So here we are – end of the season, and I’ve found myself with rather mixed feelings about S5’s big finale. There are certain aspects I loved, and yet there are others which I can’t quite ignore. More rambling follows – and, as usual, fear the spoilers…
This may be something of a turnaround from the gushing excitement of my thoughts on ‘The Pandorica Opens’. I’ve had enough time to process the finale, and the season in general – and I’ve come to a conclusion. There’s a lesson to the first Steven Moffat-overseen season of Who, and I have the worrying feeling that it’s “Be careful what you wish for.” This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy Moffat’s first season, or that there wasn’t a large proportion of season finale The Big Bang that I didn’t love – but I’m feeling rather in the same way that I did about J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie, where the initial geeky rush of “Wowww!” settles down, and I find myself unable to ignore some of the rather gigantic problems making themselves felt. That eternal question of “What makes a good Doctor Who episode” is at work again, and under Moffat the answer does seem to be a hell of a lot more complicated than usual.
It’s probably just as well that I stuck to my usual schedule with this review – waiting a couple of days and watching the episode again before throwing down my random burbling thoughts – as if I’d written a review directly afterwards, my reaction would have been somewhere along the lines of “OMFG! Wow! Did you see… and that bit… and the… WOW!!”, because if there’s one thing that The Big Bang does well, it’s deliver a definitively different type of season finale, a supercharged dose of conceptual stuff and a whole selection of memorable scenes.
Except for the fact that it isn’t quite as different as it appears. The Big Bang is tremendous fun, moving along at a fast pace and throwing a gigantic number of massive concepts at the audience – but in many ways what it does is exactly the same as RTD’s finales. Moffat is simply exchanging visual spectacle for conceptual spectacle, and there’s an awful lot in this episode which is just as high in the “Um… wait a minute… WHAT?” stakes as anything in previous RTD episodes. It’s often delivered in a different way, and it’s only once you actually start thinking about the episode afterwards that some of the problems start flaring up – and also end up highlighting one of the biggest problems with Moffat’s run so far. But we’ll get to that in a moment…
First, there are the things that I liked. Most of all, there’s the opening teaser of the episode, which genuinely managed to get me shouting “WHAT?!?” as the opening credits rolled. I really wouldn’t have been surprised if some kind of reset button had been used – but the fact that we end up with an alternate timeline where Earth is the only planet in the entire universe and nobody believes in stars is a fantastic, wonderful bit of worldbuilding. We’re immediately thrown into a completely different direction, and it does show Moffat’s storytelling brain doing what it does best, thinking out solutions and coming up with really interesting connections. Even Amy’s first line when the Pandorica opens just about works, even though it’s totally a writerly nod to the audience, while the solution to the Doctor’s imprisonment in the Pandorica is daft, silly and great fun. Essentially, Moffatt has gotten away with reworking his Comic Relief DW sketch The Curse of the Fatal Death into a genuine Who episode (even though Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure got there first), and it’s inventively done, milking the ridiculousness of ontological time paradoxes in a way that Blink didn’t.
There’s such a conceptual rush from this episode – Fossilised Daleks! Amy in the Pandorica! No Stars! Time Travel looping back on itself! The Sun is an exploding TARDIS! – that it’s very easy to get swept along by it. It’s energetic and witty, and Matt Smith’s Doctor is at his weirdest and most enjoyable, especially when he gets his hands on a Fez (a fact that, according to Doctor Who Confidential, the producers were terrified by simply because they thought once Smith got one, he’d never want to take it off…). Moffat uses time travel in an ambitious way, and there really is the sense – from here, and from the whole season – that he’s giving us an idea of how it feels to live the Doctor’s life, how bewildering and wonderful it would be to travel through time. There are some great moments from Karen Gillan (even if the overall arc of Amy… well, I’ll get to that in a minute…), Arthur Darvill does a wonderful job as Rory, the direction is excellent, the music from Murray Gold is once again largely impressive (it’s quite definitely been his best season yet), and the happy ending is the kind of feel good climax that always puts a smile on my face (and, as a Who finale, it’s remarkably unusual – this is the first unequivocably upbeat and happy ending we’ve gotten in Who since it came back, without a hint of the Emo that RTD was always fond of adding). A lot of the barmier plotting is, at the least, set up in a slightly less rabbit-out-of-the-hat way than RTD’s usual approach, and it’s also pleasing and adventurous to find that there’s a multi-season arc unfolding – I was quite prepared to find my theory (that the Dream Lord was a significant player) was incorrect, but I didn’t expect that not to be addressed at all. Aside from a lone Dalek on the loose, the threat here was situational rather than personified, and again it’s a brilliant contrast and change from previous climaxes (especially when S4 threatened to destroy reality, but S5’s climax actually went and blew it up…).
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that Moffat mistakes complicated for satisfying. There’s such a blizzard of conceptual stuff that it’s easy simply to get overwhelmed by it – and while the previous episode required a certain amount of hand-waving to make it work (the presence of a photo of the supposedly wiped-from-history Rory, for example), the level of belief suspension that’s required here starts to skyrocket. It’s still all charming and fun, and the deliberately mythic and fantasy-based style to both episodes does make it a lot easier to swallow some pretty damn nutty stuff – but even then, there are points where Moffat pushes it a bit too far, and has things happen just for the sake of happening. Rory’s decision to stay and guard the Pandorica is clearly crazy – if they’d justified it more, I could have understood it, but a guard to protect what’s been painted as an impregnable prison is a bit on the insane side. It’s the kind of decision we need justified better – maybe the Pandorica is potentially vulnerable now that its active, maybe its systems have been affected by the universe blowing up… but instead, it feels like it happens simply for Rory to do something mythic and heroic. And perversely, the sequence where Amy hears about the Centurion’s story from the Museum exhibit actually works, and carries a considerable emotional kick (and would have been even more powerful if that version of Rory had stayed dead – it’s worth remembering that the unsubtle resurrection of Jenny at the end of The Doctor’s Daughter was Moffat’s idea). But it’s an OTT, extreme idea, just a few steps away from the Total Bollocks Overdrive of Torchwood’s S2 climax where Captain Jack got buried alive for 2000 years, simply because writer Chris Chibnall seemed to think it was a splendid idea.
And then there’s the fact that the explosion didn’t take out the Earth – because the Earth’s in “the eye of the explosion” – but that the exploding TARDIS is now roughly where the Sun used to be. Or that the Doctor can use the Vortex Manipulator to fly the Pandorica into the Sun, but he can’t use it to shift the Pandorica through time and has to leave it for 2,000 years. Or the fact that history immediately starts collapsing again as soon as they turn up in 1996. Or that the Doctor’s dialogue in the much-discussed sequence from Flesh and Stone doesn’t actually make sense, considering the fact that he hasn’t actually told Amy anything when she’s 7 yet, and doesn’t even know if his ‘rewind’ will enable him to talk to Amy when it does. And if he’s only able to remain nearby where there are cracks closing (which was the insinuation of that whole sequence), how can he be there after Amy has been waiting for hours – and after he’s already closed the Crack that was in Amy’s room?
I could go on, but I think I’d end up giving myself a headache. Frustratingly, the chunks of the story that do add up are great, imaginative stuff (I like the whole ‘reboot the universe’ concept), but the plot around them feels so overdesigned – like the storytelling equivalent of the visual style of the Star Wars prequels, where every square pixel of screen space is packed with as much noise as is humanly possible. And this feeds into the main problem – that you end up blunting the emotional impact of the story. RTD was frequently guilty of excess, but very often much of that had to do with the execution of his ideas – the climax of S3’s Last of the Timelords is actually a pretty fine idea, it’s just the execution that turns it into the attack of the CG TinkerbellJesusDoctor. The Big Bang doesn’t go for emotional excess, and a lot of scenes are much better for it – especially the sequence where the Doctor essentially turns himself into a bedtime story – but I can’t help feeling that Moffat is sometimes falling foul of addressing the heart rather than the head. His Who is smarter, in the way that it addresses stories and how they can shape us – but it’s occasionally feeling like watching tremendously smart and oddball people have adventures, rather than actually being there and experiencing it along with them. The enthusiastic puppy-dog emotion of the RTD era could frequently tip over into excess, but I get the feeling that there are times when Moffat’s Who has emphasized conceptual cool and wonderful continuity over genuine emotion. It’s much closer to the Who I remember – and yet I’m finding myself missing certain aspects of the RTD experience more than I expected. The high points of this season have been much higher than most of New Who in total, and yet I’m actually feeling bizarrely as if S4 was the more consistent season overall. Which is bizarre…
Lots of it comes from the sneaky realization that Moffat hasn’t quite got a firm grip on the characters when it comes to their overall growth – and that Amy Pond isn’t the emotional heart of the show that Doctor Who needs right now. I still think that Amy’s treatment in the first five episodes (well – Victory of the Daleks is stretching it rather, but at least it doesn’t massively derail the character) is very good – right up until the end scene of Flesh and Stone. That’s the sequence where it feels like Amy’s character takes an abrupt left turn, and never quite recovers – it really does seem like the Amy we get before that scene is very different from the one we get afterwards. Just for a moment, imagine that we have an ending to Flesh and Stone which isn’t Amy attempting to jump the Doctor’s bones – she takes him back to the house, confesses that she was running away from her wedding, the Doctor realizes she’s in danger of messing up her relationship with Rory, and decides to do something about it. Would it be as funny and entertaining? Possibly not, but there’s a difference between being in love with the Doctor and wanting to have sex with the Doctor (especially as it’s made perfectly clear that’s all Amy wants). RTD’s version of Who was desperate for us to love the Doctor, sometimes too desperate, and it’s good that Moffat’s view of the character is different – kookier, wilder, more unpredictable and emotionally distant – but Amy is the eyes of the audience. And we’re not actually meant to want to have sex with the Doctor (particularly this version of the Doctor – you could buy Tennant’s Doctor as a kooky romantic lead from time to time, and it’d be interesting to see if you could get away with doing that with Smith, but right now the Eleventh is like a cross between an eccentric Wizard and an unpredictable yet adorable big brother). I can understand wanting to set up a triangle between Amy, the Doctor and Rory (and the triangle does actually work in Amy’s Choice, and I’m glad it was resolved pretty quickly), but the end of Flesh and Stone sees Amy step out of being the audience’s perspective and into being a kooky character who we’re following along with.
She’s a lot harder to empathise with from then onwards – Amy becomes bolshier, spikier and more flippant, and there’s less trace of the vulnerability that made her such an interesting companion in The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below. We don’t get as much of the sense of wonder, that we’re viewing the universe through her eyes – and with a weirder, more eccentric Doctor, a Doctor who has been specifically written to not be ‘one of us’ anymore, we need a companion who’s going to be the heart of the show. It’s the reason why, despite the fact that I still maintain he was miscast, the pairing of Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper works really, really well. It’s also the reason why one of the best pairings in the history of the show was Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith – this partly comes from the fact that Baker and Sladen got on really well and had an excellent rapport which shows through in their stories (especially in adventures like The Brain of Morbius and The Masque of Mandragora), but mostly from the fact that the mad, baffling eccentric Fourth Doctor works best when he’s got someone calm, level-headed and wonderfully ordinary to tether him to Earth. That’s what the Eleventh Doctor needs – he needs contrast, he needs someone normal, and Amy emphatically isn’t somebody normal. The end of Flesh and Stone is a funny scene, it’s a scene that playfully leaps onto one of Who’s biggest taboos and has tremendous fun with it (it’s also very much a scene from the man who wrote Coupling, arguably one of the least Doctor Who scenes Moffat’s ever written) – but it’s very hard to put the consequences of that scene, and the effect it has on Amy’s character, back in the box afterwards. It wouldn’t be quite so much if Amy regretted it (perhaps if she’d actually been drunk or intoxicated and then slightly apologetic afterwards), but she is essentially at that point going to cheat on Rory the night before their wedding (and the after-effect of this is the two rather out-of-place moments where Amy tries to kiss the Doctor in The Big Bang – again, they’re ‘kooky character’ moments that highlight Amy’s difference from us, and also feel rather inappropriate after Moffat’s built up the Amy/Rory relationship and just played the big happy ending.)
But if there’s a big problem for me, it’s the Wedding scene, where Amy essentially wishes the Doctor back into existence. I actually don’t have a problem with that – yes, it’s essentially taking the show fully into Fantasy, and yet it is set up, the rough rules are established (there really isn’t anything there that qualifies as a ‘rabbit out of the hat’ solution), and the thing which really makes it work is the fact that it’s obviously meant to mirror or echo the scene in The Eleventh Hour where, after having doubted him for the past ten minutes, Amy finally decides to believe that this eccentric nutcase before her really is her imaginary friend from childhood. The Doctor gets deleted from history and essentially does become Amy’s imaginary friend, a tiny echo in her head that stays there, until she’s able to call him back (reconnecting with the little girl she used to be, at the same moment she’s essentially become an adult) – it should be the victorious version of that scene from The Eleventh Hour, a triumph of imagination and heart.
Only it isn’t. And the reason it isn’t is because (a) it isn’t made clear in any way that Amy still has tiny vestigial memories of the Doctor that manifest as her imaginary friend (especially considering that according to her mother, she still got sent to Psychiatrists as a result of it) – as far as we’re told, the Doctor doesn’t exist in any way, so it’s rather a surprise when Amy suddenly starts blathering about an imaginary friend she isn’t supposed to have had. And (b) it isn’t Amy’s moment. It should be Amy’s moment, but it isn’t, because Moffat choose to play this as the Doctor being cunning – planting a seed in Amy’s mind (deliberately talking about the TARDIS in a way that means when she hears ‘Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue’, she’ll think of it) that’ll hopefully pull him back to reality. Which means that when Amy has the breakthrough and wishes the Doctor back, what she’s doing is what she’s been nudged into doing by the Doctor (and River Song). She’s been turned into a plot robot, doing what she’s been programmed to do simply so that the Doctor come back. And playing the Doctor as appearing at the door of the TARDIS in Top Hat and Tails to prove exactly how unshocked he is does provide us with a fun moment, but it’s fundamentally unemotional – there’s no surprise, there’s no sense that the Doctor’s just won out over incredible odds and come back from a scary, weird and utterly alien place – a place where he really didn’t exist at all. If the characters themselves don’t feel a sense of achievement, then neither do we – we end up spectators rather than participants, and the scene becomes smart rather than affecting. If there had been more of a sense of the Doctor knowing that he’d just been incredibly lucky, and that he owed his continuing existence to Amy’s belief in him, then that would have worked, and it would have given the episode just as much of an emotional kick as that wonderful extended moment in The Eleventh Hour when Amy changes her mind and decides to help. But it didn’t. And we’re left with a finale that’s great fun, but emphasises brainy interconnection over everything else, and is so keen to make anything happen that it doesn’t always make us feel it.
It’s still one of the best finales New Who has managed – it just has problems in different ways, and is somewhat more frustrating than RTD’s finales simply because I can’t help feeling that Moffat is capable of sorting these issues – that the show is hoverring dangerously close to true greatness, but isn’t quite getting there. It’s still highly entertaining, and while it hasn’t consistently lived up to the quality of The Eleventh Hour, there have only been a couple of outright duds, and the high points have been exceptionally high. It’s interesting that we’ve found ourselves at the end of the season and the two biggest questions we thought we’d be getting an answer to are still wide open (including my still-active theory that the ‘Silence will fall’ voice from last episode could have been the Dream Lord) – it’s daring to extend the arc this much, I’m just hoping that it does pay off, especially when it comes to River Song (a character who doesn’t really feel like she has much to do with her first appearance in Silence in the Library anymore – Alex Kingston’s performance is very different now, and the character is obviously heading in a much darker direction (otherwise there’s no story and no mystery)). It’s also interesting that while they could have easily (from a story point of view) ended Amy’s tale here, instead we’ve got the first married couple as companions in the TARDIS – and they certainly won’t be able to play the “Let’s kill off Rory” game again, as they’ve actually done that three times (if you count Amy thinking he was dead as a result of guarding the Pandorica) – I’m presuming Rory will be as near to a series regular as makes no odds, so it’ll certainly be challenging to see where they go with the characters from here.
I guess if there’s disappointment from S5 lurking in my system it’s more to do with the handling of Amy Pond, and the fact that it didn’t consistently blow me away each episode as regularly as I wanted it to (the curse of expectations raised by The Eleventh Hour). But what it did do is give me the first Who season since 1989 where I’ve actively wanted to watch episodes again in the same week, and it’s also given me a Doctor who’s effortlessly watchable and hugely entertaining. Matt Smith has been an absolute success in the role – and it will be very interesting to see how he evolves in his second year. But for now, S5 is done – the dust must settle, and I must back away from writing quite such an insane amount about Doctor Who. At least, until the Christmas Special which – if it does prove to be all about an Egyptian Goddess loose on a space-bound version of the Orient Express (and let’s face it, that does sound a very ‘Christmas Special’ idea) – should certainly prove to be interesting…