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...

7 comments:

  1. Fascinating review, Gavin, not least because once more we disagree so much! (My own much, much more positive perspective on The Big Bang is over here if you've not seen it.)


    We still don't know River Song's "spoilers", or even what caused the cracks in time.


    That's not quite right: we know exactly what caused the cracks (the exploding TARDIS); what we don't know is what caused the exploding TARDIS, or rather, who caused it. I liked it that Moffat didn't feel the need to solve all the mysteries at once: RTD's habit of doing that at the end of each season is part of why it all felt so reset-buttony at the end: each new season started out from pretty much the same point as the previous once had. By contrast, next season starts from a different point: we know that someone is out there, but we don't know who, nor what he will try next.

    Interesting possibility: the "Silence will fall" voice is that of the Doctor's dark-self, the Dream Lord. If so, it means that the Axis Of Evil were quite right to try to lock the Doctor in the Pandorica; they just got the wrong instance of him. (Of course, the Master is also the Doctor's dark-self, so who knows where that's all going to go?)


    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.


    Strong agreement here. I love all the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, but as with nearly all good things there comes a point where you're sated. After The Big Bang I feel like I stuffed myself with Marquise au Chocolat: it was great, but I won't be needing any more chocolate for some time yet.

    There's also the danger that too much timey-wimey stuff runs into constant reset-button danger. You can hardly mess with the past very much before you render what's gone before meaningless. The Next Doctor has already been rendered meaningless ... not that that required much rewriting of time, thank you, thank you, I've here all week, you've been a wonderful audience, don't forget to tip your waitress. Seriously, though, like single-malt whisky, timey-wimey is a great experience to have every now and then but a bad habit to get into.


    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.


    Got to agree with you again here, at least as regards your general point. (On specifics, it's harsh on Rose: she made herself important, which is not quite the same thing as all the arbitrary events that ended up with Donna becoming the Doctor-Donna. Although I liked Donna more than Rose (I mean Season-4 Donna, not Runaway Bride Donna, obviously), I always felt that Rose earned her big moment in a way that Donna didn't.

    [Irrelevant whine: why the heck won't Blogger let me use blockquote tags in a comment?!]

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  2. Absolutely agreed. Almost makes the review I was going to write redundant...

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  3. Thanks for the comments!

    In fact, not only did I read Mike’s review, I nicked the term ‘Axis of Evil’ from it! (Adding the term ‘Aliens’ to the end in a vain pretence of originality...)

    ”I liked it that Moffat didn't feel the need to solve all the mysteries at once.”

    It’s not that I insist on all plot ends being tied up neatly. It’s that I find it dramatically unsatisfying to hint that Blofeld is behind all this and will be revealed, then actually forget all about him for the entire finale.

    It seems to me event TV lacks middle! Everything is in a constant state of enticing-sounding set-up, mysteries being alluded to, followed by a sudden burst of over-hasty closure. (Normally at the point of cancellation.) “Silence will fall” felt characteristically middle-free for me. Might as well have been "resolution will elude!"

    ”Interesting possibility: the "Silence will fall" voice is that of the Doctor's dark-self, the Dream Lord”

    Much as I liked the Dream Lord, I consider him a one-hit wonder. Now we all know what he actually is, he has lost his rosebud.

    ”like single-malt whisky, timey-wimey is a great experience to have every now and then but a bad habit to get into.”

    It’s like chocolates, yes. But single malt whiskey strikes me as a very good habit to get into. (If I could afford it, that is.)

    ”it's harsh on Rose: she made herself important,’”

    I always felt Bad Wolf made herself Rose, or manifested herself through Rose, or something of that sort. The idea that Rose became Bad Wolf through sticking up some hinting graffiti, that was just a gimmick, wasn’t it? The way it was played was like Rose had been possessed.

    What are we all going to talk about next week? (Actually, I have another post planned....)

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  4. It seems to me event TV lacks middle! Everything is in a constant state of enticing-sounding set-up, mysteries being alluded to, followed by a sudden burst of over-hasty closure.

    I know what you mean. You remind me of Roger Ebert's review of Event Horizon: "The screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding". Still it seems harsh to level this accusation at Doctor Who, which has never, ever been about arcs in the way that Buffy has (er, with the possible exception of the Trial of a Time Lord season, which I think we can all agree is best ignored). It's always been the intention that each Doctor Who story (which these days mean nearly every episode) stands alone; and hints it makes towards advancing the arc is incidental.

    The interesting thing about the Dream Lord (for me at least) is not the dreamness but the Dark Side Of The Doctorness. I could stand to see more of that, so long as it's done well. Dark Side is maybe a bit done, but I could see Impulsive Side, Sentimental Side, Vengeful Side, etc. Not sure how it could be made to work, but I bet it could.

    It hadn't ever occurred to me that Bad Wolf existed before Rose Tyler -- that it had and has an existence of its own rather than having been called into existence by, and manifested through, Rose. You may recall from one of my earlier posts that one of my favourite options for what might be inside the Pandorica was Bad Wolf, but that I assumed it wasn't so because everyone would know if Rose was going to be in it. Now you have intrigued me with the possibility that Bad Wolf is still out there, but that mediated by someone other than Rose it might be callous and imperious with its godlike power.

    So. Plenty of options for Season Six, then :-)

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  5. ”You remind me of Roger Ebert's review of Event Horizon: "The screenplay creates a sense of foreboding and afterboding, but no actual boding".

    That Ebert is good!, I so wish I had said that!

    ”Still it seems harsh to level this accusation at Doctor Who, which has never, ever been about arcs in the way that Buffy has”

    I have sometimes found New Who a kind of mishmash between arced and unarced. Certainly we don’t want one long, continuing storyline like Babylon 5 or Battlesta Galactica, it’s not that kind of show. But the reiteratee ‘clues’ which where actually impossible to guess and often only in there for their own sake... remember the bees?

    ”It hadn't ever occurred to me that Bad Wolf existed before Rose Tyler”

    I don’t think you were supposed to think Bad Wolf existed either before or after Rose ‘channeled’ her. But I still somehow feel she called herself into being.

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  6. I have sometimes found New Who a kind of mishmash between arced and unarced. Certainly we don’t want one long, continuing storyline like Babylon 5 or Battlesta Galactica, it’s not that kind of show. But the reiteratee ‘clues’ which where actually impossible to guess and often only in there for their own sake... remember the bees?


    Well. The conclusion to what these days we call the Bad Wolf arc was certainly unguessable, but then as I say it wasn't an arc at all -- merely a rather brilliant teaser campaign. I certainly never felt at the time, and I don't remember anyone else feeling, that we were supposed to guess what it all meant. It was about resonance, not clues.

    Season 2, the "arc-word" was "Torchwood"; but we all knew before its first mention that that was going to be the name of a spinoff show (though at that time we didn't know its full name was to be The Dreadful Torchwood. Within the season, it had literally zero payoff; so it was even less of an arc than Bad Wolf.

    Season 3, it was "Mister Saxon", which I suppose you could construe as a sort of clue in that it's an anagram of "Master no. six", and John Simm was the sixth actor to play the role of The Master, for certain value of six. But again this was not an arc in anything resembling the usual sense of the word: it literally did not progress at all throughout the season until it appeared fully formed at the start episode 12.

    Season 4 ... I don't know, was it the bees? Really, I can't even find a credible trace of anything that could be considered an arc. Maybe the growing sense that there is, or is going to be, something special about Donna. But again that only kicks in at the end of the season.

    All of which is just a very long-winded way of saying that Season 5 is the first time New Who has even attempted anything like an arc. To good effect, I think. But you can't really criticise the earlier seasons' arcs: it's not that they were badly done, it's that they didn't exist.

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  7. The through-line actually got thicken as Davies' era went on. There wasn't just "what's special about Donna?" (already more substantial than Bad Wolf for Rose), but "why is Rose back?" and "what about them missing planets then?"

    The tease with the bees just seemed like a particularly risible example. Some guff to set the net abuzz (if you'll forgive the term), which was neither guessable nor very much to do with anything.

    The term 'arc' is probably quite a fuzzy one. It's sometimes used to cover a running subplot which eventually rises to centre stage (like "what's special about Donna?"). But it's sometimes used to mean anytime episodes aren't completely isolated from each other. Or then there's 'character arc'. On Andrew Hickey's blog recently we discussed the Doctor's character arc in the first few storylines, with no-one suggesting those storylines overlapped or that it was even intentional.

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