Series/Season Finale: Doctor Who – “The Big Bang”

“The Big Bang”

June 26th, 2010

While I never publicly agonized over it, the decision to watch Doctor Who’s fifth series (or first series of the Moffat era, if we want to get really complicated) on the British schedule was not an easy one: while a large part of my readership appear to have been watching at the same pace, making for lively conversations, I have not been making light of the ethical dilemmas therein in continuing to post in this fashion.

However, ultimately, I think Steven Moffat has created a season of television which demands to be watched as part of a collective audience, and as a newcomer to the series I feel as if I would have been lost had I been following the North American viewings. Commenters have been most kind at helping contextualize my experience with the series within the series’ larger framework, and the season has been so aggressively timey-wimey that there is a great value to be watching at the same pace as those who can help provide important context for what I’m experiencing. If I were three weeks behind, many of those fans may no longer be interested in these episodes, and I think this season would have been a much less enjoyable one as a critic.

“The Big Bang” is a story at once about the beginning and the end of the world, and yet it is a sparse story told using only a few primary characters as opposed to some sort of epic struggle. There is struggle, but it is struggle which unfolds between various different versions of the same characters over time as opposed to between a larger number of characters. And while there’s enough time travel to make your head spin, and it introduces various elements which border on dei ex machina, those elements are so intricately linked to these characters that they play out more like poetry than plot.

And through a small story with big consequences, “The Big Bang” stands as a conclusive finale which connects back which all which came before, an episode which solidifies the quality of the Eleventh Doctor, the importance of one Amy Pond, and the sheer potential which lies in the future with Moffat at the helm.

I’m going to presume that others with more experience during the Davies years (mine being limited to the finale Tennant Specials, really) will offer their thoughts on how the two showrunners compare, but what Moffat has done here is something really spectacular. It is enormously ballsy to build an entire season and its consequences into a single concluding two-part episode, to have bits and pieces of nearly every single episode dependent on how it becomes resolved. “The Pandorica Opens” did not lack for scale, and it left us at an enormously complicated point in time: you’ve got River in an exploding TARDIS, you’ve got Amy dead in Rory’s arms, you’ve got Rory’s memories trapped inside a plastic Centurion, plus you’ve got the Doctor trapped inside the Pandorica by his greatest enemies thus ensuring the end of the universe. Having laid an elaborate trap for himself, Moffat then has to secure his exit without making it seem as if the season’s journey was for nothing, a nearly Herculean task which he handles almost unnaturally well.

The opening of the episode sets the scene quite well: we return to young Amelia, now living in a world without stars and a world where she is once again considered crazy for the memories she has of something that no one else can understand. And yet she’s led towards the museum, where the Pandorica sits in an exhibit along with a fossilized Dalek or two, and when she touches it and it begins to open we’re all expecting the Doctor to emerge…and there sits Amy Pond in the episode’s one truly shocking development. Everything else, frankly, becomes about stitching together various points of time in cheeky and dramatic fashion. When we first see the Doctor, wearing a fez and holding a mop, show up and instruct Rory on how to get him out of the Pandorica, it’s a funny sequence with serious consequences: later, as we watch the Doctor piece together where he needs to go back in time and then quickly bounce back and forth (filling in why he left abruptly and came back without the mop, amongst other details), the sequences remain funny but they are building towards something. Once the Doctor himself shows up in our “present” dying from a shot from a Dalek, you realize that all bets are off and his jumping through time takes on an entirely new context. That it all ends up being part of an elaborate plan could threaten to feel cheap, but the way each piece comes together and how those pieces vary from heroic acts of sacrifice to funny-looking hats keeps the episode moving along despite some fairly sudden plot movements.

Through all of these time manipulations, we get a large number of character moments: we get the Doctor confirming that Rory has overcome his plastic programming to regain control of his identity, we get Rory and Amy being reunited, we get River standing up for the Doctor with a mercy-seeking Dalek, and we even get the Doctor once again sacrificing himself in order to save the universe (which I gather happens quite often, unless I’m mistaken). And yes, to get there requires us to accept that the science of the light from the Pandorica saving the universe makes any sense, or that the Doctor could so quickly wire himself into the Pandorica in order to fly it with such precision, but it feels so dramatically “right” that we look past it all. It works because it feels like the Doctor is saving his future, and Amy’s future, and River’s future as much as he is saving the future of the universe, confining the story to those key elements so as not to overwhelm the rest of the season. Despite last week’s huge increase in scale, Moffat smartly kept things scaled back in “The Big Bang” and it kept the Doctor’s plan from feeling contrived or unnatural. Instead, it feels like a heroic decision made out of devotion to his companions, both present and (in the case of River) present/future.

And so when the Doctor begins his journey rewinding through time, ending up at various stages of his journey with Amy and Rory, it’s an emotional rollercoaster which both confirms viewer suspicions (that the scene in “Flesh and Stone” was in fact a bit of foreshadowing disguised as a continuity error) and puts a lot of things into perspective. Before departing, the Doctor confirms that Amy’s life has always been more complicated than he’s realized, and it was his curiosity which led him to bring her on this journey and effectively place her and those close to her in mortal danger. And rather than killing her and placing it on the Doctor’s conscience, Moffat has the Doctor revisit those past moments to further connect with Amy, to forge a tight bond between Doctor and companion which could potentially bring him back once he crosses over. And just as Rory is “remembered” and brought back from the other side, so too is the Doctor remembered as he purposefully inscribes himself within traditional wedding rituals with his final bedside story to a sleeping Amy Pond.

That final sequence is all sorts of cheeky, the “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue” superstition being employed in a sickeningly slick fashion which should read as corny but was just so beautifully executed that I can’t possibly hold it against them. I’m madly in love with the way this episode ends, an ending which feels just as caught up in time travel and the cracks in time as was the rest of the season. Some may consider Moffat’s conclusion a cop out, a “happy” ending which brings Rory back from the dead, reunites Amy with her family (who themselves had been lost in the crack in the wall before the Doctor had arrived), and shows Rory and Amy headed off on another adventure with the Doctor. However, that it all goes back to what the Doctor witnessed in “The Eleventh Hour,” and that it connects with what we saw in the intervening episodes, and that there are still – I think, at least – as noted in the comments, I may be misreading this – complications (like the fact that Rory, having now lived nearly two thousand years, could die at any moment in the future), the ending makes the entire season matter in a way I’m not used to seeing. As a collective unit, this season has created character relationships, established certain parameters, and been an important introduction to where Moffat is heading and the kind of dynamics he is interested in creating in terms of time, companions, and various other elements.

In other words, Moffat designed a season which went around in a circle and yet came back infinitely more complicated, never feeling as if it was all nothing but setup and yet slowly building towards the next step in the journey as opposed to a sudden twist or the like. I’ve got Buffy on the brain as a result of the Cultural Catchup Project, but in many ways it reminds me of that show’s short first season: it starts with one story, reveals more about the characters over the course of the following episodes, and then returns to the Pilot’s story in the conclusion before bringing it to rest and then preparing to move on with a whole new perspective on character, plot, etc. But while Buffy told largely standalone stories during that run, the Doctor was building on Moffat’s previous episodes in the series, on future episodes (with River Song and her timey-wimey ways), and on the work which Davies did as Matt Smith started to blaze his own trail. That the season managed to be so successful as a unit despite juggling those various different elements (alongside some major plot advancement like Rory’s death) is truly astonishing, especially for a show which so often presents itself as a sort of anthology thanks to its standalone episodes.

There were some weak episodes this season (Vampires and the Syrulian two-parter stand out), but Moffat had his eye on the prize: I am now wholly attached to Matt Smith as the Doctor, and Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, and Rory, and River Song, and pretty much everyone associated with the series. While he may have had a lot of material to work from (some 30+ Series worth, if you want to look at it that way), Moffat went back to square one, which is perhaps fitting considering that he takes the universe back to square one in “The Big Bang.” It is a season which successfully launches a new era for Doctor Who, and while I may not be able to appreciate how much has changed with Moffat’s intervention, I am able to say that I am incredibly impressed with the world he has created, and greatly look forward to returning to it at Christmas and then sometime in 2011.

Cultural Observations

  • Some eagle-eyed readers around these parts: not only did many people notice the jacket in the scenes in “Flesh and Stone” (thus predicting this event), but you also noticed that the Doctor had the time wristband thingy, allowing the events in this episode to unfold. I don’t know what I’d do without you, really, so thanks for sticking around.
  • There are not enough words to discuss the Doctor’s fez – such a wonderful little touch, and River’s destruction of it was made all the better by the Doctor waking up and hoping it would have returned, content in that he can purchase another one at a later date.
  • Enjoyed that the Doctor’s rewind through his life included something we hadn’t seen, one of the Doctor’s visits to exotic locales (Space Florida, in this instance) after Rory’s death in order to keep Amy’s mind on positive things.
  • The final scene with River again toyed with notions of marriage for the Doctor and River: it was a nice coda to their story in the episode, which had a wonderfully tragic note when River remarked that while she may want to say goodbye to the Doctor in an emotional final conversation, the Doctor is not yet that close to her, and so he wants to see Amy instead.
  • I’ve seen the word “reboot” bandied about as it relates to Doctor Who, and I think that enough changes between the premiere and the finale for this series to be considered something more than a reboot: no one forgets anything, and Rory is a plastic replica of himself, so the weight of the episodes will still linger into the next series.
  • I am going to presume that the Orient Express in Space will be the location for the Christmas special, presuming of course that the show so cleanly foreshadows said special at the end of a series. I may be dead wrong, but that was my initial instinct, and I’d be excited to see such an episode this Holiday season.


Filed under Doctor Who

31 responses to “Series/Season Finale: Doctor Who – “The Big Bang”

  1. BobT

    The reboot mechanism went a little over my head too be honest.

    I got most of it, but I’m lost as to how some it works. I’m pretty sure the Rory we saw at the end actually wasn’t the plastic duplicate but his old self.

    But then I don’t understand; what these characters remember, and what of the moments that happened, have been rewritten so that they didn’t happen?

    It’s too much timey wimey-ness for my brain to handle.

    • I definitely read the conclusion as maintaining all of their memories, but I also really was convinced upon watching it that Rory hadn’t been transformed back into a human and that he would have remained something different. However, now that I think about it, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, so perhaps I read more into that than I should have.

      Which is the fun of it all, I suppose.

      • Eldritch

        It was also my impression that Rory was human at his wedding. I took it that at Big Bang 2 the universe was recreated based on Amy’s memories, which would have to include Rory.

        I can see that you, Myles, and many others are enchanted with the dramatic and performance elements of this season. I am too. I’ve enjoyed Smith and Gillian’s performances. They’re charismatic and charming. Dramatically, the episodes are pretty good at hitting the emotional points well. I really enjoyed at the Van Gogh episode. The problem I have is with the unbelievable and logically inconsistent plot elements that they base the drama on.

        Rory was erased from time, yet the engagement ring he purchased remained. Amy doesn’t remember the erased Rory, except when it’s convenient for the plot for her to remember fragments of him. Van Gogh’s monster was a giant spacing going parrot. I’m sure most of the audience sees these things and isn’t bothered by them. But they bother me considerably.

        This is the first season of Doctor Who that I’ve watched. It seemed awfully silly to me in the ’70’s when I sampled it previously. Recently, I had an exchange in which I was told the series is best thought of as a “family” show. Meaning, I suppose, that it’s chiefly written for children.

        Most science fiction is badly written. Certainly, there are increasingly more exceptions to that over simplification. But even now most science fiction seems to be written by those who believe it doesn’t need to be constructed on the principles of good drama. This season of Doctor Who certainly has good acting and drama, yet I’m having problems with the ill conceived plot elements.

        Maybe Doctor Who is still not for me. I enjoyed the Harry Potter novels, though those were aimed at children, so I’m disappointed that I don’t feel better about Doctor Who. Yet the Potter books’ plot elements seemed logically consistent and thought out. I wish The Doctor could say the same.

        • The Broox

          Doctor Who differs from most other science fiction on its take on “technology”. (I use the term technology to mean all sorts of science fiction bits including aliens.) In most shows the science is imagined and then stories are formed around it.

          Examine Dollhouse for instance. It is at the extreme of “science” first and then creating a story around it. The Dolls and all the tech associated with them were a way to get Eliza to portray a wide range of characters. As the tech was fleshed out story ideas sprang from it. What is a Doll starts to remember? What if Dolls fall in love? What id the tech is used as a weapon? etc. Dollhouse is an extreme case of “science first, story second” but if you think about it the same applies in part to most science fiction.

          Doctor Who is at the other end of the spectrum. It is “story first, science second”. If you want to tell a story about Amy having to choose between The Doctor and Rory then create the Dream Lord. Is a shot of Amy floating outside the tardis needed to convey to viewers her sense of wonder? If yes then go for it and insert some techno-babble latter. Does the Doctor need to be able to do all sorts of things on his adventures to progress the plot, well thankfully he has a sonic screwdriver. You begin to see the point.

          The science is a tool of the narrative and not the other way around. You are not the first to be “put off” by this dichotomy. It can take some getting used to. My suggestion is to give it some time.

          This is not to say that “story first, science second” is better than “science first, story second” just that they are different. And most shows fall somewhere between the two extremes listed here but most tend to favor the “science first” end of the spectrum.

          • Eldritch

            Thanks, that’s an interesting way to think of it.

            I guess the reason behind my post is that I see the popularity of the series and I’m trying to find a way to get into it myself. I suppose I’m still trying to sort out exactly why I’m having trouble doing so.

            And it’s not like I’ve never like a show or movie that had scientific or logical flaws. I was crazy about “The Matrix” even though I couldn’t find a thing in it that made any sense.

          • mothergunn

            Yes, The Broox, that’s essentially what I was going to say but you beat me to it and probably said it much more eloquently than I would have.

            I love Doctor Who (and Torchwood, which is a show I’m sometimes almost ashamed to admit I love) because the characters are so complicated. Yes, the plots are sometimes a bit weak and yes, the sci-fi is pretty much always sketchy, but in the end I don’t really care about that stuff. The people, what makes them tick, and the ways they interact with each other- that’s what I watch these shows for, in the end.

        • If the plot elements this season are ill conceived, they hardly hold a candle to most of the nonsense in the Davies era. Prominent examples include “The Doctor’s Daughter”, “The End of Time”, and “Tooth and Claw”.

          I like The Broox’s point that Doctor Who is a show about “story first, science second”, although that statement applies more to the Moffat era – much of Davies’ output (especially with the Tenth Doctor) is more soap opera than science fiction. This era is more grounded, which I appreciate.

          • fivexfive

            If you think even further back, this series is trying to build on the whole canon of Doctor Who, which started in 1963. I started watching with the 9th Doctor series, so I didn’t know what the old series was like, but I imagined that if you’re trying to stay in some kind of continuity with a sci-fi series that old, your going to have a different sense of “science” and “technology” than the fiction I have grown accustomed to since getting into the genre when I was a kid watching The X-Files.

            Now that I have started watching the Classic Who, the nonsensical of the current series makes even more sense. Somehow.

      • Ovid

        At the wedding, as Amy leaps over the table, you hear Rory in the background saying to her mother, “I was plastic… He was the stripper at my stag-do.” So he definitely remembers. Whether he’s *still* plastic is another issue.

    • But then I don’t understand; what these characters remember, and what of the moments that happened, have been rewritten so that they didn’t happen?

      River and the Doctor both tell Amy that the rebooted universe will be a universe in which the Doctor never existed. Amy will go back to her “place” in time, hopefully with an echo of a memory of what she’s experienced. This means that the TARDIS won’t have exploded, the cracks won’t have existed, and thus the things that fell through the cracks and “unhappened” — like Amy’s parents, like Rory, like (presumably) the ducks in the duck pond — won’t have ever unhappened and they will exist again in the rebooted universe. Amy and Rory remember some of what happened, but it’s like deja vu for them; the memories happened to someone else, in a different universe.

      • BobT

        Thanks. It makes it a bit clearer.
        So I guess Rory doesn’t remember his time as a centurion himself, because those weren’t actually his memories.

        And if I understand correctly then the Doctor’s history up until meeting Amy got rewritten into universe timeline 2.0 when Amy remembered.

        But the actual events of series 5 are part of some vague echoes they have of universe 1.0

        That makes sense to me.

        I’m sure there are still some inconsistencies and do wonder how many times doctor who just gets away by throwing in ridiculous technobabble.

        But it’s all fun. I watch this show for its sheer inventiveness, not so much for consistent ideas about science.

        As has been said by the broox, it’s just a tool for the stories.
        So I’m not going to get too hung up about it.

  2. The Broox

    I also fall on the side of Rory being back to human at the end of the episode.

    • I agree as well, but am a bit sad about this — to have the Doctor have a formerly-human, now-Auton as a companion would have been fascinating. Regardless, I’m thrilled that Rory’s being elevated to a companion, and hope Arthur Darvill gets a more featured role next series. Having a primary companion (Amy) seems to fit with tradition on the show, but having companions that float in and out — River, Rory, perhaps eventually the “Doctor’s daugther” that Moffat made RTD keep alive, as he wanted to do something with her eventually — seems a useful innovation to the show’s formula. One that Davies started with Captain Jack and Martha’s reapparances, but I’d personally like to see expanded further into a truly large and varied supporting cast.

      • fivexfive

        I thought that, too, while watching the episode (especially in the museum), that it would have been SO cool if Rory had stayed plastic.

        But he still has the memories of being plastic, apparently. That kind of makes him older than the Doctor, maybe, although I think it’s still uncertain just how old the Doctor is.

  3. Your guess about the Christmas episode foreshadowing is almost certainly correct. Davies set the tradition of the last few moments of each series leading into the Christmas episode. It was nice to see Moffatt do the same thing with his own sensibility applied.

    • Eldritch

      What is December? Is it a continuation of Season/Series 5? Or the next season?

      • Thomas

        Well, they’ve yet to film the Christmas special, so technically it’s episode 0 of the next series/season.

      • The Broox

        Generally the Christmas Specials are numbered as such #.X where # represents the following season. So my guess is that this December’s special will be 6.X. That said the specials tend t be rather stand-aloneish so don’t expect much of a continuation this season or a much of a preview of the next season.

        • They have been generally stand-alone-ish, with an emphasis on the “ish.”

          The Christmas Invasion featured elements that were certainly important to subsequent series (the rise of Torchwood, the Doctor’s hand, the fall of Harriet Jones, etc.); The Runaway Bride seemed quite standalone but introduced Donna and the first actions of Harold Saxon/Master No. Six; Voyage of the Damned seems the most stand-alone-ish to me, but gets tied back in at the end of Tennant’s run with “the Mr. Copper fund,” the alternate timeline destruction of Buckingham Palace in “Turn Left,” etc.

          “The Next Doctor” is a perplexing one — there was the mention this series that the events of that episode (a Cyberking stomping around Victorian London on Christmas) were far too crazy for people to forget, yet it was. So, are we to believe that something here got sucked through a time-crack? I’m not sure what to make of this episode’s events’ current status after the end of series 5.

  4. I see no reason to believe that the Christmas Special will actually be about the Doctor, Amy, and Rory going after the Egyptian goddess on the space Orient Express. Seems a little obvious, doesn’t it?

    I read the last scene as a nice nod to the kinds of bread-and-butter stories that have always made up Doctor Who (a mix of horror, sci-fi, and sheer ludicrousness). If Moffat was really following in RTD’s style, there would have been an actual teaser scene — Donna materializing on the TARDIS, the Titanic crashing into the TARDIS, or the never-aired Cyberman teaser at the end of S4. There was no “what? What? WHAT?,” nor anything overtly describing the Christmas special (not even a title), so this ain’t gonna be it.

    I read somewhere the other day that Matt Smith gets the script for the Christmas special this week, and this episode was in the can a while ago, so I’m assuming the Christmas special will be (1) overtly Christmas themed in some fashion (2) will take place after a bit of a gap, with Rory and Amy having traveled with the Doctor a bit further. I foresee an episode much like “New Earth,” “Smith and Jones,” or “The Waters of Mars” that implies a bit of a gap between what happened before and this new “episode 0” of the next series.

    Given how the show’s been packaged (“Christmas Invasion” is part of the S2 DVD set, etc.), this seems plausible, no?

  5. Austin

    I am a new comer to Doctor Who, so I am curious what the general schedule is. Christmas is a one-shot deal and then it comes back at the same time next year for another 13 episode season? How come only 13 episodes? Is that a British TV thing? because I have only seen a few British TV shows but they always have 13 episodes per season.

    • Don’t know what you need me for, Austin – you’ve got it figured out. British seasons tend to run shorter (often MUCH shorter) than American ones, and Doctor Who is no exception.

    • Yes, UK tv series tend to run 6, 8 or 13 episodes apart from the soaps and soap-like one hour series.

      Partly this is budgetary, partly its to do with time slots, some of it has to do with how they’re written with very small writing teams, and a lot has to do with how they’re shot on single cameras for a filmic quality. The closest the US has to UK production is cable, HBO or Showtime.

  6. Tony

    I’m sorry, I didn’t get it – where and how did the Doctor came from who visited Rory at first in the year 102AD to tell him Amy isn’t dead?

    Sorry for asking a stupid question.

  7. Anne-marie

    Just one teeny-tiny thing I picked up on (may well be overanalysising)… but I thought it was beautiful that in Amy’s new world there were no stars in the sky and that she painted them there when noone else could see them. I thought this was beautiful because of the earlier episode “Vincent and the Doctor” and his painting “Starry Starry Night”. Just a small thing but if it was intentional – stunning.

    • Ovid

      Ooooh, well spotted! That’s beautiful.

      • It’s not just a Van Gogh reference – the concept of a starless sky was previously used in S4’s “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End”.

        This series has been full of allusions from within S5 and from S1 through 4. Chief among them are Amy being wrapped in an identical blanket in “The Pandorica Opens” to that in “Flesh and Stone”, the echoing of “the sonic doesn’t do wood” (5×08) from S4’s Moffat two-parter, the repetition/abandonment of Tennant’s fruit motif in 5×01, and – surely the least coincidental of them all – Moffat ending S5 with another red-haired woman in a wedding dress onboard the TARDIS (“Doomsday”).

        Another possible allusion is the “last Dalek” in the museum in 5X13 to S1’s episode “Dalek”.

  8. Caravelle

    I loved loved loved this episode so much ! I enjoyed the season, but the first episode and this one were really those were I was hopping in place going “awesome !!!”.

    My Doctor Who viewing experience amounts to anything with Jack Harkness, anything with Donna Noble and a few others so I don’t know how the presentation of the new TARDIS in the season premiere ties with the series’ history, but I was certainly brought back to that moment when Eleven talked about the TARDIS as being “old and new at the same time”, a statement which wouldn’t have made much sense to me if I hadn’t seen the premiere… If that was foreshadowing instead of a classic trope, color me impressed.

    I also rewatched “Flesh and Stone” just after the finale. The scene where future Doctor talks to Amy hadn’t tripped any bells for me on first viewing, but watching now it’s just blatant how the Doctor who asks her to remember is in a completely different place emotionally from the doctor who’s trying to outwit the Angels. It’s just so affecting to watch it now.

  9. Caravelle

    Tony : I’m sorry, I didn’t get it – where and how did the Doctor came from who visited Rory at first in the year 102AD to tell him Amy isn’t dead?

    Sorry for asking a stupid question.

    After the Pandorica opens in the Museum, and the Doctor (who got there from the time manipulator he picked up when Rory took him out of the Pandora) and the others are running from the Dalek, first he picks up a fez, a bit later they’ve run through a door and he’s picking up a mop to bar it closed, then Rory says “that’s how you were dressed !”. The Doctor is like “whut ?”, Rory explains, and that’s when the Doctor goes back in time to tell him Amy isn’t dead. That’s also when he does all the stuff to attract Amelia to the museum.

    Also, can I say I love Rory ? I didn’t care for him one way or the other in the premiere and didn’t really see why Amy was marrying him, but somehow over the course of the season he grew on me and with that last episode I now feel he’s a cool character.

  10. Sefa

    Thought you’d like this article on explaining certain aspects of the Doctor Who finale. Even a long-time fan who loves the timey-wimey stuff, this ep was a challenge to follow, and the article definitely helps articulate what I kind of got in a vagueish sense:

    • I agree with you completely, Sera. The episode made a lot more sense with that article and the assistance of a second viewing.

      On second watching, I’d have to say the most pleasurable part of the episode to watch was Caitlin Blackwood’s scenes as Amelia. She was good in “The Eleventh Hour”, but having her look innocently at a Dalek while drinking soda AND having her apologize to a stuffed penguin was comic genius on Moffat’s part.

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