Monday, June 28, 2010

The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang

In my review of The Eleventh Hour, I complained that Steven Moffat was trying too hard to be Russell Davies, and in the omega of this season he repeats the emulation of the alpha. But once again he does it so well that I find myself enjoying the ride even as I'm loathing, conceptually, some of what I'm seeing on screen. There's a term for this, of course: guilty pleasures. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang is another guilty pleasure, and effectively gives Moffat's predecessor the finger whilst feigning homage. The subtext essentially is, if you're going to raise the stakes to extreme heights, Mr. Davies, this is how you do it.

The Pandorica Opens is an admittedly queasy viewing experience, as its style copies The Stolen Earth to a tee -- a barrage of fanwank serving as an extended set up which could segue into something spectacular or a bloody mess. This time, instead of everyone trying to telephone the Doctor (though there's some of that too), it's him and River Song circling the Pandorica trying to make sense of it. And in place of returning companions (who got nothing to do in the season four finale besides hug each other), it's now every enemy the Doctor ever faced -- Daleks, Cybermen, Slitheen, Drahvins, Sontarans, Silurians, Judoon, and more -- all swarming over Stonehenge in 102 AD, ready to claim the artifact. Then there is Rory, back from the dead somehow as a Roman soldier, which of course feels like a cop-out until he is revealed, stunningly, to be an Auton and shoots Amy dead. As the Doctor is thrown into his prison, the TARDIS starts exploding around River Song, and all the stars in the universe go supernova, we're left wondering if The Big Bang can possibly pay off these narrative debts without resorting to cheap resets.

The key word being "cheap". Resets are often uncritically maligned (I complain about and dread them myself), but they can be very legitimate and inevitable consequences of fixing time damage. Father's Day depends on a colossal reset, but you never hear anyone complain about it; it's rightly hailed as a classic. The reason, of course, owes to the dramatic involvement of Pete Tyler. His intense interactions with the daughter he'll never see grow up are so emotional, and his voluntary death so tragic, that the reset is almost invisible. (Many fans are genuinely shocked when you remind them that the world is saved by a reset in Father's Day.) At the other pole is Last of the Time Lords involving a universally despised deus ex machina. It's not that there is anything theoretically wrong with the reset in the season-three finale -- when you stop and think about it, the winding back of time would be the logical outcome of destroying the Master's paradox machine -- only in its dramatic execution. No protagonists die, no real loss is felt, and on top of that, there is the ridiculous solution of the Doctor being prayed back into existence. The problem with Last of the Time Lords is not that it involves a reset, but that it involves a reset unaccompanied by proper dramatic payoff. Victory has to cost.

It does cost in The Big Bang, though not as much as it could have. Rory's consciousness overcomes his Auton physicality a bit too easily for my liking, and Amy is back from the dead before we know it. I would have killed off Rory for good and dragged out Amy's death much longer, and written a less than happy ending. Yet I can't honestly say I felt cheated by what Moffat serves up for us, because he compensated in plenty other ways. First is the Doctor's sacrifice. When he flies the Pandorica into the heart of the exploding TARDIS, the world starts reconstituting itself and he starts fading from existence, and the backwards manner of this erasure is one of my favorite parts of the story. He sees Amy in a set of replays, and amongst the flashbacks he visits her at the point of Flesh and Stone when she's blind (I knew this wasn't a continuity error), telling her she must remember what he told her when she was seven. We then find out what this was in the next replay, as he returns to a sleeping seven-year old Amelia the night he stood her up in The Eleventh Hour. He lifts her from her garden, puts her to bed, and talks while she sleeps, planting a permanent memory within her that will ultimately save him; he walks into the last crack; it closes behind him, killing him; the world is saved.

Second, this reset carries the unexpected surprise of giving back people we never knew existed -- most obviously, Amy's parents. This beautifully accounts for the emptiness of Amy's many-roomed house and why she never talked about a family. Early in the season I made clear my feelings for her parental absence: I was relieved beyond measure that we didn't have to suffer through yet another season of a TARDIS companion weighed down by a dysfunctional family. But I never gave much thought as to what happened to her parents; I certainly never guessed that the crack in her bedroom wall had obliterated them from history. So when they "come back" at the end of this story, it feels like more than a reset, a genuine surprise and rewarding payoff in a way we're not used to. When all is said and done, I really can't object to the happy ending of The Big Bang just because I would have preferred something more along the lines of Pan's Labyrinth or The Girl in the Fireplace. It works; it's clever; it ties up all the loose ends of the season; and most importantly it feels right.

I should say that the crack in Amy's bedroom wall has been the most successful seasonal story arc of the new series. Torchwood and Saxon were good too, but they have nothing on these rifts in time. (Bad Wolf was complete rubbish, and the less said about Donna's role in season four the better.) I'm wondering if the cracks are intentionally reminiscent of the time winds in Warriors' Gate, which also had the power to eat away at things. If so, then Moffat has been paying a clever homage to the E-Space Trilogy all along, with The Beast Below paralleling the politics of Full Circle, Vampires of Venice standing in for State of Decay, and the The Big Bang juggling time paradoxes as confusingly (and as cleverly) as Warriors' Gate. I should also say, now that the season is finished, that Matt Smith has completely superseded my expectations. Not only do I like his Doctor better than Tennant's, he's become my second favorite of all time, topped, of course, only by Tom Baker.

I'm not going to pretend that The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang is amongst Moffat's greatest stories, but it is a hugely enjoyable finale that is already growing on me like The Eleventh Hour. Though he'd never admit to it, I'm sure Moffat was going out of his way to show his predecessor how to properly do a story like Journey's End. Next season I suspect he's going to give the one-upsmanship a rest and focus exclusively on doing his own thing. In an interview in New York he hinted that the book-ends of season six will be completely unlike these fanwank pieces we're used to. As I said in The Eleventh Hour, miracles don't happen overnight. But perhaps over the course of a season.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.


Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

If you'd been able to resist your mistaken knocks at RTD, and your erroneous judgment of Donna Noble, this would have been quite a good review with which I would largely agree!

Anonymous Sir MacFly said...

Please explain the difference between the "ridiculous solution of the Doctor being prayed back into existence" in Last of the Time Lords and what happens in this story as Amy calls the Doctor back into existence by simply remembering him. Both strike me as equally cheap.

On the other hand, when taken as a whole, I think you're right that this finale is light-years ahead of either Last of the Time Lords or Journey's End (each of which get no higher than a rating of 1 from me). But I'd probably give The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang a 3. I'm way in the minority I realize, since fans and critics seem to think it's the best story of the season.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

I wasn't wild about the Doctor being resurrected via Amy's memory, but it's not nearly as bad as what happens in Last of the Time Lords, at least for two reasons. First, the idea of memory power has been carefully plotted and developed throughout the story and indeed the entire season – as far back as Flesh and Stone, in that scene which many were assuming was a continuity error. Then the Doctor deliberately plants a memory in the seven-year old Amelia's head for this purpose, and he had also told Rory (who was reconstituted on the basis of consciousness and memories) that "if something is remembered, it can come back". Because of all the care that went in to developing the theme, it doesn't end up feeling half as cheap as the resurrection-via-prayer in the season three finale.

Second, and more generally, the memory solution fits nicely with the fairy-tale theme of season five. It's all about the power of imagination, dreams, and memory, and I think it works rather well. As I said in the review, I would have preferred a less than happy ending more in sync with Pan's Labyrinth or Girl in the Fireplace, but I really didn't feel cheated by any of this. Steven Moffat is just too good a storyteller; Russell Davies left a lot to be desired as a story teller.


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