This article covers the episodes The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, which together form a single Doctor Who story, albeit one with very different individual episodes, but this is the Moffat way with two-parters. The first thing to notice is that some key players from other episodes this series are back: Vincent Van Gogh, Edwin Bracewell, Winston Churchill, Liz Ten, and of course River Song. As a sequel to almost every other episode this series, this rewards loyal viewers, but the flip-side is punishing disloyal ones, who would probably have been completely baffled by this, especially as it as all so complicated. The viewing figures tend to increase for the last couple of episodes of a series, as presumably there are some viewers who only bother to tune in for the big moments. I do not understand these people, but they do seem to exist. Moffat actively rejects those viewers with his continuity laden plot, but we can’t have it both ways.
These two episodes are a masterclass in paying off threads woven throughout the series, and are rich with continuity references to the past. A lot of them are incidental to the plot but are little bonuses for the long-term fans: even the Doctor’s Academy nickname gets referenced, along with some pretty obscure monsters. Apparently the Drahvins were chosen because their name sounds cool. Either mentioned or included in the crowd of aliens, we also get the more obvious Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Silurians and Nestene, the slightly less obvious Judoon, Roboforms, Sycorax, Zygons, Draconians, Terileptils, Hoix, and the Atraxi, and then there are the positively obscure Weevils and Blowfish (Torchwood), Uvodni (Sarah Jane Adventures), Haemogoth (from tie-in novel The Forgotten Army), and the Chelonians from various New Adventures books. It is positively all-encompassing of the wider Doctor Who universe.
We get our scariest Cyberman moment since the 60s, with the disembodied head throwing out its previous occupant and then trying to “assimilate” Amy. Note the use of the word “assimilate”, cheekily seeming to reference the Borg who originally appeared to be cheekily similar to Cybermen. The Autons have also developed a stage further. We have seen them make pretty realistic duplicates before (although not in Rose!) but this time the necessity of their possession of human memories in order to be able to simulate the copied person is explored, with Auton-Rory fighting against his nature and programming due to his remembered love for Amy. This kind of thing would normally always play out as Rory overcoming his Auton-ness because of the Power of Love, but Steven Moffat just subverts every possible expectation we could bring to this story, including the fact that the Pandorica is actually empty, when it is set up to contain some kind of super villain.
The idea of all the Doctor’s enemies teaming up to save the universe from the Doctor is fascinating, but ultimately shows just why he wins all the time because they are pretty stupid, basing their actions on the false logic that nobody else could pilot the TARDIS, whereas it surely makes much more sense that it would be exploding because he’s not around to stop the explosion. But they buy into the fairy tale. They believe the story, the legend. They make the Doctor into Merlin, trapped in his magic tomb. But the Doctor transcends that. He makes his own legends.
And so we move from what is surely the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers (how can you ever top the destruction of all universes?) to the Doctor making a different story, and of course being the Doctor he does that by cheating. With not much left of the universe, he abandons the rules he normally plays by (most of the time), and has a whale of a time playing with paradoxes, including sophisticated bootstrap paradoxes where the loop has no origin point, which is probably the most difficult form of paradox to get your head around because it involves retrocausality. So we get the Doctor effectively getting himself out of the Pandorica by giving Rory his sonic screwdriver after he is out (so how is that paradox initiated?); Amelia left a note to go to the museum, which the Doctor does because he reads the note in the future; and the Doctor shot by a Dalek and playing dead because his future self tells him to. That last one allows for a fabulous change of tone where we move from all the fun of the timey wimey stuff to the sight of the Doctor dying.
If this kind of fun with time travel seems familiar it is because we have actually seen it before, in the Moffat’s charity sketch The Curse of Fatal Death. How weird did that seem at the time, and such a fundamental misunderstanding of what Doctor Who does, because time travel in Doctor Who was rarely anything more than a way to get the Doctor to a new adventure. But not here. How audacious to do this with a Doctor Who season finale, and what a stroke of genius to make it actually work. We end with a reset button, but it’s that rare thing in genre television: a reset button that is earned.
And something very, very clever. RP
The view from across the pond:
Matt Smith wraps his first season as the Doctor with the two part The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang.
As is often the case with Doctor Who, big ideas rarely seem to work as well as the smaller ones. Look at Vincent and the Doctor – absolutely a joy, but a simple episode. But Moffat likes the big show, so he decides to do something that makes no sense whatsoever (and then does it again with The Time of the Doctor – maybe it’s the dessert gong?). It’s like reading those big comic book events where everyone is going to be there: the Avengers, the X-Men, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Spice Girls (well, maybe not the last ones) … and it ends up being a million people on a page doing nothing and the reader has to try to see if it makes any sense based on who is saying what. They all get one line and because of the brevity of the medium, the lines could have been spoken by anyone! It seems like a weak lure, but people go for it. Moffat is one of those people.
The Pandorica Opens, um, opens with a great mystery. The TARDIS is exploding and people from all of Smith’s first season are getting wind of it. Ironic really, that it’s all people who have met this incarnation of the Doctor. The Doctor and Amy then set out to find River in ancient times posing as Cleopatra and on they go to Stonehenge where a signal is pulsing out into the universe like a giant dinner gong. And everyone comes. I mean, free food, right? Why not? Not that we see many of them but we get some jolly fun references including the Chelonians from the book The Highest Science. (Not to single them out, Tereleptils, Zygons, Drahvin… and a whole host of others hear the dinner gong too.)
I want to sidestep for a second to that rather poorly executed spin-off series, K-9. If you were not aware that he had his own series in 2010, you didn’t miss anything. But the first episode, Regeneration, features turtle-like creatures called… Jixen. Why? We had the format for the Chelonians and ignored it. It makes me angry! I swear to Gamera, why can’t people do their research?!
Back to the Pandorica… The Doctor gets a killer speech (“Hello Stonehenge”) to the dinner guests which is his one truly triumphant moment. Rory is randomly back from the dead too but there’s never really much logic other than Moffat really didn’t want to write him out to begin with. Every enemy race he’s ever encountered cram onto a two panel page of this comic book farce and announce they have all teamed up. (Personally, I think Doctor Doom is behind it! He’s always behind these big villain team-ups!) The Doctor gets taken to a box to be locked up forever which lasts all of about 10 minutes. (No wonder work days can feel like they last forever…) Rory kills Amy, which lasts for all of about 5 minutes. The universe blinks out of existence as the exploding TARDIS destroys everything…
Then part 2, The Big Bang, opens and says “ok, maybe not everything has been destroyed. We might have overstated things there, but see all the other things Moffat did wrong in part one? Watch this…” and proceeds to give us an hour of fast paced joy.
A timey-wimey opening that is just so much fun to watch, fun with two Amy’s, the Doctor shot by a Dalek, River hunting and terrifying said Dalek, the Doctor getting better from the Dalek blast and saving reality, at least one “Geronimo”, some genuinely magnificent music, a great wrap up where Rory announces at his wedding that he was made of plastic, and a fun wedding dance that I have as a gif to use in so many happy birthday texts… part two makes up for the idiocy of part one. Like the Doctor himself, part two saves the day. But I do think Moffat almost lost the plot somewhere along the way and only saved it with a little luck.
What is weird about it is that right after that episode aired, and I wish I were kidding about this, we found a fez in the house. Now, I’m still not sure where it came from, but I’m betting it had something to do with a rather universal reboot… Thanks Doctor! Your first season went out with a bang. A big one, at that. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… A Christmas Carol