In his final review, Tom Steward dons a fez and faces his greatest enemies…
The Pandorica Opens
I’d grown weary of the ongoing storyline about a crack in time and space and was hardly looking forward to this arc-heavy two-part finale. As far as I was concerned, the serial storyline was an unwelcome afterthought to the best and tightest one-off episodes (Vampires of Venice, The Lodger).
Inevitably, I found the plot developments fairly uninteresting in this opener. The viewer was bombarded with story information designed to assert a coherent narrative behind the season. In fact, it was increasingly obvious that Moffat was clutching at straws narratively, dazzling the viewer with plot points to disguise gaping holes in plausibility and logic. In particular, the intergalactic rogue’s gallery of villains and re-imagining of the living plastic Autons as intelligent androids raised more questions than answers.
What alleviated this unbalanced storytelling in The Pandorica Opens was the sheer sense of adventure. Bare-back horse riding, archaeological excavations of Stonehenge, torch-lit underground labyrinths – it was like a much improved Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In particular, Amy’s tussle with the various body parts of a Cyberman was breathlessly exciting and frightening. Light costume drama moments concerning the Romans and River Song’s alliance helped a lot.
It was pleasing to see that Moffat had avoided many of the pitfalls of the Davies-era season finales. There were no Doctor-companion reunions or looming threats to the Earth. The danger was far more conceptual and universal and the episode only went as far as stockpiling former Dr. Who adversaries. Moffat also managed to rectify the off-key writing of River Song in the Weeping Angels two-parter, turning her into a more straightforwardly compelling action heroine, a shift in persona that Alex Kingston clearly relished.
Karen Gillan showed herself to be the equal of Smith’s melodrama with her extraordinary facial performance during the Cyberman fight, the programme clearly now trusting in the actors much more to carry action sequences, rather than special effects. Smith’s performance, despite another unnecessary speech utterly unsuited to his vocal style, was magnificent – statuesque and operatically tragic in his futile struggles against his inevitable fate and the concomitant end of time and space.
The Big Bang
The real pleasures of this final episode lay in its time-hopping first half-hour. The breathless opening section of The Big Bang in which the Doctor and his companions jumped around time and space creating a number of mini-paradoxes was warm, witty, brainteasing and done with a refreshing lightness of touch.
These vignettes nicely undercut the portentousness that was a hangover from the tragic ending of the opener, drawing a line under the solemnity and self-pity introduced into the finales of Davies’ seasons. Moving from elegiac tour-de-force to adorable slapstick, Smith’s performance catalysed this tonal shift, recalling the way that Patrick Troughton’s tomfoolery would temper some of his darkest serials (e.g. The Invasion).
This was followed by an equally wonderful mid-section in which the Doctor and his companions were chased around the National Museum by a Dalek. Thrilling yet understated, the sequence introduced peril into stark yet familiar locations, just as the programme used to draw maximum excitement out of its mundane settings. My first memory of Dr. Who was of Daleks pursuing Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred through a secondary school (Remembrance of the Daleks), and it is burned into my brain to this day. Were I a young viewer now, I think the museum sequences would have the same effect on me.
For my money, the episode started to fall apart in the denouement, as major plot developments and resolutions started to take place in characters’ imaginations. This made for an insubstantial end to the season, Moffat using memory and subjectivity to give him carte blanche to do what he wanted with characters and solutions to narrative dilemmas. Despite these reservations about Moffat’s storytelling abilities, what makes him superior to Davies as a writer is his comprehension of how to do long-form narrative arcs. Rather than building and building to an explosive season climax and then resetting the clock the following year as before, Moffat kept back a number of key story points (the origins of the crack, the identity of River Song) for future episodes, suggesting that his tenure may have a single story arc running through it.