The end is nigh!

The end, that is, of this series of Doctor Who, which aired the first part of its season finale last night and which concludes next Saturday, bravely facing all sorts of sporting distractions (World Cup and Wimbledon) in the crowded summer schedules.

This series has had to reboot the Doctor Who franchise after the departure of its star and most of the production team, and the transition has been a slightly more tricky, problematic affair than we would have hoped. Some of these problems were external, such as the visibly reduced budget seriously affecting the on-screen effects; the notorious arrival of a cartoon Graham Norton at the worst possible moment; and the scheduling, which saw the show go out at a different time every week. Mostly it’s been pushed into the 6pm zone by various reality or sports programmes – too early for families to be back and settled to watch television, especially during May and June when it’s too too light and warm to be indoors for a TV programme that early. Alas, once again it seems that BBC are heading down the road of slowly throttling to death one of their leading franchises – history repeating itself. (Ratings are down dramatically – until you factor in all the time-shifting options such as BBC3 repeats and iPlayer views, at which point the series is just about holding its own with past years.)

But some of these problems have been internal as well. The show has been frustratingly inconsistent, the tone and style changing so drastically week on week that an educational show on Vincent van Gogh touching on suicide and depression gets followed next time around by a romantic flatshare sitcom played strictly for laughs. Of course, Doctor Who is famously the show with the series format that can “do anything”, but to try such handbrake turns every single week runs the risk of leaving the show looking confused and not sure what it’s trying to do. Russell T Davies, for all his faults, always had a very clear grip on the tone and style of the programme, so that within that consistent overarching style it was possible to accommodate wide variances; but this season has been all variance, no consistency.

Contains some mild spoilers of the first eleven episodes:

  1. The Eleventh Hour – covered in full in a previous blog post, and still an extremely strong debut for the new Doctor, even if you get an early sense that it feels that the groundwork its laying for the rest of the season is far more important than the episode itself. Some of the best details – the creature that can be only seen out of the corner of your eye, the chilling barking man – are far more interesting than the rather tepid Men in Black/Independence Day main plot.
  2. The Beast Below – some interesting themes but ultimately too much of a riff on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta to succeed in the way that it hoped. The voting booth and the Doctor’s rush to a lobotomy solution rather than fully considering the options feel like some very unsubtle points being hammered home.
  3. Victory of the Daleks – some great early scenes then unravel into possibly the worst story of the season. The episode seems to exist entirely to relaunch and redesign the Daleks (did they need it?), and otherwise the story just peters out and resorts to a Spitfire dogfight in space and a lame bomb defusing plot to distract from the lack of any real substance.
  4. The Time of Angels – the return of the fabulous Alex Kingston as River Song, the return of the wonderfully creepy Weeping Angels, and great atmospheric settings make this one of the series’ unreserved highlights.
  5. Flesh and Stone – some more great work (Amy having to traverse a forest full of Weeping Angels with her eyes closed; Iain Glen’s “you’ve known me at my best”) is undermined by the intrusion of the series arc’s “crack in space and time” as the main plot device and then the tonally very odd bedroom scene with the Doctor fighting off Amy’s advances.
  6. Vampires in Venice – vampires should have been so promising, so how do they end up being lame CGI fish monsters? Again, the details (the wonderful Countessa and her creepy son; the arrival of Rory into the team) overwhelm a lame story, and the final CG effects of the Doctor climbing a clock tower are dire.
  7. Amy’s Choice – something of a bottle show, with a wonderful performance by Toby Jones, a jaw-dropping redressing of the Tardis set, and a fun concept of killer zombie pensioners. Mostly successful despite a lack of real danger, but it still seems more interested in the Amy/Rory detail and the main threat proves to be some errant pollen, which is rather a letdown.
  8. The Hungry Earth – the Silurians will be known only to die hard Who fans, so the story opts to basically tell their origin story all over again. But by limiting this to a small Welsh village and just four humans in the guest cast it lacks the epic sense of anything really important happening. Its slow pace is good for atmospherics, but makes the story feel underdeveloped.
  9. Cold Blood – part 2 of the Silurians story proceeds exactly as you’d expect, right up till the final scenes which are a series of genuine shocks relating to the overall season arc. Once again, the arc developments overwhelm what was supposed to be the main story.
  10. Vincent and the Doctor – an extraordinary change of pace for the series, with the alien menace almost irrelevant as the focus is on Vincent Van Gogh. Presumably intentionally, Vincent becomes the Doctor figure (his costume even evokes David Tennant) and the Doctor himself gets sidelined. You’ll either love or hate the final scenes with the soft rock montage and Vincent in the modern day – it’s utter tosh, but it gets a tear in my eye every time all the same.
  11. The Lodger – you have to be in the right mood to enjoy this “Doctor Who Behaving Badly” sitcom pilot, but no question that it’s done very well and there are some great fun moments. But once again, the normal Doctor Who “A” story – the alien in the attic – is treated as an aside, quickly defeated in the last few minutes by a kiss. Despite invoking startling Tardis technology, the alien ship then disappears, unexplained. Frustrating.

With so much of the season to date having been affected by all the groundwork for the season arc, it places almost impossible weight on the final two-part story which began last night with The Pandorica Opens. If it works, then it re-writes your feelings about the entire season to date and justifies all those times the series seemed to be losing its focus; but if it doesn’t, then the season finale just cements the view that the series has just ever so slightly lost its way.

If you haven’t seen the episode yet, then look away now. Only spoilers lay ahead. You are warned!

A few minutes into The Pandorica Opens and your hopes are raised. The feel of the opening sequences of this episode is quite extraordinary, the closest that the series has ever achieved to producing a genuine cinema feature film. And if you’ve stuck through the series wondering whether it was all hanging together, then the cameos of characters from past episodes (Queen Liz, Winston, Vincent) make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. By the time River Song makes another brilliantly memorable entrance (on the phone to Winston Churchill!) you’re convinced that this episode could indeed be something extraordinary.

And the episode progresses, and still more stuff tumbles out: the Doctor, Amy and River on horseback, an arguably unnecessary scene – but how it adds to the movie feel. The Roman centurions. The Stonehenge setting and the fabulous conceit of the hidden passage under the stones – stuff that children’s dreams and more than a few successful film franchises like Indiana Jones and National Treasure are made of.

Then voices over the radio of just about every foe that the Doctor has ever faced. Of course, this cavalcade of monsters will never actually show up, there’s no way that they could deliver that sort of spectacle. Right? Right?! And the remains of a damaged Cyberman, proving (rather like season 1’s Dalek) that sometimes a single monster can be more chilling than legions of the things.

And all the time, in the middle of the room, the titular prison box is opening up. You see the mechanism moving, levers falling into place, connections being made. It’s a wonderful physical manifestation of what’s happening in the plot itself, as suddenly all those many details that have been seeded throughout the season suddenly start to click into place as well. By the time the Pandorica opens, so may things have been revealed and slotted into position that the effect is almost electrifying – it’s as though you’re watching history suddenly rewriting itself to make sense at last, reshaping itself and reality before your eyes. The sensory rush for the loyal fan who has stuck with it and paid attention is the nearest thing to a cocaine high that you can get from the arts.

As the episode ends, with everyone dead, stars going nova and the Earth going dark and silent, there is no question about whether this episode has worked. It’s not even enough to call it “extraordinary” – that line was crossed way earlier in the running time and then the episode still ploughed even further ahead. This has indeed been up there with the very best that the series has ever produced; and that it couldn’t have happened without the proceeding eleven episodes, even if it means they were flawed and frustrating, throws a totally different light on the whole season.

Of course, there is still the small matter of the actual season finale in six days time. The Big Bang has an almost impossible task, to try and “follow that” and if can’t then this could yet all turn to dust. And yet for the first time, you feel that that moment has been well and truly prepared for, and that the episode won’t be a case of “sorting out the mess” (as has seemed the way with some previous season finales) but is in fact the very heart of the whole purpose of the season; that even as it appeared to be resolving old plot points, The Pandorica Opens was actually urgently laying a wealth of totally new ones. What Stephen Moffat has in mind to end this season I really don’t know; but I’m now completely sold on the idea that he has a plan and that it’s falling into place with the clockwork precision of the most immaculately crafted trap there has ever been.

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