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June 23, 2010

Boxing Clever

"It's the episode we've waited 47 years for!" declared über-fan Ian Levine on Twitter after the BAFTA screening last week. I immediately sat up and took notice. Ian usually reserves that kind of hyperbole for boy bands...

Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens
Review by Neil Perryman

Pan1

Whatever your feelings about this episode, you have to admire Steven Moffat's impeccable sense of timing. He produced a satire about an election just before the country went to the polls, he tied an episode that featured a football match to the opening weekend of the World Cup, and now he's successfully showcased Stonehenge on the eve of the Summer Solstice. And if that wasn't impressive enough, he did it in the very same week that the heritage site's funding was withdrawn by an improbable coalition of insane megalomaniacs who committed this heinous crime in the misguided belief that they were actually doing some good.

Spooky or what?

Moffat has even hardwired the finale's transmission date into the narrative itself. That could shed some light on why the BBC have thrown the show around the Saturday schedules like confetti at a wedding; perhaps this was the price they had to pay for tying the final episode to a particular transmission date in the middle of a football tournament, a reality show and an increasingly moribund song contest?

Because make no mistake about it, this is an audacious and challenging experiment in televisual storytelling. From the timing of the Big Bang itself to the built-in cameos that kick-started this episode, everything appears to have been meticulously planned. The result is as complex and compelling as anything you'll see on a prime-time Emmy award-winning show, and while children will delight in its spectacle, the adults that I know are lapping up the deeper mysteries and complex plot twists. Stephen Fry should really hang his head in shame.

It could even turn out to be a work of genius if the final episode delivers the goods. While RTD shoehorned Bad Wolf into his episodes so fanboys would have something to talk about, Moffat has apparently gone to the other extreme. We've been trained to expect our regeneration stories to feature fairly perfunctory plots but it seems as if The Eleventh Hour could turn out to be the most important episode of the season. Seeds were sown, hints were dropped, and inconsistencies were raised. Some of the foreshadowing was easy to spot ("silence will fall"), some of it was more ambiguous (how does a kissogram make a decent living in a sleepy village?) and some of it was obscured by my own preconceptions (the duck pond shtick felt like the sort of thing an eccentric Doctor might fixate on after a regeneration).

Because this season began with Moffat throwing down a gauntlet - he dared us to pay attention. Every line of dialogue ("a madman with a box"), every throwaway plot point (Amy's predestination paradox postcard in The Lodger), every potential continuity error (Rory's ID badge?) could have far-reaching implications for those members of the audience who have truly engaged with this show. Or I could be reading far too much into it and I'll look like a right berk come Saturday.

Ian usually reserves that level of hyperbole for boy bands...

Pan2Whatever the outcome, The Pandorica Opens is as good as Doctor Who gets. It's epic, exciting, funny, scary, touching and mad. It's everything you could possibly want from the show and a lot more besides. And while you could probably argue that they've thrown in the kitchen sink again, at least Moffat had the good grace to pick a really nice sink and the foresight to have it plumbed in properly.

Matt Smith has never been better for a start. Or as my wife put it: "He's really into this, isn't he?". There are far too many magical moments to mention here but I was utterly transfixed by his silent reaction to the Daleks inevitable reappearance (there's so much going on behind those eyes) and his glorious speech to the assembled invaders was a triumphant, punch-the-air moment, undercut by the revelation that it was all part of Alliance's plan and they were stalling him. Only Moffat would - and could - do that.

And I really must single Arthur Darvill out for special praise. His awkward resurrection was beautifully realised and his interplay with Matt Smith was a highlight of the series so far. His story arc has been tragic and heartbreaking and his final scene with Karen Gillan was incredibly moving.

The direction was sublime, too. The Cybermen were horrifying for the first time in decades, the Pandorica Chamber was suitably malevolent and magical, and the climax was cinematic in its scope and execution. Those final moments, when the Doctor was incarcerated and his companion lay dead in her lover's arms, as the universe exploded around them and the silence fell...

...well, does it really get any better than that?

My only nitpick is with the Evil Alliance itself. If you are going to list half-a-dozen classic enemies in order to induce multiple-fangasms in a specific demographic then you'd better follow up on it! It wouldn't have been so bad if was just the Big 3 who had turned up in person (Daleks! Cybermen! Sontarans! Oh my!), this way Moffat could have out-fanwanked Russell and we could have imagined the Zygons, Terreleptils and Quarks as some sort of orbital back-up. That would have been great.

Instead, we are treated to a roll-call of some of the oddest "villains" in the history of this show. Weevils? Really? The Hoix?! Yes, the alien who was literally a running gag in Love & MonstersRight.... The Silurians? Eh? And is that an Adherent to the Repeated Meme I can see standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a Cyberman? Terrifying. I can only assume that The Moxx of Balhoon was on loan to an exhibition.

And if Moffat really wanted to turn the episode into a giant Character Option playset then would it have killed him to have included a Drahvin or two? I thought he would have jumped at the chance to reintroduce a race of Barbarellas to the series; at one point I thought I saw a Chumblie but sadly it was just a close-up of a Dalek's rubber neck.

The Moxx of Balhoon must have been on loan to an exhibition...

Pan3This grandstanding nonsense aside, the concept that all these bad guys would come together to stop "the most evil being in the universe" is a brilliant idea. I think...

I just find it hard to believe that this coalition would last five minutes, let alone the amount of time it must have taken them to set-up and execute this incredibly convoluted trap. I would have put good money on them killing each other before they'd finished going through the minutes of the last meeting.

Their plan begs quite a few questions, too. Like, how does raiding Amy's memories have any impact on the Doctor turning up to Stonehenge? Amy doesn't lead him there, River does (via Vincent). Why did they need Amy's memories to duplicate a bunch of Romans? Haven't they got Wikipedia? How does Rory remember dying in Wales if Amy doesn't, and even if she did remember, how could that memory have possibly been taken from her house? And why bother throwing a Rory duplicate into the mix in the first place? Do the bad guys really think that they have to sprinkle bits of Amy's past around in order to keep the Doctor interested in the Pandorica? If anything, surely these details would have tweaked his suspicions?

And what was stopping Tom Baker, for example, popping back to read the first words ever written in history - would he have ended up at the Pandorica instead? After all, the 11th Doctor's decision to take that fateful trip appeared to be completely arbitrary.

And you have to question the Alliance's research as well. How can so many races get it so spectacularly wrong? Didn't any of them think to check if anyone else could pilot the TARDIS, or if the explosion could still occur if the Doctor was separated from his ship? Is this why they don't kill him outright, just in case they're wrong? Or do they believe that the Doctor is indestructible and a prison is a far better bet than, say, cutting his head off?

Or is somebody else pulling their strings?

For example, does this Alliance even know about Amy's mysterious background? The fact that her life doesn't make any sense and her house might be a trans-dimensional spaceship can't be a coincidence, can it? That duck pond implies that Leadworth might not even exist and now that we've seen Rory as an Auton all sorts of possibilities have opened up.

And we're still no further forward when it comes to working out why the TARDIS explodes in the first place. Is it because another TARDIS is nearby? Since when did that cause the universe to implode? And that spooky voice in the TARDIS - is that the real villain behind all of this? Or is it just a callback to The Eleventh Hour and Prisoner Zero's warning? And what is it with all the circles in this season, anyway? It's full of them.

Oh...

Pan4You know, I don't think I ever spent this much time thinking about Lost...

Speaking of which, it could still fall apart at the end. I realise that some of us (myself included) have grown accustomed to crushing disappointment when it comes to the finales; the bigger the set-up, the bigger the disappointment (and as far as set-ups go this one takes the biscuit), but I honestly believe that Moffat will pull it off.

I still stand by my theory that Flesh and Stone has two Doctors running around the Byzantium, and I firmly believe that oddities and inconsistencies (especially with Amy's character and Karen's performance) will be addressed soon. I also believe, more strongly than ever, that the Doctor was partially responsible for Van Gogh's suicide and I also believe that The Lodger's "squatter" has something to do with Amy's house. Even that bizarre "believe you are human" nonsense in Victory of the Daleks looks like it could have been there for a reason and Amy's Choice might turn out to be even more important than we first thought. And is the Doctor The Beast Below now? In fact, every episode this season is practically begging to be re-watched and re-evaluated in light of this frankly magnificent hour of television.

Except for Chris Chibnall's efforts. They will remain irredeemable.

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