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 5.4 – The Time of Angels

After being so thoroughly underwhelmed for the past two weeks, “The Time of Angels” almost leaves me speechless. I wish I could just write, “Man, that was so fuckin’ cool” and be done with it, since anything I’ve got to say isn’t going to make it any cooler. With this episode, we’ve finally gotten to material with major promise – probably even beyond promise, but since it’s only part one of a two-parter, everything could fall apart in the second half. But man oh man, what a setup!

The opening sequence – which begins with a man tripping balls – sets the stage for a whacked-out adventure. He’s been dosed with hallucinogenic lipstick by River Song (Alex Kingston). Was the field he was standing in part of the hallucination, or was it a part of the spaceship Byzantium? Clearly River has been up to something on the ship, but we don’t find out what that is straight up. 12,000 years in the future, the Doctor (Matt Smith) is showing Amy (Karen Gillan) a museum, and pointing out all the objects he’s had in hand in saving, which is really quite funny, and vaguely romantic, but mostly just boastful and stodgy on his part, especially since what Amy really wants to see is an alien planet. They come across an ancient home box on which some Old High Gallifreyan is written – it amusingly says “Hello sweetie.” The Doctor steals the box from the museum, which leads him to a rendezvous with River right outside the Byzantium. River, on the run from powers that be, releases an airlock and flies straight through the waiting, open TARDIS doors, and lands on the Doctor. The Byzantium flies away, and River issues a single order: “Follow that ship!” It’s an exhilarating start and very James Bond-like, directed by Adam Smith with precision and thought, as is the rest of the episode.

The sequence that follows it, set in the TARDIS, is equally entertaining, although on a more intimate level. The bickering back and forth from the Doctor and River is reminiscent of the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana I (Mary Tamm) from the early Key to Time stories, although whereas that relationship was two Time Lords getting to know one another, this one is, at least from River’s POV, rooted in familiarity. One really nice touch that gives me huge giggles is how River hangs her heels on the TARDIS scanner. I love that. Also, the fact that the TARDIS only makes the grinding noise it makes when it materializes because the Doctor leaves the brakes on. Hilarious, as is Smith’s impression of the sound. And of course the blue stabilizers, which the Doctor dubs “blue boringers.” Priceless dialogue here, all the way around.

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