Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

Everyone has their bugbears. Reset switches are one of mine. When it comes to writing, I always figured Undo and Delete were for the stuff you don't want ending up in the story. Unfortunately when time travel is involved, there seems to be a temptation to throw bigger and bigger wham-bam dramatic oh-my-god-how-will-they-get-out-of-that events at the screen because whatever happens can simply be undone.

The writers even seem to be labouring under some delusion that it's clever. And yet it's more often than not exactly what it looks like at the cliffhanger stage: a dramatic dead end. They've painted their central characters into such a corner that the only way out is to reverse out of the cul-de-sac. And they seem to convince themselves that the way to improve upon this formula is to raise the stakes. The bigger the catastrophe, the bigger the drama, right? Well, no. The bigger the catastrophe, the Bigger the Undo. Hence, the bigger the catastrophe, the harder it is to care about the outcome.

The Doctor Who TV Movie left me singularly unimpressed for a number of reasons (although I quite liked McGann's performance and loved the TARDIS set design), chief among them was the way in which the end of the world was undone with the TARDIS rolling back time. That and two companions brought back from the dead. Clearly, no series arose from that pilot because the addition of this handy feature to the time capsule's capabilities rendered any subsequent adventures pointless.

If that's how time and space work in your fictional universe, one may as well travel in dreams or virtual reality, since although characters remember the experience, there's precious little difference between events that didn't really happen and events that are just going to unhappen.

Sadly that TV Movie has become the template for season finales, coupled with an obsessive compulsion to go bigger and 'better' each time. Threat: millions of Daleks. Solution: Rose 'Holy Ghost' Tyler and her mass-disintegration and resurrection schtick. Small potatoes. Threat: millions of Daleks and Cybermen. Solution: handy Invasion Reverse lever. Still, for all its convenience there was a cost: poor Rose was cast into a parallel dimension, lost forever. Well, until she came back. Next up, we had the Earth completely subjugated by the Mad Master and his Amazing Levitating Balls. But luckily Doctor Dobby was able to transform into a more helpful floaty Messianic being who could roll back time just like a TV Movie TARDIS. (Ironically, a miracle achieved by the power of storytelling. Ha.) Next, Rusty has the Daleks relocate the Earth to a remote part of the universe. There's plenty of other guff going on, but naturally the Earth has to be returned to its rightful place and in fine TVM tradition this is achieved by adding another absurd capability to an already ridiculously comprehensive and drama-cheapening TARDIS spec. Planet-towing. And they used to worry that K9 made things too easy for the Doctor. Finally – thank God – we had a sort of Being John Simm scenario plus the return and unreturn of Gallifrey, handily rectified by some thoroughly unconvincing gubbins that I couldn't care enough about to remember the specifics. I recall a gun being fired, followed by a nauseating twenty minute pre-regeneration goodbye.

With the bar set so high, how in the name of Rassilon was the Grand Moff ever going to top that lot?

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about his two-part season closer - The Pandorica Opens/Big Bang - is that he tried. Frankly, I would have been a happier bunny if he had diverged from the template altogether. If he had, I could have dispensed with all this comparison, for starters. But context insists on playing its part.

Clearly any two-parter will consist of setup and resolution. Too frequently, it's more a case of setup and upset and the scale of disappointment is usually proportional to the scale of the setup. If a Part One has done its job well, it will have built up the drama, the suspense, the expectations etc, so that it's more full of promise, Eastern or otherwise, than Turkish Delight.

The Pandorica Opens is damn near perfect in that respect and boasts enough key differences to overcome some worrying commonalities it shares with a Rusty finale.

The pre-credits sequence is a joy, treating us to cameos in an inventive and meaningful way that feeds us into the story as well as celebrating some of the season's best characters. (Contrast this with the overblown appendix to End Of Time – the aforementioned nauseating departure sequence, because, let's face it a simple touching farewell – a la Green Death, say - is just not good enough for a guy so central to the universe. There was at least one person I know of who was checking his watch and asking, “Aren't you gone, yet?”) In the opening of The Pandorica Opens, we're treated to a brisker procession through the Moffat character archives and one that amuses and entertains rather than makes me want to throw up.

A clever little temporal line is deftly traced from Van Gogh through to Churchill and Bracewell to River Song and her very own 'Great Escape'. Liz Ten practically had me standing and singing the national anthem. Well, okay, it was more of a simple “Yay!” but she is one of those magical characters where great writing, the right actress and a sparkling performance all combine brilliantly. Moffat, I'd argue, has a gift for writing 'female Doctors' – which is what Liz Ten, River Song and even Amy Pond are, to varying degrees. It's a good job Matt Smith is so charismatic and likeable a Doctor, otherwise he'd have a tough job getting noticed when these other characters are on the screen. Credit where it's due, he and Gillan are a key contributing factor in why I didn't hate this season ender.

They – both their characters and their performances – along with the best ratio of good stories to duds we've seen since Doctor Who's 21st century return earned a lot of goodwill. What's more, despite the clumsily chucked-in prophesy in The Eleventh Hour, the cracks in time, the threat of Silence (it feels like it should be capitalised) Falling and all that have featured sufficiently prominently in a number of stories to develop a genuine sense of intrigue and a worthwhile mystery in a way that scattered references to Bad Wolf in Season One didn't.

Thus, there was more eager interest and anticipation for me, going into this finale, than I'd felt for a loooooong while. And, quite crucially, I cared about the outcome.

And as the first episode drew me in, continuing to impress and surprise (and, by the way, I had to applaud the Hitch-Hikers homage with River's message on the mountainside), I was given no reason to doubt it would deliver on that promise.

On a very basic level, the choice of setting – Roman Britain – lends it a different feel to a Rusty finale from the get-go. Naturally, as soon as we get the Cleopatra name-drop, we know it's going to be River. But I'll be honest, I never thought the shadowy legionary would turn out to be a resurrected Rory.

Interestingly, this rang the first real alarm bell. Since he was killed - and erased from all time - in Cold Blood, I was dreading a Big Undo and here, apparently, it was. Dead major character, brought miraculously back to life. Yawn. Crafty Moffat even plays on that, with Rory having no idea how it happened, no explanations are offered and it's all attributed to, well, a miracle. The truth, when it hits, is a master stroke.

Before that we're treated to a refreshingly measured and suspenseful build-up as our heroes investigate the shadowed vaults under Stonehenge. It's creepy and atmospheric and surprisingly patient in terms of pace. The presence of the Cyberman throws in a perfectly timed and exciting setpiece, with the parts coming to life – particularly the head scuttling about spider-fashion, like a machine re-enactment of The Thing, and the skull inside – making the Cybermen as genuinely scary on screen, for the first time, as they've always been in my imagination. And throughout it all, we're kept on edge by the central question of what is in the box. In Pandora's original, all that remained inside was hopelessness. Five years of Rusty finales had primed me for disappointment. One year of Moffat's who had reintroduced the concept of optimism. What would this deliver? Will it be the 1p or one of the Banker's power five?

Moffat precedes the reveal with a dose of Rusty-ish excess. Correction, he sees Rusty's excess and raises. Cybermen vs. Daleks, pah! The Master conquers the world? The Daleks steal the Earth? The return of Gallifrey? You might think that's big, but that's just peanuts to The Pandorica Opens.

What do you say to death of the TARDIS and River Song, the killing of Amy Pond, the Doctor imprisoned in the trap set for him by an alliance of aliens straight out of a Doctor Who Monster Book and the end of the universe? How'd you like them apples?

There can be no denying the dramatic impact of such a multiple whammy ending. It is, however, a curious double-edged thing.

Like the Monster Alliance itself, it cuts two ways: on the one hand it's big and bold and appeals to the child in every fanboy heart (what kid didn't imagine or even write a story that united a compendium of their favourite monsters against the Doctor?); on the other, it's big and dumb and makes a joke of the Doctor Who universe, the notion that all these races would band together in such an involved and convoluted plan is a bit silly. On the other hand – if I might allow myself a third – the fanboy in me was more disgruntled that they went and mentioned Draconians and Zygons and failed to include them in the monster assembly. No fair.

Alongside the wow or ooo-er factor, whatever you want to call it, there's more of those alarm bells. Surely the only way out of this is a rewind. In an effort to outdo his predecessor, has Moffat upped the ante too far? Amid all the galaxies winking out and the Earth left alone in darkness, the most powerful element of that episode conclusion for me was the emotional battle fought by Auton Rory and the killing shot still sends cold shivers through me. A potent reminder that small is beautiful. And you wonder, could that sound effect be the report of Moffat shooting himself in the foot?

When, in an earlier moment, the Doctor is confronted by a host of alien ships in the sky above, he resorts to the increasingly tired ploy of driving them off with his reputation. And what I really wanted to see at that point was for all the ships to open fire at the end of his grandiose speech and see that plan backfire for the first time. That would have been priceless. However, although we're robbed of the comedy, we are then shown that the alien menaces only withdrew for the purposes of their trap. So in that sense, Moffat once again proves his ability to undercut our expectations.

So I could take some encouragement from that and look forward to the closing episode with some confidence.

Does he disappoint? Well, as with Time Of Angels/Flesh And Stone the answer is Yes and No. In other words, in many respects it's perfect, despite its flaws.

The critical flaw is that it is a massive Reset. A far bigger Undo than it is a Bang.

On the plus side, for the most part it's fabulously low-key. In Rusty-eval times, we would have seen the excesses of the previous episode ramped up for the final part. More monsters, greater absurdities and, er, more universes ended - I'm not quite sure, but he would have managed it somehow. Here, Moffat takes it down a notch or several. For actual enemies, the Monster Alliance is gone and there's just the one Stone Dalek. Which, forgetting that it doesn't make any sense – why would races wiped from existence persist as stone relics? – is a great idea in terms of pure imagination.

What it is, is the stuff of fairy tales. And that is the realm in which we find ourselves.

Are we sitting comfortably? Then I'll explain.

It takes us back to the beginning, where Once Upon A Time there was a little girl praying to Santa and a mad, raggedy Doctor crash landed in her garden and changed her life forever. That scene establishes this season's fairy-tale credentials and it's entirely fitting that we find ourselves back in that territory for the ending. Amy's the Cinderella, the Doctor is her Prince, Rory is Buttons and River Song is, um, the Fairy Godmother, I suppose. There are no Ugly Sisters because this is TV and only glamorous people need apply. But tenuous analogies aside, it's the tone that counts. 'Wibbly wobbly timey wimey' has become something of a catchphrase, courtesy of Moffat's accomplished story, Blink, and he evidently regards it as a magical, wonderful thing, something to be waved about playfully like a wand. The idea that, as long as you remember someone, you can bring them back is plainly a nonsense, even when 'supported' by some questionable Doctor Who pseudoscientific mechanics, but it is perfect fairy-tale fare. The emotional aspects of it are handled with that in mind and, for the most part, are pitched beautifully – less drawn-out and less desperately hammered-home than we're used to, and that degree of restraint - and, at times, understatement - is a blessing. Even the Doctor's farewell speech to a sleeping Amelia is fairly gently done and is a further credit to Matt Smith's very likeable Doctor. It persuades me that I will be sorry when he eventually goes, although of course we knew damn well that wasn't going to happen here. A fairy tale – especially a Steven Moffat fairy tale – is going to have a happy ending.

It's only a shame that it's all a bit too Happy Ever After for my liking and could have done with being a bit more Grimm.

Although there's no denying the cleverness of the timey-wimey weaving going on – including discreetly embedded clues, like the jacketed Doctor having a quiet word with Amy in Flesh & Stone, and thematic pointers like Amy's Protest or Forget choice in The Beast Below – it's in some ways too clever for its own good.

It furnishes us with too neat and far too tidy a conclusion for my liking. Not satisfied with zero dramatic cost, Amy ends up ahead with a gain of two parents. The price? She gets to watch the Doctor's embarrassing-dad dancing at her wedding reception. Don't get me wrong, I found that hilarious – this episode was loaded with great comedy. Even the Bill And Ted-ish time-shenanigans offered some amusement, despite being rather hackneyed by now, and it wouldn't be the first time the Doctor extricated himself from a difficult fix with a comic turn. But the main problem I found with it, was that it does kind of make a joke of the ominous cliffhanger in Part One.

As is entirely customary with Doctor Who, in other respects it's not nearly clever enough. While part of me gazes on in wonder, the other part is brimming with questions and niggles. I'm sure there's some wand-wave explanation in there, but to my mind when you put a dead person in stasis it keeps them dead. Also, it takes the gift of River Song's little blue book (“something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”) to jog Amy's memory, so we must assume that, despite all the blank pages, River recalled the Doctor and events with sufficient clarity to remember to present Amy with the book – and yet her memories weren't enough to bring him back. To say nothing of why she kept a blank journal with a distinctive TARDIS-motif cover, or are these things freely available from gift shops and if so where can I get one?

But any further focus on the quibbles would paint a misleading picture of my overall impressions, which were on balance positive. In the midst of it all, there was a lot of terrific stuff – Amy meets Amelia, the Stone Dalek, Rory's vigil (a touching twist on Marvin the Paranoid Android's long service as a Milliway's parking attendant in The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe), River Song, that bedside farewell from the Doctor to Amy. Just, oh, lots and lots.

Time is relative and so are season finales. To say this was the best season ender of 21st century Who would be faint praise, but equally it's no understatement. It's a well-crafted piece of writing within it's inherited framework. It pushes all the right emotional buttons, rather than thumping the console repeatedly in order to get a response. It does everything right... except perhaps the story.

Like the season as a whole, what the Grand Moff Steven delivered wasn't radically different to what we got from his predecessor, but the differences were enough to restore my optimism. For the most part, he knew which parts to keep, which to play around with and what new things to bring to the mix. Among them, a degree of restraint and subtlety. And through the eyes of Amelia Pond and a charming avuncular young Doctor, he breathed fresh life into the show, making it feel magical again.

It's only a shame, as I say, that, out of admiration for the supercalifragilistic something-quite-atrocious finales of previous years, he felt the need to fence himself in with that same kind of framework. He's proven his ability to toy with and undercut audience expectations and some borrowing from the past is both inevitable and often desirable, but as for impossible odds and dramatic back-pedalling or the Big Undo, please, it's time to seal that particular evil in a box and if that minx Pandora comes anywhere near it with a glint of piqued curiosity in her eye, somebody shoot the woman. We can do without having that unleashed on the Doctor Who universe ever again.

By all means, give us more timey-wimey - since Mr Moffat clearly delights in playing his temporal games - but less of the wibbly-wobbly, if it's not too much to ask. What we've seen over the past thirteen episodes – well, ten of them anyway – are some key steps in the right direction and I've thoroughly enjoyed this series as a result. Next, let's see some bolder, braver strides and see where that takes us.

For the first time since we've had Christmas specials, I'm already looking forward to the next one – Orient Express (In Space)? - and please oh please let the “Your Majesty” the Doctor referred to be Liz Ten! Listen to me, I sound like a fan again.

Meanwhile, the sad fanboy in me will be over there remembering Draconians and Zygons on the off-chance that will do the trick of bringing them back.