• 14th July 2010 • Review by Seb Patrick •
I loves me the time travel, is the thing.
It’s not the reason I originally got into Doctor Who – at least, I don’t think so. At the tender age I was when a Dalek chased Sylvester McCoy up some stairs, I wasn’t yet as hung up on the notion of time travel fiction as I’d later become. But the story possibilities offered by a central character that can hop around time are almost certainly among the reasons I’ve stuck around all these years. And it’s not something that I’m necessarily sure that RTD – for all the strengths of his run – shared. It’s true that the words that persuaded Rose to join the Doctor in the TARDIS were “It also travels in time”, but for Russell, the time travel was still more about the places (just places in the past and future) that could be visited. But considering that a number of my favourite films have words like “Back”, “Future”, “Bill” and “Ted” in their titles, it’s clear that what I like about a time travel story is the chance to play with the sequential – to wit, the sort of story in which a single changed event can create an alternate timeline, or the sort in which a character can influence their own present by pledging to use time travel to set up the past retrospectively.
And it’s clear from “The Big Bang” that Moffat – who’s always enjoyed playing with narrative order in shows that didn’t hand him the keys to a time machine – is a bit of a fan of that sort of thing as well.
It’s a bravura opening quarter of an hour that does it. First of all, there’s that pre-credits sequence. It doesn’t have quite the “throw everything at the screen” feel of “Pandorica”‘s, but it nevertheless drives home the impression that Moffat loves these bits. It’s his textbook confidence shining through, launching in with an opening that leaves the audience with more questions than answers. So we open with, exquisitely, a frame-for-frame repeat of the beginning of “The Eleventh Hour” – only this time, taking place in a world in which the Doctor never existed. We get a fleeting glimpse of what appears to be a fez-wearing future Doctor at the letterbox – ramping up the mystery quotient. What does it all mean? We’ve been here before, of course – think back to “Blink”, and the unforgettable titles-lead-in of a message on the wall from a so-far-unseen Doctor: it’s not hard to draw a line from that to the similarly inspired theme-tune-howl-inducer of the Pandorica, last seen imprisoning the Doctor, opening to reveal Amy, and the immortal words “Okay kid… this is where it gets complicated”. BAM. Forget every expectation you might have had about how that cliffhanger was going to resolve – and just buckle in for a topsy-turvy ride.
It’s breathtaking. And once the credits are over there’s barely time to stop and compose oneself, either. The most brilliantly sustained riff that any writer on this series has come up with since 2005 is simply a joy to behold – and even though he’s without his TARDIS, as the Doctor hops around time to fix his own present in a manner that (depending on how kind you want to be to Moffat) directly recalls either Bill and Ted or The Curse of Fatal Death, it feels like exactly the sort of bonkers, narrative-skewing fun that a programme about a time-travelling alien eccentric should be doing more often. Or maybe if it happened more often, it wouldn’t feel as special as the sublime punchline of grabbing the drink for Amelia does. Yet it works both ways, too – the time-hopping also used to give us a chilling vision of a Doctor that’s due to be shot and (apparently) killed by a Dalek in twelve minutes’ time.
From then on, it’s a case of ticking the boxes – although never in any sort of conventional or predictable way. What’s particularly of note is the way that Moffat frees himself from the time and space usually devoted to bringing in the Big Bad and having them explain their plan, and the Doctor directly confronting them, by choosing to leave them out entirely (whoever or whatever they may turn out to be). The multi-series arc – so ludicrously simple a plan it’s almost amazing it took us five years to get here. Instead, then, all that effort can simply be expended on putting the Doctor and his cohorts in a bind, and watching them find their way out of it – without ever having to stop and think about why they’re in it. As a result, there’s less exposition, and more adventure. All of it taking place in by far the smallest environment of a series finale so far – the fate of the universe may be at stake, sure, but what we’re immediately concerned with is the fate of these four characters trapped in a museum.
Meanwhile, what we do have time for is the long-anticipated trip back through Series Fnarg from a fresh perspective; although the joy at seeing that scene from “Flesh & Stone” all over again is perhaps tempered somewhat by the knowledge that so much that once seemed important – Rory’s ID badge, the “dark TARDIS” in Craig’s attic, the stairs in Amy’s house that go nowhere – may just have been window dressing after all. This was a carefully-constructed thirteen-episode story, yes – but even so, the tendency of the fans to read too much into every little detail is just as strong now as it was back when some of us thought “Bad Wolf” might have been referring to the Doctor being secretly the villain.
But we’ll talk about the series arc – and the series – as a whole in more detail when we do our full retrospective in the coming weeks. For “The Big Bang” itself, there’s still plenty to remark on in the second half in terms of moments – as that’s what it’s all about, really. We’re left with plot itself largely solved – cracks in time defeated even as their ultimate manipulator remains hidden for another day – but Moffat determined to round out his first series in charge by having a couple of what I’d call his “manifesto” moments: the scenes that define what the Doctor means to him, and by association should now mean to the watching viewers. And you have to hand it to him – for those that claim he’s too cynical a writer to hit the emotional beats that RTD managed, in that bedside farewell to Amelia he comes up with a beautiful passage that encapsulates all the “fairy tale” themes, and the positioning of the Doctor as the odd little wanderer that drops from the sky into people’s lives, that have so far characterised his work.
I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s okay, we’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? ‘Cos it was, you know… it was the best. The daft old man, who stole a magic box… and ran away.
Once again, it becomes easy to see why Neil Gaiman – the man who wrote the late twentieth century’s finest exploration of the nature and meaning of stories in Sandman – seems like the perfect fit to join Moffat’s team (although if there’s anyone else who seems a perfect fit to join Moffat’s team, it’s got to be Lance Parkin – so many elements of “The Big Bang”, especially that bedside monologue, feel like the sort of thing he was doing in his Eighth Doctor novels). But it’s a wonderful scene, made even more so by that man Smith. He delivers what’s surely a longer monologue than was ever given to either of his predecessors with conviction and heart – and the perfect amount of weary-old-traveller resignation. If nothing else, it shows that when the time finally comes for him to regenerate – and I’m sure you’ll all join me in hoping that’s a good five years or more away – it’s going to be a stormer.
There’s more, too. Auton Rory waiting for two thousand years (who didn’t get a little sniffly at that one?), further proof that to make the Daleks good all you have to do is unleash a single one in an enclosed space, “fezzes are cool”, and – of course – the sublime, “how the hell has this not occurred to anyone before, but particularly to us viewers considering the series has been building up to a wedding?” genius of “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. Although, to be fair, the “old versus new” dichotomy of the TARDIS has never really been commented on before in quite the same way as “big versus small”, so we could perhaps point the finger of contrivance at the Moff ever so slightly.
Indeed, if we’re going to pick at any flaws in this, it’s that the plot elements seem to line up rather conveniently the more you think about them. I have no problem with the paradox of the Doctor only thinking to pass his screwdriver to Rory to open the Pandorica because he knows it’s already worked – as mentioned, that’s exactly the sort of timey wimey logic I like – but it doesn’t answer the question of why it’s able to open it so easily. Or why the Doctor wakes up on the TARDIS after flying the Pandorica into the explosion (or, indeed, why the vortex manipulator is suddenly an airborne-piloting device). Or why River shows up in the year 2010 for Amy’s wedding. But there’s a sheer forcefulness to Moffat’s writing – it’s inspired, and engaging, and constructed in such a way that just about every question you could raise becomes largely irrelevant fridge logic. It’s perhaps a little short on explanation, but that doesn’t mean any of these instances fall down under detailed logical scrutiny – the conveniences could all be possible, and that’s the crucial thing.
So what are we left with? A finale that delivered everything we expected from Moffat? Well, not quite – but I’m not sure he ever could have delivered to our ludicrously lofty hopes. Those who wanted all the answers, and everything wrapped up neatly in preparation for another fresh start at Christmas, may be disappointed – and despite the enthralling prospect of a confrontation being played out over multiple series, you can’t help but feel that a season finale should have a Big Bad of some kind in it; a lone Dalek, improvement on the creatures’ last appearance though it may be, doesn’t quite cut it. All the same, though, this is one for the ages – a thrilling, witty, touching rollercoaster ride through everything that the Doctor is and represents in this New Era. The new Doctor has been set up perfectly – now let’s see him cut loose.