Sunday, 20 June 2010

Reaction: THE PANDORICA OPENS





























Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Toby Haynes, 2010

I hate season finales. Tediously overblown, messy, self-indulgent things. But maybe I should put that into the past tense.

Russell T Davies is the only writer to have previously tackled the slot designed to bring a season’s worth of stories to a climax. Therefore, more than any other element of this second era of revived Doctor Who, it’s impossible to discuss this series’ finale without comparing it to those of the previous showrunner.

In my Lodger review, I pondered whether Moffat would take a different route from his predecessor’s overblown approach, or instead try to out-Davies Russell with more of the same. The appearance of multiple alien races would appear to point to the latter – an escalation of Army of Ghosts/Doomsday’s Daleks versus Cybermen more-is-more principle. In practice though, that Moffat undercuts this expectation is representative of the previously un-furrowed direction in which he takes The Pandorica Opens.

Despite the scale deriving from its culmination of various season-long strands, there’s a surprisingly restrained – and in that sense, decidedly un-Davies approach to this story. Which is not to say that it is restrained, but by comparison to the previous new series finales at least there’s time to breathe.

Inevitably, this episode will be described as something of a synthesis of Davies and Moffat’s approaches, with the often ultimately hollow spectacle of the former reinforced by the latter’s more assured way with a complex plot. And it works. For once, I was as excited about a finale as I evidently was always intended to be, a possibility which was always destroyed by the looseness and lazy crowd-pleasing of the previous stories in this slot - to say nothing of the excruciating celebrity cameos.

Most telling, perhaps, is the evident comparison between the mysterious Sphere in Army of Ghosts and the mysterious Pandorica: one is in a deeply dull research facility, and has some Daleks in it. The other is under Stonehenge! In a creepy gothic vault! It might be massively clich├ęd, but at least it has atmosphere. I know what I prefer. Oh, and, it doesn’t have some Daleks in it.

It’s nigh-on impossible to accurately judge a two-parter on the basis of one episode, and in fact, The Pandorica Opens feels rather more like the pulling together of various strands than a coherent story in its own right. However, it performs its function rather gloriously, and if making the narrative itself rather disjointed is the only end-of-season concession we’re going to get under Moffat, then - ehh, I can live with that.

The cracks, the TARDIS explosion, the Pandorica, Rory’s return (which, miraculously, doesn't actually renege on his death in Cold Blood with a direct reset-switch), Amy’s past – obviously, all these things aren’t fully resolved here, but for once it’s actually exciting seeing them coming together, rather than tiring, and makes the Bad Wolf and Saxon memes seem even more inadequate. Where those seasons literally led toward an answer to ‘What/Who is it?’, there are multiple elements at work here, making both trying to predict what will happen - and enjoying the revelations as they come - far more rewarding.

What’s most satisfying is the dexterity with which Moffat handles these various threats: the Pandorica itself being the ultimate case in point, the revelation of its function seeming immediately obvious, in the most gratifying way; it had to be linked to the Doctor, but…

Similarly, the various races’ relationship to one another, again undercutting the Doomsday-on-acid thing, is a similarly simple but effective bit of sleight of hand. It made me think of Jonathan Morris’ DWM strip Death to the Doctor!. It fact, the monster axis of evil has a very comic book feel, albeit located within a contrastingly complex situation. If the story had been merely what it appeared to be - Monster Smackdown, or even Monsters versus Romans – it would have been severely naff. It’s also a bonus that this isn't 'just' a Dalek story or a cyber-story, cos, really, we don’t need that, and it wouldn’t be anything special for a finale.

That all this is going on alongside Auton Romans (who saw that coming?), the return of Rory (with another major nod to Mickey), and Amy’s apparent death, is fantastic – none of these would have been so thrilling individually (whereas any one of these things might have been a major element of a Davies finale), but have a cumulative power that left me literally jaw-dropped – something I cant say happens very often. And in the best way – thrilled, slightly overwhelmed, and amused at the script’s audacity, and at my own complicity in not seeing any of this coming.

There is also what seems like a very deliberate attempt to do a Stolen Earth early on, and cement this season’s status as a self-contained era in its own right with the appearance of various characters from earlier stories. It’s funny, I’d already found myself musing, earlier in the run, on the idea of situation where characters like Churchill and Liz Ten might return en masse – like the celebratory New Adventure Happy Endings - and it’s brilliant (and unexpected!) to actually see something akin to that. There have been a number of particularly brilliant pre-titles sequences this season, a damn-sight less perfunctory than in previous years, and the appearance of van Gogh, Churchill, and only bloody Liz Ten (meeting River!*) is massively impressive – in delivering a really obvious bit of audience-pleasing, without it seeming offensively unnecessary.

At various points during the writing of these reviews, I’ve wondered how unfairly biased I am toward series fnarg. I really don’t like Davies’ general approach, whereas I really like Moffat’s stories and mentality: I was probably always going to cut him some pretty substantial slack. But this run of recurring characters is the sort of thing I hated The Stolen Earth or The End of Time for, yet here… Perhaps it’s because it’s genuinely woven into the narrative. Not the overall story, perhaps, but part of the set-up, a chain of events, in a way that that Sarah or the Torchwood team’s arbitrary involvement, or the Tenth Doctor’s dying rounds, didn’t.

Quite apart from the characters, in this case I loved seeing such varied settings – Provence, the war rooms, the Stormcage (even if it was another one of those over-used Cardiff locations), the cartoony jungle planet, Liz Ten’s gallery (love that she provides the security herself…) - even the Star Wars-y bar where River does her dirty deal. All those situations add to an impression of the expansiveness of the Doctor’s universe, whereas a role-call of former companions only emphasised the insularity of the Tenth Doctor’s world.

Okay, so, this story wasn’t without its flaws. I think the Pandorica prop wobbled at one point, for example. Ooh, that’s not going to be pretty in HD! And then there’s all the little niggly points – who woke the Silurians up to be part of the alliance when they won’t even meet the Doctor for a couple of thousand years? (That we know of, admittedly – but I’ve got my Outraged Ming-Mong hat on. It has a bobble.) How comes the Cybus Cybermen have a fleet? How does Rory nobble a Cyberman (even a battered one) with a sword? Hmm? More importantly, do we care…? Well, no.

Flagrant disregard for continuity bugs me; what can I say – I’m a fan. But, for once, I really get the immediacy of the big, fast, shocking, involving finale. And I say finale like it’s separate from any other type of story, because I think it is. It’s a different format, where the story is drawing on things that have been established over several weeks, and has to bear the extra weight of those snowballing expectations. And, previously, the series has always flunked for me, and failed totally to deliver on those expectations. The series two and three finales are among the most hateful of new Who stories for me, the moments where phrases like ‘dumbed down’ and ‘lowest common denominator’ really come in handy.

But, I actually – can I say it? – kinda loved this. I’m writing immediately after watching, which I don’t usually do, so it’s probably not the most balanced of reactions - but that’s sort of part of the fun. It was invigorating and actually shocking, mainly because it didn’t entirely jettison the intelligence and little twists of Moffat’s mindset.

There is always that worry of how enjoyable something’ll be when you know all its secrets – how much will be left? – but let’s ignore that for once. What’s perhaps most exciting is not having a clue what to expect from episode thirteen. I imagine it’s unlikely to hang around the under-henge for too long, and hopefully it’ll end with Rory and Amy finally tying the knot. But whose is that voice? Next week I’ll probably sound as stupid as those people who thought Omega might be in the Pandorica, but – the Dream Lord…?

If this series had ended on a damp squib (…and I do realise there is still time for that), I might’ve found it hard to overlook my disappointed with fairly hefty swathes of the year’s stories. But it looks set to go out with a (big) bang, and in that case, I’m happy to overlook the saggy middle.


*Something The Guardian suggested back in week two, although it – and I - hoped for more of a bitch-off.

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