the end of ‘Rose’ and was not completely happy that Doctor Who was back is, frankly, that they messed up the Autons – a genuinely scary adversary, responsible for some great sequences back in 1970 classic Spearhead from Space, and instead we got some fairly weak window-dummy action, a wibbly bowl of glowing CGI, and a burping wheelie-bin. And, to top it off, we had Noel Clarke grinning embarrassingly as the most obvious plastic duplicate in history, a scene topped off with having his head pulled off and transforming his hands into hammers. It wasn’t the first example of RTD not really getting a classic villain (or, at the least, going for entertainment rather than scares), but I was pretty damn disappointed (and it took ‘Dalek’ five weeks later to make me think this new version of Doctor Who had a chance of capturing the style of the original). I wasn’t expecting them to turn up again – and I certainly wasn’t expecting them to turn up like this. Despite the fact that Nestenes are mentioned by River Song early in the episode, it was still an absolute thrill to see the ersatz Romans marching forward, and stretching their hands out in the classic Auton hand-gun style (at which point, alone with the TV, I yelled “Oh my god, it’s the Autons!”, I’m unashamed to admit). And while the mechanical sound effects are a little odd (they are plastic, not robots), it’s a good shorthand to say “Artificial”, and it’s nice that the Autons are suddenly back and nasty – no more so than when Rory desperately tries to fight back against his Auton nature and loses.
On top of this, we also get the Cybermen – a slightly tweaked version of the Cybermen, which sees them stepping back, thankfully, to their ‘Spare Parts’-style origin. Up until now, the New Who Cybermen were essentially robots driven by human brains – their new origin in Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel in S2 threw away the ‘cybernetics’ angle (which was, admittedly, a product of its time – cybernetic organs or limbs were new and unusual back in 1966 when the Cybermen were first created) and tried to pitch them more as a mobile-phone style upgrade. But this new wrinkle never seemed to work dramatically – the Cybermen have generally been treated as a stompy army of stompy robots who are pretty easy to defeat, and it’s an example of thinking “Hey, what would the kids like to copy in the playground?” (Answer- lots of shouts of “Delete!”) rather than “Hey, what would be really scary?” And it’s nice to know that Moffat’s approach to the Cybermen is very different – we may be still stuck with the slightly blocky new design, but the direction in this episode makes them look far more intimidating than before, and the attack of the dismembered Cyber-parts is simply fantastic. Admittedly, it also points out a major hole (as in why the Doctor doesn’t react more strongly to the Cyber-arm he finds until after it starts shooting), but the whole sequence is brilliant fun, as well as featuring a wonderfully nasty shock (the head opening to dislodge the rotting dismembered head inside is just fantastic (and another Raiders-esque moment)). For the first time in ages, the Cybermen feel genuinely threatening – from the tentacled head (referencing The Thing, and Braniac from the original Superman comics) to the tranquiliser dart, there’s the sense that these really are creatures that will incapacitate you, chop you into bits and use you to rebuild themselves. The Cybermen actually feel like Cybermen again, and it’s lovely to have them back.
And, of course, out of all the surprises, there’s the real function of the Pandorica, which I also didn’t see coming. Having rewatched the episode, all I can say is that while Moffatt can have his weaknesses, he’s also brilliant at laying trails and throwing the viewer off course – when you listen to the fairy tale explanation of the Pandorica’s prisoner having watched the episode, it’s blindingly obvious that it’s the Doctor (just from the point of view of his enemies), and we even get the line “I hate good wizards in fairy tales. They always turn out to be him” from River Song, once again pointing us in the right direction without ever making us realize that we’re being pointed in the right direction. The setup for the Alliance is maybe a little hazy and ill-explained – especially when it comes to exactly what part Amy was playing, and why basing it off something in her head was a good idea (I have to admit, I thought for a moment when River Song found the Romans book in Amy’s bedroom that we were heading for a Labyrinth/Time Bandits moment, with the entirety of Season 5 being referenced in some way in her bedroom. I’d have taken my hat off to Moffatt if he’d pulled that one off…) but as a general concept, it’s magnificent. It makes sense, it’s the kind of thing where you have to wonder why they haven’t tried before – and I love the fact that they’re actually doing it for the right reasons, to save the universe from the Doctor (even if, thanks to dodgy info and the presence of River Song, the explosion is going to happen anyway). It puts the Doctor in an absurdly difficult position, once again making the Eleventh Doctor truly failiable in a way that the Tenth never really was, and rounds the episode off in a jaw-dropping way.
There are other weaknesses – the big speech to the spacecraft is spectacular, but doesn’t quite work, feeling like a mash-up of the end of The Time of Angels and the finale of The Eleventh Hour without being as impressive as either. Karen Gillan is also once again a little mixed – she’s a bit too flippant at times, and yet she nails the ending sequence with Rory brilliantly – but Matt Smith continues to be brilliant, and Alex Kingston is once again hugely entertaining as River Song (although it’s interesting to note that while this is taking place before The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, River Song is already in prison – so is Moffatt leaving the explanation of the mystery surrounding the man she killed for another season, or is something deeply weird and complicated going on? (It’s certainly true that there’s no hint whatsoever in The Pandorica Opens that we can’t trust River Song, so maybe it’s just softening us up for some devastating twists in the finale?) And the cliffhanger is OTT Doctor Who at its best – delivering three absolute belters of dramatic climaxes, and then rounding it all off by actually exploding the entire universe before the end credits roll. There have been surprising cliffhangers before (most notably, the infamous regeneration fake-out at the end of The Stolen Earth) but this is the first time that Who has managed to equal Lost in terms of leaving me absolutely clueless as to what’s going to happen next. I genuinely have no clue as to how they’re going to solve that cliffhanger – unless things get really strange, I have an instinctive feeling that a reset button of some kind is simply going to have to happen, and it’s up to Moffatt to do it in a way that dramatically works and uses the minimum of hand-waving (and at least, I guess, it’s not being left to final ten minutes, in the manner that RTD often did). There’s always the risk that having raised the threat so absurdly high, the story doesn’t have anywhere left to go – but it is tremendously thrilling having gotten to a point where I don’t know what’s going to happen in Saturday’s episode, and I don’t want to know.
I do have a theory, though. It’s a vague theory, and not a tremendously well thought-out one, but I have it. And if you don’t want to risk being accidentally spoiled or reading any potential hints (which may or may not be completely inaccurate), then look away now.
Still here? Excellent.
We may know why the Pandorica was constructed, but we still don’t know who’s manipulating events, who remote-piloted the TARDIS to Amy’s house, and who was saying “Silence will fall” at the end of the episode.
I think it’s the Dream Lord. For a start, the “Silence will fall” voice sounded distinctly like it could be Toby Jones. We know that he’s a subconscious part of the Doctor’s mind, and the end of Amy’s Choice made it pretty clear that he hadn’t gone away. Also, the TARDIS has plenty of telepathic abilities (some of which set off events in Amy’s Choice in the first place) – what if the Dream Lord managed to get out of the Doctor’s head and into the TARDIS? (After all, River Song does say at one point about the Van Gogh painting, “It might not be literal” – what if it isn’t? After all, he’s an impressionist – what if instead of depicting the TARDIS exploding, he’s actually depicting something escaping from the TARDIS?) And if he’s done that, wouldn’t the Pandorica be an absolutely superb plan – a way of getting the Doctor’s enemies to lock him up, thus leaving the Dream Lord completely unfettered to do what he likes? I don’t think it’s impossible – and considering the way they’ve brought back other characters in unexpected ways (and the manner in which the Dream Lord’s final scene in Amy’s Choice was a very “I will withdraw, but you’ll be seeing me again…” scene), it’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t tremendously surprise me.
But whatever happens, we’ll find out on Saturday. It may be a disappointment, it may be even better than part one, but there’s very few shows that are still capable of pulling me in as strongly as Doctor Who can when it’s firing on all cylinders. And once again, I’m grateful to Steven Moffat for simply rekindling my love of Who, for proving that it can evolve and be different. There’s definitely still room for improvement in the Moffat era, but right now I’m a happy man – and Saturday simply can’t arrive quickly enough…