Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Big Bang

doctor who the big bang matt smith karen gillan caitlin blackwood pandorica moffat haynes review

You know this is all just a story, don’t you? You know there’s no such thing as stars.

It’s more of a piece with The Pandorica Opens than it seems, of course. The Big Bang seems small by comparison to its predecessor, almost, but it’s full of that same inventiveness and confidence: the National Museum makes for a nice parallel to Stonehenge, the epic reduced to an archaeological curiosity in the face of the apocalypse. (Toby Haynes is still evoking the same Indiana Jones aesthetic as last week, but it’s more the epilogue to Raiders of the Lost Ark than the opening this time.) There’s something quite haunting about the Dalek, last week representing an unprecedented danger, reduced to nothing more than a shadow of a fossil in the face of a much grander existential threat.

Again, much like last week, this is a very polished affair: it’s as much a showcase for Toby Haynes as The Pandorica Opens was, and it’s easy to see why he was invited back first for A Christmas Carol and then again for the Series 6 opener. His direction is rarely ostentatious, but always evocative: the contrast between the green/blue light of the Pandorica and the orange/red lighting of the sunrise towards the end looks really, really good. (Haynes does a lot of nice, understated work with the lighting throughout, getting a lot out of the condensed daytime conceit – it’s subtle but atmospheric, giving the episode a sense of momentum and escalation without drawing attention to it explicitly.) There’s a real flourish and panache to this, making it an almost singularly impressive episode: it’s not necessarily the best of the Moffat era, but it’s surely one of the most satisfying to watch.

Which as much because of the writing as the direction, of course. It’s smart and funny (again, you can trace a lot of this back to Moffat’s sitcom work) and bold; even eleven years later, it still feels just as new and exciting as it did the first time around. You get the sense that “Something old, something new. Something borrowed, something blue” is an idea Moffat had been holding onto for years, maybe even building the entire series around it – surely the only reason it can’t be traced back to an old usenet post like A Good Man Goes to War’s origin of the word “Doctor” is because he was holding onto it so closely? Rightly so, in any case: it’s one of the most sweeping, triumphant moments of the series.

What The Big Bang is ultimately about, in the end, is healing – the universe isn’t just reset, it’s restored, and so are the characters. It’s what Amy does for the Doctor, remembering him back to life, and it’s what the Doctor does for Amy too.

Not, crucially, by bringing back her parents – she does that on her own, more or less. No, it’s returning to her wedding, in full view of everyone, representing years of doubts dismissed all at once: Amy’s imaginary friend always was exactly as real as she said. (There’s a callback again to the pain of The Eleventh Hour – “the psychiatrists we sent her to” – before that full circle moment, and it’s telling that we see young Amelia go through a version of that at the start of the episode.) That’s the real triumph and catharsis of that moment – not the Doctor surviving, because we always knew he would, but validating Amy once and for all.

They both share the same moral throughline, one that stretches back to The Beast Below and forward to Extremis, to declare without compromise the chance to tell a better story – because if it’s all a story in the end, why not make it a good one? It represents a breath-taking rejection of cynicism, in the end, an effortless dismissal of the sort of dour realism that would insist on misery and preclude something like this: insisting on stars. (In amongst all this there’s a nice resonance with The Doctor Falls, and what was almost the Twelfth Doctor’s final words: “Pity. I hoped there’d be stars.” It’s unlikely a conscious parallel – just the sort of echo you get when the same writer brings the same perspective to a show for seven years – but it’s nice little moment of poetry nonetheless.)

And so the episode ends with one last subversion of the Davies era format: “Goodbye” is less ostentatiously clever as “something borrowed, something blue” but it’s just as thrilling in its own way, Amy and Rory both embracing the Doctor – and Doctor Who – for one more year at least.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Flesh and Stone

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We stare at them to stop them getting closer. We don’t even blink, and that is exactly what they want. Because as long as our eyes are open, they can climb inside. There’s an Angel in her mind.

It suffers somewhat from the same flaws we discussed last week, of course. There’s that same imprecision to the script, the same roughness to Smith’s performance, the same struggle in the direction to balance the two. The imperfections to Flesh and Stone are easily highlighted and difficult to miss; the first-production-block inexperience is as obvious here as it is in The Beast Below or Victory of the Daleks, if not even moreso.

Equally, though, there’s a lot that really works. It’s full of really nice little details, from the Angels’ screeching laughter to the casual sadism of Angel Bob, and where the performances are strong, they’re really strong. Father Octavian’s death scene is a particularly nice moment, in fact: Iain Glen gives a very affecting performance, balancing the pathos of the scene well, to the point that it’s surprising he’s not cited more often as one of Doctor Who’s better guest stars. It helps centre Matt Smith, too, and this scene – his first, I think, attempt at a Doctor Who staple – is probably amongst his best of the two-parter as well. You get the sense of him marking out his approach, marking out what makes his Doctor distinct, lending the scene a much quieter sorrow than Tennant’s more mournful “I’m so sorry” apologies.

You can see the beginning of Moffat working through some ideas about how two-parters work, too, making real steps to differentiate Flesh and Stone from The Time of Angels in a way he didn’t quite do with The Doctor Dances and Forest of the Dead when compared to their counterparts. There’s this real emphasis on making Flesh and Stone feel like something with its own identity, a distinct whole on its own terms – it’s not exactly that you could watch one without the other (they’d each be poorly served by that, I suspect) but rather than they very pointedly don’t blur together. That new, forest setting is a really clever idea, disrupting what we’d become familiar with already while also adding a neat little sci-fi quirk to the wider story: Flesh and Stone is really densely packed with different ideas and concepts, lending it an appreciable energy that obscures the roughness. (It also follows on, somewhat, from what we discussed last week about reinventing the Angels as recurring monsters – it’s as much about translating them to a new iconography as it is expanding the concept, taking them out of the Wester Drumlins haunted house and demonstrating how well, and how easily, they can work in other contexts too.)

More interesting than that sense of an inexperienced production, though, is a little quirk that never reappears – a clever little trick that doesn’t compare to anything before or since.

What was ostensibly a production mistake – the Doctor’s conversation with Amy, wearing his jacket even though he’d just lost it – was actually a tie-in to The Big Bang, an appearance from a future version of the Doctor. It’s a result of more forward planning than Russell T Davies had ever been able to undertake, or that Steven Moffat would ever really be able to do again; as the (brilliant) Shannon Sullivan archive notes, Moffat finished writing The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone towards the end of 2008, roughly a full year ahead of completing his scripts for The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (which themselves had to be written ahead of schedule anyway). He’d never have that amount of time again – indeed, several of his scripts for Series 6, most notably The Wedding of River Song, were functionally filmed as first drafts – and it’s interesting to see Moffat’s inclination towards that sort of structural playfulness fits around a full series, rather than individual episodes, manifests itself on the one chance he gets to attempt it. (The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone are also significant in a wider sense, as Christa Mactíre notes, for being at once a sequel and a prequel to the events of Series 6, the first episode filmed at the same time sitting right at the heart of the Moffat era as it stretches outwards in both directions.)

There’s this oft-repeated truism that Steven Moffat is a good writer of individual episodes, but a poor showrunner. It’s a suggestion that, perhaps, has a kernel of truth to it, but not strictly in the sense that it’s meant: the argument is about the creative obligations of his showrunner role, and not the production responsibilities it entails. Which is to say, if there’s any insight to that now-banal comment, it’s one that’s being approached from the wrong angle: Moffat-as-showrunner is a much more interesting figure, I think, to consider as a producer than a writer. (Or, at least, it’s a vastly underexamined area of discussion.) We’ll consider this again over the next few years – particularly, as aforementioned, with those hastily-written Series 6 scripts – but it seemed worth raising here with an episode that’s almost their inverse. It’s interesting to wonder what Moffat might’ve done with Series 6 – or indeed Smith’s tenure as a whole – if a similar sort of lead-in had been possible (either by result of different producing partners alongside him, a different broadcast schedule, or indeed no Sherlock).

It’s also worth spending a little time talking about Amy, if only because I’ve not really done that enough of late. We’ve spoken a few times now about how she’s a character that exists in two worlds, an almost Doctor-like figure in her own right; there’s also, implicit in the subtext at least, this idea that she’s been grappling with abandonment and trauma. (Vincent and the Doctor, as we’ll see, is a big part of this.)

How that manifests here, though, with that last scene, doesn’t work. It’s a deeply uncomfortable way to present what perhaps could’ve been… well, it’s hard to imagine it straightforwardly working in a programme like Doctor Who, to the point that the whole concept feels like a mistake, but in theory there’s a version of this scene that’s much more thoughtful, that casts the kiss much more obviously as a response to trauma. Moffat has since said much the same, commenting “I don’t like Amy coming on to the Doctor at the end of Flesh and Stone. I mean the idea is good and sound – young girl reaches out after hours of deranging terror. But I played it for Coupling-style sitcom laughs. And it doesn’t work. Brilliant episode up till that point […] and then I screw it up with sniggering sex comedy. Bah! [Script editor] Lindsey Alford (as she was then) called me out on it, and I disagreed and stuck to my guns. And I was wrong, damn it.”

The scene sits awkwardly here, as much for what it could’ve been as for what it is – again, my instinct is that it’s better removed entirely (or, perhaps, played much more subtly as well as less comically, but I wonder how in-character subtlety would be) but it’s a shame to miss out on the potential it offers. It’s rare to have a relatively quiet moment of something resembling reflection for these characters, simply because of the momentum the show often demands – the better version of this scene, if it could’ve existed, would’ve been a genuine triumph. (Perhaps tying into that real/fairytale dichotomy through spending time on the consequences of the adventures?) As it is, though, while it doesn’t quite ruin the episode, it comes far closer than any individual scene ever should.

Still. We’re now almost at the halfway mark of Series 5; Vampires in Venice will be the first episode we’ve seen filmed after The Eleventh Hour. It should, in theory, be the start of a show that’s much more confident in itself, lacking the roughness and imprecision we’ve seen this week.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?