“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.
- 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.