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.