The fifth series of the re-vamped version of Doctor Who, brought back to the screen to huge acclaim in 2005 by writer and show-runner Russell T. Davies, also represented potentially a new era in the show’s history, with the producer and head writer baton having been handed to Steven Moffat, while a largely new production team took over the reins of the BBC Wales show. Representing the public face of this new era, there was also a brand new Doctor to be introduced – the eleventh incarnation, played by Matt Smith -- and a brand new assistant to share in his adventures. This felt very much like year dot, then, although Moffat actually largely maintained the show’s former approach and style with the same fast-faced mix of comedy, fantasy and mild scares already familiar to fans of David Tennant’s popular Doctor. It became apparent that the real challenge for the new team, actors and producers alike, was the BBC’s new budget-conscious-approach to program-making in the light of the ‘credit crunch’, and the show was faced with maintaining its former colourful image and stylishness on a much tighter budget than Russell T. ever had to cope with. Despite the odd weak episode, the series was largely successful, and benefited from strong lead performances from Matt Smith and Karen Gillan who brought a new energy and likable quirkiness to their roles, and both of whom have proved extremely popular with the show’s audience. Smith has managed to combine a display of youthful vitality and energy with the eccentricity and otherness which has always marked the most popular incarnations of the time traveling Time Lord, and seems to have largely united both younger fans and more mature audiences behind his interpretation of the role. Karen Gillian meanwhile, although sometimes sparking controversy due to Moffat’s more’ adult’ and up-front approach to his characterisation of the relationship between the Doctor and his new assistant, has never been anything less than a delightful presence throughout the series run, as the sparky but complicated Amy Pond. And in the last four episodes of the series, now released in the final volume before the release of the complete set later in the year, Amy Pond’s story at last becomes central, as the ‘crack in the Universe’ thread and its deep connection to her own past comes centre stage in some of the most emotionally mature episodes in the series’ history. In the first episode on this disc, “Vincent and the Doctor”, the Doctor and Amy meet Vincent Van Gough in nineteenth century Provence, only months before he is due to commit suicide at the age of 37. In “The Lodger” the Doctor and Amy are separated and the Time Lord forced to assume the persona of a ‘normal bloke’ in 21st Century Essex -- playing football, watching TV and going down the pub! “The Pandorica Opens” presents the Doctor with his most difficult challenge yet, as he faces the ultimate alliance of former foes and the prospect of the complete destruction of all reality. In the final episode of the series “The Big Bang”, all seems lost. The Universe is dissipating into nothingness. The Doctor is gone and forgotten. Only one little girl holds the fate of all reality itself in her hands.
EPISODE 10: Vincent And The Doctor
During the last few weeks of his life, the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh produced an astonishing seventy paintings, many of which have since gone down as some of the most important works in art history. While showing Amy around the Musée d'Orsay gallery in present day Paris, the Doctor notices a menacing figure lurking in the window of van Goth’s famous painting The Church at Auvers. Realising that this indicates that something is very wrong, he and Amy set off in the TARDIS to track the artist down in the 1890s and find out what was going on. They discover him in the Arles café he frequents, poverty-stricken and mistrusted by the locals, and unable to sell any of his paintings, as usual. The Doctor and Amy manage to befriend the artist though, who seems particularly attracted to Amy and her red hair. On their way back to van Goth’s small house they are made aware that a vicious murder has taken place in the quaint cobbled backstreets of Arles: a pretty young peasant girl has been brutally slain, and the locals look upon van Goth with suspicion because he is a relative stranger in this part of the country. Back at the artist’s dishevelled little hovel, Amy and the Doctor find it difficult to come to terms with van Goth’s disregard for his own works – but he is alive with a belief in the unseen wonders of the Universe and this endears him to Amy, in particular. It soon becomes apparent that his violently mercurial and passionate nature seems to have given Vincent the ability to see things which nobody else can, namely a nightmarish creature which attacks Amy but remains invisible to both herself and the Doctor. Vincent, on the other hand, can see it as clearly as day and is being mentally tormented by the grotesque vision. Aware that this must be the creature glimpsed in the window of the painting back at the gallery, the Doctor encourages van Goth to take a trip to Auvers with his painting materials, where he hopes to confront the monster, promising that they will leave him in peace and be on their way once they have solved the mystery. This is not what the artist wants to hear though: tormented and lonely, he’s near the end of his tether, and the all-consuming depression which is only weeks away from claiming his life is clearly starting to take hold. Can helping the Doctor and being around Amy help him find new meaning in his life, perhaps changing art history forever?
This episode was written by Richard Curtis, he of Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually fame, and like much of his work, the accent is very much on relationships and emotions rather than the standard Doctor Who ‘monsters take over the planet’ plot, even though it seems to start off that way. Curtis, particularly in his films, often seems to deal in overstated sentimentality, but this episode largely works beautifully and becomes a very moving attempt to look at the sometimes inseparable connections between great artistic insight and personal dysfunctionality . The plot involving the creature, which turns out to be a scavenging pack-animal called a Krafayis which has for some reason been abandoned on Earth by its pack, ends up only taking up about twenty minutes of the episode. What really animates and drives Curtis’ screenplay is the idea of a great artist, unaware of the importance of his work, suddenly being made aware of what he will come to mean to future generations. Thus, while Matt Smith gets to do some amusing clowning early in the episode with a ridiculous contraption he digs up in the depths of the TARDIS to make the Krafayis visible to him, the story really comes to life when the Doctor makes the decision to take Vincent van Goth on a trip into the future, taking him forward in time to the Musée d'Orsay, to see the current exhibition of his work there, and to hear the reverence with which it will come to be regarded. Tony Curran, portraying the artist with his own Scottish burr (for this is how the TARDIS translation circuit reproduces his speech to Amy!), does a fine job in a role that obliges him to take the show to places the programme has never gone before quite so explicitly. Suicidal depression is a difficult subject to deal with at the best of times, let alone in a tea-time Saturday children’s Sci Fi series, but it is handled with intelligence and sensitivity here, without coming over as excessively worthy. Karen Gillan is also excellent in this episode, subconsciously mourning the fate of her fiancé Rory in the last episode; even though the spreading cracks in the Universe have erased him from her memory, an echo of her love remains and expresses itself in her distraught reaction to the realisation that, even with the joy and wonder they have managed to bring him, Vincent is still fated to an early death by his own hand. The episode manages to wring some optimism from a fairly bleak subject, and this is probably in the usual Curtis style, but it also fits with the ethos of Doctor Who nicely, and this is one of the best episodes of the series, despite the superficiality of the Krafayis plot-line. Curtis regular Bill Nighy pops up as a gushing art historian and the episode looks rather lovely thanks to some picturesque location work; Croatian cobbled streets and arched squares standing in for 19th century Provence. One has to take the history with a pinch of salt though, since the story plays fast and loose with the chronology of van Goth’s life and the order in which his works emerged, for the sake of the plot.
EPISODE 11: The Lodger
A light-hearted and enjoyable rom-com pastiche takes us up to the two-part season finale, with ubiquitous presenter and comic actor James Corden starring as a normal bloke who finds his drifting, uneventful way of life under threat when a stranger called the Doctor comes to lodge with him in his Essex flat. After being separated from Amy when the TARDIS gets caught in a dematerialisation loop which makes it unable to land, the Doctor, communicating with her via a Bluetooth ear-piece, traces the disturbance which has caused the TARDIS malfunction to a small two-storey flat in Colchester in the present day. Aware that if he makes his Time Lord nature too apparent, whatever has caused the time disturbance might leave the area and become even harder to track down, the Doctor decides to try and blend into the background of contemporary London life and he uses his new flatmate, unambitious call-centre worker Craig (James Corden) as his model of 2ist century manhood, joining Craig’s pub football team and even filling-in at the call centre when Craig falls ill. Meanwhile, neither Craig nor the Doctor realise that the cause of the increasingly disruptive disturbances in the temporal balance are being caused by the emergency holographic programme of a primitive time machine which has crash-landed on top of the house and is being obscured by a perception filter! The ship is programmed to automatically attempt take-off, but must first find a suitable pilot in order to do so. It therefore draws passers-by into the upstairs flat by mimicking a little girl or an old-age pensioner in distress, and forces them to attempt to pilot the craft, discarding and killing them if (as they all do!) they prove unequal to the task of flying a futuristic time vessel. When his best friend Sophie (Daisy Haggard) -- whom Craig has never been able to pluck up the courage to admit his true feelings for – becomes the latest potential victim, it is time for him to clarify what is truly important in his life; to save the entire planet Earth from destruction, Craig might just have to face a few truths and admit his feelings to Sophie as well.
This episode has the unusual distinction of having started life as a comic strip, originally published in Doctor Who Magazine in 2007. That version of the tale featured the tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler’s boyfriend, Micky, sharing a flat together. The strip’s original creator Gareth Roberts has taken the story’s basic idea -- that of the Doctor trying to pass himself off as a normal bloke -- and fitted a new story around it. If anything, the idea works even better for Matt Smith’s incarnation than it does for David Tennant: on the surface, with his floppy fringe and skinny jeans, the eleventh Doctor seems like he should have no trouble convincing people that he’s an average inhabitant of modern-day Essex; the humour of the story mainly comes from its illustration of his enthusiastic but often misguided efforts to blend in. This is an episode in which Smith’s version of the Doctor, with all his awkwardness and his alien otherness, gets to take centre stage; his outrageous nature then gets contrasted with his new flatmate Craig’s indifferent acceptance of the blandness and emptiness of his life. It’s only because of his lackadaisical, live-and-let-live approach to life that Craig is even willing to overlook some of the Doctor’s peculiarities, such as the fact that he offers to pay his rent with a paper bag stuffed full of cash. But as his association with the Doctor develops, he finds his new flatmate’s magnetic personality beginning to displace and oust him from his own comfortable lifestyle and everyday habits.
This becomes a story about being forced to confront one’s own tendency to drift along in life, then, without really thinking about what that entails; but also an anxiety drama about the lack of a defined role for the modern male in 21st Century culture. Craig soon finds that the Doctor is much better than he is at his number one ‘displacement’ hobby, football. The Time Lord joins the pub team and becomes the star player, scoring goals left, right and centre while Craig looks on unhappily. To make matters worse, when he fills-in at Craig’s job for the day, Craig finds that the Doctor has implemented all the changes at work which Craig always talks about but never gets around to, and has become an integral part of the team in the process. He also encourages Sophie to fulfil her dream of working with animals, thus making it more likely that she’ll move away and he’ll have lost her forever. As was the case with the previous episode, the Sci-Fi aspect of the story concerning the crashed time machine is largely secondary to this main character strand -- but it does mean that Smith gets to really shine in the role, with all his quirkiest mannerisms on full display. James Corden is probably the most over-exposed man on British telly at the moment, but he’s more sympathetic than he normally is here, and seemingly quite content to play a secondary role to Matt Smith’ performance, since it is the Doctor who gets most of the laughs throughout the episode. Karen Gillan, though, more or less gets the week off with this one – her contribution being limited to just a few short scenes inside the TARDIS while the Doctor attempts to talk her through the disruptions caused by the other time machine.
EPISODE 12: The Pandorica Opens
This is where Mr Moffat really gets to show us his best moves. In an episode that feels like half-a-dozen season finales crammed into one epic 50 minute extravaganza (but which in reality isn’t even the last episode of the series), the stakes are raised to undreamed of levels in a story that dazzles not just in the masterful way in which it pulls together all the running themes from past episodes and then packs them into a mighty wallop of a twist before the episode’s conclusion, but the sheer intricacy of the puzzle box-like plotting (yes, there are a few credibility short cuts that need to be taken to get it all to work, but give the guy a break – it’s rare you see anything anywhere near this ambitious in modern TV) and the skill with which Moffat juggles several distinct narratives which each have to get to a certain point at just the right time to stop the whole thing collapsing into an unfathomable heap, is a master-class in popular script writing. The final ten minutes of this episode has to rate as the single most suspenseful, emotional and just sheer mind-boggling conclusions to a TV episode I’ve ever seen: Let’s see … by the end of it we’ve seen the TARDIS blown to bits, Amy killed by an Auton replica of Rory, the Doctor entrapped for all time in an inescapable prison by an alliance of every foe he’s ever vanquished in the past, and the entire Universe swallowed up in such a way that it’s not just destroyed, but will never have even existed in the first place! One can just imagine Moff the writer, drunk on his authorial power, suddenly catching himself: ‘Now how do I write my way out of this one!’ Well, somehow Moffat does, in the equally brain-curdling episode 13. But first of all let’s take a closer look at what was clearly the most expensive production of the entire series.
One of the last paintings Vincent van Goth ever created before he died was sealed behind a wall of his house in Provence where it remained until 1941, when it somehow found its way to Winston Churchill in the Cabinet War Rooms. Realising that this painting is a message for the Doctor, Churchill attempts to contact his old friend on the emergency communications line previously used to bring the Time Lord to war-time London, but he is re-routed to River Song in the 52nd century, who promptly escapes the storm-cage facility and sets out to steal the painting which is now kept in the Royal Collection on the Starship UK, presided over by her Royal Highness Liz 10. Stealing a Vortex Manipulator, River leaves a message for the Doctor scrawled on a cliff-face said to feature the oldest recorded example of the written word in the entire Universe, so that when the Doctor takes Amy to see it, he finds River’s catchphrase, ‘Hello Sweetie’, and some coordinates for the TARDIS to follow, instead. The Doctor and Amy find themselves in Roman Britain, near Stonehenge in the year 102 AD. Here they find River posing as Cleopatra and waiting for the Doctor to turn up so that she can finally deliver van Goth’s message: the painting, entitled ‘The Pandorica Opens’ appears to show the destruction of the TARDIS, but it also contains coded instructions that lead the trio to an underground vault at Stonehenge, where they discover the fabled Pandorica box – said by legend to be a prison, built to contain the most feared being in the Universe: ‘a warrior soaked in the blood of a billion Galaxies’. But this was surely always just a fairy-tale. How could it be here? And, more importantly, what is inside? The Doctor discovers that the box is actively transmitting a message as it prepares to open, which is attracting every foe he has ever faced, from Daleks and Cybermen, to Sontarans, Judoon and Weevils. Amy finds herself confronting danger in the form of a rogue Cyber-head that is intent on finding a new owner and, inexplicably, coming face-to-face with the dead fiancé she had forgotten ever existed: Rory has somehow become a 2nd Century Roman centurion. As a mysterious force takes control of the TARDIS and leads it (along with River Song) to Amy’s house on the eve of her wedding day, the Doctor finds himself the victim of a cunning manipulation forged from Amy’s childhood memories and daydreams.
With a truly epic, cinematic sweep and one of Murray Gold’s most magisterial scores for the programme, this is event television at its grandest, not just in terms of spectacular images, such as the Doctor on horseback, galloping towards Stonehenge; or the underground vault with the vast Pandorica cube contained within it (scenes which do come over all “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, it has to be said); or even the final line-up of all the Doctor’s greatest enemies as Gold’s most elegiac music cue ascends to almost ironically romantic raptures: -- but just in the sheer audacity of the ideas at work here this feels like one of the biggest episodes the series has ever attempted, with literally everything threatened. Erroneously believing that the Doctor is responsible for the TARDIS exploding and thus causing the cracks in the skin of the Universe which are destroying reality bit by bit, his enemies have banded together to imprison him for the rest of eternity, unaware that in doing so they are bringing about exactly what they hoped to avoid. Fairy tales and the tension between reality and fantasy have been the dominant themes in the majority of the stories this season, both on the personal level with Bracewell, the Dalek automaton in episode three “The Victory of the Daleks”, struggling to hang on to his human memories in order to deactivate the in-built bomb his creators have planted inside him; the Auton replica of Rory, programmed by the Nestene Consciousness to kill on command, but so completely imbued with the heart and soul of Rory that his love for Amy has made his fabricated humanity become a sort of reality. Then there was the Dream Master and his reality manipulations constructed from the Doctor’s dark side. The whole arc of Amy Pond’s story has been founded on her steadfast belief as a child in the reality of ‘the raggedy Doctor’ she once met, and the fierce independent spirit her determination to hold onto this ‘fantasy’ has bred in her. Amy is to once again become the main focus of events as the series comes to an end with the fate of the entire Universe placed in young Amy’s tiny hands. After the huge visual and emotional impact of this episode, there would seem no way for the finale to top it. But Moffat instead opts to end the series with a much ‘smaller’ episode in terms of spectacle, but where the emotional connection between the central characters is everything.
EPISODE: 13: The Big Bang
Little Amy Pond believes in stars. Her guardians are worried for her mental health, for of course there are no such things. Everyone knows that the Earth has always existed in a void, the heavens completely empty and dark except for the Moon and a fiery Sun-like object that sustains all life on the planet. One day a pamphlet for a National Museum exhibition is mysteriously stuffed through the letter box with instructions attached for Amy to visit a particular exhibit. She and her Aunt duly turn up at the museum; but the history of the Earth seems to be all wrong, with Dinosaurs inhabiting arctic conditions and penguins native to Egypt. Amy drags her Aunt to the exhibit she has been instructed to visit: a huge stone cube called The Pandorica, which is said to be centuries old. It has a hastily scrawled yellow post-it note attached with the words ‘stick around, Pond’ written on it. Amy loses her Aunt and waits until nightfall before examining the cube in more detail. When she touches it, a circular panel lights up and the device starts to open, and out of it emerges … Amy’s grown-up self!
Back in 102 AD, Amy is dead in the arms of Auton Rory. A future version of the Doctor appears wearing a ridiculous fez and carrying a mop and tells Rory that he can save Amy by releasing the Doctor from the Pandorica and putting Amy’s body inside instead. He hands Rory his sonic screwdriver and instructs him to put it inside Amy’s jacket pocket once he’s used it to free the Doctor. This he does, and the released Doctor realises that in his future he must have used River Song’s Vortex Manipulator to travel back and give Rory this message. The Doctor tells Rory that the Pandorica preserves whatever it contains in its optimum state, for not even death can be allowed to escape this prison -- so putting Amy inside should eventually restore her. But it will take a long time, and Rory vows to stand guard over the Pandorica for as long as it takes, while the Doctor straps on the Vortex Manipulator and jumps to 1996 to instruct the young Amy to visit the Museum so that a sample of her DNA can be used to restore her grown-up self when she touches the outer panel of the ancient cube. In 1996 the Doctor is re-united with the two Amys and Rory, but he is concerned about the escalating collapse of the Universe. Because the Earth is at the centre of the TARDIS explosion, it has been the last part of reality to collapse, but it is disintegrating as they speak, and soon nothing will be left of it at all. The light from inside the Pandorica which escaped when it released Amy has re-activated one of the stone Daleks which were found with the Pandorica (the fossil footprints of all the creatures who never existed as the cracks in the Universe expanded). The Doctor realises that the same restorative field which saved Amy can also be used to ‘re-boot’ the Universe itself in the Big Bang 2, because the original atoms which have been preserved inside the box hold a trace memory of the Universe as it existed before its destruction. By piloting the Pandorica into the heart of the TARDIS explosion – which is happening at every point in history simultaneously – he will be able to broadcast the restorative field to every point in the Universe, sealing the cracks and re-creating reality as it previously was. The only problem is that he himself, being at the heart of the Pandorica, will have ceased ever to have existed, unless he can plant the seeds of a story, a legend, a fairy tale in little Amy’s consciousness – for whatever can be remembered … can come back!
While the previous episode had been an exercise in creating a’ wow factor’ with a huge special effects-laden cinematic-looking spectacle, and a plot that set up a number of seemingly impossible conundrums, this second part of the finale revels in Moffat’s penchant for tricksy time-travel manipulations and brings the series fairy tale theme to fruition as the Doctor makes himself into a fictional story to save the Universe, planting the seeds of a memory inside Amy which only comes into sharp relief on her wedding day when the phrase ‘something old, something new, something borrowed something blue’ reminds her of the TARDIS. The whole solution hinges on an impossible time paradox, with the future Doctor only being able to rescue himself in the past because he was rescued in the past by himself from the future, and the episode has a lot of fun with these sorts of paradoxes all the way through. Arguably, Moffat can get away with this sort of cheat because the Universe is collapsing and the normal rules of reality along with it, and in any case: ‘the Universe is big and absurd and sometimes miracles happen.’ It’s notable though that even by the end we still don’t have the answer to a number of questions, like: what force took control of the TARDIS and how was the time machine made to explode in the first place? And who is River Song, really? This is the first time the series has left such major plot threads dangling for a future series, and seems to mark a much more long-term and intricately thought-out attitude to continuity. It’s nice to see the young Amy back in this episode, excellently played by Caitlin Blackwood; hopefully she will be appearing again in the future. Once again the cast impress in selling an extremely complicated plot dealing with some fairly grandiose ideas: the notion of Rory as a Roman Centurion who guards Amy in the Pandorica for two thousand years is a great faux legend, but it takes all Arthur Darvill’s considerable acting skills to sell it and bring emotional weight to an idea that could have just seemed rather silly. Moffat manages to re-create the Universe, finally marry Amy and Rory, give Amy some parents for the first time and bring the Doctor and the TARDIS back to reality all in the space of 50 minutes; and it’s done with such emotional, action-packed, deftly plotted confidence that one can’t help thinking the series can only go on to greater things in the future.
These four episodes make up the last volume of series 5 and come with another instalment of ‘The Monster Files’, this one concentrating on episode 12’s monster-mash, with contributions from the main cast and Steven Moffat who talk about the logistics of bringing so many villains to the screen in one episode and the reasons for choosing those which were eventually highlighted. The featurette runs for ten minutes.
Once again, the episode transfers look terrific and the Dolby 2.0 sound is very good. “Doctor Who” has come back reinvigorated and refreshed this year. Budget cuts have been obvious on the screen but the performances of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan have undoubtedly made the show more compelling than ever and Steven Moffat’s imagination continues to astound. These four episodes represent the series at its strongest and are a bench-mark for development which I’m sure will be met, with yet more ingenuity in series six.