Monday, February 21, 2011

"The Pandorica Opens"

As far as the first parts of New Series finales go, this one is obviously the best to this point, and not just because it has the Eleventh Doctor in it. Although we have a lot of backward glances to earlier in the series they are weaved together for the sake of plot and are contained entirely within the pre-titles sequence rather than burdening the storyline later on with unnecessary characters and events. So we get brief glimpses of events surrounding "Vincent and the Doctor", "Victory of the Daleks", "The Time of Angels" and "The Beast Below" as well as some later reference to the setting of "The Eleventh Hour" and it's all weaved together quite neatly. It also perhaps provides some of the explanation for Vincent's later deterioration after the Doctor's departure - it was rather countermanded by the psychic visions he was receiving from Stonehenge. Anyway we have another refreshing change of pace in that this episode is almost entirely set in 102 AD around Stonehenge, not London in the present day, which is a massive relief because it also means there are no scenes of spaceships flying around suburban streets or people swearing at Daleks. Even the villains of the story turn out to not really be villains since The Alliance is not responsible for destroying the TARDIS. I think it was difficult not to have predicted that either the Doctor would be inside the Pandorica or that the Pandorica was a trap for the Doctor because it would be difficult to big up an enemy so much without them seeming rehashed from previous finales, but nonetheless I think all of this was fairly elegant on the part of Moffat. It completely subverts the typical 'balls-to-the-wall' scenario we've come to expect from New Series finales: the disaster is caused not by some enemy or naive organisation but inadvertently the Doctor, the typical alien enemies are all present as if there is going to be a huge battle but actually turn out to be self-defeating and inconsequential, and instead of melodramatically prophesying the departure of a companion we have one restored with a twist.
Of course what this means is the return of Rory, and because Rory is essentially the business it is awesome to see him reappear as a Roman centurion. Even though this was extremely predictable it's good to see him return and that when he's about to descend into melodrama the Doctor tells him to shut up and go get Amy. It's nice to see the Doctor attribute his reappearance to a miracle even though he doesn't fully believe it's the case. There are some issues though: if Rory was erased from history, how did the photograph of him and Amy at the costume party still exist in Amy's time to be found and replicated by the Alliance? Also, how does he have the real, original, erased Rory's memories? I like the idea of the Roman scenario being devised from Amy's past but what if it hadn't been something plausible like her love of Roman history and the Pandora's Box myth? It seems like the Alliance's plan only worked by coincidence. Also, how did they figure out what the Doctor was going to do? Unfortunately the science is a lot of hand-wavey stuff and again it's annoying to see the New Cybermen appear, although I'm led to believe that Moffat wanted the Mondasians and simply couldn't afford to have new costumes made. I hope that's the case and it seems to be reinforced by the whole head inside the helmet.
The music's apparently deliberately evocative of Indiana Jones and it works, and in spite of the fact that this episode's rewatch value is diminished a little by the fact that knowing what was going to happen eliminates a lot of the suspense it's still exciting and visually powerful. The Roman commander's lines about the impatience of his masters, as well as the tableau at the conclusion of River trapped, Amy apparently dead, Rory out of control and the Doctor being dragged off for eternal imprisonment continue to be stirring. The Doctor's speech to the various aliens is effective too: what seems like a self-aggrandising threat typical of, say, the Tenth Doctor turns out to purely be a trick to make the enemies squabble amongst each other. While I'm a little dubious that the Romans are a better military force than the Daleks I think they are also well presented even if they are in fact Autons, and the misinformation, such as believing Cleopatra to be alive even though she would have been dead for nearly one hundred and twenty years by that point, as well as their general grittiness, is a significant improvement and a better attempt at historical accuracy than was presented to us last time we saw Romans in Doctor Who.
All in all it's a very mysterious episode and I think that it works in its favour. Even though this huge grab-bag of enemies is unleashed it never seems entirely arbitrary and while the total destruction of the Universe is becoming a bit old hat by this point in the New Series at least this time it actually happens. Nonetheless I'd like to know why an exploding TARDIS is so destructive. When the Time Lords were around there were loads of them, and this never happened. What about when the Master's Melkur TARDIS was destroyed? I could go on endlessly but narratively it's more about setting up the suspense and putting everyone in an impossible situation but the fact that it's grouped very tightly around the characters of the Doctor, Amy, River and Rory it works here and they form a good team. Speaking of River, she's a welcome return here because she works very well alongside the Doctor and co and her presence doesn't seem as frustrating or smug as she occasionally did in her previous appearances. It's sort of like Captain Jack without the incessant innuendos and flirting. Matt Smith is of course absolutely top dollar as usual and while his efforts to find out what's inside the Pandorica seem a bit like time-wasting it's realistically because he couldn't get the TARDIS there and the unknown Silence Will Fall force is manipulating everything. Amy once again feels a little sidelined because she's mostly there to facilitate Rory's emotional journey but her recovery of her memory is satisfying and it's nice to see that she embraces Rory regardless of him being an Auton. Arthur Darvill returns on supreme form as Rory putting all the awkward, humorous and passionate bits together in a very good cohesive whole.
As far as set-up's go it's a bit predictable but it's the good dialogue, character development and performances, as well as the tightness of the narrative, which make it feel very unique and enjoyable in spite of the inevitably ceiling-high stakes. I just hope that Moffat keeps to these kinds of build-ups and cliffhangers or perhaps even makes them more restrained to avoid the traps which plagued the previous era's finales. The final moment, of silence cutting in over the music as the universe is destroyed, certainly leaves us with a feeling of genuine horror without being told or any use of silly language. This is big, and you feel it.

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