The Big Bang

Review by Mark Bousquet

“THE PANDORICA OPENS” and “THE BIG BANG” – Series 5, Episodes 12 & 13, Story 212 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Toby Haynes – Here’s where it all comes crashing together. The Eleventh Doctor gets one of those “left in time” messages from River telling him to go to early 2nd century Britain, where she’s posing as Cleopatra. She’s got a message from Vincent Van Gogh for the Doctor telling him the TARDIS is going to explode in a painting called The Pandorica Opens. I know, right? How did Van Gogh know that the first part of this story was going to have the same title? I’ll tell you how – because the dude was a mad, mad genius, that’s how. Anyway, the Doctor, Amy, and River jump on some horses and go riding off to Stonehenge, where they find a secret entrance underground that leads them to the Pandorica. The Pandorica is the greatest prison in the history of history and it’s starting to open, so naturally everyone wants to know what or who could possibly be inside. Then every villain who still had a costume in BBC storage shows up and the Pandorica opens and the person inside is … No One. No, not a character called No One, but actually no one. It’s empty. Because The Pandorica Was Built For The Eleventh Doctor.

This season enders are always the hardest stories to write about because there’s so much going on that it’s a little tough on figuring out where to start. Unlike a normal episode where the story is usually every bit as important and impactful as the ending, the season enders tend to put more emphasis on the final resolution, as we’re getting an ending not just to the Monster of the Week, but the season-long story.

In Series 5 we’ve had the ongoing story of the Crack in the Universe and all these subtle hints about the Pandorica, which the Doctor has claimed is just a fairy tale.

So, where to start?

Let’s start with this – THE PANDORICA OPENS / THE BIG BANG is the finest season ending story of the relaunch. Now, that’s not a highly difficult hurdle to jump because the season enders have been rather daft, on the whole. Lots of running and shouting and exploding but they’ve rarely ever come together in anything moving or exciting. That’s not the case here. In fact, it could be argued that PANDORICA/BANG is the best story of the season, which certainly hasn’t happened during the relaunch.

I don’t know if I’d quite go that far. While P/B is a fantastic story writ very large, this has been a very enjoyable season so I think I’m content to say it’s a very delicious cherry on top of a very delicious season. It’s the perfect cherry, in fact, on a near perfect sundae; the wonderful finish to Series 5 makes it the best season of the relaunch. Like Series 3 (the Martha Jones year), Series 5 might have been missing the all-time classics like BLINK or DALEK, but it was incredibly consistent.

What’s interesting to me about the PANDORICA and BANG two-parter is how different the stories are from each other. Instead of playing out like one large story, they are really two separate stories that cannot exist without the other. PANDORICA is much more a slow-building mystery, with the determined point for the Alliance of DOCTOR WHO Villains (I’m almost positive that’s what the patches on their jean jackets say) being to get the Doctor trapped inside the Pandorica.

It’s a sharp, creepy story that highlights the things DOCTOR WHO can do that other shows simply cannot. Staring as a action-adventure, PANDORICA turns into a horror-mystery, and all of it is imbued with the innards of science-fiction. Through it all, it’s really one big fairy tale, with a really nice signature Moffat Timey Wimey swerve, as the Pandorica isn’t opening to let someone out but opening to put someone in. By the end of the episode we’ve got River exploded inside the TARDIS, the Doctor trapped in the Pandorica, and Amy dead after being shot by Auton Rory.

BIG BANG, however, isn’t a dreary, somber tale or one that focuses on Rory fighting alone to reboot the universe. Instead, it’s a time-hopping romp that turns tragic and then turns happy. Revisiting a past idea of his own, the Doctor, indeed, dances to a happy ending, yet again.

The one real problem I have with PANDORICA/BANG is that there’s a bit too much time-hopping back onto your own timeline, with Future You popping back in time to help Current You get out of a jam. The Doctor only frees himself from the Pandorica because Future Doctor jumps back to give Rory his sonic screwdriver to let Current Doctor out.

Of course, Future Doctors and Current Doctors end up jumping all over each other in the episode and after a time hop or seventeen, it gets a bit old. We’ve seen this trick done one too many times this season and even though the show is cognizant of what it’s doing and builds it into the story, after you’ve seen a rabbit pulled out of a hat 93 times, you’re looking for something besides a really cool rabbit for trick #94.

PANDORICA is the better of the two episodes as I really enjoy the sense that things are spiraling down the drain rather than out of control. Moffat and director Toby Haynes do an excellent job building a sense of unease and lack of control into the episode and the plot starts moving faster as the Pandorica comes closer and closer to opening. I love the Indiana Jones vibe at Stonehenge as the Doctor, River, and Amy descend down into the darkness to find this big, black box sitting there … waiting.

Unfortunately, episodes like this just point out how useless Amy is to episodes like this – she’s out of her depth and so can’t really offer much except to ask questions, scream “Doctor!,” and stand off to the side trying out looks of confusion, annoyance, and fear. I say this as someone who likes Amy, but as the season has worn on it’s become increasingly clear that she’s a few steps behind the writers. Moffat and his crew are writing much more advanced sci-fi stories than Davies ever did and Amy just ends up coming off as the cute, dumb girl at school who never quite gets-

D’oh! I literally just realized this. I’m not even going to go back and pretend like I knew it and make myself look all clever.

Amy is Daphne.

To quote Eleven: “How did I miss this?”

I’ve even been watching a ton of Scooby-Doo recently, too. Amy’s got Daphne’s red hair, fashion sense, and almost complete lack of understanding of what’s going on. Think back on the season – how many episodes has Amy really played a significant part of the action beyond the traditional Questioning Screamer? I’ll give her ELEVENTH HOUR, BEAST BELOW, TIME OF ANGELS, VAMPIRES OF VENICE, and maybe AMY’S CHOICE. The rest of the year, however, she’s almost seemed like more of a burden to the story at hand than an integral part of the program. That’s half the season where she hasn’t had a lot to do but stand around and look cute. (Which, yes, she does remarkably well.)

Unlike Russell Davies lack of use with Donna in Series 4, however, I don’t get the sense here that Moffat and the writers dislike Amy or don’t know what to do with her. Instead, I get the sense that they’re just finding that she’s no good in the stories they want to tell.

In PANDORICA, what’s there for Amy to do but stand around? This is a Doctor-River story because there’s no time to stop and explain everything to Amy. In the classic days when DOCTOR WHO was a kid’s program, you needed the Companion to continually ask questions as a fill-in for the audience, but the relaunched WHO isn’t a kid’s program and the audience can better follow along with the action. It’s nice to have things explained slowly now and then, but PANDORICA/BANG has an inordinate number of questions asked just so the Doctor (or River) can explain what’s actually happening.

Even when Rory reappears the Doctor just sort of accepts it because the task on his mind demands so much attention that it’s like, “Hey, Rory. Nice Roman outfit.” The Doctor almost has to consciously remind himself that Rory shouldn’t be here and then offers some magical miracle blather to basically say, “I’ll figure this out later.”

Beneath Stonehenge, we’ve got the Pandorica all set to open and four stone columns that River realizes are amplifying a signal out to the universe. In one of those great horror moments that Moffat writes sneakily well, River asks the Doctor, “Who else is coming” and then informs him that he should, just this once, run away because “everything that ever hated you is coming.”

Then the Doctor says, “Good idea,” runs away and the episode ends.

Or not.

While River and the Doctor are running around playing Encyclopedia Brown, Amy is just sort of reduced to standing there. Almost because the show feels bad about this, it gives her a busted up Cyberman to fight. Which she’s also useless at, but at least there’s a point to it here because her being attacked by the Cyberman means she needs to be rescued and that’s where Rory’s return is made known to us.

Of course, it’s not made known to Amy because she passes out and then when she reawakens she doesn’t remember who he is. Until she does. Referencing her unknown tears in VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR, Amy here finds herself happy without knowing why and then slowly remembers who Rory is … just in time for him to turn into an Auton and kill her.

Whoops.

It’s a fantastic ending as the Rory/Amy drama plays out alongside the Alliance of DOCTOR WHO Villains showing up to put the Doctor in the Pandorica. Toby Haynes films this sequence to great effect, giving it all a somber, slow quality to it. Even though this should be the villains greatest moment of triumph, there’s no victory in their attitude. Instead, there’s a grim determination that they had to band together to stop the Doctor because if they don’t, the Doctor will blow up the TARDIS and end the universe, erasing all of them from existence. It’s a fabulous moment as the Roman Autons lead the Doctor into the Pandorica and he sits there, strapped in the chair, looking out at his enemies and realizing that they’ve formed this alliance not so much because they hate him (because they could have done that at any time) but because they’ve come to believe he’s the greatest threat to the existence of the universe. Haynes uses lots of slow pans across the monsters, and Moffat’s scripts give speaking parts to the Daleks, Cybermen, and Sontarans.

I’m not really sure why the Silurians are there (other than their costumes were still fresh) because they’re not space aliens and I don’t think the Daleks have their number. How did that call go? Were the Sontarans, Cybermen, Sycorax, Judoon, and Nestene Consciousness sitting around the Hall of Doom wondering if they should call anyone else.

“We should totally call the Raxacoricofallapatorians. The Slitheen hate the Doctor.”

“Are you insane, Cyber Leader? You know the ventilation in here works for crap. I’m not dealing with all that farting.”

“Right. Sorry, Judoon. I forget you can actually smell. We could probably use an agent on Earth. Hey Sontaran, didn’t you have agents on Earth last year?”

“Ah, we did, but they all died.”

“That’s helpful.”

A third plot thread has River in the TARDIS, which isn’t responding to her commands. The Doctor and River are communicating and he’s giving advice and the TARDIS is apparently controlling itself. Or being controlled by someone else since we hear a creepy voice keep telling us “Silence Will Fall.”

I love the sequence where the TARDIS lands back at Amy’s house at night and River enters cautiously. Again, it’s another quietly fantastic horror scene and makes me wonder what Moffat could do if he set out to write a straight horror film whose aims were more than building us up to the next slashing victim. River discovers that in Amy’s room are all the elements of what’s going on back at the Pandorica – there’s a book on Pandora’s Box (her favorite story as a kid) and another book about the Roman Legion. It turns out the Nestene Consciousness has used Amy’s memories to build a believable scenario in order to trap the Doctor.

I love that it works, if only until the start of BIG BANG.

BANG brings back little Amelia Pond and engages in all sorts of fun Timey Wimey bits with the Future, Fezzes Are Cool Doctor leaving her hints to get her to touch the Pandorica. Back in the past, Fezzes Are Cool Doctor told Rory to put Amy in the Pandorica because it would keep her alive once it gone some of her living DNA. Or something. Look, Amelia had to touch the big, black box in order to get the Pandorica to open with a living Amy inside.

There’s a touching moment under Stonehenge where Auton Rory refuses to leave Amy inside the box, sticking with her for 2,000 years as the Pandorica weaves its way through history. “The Girl Who Waited” now has a “Boy Who Waited.” When a frustrated Doctor asks Auton Rory why he has to be so stubborn and so human, Rory replies, “Because I’m not,” meaning that because he’s an Auton it’s important to him to be human.

There’s a lot of jumping around in BANG but really, what it comes down to is that the Doctor puts himself back in the Pandorica and flies it into the heart of the exploding TARDIS in order to reboot the universe. He succeeds but the result is that he puts himself behind an Invisible Plot Wall that luckily only last as long as it takes for Amy to remember him. At her wedding reception, Amy sees River walk by the window but she doesn’t know who she is. Rory gives Amy River’s little blue journal (now blank because the Doctor has never existed according to the rules of the Crack in the Wall) and Amy finally remembers.

Before the Doctor was completely sealed off, he lived parts of his life in rewind and we learn that one of his talks with the Eyes Shut Amy in FLESH AND STONE was actually this future Doctor telling her it was important that she remembers what he told her when she was seven. That bit was in FLESH but it got lost amidst all the Weeping Angels dying and stuff (the Weeping Angels never got a call to join the Alliance, apparently) but now we see what the Doctor meant was this new visit to Amy’s house on “the night she waited” for the Doctor to return.

It’s all a clever bit of writing and for the first time in the relaunch you get the sense that now you’ve really watched one big story unfold and not just a bunch of stories with a hint dropped in. The Doctor tells the sleeping Amy a story about how a daft old man stole a little blue box that he totally meant to return one day, and that the box was big and little at the same time, both old and new and the bluest blue ever.

At the reception it all falls into place for Amy, as she realizes the TARDIS is “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue!” It’s a really touching moment as Amy interrupts her father’s toast to start talking about how when she was little she had an imaginary friend. Everyone groans but Amy sees it through and after she yells for the Doctor to come back the TARDIS materializes right in the middle of the wedding.

“How could we forget the Doctor?” Rory wonders and then everyone dances.

I love how Amy asks the Doctor if she surprised him this time, but the Doctor is already wearing his tux, showing that he must have had complete faith (or hope) in his Companion to bring him back.

As the night winds down the Doctor sneaks away to the TARDIS where River is waiting for him to drop spooky hints about Series 6. Rory and Amy then burst into the TARDIS as the Doctor gets a call about a problem only he can solve. “Right,” he says to them, “this is goodbye then.”

Amy walks to the door, looks out, and yells “Goodbye!” and then the three of them are off for the next adventure.

I am bothered a bit by the big Cosmic Reset Button because I’m always bothered by the big Cosmic Reset Button, but here, at least, there seems to be a real reason for how it’s accomplished. It’s been made such an integral part of the season (with all of the hints about how time can be unwritten and rewritten) that the CRB feels less like a tacked on copacetic than it does the final, necessary resolution of an ongoing plot.

Despite all the little quirks, PANDORICA/BANG is fantastic roller coaster storytelling that pushes and pulls at everyone’s emotions before finally giving us all the happy ending that leaves you feeling good about where this show is going and everyone involved in getting it to our television screens.

(And for those, reading in order, here’s a link to the review of this past year’s Christmas Special, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which I wrote back when it was broadcast.)

Originally Published April 23, 2011

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