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WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!
The TARDIS travels back in time, but terror lurks in the cornfields of 18th-century France, and only a sad and lonely painter can see it. The Doctor and Amy join forces with the legendary Vincent van Gogh, but can the three of them defeat a powerful and deadly alien...?
This year’s Doctor Who has made notable use of comedy writers. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the show’s chief scribe, Steven Moffat, was previously best known for his sitcom Coupling. Writers this series have included Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen), Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly, How Do You Want Me?) and Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually), who penned Vincent and the Doctor.
What is surprising is that Vincent and the Doctor is one of the most earnest episodes of the entire 2010 series. Yes, there are funny bits, such as the Doctor’s references to his two-headed, smelly godmother and jokes based around the time travellers’ foreknowledge of van Gogh’s critical acclaim, but essentially this is a poignant salutation to an artist whose genius was not recognised in his own, tragically short, lifetime. Several of the artist’s paintings are referenced and/or brought to life on screen (in particular Wheatfield with Crows, The Church at Auvers, Café Terrace at Night, Bedroom in Arles, Sunflowers and The Starry Night), and the extended epilogue (a recurring feature of this series) is real lump-in-the-throat stuff.
It could be argued that the episode doesn’t really need a monster (it might be nice for the production team to tackle a purely historical story for once). However, but it can equally be argued that the Krafayis symbolises van Gogh’s inner demon, the then undiagnosed condition of manic depression, which no one else from his time can perceive.
Scotsman Tony Curran is the embodiment of van Gogh in all but accent. His own Scots brogue is retained, covered by a throwaway comment about the Scottish Amy (Karen Gillan) sounding Dutch to Vincent. It’s not very explicit for casual viewers, but I presume it’s a side effect of the TARDIS’s translation systems (like Phil Cornwell’s Cockney Roman market trader in The Fires of Pompeii).
Less forgivable are the variable pronunciations of the surname van Gogh, especially from Matt Smith, who doesn’t even try with his “van Goff”.
Not quite a masterpiece then, but a memorable and moving work of art.
There’s a house on Aickman Road with a staircase that people walk up, but never come back down again. To solve the mystery of the man upstairs, the Doctor faces his greatest challenge yet - to pass himself off as a normal human being and share a flat with Craig Owens...
With scripts this year being contributed by the creators of Men Behaving Badly, Love Actually and Coupling, it’s ironic that The Lodger - the most romcom, sitcom episode of them all - isn’t written by any of those people. The principal guest characters, Craig and Sophie, are pure sitcom material, in terms of both their personality types - two friends who keep on utterly failing to disclose that they’re in love with each other - and the performers who play them - James Corden (Gavin & Stacey, Horne & Corden) and Daisy Haggard (Man Stroke Woman, The Persuasionists). Add to the mix an eccentric flatmate, and we could have the makings of a comedy pilot episode on our hands - though of course the Doctor is far stranger than any man behaving badly.
There is a science-fiction element, in the form of the mysterious occupant of the upstairs flat, who is responsible for the disappearance of numerous passers-by and whose distortion of time is somehow preventing the TARDIS from materialising properly. The occupant is a variation on the theme of Prisoner Zero in The Eleventh Hour: both take on a variety of forms, but whereas Prisoner Zero hid his room from view by means of a perception filter, the occupant’s flat isn’t actually there at all.
The script is adapted by Gareth Roberts from a comic strip he wrote for Doctor Who Magazine, though the TV version is quite different. The strip had no mysterious man upstairs, and it featured the Tenth Doctor crashing at Mickey Smith’s place - though in both cases the Doctor is separated from his companion and his TARDIS, and in both cases the Doctor disrupts his flatmate’s plans for a romantic evening. Whereas the comic had the sonic screwdriver being mistaken for a toothbrush, the TV episode has the Doctor mistaking Craig’s toothbrush for the sonic.
There is no Doctor-lite episode this year, though The Lodger is decidedly Amy-lite, since the companion only appears in TARDIS scenes, interspersed throughout the episode.
The Lodger certainly isn’t an unwelcome guest in my DVD collection.
After so many ominous warnings, including Vincent van Gogh’s final painting, the Pandorica finally opens - but the secret it holds is more terrifying than even the Doctor had anticipated. The fates are drawing close around the TARDIS. Is this the day the Time Lord falls...?
The trouble with Doctor Who series finales is that each year the stakes are raised higher than before. At the end of Series 1, the Daleks returned and threatened the Earth in the far future. At the end of Series 2, both the Daleks and the Cybermen returned and threatened the Earth in the here and now. At the end of Series 3, the Master returned, conquered the Earth and threatened the entire universe. At the end of Series 4, Davros and the Daleks returned and threatened to destroy the whole of reality. At the end of the Tenth Doctor’s era, the Time Lords returned and threatened to end time itself. How could Moffat possibly top that?
Well, by bringing back the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Autons, the Sontarans, the Judoon, the Sycorax, the Silurians, the Hoix and the Roboforms (also throwing in mentions of the Terileptils, the Slitheen, the Chelonians, the Drahvins, the Zygons, the Atraxi and the Draconians) and actually destroying most of time and space! Admittedly, these monsters appear only briefly at the end of The Pandorica Opens, and they are represented according to what costumes were available and still in good condition, rather than their importance to the show’s overall mythology (so we have the Hoix and the Roboforms, not to mention some Weevils and Blowfish from Torchwood, but no Yeti or Ice Warriors), but you get the idea.
Rather more impressive are the ways in which this two-parter unites plot elements and themes from all eleven of the preceding episodes in the series. The Pandorica Opens visits the timelines of Vincent and the Doctor, Victory of the Daleks and The Beast Below, and marks the return of River Song (Alex Kingston), last seen in The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone - and that’s just in the pre-credits sequence! There’s also a thematic connection with Victory of the Daleks, as the Auton Rory’s (Arthur Darvill) struggle to resist his programming and assert his humanity echoes the earlier depiction of Professor Bracewell. Rory, of course, reappears after being apparently erased from history in Cold Blood, re-created from memories like the dream worlds of Amy’s Choice. The Silurian two-parter is more obviously referenced in the presence of the reptiles among the alien alliance and in a brief flashback to prophetic moments from Flesh and Stone and Cold Blood. Finally, we make a return trip to Amy’s house, previously visited in The Eleventh Hour and Flesh and Stone.
The presence of a humanised Auton also echoes themes from previous Who stories in spin-off media, including the novels The Scales of Injustice, Business Unusual, Instruments of Darkness and Autonomy, and the audio drama Brave New Town.
The Pandorica Opens isn’t perfect. For example, this episode indicates that River Song is imprisoned in the 52nd century, whereas Flesh and Stone, in which she remembers the events of The Pandorica Opens, takes place in the 51st (though perhaps this is due to a complication in River’s timeline that has yet to be explored). It’s also hard to believe that no one notices the disembodied Cyber-head at Stonehenge, and it’s a shame that the creature has to use the Borg’s favourite word “assimilated”, rather than the more usual “converted” or “upgraded”.
Nevertheless, The Pandorica Opens is a tremendously exciting penultimate episode. However, as Last of the Time Lords, Journey’s End and The End of Time - Part Two have all proven, creating a successful concluding episode is a much harder trick to pull off. How does The Big Bang fare...?
The Doctor is gone, the TARDIS has been destroyed in a temporal explosion, and the universe is collapsing. The only hopes for all of reality lie with a little girl who still believes in stars, and a love that lasts for thousands of years. This is where it gets complicated...
Like The Pandorica Opens, The Big Bang contains references to earlier episodes in the series. There are clips and newly recorded flashbacks to the events of The Eleventh Hour (with the return of the excellent Caitlin Blackwood as the young Amelia), The Lodger and Flesh and Stone. Rory’s dialogue recalls the events of The Vampires of Venice when he remembers that the Doctor “was the stripper at my stag,” and his resigned “Yeah, it is,” (after protesting that “I’m not Mr Pond. That’s not how it works,”) echoes his resigned “Yeah, we are,” (after Amy refers to him and the Doctor as “her boys”) in Vampires.
Like the concluding episode of The End of Time, The Big Bang feels smaller in scale than its predecessor, due to its diminished cast and the rapidly shrinking bubble of reality. The alien alliance that threatened the Doctor in The Pandorica Opens is gone, save for a few stone Daleks, one of which comes back to life to provide some traditional threat. There’s a closer focus on the main characters here, with the love story between Amy and Rory reaching its pinnacle. As “the boy who waited” for almost 2,000 years for Amy, Rory puts Amy’s 14 years as “the girl who waited” in the shade. Darvill demonstrates his range as the usually bumbling and hesitant Rory gives way to self-assured bravery (“Do you think?”) and passionate rage (“She is to me!”). The Doctor’s testing of Rory recalls one of the earliest Doctor Who stories, The Daleks, in which Ian Chesterton goads a pacifist Thal into punching him.
As with The Pandorica Opens, The Big Bang has its flaws. It is strange that there is no shorting out of the time differential (a la Mawdryn Undead) when the 21-year-old Amy touches the seven-year-old Amelia, especially when there is such an effect when the Doctor touches his sonic screwdriver to its temporal counterpart. However, this may be explained by cell renewal (over a period of seven to ten years, every cell in the human body in replaced, so the two Amys would not be composed of the same matter, whereas the two Brigadiers in Mawdryn would be, albeit partially) or the fact that the two Amys are from divergent timelines.
I can just about accept that the whole universe can be extrapolated from a few billion atoms (this is, after all, established as the basis of the Total Perspective Vortex in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and that Amy, having been exposed to energy from the cracks in the universe for most of her life, can remember people back into existence via the power of the Pandorica. However, I find it a bit of a stretch that she is able to summon the Doctor back into being after the cracks have closed (indeed, were never open in the first place) and the Pandorica has been destroyed. It’s even harder to explain how the post-restoration River Song ends up on Earth in 2010 and seems able to remember Amy, Rory and quite possibly the Doctor, or at least is aware of their significance.
With two poignant farewell scenes (excellent performances by Gillan and Smith) and a supreme act of self-sacrifice, this two-parter would have made a good regeneration story - but then that’s true of most Who finales. In The Parting of the Ways and The End of Time, the Doctor does of course regenerate. In The Stolen Earth, the Doctor begins to regenerate, but manages to halt the process in Journey’s End. The events of Last of the Time Lords also seem geared towards a regeneration, but instead the aged Doctor is rejuvenated by almost magical, pseudo-religious means. In The Big Bang, the Doctor is erased from reality, heroically saving the whole of creation at the cost of his own existence - which would have made a fitting end to the entire show, never mind the season. However, he is subsequently resurrected by a similar statement of faith to the one in Last of the Time Lords. It’s the sort of messianic depiction of the Doctor that I had hoped the series would leave behind when Moffat took over from Russell T Davies. I suppose this resurrection can be explained by Amy retaining some of her special qualities in the restored timeline. In any case, the “old, new, borrowed, blue” idea is a stroke of genius by Moffat, and beautifully delivered by Gillan.
The domestic setting of the story’s conclusion is also a bit RTD, but before long the Doctor and his companions (the first married couple to travel in the TARDIS) are setting off into time and space again.
Moffat has fun flouting the usual rules of time travel in Who, taking advantage of the collapse of the universe and the breakdown of its physical laws to allow the Doctor to enjoy some Bill & Ted-style antics with River’s vortex manipulator.
For all my criticism of its narrative cheats and structural flaws (cracks in its universe, you might say), The Big Bang is, for the most part, an excellent adventure rather than a bogus journey, brimming over with crackling dialogue, emotive performances, and rousing music by Murray Gold. Bringing closure (the first truly happy ending of the new series!) while also promising further thrills to come at Christmas and in 2011, it makes a fitting end to Series 5 and an effective bookend to The Eleventh Hour.