Spoilers abound! Keep away if you haven’t seen the episode.
I wrote last week that Steven Moffat had painted himself into a corner somewhat. This episode saw him not so much leap the wet paint in a single bound as redefine the notions of “paint”, “wet” and “corner”. This is a totally different episode to The Pandorica Opens in a quite remarkable way – so much so that at times it barely feels like a continuation of the same story.
Much of it is absolutely dazzling. The return to the time and place of The Eleventh Hour, the brief sketch of a starless Earth (recalling Asimov’s famous short story “Nightfall”), the reveal of Amy inside the Pandorica “Okay kid, here’s where it gets complicated” and that’s just before the titles roll. Some of it is genuinely affecting – Rory’s double millennium stint on guard duty is a beautiful conceit – much of it is terribly funny – “I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool. *toss* *zap* – a lot of it is both complicated and satisfying – Amelia is thirsty because the Doctor stole her drink in the past to give to her now because she’s complaining of thirst.
However, much of it is also very dry. As the Doctor bounces back-and-forward in time, we delight in seeing the pieces of the puzzle come together, but it tends to feel more like completing a Sudoku than the catharsis of a dramatic narrative. Part of the problem is that stakes having been raised through the roof and then up another twenty storeys last week, many of the solutions come very easily this week. Moffat’s a rigorous enough writer to have provided one-line explanations for most if not all of the following gripes, but the fact is that none of them feel properly integrated into the story. A contradiction is still a contradiction, even with a throwaway pseudoexplanation.
- Last week the Pandorica was impossible to open and the Doctor was trapped inside it forever. This week it can be opened and closed at will simply by waving the ever-popular sonic screwdriver at it.
- Last week the Pandorica was a device which rendered the Doctor incapable of further action. This week it regenerates anyone put inside it.
- Travelling in time is difficult which is why so few people can do it and why the TARDIS is so valuable. The time bracelet is repeatedly described as crude and nasty, presumably in the hope that we will never notice that it is in fact pinpoint and to-the-second accurate every single time it is used, instantaneous and in general better and more convenient than the often-unreliable TARDIS in almost every way.
- The whole idea of a “restoration field” is bunkum. For an explanation as to why, see my future blog post on the difference between science and magic.
- Stone Daleks!?
It’s that last point that I want to address now. As noted in the blog last week, as well as elsewhere, the supervillain alliance is risible as soon as you give it a moment’s serious thought. Moffat’s solution to this problem is to simply not include them in part two. In fact, throughout this peculiar episode, he simply drops concepts when they have no further role to play; Amelia disappears in the middle of the museum sequence with – again – only a single line to cover, Rory is controlled by the Nestenes only when it is required that he should be and so on.
What this means, and what adds to the Sudoku-feeling of this episode, is that there is no charismatic and yet hissable villain in whose downfall we can rejoice. Yet, this is not peculiar among Moffat scripts. Here’s a quick recap of his stories and their “villains”.
- The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances – mindless nanogenes doing what they’ve been programmed to do.
- The Girl in the Fireplace – mindless clockwork robots doing what they’ve been programmed to do.
- Blink – characterless statues doing what their nature dictates
- Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead – characterless shadows doing what their nature dictates
- The Eleventh Hour – mindless police force hunting criminal by-the-book
- The Beast Below – political brainwashing system
- The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone – as Blink
- The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang – apparently an alliance of supervillains, but actually what must be overcome is not the alliance but the fact of the universe having been extinguished
Not one good villain among them. The Eleventh Hour probably gets nearest. Prisoner Zero him/her/itself gloats in a suitably villainous way, but isn’t the main foe. In the same time period, other writers gave us The Editor, The Dalek Emperor, Mr Finch, John Lumic, The Family of Blood, The Master, Miss Foster, Davros, the Dream Lord and Restac. What’s Moffat playing at?
Then there’s the list of things which simply weren’t explained at all – some of these were trailed into the next series but many were never even mentioned.
- Why doesn’t Amy remember the events of The Stolen Earth?
- Why should the TARDIS exploding extinguish every star in the universe?
- If the Earth is orbiting the TARDIS as it explodes, just where is that brick wall which River Song can’t get past?
- How does remembering the Doctor bring him back to life anyway?
- Who is River Song and what was she in prison for?
Now, all this may sound as if I didn’t much like it, but the fact is I really, really did. The lack of a good villain does make it hard for the Doctor’s victory to resonate, and the incomprehensible scale of the problem means that the solution seems intellectually interesting rather than emotionally satisfying, but there are moments of sweetness, tenderness, and even greatness at such frequent intervals, that as severe as some of these problems sound, they are mere niggles when you actually sit and watch the story unfold.
River Song’s extermination of the stone Dalek, the dying Doctor’s last words inside the Pandorica, “I escaped! I love it when I do that” followed by the horrible realisation that he is simply pausing on the threshold of death, and most spectacularly, brilliantly, jawdroppingly wonderful of all – Amy’s realisation that what her wedding is missing is Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed and Something Dimensionally Transcendental.
Then Matt Smith dances like a loon, a pair of married companions hop into the TARDIS for the first time ever and we’re off to the Orient Express it seems. Whew.
A fitting climax to a thirteen week run which was often astonishing, sometimes frustrating, but never (almost never) less than entertaining. I hope that next year the new production team will feel a little more secure in their roles, and some of wrinkles will be ironed out.
In the meantime, I’m going to see what else this blog is good for, but if nothing else, I’ll be back to review the Christmas special. Geronimo! Meantime here’s my summation of Series Five.
The Eleventh Hour: good introduction to the new team. 4/5
The Beast Below: didn’t really make sense, but I was captivated by the energy and oddness of it all. 4½/5
Victory of the Daleks: nadir of series five. 2/5
The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone: practically perfect. 5/5
The Vampires of Venice: better than the Dalek nonsense, but only just 2½/5
Amy’s Choice: slight but engaging. 3½/5
The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood: graceless but efficient with a killer ending. 4/5
Vincent and the Doctor: horrid. 2/5
The Lodger: flawed but enjoyable. 3/5
The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang: the best and the worst this series has had to offer, but more of the former than the latter. 4/5