Doctor Who 1.12: The Pandorica Opens review


The Pandorica OpensThe Pandorica Opens review

River Song: I hate good wizards in fairytales; they always turn out to be him.

Production Code: 1.12.
Story Number: 212a.

In the tradition of River Song’s catchphrase – before reading the review of The Pandorica Opens, you should be aware it discusses (sometimes significant) plot details of several previous Classic DW and Nu-Who stories and maybe even a few films and books (as to which DW stories, films and books – described just after the jump). Just sayin’. The review opens…

The Pandorica Opens reviewThose Classic DW stories would be The Tomb of the Cybermen, Pyramids of Mars, Earthshock, The Awakening; film, Superman (of 1978); book, er, the bible.

Okay, to begin at the end of the episode: the Universe has been destroyed, or rather in is in the process of being destroyed, it is “total event collapse” (as the Doctor predicts), as, all around in the “Starry Night” around the Earth, every star is going supernova – “supernova at every moment in history”.

“Starry Night” – it’s a grim inversion of that painting by Van Gogh (featured in Vincent and the Doctor) as the stars swirl and supernova – and then “silence falls” as even the soundtrack ends, darkness, just before the “TO BE CONTINUED”.

This is going to be a review of those 50 minutes of Doctor Who, but first that cliffhanger has to be acknowledged. The Doctor Who audience is used to asking “how will the Doctor get out of that?” but with this 50 minutes and cliffhanger it seems that Moffat is saying that we already have the answers if only we were really observing the pieces of the puzzlebox this season. So this review will attempt to observe the seeming clues of this particular episode, as well as note the recurring themes and motifs of the season.

As it ends with a warped version of Vincent’s “Starry Night”, so it begins with another Van Gogh painting. Vincent painted the Sunflowers “for Amy”, however, this new painting is apparently “For the Doctor”. Via Bracewell ‘n’ Churchill, Liz 10, River Song guides the painting through time in a superb sequence, and an actual TARDIS scene is next, which starts on a camera close-up of two things: a ring with a stone in it, and an eye, Amy’s eye. “Observe everything” said the Doctor this season, and Amy is observing the ring she found at the end of the previous ep.

After the theme tune the trio are of Amy , River and the Doc are racing on horseback to another ring, a ring of stones (more stone), Stonehenge. It seems there’s a tomb, or barrow, or at least a chamber that forms “the underhenge”, and not for the first team this season, the TARDIS team descends into the underworld. They emerge briefly again as the Doctor makes plans for a war against the heavens, or at least the ships circling in the night, and asks River to enlist the “greatest war machine”, the Romans. There are a lot of machines this season.

After all this exciting plot stuff has been established, there’s a quiet scene with Amy and the Doc alone in the chamber. There are not one but two stretches of dialogue which seem to illuminate the mysteries of the season-so-far: it’s worthwhile to stop and ponder these words from the Doctor…

“People fall out of the world sometimes, but they always leave traces. Little things we can’t quite account for. Faces in photographs, luggage, half-eaten meals. Rings. Nothing is ever forgotten, not completely. And if something can be remembered, it can come back.”

This seems significant considering the cliffhanger of the episode. Can the universe come back? The next stretch of dialogue is about the very start of the season, not the end, the night Amy flew away with the Doctor…

“And you asked my why I was taking you, and I told you there wasn’t a reason, I was lying.”

“What, you did have a reason?”

“Your house.”

“My house.”

“It was too big, too many empty rooms. Does it ever bother you Amy that your life doesn’t make any sense?”

The “Future Doctor” from Flesh and Stone surely has something to do with this unrevealed plan that Doctor seems to have, a plan to solve the mysteries of the season. Before the audience can ponder the full implications of that revelation (although it’s, partly, something we’ve really known since The Eleventh Hour, that the Doctor seemed to have some reason that wasn’t quite explained to Amy, has he switched off the crack-shaped waveform on the TARDIS scanner as he had this very conversation he describes here) – it’s action stations with a homage to one of those Classic DW stories mentioned at the start of the review. (Though we will return to this conversation to consider the implications, later in the review.)

They are not alone in this barrow, this chamber, this tomb – there’s a Cyberarm, and the Doc and Cyberarm proceed to re-enact the “target”/”shooting range” sequence at the beginning of Ep2 of The Tomb of the Cybermen. Hilarity (the double thumbs up and fast-paced dialogue) turns to horror as a medusa-like Cyberhead tries to put Amy (or at least part of her) inside its shell. There is more horror later as the Cybermen (and Daleks, and the rest) succeed in placing not Amy but the Doctor in a machine shell, the Pandorica shell. (Similar to how “the Pandorica opens”, later, the Cyberhead opens outward with a glimmer of light, like the pages of a book opening.)

This wasn’t the first “Medusa” disembodied head to feature in the season, as the Doctor, Amy and Vincent passed a statue in the Musée d’Orsay, portraying Perseus holding aloft the head of Medusa. That this Cyberhead echoes elements of the story to come and season past doesn’t seem coincidental: whether they are intended as pleasing symmetry or something more by Moffat is another mystery in this season full of mysteries. The monster, like the Basilisk, like the Medusa, is slain by the hero with a sword – it’s Rory with much more skill with swordplay than he displayed in The Vampires of Venice.

“Yes, I know that, Rory, I’m not exactly going to miss the obvious” – Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill really bring out the comedy in this next scene, and, after more stirring rhetoric from the Doc, as he pops above ground to give an “educate the Vashta Nerada/Atraxi” style speech to the heavens, it’s another scene which, like the Amy and Doctor tête à tête scene, features a lot of dialogue from the Doc which may give us some clues for the final ep.

“I don’t understand. Why am I here?” asks Rory (something that anyone in our Universe – not just in this Doctor Who Universe – might ask, an existential question, similar to the Doctor asking Amy if she wondered why her life didn’t make sense.)

“The universe is big, it’s vast and complicated and ridiculous. And sometimes, very rarely, impossible things happen and we call them miracles.”

So it seems, as highlighted by these two quiet scenes of the Doctor philosophising first with Amy, then Rory, then these two humans might have some of the answers as to how the miracle of the Universe returning might happen.

And so to the third act, now that the Doctor has – once again – tried to re-unite Amy and Rory, he has sent Rory on his way with the ring. The magnificent Alex Kingston now takes centre stage as River Song – though as three plotlines wind their way to a triple-cliffhanger, centre stage alternates between the TARDIS, above the henge and the underhenge (River, Amy ‘n’ Rory, the Doctor).  Although no actual Crack features in a wall, there is one on a TARDIS scanner, an actual crack rather than the waveform on a TARDIS scanner in The Eleventh Hour.

The Cracks in the walls this season recall one particular Classic Doctor Who story (and this blog mentions this not because it thinks the Malus is going to be pulling the strings come the final episode, just another rumination on the deep well of imagery from the whole of Doctor Who that Moffat seems to be drawing from) – The Awakening. It’s another story which features a wall cracking open to feature a sinister “smile”, though in the Fifth Doctor story, it’s the grinning face of what appears to be a stone statue – it does create a crack in time though, through which Will Chandler pops through to a different time (seemingly in a similar way to Roman Rory.)

However, Roman Rory isn’t Leadworth Rory, he’s an Auton duplicate. It’s more symmetry from Moffat, as the very first Nu-Who story is echoed: only this time (unlike the story Rose), the Doctor doesn’t save his companion from her plastic boyfriend; after this at the end, the camera rises away from the Earth just as it swooped down to the Earth at the start of that earlier story. So, seemingly, this season has now not one but two “Earthshock” stories – Rory did really die, Amy dies, as the Universe dies around her. A scene full of pathos thanks to the deft performances from Darvill and Gillan.

The final 15 minutes leading up to those final moments are a masterclass from Moffat in creating tension – one of the “slow dawning realisation” moments he loves to include plays out as River finds out why it wasn’t just a coincidence about Amy liking the Romans and the story of Pandora. The major mysteries added to the season (as this one mystery is solved) in this River Song sequence are: whose voice is saying “Silence will fall”? What made the landing marks on the lawn? It’s a moving moment as River says “I’m sorry my love” as she fails to exit the TARDIS and stop the explosion, as she ends as she began at the start of the story, imprisoned.

The curious thing about Doctor Who is that, in theory, the Doctor can travel back in time to rewrite time: but (almost) never really does. Pyramids of Mars features such a scene in which the Doctor and Sarah visit 1980 and find that Sutekh has won and the Earth is a waste land – they return to 1911 to defeat him. The Doctor never really has to travel back in times to “correct” things as the bad guys never really win: however, this time, at the end of the episode, the Doctor hasn’t saved the Universe at all.

The film Superman (of 1978), a very unsatisfying resolution to the film features Superman simply winding back time to reverse the death of Lois. In theory, as the Doctor has his TARDIS – unlike Superman, time-travel “is his thing” – he could do this sort of thing and in theory the audience wouldn’t think it was a strange resolution? With this story though a) the TARDIS has seemingly exploded anyway b) would such a resolution – simple time-travel rewrites the death of Amy, River, the TARDIS, the death of the Universe: would that really be a satisfying end to the season?

Moffat surely has a more elegant resolution considering the intricate way the season seems to fit together like pieces of a puzzlebox. On Friday this blog will attempt to summarise the clues across the season – story by story – and ponder the season-so-far as a whole, and what it all means for the final ep of the season. This particular ep is a superbly crafted penultimate part of the puzzle – though the characters portrayed onscreen with verve by Smith, Kingston, Darvll and Gillan are a major element to why these 50 minutes are so spellbinding as well as the shiny whirring mechanisms of the plot.

The final scenes of the Doctor are a strange and dreamlike sequence, Romans “arresting” the Doctor like a figure in a bible story, made more dreamlike by the gliding music, the audience feeling some of the woozy terror the Doctor would be experiencing as the rows of monsters almost nonchalantly observe his entombment.

So, “how will the Doctor get out of that?”

Rating: 5/5 (for this part of the story.)


2 Responses to “Doctor Who 1.12: The Pandorica Opens review”

  1. Le Noisy Bishop Says:

    Cool write up, John. It sure took you a while (answer your PMs on twitter, dammit!) but I can see why.

    Some of the clues I guess were obvious, but didn’t notice that many throwbacks to old rickety Who. Good call on the Medusa thing.

    Knock on wood there’s no Superman Shenanigans tomorrow

  2. John Nor Says:


    There does seem to be a homage to The Tomb of the Cybermen (interestingly a story that inspired Matt Smith when crafting his version of the Doctor according to a DWM interview.)

    I completed my review of the second half of the story yesterday on the blog (and it’s another long review.)

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