Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"The Big Bang"

I'm going to square with you here; I love this episode. Even though I've seen it a million times and even though some of the major details of the plot require at best a leap of logic and at worst a leap of faith it nonetheless is carried by the sheer completeness of it. It's on a huge scale conceptually yet intimate and personal, it's emotionally satisfying without being sentimental or melodramatic at any point, it's subtle and the performances are completely astounding. Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston and, of course, the unsurpassable Matt Smith all put in their incredible best and every character gets their chance to shine. Moffat made an extremely wise decision in this, I think. We have an enormous calamity occurring, as per New Series finale usual, but instead of once again having some mastermind to defeat or enormous army to destroy we simply have the Doctor, his companions, and a puzzle to be solved, with the only other characters of any immediate importance being a single semi-functional Dalek and young Amelia. No giant battles, no throwaway deaths, no pointless cameos or character insertions and an ending which, while arguably a routine 'big finale' cop-out, doesn't pretend to be anything otherwise and doesn't rely on misinformation or abuse of language.
Of course it turns out that the very thing which the 'Silence' is attempting to cause, which is to say the destruction of the TARDIS, is the very thing which permits the Doctor to not only reboot the universe but also time travel with great accuracy and that's kind of clever but then it causes the sort of weirdness that the destruction of the TARDIS stops the TARDIS from being destroyed and things like that. Nonetheless the time paradox stuff is extremely clever, and the shock value of seeing the Doctor appear in the fez to Rory or, biggest of all, adult Amy being in the Pandorica rather than the Doctor, maintains its wow factor even on multiple viewings. I also find it clever that there are a number of paradoxes - the Doctor gets out of the Pandorica only because he got out, for instance, and closed time loops which leave you confused but marvelling that they've done so little of this kind of thing before. Again we have that issue that a Vortex Manipulator seems to be more accurate than the TARDIS but at least the conditions for this happenstance are explained - the universe is now very small. There's a lot of strange stuff regarding changes to history but if the Sun never existed, only the exploding TARDIS, how was the Earth ever formed? The after-images of the aliens are creepy and all but as I say it requires a bit of a leap of logic and the deadly 'eye of the storm' phrase rears its ugly head, but in this instance it is also justified: the Eye of the Storm doesn't grant immunity from the effects of time manipulation, it only means that there is a delay in the destruction, and now things have to work to a pretty tight schedule as is made evident when young Amelia vanishes. Caitlin Blackwood does as good a job as she did in "The Eleventh Hour" and I think we were all expecting her to return but unfortunately she doesn't get quite as much screen time in this one. There's also the whole issue of the Pandorica restoring the Universe like a human body being cloned from a single cell. But isn't it true to say that a clone will not have the memories or experiences of the body from which it was cloned? The universe doesn't even function in that kind of genetic manner - it's not like a few billion atoms somehow contain the 'genetic code' of the universe, and even if it did it would only be able to replicate the physical structure of the universe in its most primordial state, not its history. I guess the Doctor simply anticipates history fulfilling itself in the same way and is relying on Amy's memory of him to bring him back and slot everything into place. How this stops the TARDIS being destroyed all over again is not very clear but I suppose we have to take a few of these things for granted. The plot doesn't entirely make sense and the idea that Amy's memories are special and restorative due to the crack in her wall seems like a bit of hand-waving by Moffat to stop people going "But that isn't how memories work at all," but I guess at least it's something and it is played up to a certain extent. I especially like the bit where the Doctor is wiring himself into the Pandorica and he tells amy "You'll have your mum and dad back. You won't need your imaginary friend anymore," and he echoes this sentiment later to the sleeping Amelia, and his creeping realisation of his own loss as well as the iota of hope he carries is marvellously played by Matt Smith and the weariness and solemness of it all reinforce the character of the Doctor in a totally rounded fashion. We have the hero, the friend, the scientist and the old man all rolled into one. It's kind of surprising to think that the term 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue' hasn't been used to describe the TARDIS before and the wedding scene, especially with the Doctor's dancing, further cement Matt Smith's mastery of the role.
Then we have Rory of course as another character who undergoes a pretty rigorous series of developments, realising he's an Auton, accidentally killing his girlfriend, guarding her for two thousand years and fortunately being restored to human form. The Doctor's trick to make him realise his humanity, as well as his own determination on that score, reinforce undercurrents about humanity weaved as early as "Victory of the Daleks" and Arthur Darvill is as usual an absolute top man in this one. He certainly has a different rappor with Amy than the Doctor does, as I mentioned while reviewing "The Vampires of Venice", but you cannot doubt his devotion, loyalty or courage. It certainly seems appropriate that he finally gets to marry Amy in the end.
Amy occurs in two forms in this episode, and I've already discussed young Amelia's brief but nonetheless quality appearance, so it's time to look at adult form. She's a bit angry in this one I must say, telling both Rory and her dad to shut up and having a flirt with the Doctor even after she's married but even though I find this a little grating I'm willing to attribute it to feistiness and as much as some people found her suggestion to the Doctor about a 'snog in the bushes' somewhat unpleasant I don't think she was serious, just trying to rile her husband. She doesn't really get as much to do as the Doctor or Rory in this episode but her remembrance of the Doctor is well-played. I still think Moffat should have written her reunion with her parents as not being surprising to her, however, because it should have been the Doctor's absence which was jarring if the Universe had been rearranged, and her parents' presence should have been normal. Her conversation with Rory on the phone is cracking, however: "Are you just saying yes because you're scared of me?" "Yes."
Also, how good is it when the Doctor gets out of the TARDIS in the full tuxedo? I always thought that when Amy was seeing the various items which reminded her of the Doctor, the young man in the bow tie and the old guy with the suspenders, she should have inexplicably seen one of the wedding guests wearing a fez, but maybe that would have been too much. Speaking of the fez, though, there are a lot of very funny moments in this episode as well from the fez and the Doctor's wish to buy one to his time-jumping conversation with Rory, his comments to young Amelia and his explanation as to what can be done in twelve minutes, yet it's never jarring or interrupts the flow of the action and it proves that Moffat does comedy a lot better than many previous writers for the show... The writing's funny, it's clever when for instance the Doctor returns to events witnessed in "Flesh and Stone" and reveals that they were part of this episode all along, and it's poignant such as when he tells the sleeping Amelia about his theft of the TARDIS. Nonetheless it is all understated and performed with such subtlety it all meshes together into a cohesive whole.
I guess the last person I have to talk about is River. She definitely gets the least attention, mostly just blowing up a Dalek and walking past the wedding with a mysterious look on her face, and I'm glad that while we got to see she's a bit ruthless compared to most companions her presence didn't need to overwhelm the important details of the plot. Unfortunately to her falls the age-old Susan/Romana/Nyssa/Captain Jack role of explaining the technical details of what's going on to the other characters while the Doctor's busy. All we get besides that really is some enigmatic conversation with the Doctor and that's about it. I suppose she's a little arbitrary but she's not even in it that much. The thing is though, where did she go when she left? We know this stuff was set before "The Time of Angels" for her and she was on parole then and in prison in "The Pandorica Opens", so what did she do? Time travel back to her cell? They let her on parole after escaping like that? Maybe we'll receive some marvellous explanation next series.
Anything else left to mention? Oh yes, the Stone Dalek. I guess it's just a nuisance for the sake of some action so I don't begrudge it being in the story too much although I wish they could have done without it. It was only one Dalek though and it wasn't integral to the plot so it completely avoids things being too repetitive.
Overally it's a great episode in my opinion, and easily the best finale of the New Series to this point without any question. It's the first finale in the New Series to not involve the Doctor or a companion shooting a machine, pulling a big lever, developing godlike powers or some combination of the above and causing a big invading force to blow up or be sucked back to wherever they came from. Yes, it involved a deus-ex-machina but it never pretended that it didn't and it doesn't whip it out at the last minute; the Doctor's working on it all through the episode, and in some ways all through the entire series, which would have saved the plot of "The Parting of the Ways" had the Doctor actually used the Delta wave. It also doesn't pretend that one of the characters is dying without them actually dying or anything like that; a couple of characters nearly die, both Amy and the Doctor himself, but their recoveries are weaved into the plot. At no point is silly narration or fake prophecy used to drum up hype; the excitement is purely contained in the plot itself, and the emotional journeys of the characters are believable. It's hardly scientific in a realistic sense but it is time travel after all, and while the concept of memories restoring things is complete rubbish and virtually unexplained I don't care because I'll take a blatant and unashamedly happy ending over some ridiculous melodramatic cop-out which doesn't actually deliver its own implied tragedy any day of the week; at least the happy ending is a complete package and honest about itself. The reliance on a small cast is effective, the time travel elements of the plot are very clever, the effects are nice, the starless sky in particular, the actors are all amazing and the conclusion is gratifying. It's good to see the Doctor, Amy and Rory reunited as a team for further adventures, and while there's something a little silly about the Doctor as this kind of intergalatic troubleshooter for the British Empire you don't care because it leaves you with a big smile on your face thinking "Damn, that was cool." We're also left with a dangling plot thread about who the Silence are and what they want, and kudos to Moffat for establishing a multi-series narrative which is genuinely interesting.
What's left is to comment on the series as a whole. It's by no means a stretch for me to say that this series completely tops the previous era and thus to this point the rest of the New Series by a phenomenal margin. It's not the show as it was back in the day but it's certainly something infinitely better crafted and more watchable than its unlamented predecessor. A lot of this is down to Matt Smith, who has embraced the role of the Doctor with absolute aplomb and is without a doubt the best Doctor since Paul McGann and can hold a place of honour in my estimation with the Doctors of the classic series. Sure, he's been modernised a bit, but he holds up and so do all the characters. Amy and Rory equally surpass their New Series equivalents by miles and the believability and realism of their characters is so well-constructed and compelling that you can understand for once in a long time why companions exist. There are some good science fiction concepts in here, as well as some creative storylines, and while I'm a little cautious about Moffat's regard for the show as a kind of 'dark fairy tale' I'd rather have it as such a work of  imagination with plausible characters and intriguing narratives than a melodramatic character drama with some aliens and a time machine thrown in so that it can pretend to be a beloved show from the 60s, 70s and 80s. This, however, is the natural progression of that show, reconciled with the demands of modern television, and I suppose plaudits must go to Moffat for revolutionising the New Series in such an impressive manner. It's pretty damn close to what Doctor Who should be and while it's not perfect it's still excellent. The only note I will add is my fervent hope that the rest of this era continues to uphold, or better yet even improve, this level of quality.

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