Series 5, Episode 13: The Big Bang

Nothing is ever forgotten. Not really.”

Phew. All week long, I’ve been saying “I do hope it doesn’t all turn out to be Amy’s dream”. Yet in the end , that was exactly what it was.  The entire universe is now Amy’s dream. And, typically for Steven Moffat, a concept that should have been a total copout was the most cleverly worked out solution to the unfathomably complex puzzle box of a plot he’d been constructing since The Eleventh Hour

Having seemingly written himself into a corner the likes of which even a Davies Ex Machina wouldn’t get him out of, Moffat instead presented, step by step, a perfectly logical (if mindwarping) series of temporal paradoxes which neatly tied the whole thing up, without resorting to quasi-magical solutions. Time, after all, is what the show is all about, and Moffat has been the writer who has really addressed it in previous scripts like Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace. It doesn’t hurt that he can deal with the complexities of time travel while also telling a thrilling story populated by rounded characters that we actually care about.

Of course, there were really only four characters in this episode, but they’re the ones whose emotional journey we’ve been following all season. In a lovely full circle back to the beginning of the series, we were back with nine year old Amy in her bedroom, just where the story began. All a dream, it seemed. But no. As time started to take a different path, we saw a creepily different world, a world that, it soon became clear, was the only one left in the universe. 

Amy’s teacher’s uncomprehending declaration, “there’s no such thing as stars” sent a chill down my spine – a fundamentally scary concept that showed the universe to be all wrong. And as Amy explored the national museum that formed the bulk of the episode’s setting, we saw other weird little hints – African penguins, dinosaurs in the Arctic. As the post it notes guided Amy towards the Pandorica and it then opened to reveal the Amy we knew, I think I actually heard my friend James’ brain implode.

And plastic Rory was still with us. I’m now even more in love with Rory than I was before, after his beautifully romantic decision to stay guarding the Pandorica, and Amy, for two thousand years. The fact that he was still, indisputably, Rory despite being an Auton duplicate was the first hint we had that Amy could be the one who could reshape reality – his personality had been taken from her head by the Nestenes, and they’d got more than they bargained for. Still, I did also chuckle at River Song’s admission that she once dated a Nestene replica and it was never dull because of the interchangeable heads!

Oh yes, River Song. You could see it as a bit of a copout that she didn’t explode with the TARDIS – that was an awfully convenient time loop. Still, it’s in keeping with the nature of the show that the TARDIS would have that kind of safety feature, and it does fit in with the story’s exploitation of the possibilities of time travel. And anything that keeps River around is a good thing, because it’s plain her story is far from over. In keeping with her original appearance in Silence in the Library, her story with the Doctor is one totally out of chronological sequence; from his point of view, the first time they met was when she died, and from hers she always knows what the future holds for the Doctor – because she’s already seen it. It’s a neat idea for a continuing plot thread, and Alex Kingston is great fun as the flamboyant femme fatale (if such she is). According to her, the Doctor will soon meet her for – from her point of view – the first time. I’m looking forward to it.

And so to the Doctor himself. Matt Smith has been an absolute revelation this season; I knew he was a good actor from shows like Party Animals and The Ruby in the Smoke. But he’s been amazing as the Doctor, building a character who’s much more like the traditional Time Lord we knew from the original series than the confident, super cool Doctor of David Tennant. With the sort of deceptive bumbling reminiscent of Patrick Troughton and the alien qualities of Tom Baker, he’s been consistently excellent – funny, charismatic, and occasionally scary.

And now heartbreakingly brave, as he refused to be put off by even his own apparent death at the stick of a petrified Dalek. Then flying off in the Pandorica itself to collide with the explosion and, as he put it, “reboot the universe” (basically, turning it off and on again). It’s not the first time he’s sacrificed himself to save the entre universe – the Fourth Doctor died under just those circumstances, in the similarly mind boggling story Logopolis. But this time the stakes seemed higher somehow. Not just the whole of existence was at stake, but so were the characters we’d come to care about – a fact that Rory forcibly reminded the Doctor of by punching him in the mouth!

OK, so the Pandorica’s hitherto unrevealed ability to restore patterns and then actually fly is a bit of a deus ex machina, despite that I’d like to think Moffat avoids the pitfalls of Russell T Davies’ writing. But it’s really no more than a McGuffin; a plot device that enables the Doctor to sacrifice himself and Amy to rebuild the universe. As the Doctor careered back through his personal time stream, I was pleased to see the attention to detail that had gone into seeding the clues into previous episodes of the season – none more so than his unexpected appearance, wearing his jacket, in Flesh and Stone. That one I actually spotted, and maintained it to be part of the plan even when friends said the appearance of the jacket (lost to the Angels in a previous scene) was just a continuity error.

So, having rebuilt the universe, Amy’s saved the day again. But I can’t find it in myself to object – the Doctor was every bit as instrumental, and ultimately, she brought him back too. The wedding was a perfect happy ending – Amy ended up with Rory no matter how much she fancied the Doctor. Probably a good thing too – one of the things I’m glad we lost with Russell T Davies was the Doctor-companion relationship always having to be a pseudo-romantic one. And the TARDIS really is, as Steve Moffat no doubt noticed years ago, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. Its triumphant appearance at Amy’s wedding reception was just one of many moments that brought a few tears to my eyes. As was the marvellous final farewell, Amy and Rory waving goodbye to Earth and off to new adventures with the Doctor. It’s great that, for the first time since Rose Tyler, we’ve got a TARDIS crew that’s stayed together for more than one season.

The Big Bang, then, was everything the title promised (except, thankfully, in the sexual sense!). A thrilling season finale that cleverly used the potential of time travel as the central tenet of the series, with witty dialogue, a few monsters, and a clever and honest resolution to an incredibly complex plot. I know the change in the show’s direction hasn’t been to everyone’s liking, but for me, Steven Moffat has brought back a real feeling of magic to a show that had become jaded, and even in four years overburdened by its own legend. And the plot still isn’t fully resolved. Who was really behind it? Who was the mysterious, malevolent voice declaring that “silence must fall”? For the first time since the show returned, there’s a real sense of a plan that extends further than just the end of the season itself. I can’t wait for Christmas!

Series 5, Episode 12: The Pandorica Opens

Everything that’s ever hated you is coming here tonight.”

Wow. That was simultaneously riveting, exciting, and really intricately plotted. In fact, we can now finally see all the intricate plotting throughout the whole season beginning to pay off.  It also fulfilled the now obligatory requirement for a season ending to be massively spectacular, but unlike some of the season finales of the past, it didn’t provide spectacle at the expense of plot or intelligence. And that has to be the best cliffhanger the show has ever done!

A massive pre-credits sequence – possibly the longest ever – tied the season together in a way that’s never been done before, by bringing back most of the really memorable characters we’ve met as the year has progressed. Van Gogh’s still mad, Churchill’s still huge, and River Song’s still… well, still River Song. I wasn’t entirely surprised that so much of the season finale revolved around her (even without the spoilery revelation from Doctor Who Magazine that she was in it). Steve Moffat (her creator, after all) obviously sees her as his version of Captain Jack Harkness; she’s the larger than life occasional companion who pops up at crucial points, with a flamboyant personality and dress sense to match. Alex Kingston was great as ever, though I suspect some fans will find the character’s over-the-top personality and ‘Hello sweetie’ catchphrase a bit much to take.

And Rory was back too! There are plenty of Rory-haters out there, but I was over the moon to see Arthur Darvill, if not entirely surprised. OK, so he turned out to be an Auton replica like all the Romans, but any Rory is better than no Rory. And he got that cracking scene with Matt Smith as the Doctor failed to notice that his return was anything unusual; a funny scene comically timed to perfection by both actors. Not to mention the heartbreaking moment when Amy remembered him just as he unwillingly shot her, the first shock in an exponentially increasing series of them that led to THAT cliff-hanger…

But it was still a classic Who story, and like every classic Who story, it had monsters. Lots of them, in fact. When the Daleks faced off against the Cybermen at the end of season two, it was great fun but seemed like, in the words of the lamented Craig Hinton, fanwank. But here, Steve Moffat managed to pull off bringing back virtually every opponent the Doctor has faced since the series returned, and not only did it seem credible and entertaining, but it was also only a part of a massively complex plot. I’d had forebodings since the Daleks’ makeover that the finale would yet again revolve around them; but while they were back, so was everyone else, and the Daleks were just one element of a massive alien alliance that was itself not the main villain of the piece.

Having the monsters involved more peripherally meant they could have some fun doing unusual things with them, too. That whole sequence with the dismembered Cyberman managed to be both memorably gruesome and blackly funny. The writhing metal tentacles of the dismembered Cyber-head as it crawled towards Amy managed to be reminiscent of Tetsuo the Iron Man and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and as it then popped the head back onto its damaged body, I was reminded of nothing so much as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. That struck me as a pretty fair steal, given that the Borg have always seemed like ripoffs of the Cybermen in the first place!

In keeping with a new style of production team, the finale also has, initially, a very unusual setting. Since the show returned, each increasingly epic finale has taken place either on contemporary Earth or the far future. Here we had our heroes roaming around Roman Britain, itself a key piece of the puzzle that’s been building all season. And the Pandorica itself was under Stonehenge – a nice use of a British location rather more interesting than, say, Canary Wharf. As the Doctor stalked around what seemed to be a very large version of the puzzle box from Hellraiser, muttering about the massively destructive individual contained therein, I began to guess that the only messianic/destructive creature to live up to that description was the Doctor himself. Mind you, I’d thought that, in keeping with the theme of disjointed time throughout the season, it would be a future version of the Doctor already imprisoned. It was a good bit of misdirection in the script to give you the hint that the Doctor was inside and then reveal at the end that he would be – just not yet.

A similar bit of misdirection was the rousing scene in which the Doctor, armed only  with a transmitter, seemingly sees off a massive fleet of spaceships belonging to all his greatest enemies. Matt Smith played it well, going in an instant from his ‘young fogey’ persona to a believably godlike, ancient alien. It was a scene that almost felt like it was written for David Tennant, so reminiscent was it of Russell T Davies’ style, and yet it turned out to be more sleight of hand from Mr Moffat. The aliens weren’t leaving because of their terror of the Doctor, as they would have done in previous seasons – the Doctor, it turned out, was exactly where they wanted him.

Meanwhile, River was taken by an increasingly shaky TARDIS to the fateful date of 26 June 2010, and all the pieces of the puzzle started to slot into place. As the script juxtaposed the increasing peril of River in the about-to-explode TARDIS with the Doctor being clamped into the Pandorica and Rory cradling Amy’s (apparently) lifeless body, some excellent direction skilfully ramped up the tension. The pacing of this episode was superb, with revelation after revelation building to a massive climax. The alien alliance think the Doctor is responsible for the cracks, and the impending erasure of the universe from history. But it looks like they’re wrong, and they’ve just caged up the only being who can stop it. As the familiar crack appears yet again, this time in the screen of the TARDIS, is the malevolent voice croaking “silence must fall” the real villain? Then just who is it?

Steven Moffat has always been excellent at writing very complex, deceptive scripts that misdirect the viewer with the skill of an excellent magician. Even when he was writing Press Gang, his very first TV show, that was evident. But given the whole of space and time to play with, he’s taken intricate, puzzle-piece plotting to a new level. This episode showed the stakes he’d been hinting at throughout the season – not just the destruction of the entire universe, but its, and all other universes’, erasure from time entirely. The stakes have never been so high in Doctor Who, and we still don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. But with this episode climaxing with the apparent death of two of the main characters, the perpetual imprisonment of the other and the apparent destruction of all universes and time itself, you have to admit that’s one hell of a “how’s he going to write his way out of that?” ending. With Steven Moffat writing, I can’t wait for next week to find out.

Series 5, Episode 11: The Lodger

All I have to do is pass as an ordinary human being. Simple. What could possibly go wrong?”

Last night, the nation was glued to its TV screens, watching a much anticipated clash of two mighty teams on the football pitch. And as it turned out, the Doctor was a pretty good striker.

Doctor Who fans and football fans have never got along very well, despite the obvious similarities – encyclopaedic knowledge of statistics, glued to the TV on a Saturday and a tendency to wear silly scarves. But last night, Matt Smith (a former footballer himself, of course) tried bravely to bridge the gap between Who-nerds and soccer-nerds. Which ones do you think will be most upset?

I’m being facetious, I know, but a lot of Who fans were outraged when they saw pictures of their beloved hero playing football! Gareth Roberts’ The Lodger did actually have more to it than just a football match – though not a lot more. In the ‘cheap’ slot of the season previously reserved for stories with few appearances by the regular cast, it broke with tradition by being all about the Doctor, and featuring Amy quite a bit too. But it was a slight story, even though the budgetary limitations were put to good use in its convincing contemporary setting.

Gareth Roberts’ writing has been the cause of some contention among fans, but I’ve enjoyed his work back from when he used to write for the Virgin New Adventures series. He has a great sense of comic character and dialogue, and previously his work on the TV series has been prestigious historicals like The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp. The Lodger gave him a chance to flesh out a story previously written as a comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine, and like the strip was enjoyable without having much actual substance.

The central schtick was, of course, the Doctor’s efforts to blend in with what we know as everyday life – pub football matches, flatshares, working in a call centre. Even the setting of Colchester seemed deliberately drab and provincial, not like all those world shattering alien invasions that take place in that London. The actual sci fi part of the story was almost incidental to all of that, and in fact was never a part of the original comic story.

Nonetheless, the ‘something at the top of the stairs’ plotline did manage to be moderately creepy. The ever-changing, faceless figure in the top flat was an obvious homage to Sapphire and Steel, and the rationale for his existence as an automaton killing people off in an attempt to repair his spacecraft seemed very similar to the central concept of Steven Moffat’s Girl in the Fireplace. Derivative or not, though, its placing in such a humdrum, ordinary context was enough to bring a little chill.

But it was the humdrum context that was at the heart of the story, and the deliberate juxtaposition of the Doctor (“weird”) with the lives of two ordinary Earth people in a situation that’s familiar to all of us. There can’t be many people who haven’t experienced the fun and frustration of a flatshare at some point in their lives, and the script captured this very well. It also invited us to think about how an extraordinary figure like the Doctor can’t really have that kind of life, and how he might envy it – a theme that’s been touched on several times since the show came back.

There was much unease in fandom about the casting of James Corden as Craig, the Doctor’s flatmate. I didn’t see any problem with it even before the show was aired; I’ve been watching Corden for many years in various shows, and despite his (and Matthew Horne’s) recent awful sketch show, I know he’s a capable comic actor. And so he proved here. Craig was written well, and Corden invested him with a believable sense of being quite out of his depth with this eccentric new flatmate.

With Amy stuck in the malfunctioning TARDIS, the main interaction was between Craig and the Doctor; Corden and Matt Smith formed an amusing ‘odd couple’ double act, which made the episode seem oddly more like a sitcom than a sci fi drama. It was difficult not to laugh when the Doctor upstaged Craig at football, turned up at his work when he was off sick, and even tried to defend Craig against the monster while brandishing an electric toothbrush and clad in nothing but a bath towel.

Craig’s unspoken love for his best mate Sophie, and their cosy nights in together (“pizza-booze-telly”) were shaken up by this puzzling new lodger, as the Doctor once again showed his bafflement at all things human and ordinary. Matt Smith has really nailed this aspect of the character better than anyone since the show returned, and used it here to comic effect, blithely giving Craig £3000 in cash (“That’s a lot, isn’t it?”), unable to grasp why Craig might want some ‘space’ with Sophie, and completely ignorant of the game of football (“That’s the one with the sticks, isn’t it?”).

The love story aspect of the plot was another new addition from the original comic story, but did tie in neatly with the sci fi part of the episode. Daisy Haggard was again believably ordinary as Sophie, and it was fitting, if very schmaltzy, that the Doctor was the one who made these two ordinary people realise that they could be extraordinary, and that they belonged together.

Ultimately, though, while The Lodger was a nice bit of fun, it felt very insubstantial – as if there wasn’t quite enough story to fill the running time. As the ‘cheap’ story of the season, it did provide some worthwhile entertainment, but didn’t take the opportunity other such show have had to be wildly experimental with the format – just look at Love and Monsters, Blink, Midnight and Turn Left. A bit of fun, then, but not much more.

Still, with next week’s big finale approaching, we saw a few final clues about what’s going to happen – portents, even. For the second episode in a row we saw flashbacks of all the Doctor’s past selves – is that significant? There was a postcard of Van Gogh on the fridge, and aside from the entire episode about him, we’ve seen his pictures appear in this series before. And Amy’s Crack was back, a problem that could be far worse for Craig than the mysterious dry rot on his ceiling. What does it all mean? We’ve only two more weeks to find out…

Series 5, Episode 10: Vincent and the Doctor

Art can wait, this is a matter of life and death!”

I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. Since Doctor Who came back in 2005, there’s been a trend for episodes that focus specifically on one historical figure, most often an artist of some kind. We had Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Code, and Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp. You could almost add Winston Churchill in Victory of the Daleks, but he was sadly sidelined in favour of the new Day Glo Daleks.

And now, in Richard Curtis’ much vaunted debut for the series, we get Vincent Van Gogh. I really don’t know much about art, but Vincent is one of those artists that even a philistine like me is aware of. Curtis is obviously a fan, which is a good thing – imagine if we’d been treated to a story on the life of Vermeer, or Mondriaan. A lot fewer people would have got the references there, I suspect.

Vincent and the Doctor (the title presumably deliberately riffing on the film Vincent and Theo) was an enjoyable episode, but as with Simon Nye’s Amy’s Choice, it somehow didn’t quite feel like Doctor Who. Curtis is undoubtedly a talented writer, though since Blackadder your enjoyment of his work is dependent on your tolerance for sickly sweet romantic comedies, almost always starring Hugh Grant. But like Nye, he’s not a fan of Who particularly, and clearly has an outsider’s idea of how the show works.

In this case, it leads to an interesting episode. The focus on Vincent pretty much excludes any other character, and even the Doctor and Amy take second place to everyone’s favourite tortured artist. On the positive side, Tony Curran’s portrayal of Van Gogh was stunning, a brave performance the likes of which you rarely see in Doctor Who. As promised, Curtis didn’t shy away from the issue of the artist’s depression and mental illness, and this must be the first time a Who episode has been followed by one of those “If you’ve been affected by the issues in this programme” helpline ads.

But the depression, realistically shown by a hostile, hallucinating Vincent attacking the Doctor and Amy, wasn’t made the central point of Vincent’s character. He was shown as a talented but self-effacing man, who kept referring to his work as rubbish and trying to barter famous works of art for another drink.  His flirtatious byplay with Amy was a delight, particularly the “Are you Dutch too?” line, which referenced his undisguised Scottish accent. And it was perfectly believable that the now single Amy would fall for him a little bit too, although she didn’t much care for the beard. Presumably the repeated exhortations to shave it off caused a razor accident involving his ear…

Thankfully, despite Curtis’ obvious veneration of Van Gogh and his own previous history, this was not a romantic comedy. Indeed, compared with Simon Nye’s delightfully barbed dialogue in Amy’s Choice, it was barely a comedy at all. The obligatory marauding alien was present and correct, though as with previous ‘great historical figures’ episodes, it seemed almost like a perfunctory afterthought. Still, some effort was made to give the Krafayis creature interesting characteristics; I liked that it could only be seen in mirrors, or by Vincent himself, who somehow “sees differently”. And it was interesting, though a little obvious, to make the particular example here a deliberate parallel to Vincent himself, abandoned because it couldn’t see and an outcast from its race.

However, the episode wasn’t really about the alien, and he was conveniently despatched about two thirds into it. And that’s where Curtis’ usual style really showed itself, as the self-doubting Vincent was taken to the Musee D’Orsay in 2010 to see an exhibition of his own work and be worshipped (albeit unknowingly) by the ever-excellent Bill Nighy. The dialogue here was actually rather cringeworthy as the art expert declared that, in his view, Van Gogh was “the greatest painter who ever lived”, but the performances sold it in an amazing way. Nighy’s dry delivery and Curran’s gradual descent into tears brought an undoubted lump to my throat regardless of how cheesy the dialogue was, and it ended up being a rather magical little scene that was well worth getting the alien out of the way to leave time for.

When you’re directing an episode about one of the greatest artists who ever lived, it must be a challenge. Jonny Campbell rose to the challenge admirably, producing a visually stunning piece of television that deliberately referenced many of Van Gogh’s most famous works. The literal translation of Cafe Terrace at Night that enabled the Doctor to track Vincent down was nicely done, as was the scary sequence of The Church at Auvers that started the whole story, but the real magic was reserved for the scene in which the night sky transforms into Vincent’s well-known work The Starry Night. The Doctor’s worshipful eulogy of how Vincent sees the world was a little much to take, but the visuals more than made up for it.

Vincent aside, there was a palpable tension in the Doctor’s relationship with Amy this week. Obviously uncomfortable at her loss of even the memory of Rory, the Doctor’s been doing nice things for her, and she’s wondering why. This wasn’t gone into with any depth – indeed, may well have been a post-hoc contribution from Steve Moffat himself – but was nicely played by Smith and Gillan as a prelude to something more. No sign of Amy’s Crack this week, mind…

Still, Amy did try to cheer Vincent up so that he wouldn’t kill himself, and learned the same lesson about changing time that Barbara did way back in 1964’s The Aztecs. But her attempt to brighten up his garden with hordes of sunflowers “you might want to, you know, paint them…” did turn out to have inspired him to create probably his most famous work, Vase with 12 Sunflowers.  Although something tells me the real one doesn’t have ‘For Amy’ written on it. Again, it was a heartstring tugging moment, though slightly less successful than the one with Vincent in the museum himself. And as a ‘subtly altering time’ plot point, it reminded me of nothing more than that really silly episode of Quantum Leap where Sam has failed to prevent Kennedy’s assassination – “in the original history, Jackie died too…”. Yeah, right.

Still, cynical though I might be, this was an out of format episode that worked quite well. Richard Curtis still can’t resist the pull of pure sentimentality, but overall it was a heartfelt piece lifted by an amazing performance from Tony Curran as Vincent, and some great direction from Jonny Cambell. We’re obviously just treading water before the big climax at this point, but if all treading water episodes were this entertaining I’d say it was worth ditching story arcs altogether.