21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

A wise old person once said this – Romana, I think. But even if the Time Lady is attributing the genius of Isaac Newton to punting, never a truer word was spoken when it comes to looking at The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang – or Pandorica Bang as I'll call it to give me one less headache.

The Pandorica Bang is brimming with opposites in a number of ways. From the first episode, you may think that we're building up to an RTD-style kitchen sink finale with a huge army of past enemies and monsters – the second part revels in turning this assumption on its head with a considerably different tack.

On that note, it's a classic case of writer Steven Moffat changing gears halfway through the story to steer it in a different direction. We also have the opposite assumptions dotted throughout the story – The Pandorica doesn't contain any scary monsters! Rory's not dead! Rory's not human! Amy's not dead! The Doctor's not dead!

But from a personal point of view, the biggest opposite reaction is what I think of the story. Pandorica Bang is one of those stories that I can never quite make my mind up about. The first time I was disappointed with the result. The second time I actually liked it, despite my reservations. A couple of months later I saw a repeat of it on BBC Three, and actually wondered what the fuss was all about. Having sat through both episodes again, I'm torn between admiration and annoyance.

As the season finale, a lot's expected of Pandorica Bang. A good season finale needs to not only tie up all the loose ends of the season, answer outstanding questions and mysteries, but it also needs to tell a good, exciting, coherent story as well. The most notable thing about The Pandorica Bang is that it deliberately goes against the big chest-thumping, gung-ho bravado of the Russell T Davies season finales.

Take the concept of the great big Alien Alliance of practically every Doctor Who monster under the sun – or the Bad Aid ensemble, if you like. Daleks! Cybermen! Sontarans! Autons! Many more! All brought together to presumably record a special charity dirge called Doctor In A Stress, which would presumably be a better seller than the staggeringly useless 2010 remake of We Are The World.

Presumably Davies would have made the most of this in the concluding episode, but this isn't the Moffat Way. Instead, a fast-paced, dramatic face-off against Bad Aid is thrown into the dustbin in favour of a timey-wimey runaround in a poxy museum. While this may come as a refreshing surprise to those who had tired of the blockbuster season finale follies of yore, me myself, I'm disappointed by the fact that there's no real Big Bad to face off in the final part apart from a token Dalek. Now this is probably because at heart, I'm still a great big kid who wants lots of thrills 'n' spills 'n' no headache-inducing plots that are too obsessed with messing about with time.

Because there's this feeling that The Pandorica Bang is less exciting adventure romp, and more Steven Moffat having too good a time. Don't get me wrong, there have been some great Moffat stories in the past such as The Empty Child, Blink and Silence In The Library, some of the finest Doctor Who you could wish for. But Pandorica Bang has the tendency to lapse into smug coasting. While there are some neat twists peppered throughout the story, it's tempered by equal helpings of self-indulgence.

One of the biggest complaints I have about Pandorica Bang is the fact that it's so self-satisfied and pleased with itself. Put it this way, only about five minutes into the story, we're treated to a scene with two of my least favourite Moffat creations. Not only is Cockney Cretin Liz 10 back for a microsecond (and still thinking that “Ahhmm the blaaahhhdy Quinn” is still actually funny or cool or whatever), but so is River Song – yet again. River is still endlessly parading her non-stop catchphrases which have now gone from being irritating to stick-a-spoon-in-your-head painful. Not only are we treated to yet another knowing sneer of “Spooooiiillllaaaahhhs”, River's somehow gone one better (or worse, depending on your point of view) by carving the words Hello Sweetie into a cliff. While Alex Kingston still copes gamely with her dialogue, it feels like, at times, that Doctor Who is slowly morphing into The River Song Show.

But let's hit pause on this spoilery spiel. In its favour, the first episode holds out lots of promise. It's one of the most cinematic of the season, encompassing a wide spread of times and places (and that's in the pre-credits teaser alone). The plotting is tight, linking back to The Eleventh Hour, and scattering a wealth of mysteries throughout. What's in the Pandorica? How can Amy's childhood favourites be alive and kicking? How many of the Doctor's enemies have come to visit? There's also a great bit of real horror with the decaying skull in the Cyberman head. Toby Haynes adds a filmic, dramatic swoop to proceedings, especially the frantic, multi-faceted climax of the first part (complete with one or two slow-mo shots).

Matt Smith also cements his runaway success as the Doctor. Filling the shoes of David Tennant took some doing, but Smith accomplished the task without even breaking into a sweat. His performance throughout this two-parter is one of his best, taking in confident swagger (his Glastonbury moment when facing off against his enemies), vulnerability (his apparent retreat into obscurity and his last speech to Amy is especially well done), and glorious dad dancing. Smith captivates the audience with his knack for making the most out of his dialogue, whether jokey (“Oh you can do loads in 12 minutes. Suck a mint. Buy a sledge. Have a fast bath.”) or serious (“Amy Pond... crying over me, eh?”).

If the first part does set up things with stylish confidence (and that's a killer cliffhanger), The Big Bang is where the wheels start to come off, descending into frenzied faffing about with time and a non-stop spiel of meaningless gibberish. The Timey Wimey stuff is actually quite clever, and even though it's a bit excessive and long-winded, the Doctor's plan to escape from his Pandorica imprisonment and to save Amy from death is actually quite clever. But there's too much running around, too much breathless exposition and too many glib wisecracks. It's like watching a speeded-up DVD of Magnus Pyke's Greatest Lectures while being slowly bashed on the bonce relentlessly by a novelty cricket bat in the shape of Steven Moffat's head.

Mind you, all of this fast-paced nattering at 10 million to the dozen is possibly a smokescreen for the fact that not a lot of it makes any actual sense. Muse on the poetic meaning of “Eye of the storm, that's all. We're just the last light to go out...” Chew over the abstract wisdom of “These are just like after-images, echoes, fossils in time, the footprints of the never-were...” Or ponder the paradox of the fact that “You're an anomaly! We're all just hanging on at the eye of the storm!” Break all of these examples down and you're left with the written equivalent of one of those abstract arty-farty hippy prog album cover images.

The Pandorica Bang is bursting at the seams with illogical goofs and convenient changes of heart. Take the Pandorica itself, for example. We're told at first that it's a prison (which apparently is both the “perfect prison” and “easy to open” - make up your mind, for crying out loud). But not only is it a prison, it can bring dead people back to life! It's also a stasis field, and a handy ship to pilot into the eye of the storm! Presumably it can also shine your shoes, do your washing and peel your apples – all at the same time. Or in other words, it's a handy get-out clause to solve whatever problem is cooked up every 15 minutes.

The whole idea of an intergalactic Who's Who of Who Boos coming together just to lock the Doctor up for all eternity is ridiculous too. If he's such a great big threat (“We will save the universe from you!” bellows the Sontaran), well why not just kill him until his remaining regenerations are spent? It seems a bit rich that the combined might of angry aliens thinks that the Doctor's a threat, given their previous dastardly schemes.

Plus, you'd never guess – Rory's back from the dead. Now strutting about in the togs of a Roman, he's now apparently an Auton. Quite why or how or when Rory becomes an Auton is a good question, and perhaps inevitably is one that is never satisfactorily answered. There goes the ending of Cold Blood then, and what might have been a fitting end to Rory's brief time aboard the TARDIS. Rory's resurrection not only makes little sense, it's yet another groan-inducing example of how modern Doctor Who production teams don't have the guts to kill off a regular companion. They even do the same thing with Amy in this story – she's shot by Auton Rory at the end of the first part. It's actually a sweet but brutal scene with a neat bit of role reversal in that Rory must remember his past rather than Amy. But inevitably this means nothing by the next part, since Amy's healed by the Pandorica. Again, a total cop-out. Maybe I should just get used to the fact that it's easier to kill Road Runner than a Doctor Who regular these days.

Mind you, at least Rory comes off a bit better in this story than he has done in past adventures so far this season. The idea that he chooses to guard Amy over the years and centuries rightly makes him a bit of a hero, and Arthur Darvill turns in a good performance throughout the story, whether he's goofing around with a disbelieving Doctor or reacting with horror at the 'death' of Amy at the close of the first part.

Such a shame then that Moffat tends to write Amy with his unlikeable pen. She's back to SHOUTING!! the place down as per usual, bellowing at Rory to “Shut up then!”, even though the poor scamp's been guarding her for god knows how long. And then after the two have got married at the end, she just barges into the TARDIS yelling at The Doctor: “Oi! Where are you off to? We haven't even had a snog in the shrubbery yet!” - er - while her new husband's right behind her. She then says to Rory “Shut up! It's my wedding!” like a three-year-old demanding to win all the games at her birthday party. The character of Amy goes back and forth more times than a boomerang. Like I've said before, not the fault of Karen Gillan (who again turns in a top flight performance here), more the fault of the production team who couldn't seem to make up their minds as to where they wanted to steer Amy. Fortunately, they'd achieve a more consistent (and far more agreeable) persona next time around.

But hey, at least Amy gets to live still. As does Rory. As does the Doctor. Even though you think he may have bitten the dust after flying the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS and sealing the Cracks. But no, because apparently, if you die, or are on the verge of dying, all you need to do is to urge someone that you know to “Remember”. Which while the odd bit in Flesh And Stone now makes sense, means that the resolution of the story is a massive cop-out.

The idea that Amy “remembers” the Doctor back to life is complete tosh, pure and simple. Imagine a kid at home watching the show, only to discover that his pet goldfish has croaked it – when he finds out that remembering his beloved fish doesn't work, there'll be tears and tantrums before bedtime, you mark my words. Not only do we have another reboot get-out clause (“Big Bang Two”), but the whole concept of the Doctor miraculously appearing at Amy's wedding without so much as a scratch takes dramatic licence to the limit. Not even the old “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” gag can compensate for such a lousy denouement. On top of all that, none of the wedding guests at Amy's and Rory's wedding seem too fazed by the fact that a police box materialises out of thin air either.

Fortunately there are still quite a few great Moffat lines to be had in the final part (“I just don't want her growing up and joining one of those star cults. I don't trust that Richard Dawkins...” or “She is dead but it's not the end of the world – well, it is the end of the world...”).

Looking at this again in 2019, Pandorica Bang isn't afraid to think big. Like the Season 3 finale, it paints itself into a corner with a less than satisfactory wrap-up to the whole shebang. But unlike the recent Chibnall-helmed season, at least this story goes to town in terms of imagination and ambition. The story's packed with memorable visuals including the disjointed Cyberman, the Roman legions, the Spot-The-Doctor-Who-Monster competition, and even a wedding to boot. The story managed to win the HUGO award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2011, recalling the days when Doctor Who still managed to nab the prizes.

I suspect that I'll be changing my mind about this ambitious season finale for years to come. You've caught me on a good day, where I can recognise that despite its flaws, the scope and cinematic flair can't be denied. Factor in a superb TARDIS team flying off to pastures new as the police box flies into the timey wimey tunnel of closing credits, and it's a far bigger bang to the end of the season than I originally thought...

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