Series Finale, Part One: Doctor Who – “The Pandorica Opens”

“The Pandorica Opens”

June 19th, 2010

As a newcomer to Doctor Who, one of the challenges I’ve had to face in terms of writing about the series is what to do with its two-part episodes. In particular, there’s a distinct challenge with writing about the first part of those episodes, as Doctor Who tends to quite literally split narratives in half as opposed to telling two connected stories. As a result, the first half tends to be fairly heavy on exposition and setup before the second half brings it all to a resolution: while this means that there is plenty to speculate on about the first episode, it’s tough to offer a critical opinion when so much of the two-parter’s effectiveness depends on how it concludes.

[Note: this seems as good a time as any to link to Scott Tobias and Noel Murray's fantastic conversation about the challenges of writing about television at The A.V. Club - I'd add "two-parters" to their list of confounding situations for television critics who write about television on a weekly schedule, although they are not particularly common in this day and age.]

I’ve gotten away with it so far this season by either writing about episodes from previous series (catching up with the Weeping Angels and River Song in my review of “The Time of Angels”) or catching up on previous episodes in this series (lumping reviews of “Vampires of Venice” and “Amy’s Choice” in with “The Hungry Earth”), but with “The Pandorica Opens” (the first part of the series finale) I knew that there was no such cheat available, which meant that the episode was either going to lend itself to instant analysis or it wasn’t.

There are times when I write about episodes of television because I feel I have something to say, or because I want to start or continue a conversation, but there are other times when I simply feel as if I need to write about something so as to be able to even come close to being able to wrap my head around it. “The Pandorica Opens” is one such episode, a first-part which wastes no time drawing a clear (and quite ingenious) connection between this story and the ongoing series narrative and in the process leaves me enormously confused in the best possible way.

Let’s start at the end, shall we? The Doctor is locked up in the Pandorica by a collection of alien races he has fought over the years, River is stuck in an exploding TARDIS, and Amy was just shot in the gut by a robot copy (created from her memories) of her deceased fiance, and all of the stars in the universe are exploding, leaving the Earth surrounded by darkness. This isn’t the first time that the universe has been so threatened at the end of a two-parter even within my limited Doctor Who experience: the aptly titled “The End of Time” had a vaguely similar cliffhanger with the Master taking over every single person in the human race, so it’s not as if Moffat is veering incredibly far away from the show’s formula. However, compared with that special, the series has been leading up to this moment from “The Eleventh Hour,” and the cliffhangers we receive not only involve the end of the universe but also some pretty harrowing individual perils for the characters we’ve become attached to. This isn’t just one of the Doctor’s enemies plotting to destroy the world: this is the climax to the series, and there’s something unique about this at least from my own experience.

Moffat is very clever in terms of making this point expressly clear: the opening, as Vincent Van Gogh (“Vincent and the Doctor”) receives a terrible image which inspires a painting which is found in the walls of Churchill’s bunker (“Victory of the Daleks”) which leads to a phone call to River Song (“The Time of Angels”/”Flesh & Stone”) who steals the painting from the royal archives (bringing back Liz 10 from “The Beast Below”) before sending the Doctor a message which brings him to a Roman invasion of Britain, is the sort of opening that only this show is capable of doing. It’s not entirely organic, as it does a couple of leaps of logic: for instance, while I’ll accept that the TARDIS is a phone box time machine and would be able to route Churchill’s call to River rather than accepting it itself, I don’t know how River knew that the Doctor would visit that mountain at that particular time. However, it’s so exciting to see the pieces coming together, to see how the series’ various elements are connected beyond the cracks we kept seeing in each episode, that any leaps don’t matter: while it would be hard to argue that those standalone episodes actually foreshadowed the conclusion we end up getting, it creates an illusion of seriality which is in some ways just as powerful.

The episode itself is actually fairly contained as a narrative, and it sort of telegraphs the ending early on: as soon as the Doctor makes the connection between Amy’s love of history and her interest in Pandora’s Box, it’s obvious that this has something to do with Amy, and Rory’s arrival only confirms that there is something fishy going on here. Plus, the idea that the Pandorica contains the most dangerous thing in the universe immediately made me think “what if it was The Doctor,” which we could even perhaps relate to “Amy’s Choice” if we really wanted to make the episode seem connected to the entire series. However, any predictability that we could claim is contained within the narrative is offset by the pleasure of the connections to previous episodes, and by Moffat’s willingness to take it much further than we could have imagined. It’s one thing to say that we figured out it had something to do with Amy, or that we knew the Doctor was to be the occupant of the Pandorica, but it’s another to say that we knew Moffat would have River trapped in an exploding TARDIS, or Amy dying in a robotic Rory’s arms, or the Doctor trapped in an inescapable prison by his greatest enemies while the universe begins to explode. We shouldn’t be surprised, considering that we saw the piece of the TARDIS at the end of “Cold Blood” and knew that this was a possibility, but we’re so used to the Doctor altering possibilities before they become calamities that this remained shocking even when it was pretty clearly setup within the episode.

I’ve got a whole lot of questions about the episode’s conclusion, though, some of which I don’t know if I’m supposed to be asking. For example, is it possible for River to die in that explosion considering that we know she and the Doctor are set to go on more adventures? My understanding of the series’ time travel rules is limited at best, but I feel like future River’s knowledge of the Pandorica (another bit of foreshadowing in “Flesh & Stone”) means that she has to live through this experience (and that the Doctor has to as well). This isn’t a huge shock, as I think Moffat loves River as a character and certainly has no intention of eliminating the Doctor (or Amy, for that matter), but it still left me sort of flummoxed at episode’s end. Less dependent on previous knowledge of the series, meanwhile, what precisely happened with Rory? He seems to have Rory’s memories right up to the point where he dies, having been transplanted into this performance of sorts in order to draw Amy and the Doctor into the trap, but how was he transplanted? If they’re working from the picture of Rory dressed up as a Roman soldier and Amy’s residual memories, then how is it that Rory is “up to date” to the point of his death? It made me think of the ways in which the Weeping Angels sent their victims back into the past, and so I wonder whether Rory was in some way treated similarly upon his death, or whether it is simply the alien races using their technology to pick up Rory’s stray bits of memory (which the Doctor discussed in the episode) in order to reconstruct his image. Also, the Doctor seemed to indicate that the Pandorica was an established myth, and yet the episode seems to argue that it exists as it does because of Amy’s love of “Pandora’s Box,” which raises further questions.

However, perhaps getting hung up on the “how” is unimportant, as it results in some really stellar television. The episode is too plot-heavy to become an outright character piece, but Matt Smith does some stellar work both comically (his lengthy scene not quite realizing that it is Rory who saved Amy from the Cybermen’s sentry) and dramatically (his speech to the various ships circling above Stonehenge), and Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill absolutely nailed Amy and Rory’s concluding scene. I love the parallels within those final moments: it begins with Rory trying to rekindle Amy’s memory, but by the time she remembers him it’s Amy who is trying to keep Rory from being taken over by his robotic programming. It’s just a wonderful bit of writing and performance, as Moffat isn’t just content to play out one particular circumstance: it’s complicated enough for Rory to remember everything while Amy cries with joy for reasons she doesn’t understand, but the inversion is just a beautiful and tragic scene.

As someone who came into the show for the first time in this series (or, more accurately, with the final Tennant specials), I am perhaps missing the value of the fan service found within the various alien races (of which I recognized only the Cybermen, the Daleks, and the others featured this season), but for me this episode did more than enough to be pretty fantastic without that additional interest. By so intuitively connecting with the series as a whole, and by crafting a ballsy story which reaches an unbelievable conclusion, Moffat has consolidated a season’s worth of stories in order to drive towards next week’s conclusion. There’s not a bit of momentum wasted in “The Pandorica Opens,” everything designed to simultaneously gesture towards the cliffhanger and bring back some memory from previous episodes; while I have no idea just what’s coming in next week’s conclusion considering the dire situation at the end of the episode, the show is riding so much momentum that “The Big Bang” has easily become one of my most anticipated hours of television this year.

Cultural Observations

  • I sort of mentioned this above, but this wasn’t really unpredictable beyond the finality of the conclusion: for example, was there anyone who didn’t figure out the Roman soldier left completely in shadow and yet volunteering for River’s mission was Rory? This isn’t a bad thing, but just noting that some of the episode’s reveals weren’t particularly shocking so much as they were resonant.
  • The Roman side of things was fairly underutilized beyond River’s entertaining masquerade as Cleopatra, but I thought the inclusion of Stonehenge (and the rewriting of its legacy to have been a meeting point for the various alien races) was a neat touch that worked quite well for the show.
  • Alex Kingston is having a lot of fun playing River Song, but it’s interesting to see the various layers to the character: she starts out here in the sort of fun and playful mode that we saw in “The Time of Angels,” but by the end she’s slipping into more of what we saw in “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead.” There is no liner progression that we can track for River’s character (as this actually predates “The Time of Angels”), but we can at the very least continue to see the ways in which the River we meet (and who eventually dies) is wiser and more mature than the current action/adventure vibe (which was especially engaging in the scenes in the prologue).
  • Of the series’ episodes, only “The Vampires of Venice,” “Amy’s Choice,” and “The Lodger” weren’t referenced directly, which is understandable as they were the three episodes which stood most independent of any central narratives – this doesn’t make them less interesting (I was quite charmed by “The Lodger,” even if it was a bit slight), or not worth someone’s time if they were to watch the series for the first time – okay, maybe I’d say skip “Vampires,” but it’s not terrible or anything – but it does signal their place in the series.
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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Series Finale, Part One: Doctor Who – “The Pandorica Opens”

  1. I was surprised you didn’t write a review of The Lodger, actually, because the obvious thematic parallel there to the story of the main trio seemed like the sort of thing you love talking about.

    In retrospect, it seems like every episode is an important part of the ongoing story, if not directly than in suggesting themes and angles from which to see the rest. For instance, I didn’t like Victory of the Daleks at all, but now that throwaway scene at the end of it where Amy tries to get the robot to feel love seems like a particularly clever bit of foreshadowing.

    The way the season is ending is actually very much in line with what Davies did. His last season was especially similar, foreshadowing for the entire season that the stars were disappearing and ending with all the Davies-era characters teaming up to save the universe. The difference here is in the quality of the execution. In the previous four seasons, the foreshadowing was limited to key phrases repeated at random points throughout the season (like “Bad Wolf” in season 1, or “Torchwood” in season 2), and while the crack this season has been comparable I think there’s a lot more continuity going on than that. It’s very clear that they planned this out from the start, and everything that’s happened during the season was leading toward some sort of inevitable conclusion.

    It’s also strange that Moffat is going for such epicness in his first season, in that it leaves me wondering where he can go next. Maybe the purpose of this whole time-changing thing is just to change the rules of Doctor Who so he can do things his way next year? Just a guess.

    • Re: The Lodger, it was an issue of when I watched it and my priorities at the time – I watched it the same day as the Justified finale and the Breaking Bad finale, so those were the writing priorities, and so by the time I would have gotten to the episode it would have been quite late and I found it more charming than substantial.

      • However, one could argue that “The Lodger” functioned as (to borrow a great analogy of yours) Series 5’s “Expose”; not appearing to be much or have little impact on the Whoniverse at first, but achieves its purpose through serving as a contrast to the situation in “Pandorica”.

        Combine that with the fascinating possibility of someone trying to build a TARDIS (a plot strand that, if Moffat has any sense, he’ll capitalize on), and “The Lodger” becomes quite the intriguing one-off.

        I see where you’re coming from, though. Context is everything.

  2. BobT

    This was a great episode. I love how the important episodes from this season got tied together. I was really surprised by the cameos we got in the teaser.

    The ending montage was a little odd in that it seemed to be really inspired by Lost. The slow motion, the orchestral music… It was a little jarring, but still effective.

    Can’t wait to see where this one goes. They’ll probably have some sort of plot device to reset everything. But I’m expecting Moffat to do it a lot better than Davies ever did.

    His way of connecting the dots is already a million times better than what we got before. So I have high hopes it’ll end with a bang (no pun intended).

    • You’re right about that montage being like LOST, but not just because it’s in slow motion. The music in that minute actually sounds like a direct rip-off of one of the regular musical themes of LOST.

  3. My first thought as the words “To Be Continued” flashed on screen was–it’s going to be a very long wait for next week’s episode.

    My second thought was–THAT is how you do the first part of a season finale. Of course, I thought that five years ago with “Bad Wolf” so I’m trying to keep my enthusiasm in check until we see part two. But, so far, Moffat has earned everything this year, if only because the season finale made it feel like he had some kind of plan to the season and had structured out how things would fall in the season. It didn’t necessarily feel like things were being thrown at the wall to see what sticks or that one epic turn was following the other. It was, once again, an episode built around one central conceit–what’s inside the box?–and then the storyline unfolded and rewarded viewers from there.

    As a long-time Dr Who fan, I can tell you the scene of all the various foes coming back was a welcome one, as was the name-check of a lot of classic series monsters and enemies that fans love. (Moffat even took a couple from the original novels that were published between the end of the classic run and the new series emerging). It’s an Easter Egg to obsessed fans like myself, but I don’t get the feeling it really was a point that kept newer fans from feeling like they’d come late to the party and missed the joke.

    And it shows how absolutely Moffat had me in this episode as until the box opened I expected there to be something inside–either the Doctor or the Dream Lord from Amy’s Choice.

    • Gill

      There was even a Blowfish creature like the one we see with Torchwood‘s Captain Jack in Kiss, Kiss, Bang Bang – not part of Moffat’s remit but part of the Whoniverse and a delightful Easter egg for fans of that show too.

      • A Weevil or two showed up as well.

        As good as it is, Torchwood can be dodgy at times – some of the second series comes to mind – but Children of Earth was five of the most devastating hours of television I’ve ever watched.

  4. One of the things I enjoyed most about the episode was the sense that Moffatt was always one half-step ahead of his viewers. I had run through nearly every possibility in my mind about the contents of the Pandorica, but it never occurred to me that it could be empty.

  5. Gill

    I was gripped by the episode and, as a viewer since the first episode (in 1963. I’m young for my age, OK?), loved all the callouts in this. Mind you, throughout this series (what the BBC calls a season, just to confuse you) Moffat has repeatedly reminded us of the vast mythology of the show going back 47 years, though with so light a touch that those too young to have seen Classic Who wouldn’t notice.

    Incidentally, The Lodger, which was all about what as well as who the Doctor is, linked in to the season as a whole in a number of ways, most delightfully, perhaps, with a fridge magnet copy of Sunflowers holding a flyer for the Van Gogh exhibition.

    Rory as an Auton (monsters used in Classic Who and two episodes of the RTD era) struggling to become human was a beautiful parallel to the Doctor trying to pass as human in The Lodger, I felt, while the whole theme of memory was explored from a huge number of angles. River Song knew the Doctor would see her message because she has already met him, in her past, when he was in his future. Each of them knows a great deal about what will happen to the other, and is bound by a tacit “no spoiler” rule.

    I loved seeing all the old monsters, even so briefly, though I am still unhappy with Smarties-coloured Daleks. The Cyberman octopus-head was superb, and when it opened was a real “behind the sofa” moment for many young viewers I suspect. The mix of humour, pathos, adventure and horror was excellent – just what Moffat has always done well.

    I very much enjoyed your review, though I suspect you may need to watch a few more back episodes to connect fully with this character. I think it’s a given that the Doctor and River will escape, and the Tardis will survive – the latter is too iconic, the first two already have futures we know about. About Amy and Rory I am less confident, though I have my own ideas. I am very much hoping the the ending will feature the one thing left trapped inside Pandora’s Box after all the evils had flown out of it.

    I was attracted to your site initially because of your fabulous Buffy rewatch. I wonder if you are noticing the depth of the influence of that show and the depth RTD and Moffat owe Whedon?

    • On Gill’s point about the back episodes: Myles, if you have the time this summer, I would highly recommend catching up on Doctor Who Series 1 through 4, especially to see how Moffat and RTD’s visions of a “first series” for each Doctor differ.

      If you have any spare time this week, one episode you should really check out is “Rose” – not only does it provide some important details about the Autons, but it introduces one of the most iconic companions in the show’s history and provides interesting parallels between Series 1 and 5.

      One more thing: you’re new-ish to the show, so the Vortex Manipulator scene probably didn’t mean much to you, but trust me: it’s important, and the S3 finale, esp. Utopia/The Sound of Drums, indicates its usefulness.

  6. trefusius

    “Also, the Doctor seemed to indicate that the Pandorica was an established myth, and yet the episode seems to argue that it exists as it does because of Amy’s love of “Pandora’s Box,” which raises further questions.”

    No reason it can’t be both an established legend and due to Amy’s love of Pandora’s box – just requires some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff (e.g. River always hating good wizards in stories because they turn out to be the Doctor).

  7. Pingback: Series/Season Finale: Doctor Who – “The Big Bang” « Cultural Learnings

  8. Tale

    I don’t know how River knew that the Doctor would visit that mountain at that particular time.

    It’s not that she knew the time the Doctor would be there, but she the place he would be in. River knew that if she went back in time and made the earliest written word in the universe he wouldn’t be able to resist coming there and translating it. She did something like that in the beginning of The Time of Angels were she left her message in a museum.

    • mothergunn

      Actually, I’m pretty sure River knew he would be there because now, after watching “The Big Bang,” I’m even more convinced that Amy and River are the same person.

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