Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Toby Haynes
Not far from the camp of a Roman legion, beneath Stonehenge, is The Pandorica, the mythical prison of the most feared being in the galaxy. And the prison is opening.
“Dalek fleet, minimum twelve thousand battleships, armed to the teeth. Ah! AAAH! But we’ve got surprise on our side. They’ll never expect three people to attack twelve thousand Dalek battleships . . . because we’ll be killed instantly, so it would be a fairly short surprise.”
**Opening remarks. This review was written before watching The Impossible Astronaut.
It is hard to review this episode, on the eve of the series six premiere and all the revelations, spoiler and non-spoiler, that are floating about. It is hard to view it with eyes untainted by visions of The Silence or the various trailer floating about. It is hard to write this review without speculation, so I won’t even try.
This season saw the establishment of a plot-arc revolving around The Cracks and The Silence. Until a few months ago, we didn’t know what The Silence was, and even now, there are precious few details as to motivation and method on the part of what has turned into an alien race rather than a description of an event. The series has been escalating, despite a handful of episodes that seemed one-off stories. And yet, it hasn’t been a serialized story like Doctor Who of old. No, where format is concerned series five has had more in common with shows The X-Files or Lost than it has had with Doctor Who of old. The Steven Moffat era has proven to be one drenched in continuity, not of classic Doctor Who, but of an escalating mythology of Moffat’s own creation. We have long been impressed with how carefully he plotted his stories during the RTD era, and now he has been turned loose on the show, been given entire seasons to sculpt rather than an episode or two. And he has proven with this finale that his interests lie with a larger scope than we had expected. He never intended to reveal The Silence in series five. He never intended for us to know who River Song was in a single year. The question that arises, will the suspense and escalation, will the reveal, be worth it?
Taking The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang as an indication, I think the answer is mixed. I don’t think we can expect anything from the old series to be part of the big questions. The Silence will not be related to anything pre-2005, nor do I anticipate River Song’s identity to be rooted in the classic series. There is an awareness and an acknowledgement of what came before, but major details do not hinge on anything that hasn’t been recently established. Case in point, The Pandorica, which was said to be a prison for the most dangerous being in the universe. The Doctor gives a monologue that all but reveals that The Pandorica is his prison. The only question is whether he is currently in The Pandorica, about to meet himself, or is he about to be put into The Pandorica (as we saw in the episode, the latter is the case). Thus, The Pandorica was built to contain The Doctor. A lot of build-up to a very simple revelation. I expect more of the same regarding The Silence and River Song in particular. We may not have all the pieces going in to it, but we will have them soon enough, and they will fit.
It didn’t occur to me until this viewing that perhaps The TARDIS is being controlled in The Pandorica Opens by the same ship that was menacing the timestream in The Lodger. Perhaps watching the episodes so close together helped me make this connection, but it seems obvious when you think about it. Although, before I knew we would see this ship again, what reason would I have had to expect it to return? We’ve never really had to expect details from one season to bleed into another. Moffat has raised the bar for the detail-obsessive, easter egg hunting fan. And while this type of attention to detail is neat because it shows an engagement with the fans on Moffat’s part, I worry about details becoming more important than the plot or telling good stories. At this point I’m not entirely sure we’ve rejected storytelling for details, but I could see that as a distinct possibility. Television, especially sci-fi television, has changed so much over the nearly 50 years Doctor Who has existed. Storytelling and scope in Doctor Who is not the same as it was in the Hartnell era, which was different still from the JNT/Bidmead era. Take your pick of any era, and you will find others that are different, almost to the point of being unrecognizable. Likewise, the modern show resembles early Who very little. We have only to look at the destruction of all existence, a threat that arose in series 4 AND 5, and wonder if the scope has ever been so big in Doctor Who. (Perhaps Logopolis if I could ever not be bored to tears enough to finish it.) But the more interesting question to me, the one I struggle with off and on, is should the new show try to resemble the old show. Should we truly care?
Doctor Who can’t continually look back. And yet, the way it has been going the last few years, the scope can’t very well grow any larger. How many times does existence have to almost be destroyed before it becomes mundane? The epic scope must be put back into the pandorica, if you will. Steven Moffat might be thinking along these lines to some degree (I seem to recall a recent quote to that effect), but it is no guarantee. Science fiction now demands continuity more than it did in the 60s and 70s, and to try to ignore the last five years would feel like a cheat and feel a bit foolish. But in order to scale back the scope, one might have to risk breaking the show and putting it back together again. It has happened before and been successful (thinking primarily of the Pertwee era, which was quite the paradigm shift for Doctor Who). Doctor Who cannot continue to move in its direction. It will not survive because eventually, saving the entire universe/reality/whatever will grow stale. Doctor Who must change.
All this introspection may seem to indicate that I didn’t like these episodes. Quite the contrary, it is rather good with great set-ups and reveals. The return of The Autons is not only a wonderful moment and great use of the characters, it also provides a satisfying explanation for why Rory is still alive. The speech at Stonehenge, when The Doctor talks down what seems to be a major alien attack, was a scene I loathed at first because it reminded me too much of how The Doctor dealt with the Vashta Nerada in series four. I hated it then, I hated it now. But that wasn’t what was going on. The alliance was tricking The Doctor, luring him into a false sense of security. Thank you, Mr. Moffat, for making us think you were repeating yourself, only to do something completely unexpected instead. I love the story of the centurion, how he guarded The Pandorica throughout history. I love how Moffat kept the time traveling straight and under control. I love that Rory will still be on the TARDIS and hope that this has a calming effect on Amy. She has grown irritating and the flirtatiousness is getting very old.
The series as a whole is a bit uneven. I feel that the first half has a tightness to it, a unity as episodes flow one into the other. And while there are definite low points in the first part of the series, there is a good character arc as the TARDIS crew is drawn together. I think things begin to suffer after Amy’s Choice. The series grows quite uneven, after this episode, almost as if there was less of a guiding influence over it. We seem to just be spinning our wheels until we get to the finale. If there is one thing that is apparent in thus far in the Moffat era, it is that the standalone stories suffer the most. Moffat thinks rather big, and he seems to thrive the most in the two part stories, or stories relating to the arc. He doesn’t seem to do as well producing other people’s standalone stories and, if The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood is any indication, he may not do as well producing other people’s stories period. Time will tell. Overall, I think series five was struggling to find its feet. It had ups and downs but was largely good. I look forward to seeing how the show develops and where this particular story (and era) goes.