Whoof. Where to start? Where on earth do I start?
I normally review each week’s Doctor Who on the Sunday night after initial broadcast. Usually I find 24 hours is enough time to mull over anything I might want to say and to form it into something that (hopefully) makes some sort of sense. I couldn’t do it this week.
The Pandorica Opens (BBC1, Sat) was just… too big. Not in terms of physical scale (the most of it took place in just a very few sets, with a bit of location work on a very special site indeed). Nope, in terms of what it did, how it did it, and the ideas it was playing with… that’s what tripped me up. I’m still not sure I’ve altogether come to grips with it. I probably won’t until this weekend when the conclusion airs. For now, I must go with my gut reaction on the night which was… whoof.
From about thirty minutes in my hand strayed up to my mouth in a “oh, my word” sort of gesture. It stayed there for the next fifteen minutes. As the episode concluded that hand was finally brought down, but only to grip tightly to the arm of the sofa because I was actually trembling slightly. I’d been so tensed up that I’d almost forgotten to breathe.
We knew this was going to be the start of something big, of course. It had to be. Steven Moffat’s been claiming as much in interviews for months, with comments like “this is the one where all the wheels come off” or “everything that he’s ever run from is about to land on the Doctor’s head”. Thing is, the last fifteen years or so of following series television has left me with a deep-seated distrust of the big season finale. What you usually get is something huge in the first season. Second season, they feel the need to top it so they go bigger and grander, with splashy effects and gigantic explosions everywhere. The next year, the cycle repeats. By the time you reach season 5 or so there’s nowhere to go. The characters say “this threat is the biggest we’ve ever faced. It could end the universe”. And we shrug and say “so? Bigger than the biggest threat you ever faced and which could end the universe around about this time last year?” Joss Whedon spotted this and actually had Xander pass comment to that effect within the narrative of Buffy. When even the characters themselves are becoming blase, it’s time to rethink.
Doctor Who’s more or less gone this route since 2005. Huge Dalek menace in year one. Daleks vs Cybermen in the big punch up in year two. The Doctor’s evil nemesis returns, becomes ruler of the world and wipes out a tenth of the world’s population in the process for year three. Year four, it’s Daleks again, only this time they don’t just become rulers of the world, they nick it as well. Oh, and there’s an attempt to wipe out reality. Last year, Gallifrey reappeared. The Time Lords (with additional Tim Lord) showed up. The Doctor’s evil nemesis suddenly became a genuine comic book supervillain and a much beloved-by-the-public Doctor breathed his last. That’s about as big as you can reasonably go. Or unreasonably.
So what to do this year? Scale it back, make it personal, focus on the small story and hopefully hit all the appropriate emotional beats that may have got lost in the sound and fury during previous finales? Well, yes. But then again, no. There was more than enough spectacle to focus on this week. Roman Soldiers! Stone’enge! An exciting Horseback sequence! A Headless Cyberman (who was still highly effective, despite being literally ‘armless)! Thousands upon thousands of spaceships!
You know what? All window dressing. Every last bit of it. Because for me it all came down to the way those disparate threads started to weave together, as I’d hoped they would throughout this season. When the BBC ident came up at the start the last thing I expected was a return visit to Vincent Van Gogh. Or Winston and Bracewell. Or Liz 10. I knew that River was going to be back. She told us so back in episode 5, apart from anything else. Everything else before those credits – continuity overload, but all there for a reason. All there in the service of one thing, and one thing only. The story. All of a sudden those disparate visits made by the Doctor over the last eleven weeks seem to form into one seamless narrative, and it was a joy to watch it happen.
That said, on first viewing I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the next section of the story (from Eleven and Amy arriving in Roman Britain to the big Rory reveal, basically) didn’t quite ring true. It all seemed a bit glib, everything seemed to happen far too quickly. Silly me. By the end of the episode I was kicking myself. Of course, it’s all a massive trap. Designed for one person. So of course it’s going to be designed to get him there with maximum expediency and minimum fuss. Couple that with the strange, dreamlike feel that’s pervaded through most of this season and I’m beginning to think that this time next week I’m going to be attempting to come to grips with just how much of the season was real (at least, in narrative terms), and how much was dragged out of the hyperactive imagination of young Miss Pond.
Know that feeling when you’re dreaming where you leap from one place to the other, with no regard to the mechanics of getting there – but it doesn’t seem to matter? That’s what that whole sequence felt like, especially the Cyber Attack. There’s more to this than meets the mind’s eye, that’s for sure. I’m certain when the bigger picture is revealed I’m going to feel like a complete berk. Just this once though, I don’t mind a bit, because you needed that whole sequence in order to bring in the not-unexpected-at-all-return-of-Rory.
Said unexpected return was followed in short order by yet another candidate for favourite moment of the season, delivered (as every moment this year has been) by Matt Smith, exuding a natural eccentricity that you just can’t fake. More so than anyone since Tom, you get the feeling that what you’re seeing on screen is simply an extension of what the performer is like as a person. It’s just a bonus that Matt is such a great actor as well. Delivering machine-gun dialogue that you could sing, touting a ridiculous prop and then wandering off camera for a moment, he comes wandering back in and tests the reality of Rory-reincarnated by prodding him with a finger. The way Arthur Darvill counters this by rocking backwards and then back into the same position makes a great scene even better. It’s then capped by “So, how’ve you been?” followed by Rory’s perfect comeback. All while Amy’s crashed out in front of them, almost incidental to the scene.
Almost immediately after this Rory’s agonising is stopped short in what at first seems like a brutally callous manner, with a bellow of “oh, shaddup!” from Eleven – only for him to then reveal that his hearts are as big as they ever were. Rory heads off, man with a mission, and it’s in the simple act of handing the ring over to him that things start to unravel for The Eleventh Doctor. He’s been trying to sort out Rory and Amy’s relationship ever since the series started (and which has been coloured by his presence for well over a decade by the time The Eleventh Hour really gets underway). Now he unwittingly sets the events in motion which will lead to Amy’s seemingly fatal meeting at the end of the episode (I don’t mind admitting that there was a certain “Noooooooo!” from me at that point). It’s terribly sad that while this is happening he’s in no position to help, because the ultimate fanboy teamup has happened at last.
Ever imagined a Doctor Who story where you team up multiple threats to take out The Doctor? It happens here. Moffat completely blindsided me here – you could probably have heard the shriek of “AUTONS!!!!” from the moon when the soldier’s hands dropped away to reveal those guns. I genuinely, honestly had no idea it was coming. I knew that the Tonka Daleks would have to turn up again. That was obvious from the inconclusive way they disappeared at the end of Victory of The Daleks. I suspected the Cybermen might. I didn’t expect The Sontarans (beautifully represented by a returning Christopher Ryan, in a remarkably sickly looking makeup). I definitely didn’t expect The Hoix. Or The Judoon. Or The Silurians. Or The Roboforms. A masterful trawl through the wardrobe department, and one in the eye surely for people who claim that Steven’s been trying to negate everything about RTD’s years on the show. If you’re trying to make people forget it ever happened, you wouldn’t be bringing back one of the definitive performances of the era, would you? Christopher Ryan makes every line count, as does a doubtless rolling-in-overtime Nicholas Briggs.
It’s all been the perfect trap, laid to ensnare the one man that this bunch have in common. They’ve all been beaten by The Doctor. You’d expect them to join forces at some point in order to take him out once and for all, but in this case the alliance has been formed for an altogether different reason. They’ve united to save The Universe. Because the one thing that will seemingly cause the destruction of everything… is the one man who spends his life trying to ensure that doesn’t happen.
The Doctor falls, finally. The most defeated we’ve ever seen him, panic and despair colliding in his voice as he pleads for the future of everything. “Only The Doctor can control the Tardis”, grates a Tonka Dalek. Is this a mistake on the part of the Daleks, or is River really more than she seems? Is she genuinely a future incarnation of The Doctor himself?
At this point it looks like we’ll never know. River is seemingly trapped in the Tardis as it explodes. The Doctor’s wailing cries are shut off as The Pandorica closes. Amy lies dying in the arms of revenant Rory. And in a moment of pure sensitivity from Murray Gold, the music stops. Everything goes deathly still as – one by one – the planets begin to wink out.
To be continued.
Right now, I’m behaving like a six year old boy. Want it to be Saturday nooooooowwwwww! As of this moment, Doctor Who has left me convinced that episode will never be topped. Except I have a feeling that it will, in the very next instalment. But will we pick up where we left off, or will it be one of Steven’s traditional second-part-left-turns?
There’s a lot to get through next week. The nature of the crack. Who is that saying “Silence Will Fall”? What happened to River? Is Amy alive? Does any spark of the real Rory remain after this? How much of this is even real? And will The Doctor manage to escape and undo what everyone thinks is his fault in the first place? Is that a time-hopping Doctor who pops up every now and then in the preceding stories? Is Amy even real? Why does Baby Amy’s house door not only look like the Tardis door, but bear a distinct resemblance to the entrance of the Tardis-like spaceship from last week’s episode? Am I reading too much into things?
But I bet you are too.