The whole season’s been building to this. That is, of course, not unusual for a season of Doctor Who, but "The Pandorica Opens," the first part of this season’s two-part finale, immediately emphasizes the pattern underlying the whole season with its opening scenes. It returns to Van Gogh, still tortured and dreaming of a shattered TARDIS, then to Churchill’s war rooms, then River Song’s prison and, finally, the Royal Collection and the Queen. It all hangs together pretty well, too. Moffat hasn’t been subtle about suggesting he was telling one big story all along, but the reminders of the design bring home what a careful job he’s done. And by episode’s end he’s pulled off another trick: showing it’s all part of an even bigger story, one taking place behind the scenes all season and leading the Doctor to a trap.
As I’ve written each time we hit a two-parter, it’s not easy to assess a story when it’s only half-told. But my only fear at this point is that the payoff of next week’s “The Big Bang” will somehow disappoint the clever set-up here. Even if it does, Moffat’s first season will still be quite an accomplishment. Not only has it cleverly constructed a big, impressive, galaxy-spanning story, it’s also teased out a the nature of stories themselves. The characters in Doctor Who do what they do because Moffat and his writers tell them to, of course, but much of the season has concerned the way the stories we treasure, and return to, and tell ourselves help shape our lives as well. Most literally, the Doctor and Amy fall into a trap made irresistible because it draws on preferences and interests Amy has held since childhood. But Amy’s life is story-shaped in other ways. A childhood encounter with a magic man left her dreaming of the stars and waiting for fairy tales come true. On Starship UK the citizens live a lie they renew each year in their own self-interest. Stuck between two stories, James believes Daisy will recognize his love for her if he just waits to let it happen but also believes he’ll never find love because women never go for chubby, couch-favoring types. And so on.
The Doctor falls victim to a story as well, one about how he’s destined to destroy the universe. It’s a strong enough story to unite all his enemies in a scheme to bring him down. It’s clever the way it all comes together. But cleverer still is the fact that the Daleks, Cybermen, etc. all think they’re the heroes of the story, saving existence from its destroyer. “I hate good wizards in fairy tales. They always turn out to be him,” River says. I thought that was foreshadowing. Now I think she had it flipped on its head.
Not that the Doctor doesn’t try to play the part of the good wizard this time. That scene of him standing in the middle of his enemies, and standing them down—however temporarily—with just vague threats that call on memories of past defeats, surely goes on this season’s highlight reel.
I welcome the return of River, too. It’s good to have her out and about, causing trouble with her hallucinogenic lipstick and posing as Cleopatra. But the most poignant—and cruelest—return belongs to Rory, who turns out not to be Rory at all. Just a simulation accurate enough to stir Amy’s memories of her past love and enough like Rory to fight against his programming as one of the Cybermen in disguise. Those whirring noises, and his inability to silence them, added to the heartbreak of their scenes together. I always suspected Rory would return. The real Rory might still, but I like the bittersweet, then tragic, quality of this mechanical reunion.
Then again, maybe nobody will come back. Amy looks dead. The TARDIS appears destroyed. And the Doctor’s in a trap designed to hold a destroyer of universes. See you next week and we’ll talk it over.
• Even in the home stretch, no spoilers for next week’s episode, please.
• Neat that they got to film at Stonehenge, too, isn’t it? I can’t think of anything else shot there since Roman Polanski’s Tess.
• The scene where Amy tangles with the Cyberman head is one of my favorite moments from this season. It’s simple. It’s all practical effects, essentially a single prop. And it’s really scary.