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 5.5 – Flesh and Stone

Now I’d had a little bit to drink – OK, a lot to drink – before I watched “Flesh and Stone,” and when it was over I swore it was the best episode of new “Who” ever. Upon sobering up, I watched it again. It was not the best episode of new “Who” ever…but it was still pretty damn great, and certainly both parts of this story combined make for one helluva sterling example of what makes the new series tick. Indeed, from now on, when I want to turn somebody on to this show, it may very well be through this two-parter.

I’ve written before about my theories of “Who” cliffhangers, which essentially boils down to “the resolve is rarely as good as the hang.” In this case that probably still holds, but Moffat came awfully close to equaling the hang by delivering a way out of an impossible situation that was surprising and fun. I’m not sure it made a whole lot of sense – the destruction of the gravity globe gave them an updraft? They must make this shit up as they go along (of course, how else do you do it?). The shifting of the camera turning around to show the group on ceiling was gorgeous and great little reveal. But the save is short-lived, and the Angels are restoring themselves via the power of the Byzantium. Everybody follows the Doctor into the ship, and once again, the camera has a lot of fun here – the shot of the Doctor standing upright as Amy looks down the hole at him.

Octavian: “Dr. Song, I’ve lost good Clerics today. Do you trust this man?”
River: “I absolutely trust him.”
Octavian: “He’s not some kind of madman then?”
River: (beat) “I absolutely trust him.”

Then the story shifts into an action flick. The Angels attack in the dark in a thrilling, claustrophobic sequence, peppered with further tension between River (Alex Kingston) and Octavian (Iain Glen). What is this woman hiding? It’s within this sequence that we first hear Amy says the number 10. There’s really so much going on in the action arena in this section of the episode that it’d be pointlessly drab to recap it, and yet it’s amazing to watch. Once they discover the forest within the ship, the story pulls back on the action, but not the tension. It just keeps building. The gimmick of Amy counting down heightens, and during the conversation with Angel Bob, the Doctor finally snaps, and gets to the bottom of what’s going on with the countdown, and it appears Amy looks into the eyes of the videotaped Angel for a tad too long in the previous episode. And as if not enough is going on by this point, the crack from Amy’s wall makes another appearance, only this time everyone sees it. Octavian leads the group away from the crack and into the forest while the Doctor stays behind to investigate the crack. While he’s doing so, the Angels mount yet another attack, this time against the Doctor solo. Particularly effective is the shot of the Angel grabbing the Doctor’s jacket. He manages to worm his way out of his jacket while talking to the Angels about the crack and runs off into the forest.

Again, most of this stuff makes for a lousy recap, but it’s so much damn fun to watch. It’s like trying to explain why “Die Hard” is great action movie by telling someone who hasn’t seen it about John McClane tying himself to a fire hose and jumping off a building in his bare feet. There’s no substitute for the real thing, and it’s rather silly to break it all down, because it wasn’t written to be deconstructed – it was written and directed to be a thrill ride. So kudos to Steven Moffat for writing a cracking screenplay that Adam Smith then proceeded to direct the hell out of. With this two-parter, Moffat has really redeemed himself as both a writer and a showrunner. This is the kind of fare I expected from him but wasn’t getting in 5.2 and 5.3. Adding to that, if this is Moffat’s version of the action-packed two-parters that always featured early in the Davies era, then blow me down. This is scads better than stuff like “Rise of the Cybermen” and “The Sontaran Strategem.” It’s not that those stories were bad, but they always felt like the bubblegum installments of their seasons, whereas this may also be bubblegum, but it’s bubblegum that keeps its flavor for a long, long time; in the midst of all this action, there’s room for great character development, stellar acting and strong drama. Oh, you know what else is mildly noteworthy? As I understand it, these two episodes were the first of the season that were shot, so it’s fascinating to note how firm a grasp Matt Smith and Karen Gillan had on not only their roles, but also the concept of the series at this early stage in the game. I’d speculate on what it must have been like to work through the lame scripts for “The Beast Below” and “Victory of the Daleks” after shooting fare like this first, but I’d best not. Surely these two actors had the time of their lives while making this season no matter how weak any given script may have been.

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Doctor Who 5.3: Victory of the Daleks

“Daleks. I sometimes think those mutated misfits will terrorize the universe for the rest of time.”

Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, following yet another skirmish with the cockroaches from Skaro, uttered the above quote near the end of his reign as the Time Lord. If he’d known then that he’d still be dealing with them in his Eleventh incarnation, he may well have decided to forego his impending regeneration, and just gone ahead and called it a millennium. Many “Doctor Who” fans would likely have sympathized with him had he done so. Having been writing these recaps for five years now, I am exhausted by Daleks as well. What else is there for me to say about them that I haven’t already said, or hasn’t been said by countless others time and again? And yet here I am, once again backed into a corner by some angry pepperpots demanding that I find something fresh to say on the subject. Of course, if the series can’t be bothered to do so, I don’t really see why I should, either.

Surprisingly, “Victory of the Daleks,” written by Mark Gatiss, is drenched in promise at its start. Surprising not only because all ground concerning the Daleks seems so thoroughly trod at this point, but also because the last thing Gatiss wrote for the series, “The Idiot’s Lantern,” was a forgettable misfire. The idea of subservient, benevolent Daleks isn’t a new one. It was first explored in Patrick Troughton’s first story “The Power of the Daleks,” but since that serial was junked by the BBC ages ago, only the most hardcore of fans are going to care about this. For all intents and purposes the idea is new, or at least new to us. And the show has a field day with the notion for about ten minutes. Professor Bracewell’s (Bill Paterson) Ironsides are going to win the war against the Nazis, and they’ll serve you tea as well. Just the notion that the Daleks will become this story’s Inglourious Basterds is a fun one, since the Nazis are what the Daleks were based on in the first place. With “Victory of the Daleks,” on some obscure meta level, the entire concept of the Daleks has seemingly come full circle.

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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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