[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]
I wanted to blog about The Big Bang the moment it finished — I felt electrified, and wanted to let it all pour out — but the way things fell out, Andy Murray’s match against Gilles Simon started just as The Big Bang ended, then I watched the extra time at the end of the USA-Ghana World Cup match (commiserations to US-based readers, I was supporting you guys). Then I had to reboot my son’s iPod (which crashes if you try to play an MPEG layer II file on it, if you can imagine anything so lame), then I had to clear up the detritus of dinner, unload and reload the dishwasher and all. So it’s only now — four hours after the end of the program — that I’m free to write.
Has the glow faded?
Heck, no. I have never enjoyed an episode of Doctor Who so much: never before laughed out loud so many times at the sheer audacity of it, never before marvelled so delightedly at the show’s virtuosity. I loved, pretty much literally, every minute. Right now, what I want to do most of all is watch it again (and indeed I have a torrent running in another window as I’m writing this).
Admittedly I’m not 100% sure that it all quite made sense. And some of the deliberate attempts to make us feel the emotion of the moment were perhaps a little hamfisted. But I can forgive those flaws very easily because of the sheer headlong rush of brilliant moments: not “brilliant” merely in the sense of “very good”, but more specifically sparkling, incandescent, glittering; to use a Whedon Word, shiny.
I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for a time-travel paradox, always have been: but I’ve never before seen paradox piled on paradox like this, and never seen them played for laughs in this way. And I don’t mean that in a sense that trivialises the weighty matters that the plot concerns — I mean laughs that emerge organically, one might even say spontaneously, from the characters, and most especially the character of the Doctor.
The story didn’t develop in at all the way I’d envisaged: the Axis Of Evil that had gathered for the climax of The Pandorica Opens wasn’t seen again, whereas I’d expected them to play a huge part. This was A Good Thing: going down unexpected routes is always more interesting, and abandoning the actual Bad Guys in favour of a plot-and-paradox episode made this season finale very, very different from those that have gone before. Be honest: don’t The Stolen Earth, The End of Time and The Last of the Time Lords sort of blur together in your mind? There’s no way anyone’s going to be confusing The Big Bang with any of them. What we ended up with was a sort of character-driven clockwork plot with added bonus running-down-corridors (albeit much more beautiful corridors than we’ve been used to seeing): an episode quite unlike any that has gone before, while still fitting perfectly into the series’ overall character.
Oh, and so many individual marvellous moments: the surprise when the Pandorica re-opened in the present day, the sequence in which the Doctor repeatedly popped back 2000 years to give instructions to Rory, the reappearance of the Doctor-in-his-jacket scene from Flesh and Stone, the world without stars that has an exploding TARDIS for a sun … Really, it was one thing after another.
And perhaps what’s most impressive is that, for all the time-travel/rewriting paradoxes, the core strand of the story held enough coherence and momentum to tie it all together — so that, for example, my 12, 10 and 7-year-old sons could all pretty much follow that was going on and why. I’m not going to say that I fully understand all the strands of alternative timelines, and how various changes in the past switched between those various futures: at the moment, I don’t. But I understood enough to keep surfing the wave of events.
(And I will understand it fully: I’m going to watch again, think it through: and I’m confident that Moffat, just as he did with Blink, will have tied it all together in a neat little bow. We’re all going to be finding links and in-jokes for some time yet — I am really looking forward to reading other reviews of The Big Bang in part for this reason.)
Another reason I’m keen to see other reviews is of course to find out whether the world agrees with me. I can easily see this finale splitting the audience into lovers and haters and not much in between. One of the interesting things about this season is that episodes that some people love seem to get very different responses from others, and vice versa: for example, between us it seems that Gavin Burrows and I have both loved and been unimpressed by pretty much every episode — it’s hard to find a single one where our opinions match. (That’s within the broader picture of both of us generally being very enthusiastic about the season as a whole.)
In my very positive review of The Lodger, I said that “If I try to analyse why I love Doctor Who in a way that I don’t quite love even manifestly superior shows like Veronica Mars, it might come down to its sheer ambition”. That goes double for this finale episode. It does a hundred things where other shows would do two, or perhaps three. Its scope is both epic and intimate, its lead character is both a fool and a genius, its monsters are both terrifying and comical, and of course it’s a show for both children and adults. If most good TV shows are perfectly formed but easily digested, like the Beatles’ She Loves You, this is more like Genesis’s Supper’s Ready somehow condensed down into a three-minute single: a heady brew, rich, complex, sweet, sour, searing hot and freezing cold. It leaps effortlessly from scenario to scenario and somehow — somehow! — ties it together into a coherent and consistent whole.
So farewell to Season 5; and, for now, to Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. It’s been a wild ride. I am not 100% sure yet that this is my favourite season of the revived series — that honour might still reside with Christopher Eccleston’s season, the first — but I can tell you right now that Smith has firmly established himself as my favourite Doctor: thoughtful, insightful, inspired, vulnerable, compassionate, insensitive, endlessly curious: in short, Doctorish to the core.
So The Big Bang is an instant classic and a fitting finale.
Special bonus wonderful moment
Rory’s rather plaintive realisation, “I’m plastic”, very much lost in the aural background during the wedding reception. Loved it. And loved how they just threw that line away.