“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.
- 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.