Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang

We've had some marvellous episodes since the show came back, a haul of incontestable classics from different writers and different Doctors. Right now, I think this two-parter is the best of the lot. There isn't much to choose between the truly excellent stories, and I'm nervous about claiming that this is better than, say, The Empty Child, Silence in the Library or The Time of Angels. But as a season finale (and one that doesn't disappoint either), the delights of The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang have more impact: the jokes are funnier, the frights, scarier, the twists, even more brain-melty. I've suggested once or twice that Doctor Who might have achieved something of the epic during this run, but here for the first time, in these two episodes, it approaches legend.

One of the best pre-credits ever. Vincent van Gogh! Churchill! River Song! Liz 10! With the mystery of the painting threaded through them, these cameos are electrifying and draw the whole season together. By the time the Doctor and Amy find themselves in Cleopatra's tent, there's a palpable sense of doom.

Stonehenge! There's your legend right there. Those mysterious, seemingly impossible stones, alone on that plain for thousands of years. It seems astonishing that Doctor Who hasn't tried to shoehorn them in before, but thank goodness nobody did because this is the perfect moment for them to appear. And what a clever bit of writing:

AMY: How come it's not new?
RIVER: Because it's already old. It's been here thousands of years. No one knows exactly how long.

Ooh well, it almost certainly didn't look like this back in 102AD, but it was already old and that's the important thing. Moffat shows us a Roman and then stretches our sight back even further into unknowable, ancient pre-history. We end up with a perspective that we would never have had if the TARDIS had just arrived in the Bronze Age.

The Underhenge! Aha, there's no such thing of course, but what a great idea. Instantly Stonehenge is even more mysterious than it was already and our time travellers have an underground chamber to investigate. The music and direction here is especially excellent, with both Murray Gold and Toby Haynes consciously channelling Indiana Jones for maximum effect.

"There was a goblin, or a trickster, or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos. And nothing could stop it, or hold it, or reason with it. One day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world." Just one of many beautiful bits of dialogue, but ominous and full of (not so) hidden meaning. It's another great Moffat twist hidden in plain sight, but the fascinating thing is that the Doctor, keenly aware of his own inner monster, doesn't recognise himself from this description.

The Best Cyberman Ever. I mentioned before that we never seem to get any good Cybermen stories, but this lone, rusty, partially-dismembered sentry is scary and interesting in a way that we have never seen before. It's a short scene, but the attack is ingenious, relentless and full of images of the sort of body-horror that we should automatically associate with the Cybermen: the skull falling from the head, the arm moving by itself, the headless body marching towards us, unstoppable, murderous. It's excellent and, unfortunately, raised my expectations that a 'proper' Cyberman story would eventually arrive. I'm still waiting.

Rory. I think, looking back, that we all expected Rory to turn up again; we didn't expect him to come back as an Auton Roman centurion. How fantastic is that scene between Darvill and Smith? The Doctor, distracted, oblivious, even calling Rory by name before he realises what has happened. Then the moment of silent realisation, the long stare and that gorgeous exploratory poke in the chest, Rory rocking on his heels and springing back into place. And then, matter-of-fact, they exchange hellos and how've-you-beens, the Roman and the Time Lord, both beautifully British: polite and, understated. "Rory," says the Doctor eventually, "I'm not trying to be rude, but you died." Utter bliss.

The Big Speech. To be honest, of all the marvellous things in this story, this is the one I get excited about least. It seems to be wildly popular but it isn't really the grand oration people remember it as: it's excellent because it's a bluff, because its grandeur is illusory.

The Trap Closes. Having the Auton's turn up - pretty much out of nowhere - is very clever indeed and a lovely chilling moment, especially as the ramifications for Rory become apparent. But the odd collection of aliens that appear to imprison the Doctor, although visually satisfying, is rather too obviously comprised of all the costumes and prosthetics that could be pressed into service. To be honest, a Grand Alliance of Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans might be better. Still, what an incredible climax to this episode: the Doctor, defeated and dragged inside the Pandorica, Rory and Amy briefly reunited and then cruelly separated once again; River trapped inside the TARDIS doomed to explode. And then the stars start to go out.

"Okay kid, this is where it get's complicated." The best pre-credits, so far at least, and a brilliant opening to The Big Bang as the young Amelia, seemingly escaped from the grand canon of children's literature, part Paddington Bear, part Matilda, follows the clues to the mysterious stone cube in the museum. Only to find a grown-up, supposedly dead, version of herself sat inside.

The Business with the Mop, the Fez, and the Vortex Manipulator. Proper hi-jinks. Dirty time-travel shenanigans. Intoxicating, exhilarating, joy-to-be-alive tomfoolery. Has Doctor Who ever been more fun? From the blistering and bizarre appearance of the Doctor to the despairing Rory, to the moment that River blasts the fez to smithereens over the rooftops of Cardiff  London, this is just one long extraordinary giggle.

Rory's Apotheosis. Glorious, beautiful, and deeply-romantic, Rory's transformation from feeble no-hoper to kick-ass, two-thousand year old, sort-of-Auton and legendary centurion is one of the most satisfying character arcs in Doctor Who, and his quiet and dignified resolution to stay and watch over Amy is a very grand romantic gesture indeed. If he doesn't quite sustain this glory in future episodes (he's fairly ordinary again in The Impossible Astronaut), he continues to have outstanding moments (for example in A Good Man Goes to War, Let's Kill Hitler and The Girl Who Waited.)

"Mercy!" River versus the Dalek is cool, unnerving and completely bad-ass.

The Doctor's Plan. Astonishing writing here that again shows how desperately clever the Doctor is. At every point in this episode, the Doctor knows more than we do, more than his companions do, and he never tells us everything. As a result, we are never sure that he knows what he's doing, until the last moment when it becomes obvious that he planned this all along, or at least since the Dalek turned up. "Okay Doctor," says Amy, very satisfied with herself, "did I surprise you this time." The Doctor appears in the TARDIS door, impeccable in white tie and tails, complete with top hat. Only a little sheepishly, he lies. "Er yeah. Completely astonished. Never expected that. How lucky I happened to be wearing this old thing." Before that, there are hints. The ingenious conversation from Flesh and Stone, replayed and revealed here, implies that he is working on something, chancing his arm at an outside bet. More importantly it is clear evidence of Moffat's own long-term scheming. In the final conversation with Amelia, both Moffat and Doctor contrive an air of resignation, as if this really was the end, all the while carefully and invisibly arranging their eventual triumph.

And that's Series Five, immensely satisfying and surely the best so far. By my reckoning seven of the thirteen episodes are impregnable, incontestable all-time classics and none of the other six are anything less than very good either. The show has never looked or sounded better and Smith, in just these few stories, has laid a good claim on being the best Doctor of them all. I can't wait to see if the next two series can match it.


No comments:

Post a Comment