Monday, 28 June 2010
'THE PANDORICA OPENS', 'THE BIG BANG', UNCLE STEVE MOFFAT AND ALL
Funny how things turn out really.
It wasn’t the World Cup that was the proverbial game of two halves, but Steven Moffat’s two-part finale to Doctor Who. Russell Davies’ finales always felt like a film chopped in half. (Albeit spliced together with a contrived cliffhanger.) But here the two parts felt strangely unlike each other, like jigsaw pieces crammed together. The first was much closer to the Davis finales we know, all galloping horses’ hooves and spaceships filling the sky. And, as with Davies, it often felt like a shopping-list of set pieces put on film. Take the Doctor’s big speech to the amassed space fleets. Even if we are to accept they would bugger off simply from being barked at by him, what has this got to do with the rest of the story? Isn’t their plan to get the Doctor to open the Pandorica? For that matter, why is a Cyberman on guard?
There’s been much fan comment over the Axis of Evil Aliens. I’m wondering if its source was the cover of the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary special. Certainly the image of the Third Doctor recoiling from all kind of baddies boggled my young mind. It was a long time before I realised that this wasn’t some episode I somehow hadn’t seen, but a specially composed photo-op. Whereupon I immediately wished it could be one, with all the monsters, all at once, surely the greatest ever. Yet of course it’s a fannish notion. I may well be wrong about this source, but they appear within the story much like that photo-op cover. You line them up and then there isn’t a lot for them to do but pose.
The second part was much more like a “time travel farce”. (In a way that even other “timey wimey” tales weren’t, for example ’Girl in the Fireplace.’) The standard farce trope is of course someone getting mistaken for someone else, repeated until convoluted. Here characters get mistaken for somewhen else. It was very similar in both tone and content to ’Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban’. With his fez and broom, the Doctor even resembled a Potter character. His appearance to the grieving Rory at the very beginning seemed to sum up the lurch. “Don’t worry. She’s dead now. But we’ll just turn this into a completely different kind of show!”
But then the second part turns into a game of two halves all by itself, the frenetic zipping about is over and we’re left with a much more intimate, more psychological story. In fact we’re pretty much where we began, at the start of the season.
Here the oft-made comparisons of Moffat’s work to fairy stories really come into their own. Pandroa’s Box becomes kind of merged with the Tardis, and the girl opens the box to let all the good stuff back in. It also works like ’Sleeping Beauty’, again in reverse. Instead of Beauty and all in her castle being put to sleep they’re the only ones awake, it’s the rest of the universe which needs Amy to remember it into life again. There’s a wedding instead of a christening, in which the uninvited guest arrives to complete the festivities.
Of course it’s a metaphor for Amy remaining connected to her imagination, not throwing it away in pursuit of the adult life we saw in ’Amy’s Choice’. In a potent image the stars are no longer in the sky but only in her mind, and as any SF fan knows stars stand for imagination. But there’s also a strange association of imagination with memory. Amy states almost in the same breath that the “raggedy Doctor” was her imaginary friend and “raggedy man, I remember you!”
After not one but two strange leaps, it’s inevitable that much got left behind. We don’t know what became of the Axis of Evil Aliens, and I don’t suppose we ever will. But in the sudden shift to Amy’s mind a lot of plot resolutions are conspicuous by their absence. We still don’t know River Song’s “spoilers”, or even what caused the cracks in time. As with the note Amelia finds on the Pandorica, we’re supposed to “stick around.” The suggestion is that the chief villain, and cause of the Cracks, lies unrevealed. In fact he even gets forgotten for the whole second half of the episode. After all that hard work scheming, he must surely be seething at the affront!
Of course continued serials live by the rule of tease. But there’s more to this than simply feeling strung along. Moffat’s first story, the one that got us all excited about him, was ’Empty Child’, almost completely devoid of ”timey wimey stuff” and mostly remembered for the titular kid with the sinister catchphrase. Even after his embracing of time paradoxes, we still most commonly thought of him as the deviser of sinister adversaries – the Clockwork Robots, the Weeping Angels.
This time we got the Weeping Angels back, if somewhat streamlined for mass production. But he’s given us no real additions to the pantheon of creepiness. (Unless you count the Smilers. Which we don’t.) To merely dangle a Big New Foe and deliver no goods on him whatsoever leaves a hole. The reveal that the Pandorica was empty, if great at the time, feels all too telling in retrospect. Has Moffat’s cranium simply ceased producing creepy foes, and he’s holding off delivering in the hope that lightning will re-strike? What is the Doctor without his monsters?
Instead of the sinister, Moffat’s subsequent works have shown a greater and greater reliance upon time and all that ever wimed with it. After ’Big Bang’ we are surely gorged on all that, even if it once was a good thing. To follow this with some ever-more-tangled criss-crossing of timelines would just be like Davies’ device of having an even bigger Dalek fleet at the end of every season. It’s time for a clean break. Yet these two running plotlines are inextricably linked to the timey wimey stuff, which does suggest more of the same. (I’m assuming that neither plotline will be resolved in the Christmas special, but right at the end of the next season. An “Egyptian Goddess loose on the Orient Express in space” sounds too much like River Song to be her, particularly so soon after she’s done Cleopatra.)
Ultimately, if the empty Pandorica was a telling symbol, so was the Doctor zipping here there and everywhere. There were some great moments along the way, but the overall experience was disjointed - bitty. It was great in parts, weak in whole. I’ve commented before how Davies’ finales worked to his worst instincts for ‘event TV’, when it was always the smaller moments that stayed with you. The Tardis pulling along a planet was groansome. The Doctor walking out in the rain, unremembered by Donna, was heartbreaking. Similarly, I will remember the Doctor being late for Amy’s wedding above all the time paradoxes. Or the headless Cyberman above the whole amassed Axis of Evil Aliens.
One final niggle was summed up by the Doctor’s line “your girlfriend isn’t more important than the whole universe.” Which of course, by the standards of ’New Who’, means that for some reason she is.
Though it started in the Sixties, ’Old Who’ was still a product of the post War era. As dull as the endless Nazi analogy stories sometimes got, there was an upside to this. Life was about responsibility, about doing the right thing. This led to an almost obsessive focus on sacrifice, on ordinary people fighting and even laying down their lives if it led to a greater good.
Moreover, the ‘companion’ was always the audience identification figure, the one who saw and responded to things the way you would. Their selling point was that they were an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. Now they are always ‘special’. In fact poor Martha is the only New Doctor companion not to have been (at some point or other) The Most Important Being In the Universe. It smacks of our me-first society, as if we have become infantilised - not quite learnt that the world in our head and the world out there are separate places.
There’s an equally observable shift in War films. Old War films typically start with a cast of quite ordinary people who step up, often quite reluctantly, to fight for freedom. They’d often feature a helpful voiceover at the end explaining that it was these men, and the thousands of others like them, who stopped fascism. Modern war films are almost always about crack bands of troops, embarking on a mission on which the whole War might turn.
Of course it’s a waste of time even talking about things like this. People will just shrug out of confusion and disinterest, or tell me I “don’t get” it. (Much like I “don’t get” why poor people have to pay for the bankers’ screw-ups.) But the way that, of all things, Doctor Who has turned so ego-gratifying seems supremely indicative.
Coming Soon! More of this sort of thing...