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Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 13, “The Big Bang”

Who expected the end of the universe to be so much fun?

Doctor Who Recap: Season 5, Episode 13, The Big Bang
Photo: BBC

“Okay kid, this is where it gets complicated.” Given the way things stood after last week’s cliffhanger, it was obvious that “The Big Bang” would have to be quite a different kind of episode from “The Pandorica Opens”, but I doubt anyone watching would have guessed just how different it would be. Writer and showrunner Steven Moffat keeps the threat level set to “universal,” but the canvas of the story radically shrinks to contain just our regular characters—the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill), and River Song (Alex Kingston). It’s the most intimate of apocalypses—for a large part of the episode, there simply is no one else on screen. Or off it, for that matter—the rest of the universe is gone, reduced to a memory; and indeed, as I highlighted last week, memory turns out to be the crux of the story. It’s also the story of the Doctor repairing the damage he caused to Amy when he first met her as a child, when he flew off in the TARDIS promising to return in five minutes, and didn’t come back for twelve years. It ties up the whole season excellently—though not without leaving a couple of threads dangling, to be taken up next year—and gives us the first completely happy season ending for the new Doctor Who.

A montage from “The Pandorica Opens” brings us back to that tremendous cliffhanger, with the Doctor sealed away in the Pandorica by a grand alliance of all his foes, Amy having been shot dead by a plastic Auton replica of her fiancé Rory, and the TARDIS exploding with River Song inside, causing the entire universe to unravel and dissolve into nothingness. Whatever viewers were expecting to happen next, it’s unlikely to have been what we actually see… a caption saying “1,894 years later.” It seems like we’re starting the season all over again with the opening moments of “The Eleventh Hour”, as seven-year-old Amelia Pond (Caitlin Blackwood) prays to Santa to send someone to fix the sinister crack in her bedroom wall. But now, things are different; this time, there’s no TARDIS falling from the sky to crash-land in her backyard. In fact, the night sky is totally empty apart from the moon; Amelia makes paintings of stars which no one has ever seen, and her aunt Sharon worries about her growing up to join a “star cult” (“I don’t trust that Richard Dawkins,” she says, hilariously). But then a museum flyer carrying a handwritten message—“Come along, Pond”—is slipped through her door, leading to Amelia dragging her aunt off to the building where the huge black Pandorica cube is exhibited, looking as ominous as it did the last time we saw it when the Doctor was imprisoned within it. Amelia hides until the building is empty, then goes up to the Pandorica and touches it. In response, it slowly opens—to reveal Amy, very much alive, whose first words are the line I’ve quoted at the top of this recap. As the opening titles crashed in, I realised my jaw was literally hanging open—I can’t remember the last time a TV show took me by surprise like that.

Who expected the end of the universe to be so much fun? The first half of the episode is a dazzling exercise in plot pyrotechnics, as the Doctor uses the vortex manipulator acquired by River Song last week to zip back and forth through his timeline and set up both his escape from the Pandorica and Amy’s survival and eventual reappearance in the box. This had the potential to be utterly confusing for the audience, but Steven Moffat has a genius for writing these jigsaw-puzzle plots—as he has shown not only in his Doctor Who work, but also in Jekyll, and even in some episodes of his sitcom Coupling. Here, the pieces may arrive in a mystifying non-chronological sequence, but it’s always eventually clear how everything connects up, thanks to the use of props such as a mop and a fez to make it clear where the Doctor is in his personal timeline. Also, sequences that initially appear without context (like the Doctor’s initial appearances to Rory) will be at least partially repeated once their proper place in the timeline arrives, just to make sure everyone keeps up.

Provided you accept the paradox of a circle of cause and effect, with no beginning or end (an idea Moffat also employed in “Blink”), the cliffhanger resolution—Rory releases the Doctor from the Pandorica with the sonic screwdriver, which the Doctor then goes back and gives to Rory so he can release him—works very well. Of course, there’s always a danger with this sort of “cheating” that the question of why the Doctor doesn’t do this all the time will arise. Moffat at least tries to address this with a line to the effect that this sort of pinpoint time-jumping is only possible now that the universe is a considerably smaller place. For in another twist, the entire alliance of aliens from the climax of the last episode turns out to be a huge red herring; the Pandorica chamber now contains only a few remnants, frozen in stone form:

The Doctor: “History has collapsed. Whole races have been deleted from existence. These are just like afterimages, echoes. Fossils in time, the footprints of the never-were.”
Rory: “Uh… what does that mean?”
The Doctor: “Total event collapse. The universe literally never happened.”
Rory: “So how can we be here? What’s keeping us safe?”
The Doctor: “Nothing. Eye of the storm, that’s all. We’re just the last light to go out.”

There are lots of clever, inventive moments in passing, like the Doctor realizing he doesn’t have the sonic screwdriver any more, having given it to Rory back in 102 AD, so he pops back to tell Rory to put it in Amy’s coat pocket after using it, returns to 1996, calmly retrieves the screwdriver from Amy’s coat and moves on. In the course of joining up all the events we’ve already seen, there’s even room for some farce-style comedy: Amelia tugs at the Doctor’s sleeve and demands a drink because she’s thirsty, because earlier in the day someone plucked her drink out of her hand while she was looking at the Pandorica, so the Doctor jumps back to that moment, steals her drink, returns and gives it back to her. And just as in “The Eleventh Hour,” Caitlin Blackwood gives a wonderfully natural and believable performance as Amelia; she’s certainly one of the best child actors ever to have appeared in the series.

The only gripes I had with this part of the episode concerned some of the set-up for Amy’s survival. The idea that the Pandorica has the ability to keep its occupant in stasis (“This box is the ultimate prison—you can’t even escape by dying”) is reasonable enough, but it should have been established previously—an uncharacteristic lapse from Moffat, who is usually meticulous about setting up his plot elements in advance. More importantly, last week it seemed quite clear that Amy had been killed; now we’re told that she’s only “mostly dead” and that the Pandorica can hold her and use a “scan of her living DNA” (provided, of course, by Amelia’s touch 1,894 years later) to restore her. The Princess Bride reference is cute, but doesn’t make up for retconning the cliffhanger as brazenly as any old-fashioned movie serial.

Amy’s story does, however, provide the central character focus for this part of the episode. Rory decides he must stay with the box and guard it through the centuries. The sight of him in his Roman garb, left silently sitting by the Pandorica as the Doctor departs for the future by the quick route, is a memorable image (as with last week’s episode, Toby Haynes’ direction is exemplary throughout). Moffat seems to have a fascination with exploring the concept of romance across time—see “The Girl in the Fireplace”, “Blink,” and most importantly River Song’s temporally mixed up relationship with the Doctor. Here, when Amy awakes there’s a lovely scene where she finds a display in the museum telling the story of the Lone Centurion and his mission to guard the Pandorica, and this proof of Rory’s devotion to her results in her final commitment to them being a couple—something which the season has been working toward since “The Vampires of Venice”. When Rory meets up with her again they’re immediately in a passionate lip-lock, as the Doctor looks on impatiently. (“And… breathe! Well, someone didn’t get out much in two thousand years.”)

Despite the impending universal oblivion, the predominant tone of the episode so far is comedic, with many funny lines and bits of business along the way. Some favorites, in no particular order: “Come along, Ponds!”; Amy figuring out what year she’s in by checking her younger self’s height and hair length; the Doctor trying to work out what to do with the fez he’s accidentally grabbed, before just plonking it on his head; and the one that makes me laugh every time, when Amelia demands a drink while Amy and Rory are kissing in the background, and the Doctor says, “Oh, it’s all mouths today, isn’t it?” and shoves the fez onto her head so it comes down over her whole face. When Moffat is firing on all cylinders, as here, he seems incapable of writing a dull moment.

A certain level of menace is provided by one of the stone Daleks, which, having been hit by the “restoration field” from the open Pandorica, comes back to life and starts trundling around the museum after them, but what really brings the comic shenanigans to an end is one final time-jumping sequence. A duplicate Doctor, injured and dying, from twelve minutes in the future suddenly appears and collapses in front of them, and young Amelia silently disappears from the story, wiped from existence.

Amy: “But how can I still be here if she’s not?”
The Doctor: “You’re an anomaly—we all are. We’re all just hanging on at the eye of the storm, but the eye is closing and if we don’t do something fast, reality will never have happened. Today, just dying is a result!”

The scope of the story expands again on the roof of the museum as the Doctor goes looking for his TARDIS, and finds it… in the sky. The idea that the exploding TARDIS serves in place of the sun in this alternate reality is not only a fine piece of Big Ideas storytelling, but also neatly plugs what would have been an obvious plot hole—namely, how humanity could possibly have survived if no stars ever existed in this universe. The Doctor also detects a voice coming from the “sun”—River’s last line from the previous episode: “I’m sorry, my love”—and realizes that the TARDIS has protected River by sealing off the console room in a time loop. I suppose this is as arbitrary a solution to River’s cliffhanger as the revival of Amy was, but as a long-term fan it’s one I’m more inclined to forgive because throughout the classic series, the TARDIS had a long history of capabilities that got conveniently introduced to serve the plot of one story and were then rarely (or never) mentioned again.

The Doctor uses the vortex manipulator again to retrieve River. It’s been interesting to observe the Doctor’s increasing warmth toward River over the four episodes she’s appeared in this season. Certainly the banter between them when he turns up in the TARDIS (“Hi honey, I’m home!” “And what sort of time do you call this?”), and the way they materialize arm-in-arm back on the roof, is as relaxed as they’ve ever been. I also loved the way she and Amy intuitively teamed up to destroy the fez (“What in the name of sanity have you got on your head?!”). But when the Dalek finally catches up to them and fires at the Doctor, badly injuring him, he disappears twelve minutes into the past, and River demonstrates a side of herself we haven’t previously seen. Furious, she squares off against the Dalek and prepares to kill it while it’s gathering power for another shot.

River: “I’m River Song. Check your records again.”
Dalek: (beat) “MERCY.”
River: “Say it again.”
Dalek: “MERCY.”
River: “One more time.”
Dalek: “MERCYYYY…”

When she rejoins Amy and Rory and they ask what happened to the Dalek, she just says flatly, “It died.” The idea of River being able to make a Dalek beg for mercy moves her several notches up the scale of awesomeness, and I’m looking forward to finding out how she got that reputation, and how it ties in to what we discovered in “Flesh and Stone” about her being in prison for killing “a good man”—who may or may not be the Doctor. But that’s for later; right now, Amy and Rory discover that the “dead” Doctor’s body is no longer where they left it.

Amy: “But he was dead.”
River: “Who told you that?”
Amy: “He did.”
River: “Rule One: the Doctor lies.”

Cleverly, the injured Doctor was using his earlier counterpart and his companions to distract the Dalek while he got on with fixing the real problem. They find him slumped over inside the Pandorica, having wired the vortex manipulator into it in order to carry out his plan, which is to fly the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS. The Pandorica, being the ultimate inescapable prison, carries within it a memory of the old universe, and this, together with its restoration field, will be propagated simultaneously to every point in history by the explosion, thus producing “the Big Bang, mark two” and restoring the old universe. It’s a solution which kinda, sorta, maybe makes sense if you squint and resolutely refrain from examining it closely, but the amount of handwaving involved may surprise some viewers, who might have been expecting something from Moffat with more science-fictional rigor. This season finale resolution is very much of the same type as those we’ve seen previously from Russell T Davies, where the real significance lies not in how the particular plot problem is solved, but in the effect of that solution on the Doctor and his companions. In “Journey’s End”, for instance, the threat of Davros and the Daleks is dealt with quite perfunctorily, but the consequences of the events, especially for Donna, are profound.

Over and over again in interviews, Moffat and his fellow executive producers used the phrase “dark fairytale” to describe what they were attempting to achieve in this season. Indeed, this final story is the best example of Doctor Who moving away from science fiction and into a realm of Terry Pratchett-like fantasy. Events on Pratchett’s Discworld are heavily influenced by “narrativium”—the shape of a story can force things to happen, rather than the other way around. Here, the power of memory is able to restore to reality things and people which have been lost to the cracks in the universe. (Amusingly, Terry Pratchett wrote a column for SFX back in May, where he praised the series for its entertainment value, but bemoaned the fact that it is still generally considered science fiction. Naturally, one British newspaper couldn’t resist spinning this into PRATCHETT ATTACKS ‘LUDICROUS’ DOCTOR WHO, considerably overstating the case.)

The Doctor’s final scene with Amy before he puts his plan into action is an emotional high point, brilliantly played by both Matt Smith and Karen Gillan as well as being beautifully directed. With the greenish light from the Pandorica interior making even his youthful features look haggard and wan, the Doctor resumes the conversation they were having last episode before they were interrupted by a Cyber-attack:

The Doctor: “Amy Pond. The girl who waited. All night, in your garden. Was it worth it?”
Amy: “Shut up. Of course it was.”
The Doctor: “You asked me why I was taking you with me, and I said: no reason. I was lying.”
Amy: “It’s not important.”
The Doctor: “It’s the most important thing left in the universe. It’s why I’m doing this. Amy, your house was too big. That big, empty house. Just you.”
Amy: “And Aunt Sharon.”
The Doctor: “Where were your mum and dad? Where were they? Everybody who lived in that big house?”
Amy: “I lost my mum and dad.”
The Doctor: “How? What happened to them? Where did they go?”
Amy: “I… I don’t…”
The Doctor: “It’s okay, it’s okay. Don’t panic, it’s not your fault.”
Amy: “I don’t even remember…”

With the gentleness that seems to have become a central facet of this Doctor’s character, he steers Amy to the realization that the crack in time in the wall of her bedroom has been eating away at her life for years, removing even the memory of her parents. But the upcoming “big bang” will give her the chance to restore them, just as her memories effectively restored Rory after they were used as the basis for constructing his Auton duplicate.

The Doctor: “Just remember, and they’ll be there.”
Amy: “You won’t.”
The Doctor: “You’ll have your family back. You won’t need your imaginary friend any more.” (beat) “Aha. Amy Pond, crying over me, eh? Guess what?”
Amy: “What?”
The Doctor: “Gotcha.” (The Pandorica closes.)

With that final echo of their first sparring in “The Beast Below,” and a last message of GERONIMO, the Doctor launches the Pandorica into the explosion. The huge explosion reverses itself as the universe gets back on track, and the cracks start closing. But now the Doctor no longer belongs in this universe, and his timeline is unravelling. He starts to rewind through his recent adventures—after a brief stop in the TARDIS, he finds himself back in a suburban street just after the events of “The Lodger”. He sees Amy and calls out to her, and realizes that she can hear but not see him. This leads to his ingenious, last-ditch plan to save himself, and the most cunning of all Moffat’s connections between this episode and the earlier ones. When “Flesh and Stone” aired, I (and many others) noticed an anomalous scene in the forest, where after the Doctor has left Amy behind to go off with River and Father Octavian, he suddenly turns up again and talks to Amy with an entirely different demeanor. Now we finally get the context for that scene—it’s this Doctor, traveling backwards through his timeline, speaking to Amy, taking advantage of the fact that Amy has to keep her eyes closed (to avoid activating the Weeping Angel which is within her at this point). It was a particularly clever trick of Moffat that the Doctor so emphatically tells Amy she has to remember what he told her when she was seven, which led to much speculation about what precisely we had seen in the Doctor’s interaction with Amelia in the first episode that could be so significant. We had no way of knowing then that deducing the significant thing was impossible, because we hadn’t actually seen it yet; the crucial thing the Doctor wants Amy to remember is what we are about to see him tell her.

The unravelling continues, and finally delivers the Doctor to Amelia’s house on the fateful night in “The Eleventh Hour.” Out in the yard, little Amelia has fallen asleep on her suitcase, having waited in vain for her friend to return after five minutes as he promised. Gently, the Doctor picks her up and takes her back to her bed. And now, a moment of pure magic, as the Doctor simply sits down and addresses the sleeping girl with a valedictory speech that is both brilliantly written and superbly delivered:

The Doctor: “It’s funny… I thought if you could hear me I could hang on somehow. Silly me. Silly old Doctor… When you wake up, you’ll have a mum and dad, and you won’t even remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. That’s okay. We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? ‘Cause it was, you know. It was the best. A daft old man, who stole a magic box, and ran away. Did I ever tell you I stole it? Well, I borrowed it—I was always going to take it back. Oh, that box. Amy, you’ll dream about that box. It’ll never leave you. Big, and little, at the same time. Brand new and ancient, and the bluest blue ever. And the times we had, eh… would have had. Never had. In your dreams they’ll still be there. The Doctor, and Amy Pond. And days that never came.”

In moments like this it’s incredibly hard to comprehend that Matt Smith is still not yet 28. His control of his performance is such that he can perfectly evoke this old, old man who has experienced hundreds of years, and now knows his time has run out. (And, of course, it’s typical of Moffat’s—and the Doctor’s—cleverness that hidden within this emotional climax are the key words that will trigger the Doctor’s return.)

Deciding that there’s no point in holding out any longer (“I think I’ll skip the rest of the rewind. I hate repeats”), the Doctor finally accepts his fate, and walks toward the crack in the wall. As he disappears, so does the crack, and the music (which has been wonderfully effective throughout this episode, but particularly in the second half) underscores a lovely transition from a view of the night sky—showing that the stars are back—into morning, the morning of Amy’s wedding.

Karen Gillan subtly indicates how Amy is different in this new, restored timeline. She is still a strong personality, but the brittleness and tendency to flare up at the slightest provocation are gone. The momentary disorientation she experiences when she wakes up to discover that her parents have been restored to her life would have caused the old Amy to be instantly suspicious, and probably snap at Rory on the phone, instead of bantering with him. Amy truly has now been healed of the damage accidentally inflicted by the Doctor all those years ago.

We cut to the wedding reception, where Amy’s happiness at listening to her father bumble through giving his speech is cut short by the sight of River Song—dressed in mourning black—walking past outside. She has left her diary for Amy, and the sight of the book—its pages now all blank—triggers her memories.

Amy: “I remember! I brought the others back, I can bring you home too. Raggedy man, I remember you and you are late for my wedding!!”
(Glasses rattle as a wind starts up. The chandelier starts to swing.)
Amy: “I found you in words, like you knew I would. That’s why you told me the story—the brand new, ancient blue box. Oh, clever, very clever.”
Rory: “Amy? What is it?”
Amy: “Something old. Something new. Something borrowed. And something blue.”

What a punch-the-air moment. I’d almost be prepared to believe that the realization—that the old traditional wedding rhyme was also a perfect description of the TARDIS—came to Steven Moffat first, and he then worked out the rest of the season to lead up to this moment. At any rate, the TARDIS materializes, and the Doctor steps out, cutting a dashing figure in his white-tie wedding finery. From this point on it’s all celebration as the Doctor enthusiastically joins in the dancing (remarkably badly) and contemplates the happy couple (“Two thousand years; the boy who waited. Good on you, mate”). The sight of a relaxed Amy laying back in her new husband’s arms and laughing at the Doctor’s dancing is a fitting conclusion to the emotional journey that she and Rory have taken through this season.

Things only turn serious again when the Doctor heads back to the TARDIS. River is there, and he gives her back the diary (“The writing’s all back, but I didn’t peek”) and the vortex manipulator. They share a teasing exchange, full of implications for the future:

The Doctor: “Are you married, River?”
River: “Are you asking?”
The Doctor: “Yes.”
River: “Yes.”
The Doctor: “No, hang on. Did you think I was asking you to marry me, or asking if you were married?”
River: “Yes.”
The Doctor: “No, but was that yes, or… yes?”
The Doctor: “River… who are you?”
River: “You’re going to find out very soon now. And I’m sorry, but that’s when everything changes.” (She disappears)

Alex Kingston and Matt Smith have shown such great chemistry this season that I almost don’t want their relationship to change, but it seems that the Doctor’s growing ease around River will soon be shaken up. Doctor Who has never really done multi-season arcs before, but the true identity of River Song is one thread that is being explicitly held over until next year. The other one is the question of what’s going on with the Silence—the mysterious disembodied voice that proclaimed “Silence will fall.” As the Doctor says, “The TARDIS exploded for a reason. Something drew the TARDIS to this particular date and blew it up. Why? And why now?” Back in “The Eleventh Hour,” Prisoner Zero told the Doctor: “The universe is cracked. The Pandorica will open. Silence will fall.” The first two of those have now been dealt with, and apparently the third will be the big bad for next season.

But for the moment, we end on a note of happiness, with the cracks in the universe repaired, and the Doctor and his newlywed companions taking off on a journey which we’ll rejoin at Christmas. For the first time since the new Doctor Who series started, there are no cast members departing at the end of the season. Overall, despite a few humdrum episodes (mainly in the first half), it’s been a very successful year, for Steven Moffat and especially for Matt Smith, who quickly moved out of the shadow of David Tennant and established his own interpretation of the Doctor. You don’t see many people worrying about him being too young for the role any more. I can’t wait to see where these guys take us next.

Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: “Pyramids of Mars,” starring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. If pressed to nominate one favorite story from the classic series, I’d pick this one. It’s drenched in period atmosphere, and the acting from the whole cast, especially the regulars, is top class. And it’s also the only other Doctor Who story to feature a fez. Fezzes are cool.

For more Doctor Who recaps, click here.

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