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June 28, 2010

Get Me To The Church On Time

Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang
Review by Frank Collins

Po2a I'm not sure that experience of working on Spielberg's version of Tin Tin has rubbed off on Moffat that well. The Pandorica Opens more or less amounts to a gene-splicing of the Devil's Tower sequences of Close Encounters and the catacomb exploring of the Indiana Jones films and looks very pretty but I'm not convinced on this evidence he can do 'epic' in Doctor Who. The narratives that hold these glossy visual spectacles together are really what Moffat is interested in. The rest is a bit tokenistic. The two part story that concludes with The Big Bang also reflects an ancient literary tradition that you could say Spielberg himself has deliberately woven into many of his major films. It falls into the tradition of menippea - a form of satire that signifies a mixed, often discontinuous way of writing that draws upon distinct, multiple traditions. Both The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang act as reflections of each other, at once proposing an anti-epic visual presentation in counter-point to an epic narrative.

From the sky full of spaceships above Stonehenge to the alliance of monsters with their rather ridiculously contrived plan to trap the Doctor in the Pandorica, Moffat turns the whole thing on its head and in The Big Bang simply has four people chasing around a museum whilst the universe shrinks outside the window and the Doctor cheats willfully with the time lines, bouncing around like a deranged cosmic Tommy Cooper. Bakhtin regarded menippea as 'the use of the fantastic internally motivated by the urge to create extraordinary situations for the testing of philosophical ideas'. Which sums up the finale for me and Moffat's own view of the entire Doctor Who series synthesised into a carnivalesque ambivalence for logic, an irreverent desire to break the rules and to cross boundaries. Sometimes it works spectacularly - not just in terms of visual spectacle but also in narrative complexity - and sometimes it's a way for him to cheat, avoid the implications of what he's done and refuse to answer questions left dangling by the preceding 11 episodes.

Po5d Thus we get no real answers to who was saying 'silence will fall', why the TARDIS was exploding and a reasoning for Amy's 'special' status. And presumably the missing ducks from the Leadworth duck pond ended up on the other side of the crack in time. Moffat knows his game and in the opening sequence with Vincent in 1890 he's clearly sending himself up rotten when the neighbour attending with the doctor looks at the painting of the exploding TARDIS and mutters, 'Look at this, even worse than his usual rubbish'.

Moffat's end game with this finale is to focus in on the triangular relationship between Amy Pond, the Doctor and Rory Williams. The messages carried through time via Van Gogh's painting, Churchill's telephone call, Liz Ten's meeting with River after she has broken out of the Stormcage facility are simply a means to an end whilst also cleverly rewarding the patient viewer with the pleasure of recognition in these pre-titles revisitations. They throw out a number of questions that in typical Moffat style aren't likely to be answered - why is Liz Ten still alive in 5154 and why is Bracewell still working for Churchill when it was more than suggested at the end of Victory Of The Daleks that he was off in search of his true love, Dorabella. These are, like many other sequences in the story, narrative conceits.

The Pandorica Opens is in effect one massive conceit. The significance of the Pandorica and the exploding TARDIS drive the story but in the end we never really discover the answer to the latter and the former is inevitably not what it seems with much of the episode heavily signposting the fact that it's a prison cell into which the Doctor is dumped by his enemies and not the home of an ultimate 'big bad'. The most effective twist in The Pandorica Opens is the resurrection of Rory, presumed erased from history at the end of Cold Blood. His reappearance is another layer to the series themes about 'remembering' and 'forgetting' and, significantly, he isn't the real Rory but a facsimile, a memory of Rory, created by the Nestenes. They presumably replaced the real Rory who did die at the end of Cold Blood. Or was he an Auton right from his introduction in The Eleventh Hour, then destroyed in Cold Blood, and then resurrected in The Pandorica Opens? It is narrative obfuscations such as these that Moffat deliberately ignores or refuses to clarify.

Bb2e Rory is that most human of non-humans, embodying the crisis of subjectivity at the heart of this revelation. He struggles with his Nestene programming and conflicting human emotions, just as Amy evoked the same contradictions in the Dalek's android Bracewell back in 1941, to reaffirm his love for Amy, only to then destroy the object of his feelings. That this death takes place simultaneously with the Doctor's capture and imprisonment in the Pandorica, the destruction of the TARDIS and the death of the universe offers the spectacle a much needed emotional grounding. Rory's non-human status and his subsequent murder of Amy is the single most powerful scene in The Pandorica Opens and legitimises what is in effect a Doctor Who episode that resembles a Busby Berkeley tap routine performed by a sweating Steven Moffat sporting a fixed grin. It's hard to be 'epic'.

Moffat uses such conceits to again fuel the narrative expectation in The Big Bang where the audience is given a linear narrative - of the Doctor escaping from the Pandorica and the dead - now alive - Amy taking his place - that is broken into non-linear and often repetitive moments of recall, planting visual and verbal information about scenes that haven't happened but will happen or that have happened and we don't know why they have until the explanation appears further along the narrative. He's testing our ideas about time and the use of empirical and metaphysical paradoxes in the science fiction genre. For me, however amusing it is, and - in the way Matt Smith performs these sequences - it is, it really amounts to more grandstanding, including the revitalisation of the Dalek as a token monster to chase our heroes down corridors, that delays the story getting to the roof of the museum and the ultimate fate of the Doctor, the Pandorica and the TARDIS.

Po1b What's more interesting in the story are the binary oppositions between men and women. Amy truly is the fairy tale figure of the mysterious Little Red Riding Hood that the series has been constructed around. She is not only the absent woman in search of her self, her journey starting as a girl, the adorable Caitlin Blackwood returning as the younger Amy, and continuing through to impending womanhood and that wedding but the story is itself a science fiction satire about getting the bride to the church on time, about getting the adolescent Amy married off.

Typically, the finale also underlines of some of the problems I've been having with this series. Firstly, the series as a whole has evidently suffered from a cut in budget. This is unfortunate because television is such a visual medium these days and you need to spend money on it to engage audiences. Otherwise, you might as well do all this on the radio and, oddly, a great deal of The Big Bang might as well have gone out as an Afternoon Play on Radio 4. No matter how much of a clever clogs Moffat is, he can't just rely on characters running around a museum engaging in time travel screw-ball comedy to define the nature of the threat to the audience. The difference here to Series Three or Four, for example, is the inward and insular way Series Five has been structured around Amy and the Doctor, including the world in which these characters are seen to exist and the way they counter the threats to this world.

There is less show and more tell in many of the scripts with, I'd argue, only The Time Of Angels/Flesh and Stone really achieving the winning mix of the epic and the personal that uses the visual medium of television well.  There are undoubtedly instances where location filming abroad has paid off, as in the Vampires Of Venice and Vincent And The Doctor, and the threats have been placed on a broader canvas (unlike the exploding TARDIS which is only ever seen on a canvas). On the whole I get a sense that the world building that's so necessary for a high concept series like Doctor Who is being presented to us in shorthand.

Bb8h If you look at The Pandorica Opens the money has clearly been spent on the Stonehenge locations and the visual effects. By the time we get to The Big Bang the Stonehenge location is gone as is the visual misdirection of the massing alliance space fleet and what was indicated as threat has, ironically enough, become as fossilised as the remaining Daleks (no doubt another addition to the Character Options range). The Big Bang tells us about the threat to the universe but never actually reveals why it is there in the first place, why it is happening and who caused it. It's an unsatisfying finale because we never have a 'big bad' on which to pin the focus of the story. That conflict is absent and the Doctor spends most of The Big Bang fire-fighting whilst Moffat brings the story of Amy full circle.

Much of the series has therefore been set within a self-referential bubble, with the effects of conflict on those outside that bubble all happening off screen. We're told about the consequences from the Doctor, Amy and Rory but we never really see it actually affecting other people. As the TARDIS burns itself out we get the barest indication through dialogue that Richard Dawkins is slightly concerned about the shrinking of history and the lack of stars in the sky. These are powerful concepts that Moffat is creating but I keep feeling I'm being placed at a distance from them and I am only allowed to hear about them, never mind see them, through Amy or Rory. You have to have very strong, very identifiable supporting characters to be able to pull that switch from the broadest to the narrowest world view and to convince an audience that the apocalypse is mostly taking place off screen.

Although RTD's use of his characters families and the extended repertoire of supporting characters in Harriet Jones, Captain Jack et al might be seen as too much a reflection of soap opera, the audience accepted that world view because of its familiarity and because the conflict between the Doctor and the villain of the week was often staged on screen in familiar surroundings, often showing us the consequences. In the end we are left only with Amy and Rory as the audience identification figures and there isn't enough context to care about the threat to them and to us, as the audience. I've stopped caring, to be honest, because the series won't let me care.

Tbb1j Secondly, try as I do, but I don't much like Amy. I find her a rather unsympathetic character. It culminates with her finally waking up on her wedding day and getting married. How do we accept that Amy then casually waves goodbye to parents that she's desperately fought to bring back into existence, and who occupy a minimum of screen time, as she and Rory abruptly leave in the TARDIS. We don't even see them wave back! After all the reunions, I find it rather callous of her to reject that new world with her parents in it, and after restoring the Doctor through the power of suggestion, to spend her honeymoon with him in the TARDIS. Has this woman an obsession about younger, father figures?

I'm afraid there's a whiff of a straight male fantasy (the kissogram's a bit of dead giveaway) deliberately being projected onto the character possibly as as an extension to Moffat's own fantasies of a woman who doles out a form of sadomasochism to the men in her life. Moffat and Moffat's analog, Rory, bask in the power of a strong, controlling woman. Amy as the idealised woman, ironically, may both evoke in them the feelings of safety and protection associated with childhood and likewise from which Rory, and by extension Moffat, may derive satisfaction from earning the approval of that figure. Very much a case of bringing yourself to what you write I think.

Amy spends a lot of time belittling both the Doctor and Rory, trying to dominate and to an extent emasculate them (her attempt to seduce the Doctor is clearly an extension of that but he's strong enough to reject it) and it is very telling when, at the wedding reception, the Doctor congratulates Rory with, 'From now on I shall be leaving the kissing duties to the brand new Mr. Pond' after Amy has ordered the Doctor to 'kiss the bride'. Here, the Doctor firmly rejects her dominance but also confirms that Rory is no longer Rory Williams but Rory Pond. 'No, I'm not Mr. Pond. That's not how it works.' 'Yeah it is' confirms the Doctor with Rory's status underlined as victim of his own self-defeating personality disorder.

Bb5f Rory is for me the best thing about The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. As I said, he's the Moffat analog and in being such is a far more humane character, even when he's an Auton, than the horribly idealised Amy Pond. This is the plastic man that hangs around for 2000 years protecting the Pandorica, marries the woman inside it and settles down to a life of hen-pecking in the TARDIS. He's a man who engages in excessive self sacrifice in order to get a response from the woman who allegedly loves him and then happily takes the humiliation from Amy when he is reluctant to find any pleasure in all the dangers that travelling in the TARDIS throws at him. He's a deeply flawed man whom most of us can relate to - 'the boy who waited' guarding the gift of hope in the Pandorica (definitely symbolically similar to Pandora's box itself) and who then emerges into manhood.

The finale is flawed, lacking a really decent conflict between the Doctor and whoever it is that caused the TARDIS to explode and told us 'silence will fall', but they are good, solid and entertaining episodes. The scripts are witty and full of life even if Moffat plunges into self-indulgence in The Big Bang. The death of Amy at Rory's hand, literally, is the pinnacle of The Pandorica Opens whilst the allegedly show stopping gathering of the alliance of monsters is just a sop to keep the kids happy (and bearing in mind my thoughts about the budgetary necessities of the anti-epic, how must they have been disappointed to find it all reduced to one pathetic Dalek screeching for mercy in The Big Bang?).

The Big Bang is more satisfying emotionally with it being the conclusion of the series long Amy arc. The stand out scene between the Doctor and Amy, the conversation with her as he prepares to hurtle into the heart of the burning TARDIS, is one of the best of the series. It adds the full stop to the whole series subtext about 'remembering' and 'forgetting' that has been drip fed into stories from the beginning and the notion that the Pandorica ultimately symbolises hope after both forgetting and remembering, much as in the ancient story of Pandora, even if it does stray rather too close to a big reset button.

Bb9i Moffat's story arc, in which all of history is erased and then rebooted, in which the very act of remembering is a macrocosmic event (the key to saving the universe) -  and a microcosmic event (bringing back your long vanished parents) is surprise, surprise a main tenet in fairy tales. Amy's Red Riding Hood journey through time, symbolised very powerfully in the forest scenes in Flesh And Stone, is one about avoiding the threat of being devoured wherein the hungry wolf of the old fairy tale is now the crack in the bedroom wall. But like many readings of fairy tales, is this also a story about a girl's desperate avoidance of womanhood, her impending marriage to Rory, and to remain a child by jumping aboard the TARDIS to avoid the predations of the wolf (Rory and the crack in time)? Might this explain her defensiveness to Rory in some of the earlier stories?

The interesting thing about Red Riding Hood and other fairy tales is that they are concerned with the control of women, the control of desire. Amy as a Red Riding Hood princess whose final trajectory is marriage is a fascinating reading of a transgressive woman, acting on her own desires but who in the end must be rescued by two friendly male figures - Rory and the Doctor - the husband and the father. River, cycling through a number of identities and appearances - from earth mother to seductress - is positioned here as a trickster heroine and as literally, the figure of the old wive's tale, the woman as storyteller and an analog to Scheherazade, as one who spins her narrative ('spoilers') throughout the Doctor's timeline. Plus, of course, she's his wife and by extension she's symbolically Amy's wicked stepmother.

Bb6g As ever, Matt Smith completely steals the show and is particularly impressive in The Big Bang, giving us a mesmerising range of performances within one episode, capturing ancient wisdom and youthful recklessness in one big eccentric package. He truly is the biggest success of what I think has been a fairly middling series this year and remains the sole reason for continuing to watch the show. I have no problem with Karen Gillan's abilities but I'm hoping that now we've got Amy married off the character will acquire some warmth and sensitivity. The themes in this year's series about the journey from childhood to womanhood didn't quite make it across in the performances until the very end of the series. Less flippancy and that awful shouty emphasis she puts on the ends of certain line readings would also help. But when she's good she's very good.

I'm very pleased that Rory appears to have permanently joined the crew. He is the 'everyman' figure that the series must hold on to and Arthur Darvill is completely charming in the role. Now all we need are better monsters (the new Daleks and Silurians were design disasters in my opinion), decent scares and better realised worlds as a context for the journeys the Doctor, Amy and Rory go on.

Until Christmas then...

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