From the very first scene, “The Pandorica Opens” is an ominous piece of work. France, 1890. Vincent van Gogh (Tony Curran) writhes in mental torment, presumably in the last days of his life. It appears that he actually did paint another piece, and it’s somehow tied to the Doctor. After the Doctor and Amy left Vincent at the close of “Vincent and the Doctor,” the Time Lord asserted that “we definitely added to his pile of good things.” Maybe they did, but it appears they added to his pile of bad things, as well. The implication even seems to be that by introducing Vincent to his universe, the Doctor may have played an inadvertent role in the artist’s suicide. Dark stuff indeed. But what is the painting? Bam! All of a sudden we jump to London in 1941 and we’re with Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) and Professor Bracewell (Bill Paterson), who now have the van Gogh painting. Bracewell insists that it’s Churchill’s job to deliver the art. Bam! A containment facility in 5145. River Song (Alex Kingston) is on the receiving end a phone call from Churchill meant for the Doctor. Swiftly she makes an escape thanks to the hallucinogenic lipstick. Bam! The Royal Collection, still in 5145. Presumably we’re back onboard the Starship U.K. and the van Gogh painting waits for River, having been added to the collection by Churchill 3200 years prior. Liz Ten (Sophie Okonedo) makes a reappearance. Bam! Still in 5145, River blackmails an alien dealer into giving her a vortex manipulator. Through this series of efficient sequences, it’s as if Steven Moffat is asking, “Have I got your attention now?” He most certainly does.

In the TARDIS, Amy (Karen Gillan) ponders the wedding ring, while the Doctor (Matt Smith) hatches a plan to take her to the oldest planet in the universe to see the oldest piece of writing, which is chiseled onto a cliff face. The TARDIS doors open and the translators show the words as “Hello Sweetie.” Bam! Britain, 102 AD. The TARDIS arrives in front of a Roman army, and Amy mentions that Roman soldiers were her favorite topic in school. A soldier, whose face is smeared with lipstick, mistakes the Doctor for Caesar and takes the pair to see Cleopatra, whom River is impersonating. Finally we get to see the painting, which shares its name with this episode, and it’s a vision of the exploding TARDIS, painted exactly as we’d imagine van Gogh would paint such a vision. (Surely poster prints of this will be available for fans to hang on their walls any day now? I know I’d buy one.) Finally, seven minutes into the episode, we get the opening credits.

And thus begins what’s easily the most ambitious setup for a season finale the new series has yet done. “The Pandorica Opens” is positively cinematic in scope, direction, editing and, of course, writing. These setup installments were never this good in the Davies era, and it’s almost a shame it isn’t the season finale proper, as it would be an unbearable, months-long wait to see the resolution to everything this episode does. It would be the “Doctor Who” equivalent of Part One of “The Best of Both Worlds,” which ended the third season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” In fact it’s somewhat strange that “Doctor Who” – a show infamous for its end of episode cliffhangers – has yet to end a season on any kind of serious hang (stuff like regenerations or Donna suddenly appearing in the TARDIS doesn’t really count). The feeling I got watching “The Pandorica Opens” is the exact same feeling I got while watching the last 20 minutes of “Utopia” from Season Three – only this thing kept up that level of intensity for nearly a whole hour.

The episode shifts into an almost “Indiana Jones” type of piece for a while, as the trio of time travelers make their way to a secret area beneath Stonehenge, to find the massive Pandorica prison, which is somehow tied to the exploding TARDIS. Whatever’s housed in it is the most feared thing in the entire universe. As with the Romans, Amy mentions that the story of Pandora’s Box was a favorite of hers as a child. This catches the Doctor’s attention, but there’s too much going on for him to focus on it. The box finally begins opening – from the inside, no less, but it’s a process that could take hours, as there are many locks and mechanisms to work through, and so the tension continues to ratchet upwards.

The Doctor: “Think of the fear that went into making this box. What could inspire that level of fear? Hello you. Have we met?”

Another nice, yet expected (provided you’ve been paying attention), flourish is that for River, these events take place before “The Time of Angels” two-parter, although I’m still confused then about River and Amy’s first meeting in that story, as River didn’t seem to recognize her. Or has she become so used to her life being out of whack with the Doctor’s that she’s learned how to play along when the time is right? Does it hurt the tension of this story knowing that no matter what happens in it, River will survive these events?

The Doctor deduces that Stonehenge itself is essentially one giant radio transmitter, sending signals out across the universe that are warning the cosmos about the opening Pandorica. All across the universe, starships begin responding to the signal: Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans and probably a dozen other races the Doctor’s encountered in his many lives are all coming to this one place and time in Earth’s history. (Draconians – really?!?) It’s just amazing how epic this thing feels. Once again, the Doctor marvels at what the box must contain; of course, by the end of the episode he probably feels quite the fool for not figuring out the puzzle ahead of time.

The Doctor: “Nothing is ever forgotten, not completely. And if something can be remembered, it can come back.”

In one of the episodes only absurd gestures, River, at the Doctor’s behest, goes off to enlist the aid of the Roman army to help fight the myriad fleet of aliens, while the Doctor and Amy battle three different pieces of a half-dead Cyberman that’s lurking around and beneath the monument. The sequence is easily the coolest thing the series has done with the Cybermen since they were first reintroduced back in Season Two. It’s funny, frightening, and intense, and a great chance for the audience to depressurize from the escalating drama. And then – surprise, surprise – Rory (Arthur Darvill) shows up as a Roman centurion to slay the silver beastie and rescue Amy. He’s short on explanations – “I died and then I came back as a Roman.” He’s pained over Amy’s failure to remember him, but he seems to have been through enough at this point to know how to handle himself in this sticky situation. Darvill is just excellent here, and this guy’s proven himself to be a worthy addition to the show.

The sequence in which the Doctor preaches the Sermon on the Mount is likely to be a divisive one, and I suspect that had David Tennant played the same material, I wouldn’t have cared for it myself, as I never thought Tennant handled those kinds of scenes very well. But Smith has his own way of doing things, and within his delivery there’s a self-deprecating sense of, “I can’t believe I’m pulling this pompous shit again.” He’s doesn’t appear to be taking it altogether seriously, and in doing so, the scene works better than if he’d been in full-on Oncoming Storm mode.

The third act of the story is a dizzying, crazy ride. Rory, as well as the rest of the Roman army, are revealed to be Autons; River takes the TARDIS to Amy’s home in 2010 only to discover a storybooks on Roman soldiers and Pandora’s Box; the TARDIS begins to explode with River in it; Amy is killed by a broken Rory who’s succumbed to his Auton nature; all of the Doctor’s enemies gather around Stonehenge to take him prisoner and place him in the Pandorica as well as explain that Amy herself was an elaborate trap laid for the Doctor, as they’ve seen the cracks in the universe, and know that the Doctor’s TARDIS is the cause of it all, and will eventually spell the end of the universe. The only way the aliens can stop it is to take the TARDIS’ operator out of the equation. This is quite the spin on previous season finales, which were always built around alien domination of one kind or another. Here, the Doctor is the threat to the universe, and his enemies have gathered together, surprisingly enough, as something of a force for good, if that’s possible. Oh, and then the entire universe disappears, for good measure.

Evil Disembodied Voice: “Silence will fall.”

“The Pandorica Opens” is quite simply one of the best episodes of “Doctor Who” ever, and freshman “Who” director Toby Haynes knocked Steven Moffat’s superb script out of the ballpark. With a setup this perfect, the mind reels as what the conclusion will offer up.

NEXT TIME: The fifth season of new “Who” concludes with the appropriately titled, “The Big Bang.”

Classic “Who” DVD Recommendation of the Week: Friends, Romans, countrymen – lend me your ears. Check out the first Doctor’s encounter with “The Romans.” It’s a lovely little story, really it is.

(Thanks as always to Sonic Biro for the screencaps.)