It’s June 19th, 2010. Shout is at number one with “Shout,” which lasts both weeks of this story. Kylie Minogue, Eminem, David Guetta, Lady Gaga, and Baddiel, Skinner, and Lightning Seed also chart, the latter with a hilarious belief that England might not crash pathetically out of the World Cup. Spoiler: the day after this story wraps, they do. Also in news, David Cameron apologizes on behalf of the government for the Bloody Sunday Massacre, and George Osborne presents a budget statement full of austerity. Also, on June 26th, the entire universe ends.
There is no point in pretending that my opinion here is anything other than what it is. I think this is decisively and thoroughly a good thing. I love the Davies era dearly, but the Moffat era is, for my money, the pinnacle of the show. Indeed, it’s basically this pair of episodes that’s why TARDIS Eruditorum exists: because I could not get them and their implications out of my head. I have been looking forward to this post since I started, and the observations I want to make about this story are, ultimately, the observations that I created the blog to make. Although, having now gotten to it, it seems like so much of what I could say is stuff I’ve made obvious, and that nobody reading this needs to have pointed out. In many ways, everything I’ve said in TARDIS Eruditorum and the entire critical apparatus for looking at Doctor Who that I’ve built exists so as to make this story the most self-evident and explicable thing imaginable. If you’ve any understanding of how the thought processes of TARDIS Eruditorum work, you can figure out most of what I like about this story without effort. Its metafiction, its alchemy, everything about it is so thoroughly in line with the approach I take to Doctor Who that there’s almost nothing to say. By spending four years building to it, I’ve left such a clearly defined piece of negative space that filling it seems unnecessary.
Let’s, then, do the obvious thing and approach it in the context of Season Five. Much of Season Five, viewed through history’s lens, has felt, understandably, like an extended exercise in incremental change from the Russell T Davies era. Which is understandable – it’s easy to forget that the gap between The End of Time Part Two and The Eleventh Hour was only three months. To people who don’t pay attention to who the writer of an episode is, which is to say, to roughly 100% of the population, a period of bedding in was important. And so we had a season that retained numerous structural elements of the Davies era: a present/future/past triptych to start the season, a thirteen episode season consisting of seven single episode stories and three two-parters, et cetera. Yes, there were some changes – the first two-parter was, despite the presence of familiar monsters, the more adult and weird of them, while the second one filled the “for kids” brief. Rory, and particularly his death, consistently failed to quite work like you’d expect. The season arc was mischievous, partially paying off in the fifth episode instead of, as one might have expected, just having the crack show up every episode. But for the most part, Season Five behaved like a slightly cracked mirror take on the Russell T Davies formula.
In one sense, that continues immaculately into The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, which follows key parts of the Davies formula for season finales to the letter. In another, however, the finale marks the point where Moffat breaks decisively from the Davies era and announces that this is his show now, and that it will henceforth be a fundamentally different thing.
Unsurprisingly, the turning point comes at the cliffhanger. The Pandorica Opens is, in effect, a fairly traditional narrative collapse. Every villain in Doctor Who teams up to lock the Doctor in an inescapable prison. As usual, the threat isn’t just “bad things will happen” but “Doctor Who will end as a type of storytelling.” As with all of Davies’s finales, the plot hinges on the idea that the bad guys have already won – by the time the Doctor gets involved with events, he’s already seemingly lost. It all seems very tidy and standard issue, really.
Except that a narrative collapse is supposed to be averted, albeit at a terrible price. That’s the way these stories are supposed to work. And instead we get led to the brink of the same setup as the last season finale. As Davros put it, “your strategies have failed, your weapons are useless, and, oh. The end of the universe has come.” Except that where Journey’s End had Donna swoop in and save the day just before the Reality Bomb detonated, The Pandorica Opens goes one further. The Doctor is locked in an inescapable prison, Rory has killed Amy, River is trapped on an exploding TARDIS, and oh, yes, the end of the universe has actually come, with the cliffhanger shot just being every star in the galaxy exploding. The narrative collapse isn’t threatened – it’s allowed to happen. There’s not even some version of the get-out clause that The Sound of Drums consciously offered – no Martha escaping to have the task of saving the world single-handedly. Instead there’s nothing. Every possible avenue of escape is closed down, every possible agent who could fix things is sidelined. The narrative collapses utterly, such that, at the end of The Pandorica Opens, there’s absolutely nothing that can possibly follow it. It is, in this regard, the single most audacious cliffhanger in the entire history of Doctor Who.
This works, of course, because it’s meticulously earned. The Pandorica Opens is an efficient masterpiece. While I’m sure there exists somebody who has complained that the episode’s plot consists of the Doctor sitting around Stonehenge for fifty minutes waiting to be shoved into a box, the truth is this fact passes with almost nobody noticing it. The entire episode is an exercise in stalling, which is to say, it’s a Doctor Who episode, but its delaying tactics are gobsmackingly clever. At the top of the list is, of course, the Doctor’s speech to the assembled fleet of bad guys, which, in hindsight, accomplishes exactly nothing, but which is such a fantastic moment that nobody in their right mind cares. And the delays are used for things – while the Doctor effectively spins his wheels (and Amy spends large chunks of episode either unconscious or sitting around outside) we get the fascinatingly unexpected reintroduction of Rory. Sure, it maybe wasn’t that hard to guess that Rory was coming back, but you’d have had to poll an awful lot of Doctor Who fans to find one who guessed “as a Roman Auton.” Similarly, the pacing of the episode gives River a meaningful chunk of time in which to hold down a solo plot, which lets her be a female equivalent of the Doctor for the first time, instead of just being presented as someone who could be that. Still, The Pandorica Opens is ultimately just the setup for something altogether more extraordinary.
Obviously the first and biggest question of The Big Bang is what its first scene will be once it finishes its recap. What story do you tell when there are no possible stories to tell? The answer is, in hindsight, inevitable. You return to first principles, recreating the slow pan through Amelia’s garden that opened The Eleventh Hour. It’s easy to make far too much of the idea that the companion is an audience identification figure, but a crucial part of Amy’s character has always been that she is herself a Doctor Who fan. (Indeed, the total gap between Amelia’s long night and The Beast Below is, at fourteen years, in the same general ballpark as the Wilderness Years.) She engages with Doctor Who like a member of the audience does. And so she is the natural place to go after the narrative collapse. If we’ve dismantled the entire narrative apparatus of Doctor Who, where can we go but to the audience, left watching nothing?
It is in this context that we can understand what is otherwise a slightly strange thing to focus on: Amelia’s insistence on stars. There are several things to point out about this. First is that, even in the absence of the Doctor, her life takes the same basic path, complete with psychiatrists trying to cure her of believing what is, in fact, the truth. And yet it’s worth looking at the particulars of Amelia’s insistence on stars. She does not attempt to claim that there really are stars in the sky that we can’t see. She doesn’t try to declare that stars are real. Instead, she draws them into her pictures. She wants there to be stars. She insists not on their existence, but on their preferability. In the face of a world she doesn’t like, she tells a story of one she does.
Everything else in The Big Bang ultimately follows from this point. Once Amelia has rejected the world of “the universe has ended,” a better sort of story enters the picture as the Doctor drops off the museum flyer. And in the end Amy saves the day through the same principle: insisting on a different story than the one being told. Hindsight reveals this trick to be at the heart of Moffat’s work in Season Five – you’ll note that we described Amy’s victory in The Beast Below as being won by finding a better story to tell as well. And, of course, by the end of The Big Bang this isn’t even subtext anymore, but rather an explicit moral principle: “We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one.”
Again, it’s worth praising the connective tissue, not least because it’s where Moffat really does start to change the entire approach for season finales. The Pandorica Opens has nineteen credited characters. The Big Bang has ten, and two of them are Amy. The Pandorica Opens ostentatiously has more monsters than any previous story. The Big Bang has a single Dalek. There’s a move, in other words, to a small and intimate scale that’s quite unlike any previous season finale. The core of the episode is just a four character chamber piece. This is where a particular iconic TARDIS crew gets made – not just because it’s the first time we actually see the entire Pond family together, but because we spend so much time with them, letting them play off of each other and react to one another. This is, in practice, quite liberating. Moffat goes as big as it’s possible to go, crafting a cliffhanger that will never be topped in terms of sheer stakes, and then uses it to demonstrate that there’s no need to go bigger anyway.
But it is, of course, the resolution that really needs to be talked about. I’ve no idea how many times I’ve watched this story, but rewatching it for this post, I still found myself tearing up at its climax. “Raggedy Man, I remember you, and you are late for my wedding” kills me, every time, without fail. Up until the volcano scene in Dark Water, I’d have unhesitatingly called it the single greatest scene in Doctor Who, and I’m not sure I still wouldn’t. It’s a scene that justifies every theme, every idea, and every narrative approach involved in bringing it about. Many of its virtues are, of course, clear. And yet there’s something in excess of all of the thematic weight that makes it work. Moffat has written other sequences that validate my views on stories and Doctor Who as well as this. But he’s only written one other that hits this strongly after this many viewings.
Why? What makes it work so uncannily well? Part of it is the tone – the desperate hope of it, and the mad insistence on having a better story. That tone coinciding with the beautiful moment of everything snapping together around the “something old, something new” rhyme, is an emphatically well delivered catharsis. There’s also a real beauty to Amy’s character in that moment. The bravery in delivering that speech, even as her mother bemoans all the psychiatrists they took her to, is wonderfully moving, especially for a female character. It’s such a perfect payoff for everything that Amy’s character is. And, after all the thematic buildup, there’s something profoundly appealing about the simple, emphatic declaration that Doctor Who is a better story than not Doctor Who. All of this is part of it.
But it’s not all of it. There is something else – something slightly ineffable that refuses to simply be explained. Something that, after all of this buildup, I have to admit that I simply cannot quite capture or depict. And I think that is because it is something that embraces two beautifully contradictory viewpoints. On the one hand, the basic idea of “Raggedy Man, I remember you” is the animating fantasy of storytelling, namely that there exists a story, or a telling of a story that, if you could only capture it and express it, would save the world. That there’s some combination of words and images that, with enough refinement and inspiration, could fix everything. On the other, it is fundamentally a plot development based on the desire for more stories. The only reason to bring the Doctor back, after all, is that there is still an absence and a lack – still something that needs to be said. And so we have a moment that is simultaneously the fantasy of a perfect ending and the fantasy that there never has to be an ending. And for one brief and beautiful moment, just as Amy’s desperate insistence on telling a better story gives way to the restoration of Doctor Who after its narrative collapse, these two fantasies exist, perfectly suspended and in balance.
And that, in the end, is the point of the exercise. If that moment cannot quite be captured or looked at, then let us go with the alternative. Let us look at and understand every moment around it, crystalizing it so that this one scene stands in relief, reconstructed, if you will, by the hole left when everything else is understood. This moment when, from nothing but a child’s stubborn insistence on a better world and a better story, out of thin air, a blue box appears. The magic trick that cannot ever be explained: when something that was only ever an idea steps from the Land of Fiction into the world, real as anything. When nothing becomes something, not with a big bang, nor even with a little one, but rather with the sound that, if we are being honest, accompanies all progress, material social and otherwise: wheezing and groaning.