Doctor Who 5.12 – The Pandorica Opens

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?”

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Doctor Who 5.2 – The Beast Below

After gushing over the season premiere last week, it pains me to find “The Beast Below” is lacking. One element of the episode I found to be a huge letdown, and one that’s critical to the story is “the children,” and I had a bad feeling about this as soon as the episode started in a classroom. Now it’s not necessarily that the children angle of the story is sloppily plotted, it’s that I’m annoyed by Steven Moffat’s ongoing insistence at using kids as pivotal elements in his stories. I realize that last week I went on and on about how magical the stuff was between the Doctor and the young Amelia Pond – and make no mistake, it was – but with “The Beast Below” I found myself instantly bored with the angle. Of the four stories he crafted during the Davies era, three of them involved children to one degree or another, and the first two stories of his own era have now featured children.

My problem with this is that even though “Doctor Who” is a family series, and that children are a large part of the viewing audience, that doesn’t mean children must be a component of the narrative. It becomes doubly irritating when you’ve already got a lead character who acts like a kid much of the time anyway. Somebody might argue that they’re used as audience identification figures for younger viewers, to which I say balderdash. For 26 years “Doctor Who” hummed along quite nicely, rarely making anyone younger than a teenager part of the storyline. Kids, I believe, are perfectly content to watch adults on the tube and in film. They don’t long to see other children involved in these types of adventures. Somebody else might argue that Moffat uses children in order to help adults find their inner child. I can actually buy that more than the former proposed argument, but it needs to be used sparingly and smartly, and hot on the heels of the young Amelia Pond is hardly sparing, and the climax of “The Beast Below,” which hinges on crying children doesn’t strike me as particularly smart.

Once again I’ve gotten ahead of myself and jumped to the end of the episode, but once again I reiterate – you’ve no business reading these pieces if you haven’t seen the episode being written about. Events kick off in the 29th century where the entirety of the Britain (apparently save Scotland) exists on a giant spaceship appropriately named the Starship UK. Due to solar flares, humanity has been forced to relocate from the planet’s surface. (They’ll one day head back down to the planet once the danger is gone.) We’ve seen so many different periods of Earth’s future on the series so far, in episodes like “The End of the World,” “The Long Game,” and “New Earth,” that it isn’t a stretch to buy into this, yet at the same time there’s a certain “been there, done that-ness” to it all.

The post opening credits sequence with Amy floating in space outside the TARDIS, while the Doctor holds onto her leg is really rather splendid, as is her voiceover about her imaginary friend who has come back to her. Before the duo travel to the ship, he gives her a very goofy speech about his one rule, which is to never interfere in the affairs of other people. Ha!! Who does this cat think he’s foolin’? But it’s interesting nonetheless, because in telling Amy that, it demonstrates how little she actually knows about this man whom, we, the viewer, actually know a great deal about. These are early days for Amy, and there are many adventures yet to come. What causes the Doctor to break the rule he just set down? A crying girl seen on the scanner. Amy follows him, still dressed in her nightie, which has a certain Arthur Dent-ness to it. (If so, then is the Doctor Ford Prefect?)

The world of Starship UK is a dreary place, and the residents live in fear of these figures called Smilers, which are frankly one of the dumbest elements of the entire episode, as I still, after seeing it twice, have no real idea what their function is other than to look scary. A water glass comes in mighty handy, when the Doctor uses it to deduce that there is no engine running the ship. The Doctor and Amy split up only to each find clues leading them closer to the great mystery of the Starship UK. Tentacles, voting booths, and a masked woman who knows the Doctor are parts of the equation. The masked woman is eventually revealed to be Liz 10 (Sophie Okonedo), or Queen Elizabeth the Tenth, who’s heard all the stories of the mysterious, wise Doctor. She’s been working against the government to get to bottom of the “this ship has no engine” problem as well, but hasn’t made much headway.

There are so many seemingly random elements knocking up against each other in this episode, that by the time it’s revealed that the ship has no engine because an enormous space whale has been carting it across the stars, I’d all but lost interest in what was going on, despite the fact that I actually sort of like the space whale idea, as well as the bigger, more important idea of a society in denial. But when it was revealed that the whale was doing it for the crying children, I just rolled my eyes. If this were any show other than “Doctor Who,” I never would’ve made it through the entire episode. In the end, Amy saves the day and proves her worth, while the Doctor is left with just a little bit of egg on his face.

What saves the proceedings is Matt Smith. I can’t turn this recap series into a Smith gushfest every week, so it’d be best to keep it short: This guy’s incredible. Even though Amy had a lot more to do in this episode, I’m still not finding her character to be all that. I’m not sure Karen Gillan has found her yet, either. Ultimately this episode didn’t come close to living up to the promise of “The Eleventh Hour.” I hope that Moffat is building up to something big, as was evidenced by the crack from Amy’s wall appearing on the side of the ship as the episode came to a close. We’ve had duff entries in the first act of many a season of new “Who,” so I’m not worried about this stumble, but it’s a shame that such a lackluster offering should be the second of this new era. I guess it goes to prove that even with Steven Moffat there are bound to be missteps, and that not everything is going to work perfectly. In any case, the tag at the end with Winston Churchill and the Dalek was great fun, and hopefully next week will be better.

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NEXT TIME: It’s back to the Blitz for the TARDIS, when the Doctor and Amy visit Churchill in “Victory of the Daleks.”

Classic “Who” DVD Recommendation of the Week: I can’t be bothered to recommend any classic “Who” this week, so instead I’ll recommend Terry Pratchett’s “Hogfather,” which features an entire world floating on the back of an enormous turtle.

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

  

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