5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE PANDORICA OPENS/THE BIG BANG
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You know those drawings? The one where if you look at it one way you see a vase, and if you look at it another you see a couple of faces? Or the one that looks like an old woman from one viewpoint and a young woman from another? Well, that’s what The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang are. Watch it with your heart switched on and your brain switched off, it looks like one thing. With your brain switched on and your heart switched off, it’s something else altogether.
Let’s start by looking at it from the emotional angle, shall we? Greatest hits, the welcome return of a less-smug River, cool location shots, some atmospheric Raiders tributes: good start. Twelve thousand assorted shiploads of enemies: sigh, but it’s a finale, you get that. Some really excellent byplay with the Romans (“You’re all barbarians now”) and did we say how nice it is to see River?
Then a beautiful speech from the Doctor about the traces people leave behind: down-to-earth and simple yet wrings your heart like it’s a damp sponge. Great writing and, of course, great acting. While you can take this absolutely for granted for now, it’s only fair to point it out: here, and everywhere else, Matt Smith’s performance is gold-plated. Gold. Plated. Can he do anything wrong?
Then there’s a massively entertaining John Carpenter ref involving a Cyberman, and if that’s not how they really work we so don’t care because it’s sheer brilliance.
And oh God, Rory. Knowing without a shadow of a doubt that he would return doesn’t detract even a pixel from his impact. If Matt Smith is Mr Faultless, Arthur Darvill isn’t far behind him. In fact, these two together form some kind of acting critical mass so relentless that you simply can’t repress the squee. Rory’s face as he looks at Amy and asks if she’s missed him! The Doctor’s face in reaction! The “She can’t even remember me!” scene! This stuff is beyond sublime. They’re some of the best scenes in all of Doctor Who, no question. And we’re ready to fight anyone who says otherwise.
And Amy and Rory. Could we see it coming? From Saturn. Did we care? Not even slightly. Anyone who reads our reviews knows it doesn’t take much sentimentality before we’re making vomiting noises and rude hand gestures. Drowning in a warm and sticky pool of syrup isn’t our idea of entertainment. But done well? Ah, that’s another thing entirely. And this is pitch-perfect. The mingled hope and joy on Rory’s face as Amy goes through the process of remembering him, and Rory’s battle against his programming, are wonders to behold. There was definite sniffling.
Meanwhile, Steven Moffat’s busy being clever on another front. The Doctor makes the kind of bombastic, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough speech we heard so often from the Tenth Doctor, complete with arms held out and dramatic twirly shots. Oh well, it’s a finale, you get that. Wait! Maybe you don’t! Because immediately afterwards it’s totally undercut by the Doctor’s “That’ll keep ‘em squabbling for half an hour”: in one deft move, Steven Moffat plunges a dagger into the heart of the Russell T Davies-stylee finale.
And then twists it and twists it some more. Those twelve thousand ships? And the rollcall of enemies? Pack ‘em in, that’s right, that’s right, gotta have a lot of enemies….hey! Where’d they go? Yep, a bit of explaining, a bit of shoving forward, a bit of fist-shaking, and they bugger off. Awesome. Although the Doctor’s speech was pretty obviously a pisstake, this has a different feel to it: it’s like Moffat knows he’s supposed to do the big-guns finale but his heart’s not in it. Instead, he shoves in one of everybody and threatens the universe so nobody can complain, then gets back to the small-scale, intimate, character- and puzzle-driven story he’s really interested in telling. Since those impersonal more-is-better flash-bang finales leave us snoozing, we approve.
Because it’s not about the Daleks. It’s not even really about the cracks in time. It’s about a little girl who waited up all night for a Doctor who never came back.
How cool is it to see the enchanting Amelia again? Very very, that’s how cool. Given that we normally loathe adorable little tykes, it’s a measure of just how right Moffat, and Caitlin Blackwood, get this.
And Moffat follows this with a massive and delicious fakeout. We might have been able to see many of the elements of this story coming (it’s the Doctor the Pandorica’s for? How very…obvious), but we sure weren’t expecting Amy to be in the Pandorica. Lovely.
Then off we go with Moffat’s go-to: predestination paradoxes. Yes, Blinovitch is on high-speed rotate in his grave, but it’s nice to see some actual time travel in a show about a, you know, time traveller. Click, click, click go the pieces, sliding enjoyably into place, our favourites being the ones that are in there just for fun, like the drink-snatching. Sure, a lot of it doesn’t bear thinking about, but that’s OK, this isn’t the thinky part of the review.
And then, just when you think the Rory/Doctor scenes couldn’t be improved on, they do the punch scene. We are. In awe. It’s so perfect, such a blazing little jewel, that you can hardly look at it without it burning out your optic nerves. Take out Murray’s comedy music at the end and it’s a strong contender for Best Scene Ever. No lie.
What? More perfectly-judged sentiment? How can it be? Don’t think too hard about the whole lone centurion thing, all right, because it will fall to bits, but oh, the emotion of Rory’s conversation with the Doctor. Understated and utterly gorgeous. When Rory drew his sword and sat down to begin his two-thousand-year vigil, there was another round of sniffling chez Androzani.
Then the Doctor dies and um, we weren’t supposed to believe that, were we? Because he’s not regenerating or anything. But it affords the opportunity for one of our favourite lines ever: “You can do loads in twelve minutes. Suck a mint, buy a sledge, have a fast bath…” (The fez scene’s not too shabby either.) And it also gives River the opportunity for that absolutely spectacular scene with the Dalek. No Doctorly mercy from her, and woohoo, we say. If the Doctor had been a bit less marshmallow-hearted Dalekwise over the years a hell of a lot of lives would have escaped extermination.
Back we go, tidying up the season and patting all the little frayed edges into place (see, we told you about that jacket in Flesh And Stone). It’s Matt Smith who makes this stuff: even his gurning in the Pandorica is good. And his speech by Amy’s bedside is a masterpiece. It’s hard enough to do those monologues without sounding stupid: to do one magnificently is a miracle. Even though we knew perfectly well that there was no chance of the Doctor actually disappearing, we sobbed. Honking, gulping, nose-blowing sobs. It’s that good. Then the wedding, which we plan to skip over in this bit because it’s annoying for several reasons. Oh, except for the Doctor’s dancing, which is sublime and exactly how the Doctor should dance. And River comes back, in a nicely judged little scene making it clear there’s going to be an arc which spans more than one season, which is terrific, although if she keeps saying “Spoilers!” we may have to stick a fork in her eye.
So there you go. From the emotional point of view, there’s lots of ace stuff in these episodes. And we’re so grateful not to have to sit through yet another of those empty spectacles that look all flashy and add up to precisely nothing. It’s definitely up there when it comes to new Who finales, and we’d like it even more, if only any of it made sense.
But we can’t switch our brains off. They’re attached. Look at these episodes with your brain engaged, and oh dear.
We’ve seen bollocks purveyed in Doctor Who before. Giant, heaping mountains of bollocks, in fact. But those giant, heaping mountains of bollocks are as mere pimples compared to the unfeasible quantities of bollocks visited on us here. It’s a wonderland of bollocks. It’s a bollocksfest. It’s a bollocksorama.
Take the Daleks’ Masterplan. It has to be the Daleks, right, because it’s so bloody convoluted. First of all, it’s fatally flawed from the start, innit? The Doctor is the greatest threat to the universe because of the TARDIS exploding and the Doctor is the only one who can pilot the TARDIS, eh? Faulty intel there, boys. They can stitch together a supervillain alliance (that actually would have descended into bloodfest and annihilation over the question of Penguins versus Wagon Wheels for morning tea at the meetings, let alone over the finer points of military strategy). They can send someone with big stripy feet to riffle through Amy’s bookcase. They can do air traffic control for twelve thousand ships. But they can’t work out that it’s not just the Doctor who can fly the TARDIS? Villainfail.
Besides, what’s all that twelve thousand ships stuff about, anyway? Yes, we know the Doctor’s been bigging himself up all round the universe since time immemorial. But twelve thousand shipsworth? He’s not that good. It’s just dumb. Like the Doctor says himself, three people attacking twelve thousand ships would be killed instantly (duh). Also, it takes a mere two mannequins to stuff him into the Pandorica. Making the rest of the vast horde curiously redundant.
And remind us again why Amy’s memories were necessary to this cunning plan? What do the Romans have to do with anything? So what if the Doctor trusts them? We repeat: the Doctor’s not that good. They know where he is as they’ve lured him there. All they need is two hefty beings of any persuasion to sneak up behind him and grab him. Not that hard, is it? Also, Romans? They might be the greatest military machine in the universe, but that means absolute jack against a single projectile weapon, let alone twelve thousand ships.
Then there’s Rory. Yes, it’s all very touching and stuff, but the underpinnings are utterly wack. He dies and wakes up a Roman Auton. Right. We’re not even going to waste time pondering over how that could have happened, because it’s 24-karat bollocks. And why was the Doctor concealing the ring from Amy when he wanted her to remember Rory, anyway? Then there’s all this legend of the centurion stuff. That voiceover guy intones stuff about if he really did exist - of course he bloody existed! He was there till the forties (we have no idea what happened after that and we’re not even going to ask). Right there. In front of the box. In all that time, nobody took his photo? Asked him how he managed to look the same year after year without the aid of Botox and why he was wearing a skirt? Biffed him over the head and stole the Pandorica? Yeah, right.
And while we’re on the subject of Rory, can we say how much we hate the way the Rory/Amy story turns out? Amy’s initially torn between Rory and the Doctor, but she makes her decision in Amy’s Choice. It’s the only thing that even vaguely redeems her trying to seduce the Doctor while she’s engaged to Rory. So yay, she realises she loves him, Pandorica thingy, two-thousand-year vigil, they get married at last (and what happened to her vacillation about marriage in this timeline we have no idea). And where do we end up? Right back at the beginning. As soon as the Doctor turns up, Amy’s trying to kiss him, then complains he’s leaving before they’ve had a snog in the bushes. On her wedding day. a) Haven’t we done all that already? b) Are they trying to make us hate her? Actually, we think the answer to b) has to be an unequivocal yes, because why else would they make her such a ballbusting brat? As feminists, we’re all for strong women, but being strong does not necessitate treating your partner with total contempt. Ack.
Ahem. Where were we? Ah yes, bollocks. We’ve barely scratched the hairy surface of the Planet Of The Bollocks that lies before us. The Daleks and their…brilliance…are masters of logic compared to the Pandorica. Which is “the perfect prison”. Which is “easy to open”. Sorry, but it can’t be both of these things at once. We know the Doctor confidently opines that any prison is easy to break into, but that’s just bollocks.
And that’s not the worst thing about the Pandorica. That would be the way Moffat Angels it to suit whatever he needs at that particular moment. It’s a prison. It’s a stasis field. It’s a life regenerator. It’s a universe factory. We’ve heard of feature creep, but that’s ridiculous. No doubt it also washes your dog and makes a nice cup of tea .No wonder it took so many villains to engineer it.
Then of course there’s the time crack stuff. Amy’s house is yawningly, weirdly, strangely big because there are two people living in it rather than three. Bollocks. The Doctor can fix the cracks by being on the other side of them, and can see himself when time rewinds, because bollocks. When people are wiped from time, they have never existed, so you can’t remember them, until you do. We’re in awe at the reasoning that says a perfectly dandy way of getting your characters out of a horrific situation is to just change the rules until it works. Bollocksbollocksbollocks.
Bollocksiest of all, remembering something can recreate it. We’re not going to consider giving this the courtesy of trying to work out how this might happen. We’re not even going to make any snarky comments about how we’re looking forward to remembering last month's pay. You know what this is. It starts with b and it ends with ollocks.
We don’t mind a bit of handwaving, but this is enough to create a hurricane. They might as well write half the script in Esperanto for all the impact it makes. How can we take plot developments seriously, or feel anything about them, when they cheat us by reversing them without any logic whatsoever? How can we get all teary about happy endings when they’re based on nothing? Yes, we know Moffat thinks Doctor Who is a fairytale. God only knows he has the characters tell us often enough. And in that context, Amy believing in fairies to bring the Doctor back is a perfectly legitimate way of resolving a plot. The trouble with this line of argument, however, is that Moffat is wrong. Sure, use fairytale elements. Make allusions. Draw parallels. Knock yourself out. But Doctor Who is SF. Use actual fairytale solutions to SF plots and you leave your audience scratching their heads and wondering WTF just happened.
Even worse is the way all this bollocksery completely torpedoes the puzzle format Moffat goes to such pains to set up. Do it properly, as in Blink, and it’s sheer joy as everything slots with winning logic into place. Use a hand waving some bollocks to solve your puzzles and you’re just cheating the audience. As the Planet Of The Bollocks gets larger, the air gets let more and more out of The Big Bang. You want to believe, but hey, it’s asking too much.
And the worst part of all is the way it lessens the impact of the good stuff. You can have a fun time watching these episodes, especially The Pandorica Opens, but afterwards you’re going to have trouble remembering exactly why. There are so many stunning character moments in here that it’s a crime that they’re surrounded by such a weak framework.
As the credits rolled on The Big Bang, we were left wondering how we could have liked so many elements yet ended up feeling so flat. Some of that’s the dissatisfaction engendered by the script solving puzzles by changing the rules, but that’s not all of it. A piece of it is that after all Amy’s havering about marrying Rory, we don’t get even a single scene from the wedding itself to cap that story emotionally. (We know budget was an issue, but come on, guys, one scene. In nice cheap close-up.)
And the rest of it’s that by the time the Doctor guns the Pandorica at the TARDIS, the story’s essentially over. The Doctor’s done everything necessary to assure a happy ending, including planting the memory with Amy to ensure she remembers him. And it all runs like clockwork: yes, there’s the family’s discomfort with Amy mentioning the (barf) Raggedy Doctor, but there’s no internal conflict at all for either Amy or Rory in bringing the Doctor back or in leaving in the TARDIS. Forget Amy’s disappearing ambivalence about her wedding: what happened to the season’s theme of Amy’s difficulty in trusting the Doctor? There isn’t even any eyebrow-raising amongst the wedding guests at the appearance of something blue in their midst. It’s like a giant epilogue: all we have to do is sit back and watch it unspool. All very nice and all, but in the viewing a bit self-congratulatory and, since it ignores the internal conflict that’s been established over and over, pretty unsatisfying.
So. A season with very uppy ups, a season with very downy downs, a season with one of the best Doctors ever. It’s impossible to dislodge Tom Baker from our hearts as Favourite Doctor, for sentimental reasons that can never be overwritten, but if it weren’t for Tom’s special place for us we’d have no hesitation in naming Matt Smith the best Doctor bar none.
And what do we want next? Since come 2011 we’ll have been at this Doctor Who reviewing lark for a decade, we’re getting all above ourselves and issuing a few instructions.
Matt Smith: just keep doing what you’re doing, and thank you. Kiss kiss.
Karen Gillan: we know it’s not your fault that they keep making you unlikable, but if it’s your fault that you keep doing those horrible line readings with the endings all SHOUTAY!, please stop.
Arthur Darvill: as you were. Lovin’ it.
Steven Moffat: thanks for all the wonderful character stuff this season, but please wind in Amy’s kookiness and make her less of a bitch. And above all, more logic, less bollocks. Thankyewverymuch.
MORAL: Something old, something new, something borrowed, something bollocks.
GLOSS OVER IT
River can hide her hallucinogenic lipstick in her bra? What kind of crap security does this Stormcage place have?
I’M WALKING BACKWARDS FOR CHRISTMAS
For God’s sake, Amy! Don’t step away backwards from that slow-moving Cyberman, swiping ineffectually at it with a torch! Just run away!
We know we said we weren’t going to talk about this kind of thing, but…how come every villain in the universe plus Vincent have no trouble picking up the Stonehenge message but the Doctor can’t?
BACKS TO THE WALL
No side shots of the Daleks to show off their new overdeveloped posteriors, we note. Oh dear, did we hurt their feelings?
THEY CALL ME THE WANDERER
“Run where?” Um, to the TARDIS, Doctor? And thence to anywhere in space-time?
I FOR ONE WELCOME OUR NEW DALEKCYBERSONTARAN OVERLORDS
So remind us: in the Doctor-free timeline, why hasn’t the universe been overrun by Daleks, Cybermen etc?
DO-SI-DO YOUR PARTNER
The Autons walk the Doctor forward, then in the next shot he’s facing backwards. When he hears the Dalek he looks over his shoulder. Then in the next shot he’s facing the front again.
So first the Daleks’ machine thing in Victory Of The Daleks needed a special person to trigger it, then the TARDISesque machine in The Lodger did, and now the Pandorica does. We’ve got news for you, Mr Moffat: lining a path with bollocks does not excuse the bollocks at the end of it.
KIDS THESE DAYS
It was nice, wasn’t it, having Little Orphan Amy, thus saving us from the apparently compulsory Companion Parental Nightmare. But alas, no longer, as Amy’s parental units are just as appalling as all the others. Would any Mum really start rattling on to all and sundry about Amy’s psychiatrists at her wedding just because Amy starts talking about her imaginary friend? Also, just what's so terrible about Auntie Sharon? Despite the dark hints at the beginning, she seems OK to us. Amelia asks to go to the museum and she takes her: call Social Services!
We’re so tempted to talk about thermodynamics and how even with a restoration field and a TARDIS you can’t create matter out of nothing, and how the uncertainty principle means that even if you do manage that there’s no guarantee the universe will turn out the same, but WHAT’S THE POINT?
Couldn’t Moffat have thought of something else to say in the “Goodbye, And Thanks For All The Fish” cliff-writing reference? We all chanted “Hello sweetie” before we even saw it, which scarcely needed amazing powers of prognostication given that he’d already used the phrase only a few moments before.
It’s wrenchingly difficult picking just one Doctorly moment as the best, but with our arms twisted up our backs, we choose Matt Smith’s astonishingly perfect delivery of “Oh, Rory” when Rory tells him he’s killed Amy.
HERE’S ONE IN THE EYESTALK
Why didn’t they permanently disable the Daleks while they were inactive?
BE A PUNTER
Conversation at Androzani regarding a better way to reboot the universe:
“They should wait till the universe collapses enough around the Pandorica that its field can reach every part at once.”
“But they’d be gone.”
“Yeah, but you could set it in advance.”
“Mmm…I don’t fancy it.”
And fair enough too.
Well done, Murray: we scarcely noticed there was any music in this, which is exactly how it should be. What a relief.
Buy this Doctor Who DVD: UK
Buy this Doctor Who DVD on Blu-ray: UK