[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.]
So after all the anticipation, the Pandorica opened on Saturday night?
What was in it? Well, I can’t tell you, can I? That would be completely spoily.
What was my reaction? I can’t tell you that, either. Because I don’t know.
It’s impossible to say much about the episode without including some spoilers, so I’ll include my usual disclaimer that some spoilers follow. But I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, and in particular I won’t say what’s in the Pandorica. [Note: if you usually read directly from an RSS feed, you might want to click through for this one: I use white text to hide some minor spoilers, but of course RSS doesn’t make it white.]
More than any other New Who episode I can think of, Pandorica felt like part one of a two-part story — lots of setup with little payoff. While an episode like The Empty Child obviously finished on a cliffhanger, and left lots of questions unresolved, to be answered in The Doctor Dances, it nevertheless felt like a complete episode in its own right. By contrast, The Pandorica Opens feels more like the opening section of an Old Who four-parter: lots of ideas laid out, lots of mysteries depicted, and some hints given; but little in the way of explanations.
It’s odd that I feel this way, because when I mentally review what does get explained in this episode, it’s actually plenty: the message in the painting, the secret of the Roman soldiers, why it’s significant that Pandora’s Box was Amy’s favourite story when she was growing up, and the truth behind one other important plot point that I thought at first had been completely muffed, but which was actually treated bravely. (I can’t tell you what it was because doing so would itself be a spoiler, but if you want to highlight the white text that concludes this paragraph, you’ll see that what I’m referring to is Rory’s otherwise all too convenient and inexplicable reappearance.)
So given that, in fact, so many threads were satisfactorily resolved, why did the episode feel disjointed, foundationless, ultimately unsatisfying? Well, it’s like this: here in rural Gloucestershire, we are currently enjoying the two to three weeks of nice weather that constitutes what we laughingly call “summer”, so Fiona and I have been eating outdoors a lot, mostly light salads. Last night, I fancied a seared salmon salad, so I threw something together: a simple green salad base, made with lettuce, cucumber and spring onions with finely sliced sun-dried tomatoes, lightly dressed with a little mayonnaise and some caper vinegar, and with some walnut halves mixed in. On top went the quick-fried cubes of salmon, rare in the middle but slightly burned on the outside, and a few capers.
As Fiona will be the first to tell you, I am not the kind of chap to blow my own trumpet, but I conservatively estimate that it was the single finest salad in the history of western civilisation. The walnuts were a masterstroke, because their texture so perfectly complemented that of the salmon. But what I left out was crucial: celery, for example, and apples, and peppers. Now you can make very fine salads with those ingredients, but they would have been completely wrong for this one. I hope no-one will mistake this for arrogance, but getting that salmon salad right was all about taste, about judgement; about restraint, even.
[My salad didn’t look a whole lot like this one, but this is at least in the right spirit, even if the details are all different.]
The opposite of this, of course, is the throw-it-all-in-a-bucket salad, where you just use everything and hope for the best. It pains me to admit it, but a fine example is the pasta salad that Fiona made for herself this evening, which contained both tuna and chicken. And cheese. (Please don’t think too harshly of her: in other respects she is the most perfect human being even to walk on God’s green earth, excepting of course that she knows nothing about resource locking.)
Now Russell T. Davies was of course an inveterate Tuna, Chicken and Cheese Salad kind of showrunner, and quite unashamed about it. It was only a fortnight ago that I berated him for exactly this, quoting this passage from his fascinating book The Writer’s Tale:
“Instead of all those months of thinking and consideration, rewriting somebody else’s script is more like plate-spinning — keeping lots of things in the air, making them look pretty, hoping that they won’t crash. In an emergency, I throw lots of things in there — soothsayers, psychic powers, prophecies, funny squares of marble — and hope that I can make a story out of them as I go along, like an improvisation game. […] The psychic powers are caused by the dust, which is the aliens, and the aliens are thwarted by the volcano erupting, etc, etc, etc. Ram them all into each other. It’s […] a car crash! Fun, though.”
– Russell T. Davies, 12 August 2007 (p. 177)
And until recently we would all have said that Steven Moffat was a Seared Salmon Salad guy: most of his stories have been carefully constructed — quite deliberately painted with limited palettes. And, come to think of it, that metaphorical statement has also been reflected literally, in the look of the episodes: Blink is a perfectly honed clockwork mechanism built on a superbly conceived “trap” monster, and its look reflects that with cold, hard, dark blues and greys; The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is built on a single, rather brilliant, conceit, and the look of the episode is consistently subdued, gloomy with muted browns.
But maybe it’s easier to keep to that kind of disciplined writing when you’re only responsible for one story a year. Now that Moffatt is in charge of the whole series, and has written six of the thirteen episodes, he seems to have succumbed to at least the early stages of Russell T. Davies Tuna-Chicken-And-Cheese-Salad Syndrome (which I will hereafter abbreviate as RTDTCCSS). The Pandorica Opens seems to lose its way not so much because it wanders from the path, as because it’s following so many paths at once — something demonstrated most notably in the way that the final scenes set up three simultaneous cliffhangers for the three protagonists (the Doctor, Amy, and River), who by this point have been separated.
We all know how Davies’ sequence of season finales kept turning the volume up louder and louder until we could hardly hear anything. Season One’s finale had Daleks, so of course Season Two’s would be even better if it had Daleks and Cybermen. Season Three’s would be even better if the Master not only threatened to kill millions of people but actually did so (except that they all got better at the end). I thought Davies had missed a trick in not having the Master plan to destroy the whole universe rather than just Earth, but of course Season Four’s finale was even better because Davros’s plan was to destroy not just the whole universe but all possible universes. As is so often the case when extreme is piled on extreme, the first victim is subtlety (Journey’s End was like vindaloo sushi), the second is coherence, and the third is memorability. I don’t think it’s coincidence that I can easily remember pretty much all the key plot beats from Bad Wolf/Parting the Ways but almost none from The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. (And don’t even get me started on The End of Time. Seriously.)
Less Is More is not just an arty soundbite. Less means that what remains, after the extraneous has been cut away, can be seen, felt, understood, savoured. Adding honey to a pork roast might enhance it, if it’s done well; adding honey, raspberry jam, balsamic vinegar and meringue will not.
So, although I was mightily relieved that (white text follows) the Pandorica didn’t contain Daleks, I still felt that their inevitable appearance in among the Cast Of Thousands cheapened them, while also obscuring the core issue that was going on at the time. Lots of spaceships are not in themselves more exciting than one spaceship.
[Note that this picture of Too Many Spaceships also features, appropriately enough, a horse’s arse.]
Also: I am getting increasingly irritated by the collection of mannerisms that passes as characterisation for River Song. I don’t know how much to blame the writing for this, but Alex Kingston’s acting is certainly not helping matters. On the positive side, she does help to highlight just what superb performances Karen Gillan is putting in week by week. My goodness, that girl can act. Whatever else critical opinion eventually decides about Season Five, she should most certainly get a Bafta or six.
Well. All of this is much too harsh on what was at the very least an enjoyable romp, as well as setting up what I hope is going to be a sensational finale. I suppose I am just disappointed because I’d had such very high hopes. And The Big Bang has quite a lot of work left to do in order to justify them.
Still, there’s a lot to be tied up, and I am already getting impatient to see how it’s done: how will the Doctor get out of REDACTED? Will River regain control over REDACTED? Is Amy really REDACTED? And whatever happened to the real REDACTED? Will Jackson Lake have a part to play, as sort-of-predicted a while back? Who is the REDACTED? And, most important of all, will REDACTED be able to REDACTED before the REDACTED goes completely REDACTED?
Finally, let me remind you, gentle reader, that although I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this article, I can’t make any guarantees about what others are going to say — so expect spoilers in the comments. In fact, I might make a few spoily comments myself.
Update (23 June 2010)
I’m re-watching The Pandorica Opens in preparation for The Big Bang, and I just noticed something I should have noticed before: when the Doctor and Amy walk into Cleopatra’s tent and Cleo turns out to be River Song, she says her “Hello, Sweetie” catchphrase, and Amy very casually says “River, hi.” River doesn’t react with “And who might you be” or any other such response — as should ought to, given that this is the first time she has met Amy from her perspective (although of course the second time from Amy’s perspective, as The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone was earlier in her personal timeline). We know that for River the events of Pandorica predate those of Angels, because at the end of Flesh and Stone she looks back on the Pandorica episode.
So: somehow, the River Song in The Pandorica Opens is already familiar with Amy. But how? If may of course just be a continuity foulup, but that would be disappointing and surprising. Could it be that the River Song posing as Cleopatra is from after the Angels adventure? But in that case, how did she know about the Pandorica at the end of Flesh?
The only completely consistent explanation would be that River meets Amy a third time, still in Amy’s future but, from River’s perspective, before either the Angels incident or the events of The Pandorica Opens. When? Maybe we’ll find out next week. I also noticed Amy asking of Stonehenge “How come it isn’t new?”. Will we see Amy and River back in the far past witnessing the erection of Stonehenge? (Stop sniggering at the back.) Something about Amy’s question struck me as significant.
I don’t know; but I hope there’s a clever solution, i.e. not just They Got It Wrong.