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June 27, 2010

The Doctor and Amy's Excellent Adventure

Stuart Ian Burns watches Doctor Who: The Big Bang

Raggedy Doctor, raggedy final episode.  I’ve been watching lots of productions of Hamlet lately and concurrently reading scraps of literary criticism, volumes of words devoted to whether he’s really mad, she was in on the murder of his Dad and oddly what religion they all are.  Some of this is quite the most bonkers theorising you’re likely to see in print as each and every Phd tries to find something new to say about a four hundred year old play that everyone (well everyone who cares about literature, a progressively dwindling number) has already had an opinion about.  Shakespeare was probably a genius because he knew his legacy wouldn’t just be built on the poetry of his plays but the collective head-scratching of his audience.

The days, weeks and hours leading up to The Big Bang have been like those four hundred years compressed into a much shorter time.  Online, the minutiae of dialogue, narrative and since this is television, directorial choices, ploughed over and over.  A feature of modern television obviously, but even in the Bad Wolf era, the Doigian attention to brainteasers wasn’t quite this intensive.  The Big Bang had a lot to live up to, not just as a piece of Saturday night television watched by the millions not watching football or having a barbecue or both but as the solution to a three month old logic problem.  I’m not about to end this paragraph comparing Steven Moffat to Shakespeare, but his methodology was certainly similar.

the Doigian attention to brainteasers wasn’t quite this intensive

Boom The brilliance of The Big Bang, and yes, it is brilliant, is that it manages to not only provide answers to some of those questions (that’s some) but also spin them into a emotional entertainment which unlike you what you might expect from the title, refused to give in to the tendency in these finales for massive space opera and offered instead a much smaller story which was ultimately about a girl and her childhood memories, about dreams and fairy tales, in which Moffat risked losing those viewers who focus on the literal and attempt to punch through something more profound.  As the older Amy says when the Pandorica opens again, "OK kid, this is where it gets complicated."

Just before transmission, the rector of this parish tweeted that he was more nervous about this episode than the England match tomorrow and as it turned out Moffat split his story roughly down the middle, with Big Bang 2 as the narrative equivalent of oranges and an ear-bashing from Fabio Capello.  Anyone expecting a monster mash will have been surprised to find Saturday night drama again audaciously being carried by little Caitlin Blackwood in an extended recreation of The Eleventh Hour, sans the Doctor and with the small and telling gesture that the stars haven’t just gone out this time – they never existed.  A residue of race-memory is retained, not least by that well known cultist Richard Dawkins, who in the Russell T Davies version of this episode would have been back on screen pointing to a diagram of where in the void Alpha Centuri should be.

that well known cultist Richard Dawkins

Few other cliffhanger resolutions have been like this, continuing to keep the audience guessing even after the main titles, but as Moffat said in last month’s parish newsletter, he was writing a script which attempted to be a sequel to all the episodes this season (with the exception of episode seven – so far) so you can understand why he might want to take his time.  The reveal of this new universe (can a planet and not a proper sun be described as a universe?) was a masterclass in suggestion, with remnants such as the stone Daleks (like their cousins in Victory) from the old timeline anomalies in the new, the whole planet now a metaphor for the interior of Amy’s brain, with a history that doesn’t make sense and presumably since there’s no space exploration, any Star Trek or Star Wars (What’s a galaxy? Why build a spaceship if we’ve nowhere to go?).

Thiscartoonversionwassurprisinglygood As with Amy’s note in The Lodger and every other script Steven Moffat has written, the explicability of how these Mobius (no not Morbius) events are generated and resolved was again not fully explained and likely to be the most headache inducing (particularly for poor Blinovitch).  The predestination paradoxes agogo used to explicate the break from the Pandorica and Amy’s resurrection are the stuff of the jail break in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and I can understand why someone might feel cheated by the inherent logic short circuit in the centre.  Cheap tricks are not exactly new in Doctor Who.  The fake Mona Lisas in City of Death for one thing, and Jonathan Morris’s novel Festival of Death is replete with them.  Quite whether kids and some adults would have been able to follow all of the shifting about of time I’m not sure, though they must have loved the Doctor in a fez randomly carrying a mop.  

Jonathan Morris’s novel Festival of Death

Like the deus ex pandorica conclusion to the crackpot crack plot, Moffat gets away with his folly (at least for me) by ultimately turning both into quiet meditations on sacrifice.  Amy’s boys both become myths in different ways to show their love for her and though we can argue whether the Doctor would have done the same no matter what sort of human she was, Pond, thanks to Karen Gillan’s consistently well judged performance (give or take a few line readings), is the kind of girl you would surrender yourself for.  Her twin reactions to the story of how her boyfriend may have perished safeguarding the Pandorica over two millenia and the Doctor’s final words before he hurls himself into the smouldering TARDIS just demolished me; she’s almost a younger, female Cribbins.  When Gillan cries, I do too.  We await her cover version of Gossip Calypso with great interest.

From Amy’s resurrection to the whole universe.  The Doctor’s steering of the Pandorica into the heart of the Tardis’s storm firstly brought to mind similar journey’s in Contact, Sunshine, The Abyss and more specifically 2001, a lone figure entering the unknown and like 2001, gaining the opportunity to become a viewer reviewing elements of his own lifetime, though Moffat sadly doesn’t take the opportunity to explain if timelords are loomed or born, there’s no star time-tot floating in the void.  He does however resolve two of the big theories, of the multiple Doctor’s in Flesh and Stone and the non-dream sequence in The Eleventh Hour, Amelia’s long evening wait.  Rare is it in Doctor Who that this kind of forward planning has been in evidence and so sensationally pulled off.  This whole finale is nearly a homage to the inexplicable Dalek amongst the Roman battalion in Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox's Big Finish audio Seasons of Fear (which threw forward to Time of the Daleks later that season).

Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox's Big Finish audio Seasons of Fear

Matt Smith’s performance in this section and especially when he explains his existence to a sleeping Amelia was extraordinary.  Once again we see the character’s years weighted on his shoulders and behind his eyes as he agrees with River’s suggestion that they’re all a fairy tale, distilling his existence to a poetic version of the key components, of the kind a small mind might be able to comprehend.  He recalls the beginning of his own adventure, however long that was before An Unearthly Child (the jury is still out), his own life folding back on itself; given the number of times Billy has appeared this series, I almost expected him to break into chat about his grand daughter, kidnapped teachers and a junkyard, but unlike some authors we could mention, Moffat’s tasteful enough to keep to the essentials.  Then before the Doctor finds himself watching another story with a hyperbolic title, he’s gone.

Tardisbluedoors Finally we meet Amy’s family, the appearance of whom was rather spoiled by the BBC Three listing in the Radio Times.  Like other elements of Amy’s character, the loss of memory, the runaway bride, ginger, Augustus and Tabetha recalled Donna’s parents, same kind of demographic group, yet more immediately likeable somehow, especially when her Dad said he needs a few moments to perfect his speech (never mind the Dahl reference, Augustus is played by the brilliantly named Halcro Johnston which might be the best actor’s name ever).  It’s in these moments, Moffat’s groundwork on memory begins to pay off as like Gwyneth Paltrow at the close of Sliding Doors, this older Amy begins to remember the person she was in the other timeline.  There is some glossing over such topics as to the extent she and her husband remember both remember their other existences, Rory in particular with two thousand years as her plastic pal who’s sort of fun to be with (if you want, not sure).  

Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors

The Doctor’s re-emergence also neatly sidesteps the subject of how the Earth is a nice place to live without the troubles that befell it in Turn Left – Amy would have remembered him eventually and so he will have existed and so the Whoniverse is back to normal – moreso since it also corrected the bother created by the cracks.  Such questions and answers simply didn’t occur to me during my sharp intake of breath on seeing River at the window, her TARDIS diary and Amy’s explanation of “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”.  As with much of the rest of the episode, Moffat, aided by a beautiful sweeping push-in, is able to turn what should be inexplicable narrative sleight of hand into a beautiful character moment as Amy is able to confirm that she isn’t mad – even if the man in the top hat quite conclusively is.  Look at the dancing.

Threading through this all of this is River Song, pointedly oscillating, like the Doctor himself between elucidator and enigma.  We’re meant to believe that her moral compass is pointing more toward the Seventh Doctor than the present incarnation – though in one of the episode’s few logic missteps (few?), I don’t quite understand how having her do an Absolom Daak demonstrates that (unless it’s because the pepperpot wasn’t armed).  Still, there is something rather chilling about seeing this remnant scream for mercy and Alex Kingston enjoying its misunderstanding of the role River has in the Doctor’s life, her eyes sparkling.  At some point, her “spoilers” catchphrase will begin to tire, but you suspect that Moffat will, in a timely manner, judge when that will be, and some of the answers will begin to flow. 

Absolom Daak

Because in order to keep us interested, still guessing, still theorising, oh the mysteries some of which, like Hamlet's listlessness, may never be "solved".  We don’t know who was controlling the TARDIS, who’s voice is slithering “Silence will fall” or why, as the Doctor notes, his time machine exploded in the first place.  We don’t know what happened to the ducks in the duck pond.  A crack, perhaps, but given how often these potentially otherwise picayune anatidae have been mentioned, no explanation to their relevance was forthcoming.  What of the machine in The Lodger?  Perhaps most importantly, will Arthur Darvill be in the opening credits now that he appears to be a full companion?  He’s certainly earned it, having been in more episodes than Moffat’s written, and turned Rory into a character who feels as significant as Amy.  Unless he really does become nu-Who’s equivalent of South Park’s Kenny, always existing on the precipice between life and death, ready to take the bullet or neutron ray when an episode is requiring an emotional crescendo.

In my review of The Eleventh Hour, I said I was “enchanted, beguiled, cheering, laughing and clapping” and that’s been my state through most of this series (though to be fair when has it ever not been?).  The only slightly bogus journey was the Chibnall Silurian two-parter and even that held together well enough on the strength of its dialogue, its direction and performances.  There was no New Earth, no Planet of the Ood.  Even Victory of the Daleks entertained me, though I know it’s not been universally praised because of (amongst other things) the new Dalek design.  What Moffat has done is to somehow mix our collective childhood memory of Doctor Who (before it was tarnished through our adult cynicism via dvd) with the needs of modern television for an emotional luminance and hired a Doctor who is able to embody both.  If nothing else, I think we can all agree that in Matt Smith is a replacement for the other fella who may well yet eclipse him (assuming he hasn’t already).

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