Doctor Who –
The Pandorica Opens
19 June 2010
Warning – Even though everyone on the planet has seen this by now, this review contains spoilers
A crack in time, threatening all of reality, has been following the newly regenerated Doctor throughout his adventures with Amy Pond. Somehow it is tied into the destruction of the TARDIS and a gap in Amy’s memories, but what can it all mean? When the Doctor receives a strange message from River Song, he discovers that the great mystery surrounding the crack in time, Amy Pond and the mythical Pandorica may all somehow be connected in a sinister and deadly fashion. He has faced his eleventh hour, but what can anyone do to halt the big bang?
After having braved 4 series of Doctor Who under Russell T Davies, it has become clear that the writer viewed finales as a gigantic crescendo of ideas and explosions. I can understand this approach, but it got old fast and seldom worked. The success of the grand finale has always been hampered by RTD’s inability to write a solution to a problem that he had built as insurmountable and was therefore overcome with nonsense logic that involved un-writing time, pushing monsters through magic doors, harnessing the belief of the planet Earth to become a space Jesus and jumping from a space ship a’la Wile E. Coyote. Nevertheless, there is an expectation from viewers that the final two episodes of Doctor Who will be phenomenal and un-missably HUGE.
For me, new series head writer Steven Moffat is charged with delivering a blockbuster ending, but a cohesive and intelligent one that overcomes the damage done by RTD’s previous outings. The 5th series has seen an ongoing drama unfolding regarding something that Moffat adores, the fluidity and frailty of time. We have witnessed Amy’s lack of knowledge of the Daleks, the Doctor realizing that no one recalls a giant Cyber King stalking over London and Rory’s total removal from time itself after getting swallowed up by the crack in time. As such, Moffat has signposted his get out of jail card in advance by introducing absolutely absurd sci-fi ideas and countering them with the phrase ‘fairy tale’ several times.
Moffat is an award-winning TV writer who not only has to deliver a number of massive and flashy moments for the fans but also a clever tale worthy of the same nearly universal acceptance that his other outings in Doctor Who (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances; Girl in the Fireplace; Blink; and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead). It’s a tall but necessary order to be filled. Luckily, he is more than up for the challenge.
(Note- I had intended to review parts one and two of the series 5 finale in one article but this has proven unwieldy both for me as a writer and anyone who would dare to read such a long entry)
The first part of the finale is all set up. It begins with River Song playing her ‘badass’ Han Solo character in jail. She cons her way out of prison, steals a painting and acquires a time manipulator watch in short order (depicting several stop overs that connect characters and situations throughout the series). Meanwhile the Doctor, desperate to distract Amy from remembering the loss of her fiancée, decides to unravel an age old mystery by reading the first words ever spoken. The message turns out to be a scrawl left by River Song… punch line.
The Doctor and Amy travel to Ancient Rome to discover the mystery of Vincent van Gogh’s painting that clearly shows the TARDIS exploding (something the Doctor has been worrying about ever since he pulled a piece of Police Box shrapnel from the crack in time). This leads them to the Pandorica, a strange prison mythically containing the most feared villain of all time, hidden just under Stonehenge. Unfortunately, the largest swarm of space craft ever insinuated is converging on the Pandorica and it consists of every alien menace the Doctor has ever fought. The fairy tale nature of the Pandorica was first mentioned in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone when River Song puckishly referred to it as the setting for her next meeting with the Doctor. A giant Chinese puzzle box containing every lock imaginable built to hold the most dangerous being ever may over-egg the pudding here, but the name-dropping of every single alien and monster in Doctor Who’s 40+ years’ worth of stories just adds to the gravity of the situation.
I like to think of Moffat grinning at the expectation of as kitchen sink finale and deciding to work within that unreasonable set of parameters to develop his adventure. It’s the tallest of tall tales I have ever seen on Doctor Who!
At his wit’s end, the Doctor manages to buy himself some time by convincing the alien hordes that he can easily defeat them since he has the Pandorica that they obviously fear (he thinks). As the Doctor attempts to plot a strategy against impossible odds, River Song (somehow piloting the TARDIS) travels back to Amy’s home and uncovers several strange coincidences about the mysterious Amy Pond. What River finds suggests that everything the Doctor has encountered over the past year’s worth of stories can be connected to a nick-nack or bauble in Amy’s bedroom. In this episode, it is still unclear what that could mean, but it freaks River out.
There is a thrilling moment involving a nearly destroyed Cyberman that almost vindicates the silly state that the new series has reduced the once proud and deadly monsters to. A bodiless arm fires at the Doctor and Amy, a headless Cyberman tries to attack her and a head propelled by creepy tendrils tries to harness Pond for raw material before Rory dispatches it with a sword. Somehow (get used to that) Rory has not only escaped being unwritten by the crack in time but he has been reborn as a Roman Centurion. The Cyberman sequence ranks as one of the scariest moments in the new program, honestly. To offset the horror, there is some lovely comedy here as Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill play off of each other wonderfully.
Despite the reunion of Amy and Rory and the apparently crafty ploy of courage from the Doctor to drive off all of his enemies with bluster, it all goes wrong… fast.
The entire affair is revealed to be a massive convoluted trap and the Doctor is imprisoned inside the Pandorica, a prison that has been painstakingly defined as inescapable. The Roman army is revealed to be Autons, including Rory who kills Amy as all the stars die out, and the Doctor is imprisoned to, get this, save the universe from destruction. This has to be the biggest triple take fans have ever endured as the Doctor is prophesied to cause the crack in time that is u-writing the strands of reality. The only solution that his monsters can come up with is to lock him away. It’s an absolutely amazingly brilliant maneuver on Moffat’s part and results in what is likely the most nail-biting finale in the program’s long history. Even the seemingly unflappable River Song is unable to save her Doctor as she opens the doors of the TARDIS only to find that she is imprisoned in stone.
The 11th Doctor is without a doubt the most alien version of the character in some time. He also combines several character traits that I have previously identified as essential to the Doctor. A frazzled genius, he seems to pull out solutions to problems that bewilder even himself. A gadgeteer, the new Doctor is able to build almost anything from found objects to serve his purposes. While still reliant on his magic wand (the sonic screw driver), he also admits when it useless to him. A passionate character, he has been frustrated by the crack in time following him that everyone he meets seems to know more about than he does. A pacifist and a strategist, he has shown not only bravery but ingenuity in dealing with critical situations and a willingness to put himself in danger for the sake of others. He firmly believes in the sanctity of life and refuses to see anyone come to harm if he can help it. The only exception seems to be the Daleks who anger him so much that he is reduced to fits of rage.
In dealing with members of alien races, the Doctor has exuded an air of nobility and importance, reinforcing the concept that he is not only an ancient alien, but an important one as well. Not what he appears to be, he clearly has an ulterior motive in traveling with Amy Pond that he cannot share with her and it is obviously tied to her connection to the temporal anomaly on their trail. A bit of a trickster and schemer, the 11th Doctor owes much of his characterization of Doctors 2 and 7, both of whom played games with beings far more powerful than the Doctor appeared to be. This Doctor, the youngest yet, comes off as both innocent and ancient all at once, embodying the timelessness of the character. Despite all of his strengths, however, we see him nearly driven to tears as he is placed within the Pandorica, helpless.
It is a gripping scene that makes a big impact on the viewer.
I have had great reservations on watching the new series of Doctor Who. As anyone who has read my reviews of series 2-4 can state, I have been disappointed by the quality of the new program to say the least. While Doctor Who remains a program written down to its audience, the performances have been top notch. When I first read the early interviews with Matt Smith I rolled my eyes at what appeared to be pretension but in reality was genuine eccentricity. Alongside Karen Gillan, Smith has held aloft some dubious scripts throughout this year’s offerings (the Silurian two-parter being the worst of the lot). The visual design has also been stellar and filled in gaps left by the scripts.
I have been so happy with this year’s stories that I kept worrying that the rug was going to be pulled out from under me when all of the pieces of the year-long mystery were connected. Color me surprised. In 2005, Russell T Davies’ Bad Wolf ended with a close of a determined Chris Eccleston who had played a rather defeated and uncomfortable Doctor throughout the series finally rise to the role of hero, declaring his intentions to the Daleks. In 2010, Moffat reverses the situation by presenting viewers with the brutal defeat of the Doctor, the death of the companion and a shroud of silent blackness that envelopes the final frames of the episode.
In short, Moffat, Smith and Gillan have renewed my faith in the new Doctor Who as enjoyable television. After building up such a magnificent cliffhanger, they just had to finish it…
Next time: The Big Bang