Doctor Who #854: The Pandorica Opens

"Look at me. No plan, no back up, no weapons worth a damn. Oh, and something else. I don't have anything to lose! So, if you're sitting up there in your silly little spaceship, with all your silly little guns, and you've got any plans on taking the Pandorica tonight, just remember who's standing in your way. Remember every black day I ever stopped you, and then, and then, do the smart thing. Let somebody else try first."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jun.19 2010.

IN THIS ONE... River Song, Romans, Stonehenge, an armada of the Doctor's greatest enemies, Rory returns as a plastic centurion, and the Pandorica opens.

REVIEW: I'm not sure everything in here makes complete sense - Moffat's arc stuff tends to spawn loose ends like nobody's business, I don't think he can really hide behind the Doctor's speech that the universe is a vast and ridiculous place where the impossible just happens - but taken as a big, bold penultimate chapter with an incredible series of cliffhangers, it's just about the best we've ever gotten. It outdoes the RTD penultimates not because of its content, though that's true too - all enemies ever team up, the Doctor trapped, the TARDIS exploding, Amy killed by Auton Rory, and the universe ceasing to exist - but because the plotting is so much tighter. In a Davies script, the cliffhanger would be resolved with a cheat. In this one, getting out of the universe's destruction will take cleverness and using all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle Moffat's thrown at us over the course of the series. And it's built into this episode's DNA, which hinges on traps within traps and lots of twists and turns. It keeps zagging when you think it's zigging.

The biggest twist, of course, is that the Pandorica, legendary prison of "the most feared thing in the universe" is a trap for the Doctor. It's not about to release a dangerous goblin or warrior, it's about to catch one. The trap is a reaction to the cracks in the universe which have been tracked to Amy's house and to the TARDIS explosion. An alliance of every alien costume in the Cardiff warehouse (and more, lots of fun name-checks in there as well) uses Amy's psychic residue to create a scenario that will lure the Doctor in, on the mistaken notion that stopping the Doctor will prevent the cracking of the universe. Only, it's too late. They should have grabbed Peter Davison's Doctor or something. Pandora's Box is a strange "favorite book" for Amy, but her never-before-mentioned interest in Greco-Roman myth and history creates the basis for the trap, and inadvertently recreates Rory (who once tried to impress her by dressing up as a centurion), albeit as an Auton duplicate, but with Rory's memories (see Theories). Cue "love conquers all" ending, except the twists won't stop and the Auton in him can't help itself. Even the alien alliance winning isn't exactly telegraphed, and the opposite seems to be happening. As the skies above Stonehenge fill up with ships, the Doctor reprises his speech from Bad Wolf, only Matt Smith gives it an almost drunken spin, like he's high on how much they fear him (which is a great clue to his being who the Pandorica was built for), and there's no telling what he might do. Love the atmosphere in that scene, rain and wind and bright lights. But their running away was part of the plan, and the aliens are playing for time (while the trap opens) as much as the Doctor thinks he is.

So much to recommend... It's great how we revisit Series 5, various guest-stars trying to send the Doctor a message across time. Vincent, Churchill and Bracewell (so he DIDN'T run away), Liz 10 and of course, River Song (I find it a little surprising that she's a contemporary of Starship UK, but okay). This is definitely my favorite River episode. The hallucinating guard pointing a gun at a matchstick drawing of her never fails to amuse. The wink to Douglas Adams on the cliff face is insane (and the Greek letters for Theta Sigma, the Doctor's old school nickname, are prominently featured too). Spiking Dorium's drink (first appearance, folks!) to get a vortex manipulator (Jack's?). Posing as Cleopatra is delicious, and she gets some good lines across the board, though she also has to be lying at least some of the time, because she should recognize Rory. Or should she? (Again, see Theories.) And of course, Moffat redeems the Cybermen, making them scary again after RTD turned them into glorified robots. Given these are Cybusmen suits, I like to think the two races met and assimilated each other, but all the tricks are definitely Mondasian/Telosian. With a healthy dolop of body horror in there. Great sequence. And to name one last favorite, I love how, as the universe is extinguished, the sound drops out before the light on the Earth does, cutting the musical cue abruptly. Silence has literally fallen (and in some ways, I wish that phrase hadn't been repurposed later because it fits events here so well).

THEORIES: We learn here that people erased from history, either because that history changed or they fell into a crack, leave evidence of their existence behind. The universe can mostly contain these small paradoxes, and they may include memories (Amy remembered the clerics lost in Flesh and Stone), psychic residue (Amy forgot all about Rory, but her house "remembered"), the ring, the Halloween picture, and rather notably, but we don't know this yet, River Song herself. How can she be here if her father was never born? There are several explanations, the least satisfying of which being that River Song is a complex space-time event and a paradox unto herself. As we saw in Flesh and Stone, someone disappearing into a crack doesn't actually change history, merely rewrites it so that nothing's changed but for the absence. Think about it. If those clerics had never been born, wouldn't the Church have just brought OTHER clerics? Instead, the last remaining cleric thinks it perfectly normal to be a squad of one. Never mind that episode, AMY doesn't have any parents, so why does River need them? At this point, their lives don't make sense, but they just can't notice. Similarly, if we accept that Gallifrey is beyond those cracks (which means the Doctor really IS responsible) and "erased" from history the same way, the Doctor shouldn't exist either. I think the cracks NEED to stay open for any of this to happen. People are returning through them, the lost whispering into our universe's ear, so to speak. If something is remembered, and in the Whoniverse, thoughts have real quantum power (see Logopolis, et al.), then it can come back. You don't need to rebuild a Rory because his "code" still exists, beyond the walls of the universe, but accessible through the cracks. And because Amy's lived all her life next to a crack, she can more ably "remember" and tap into and retrieve that lost "code". It can't be easy or for everyone, or else the Doctor's memories of Gallifrey would have brought it back by now. The crack in Matt Smith's last episode proves they weren't all closed as previously thought, and besides, they exist by virtue of our remembering them, according to these episodes' logic.

SECOND OPINIONS: My original review, 10 and 1 Things About The Pandorica Opens, includes a list of all the aliens referenced as part of the Big Bad Alliance.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Huge fun, big ideas, and the biggest cliffhanger the series has ever seen without seeming ridiculous and trite. Whether or not the episode manages to pay off (a tale for another day), The Pandorica Opens is an exciting entertainment.


CiB said...

The way they built up the Pandorica opening I'd set myself up to be disappointed. I knew that nothing could meet my expectations and the hype they'd built up around what was in there. Right enough though, nothing did meet those expectations...

This two parter is probably the best season finale new-Who has had.

Anonymous said...

"(which is a great clue to his being who the Pandorica was built for)"

I felt they telegraphed the hell out of it, and in a Moffat script that hinges upon wowing you with a twist, that's a fatal mistake.

I also didn't buy the Doctor's big bluff. Wait, I just realized why the big bluff worked -- because the Doctor's enemies weren't there to kill him, they were there to put him in a box he couldn't escape from. Otherwise, I would have expected some race or other to incinerate the Doctor and everything within 500 feet. Cybermen seem like good candidates for that, weighing the odds and realizing it would be totally worth the risk.

Did not like this episode. Will be much happier with the next episode.

Bill Doughty said...

Now that it's all said and done, that Stonehenge speech is still my favorite moment of Smith as the Doctor.

Of course, there's that clip on YouTube of McCoy totally owning it, too... it definitely plays to the "speechier" of the Doctor's personalities. I can see Colin Baker really going to town on this, too.

jdh417 said...

It's been established that time travelers are different than normal people. Perhaps Amy could remember the lost clerics, but the other clerics couldn't for that reason.

Could it also be that a temporal event that creates a paradox is an "un-fixed" point in time. Instead of something that can't changed, this is something that has to be changed, thus requiring the Doctor.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

Nicely analyzed vis-a-vis the cracks. While the second part (to me) didn't quite live up to the potential, this really was one heck of a ride. So many great moments.

Of course, the Pandorica is designed to keep him alive presumably because regenerating could cause an explosive burst of energy or something that would free him. No escape- not even death.

Funny thing is, in light of the recent retcon, this was actually the last Doctor and couldn't have regenerated anyway... so they could've just shot him dead or had the Pandorica killed him, and he would've stayed dead. So, in a way, keeping the War Doc as a shameful secret (so that none of his enemies knew this was the final incarnation) actually saved his life here!

Siskoid said...

Good point!


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