Review: Doctor Who – 5×12 – The Pandorica Opens

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In the UK: Saturday 19th June, 6.40pm, BBC1/BBC HD
In the US: Saturday 3rd July, 9/8c, BBC America

We’ve been getting hints all series. Something important is going to happen in the finale. The Pandorica will open. Ooh. What’s inside?

Turns out – spoiler alert – Russell T Davies is inside. Who was expecting that?

Plot
After so many ominous warnings, the Pandorica finally opens, but the secret it holds is more terrifying than even the Doctor had anticipated. The first part of the series finale is a fast-moving, monster-packed adventure full of familiar faces and old foes.

Was it any good?
It was, bar a couple of slight issues, very, very good. Certainly, at first watch, despite some ‘legacy problems’ from previous episodes, it was excellent.

In true, but unexpected Rusty fashion, we start with revisitations of the characters from The Beast Below, Victory of the Daleks and Vincent and the Doctor, as well as the return of Stevie’s Captain Jack*: River Song. Something big’s happening, Vincent van Gogh’s drawn it and somehow the Doctor has to get the resulting painting, resulting in Winston Churchill calling River Song and River Song meeting Queen Liz.

That was the first nerd-gasm of the evening.

River Song, complete with time travel band nicked from the wrist of a Time Agent, ends up in Roman times, where the Doctor, having gone to visit the first words in the world (why? More on that later) finds they were written by River and goes to join her.

River’s in Roman times with the marvellous Clive Wood, and she leads the Doctor to Stonehenge, under which is the fabled Pandorica. The Pandorica is a fabled prison for the deadliest thing in the universe and now it’s opening.

Guarding it are the remains of a Cyberman. Now Cybermen have traditionally been "a bit frightening at most, but largely useless". Compared to most Doctor Who enemies, they’ve been very easy to kill and are a bit thick. Yet someone Stevie manages to make these cybermen frightening, giving their individual parts free will and cyberheads the ability to The Thing up, fire poison darts and a whole lot more so they can nick human beings’ heads and cyberise them. They’ve even changed catchphrase.

Eek.

Second nerd-gasm of the evening.

After Stonehenge starts transmitting the Pandorica’s opening to all and sundry (including Vincent Van Gogh), River Song goes back and grabs some Romans, because there’s a whole bunch of aliens who’d quite like access to the Pandorica, it seems. The Doctor seems convinced that Romans – rather than the US Marine Corps, say – are the deadliest fighting machine in history and they’ll be able to help repel the aliens. River comes back with the Romans, but somehow good old useless Rory has become a Roman after dying in Cold Blood

Third (minor, slightly disappointing) nerd-gasm of the evening.

Then River goes off to the future in the TARDIS, which is misbehaving, and finds herself at Amy’s house on the scary date mentioned in Flesh and Stone (26th June 2010 – ooh, next week’s episode’s airdate!). There she finds Amy’s house raided and that all this Roman stuff appears to entirely match Amy’s old picture book – Amy also owning a book about Pandora’s box (surprisingly long for something that would probably only last a couple of pages). 

Turns out this Pandorica thing is a great big trap for the Doctor, laid by a grand alliance of all his enemies, some of whom are actually budgeted to appear – Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Judoon, Silurians and – shock horror – Nestenes. Yes, the Romans, including Rory, are all Autons, and they want to save the universe from the Doctor, who’s going to destroy it with his prophesied exploding TARDIS.

Fourth (major, totally satisfying) nerd-gasm of the evening.

The ep ends with Doctor stuck into inescapable prison expressly designed for him, Amy being shot by plastic Rory after finally remembering who he is (just as he remembers he isn’t) and dying, and River Song stuck in a TARDIS that’s just about to explode.

Fifth nerd-gasm of the evening. Time for a cigarette, and a decision to make another date with that Stevie Moffat for the same time next week.

Teh awesomest?
 
So obviously many, many shades of awesome in this episode: the Pandorica, the revelation of the enemy alliance, the exploding TARDIS still to come, the links back to all the previous episodes, Amy and Rory, Amy’s getting killed, the Doctor’s usual bluff turning out to have been counter-bluffed by his enemies and more.

It’s basically a Russell T Davies series finale, with the emotional turned down a couple of notches and the intellectual turned up a couple.

On second consideration, however, there’s a few flaws in the whole thing. The trouble is, you’re not exactly sure how many of the flaws are deliberate. 

The Romans? What exactly was the Doctor planning to do with them? Why is the TARDIS about to explode – was River Song’s proud piloting in The Time of Angels all so much BS to cover up for her being the kind of driver who only uses the rear-view mirror to put on lipstick? What did the Doctor’s comment about Amy’s life not making any sense mean? WHY DON’T THEY JUST SHOOT HIM? Do we already know the Doctor survives all this because of River Song already having encountered it in The Time of Angels and having survived? Why did Matt Smith deliver such an inept performance when he’s being escorted into the Pandorica ("Ooh, please don’t kill me. Please. I have to save the universe. Ooh. It’s not that important is it?")? Why doesn’t the Doctor have any kind of decent plan to fight the baddies? Why doesn’t he travel by TARDIS to get to the Pandorica so he’ll have his bag of tricks with him? Why does Rory’s Auton duplicate have his memories, not Amy’s memories of him, which don’t exist anyway because she never met him? Why do I really not care about Rory and Rory and Amy’s relationship?

See? Lot’s of problems. I have my suspicions though that the majority of these aren’t genuine flaws. Okay, not really caring about Rory/Amy is a flaw that’s a legacy left over from previous non-Stevie episodes, but the rest have all the hallmarks of a Stevie/Doctor long-game con.

What that con is is tricky to determine at this stage – well, would be. I have the misfortune to be on a mailing list where there’s a guy who says things like "Isn’t it obvious that…" and then clearly explains every single non-obvious plot nuance that Stevie has (probably) laid down. I won’t ruin it for you, but by the sounds of it (and I can well believe it’s the right explanation), it’s all part of a cunning Doctor plan, involving all the timey wimey stuff that we’ve been noticing over the past series.

If it’s true, damn that Stevie’s good, and this could quite possibly have been the cleverest (and potentially best) bit of Who of the past 25 years. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed it is true and that Stevie isn’t going to do a full Rusty and have the Care Bears turn up and kill all the nasty monsters with love and a magic red button – and is instead merely using all of Rusty’s fan bag of tricks for something even better. Only time will tell.

Conclusion
 
Could just be a dark, perhaps a little emotion-free, but ultimately very good lead into a disappointing second part. Or it could be the first of the cleverest two-part Doctor Who story and series in recorded history. We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out!

Rating: 9/10
-10/10 

* Okay, so Stevie did pretty much create Captain Jack (at Rusty’s instigation). But you know what I mean.

  • Ever since the new Who/Torchwood were instigated it seemed apparent they’d learned huge things from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but this as a season finale cliffhanger is the closest to Buffy yet – make sure all the key characters are in peril they can’t possibly escape from and/or are dead, plus begin and ‘end of world’ process.
    Not a criticism, I love Buffy, but I’m not imagining this, am I?

  • MediumRob

    “Ever since the new Who/Torchwood were instigated it seemed apparent they’d learned huge things from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but this as a season finale cliffhanger is the closest to Buffy yet – make sure all the key characters are in peril they can’t possibly escape from and/or are dead, plus begin and ‘end of world’ process.Not a criticism, I love Buffy, but I’m not imagining this, am I?”
    I’d say that paradoxically this is the most Buffy-esque but Steven Moffat is less Buffy-influenced than Russell T Davies: Rusty explicitly follows the Buffy model, whereas Moffat doesn’t. However, he largely follows the Rusty model.

  • SK

    Hm; I found it rather disappointing the way story was sacrificed to concept; All the Doctor’s enemies gang up on him is a concept that can’t possibly actually work in a story (I mean, can you imagine the board meetings? The initial negotiations? Any of it?). Which is why, I suspect, that the episode felt like a lot of padding and some clumsy exposition (rather than finding out what’s going on by actually investigating, River is just dumped by the TARDIS right where she needs to be for the answer to fall into her lap, requiring no cleverness or effort on anyone’s part): as the big reveal can’t support a story, basically you have to mark time with set-up and padding until you get to the final five minutes when you can spring the concept on people.
    Which is exactly the sort of concept-over-story thing that I had hoped we’d left behind with Davies…
    (It’s a pity, because the bit with Rory was brilliant: first you think oh no, they’ve brought him back, that’s very naff, but then you realise The Romans are fake… hang on.. that means Rory’s… ooooooooh and have to watch Amy come to remember him while knowing that all that’s waiting for her there is pain. Brilliant. And very annoying that it was kind of floating free in an episode that’s mainly padding.)

  • SK

    As for next week’s, I’m betting that it begins with a jarring cut to something apparently normal, possibly with James Corden, and is not so much a Part 2 as a completely separate story about how the Doctor escapes (or more likely is rescued) from the Pandorica), that doesn’t involve the Stuff From The Big Reveal at all. Because again, you simply can’t imagine how that story will go.
    On the other hand if Moffat does manage to come up with a way to actually make a story around that concept then, well, my hat will come off to him.

  • “rather than finding out what’s going on by actually investigating, River is just dumped by the TARDIS right where she needs to be for the answer to fall into her lap, requiring no cleverness or effort on anyone’s part”
    Which is one of my points: until next week, we can’t really judge the flaws. Are we sure River is ditched on 26/6/10 at Amy’s house simply because the TARDIS felt like it? Or because the Doctor sent it there?
    The Doctor’s enemies ganging up is the biggest Rusty-esque thing and yes, you do wonder how it would work in practice – although I’m guessing that since most of the races involved are “drone races” (eg who cares if x Daleks, Cybermen, Sontaran, Autons, etc are killed because they don’t) they would be happy to cooperate at the micro-level on something like this. Indeed, with the Judoon on-board I’m sure some element of “legal immunity for helping the police in their enquiries” might have been the incentive to join up for a temporary alliance.

  • The “well obviously” guy’s explanation does involve “how the Doctor escapes/is rescued (no spoilers)” and it’s quite neat (and has been foreshadowed so no cheating). Fingers crossed he’s right!

  • SK

    Hm. Well, it can’t involve River killing the Doctor, because that’s what she was sent to Stormcloud for, and she’s already in Stormcloud at the beginning, so she must have already killed the Doctor (in her timeline).
    If it does turn out that the Doctor had a good reason for programming the TARDIS to take River to the date when he knows it explodes, and thus spreading chaos and destruction throughout the universe, I will be well impressed.

  • Depends how many times she’s been in Stormcloud 😉

  • TemplarJ

    I’ve been mixed about this year’s Who, and mixed about Matt Smith. Too much obvious affectation, too many quirks and far too much waving the sonic screwdriver about aimlessly (Tennant did far better screwdriver acting).
    I think both companions are mis-cast and not strong enough to carry their roles. I think the budget cuts have bitten hard, and it’s been obvious far too often.
    But saturday night? That just owned television.

  • stu-n

    “The “well obviously” guy’s explanation does involve “how the Doctor escapes/is rescued (no spoilers)” and it’s quite neat (and has been foreshadowed so no cheating). Fingers crossed he’s right!”
    The infamous Rich Johnston also has some speculation up at Bleeding Cool:
    http://www.bleedingcool.com/2010/06/21/the-great-doctor-who-conspiracy-iii-the-big-bang-theory/
    By the way, isn’t it about time they found another corridor? The Stormcloud one has turned up three or four times in different guises already!

  • I’m pretty much convinced by now that the whole season is a joke on the kind of fans who sitting around criticising continuity errors, inconsistent characterisation and disjointed plotting and that next week we’ll discover that every tiny “mistake” turns out not to be in the slightest making several hundred comments and reviews entirely irrelevant.
    65% convinced anyway.

  • feelinglistless

    I’m pretty much convinced by now that the whole season is a joke on the kind of fans who sitting around criticising continuity errors, inconsistent characterisation and disjointed plotting and that next week we’ll discover that every tiny “mistake” turns out not to be in the slightest making several hundred comments and reviews entirely irrelevant.
    65% convinced anyway.

  • SK

    That looked like an error, but it was in fact a time loop setting up the dénouement in next week’s comment thread.

  • My brain still hurts, but yeah, I know what you mean – I got texts saying ‘blimey, that’s a bit bleak’ and me replying ‘yeah, brilliant eh?!’
    It could all go horribly wrong yet (crossing everything for DW, couldn’t give a stuff about the World Cup) but man, what a journey!

  • stu-n

    The general consensus here at Engineer Towers is that Steven Moffat must have a hell of a chart on his wall.

  • feelinglistless

    Although – and this shouldn’t be discounted its another bloody predestination paradox ala every other script Moffat has written, except across a whole season — especially since The Lodger has one already and so does Oli Smith’s spin-off story The Runaway Train.

  • My brain also hurting, but I loved this episode. Thought it was fantastic. My money is on Amy’s having remembered Rory, meaning that she has made him human again (like the robot in the Churchill ep), but I think he’s a goner anyway, and this time she will remember after he’s saved them all, or her at least. I do hope that we aren’t all very disappointed next week(-:
    Indeed let us hope we are all still here and the universe doesn’t come to an end – my 3rd daughter has illadvisedly chosen to celebrate her 10th birthday on 26/06/2010. She keeps asking for her presents now, just in case the universe erupts…
    I thought they were all brilliant in this – the Doctor ignoring/noticing Rory, Rory realising Amy had forgotten him, Amy remembering him, then him killing her…Wonderful stuff. And as for the Doctor and River Song – was it just me, or did this feel like the first time the Doctor has given in and really started to relax with her – they had a lot more chemistry I felt then last time. River Song was the best though. She gets better and better. She is just fab.
    Roll on next week!

  • stu-n

    B”Although – and this shouldn’t be discounted its another bloody predestination paradox ala every other script Moffat has written.’
    Blink and Time Crash were predestination paradoxes; don’t think the others were, unless I’m misremembering?
    Anyway, I say hurrah for a writer remembering that this is a show about time travel, and who isn’t afraid to use it.
    l

  • Marie

    Yeah. I went a bit squee-WTF-squee-WTF-squee-WTF-I-need-a-chocolate-biscuit. In a good way.
    My review here: http://womanwhotalkedtoomuch.blogspot.com/2010/06/doctor-who-pandorica-opens.html There may be CAPS.

  • bob

    I loved it. I especially adored having Rory back and then the heartbreak of realising it wasn’t really Rory. Watching him struggle to retain his sense of self was the emotional high point of the series for me.
    It did feel more like a good old RTD finale (before he went nuts on making them Bigger and Better and losing all sense). This is a plus to me. It had a level of excitement I usually find lacking from SM’s logical approach. But hopefully the actual finale surpasses RTD’s stuff by embracing the timey wimey ideas and producing something that feels earnt.

  • Pixiepuk

    [this is good] Are we really sure they are in 100 AD or whatever the doctor guessed? The tardis has been mismanaging the timing the whole season. Because I am wondering how all the other aliens got timetravel now. I thought only some Daleks could do that. And weren’t the Silurians sleeping when we left them? And before we met them?
    Am I the only one with these questions?

  • MediumRob

    “[this is good] Are we really sure they are in 100 AD or whatever the doctor guessed? The tardis has been mismanaging the timing the whole season. Because I am wondering how all the other aliens got timetravel now. I thought only some Daleks could do that. And weren’t the Silurians sleeping when we left them? And before we met them?Am I the only one with these questions?”
    No. You’re not the only one. There’s obviously the possibility with the Silurians that they’ve just woken up, but with all of them, a time travelling race such as the Daleks or the Sontarans could have helped out, particularly if they have the blessing of the Judoon.
    But the 100AD is a tricky one: presumably the coordinates are clear if I say latitude y, longitude x, at date z, that’s pretty clear. It’s only the getting there that’s the issue. So the TARDIS may turn up at the wrong coordinates but that doesn’t mean the coordinates themselves are wrong and presumably the Doc can see from the coordinates where they’re supposed to be.
    On the other hand, there is obviously the possibility that (spoiler maybe) the Dream Lord or some other entity is merely making the Doctor think all this is happening. Who knows? We’ll find out tomorrow though!

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