(Between the demise of the old Starburst and the birth of its new incarnation, there were fourteen Doctor Who stories broadcast that the magazine never got around to reviewing. This is one of them.)
If the idiosyncrasies of Steven Moffat’s take on Doctor Who have been a while coming (and while there have been flashes of it, notably in The Eleventh Hour, we haven’t really had the real deal unto this point), then here they finally arrive with a (Big) Bang. The whole of Series Five has found itself in a sort of limbo between what it was replacing and what it was replacing it with, but with his two-part finale, Moffat at last lays his cards on the table and invites us to inspect the results. To mix the metaphor even further, it’s something of a mixed bag.
One thing we’ve come to expect from Moffat, a development that arrived fully-fledged with his Library two-parter and was even more obvious in this year’s Angel story, is that the two halves will be significantly different to one another. So it is here; in fact, it’s almost impossible to write a review of this story without considering the individual episodes as being entirely separate from one another. The Pandorica Opens is, if anything, a rejoinder to the past five years’ worth of Doctor Who finales, an exclamation of “Anything you can do...” to which Moffat replies “I can do bigger!” Although not necessarily better, but Moffat will do it his own way and so he does.
And so, we have a pre-titles sequence (I hate the misuse of the expression ‘pre-credits sequence’; the credits come at the end of the episode, and so the entire 45 minutes is ‘pre-credits’) that builds and elaborates upon the already elaborate sequence that began The Time of Angels. There’s a mystery to resolve and characters to manoeuvre into position, and in the space of just a few short minutes of bravura planet-hopping and cameo-making, we arrive in the midst of the Roman Empire, somewhere near Stonehenge. So far so Steven, as it’s becoming apparent that Mr Moffat loves his faux history (even The Beast Below was set in a futuristic version of the 1970s). River Song is Cleopatra, and Rory’s not dead (the Cleopatra thing would seem like grandstanding if it wasn’t so cheeky; the Kenny-from-South-Park thing would seem lazy if it wasn’t so funny), and the action relocates to an underground cavern for the majority of the episode. It’s a way of keeping costs down and tensions high, and mirrors – again – the first episode of the Angels story. It’s like we keep getting lost in a time-travelling variation of Indiana Jones. That is not a complaint.
More of Moffat’s tropes make an appearance: the Doctor’s stance of “Look me up if you want to have a go,” is endearingly broadcast to an entire sky full of spaceships (Matt Smith sounds a little drunk during this bit), and beneath his feet there’s a perfect and impossible prison. The kind that River Song keeps escaping from, presumably. Just to rub it in how these end-of-series finales seem to enjoy the inclusion of a kitchen sink’s worth of entertainment, Moffat then assembles an entire wardrobe department’s worth of available aliens (although the lone Cyberman guarding the Pandorica Chamber sequence was probably the episode’s single best moment of alien danger), and has them imprison the Doctor in a box that has been specifically built for this purpose. The most impossible box to escape from ever built. This is the moment Rory chooses to reveal himself as an Auton and shoot Amy dead.
It’s Steven Moffat’s take on the Get-Out-Of-That! cliffhanger.
So how does he do it?
He doesn’t! The very next thing we know we’re back at the very beginning of Series Five, with little seven-year-old Amelia Pond. It’s the kind of sleight-of-hand that Moffat’s been delivering quietly across the whole series, only this time, he does it boldly and brassy as you like, right out in front of our very eyes.
How does the Doctor escape the impossible box? Why, his future self comes back and sets him free! And what complex and technically-absurd apparatus does he require in order to open this box? Why, it’s only the sonic screwdriver! And how will we get around the fact that Amy’s dead? Why, just stick her in the box – it magically brings people back to life!
Speaking of magic, there’s a fair bit of that on display in this episode. It’s as if Steven Moffat is just now delivering on his promise of steering Doctor Who into a world of fairy-tale, and by having everything made alright again at the end as a consequence of Amy Pond clicking her heels and clapping her hands three times, we’re whisked right out of reality altogether. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves...
What The Big Bang does that’s so different to any of the series finales we’ve seen before, is it ignores the magnitude of the peril we encounter at the previous episode’s cliffhanger and presents us with a small, intimate and as light-on-its-feet as you please chamber episode instead. Gone are the Cybermen, Sontarans and Silurians (except for cameos as fossilised statues), and in their place we have a delightful and witty little runaround (inside a night at a museum) with a Stone Dalek. There’s a fez, a mop, and a momentarily-dead fop, and its displacing qualities are breath-taking. We ought to have been expecting the Monster Alliance Retribution; nobody was expecting this.
In fact, it’s only while actually watching this episode that something becomes particularly obvious about Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: it makes perfect sense as it unfolds, and it’s only afterwards that you begin to question the validity of what you’ve been watching. There are so many questions raised about the logic of how it all fits together, that as soon as you start asking those questions, it really does fall to pieces remarkably quickly. Yet at the time, it really does make sense. Steven Moffat writes Doctor Who that invites you to think, but just not too hard. It’s the perfect programme for an intelligent child and the most frustrating thing ever for the over-intellectualising parent.
Despite its all-too-obvious flaws, it’s really rather bracing. And exceptionally involving.
Of course, we’ve watched for twelve weeks expecting answers to the questions that the series has been posing and, as we draw to the series’ conclusion, it’s probably the most idiosyncratic conceit of all that Moffat only bothers answering a handful, while leaving as great a number hanging over to the next series – and posing a whole heap of new ones. It’s as mind-blowing as the explosion that rocks the whole of space and time, as frustrating as the reset that ensures that everything we’ve ever seen never really happened, and as exciting as the newly married Mr and Mrs Pond feel embarking upon their new life together in the TARDIS. For such an ostensibly unsatisfying episode, the resolution and conclusion have a strangely most satisfying quality. Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who has landed, and all the cobwebs that the last five years have accumulated have been resolutely blown away. This is where the new kid on the block really makes his mark.
Which was a huge surprise, because on paper, I ought to really hate this story.
(If you’d like to go further into the programme’s past, I’ve collected together various reviews and articles that I’ve posted online over the years here: http://watchingdoctorwho.weebly.com/)