The last few years of Doctor Who have seen the season finales keep getting bigger and bigger, as former showrunner Russell T Davies seemed to thrive on creating ever more apocalyptic threats for the Doctor to face—to the Earth, to the universe, to Time itself. Eventually, you would think, a limit must be reached, beyond which no further escalation is possible. New showrunner (and writer of this episode) Steven Moffat may just have reached that limit with this two-part finale that begins with “The Pandorica Opens.” Not only does the ultimate threat outstrip anything seen before, the episode is as densely plotted as any that Moffat has written for the series, picking up threads from across the whole season, putting them through some dazzling twists, and leading up to a cliffhanger that looks absolutely impossible to get out of.
The opening sequence immediately shows off the careful planning that has gone into the construction of the whole season. We follow the journey of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh (Tony Curran) across the centuries until, in the year 5145, it finds its way into the hands of River Song (Alex Kingston). Along the way, it passes through the care of Bracewell (Bill Paterson) and Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) from “Victory of the Daleks” and Liz 10 (Sophie Okonedo) from “The Beast Below”, in scenes that were obviously shot back when those episodes were made and cleverly held over until now.
The sequence becomes another tour de force for River Song, along the lines of the opening teaser from “The Time of Angels”, as she escapes from her Stormcage prison cell (we learned that she had been in prison in “Flesh and Stone”) with the aid of her trusty hallucinogenic lipstick. Then she gets to play Han Solo in the Star Wars cantina (just the latest of many Star Wars riffs this season) as she negotiates with a blue-skinned merchant to obtain a vortex manipulator, “fresh off the wrist of a handsome Time Agent” (which prompted thoughts about how great an episode starring both River and Captain Jack Harkness would be). Having secured this crude but effective means of time travel, River eventually meets up with the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Amy (Karen Gillan) in the camp of a Roman legion in the Britain of 102 AD. As the opening titles crash in, we finally get to see Vincent’s painting—it depicts the destruction of the TARDIS in a fiery explosion, and its title is…The Pandorica Opens.
This two-part finale is directed by another of this season’s first-time directors, Toby Haynes. Like Adam Smith, who did such a good job on the season opener and the Weeping Angels two-parter, Haynes is a real find for the show. He establishes an epic, widescreen feel with shots of our heroes on horseback, racing across the empty plains to the distant but immediately recognizable form of Stonehenge, while getting the plot exposition across with efficient cross-cutting to a continuation of the previous scene in the camp, as River explains that co-ordinates on the painting show that the legendary Pandorica (“A box, a cage, a prison…built to contain the most feared thing in all the universe”) is at this time and place. As he did the last time River mentioned it, in “Flesh and Stone,” the Doctor dismisses the idea of the Pandorica as a fairytale, but eventually he comes up with the idea of checking out the nearby ancient monument on the basis that “if you buried the most dangerous thing in the universe, you’d want to remember where you put it.”
The idea of revealing the purpose of Stonehenge as being to mark the position of an alien artifact is a lovely conceit, made even more so when they use some of River’s handy technology to move one of the massive stones to reveal an entrance to the “Under-henge.” The whole sequence as they make their way into a huge underground chamber is a standout, with cobwebs everywhere and flaming torches making the episode look like an Indiana Jones film—fittingly so, since the behind-the-scenes programme Doctor Who Confidential showed how Haynes used a playback of John Williams’ evocative music from Raiders of the Lost Ark during the shooting of these scenes to get the proper pacing and sense of wonder as the Doctor, River and Amy make their way into the Pandorica chamber. The chamber is dominated by the Pandorica itself—an enormous, ominous black cube with intricate clockwork designs on its surface.
The Doctor: “There was a goblin, or a trickster, or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos. And nothing could stop it, or hold it, or reason with it. One day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.”
Amy: “How did it end up in there?”
The Doctor: “You know fairytales. A good wizard tricked it.” (He moves off.)
River: “I hate good wizards in fairytales. They always turn out to be him.”
River discovers that the multiple layers of security inside the Pandorica are being unlocked, as it slowly begins to open. (In the light of later events, we can surmise that it was the Doctor’s touch on the outside of the thing that started the opening process, though that’s never actually stated.) It’s fairly obvious that the Doctor’s description of what’s inside the Pandorica is actually a description of the Doctor himself—as seen from the point of view of the enemies he fights and defeats (paying off a line put into “The Hungry Earth” about how he’s not scared of monsters, monsters are scared of him). In the manner of a stage magician forcing a card on his victim, Steven Moffat keeps harping on the question of what’s going to emerge from the Pandorica at the end of the episode—a future Doctor? a past Doctor?—in order to distract the viewer’s attention from what he actually has in mind.
They realize that the Pandorica is signaling its opening across the whole of space and time (neatly answering in passing the question of how Vincent got the knowledge of it in the first place), and thousands of spaceships are now arriving—Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, and every other kind of alien the Doctor’s ever faced. (I loved how Moffat slipped in references to completely obscure species like Chelonians or Drahvins for the long-time fans here.) For a moment the episode threatens to turn towards the epic freewheeling of a Russell T Davies finale, with a shot of scores of CGI ships hovering above Stonehenge, but then River is sent off to get help from the Romans and the Doctor and Amy return to the chamber, where in a marvellously intimate scene the story finally picks up the thread left dangling at the end of the previous episode, “The Lodger”.
Amy shows the Doctor the engagement ring she found in his jacket. It’s actually hers, but at the end of “Cold Blood” her fiancé Rory was killed and then all her memory of him erased by one of the cracks in the universe which have been a regular presence throughout the season—the cracks which it’s now obvious are caused by the explosive destruction of the TARDIS. Matt Smith has been consistently brilliant all year, but particularly so in quiet scenes like this, showing the Doctor’s attempt to conceal his pain at Amy’s blithe dismissal of the ring (“So, who are you proposing to?”) and compellingly delivering what turns out to be the crucial speech of the whole story:
Amy: “It’s weird. I feel…I don’t know, something.”
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.”
The Doctor finally confesses to Amy that, contrary to what he said in “The Eleventh Hour”, he had a reason for inviting her to come away with him. But just as we’re on the brink of further revelations (“Your house… It was too big. Too many empty rooms. Does it ever bother you, Amy, that your life doesn’t make any sense?”), the episode radically changes gear into a dramatic action sequence. Various bits of a Cyberman that had been scattered around the place (head, arm, and so on) start attacking them. The Doctor is knocked out, and Amy is chased and trapped in a small side chamber.
Like everything else in the episode, this attack sequence is well done—the Cyber-head with its writhing tentacle-like cables that wrap around Amy’s arms and legs is like something out of The Thing, and the head splitting open to reveal a human skull inside is another great Indiana Jones moment. The sequence is certainly needed, since otherwise the action of this middle section of the episode would consist entirely of a large box slowly opening, but it can’t help but feel like the self-contained set piece that it is. It does, however, end with the first big twist of the episode, as the Roman help arrives and a centurion destroys the Cyberman. He removes his helmet—revealing himself to be Rory.
I had already caught a semi-spoiler about the episode beforehand, so Arthur Darvill’s reappearance wasn’t quite the shock it must have been to anyone who had no idea it was coming. The resurrection of Rory immediately heightens the intensity level, as befits a season finale, and gives all three of the regular actors some great material to work with. It’s not all fraught with emotion, though—the Doctor’s recognition of Rory is played for comedy, with him absentmindedly prattling on about missing the obvious (“Yeah, I think you probably are”) and wandering away, before there’s an off-screen crash and he comes slowly back in. Then the two of them look embarrassed and can’t think of anything to say—rather like two workmates accidentally meeting at the supermarket. Rory tells how he somehow ended up here after his death (“I died, and turned into a Roman. It’s very distracting”), and the Doctor has no explanation.
Rory: “But I don’t understand. Why am I here?”
The Doctor: “Because you are. The universe is big. It’s vast, and complicated, and…ridiculous. And—very rarely—impossible things just happen, and we call them miracles. Well, that’s the theory; nine hundred years, never seen one yet. But this would do me.”
The emotional climax of the episode, though, is the reunion of Amy and Rory. Rory is hurt when he discovers Amy has no idea who he is. He follows her up to the surface and, in a series of scenes played brilliantly by both Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan, attempts to revive her memory of him. As in “Vincent and the Doctor,” Amy finds herself crying without knowing why; then an edge of hysteria creeps in as she laughs: “It’s like I’m happy! Why am I happy?”
Meanwhile, River attempts to bring the TARDIS from the Roman camp to Stonehenge, but something goes wrong. A hitherto unseen force takes control of the TARDIS and sends her back to Amy’s house in Leadworth on the crucial date—June 26, 2010—the date established in “Flesh and Stone” as being when the explosion that caused the cracks in the universe takes place. It’s quite strange to watch River wandering around the location familiar to us from “The Eleventh Hour,” an episode she never appeared in. She discovers signs that something has been through the house, but in Amy’s bedroom, she sees all her childhood “raggedy Doctor” dolls laid out, just as she left them (“Oh Doctor, why do I let you out?” River says, cryptically). Then she makes a shocking discovery. In the second big twist of the episode, the illustrations in a book in Amy’s room show the exact same Romans as are with the Doctor—and worse, the design of the Pandorica echoes the design on the cover of a book about the legend of Pandora’s box. (I should note that Moffat played fair with the audience here. Earlier, Amy said that the Roman invasion of Britain was her favorite history topic at school, and Pandora’s Box was her favorite story. The Doctor noticed the coincidence, but got distracted by other things.) In the book, River also finds a photo of Amy, evidently from a fancy-dress party, with Rory dressed as a centurion…
River: “It’s a trap. It has to be. They used Amy to construct a scenario you’d believe. To get close to you.”
The Doctor, recognizing the danger of the TARDIS being at that location, orders River to get out of there, but the strange force again takes control and prevents her from leaving—she can’t even get the doors open. The second major ongoing plot thread of the season comes to the fore as an unknown voice says, “Silence will fall.” We’ve heard of this mysterious “Silence” in “The Eleventh Hour” and again in “The Vampires of Venice”, but exactly what it means is still not apparent.
Now the plot twists come thick and fast. The Pandorica finally begins to open, as some sort of activation signal is broadcast. All of the Romans are revealed to be Autons, plastic replicas of humans with hidden guns embedded in their wrists (last seen in “Rose”, the first episode of the revived Doctor Who series in 2005, although they originally date from the Jon Pertwee era of the early 1970s). In particular, Rory is in fact an Auton, programmed with memories gleaned from some sort of “psychic scan” of Amy’s house (although that doesn’t explain how his memories go all the way up to the real Rory’s death—a small but irritating hole in the plotting). Rory struggles against his conditioning, as Amy finally manages to recognize him: “Rory Williams, from Leadworth. My boyfriend.” In a terrible (by which, of course, I mean beautifully constructed) bit of irony, Rory desperately yells at her to get away from him, but she refuses to leave him. Finally, he can’t stop himself from succumbing to his programming, and firing at her. The whole sequence is probably Darvill and Gillan’s best work of the season so far, culminating with the image of Amy reeling backwards in Rory’s arms.
Meanwhile, as the Doctor is held by the plastic Romans, all the aliens from the ships around the area teleport in to face him. In the final twist, the Pandorica stands open—and is revealed to be empty. It is indeed designed to hold the Doctor, but rather than emerging from it, he is being put into it. This grand alliance of species has been created because they believe that the Doctor is responsible for the cracks which threaten the whole universe, and has to be stopped. The sight of the chamber filled with the crowd of strange creatures is memorable, although the suspicion arises that the aliens we see are just those that happened to be laying around the costume department at the time. The presence of the Silurians, or the Weevils from Torchwood, is otherwise a little hard to explain, and there are no creatures that would require CGI to create, like the lobster-aliens from “The Vampires of Venice.” It was a nice surprise that they got Christopher Ryan from 2008’s “The Sontaran Stratagem” back for a few lines, though.
Matt Smith is superb as the defeated Doctor—strapped into the Pandorica, he sounds weary and exhausted, but at the same time almost proud that all these races are working together, even if it is against him. He tries to convince them that the TARDIS, and not him, is the cause of the disaster (“Total event collapse—every sun will supernova at every moment in history!”) but the Pandorica is closed again and sealed, with him shut inside.
Finally, River gets the TARDIS doors open at last, only to find the exit totally sealed off by a wall of rock. She has time only for a heartfelt “I’m sorry, my love,” before the TARDIS console begins to blow up.
So, to recap: the Doctor is sealed inside an impenetrable prison by an alliance containing every enemy he’s ever faced; Amy has been shot by a plastic replica of her dead fiancé; River is about to die, trapped inside the TARDIS as it explodes; and that explosion leads to the unraveling of the entire universe. In the final shot—almost an exact reverse of the opening shot of the season—we pull back from Earth as all the visible stars silently explode and disappear, leaving the Earth drifting alone through the void. Fade to black.
Now get out of that!
NEXT WEEK: The story continues—somehow… The season reaches its conclusion with “The Big Bang.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: No classic Who recommendation this week. Instead, with this season poised to come to its climax, I’d recommend a look back at the stories of this year to see how they all contribute to this episode (and provide a few clues about what’s still to come).
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.