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July 05, 2010

Scarcely Bears Thinking About

Doctor Who: The Big Bang
Review by Tom Dickinson

Rorypainting The Big Bang is one of the most thrilling, most enchanting, and most exciting Doctor Who stories I've ever experienced in any medium. But it's also one of the most deeply flawed, primarily because it gets too bogged down in its own impressive complexity. Recently I was watching the featurette on the Mawdryn Undead DVD, in which Peter Davison, Nicholas Courtney and Eric Saward all wonder whether that story might have been a bit too complicated for Doctor Who. If they were watching The Big Bang, it must surely have made their heads spin.

Russell T Davies was often (and rightly) said to have under-thought the logical, science fictional plot progression of his stories, giving his writerly attention instead to the drama and the emotional journey of the characters. But Moffat over-thinks his, to the extent where the science fiction is not so much a story that we're shown as a logical argument that we're told. It’s like a Neal Stephenson book, crammed into fifty-five minutes. The story of The Big Bang (or at least its middle part) isn’t much more than a bunch of people being chased around a museum by a stone Dalek (which is, I admit, kind of fantastic). And every so often, they pause to exchange bizarre pseudo-logical pronouncements such as "exploding at every point in history" and "the universe literally never happened," gradually building up the ultimate explanation in a way that’s bewildering, but impressively bewildering.

It's bewildering, but impressively bewildering.

But does it make sense? I'm scared to think about it all too hard, for fear I might get trapped in its intricacies (or, if you prefer, arrant nonsense) and never emerge. Just look what happened to poor Neil. I'm not going to challenge whether there's actually any sense in Moffat's convoluted maze of paradoxes, restoration fields, footprints of the never-were and fezzes. I'm going to take it as read that Moffat designed another intricate puzzle-box of harmoniously moving parts. I'm just not sure that's what wound up on screen. Recently, Chip (of the Two Minute Time Lord podcast) put out an episode featuring Erik (of the Bridging the Rift podcast) which gives plausible answers to some (but not all) of the questions raised in this episode. But the very fact that it's necessary for us to make up our own answers is a testament to just how muddled the plotting in this story is. I'm all for challenging drama, but too much ham-fisted sci-fi exposition can distract, to the point where it ceases to be drama at all.

StonedalekLet’s return to the Mawdryn Undead comparison. In that story, two versions of the Brigadier from different points in his timeline meet one another. In this story, we have two characters, the Doctor and Amy, meeting other versions of themselves… using two entirely inconsistent models of time travel: Amy meets a version of herself from an altered timeline, whereas the Doctor travels in tidy, self-consistent causal loops, crossing his own timeline (which flippantly violates the fundamental rules of Doctor Who storytelling, but who cares, because it’s fun). And this turns out to be one of the more sensible, less complicated parts of this story!

Maybe this convoluted beast of a story would have worked if it had been spread out over multiple episodes, and the exposition was given time to develop more slowly. This is why Neal Stephenson’s books are ofen so incredibly hefty. But we all know Moffat really couldn't afford that. The more information he gives us in advance, the greater the likelihood that we'd have figured out his entire plot. The television viewer of today is too sophisticated for his or her own good, and Doctor Who fans especially: look how much we managed to figure out based on the few hints we were given. We can whine all we want that the Pandorica’s restoration field comes out of nowhere, but if Moffat had even hinted at its existence in The Pandorica Opens, we would all have known more or less exactly what was going to happen this week. So as a result, Moffat's got to deliver all his exposition in one go. It's a lose/lose situation.

You know what they say about a cosmos without the Doctor...

Unless there’s another option, which of course there was: he could have cut it out entirely. We really don't need the head-scratching brainteaser because it's all just setup to what's really important: the brutal fact that, in order to save everyone and restore Amy's lost family, the Doctor has to revert the universe to its original state, only without himself ever having existed.* There are certainly less cumbersome ways we could have gotten to that point. Having the Doctor mumble something about "complicated space-time events" would have done it for me.

Rivershoot *(Which wouldn’t really be a very good thing at all, would it? The universe needs the Doctor. Didn’t Moffat watch Turn Left? Plus, The Doctor wasn’t there to use the Moment to end the time war, which would of course mean that there wouldn't be a universe anymore because the Time Lords destroyed it and become beings of pure consciousness and energy. Didn’t Moffat watch The End of Time? Or was there no Time War at all, without the Doctor inciting it in Genesis of the Daleks? Maybe we shouldn't think too hard about all this. You know what they say about a cosmos without the Doctor...)

But Moffat instead chooses to walk us step by step down his winding path, using time he could have devoted to other, more important things, such as giving us some idea of the identity of the villain of the piece. Yes, I understand that Moffat has chosen to play the long(er) game and postpone the answer to this question until next year. But while that's a refreshing and surprising way of handling plotting in Doctor Who, it comes at the cost of reducing The Big Bang to a dramatic fizzle. This isn’t Lost. Questions such as "who is making the TARDIS explode" and "what do they stand to gain by erasing the universe" and "did the Doctor thwart their evil plan or is he somehow playing right into their hands" are pretty central to the dramatic stakes of this story now, and while the delayed payoff might make this story better when we revisit it next year or the year after, that's little comfort at the moment.

Moffat has chosen to play the long(er) game.

And I say all of this about a story I described above as "one of the most thrilling, most enchanting, and most exciting Doctor Who stories I've ever experienced in any medium." I complain because I care. In the end, the thing that saves this story is the very same thing I whined about earlier: the sheer concentration of the offending exposition. Most of the material I found really unpalatable was at the center of the episode, giving us a thrilling opening and a gloriously triumphant conclusion. And a strong introduction and conclusion count for a lot.

AmeliawhatThe teaser was just magical, re-enacting the opening of The Eleventh Hour with the younger (and, in my opinion, more likable) Amelia Pond with the details changed but many things very much the same. I wrote at length in my review of The Eleventh Hour about how much I loved the establishing shot of Casa Pond, and I love it just as much here if not more. It serves to establish one of the most important (and surprising) parts of The Big Bang: the ways in which it echoes the stories we've seen so far. While we fans have been scrambling to recognize the clues that would take on greater plot significance in the finale (and certainly there were a few), far more important are the moments of thematic significance. Against what we've come to expect from Doctor Who over the years, the duck pond is not an important plot point but rather an important metaphor for Amy’s house and the void left behind when things are forgotten. 

After the brilliant teaser (which ends with Amy in the Pandorica, one of the episode's biggest surprises), we're given a story whose focal point is Rory, or rather Auton Rory, who is fast becoming one of my favorite companions. His scenes with the Doctor are wonderfully written and performed (and shot, as well--kudos to newcomer Toby Haynes). I've had friends tell me that they found it difficult to get emotionally involved with this series, and I agree, but whenever Rory’s on screen that problem fades away. And while Rory's return as the security guard is obvious (nurse, gondolier, doctor, plainclothes detective, centurian, security officer, groom... what will Rory Williams be next?) it's nevertheless extremely satisfying.

Nurse, gondolier, doctor, plainclothes detective, centurian, security officer, groom... what will Rory Williams be next?

Sadly this is the point at which the story beings to crumble under the weight of its own exposition, but by the time the Doctor has rigged the Pandorica to fly into the exploding TARDIS, most of the heavy plotting is out of the way and we’re free to focus on the drama of the situation. Karen Gillan gives one of her better performances, and there’s even a poignant moment for River Song (who is otherwise surprisingly irrelevant to this story) as she mourns the fact that the Doctor will now never get to know her, nicely inverting her sacrifice in Forest of the Dead.

DoctorbedtimeThe Doctor’s journey backwards through the events of the series is a wonderful moment for Matt Smith, as he cements his “best Doctor ever” status (for me, anyway). The Lodger seems a strange choice, and I wonder whether there were other scenes scripted or filmed that were left out for time. In any case, the Doctor’s reassurance of Amy from Flesh and Stone is better in context, and his bedtime story to Amy is inspired. On first viewing it plays as a natural outpouring of warmth and humanity from a defeated Doctor, telling a bedtime story to a little girl as his final act. And then on second viewing, it plays as a moment of sheer genius on the part of the Doctor and brilliant writing by Moffat as the Doctor seamlessly integrates the necessary clues into a story specifically designed to be remembered on one very particular day. When this pays off at Amy’s wedding reception with the invocation of “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” it’s one of Doctor Who’s finest and most triumphant moments.

There are those who will object to the plot point of Amy losing and recovering her memory as being too similar to Donna's fate in Journey's End, when really what’s happening is quite the opposite: whereas Donna must forget the Doctor or she will die, Amy must remember the Doctor, or he will die (okay, never have existed. Today just dying is a result). In any case, the companion forced to forget his or her travels with the Doctor is really just an occupational hazard of time travel, used previously in Mawdryn Undead with the Brigadier's temporary amnesia (how glad I am that I watched that story shortly before writing this review) and stretching further back to The War Games in 1969. Perhaps that's a more apt comparison, considering the debt Smith's Doctor owes to Troughton. But while Moffat's owes much to the Doctor Who stories of the past (of course he does, that's how Doctor Who works), what he's doing here with the theme of memory and forgetting is richer and more complex than anything that's been attempted in Doctor Who before.

The most metatextual Doctor Who story since Love and Monsters.

And that's the kind of complexity that can really be appreciated in this episode and in the way the series functions as a whole: the thematic complexity. The running themes relating to fairy tales and imaginative storytelling are developed to a grand conclusion in The Big Bang where it’s Amy’s ability to remember the Doctor as a story that allows her ultimately to bring him back even when it looked like he might be gone forever. I don’t think it’s too much of  a stretch to read it as an allegory for the Doctor being “forgotten” in the 1980s and subsequent “remembering” in 2005 by a generation of writers who had been affected as children by stories of the Doctor, making this the most metatextual Doctor Who story since Love and Monsters

Somethingblue And so the episode ends with a joyous farewell to Leadworth and the old team back together again, with some tantalizing hints thrown our way about what’s coming next year. If the Orient Express in space is a “sly dig at RTD,” as I’ve heard suggested by some fans, then it’s a dig too sly for me because I don’t get it. It sounds fantastic to me, and if that’s what we’ll be seeing this Christmas then I’m all for it. And if not, well, that’s okay too. I’m excited about the future of the show because, while this year has had its faults, overall I think it’s featured some really fantastic writing, acting, and directing, so I’m excited to see where this team will take us in year two. 

How many days ‘til Christmas?

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