Dancing at the Edge of Russell's Shadow
(The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang Reviewed)

The Pandorica Opens

It’s safe to say that the two-part season finale was seen as new Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat’s big test. We knew he could write, we knew he could create great characters, and we knew he could run a show (as seen through Coupling), but how would he live up to Russell T. Davies, the incredible showrunner that raised Doctor Who from the dead and established the annual tradition of big, splashy finales to bring seasons to great crashing conclusions?

We’ve also known that there are considerable differences in the way Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat approach their writing. Russell writes from the outside in, where the visceral is more important than the rational, and where stories don’t have to make complete sense so long as the audience can feel that they do. Moffat, on the other hand, writes from the inside out, focusing on the small details that get inside your head and building plots from there. Moffat loves experimenting with the ramifications of time travel. Stories like Blink are complex tapestries woven from a single thread. That’s all well and good for a one-off episode, but how does it fare in building a season, and in bringing that season to a close?

In studying the two-parter, The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, I have to conclude that maybe Moffat worried about that himself just a little too much. On the whole, the two part story works as a satisfying resolution to a very decent season. However, I think choices were made specifically to point out the differences between Russell’s way of doing things, and Moffat’s way of doing things. And though a lot of promise exists for the next season, opportunities were missed to make this season even more of a cohesive whole.

Alternately, this reviewer could just be overthinking things all by himself.

A full, spoilery review appears after the break.

We start with Vincent Van Gogh, a few weeks after the Doctor and Amy’s departure, much further along in the madness that will cost him his life. The theory that the missing crack in Vincent and the Doctor was actually inside his head is all but confirmed as it turns out that Vincent’s last painting is one that’s definitely not on the record books. It contains the image of an exploding TARDIS as only Vincent can render it.

What follows is a series of clips taking us through the high points of this past season, as Vincent’s painting falls in the hands of Winston Churchill, who tries to call the Doctor by phone. Instead, the message reroutes to River Song (Why? I have a theory about that, which I’ll talk about later), who breaks out of prison and goes to steal the painting, now in the personal collection of Elizabeth the Tenth.

Meanwhile, the Doctor takes Amy on an outing to the oldest cliff-face in the universe, where a legendary message has been scrawled that nobody (but the TARDIS) can decipher. Much to the Doctor’s chagrin, the graffiti is a message from River, telling him where to meet her. Thanks to Vincent’s very clear message, she has found the Pandorica. The Doctor and Amy head to Stonehenge, Roman Britain, circa AD102, and that’s when their troubles really begin.

Now, stop for a minute and think back to the opening moments of this season. Remember how it seemed to have been crafted by Russell T. Davies instead of Moffat? We had the trademark opening in space, with the camera drifting and then falling to Earth (used, what, four times during Davies’ tenure as producer?). We see the newly-regenerated Doctor clinging to the edge of his madly careening TARDIS, trying to get control of things before he crashes into Big Ben.

Many have said that the real opening of The Eleventh Hour should have been the scene which followed from the opening credits: a slow pan across Amelia Pond’s yard, with a wind blowing a whirligig, and a frightened little girl praying to Santa about an evil crack in her wall. The scene seems tailor made to open the season, culminating with the TARDIS’s crash-landing, and a very manic Matt Smith popping up to say, “Hello! I’m the Doctor!” BOOM! That’s when the credits should have opened.

The arrangement as it stands almost feels as though Moffat is trying to make a point beyond simple storytelling, here. Instead, he’s saying with the over-the-top sequence with the TARDIS and Big Ben, “this is the way the old crew used to do things. Wave goodbye now, because after this, we’re going to do things differently.”

In spite of Moffat’s credentials as a writer and a showrunner, he still stands very much in Davies’ shadow. After all, Davies is the one who brought Doctor Who from the dead, who tweaked the formula into a ratings winner, whose season finales took the program to number one in the British ratings.

And every year, Davies has struggled to top himself. Each and every season has ended with a two (or three) part finale that has brought the season to a crashing crescendo. In season one, we had the Daleks and the Doctor’s regeneration. In season two, we had the Daleks and the frakking Cybermen together. In the third season, we had the Master. In the fourth season, we had an overblown Dalek invasion of Earth. And to write out not only David Tennant but Davies himself, what did Davies do? He brought back the Master again, brought in the Time Lords and Gallifrey itself, and tossed in a line about Rassilon for good measure.

It’s even been said that Davies considered adding the Daleks to the mix, only to be dissuaded after Moffat basically begged him not to.

Much as I’d like to, you can’t really argue with success. Davies’ finales have achieved some of the highest ratings in Doctor Who’s history. After five years in a row, fans and members of the general audience alike have come to expect the season to end in a big way. And so all eyes were on Moffat to see what he would do.

And what did he do? He repeated what he did with the opener of The Eleventh Hour, except in a two episode format.

The Pandorica Opens reads like a recreation of a Davies’ era finale, except taken to totally ridiculous levels. It’s a credit to Moffat’s talent as a writer that the whole thing comes off at all realistically. The Pandorica itself has been credibly played up as a big threat throughout the season. That various races could be interested in this terrible threat, especially with the cracks that we’ve been seeing spreading across the Universe, makes sense on a visceral level. So, we aren’t too shocked when thesecret panel opens on Stonehenge, revealing the disembodied head of a Cyberman.

Okay, it is a shock. But it’s a shock of “oh, my God, it’s a Cyberman! What’s going on?” and not “what the hell, is that a Cyberman? What’s Steven Moffat thinking?!”

And then the monster races start appearing. Dalek fleets, Sontarans, Atraxi, Judoon. The list goes on and on. And the Doctor stands on a rock and bluffs them into giving him a couple of hours peace.

This is Davies writ large, although Moffat is a little subversive about it. And to his credit, he leaves clues to this effect. When describing the Pandorica, the Doctor says the following: “There was a goblin. Or a trickster, or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos. Nothing could stop it, or hold it, or reason with it - one day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.”

And for a second, I thought to myself: “that’s the Doctor.”

Isn’t that the Doctor? Certainly it describes the Doctor as his various enemies would see him. And so the box built to trap the trickster, is actually there to trap the Doctor himself. Moffat’s being perfectly honest here; so much so, he has to cleverly divert us with River’s line about hating how there was a good wizard in so many of these stories, since they so often turned out to be the Doctor himself.

Davies or not, I’m still eating this up with a spoon. Moffat’s dialogue sparkles, and Matt Smith shines. The directing by Toby Haynes is flawless. The Doctor standing up to his assembled enemies and bluffing them into submission is, for those few minutes at least, a crowning moment of awesome.¬†

And I also appreciate that, in between all of the big continuity moments, and the fight with the reassembling Cyberman, there are quieter moments which allow Moffat’s skills in characterization and dialogue to come to the fore. Arthur Darvill makes a welcome return as Rory (be honest, we all knew he’d be back), albeit as a Roman soldier. The scene where the Doctor and Rory meet for the first time in The Pandorica Opens is a delight, as the Doctor’s distraction gives way to awed confusion.

But things quickly move towards the big crash or crescendo. In a second bit of Moffat’s subversion of the Davies’ style, the bluff that the Doctor thought had worked, didn’t. It turns out to be all part of the monster’s ruse.¬†River, travelling to Amy’s house (on June 26, 2010) realizes that there are too many coincidences. Things have been planted in Amy’s mind — or possibly taken out of it. There’s Amy’s fascination with Roman Britain (not alluded to before, unfortunately), her love of the legend of Pandora’s Box, and a photograph of Rory dressed as a Roman Centurian. It all has to be a trap.

And that’s when the great coalition reveals itself. The Pandorica isn’t housing a great threat to the universe… yet. The aliens beam down: Daleks, Judoon, Silurians, et cetera. Rory and the Roman soldiers are revealed as Nestene duplicates. It seems that the cracks in the Universe are scaring a whole lot of people, and they’ve decided that the Doctor is to blame. So, the Pandorica was built to lock the Doctor away for all eternity thus, they hope, saving the Universe.

Now, hold on a minute.

Daleks I can understand. And the Nestenes have certainly been able to build duplicates of people. And maybe I can buy Sontarans joining this vast alliance, but Cybermen? These are, I’ll note, Cybus Cybermen — a rag-tag remnant from a parallel universe that were last seen working with flawed technology and stomping Tokyo in Victorian London. Why are they here? Many of these races don’t have the time travel technology that would put them there (I mean, the Silurians? What the heck?). Many others don’t have the originality of thought to come up with a plot so convoluted as to trap the Doctor in this fashion (find the Doctor’s companion, scan her mind, find out what she likes, build a trap based on that, and then sit around for the Doctor to arrive; you think that idea came from a Judoon or an Atraxi?). As someone else said about numerous other situations: wouldn’t it be so much simpler if they just shot the Doctor in the face?

At the same time, it is yet another Moffat subversion of the premise that this grand alliance isn’t the big threat of the story. They aren’t the ones which have caused the cracks in the Universe — they all believe that the Doctor is responsible. If this was indeed a case of the peoples’ of the universe standing up to defend themselves, would it not have been better to have added a human group to the committee, perhaps a UNIT soldier or two (the Silurians may have been an attempt to provide such an effect)? That would at least have had the effect of making this something that felt like a frightened universe had joined together to try and save themselves, rather than a bunch of disgruntled monsters setting out to do what they’ve always wanted to do.

You could even have the humans and some of the other races starting to question things as the Doctor proclaims his innocence. I could see the UNIT soldiers and the Sontarans starting to argue with the others, saying “if he says he didn’t do it, and he’s right, we may be locking away the only person who can stop these cracks from destroying us!” Though it might have been complicated pulling this off.

But this is the point that Moffat is trying to make, I think. This is the big crescendo that we’ve come to expect from seasons past. And so, in Davies tradition, the Doctor’s enemies triumph, the universe ends, and it all looks terribly bleak. Except…

It’s at this point where Moffat kicks the Davies’ formula to the curb. At the beginning of The Big Bang, Moffat pulls out his time travelling plot device. Strange things are happening to the revised life of Amelia Pond. Though in her universe, the stars no longer shine in the sky, and the Doctor doesn’t crash his TARDIS in her back garden, she receives messages telling her to go to the British Museum and stick around until after dark. After passing displays of petrified Daleks, she finds the Pandorica in pride of place at the museum and, sneaking away from her aunt, waits until after the museum closes before approaching the big stone box and touching it. The box unlocks, and for the first time in almost two millennia, the Pandorica opens to reveal… Amy?!

Amy sends a message from Fred at this point (or, rather, Steve), when she says, “okay, kid, this is where it gets complicated.”

In contrast to the complicated, over-the-top and ultimately flawed Pandorica Opens, The Big Bang is simply brilliant. Using Moffat’s much loved plot device of actually using time travel to resolve plots in a series about time travel, Moffat ends the season not with massive armies battling one another, or planets bursting into existence, but with five principles (The Doctor, Amy/Amelia, River, Rory and a lone Dalek).

How cool is that?

As the Doctor struggles to figure out how to use this incredible gift that has been given to him and save the rapidly vanishing universe in the proverbial nick of time, Moffat is telling the story in much the same way as the Doctor deals with big threats: he makes things up as it goes along, and somehow it all manages to work. The pace has picked up here, and relies on flashes of dialogue and directoral set pieces to convey some of what is happening, but you do get a sense of time running out, and the Doctor having to work fast. As Moffat weaves his time travel plot through the storyline, viewers struggle to keep up, but I think manage to keep hold of enough of the thread to understand what is going on, viscerally, at least. The first glance at the package after the fact shows no glaring plot holes that I could see.

It all comes down to the heart of what Doctor Who is about. To save the universe, the Doctor must give all of himself over, again. For a frightened young girl who represents every last one of us. The Doctor’s moment of sacrifice, even if it has been prepared for, tugs at the heart strings, and the catchphrase of “Geronimo!”, which was once thought to be incredibly annoying, is immediately forgiven in a burst of tearful laughter.

And then comes the Doctor’s last desperate act to save himself.

I won’t spoil the rest of the episode for you, as I think you need to see The Big Bang multiple times, just to enjoy the verve, smartness and passion of it all. The final scenes are a cathartic release of a wedding reception after a fraught wedding. We’ve seen how the Doctor dances at the end of the Universe, now watch him dance for fun. And, most importantly, the finale ends with a promise: any plot threads that have been left dangling will be taken up again in season six. That promise is explicit for the story of River Song, and strongly implied for the silence that falls.

And this is one more thing that Moffat brings to the table that separates his work from that of Davies: Davies brought his seasons to a crescendo, and wrapped up everything he possibly could. Most of the story elements he introduced in a season spanning plot stayed with that season. Only small hints were given of the things that were to come (such as the sly little Mr. Saxon reference in Love and Monsters).

Moffat shows that you don’t need to resolve everything at the end of a particular season. The most important thing that this two parter needed to resolve was how the Doctor would get the universe back again. The question of who destroyed the universe in the first place could be set aside for another day. It’s a remarkable innovation for Doctor Who. Indeed, one wonders if Moffat is going a step further than Davies, here: rather than having season-spanning plots, have a single plot that spans his whole era.

He’s nothing if not ambitious.

So The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang end the season in much the way it began: promising brilliance but delivering competence. The Pandorica Opens could have been better if more time had been available to hone the story, but The Big Bang blows all away in a story as complex as the best roller coaster ride. One hopes that if this season was a case of Moffat establishing his grand plan of stepping out of Davies shadow, he now feels that he has accomplished this, and can now move on. One hopes that the next season offers more episodes along the lines of The Big Bang and less along the lines of The Pandorica Opens.

Though I’d still be satisfied with either.

Another Thought: Who Set What Trap, Now?

As good as Moffat is in setting up complicated traps for the Doctor, he may have gotten things a bit too complicated in The Pandorica Opens.

Consider how the Pandorica was made and how the trap was set. Rather than be directly connected to the cracks in the fabric of the Universe, the box is actually the product of a grand alliance of some of the Doctor’s greatest enemies acting to defend the universe from what they see as its greatest threat. Fine. That’s great! That’s a wonderful swerve. Let’s leave aside the fact that it stretches credibility for fans who know the canon that all of these races have that level of time travel. The Nestenes do have the ability to scan brains and create reasonable copies of people (see Rory), so it makes sense that they scanned Amy’s brain, learned of her love of Roman Britain and the myth of Pandora’s Box, and tailored their trap accordingly. So, they figure that with Amy as the Doctor’s companion, it’s only a matter of time before the Doctor shows up in Stonehenge.

But it’s not Amy who brings the Doctor to Stonehenge, it’s River, using the message sent to the Doctor in the form of Vincent Van Gogh’s unknown last painting. The implication here is that the impetus that sends the Doctor to Roman Britain comes not from Amy, but from the crack that exists in Vincent Van Gogh’s head.

Which means that the trap was ultimately set not by the Daleks and the Nestenes, acting in defence of the Universe, but by the presence behind the cracks, acting to destroy it.

Could that be a gaffe? Or could it be something more that gets revealed in the following season? Were the members of the grand alliance unwitting dupes of the cracks in the Universe bringing the events of The Pandorica Opens about or, possibly, did some force act in opposition to the cracks, through the cracks, ensuring that the Doctor had the Pandorica available to him as he saved the Universe from destruction?

Or am I overthinking things, yet again?

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