Doctor Who - Series 5 - Episode 12 - The Pandorica Opens


Now, let’s have a chat about season finales.

In the 1960s, Doctor Who was pretty much a year-round production. The first year saw 42 episodes produced and transmitted on a weekly basis, with a further four-part story (later edited down to three parts) recorded and then held over to start the new season after only a seven week gap. In the seventies, the workload was scaled back to 26 episodes a year (today we have half the episodes each year, but they’re double the length) but again, the practice of “holding over” one story to start the next season was maintained – so for example, even Robot, Tom Baker’s first story, was recorded immediately after work had finished on Planet of the Spiders and by the outgoing Jon Pertwee production team.

Throughout these years, the season finale was often nothing special. Sometimes, as with Planet of the Spiders or The Green Death, these end-of-season stories happened to coincide with changes in the regular cast, but equally such changes could happen in mid-season as with The Hand of Fear. More importantly, in all other ways these stories were not vastly different from those which were transmitted either side of them.

In the late seventies and early eighties, each season did tend to come to a fairly definite end, following which the production office would briefly shut down and then gear up again for the following year’s onslaught. This did mean that the final story of each season tended to have a fairly obviously defining characteristic. It was the one where they’d already spent all the money – Time-Flight being the most obvious culprit here. When Peter Davison left, producer John Nathan-Turner took the decision to move the regeneration story up one, so the season finale is not the regeneration, it’s the first full story of the new Doctor (and obviously done on the cheap).

It may also be worth noting that these two stories – Peter Davison’s final outing, The Caves of Androzani, and Colin Baker’s first effort, The Twin Dilemma, recently came first and last respectively in the Doctor Who Magazine poll of all stories ever. That these two stories, transmitted consecutively could be so wildly divergent is an indication of just how little quality control was being effected by the then producer.

In the new era, things are very different. With one person in the role of both executive producer – having overall creative control of the series – and head writer – contributing the lion’s share of the scripts – an entire season can be designed with a beginning, middle and end. Russell T Davies wrote an unprecedented eight out of 13 episodes for Series One, transmitted in 2005, including two out of the three two-parters, and including the two-part season finale. For the first time, a season of Doctor Who stories was itself telling one longer story. (Successfully, that is.) The “Bad Wolf” clues, dropped as early as the very first episode, coalesced into a hugely dramatic showdown between the new, battle-scarred Doctor, and an entire army of space-faring Daleks. It was an astonishingly climactic end to a season which looks a little ropey and uncertain in places today, but which five years ago did the impossible – it made Doctor Who viable again.

This was topped with almost effortless ease in 2006 with what might be my very favourite episode of the revived series to date. (No, it’s Blink. No it’s Midnight. Wait – I forgot about Human Nature.) Not for the rather implausible Torchwood business, not for all that nonsense about the Void being a cosmic hoover, not even for the fan-pleasing yet wittily-done Dalek vs Cybermen showdown (“this isn’t war, this is pest control”) but for the heart-wrenching, gut-aching Bad Wolf Bay farewell between the Doctor and Rose. A friend of ours brought her ten-year old daughter round a couple of days after Doomsday went out. She’d missed it, so we let her watch it as the grown-ups talked. As Rose struggled to cling on to that lever, we gradually stopped talking and began watching the screen. And by the time the Doctor was burning up a sun just to say “goodbye”, all four of us were sobbing uncontrollably.

This, of course, creates a problem.

Now, each season finale has to be bigger, more awesome, more show-stopping, more heart-tugging, and more spectacular than all those which preceded it. And ideally in a different way. In the 2007 series, Rusty got away with this, but only just. The return of the Master in Utopia is brilliantly handled, The Sound of Drums successfully gets our heroes into All Sorts Of Trouble, while pulling together strands from earlier episodes, and Last of the Time Lords manages to make the best of the inevitable reset switch with a couple of useful reversals, the sense that some of the participants at least have not been reset and so have paid a price for their endeavours, and for a real look at what being the last of your kind (such a Doctor Who cliché!) actually means. But, by now the cracks are beginning to show.

The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End are colossally self-indulgent and the return of Davros is muffled by the presence of too many other villains and allies all competing for our attention. Then the final episode shakes off any goodwill it might have accumulated by revisited and traducing that final scene in Doomsday. I thought the fourth series was in general very strong and I liked Donna enormously, but Journey’s End would have been a fucksight better without Rose in it. And probably without Davros too.

Which brings us (vaulting over The End of Time – this blog post is long enough as it is) to Mr Moffat’s first go. Which option will he take? Bigger and better – more and more old foes and returning friends, or something smaller, darker and more Silence in the Library-esque? Well, now we have our answer. Like The Hungry Earth, and The Stolen Earth before it, much of The Pandorica Opens is teasing. We all know, as if we haven’t guessed from the end of The Eleventh Hour, that the contents of the “Pandorica” will be revealed in the closing minutes of this episode. The question is not where will we arrive – it’s how entertaining will the journey be? But Moffat also has a second significant problem of expectations to overcome. The longer he puts off telling us what The Pandorica is and what it contains (and, as I say, he’s been putting it off for around ten episodes now!) the more fuckstaggeringlyawesome it has to be when it’s finally unveiled.

Let’s take the first of these problems first. In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that that the Doctor was the only feasible candidate for the contents of the Pandorica. After all this build up, it can’t just be Thorax Last of the Huggliubdiums, of whom we have never heard before. It has to be something reincorporated from earlier in the show’s mythos, and that probably means from earlier this series. So that very long pretitles sequence serves double-duty. As well as setting up the story that is to come, it also rules out a number of possible, if not exactly probable, candidates. River Song? Nope. Churchill? Nope. Van Gogh!? Not on your life. Liz Ten?? And then, fifteen minutes before the end, all the new series’ major monsters crop up, also (apparently) keen to see what The Pandorica contains. So, it doesn’t contain Daleks (classic or shit models), Cybermen, Sontarans, Autons, Hoix, Blowfish or Weevil either. And we’ve heard no rumours of returning companions (good, leave Rose Tyler where she is please) and it’s too early for a rematch with The Master so unless it’s the surprise reappearance of the Menoptra (you laugh, but who ever thought we’d see the Macra again!?) it has to be the Doctor himself.

What comes between the arrival at Stonehenge and the opening of the Pandorica is therefore, once again, just delaying tactics, but what delaying tactics they are, and how many other revelations are packed in to this? The Doctor and Amy’s hilarious and terrifying encounter with an amputee Cybermen, the striking reappearance of Roranicus, Amy’s remark that Pandora’s Box was her favourite book, the gorgeous set design and location filming, and any number of quotable one-liners (“I hate good wizards in fairy tales. They always turn out to be him.”), all add up to a thoroughly engrossing, exciting, suspenseful and fan-pleasing forty minutes.

The last five minutes does see Moffat painting himself into a corner a wee bit. As with The Master broadcasting to the “peoples of the universe” in part four of Logopolis, the need to raise the threat level to cataclysmic proportions comes at the cost of a certain level of credibility. The quadruple-threat cliffhanger (Doc’s in the box, Amy’s shot by Rory, River’s stuck in an exploding TARDIS and the universe itself is being extinguished) is written and staged with enough vigour and energy that I was just about able to buy it, but stop and think, even for one moment, about this “alliance” and what it means, and how it was brought about, and the whole thing quickly becomes laughable, as a number of hilariously satirical threads on Gallifrey Base demonstrate (“What did they all say while waiting to surprise the Doctor?”, “The Alliance Conference Call”, “What did they all say after the Doctor went into the box?”).

But, I have faith that Moffat can bring all this together, maybe even confront the reality of this alliance, as RTD confronted the reality of taking a young woman away from her family and friends on a tour of the universe. I have no idea how The Big Bang will resolve any of this, but if I know my Moffat, the clues are already in front of us. So here’s what I’ll be looking out for on Saturday night.

  • “Amy, does it bother you that nothing about your life makes any sense?”
  • The crack removing people from ever having existed
  • What else does Amy remember – what else did the Doctor implore her to remember?
  • What has Amy forgotten and why?
  • What else is in Amy’s head?
  • What was River Song in prison for?
  • The Pandorica is a “fairy tale”, according to the Doctor
  • 26 / 06 / 2010.

See you on Saturday!