...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Day 3464: DOCTOR WHO: The Big Finish? – no, wait, that was Press Gang…


Once upon a time there was a story about stories. You've written yourself into a box. Cracks in the plot. That's just a fairy tale. Who isn't? A man is the sum of his memories; a Time Lord even more so. I hate repeats. And then she woke up. And you were there and you were there… Remember this because it's important, I am most definitely a madman with a box. Did I tell you I stole it? You're "Father Christmas", "The Wizard of Oz" and "Scooby Doo". He's my imaginary friend. Who is real. Let. There. Be. Light.

In short, the Mister Moffster didn't muff it!

But that's just what I think. Over to Daddy…
"Just this once, everybody dies. Hang on, I can fix that."

With "The Big Bang", Steven Moffat, ironically (or not) the man described as "Mr Story" compared to his predecessor "Mr Emotion", has given us an episode that asserts the supremacy of story-telling by making us feel the importance of story.

The entire Universe is destroyed, all the stories have been wiped. But by an incredible stroke of fortune the Doctor just happens to have about his person an enormous video recorder containing the last copies of all the missing stories. Now, if he can only find a way to play it back…

Yes, extrapolating the Universe from a few billion atoms (closer to many trillions, actually) is Douglas Adams and the fairy cake all over again. But it's no use complaining: way back in 1965's "The Chase" (yes, that other epic story featuring the Daleks that concluded on a 26th June) we learned that events are recorded on "light neutrons" and can be played back on the Doctor's big time-telly, so it was already canon.

And the price of getting the Universe back? It costs the Doctor his very existence. Except he's a wily old man, and can wriggle out of his fate by turning himself into a story.

But that was in the canon too.

In "The Time of Angels", an angel in a recording can come right out of a television screen; in "Flesh and Stone" the threat is that an angel in Amy's imagination will come right out of her head.

And in "The Big Bang", the Doctor does exactly that. (So the Doctor becomes an angel(!))

Because the idea is that ideas are more powerful than any mundane physics.

To underline it all, Rory becomes a legend as well, spending nearly two thousand years guarding Amy in the Pandorica and getting his story told on the museum wall (voice-over by Mr Briggs, I think). (As Mr Moffat puts it in "Confidential": as apologies for killing someone go, mowing the lawn isn't going to cut it.) Alex said that the Doctor still referring to Amy as "the girl who waited" is a bit harsh on the Auton… but that was before he called Rory "the boy who waited" too. This is a beautiful little side-story, and rewarded with the wedding where he's returned to his old self but then remembers who he became – you can hear him saying "I was plastic and he was the stripper at my stag night" in the background.

Arthur Darvill is magnificent playing the two Rorys, whether it's with great charm in the lighter moments ("Respect the plastic", "No, too fast"); or with gravitas for the serious commitment ("Why do you have to be so… human?" "Because right now, I'm not"); or with just a roar for the absolute moment of awesome ("Your girlfriend's not more important than the whole Universe–" [punch] "SHE IS TO ME!").

And Rory is a proper member of the crew at the end, no longer a hanger-on, but deciding equally with Amy that their place is in the TARDIS. Please, please put his name in the titles by Christmas!

But the real story is the story of Amy, the fact that the Doctor actually if accidentally destroyed her Universe by being late. He puts it right by seemingly stepping into the crack in Amelia's wall – becoming, as he foresaw in "Flesh and Stone", the complicated space-time event that seals the crack – and in doing so he un-writes history, undoes his mistake of wrecking Amelia's life by returning it all to her.

(Although, if you want to go all metatextual: Doctor Who went away in 1989 and its return was announced in 2003, fourteen years later, just as Amy's travels in the TARDIS begin fourteen years later. Oh it's a coincidence. Except in "The Big Bang" the Doctor turns up in 1996 for "twelve minutes" before being killed off. Who says Paul McGann doesn't count?)

Karen Gillan looks awesome when the Pandorica opens to reveal that she's taken the Doctor's place inside. And yet it's the quiet moments of her tears that really get you. A tear for Rory, when she sees what he has done for her. And her tears at the wedding, structured to reverse the tears for a happiness she does not understand when she begins to recognise Rory in "The Pandorica Opens", tears for a sorrow for the loss of the Doctor she cannot remember.

Alex calls it a very "Harry Potter" story: she's "the girl who waited" instead of "the boy who lived", the little orphan whose Aunt never told her what really happened to her parents, who grows up to meet a wizard and discovers her own special magic.

So, anyway, we start with a riff on predestination paradox, or the bootstrap paradox – named for Baron Munchausen, another great storyteller, and his escape by lifting up his own boots – as the Doctor escapes from the Pandorica by escaping from the Pandorica and going back to effect his escape from the Pandorica.

Oh yes he does. Just because he gives the sonic to Rory doesn't mean he doesn't program it to release him; he might as well stand in front of the box himself. Of course, it's funny and smart and short-cuts a whole load of faffing about while Rory works out how to get the Doctor out of the Pandorica on his own (I'm just after the points for calling the resolution to the cliff-hanger). But it is still cheating.

Personally, I put it down to the TARDIS. I mean she's heroically sustaining the Earth and two thousand years of history, not to mention a two-second time loop with River Song in the console room, while literally burning herself up to do so, so what's one little time paradox to nudge the Doctor towards fixing everything?

We then get another one, where the Doctor arranges for Amelia to be at the National Museum in order to open the box. This writing of post-it notes to stage-manage the actions of past versions of people around him: it's both Benny's diary and the seventh Doctor's alleged modus operandi. (Alleged mainly in Virgin's "New Adventures" and other books, for example the short story "Continuity Errors" from Decalog 3. Whatever happened to the writer of that?)

Although actually, this paradox isn't actually a paradox.

Think about it: there's no reason why the Doctor could not have instead materialized himself in front of Amy's house twelve hours earlier and convinced her Aunt that he was there delivering two tickets to the National Museum as part of a schools' "history awareness" campaign, or something.

And in fact that's effectively what he's done. Just not necessarily in the right order.

Really, the paradox is a visual comment on coincidence in story-telling, in this case, the coincidence of Amelia happening to open the Pandorica at just the right time – that is within minutes of the moment when the Doctor pops up out of the past with River's time gizmo. It's the equivalent of the "clumsy juggler" act; it's Les Dawson at the piano; it's saying "look, as a writer I can arrange events to fit together however is most convenient, but look what happens if I exaggerate that to make it obvious what I'm doing".

Incidentally, how does little Amelia open the Pandorica? Does it open to a touch now? Did the Doctor reprogram it? I suppose it did start unlocking to receive the Doctor when the Doctor first found it; perhaps it's doing the same now it thinks it has to contain Amy. Or maybe it's just confused because that the person it's been trying to keep locked inside for two thousand years now appears to be on the outside.

And does Aunt Sharon suffer the "deleted from history" fate sometime before the museum closes? Or else, why are the staff not all looking for the little lost girl who doesn't answer the call to come to the front desk?

We get a third iteration of the paradox with the Doctor popping back to get Amelia a drink. Which he steals from her earlier self. Meaning she's only thirsty because she asked the Doctor to get her a drink. Alex points out that this is a "reverse Kronos": in "The Time Monster", the Atlanteans grow rich because their pet Chronovore is stealing from their own future; in "The Big Bang" Amelia makes herself thirsty because her friendly Time Lord is stealing from her own past.

Speaking of "stealing from the past", Alex was delighted to see a return of the second Doctor's "oh I should like a hat like that" obsession, first in the form of that fez and then in a top hat. Also, as the Universe collapses times and distances become shorter – nod to "Warrior's Gate" – and we head towards the Big Bang – shout out "Castrovalva". "We all wake up where we're supposed to be" is the conclusion of "The Three Doctors". The Void between Universes references "Inferno" and "The Time Monster" and many Russell episodes. River dating a Nestene with swappable heads (what, she's got Captain Jack's past as well now?) reminds us of Mickey the Auton's detachable bonce back in Rose. And "twelve minutes until the Dalek kills me" harks back to "twenty minutes to save the world" in "The Eleventh Hour".

Oh yes, "twelve minutes until the Dalek kills me": before we can even start to take the Doctor's new blasé attitude to linearity for granted, it only goes and kills him!

The exterminated Doctor zapping into existence at the top of the stairs is a perfect slap down to the Doctor's apparating/disapparating antics, his popping up and down in his fez like a latter-day Fenella the Kettle Witch. (Which would make the Cyber-leader and the Skittles Daleks into Chorlton and the Wheelies… let's not go there.)

It says "mess with Time too much and Time will mess with you right back".

But again, it's also Moffat commenting on his own story-telling: just as he's done explaining to you the temporal shenanigans of the opening minutes by playing them again from the other angle, he repeats the same gag: again, the Doctor pops back from the future but this time it's not to handily pass on a clue to the guys still stuck in the past. This time, he's been brutally murdered. And worse, he's cynically manipulating them into using his own murder to distract the murderer from what he's really doing.

It makes River's cold-blooded execution of the Dalek seem positively fluffy if you think about it.

(Incidentally, I vastly preferred River in this two-parter to her previous appearances. There's been much less of the smugness, much more of a feel that she's a genuine match for the Doctor, with both the compassion and the steel underneath to equal him. Though it is, er, possible to remain slightly more disparaging of the character, as in: "this is what happens when "the straight writer"™ tries to cross Captain Jack with Iris Wildthyme. Oh dear.")

Of course it had to be a Dalek. The idea of "story" demands that it be a Dalek, because the Daleks and the Doctor are inextricably linked in the crucible of the story. I loved the Daleks fossilised in time; that was great. The new-look Dalek redone in stone was a huge improvement, so it must be something about those plasticky colours that just fails them.

Alex winced that the Daleks got completely wiped out again, but you know… along with everything else. That's practically a score draw for them.

And hey, finally one of the buggers manages to kill the old sod. Pity the whole thing got time-reversed. Honestly, some days you just can't even happen.

Time for a couple of quibbles.

What was the point of introducing the Blinovitch Limitation Effect – shorting out the time differential between the two sonic screwdrivers, for those who don't speak geek – if you then ignore it in all the Amy patting Amelia action (accepting the fact that exploding seven-year-olds are not going to get on the BBC at Saturday tea-time)?

And why didn't we get a proper answer to "why is a duck pond if there aren't any ducks?" It was important enough to be flagged up a couple of times in the series. Yes, I get that it's a clue (either actual or allegorical) to the way things from Amy's life have disappeared leaving traces, but it would have been nice to spell it out in the Doctor's "final conversation" where he points out the obvious fate of Amy's parents.

But then, I've had to reassess my understanding of what it means to fall into one of the "cracks in time": the Doctor at first describes this as being "erased from time", that you "never existed". Clearly, that is not what happens at all. Later, the Doctor calls it "falling out of the Universe" and that is much closer to what appears to happen.

Here's how it seems to me: if you fall into one of the cracks, or rather fall out of the Universe through one of the cracks, your physical history, all the things that you have done, remains intact, but the memetic content, the bits of information that let other people understand and remember your actions, that is what gets erased.

In short, falling out of the Universe deletes your story.

This, very neatly, explains away all of my concerns about time paradox plot holes caused by people being erased from time. Take the ever multiplying Clerics paradox: Marco wanders into the crack and is erased; but if Marco never existed, why didn't Father Octavian bring Julius along to fill the place Marco would have taken? But then Julius wanders into the crack and never existed so why didn't Father Octavian bring along Pedro and so on forever. Answer, Father Octavian doesn't bring someone to fill the place Marco would have had because there was a person who filled that place, it's just that no one can remember who it was now.

It's an exact reversal of Lawrence Miles' idea of turning people into "conceptual beings", that is beings with no physical presence who exists only as ideas; the crack turns people into purely physical beings, with no informational content at all.

It would turn you into a particularly horrible kind of ghost, one where you can experience the world around you but no one notices you are there. The Doctor appears to experience something like this as his timeline unwinds (with only Amy, her mind filled with the time energy of the crack, able to hear, but not see, him).

And he is rescued from this state when Amy (again because of her unique time-energy-charged memories) is able to reconnect his memetic self to his physical existence.

In this way, the reference to Professor Richard Dawkins isn't just a cheeky in-joke and reference to "Journey's End". In a history gone wrong, the rationalist sceptic is re-written as a believer, in stars of all things (so even in the wrong universe he's still right). But Richard Dawkins is also the man who first came up with the term "meme" as a way of describing the evolution of ideas, of stories.

To excuse the Doctor's earlier incorrect description, you can probably see that if you cannot remember anything that someone has done then it appears as though they never existed, particularly to someone from such a highly memetic culture as the Time Lords. Indeed, being the literal architects of "history", it may well be that being erased from "history" and being physically erased from space/time are as good as indistinguishable to them. So when the Doctor describes the effect of the crack as "never having existed" he's telling it the way he sees it, even if he's wrong.

So we come to the Universe's biggest ever reset switch – biggest ever because it applies at every single moment throughout history – which has been wittily described as a Deus ex Pandorica. Witty, but slightly unfair. The way to save the entire universe and the way to destroy the entire universe are of course identical: the notion that the TARDIS can pass through every point in creation simultaneously like a four-dimensional infinite improbability drive.

The real leap is that the Pandorica can suddenly be used as the universe's flight recorder, a literal "black box" that contains a "restoration field" that not only stops the occupant from dying, but can recreate exploded stars. Stopping you from dying is not actually unreasonable for a perpetual prison (and supports the idea that the Alliance of Enemies fear the Doctor dead more than they fear him alive – again, because if he dies he might regenerate into something that can get out of the Pandorica!)

I have to say there is a slightly wearisome aspect to the idea that everyone in the entire Universe is actually killed and then identical copies are created of them (or in some cases whole people who were erased are "written back in"). Now on the one hand you could accuse me of "molecular vertigo" (the fear of teleportation stemming from the idea that the "transporter" beam is a phaser at one end and a replicator at the other: it kills you and creates a copy who has your memories). On the other hand this is just about the largest possible example of actions that have no consequences, and we were supposed to have moved beyond that since Russell brought us New Doctor Who.

Perhaps I can suggest an alternative interpretation: the explosion of the TARDIS would be Universe-destroying; the explosion of the Pandorica would be Universe-creating. By having the two happen simultaneously (at every point at every moment in history) they cancel each other out. Who was it who said "supernova and black-hole at the same time"? Or was that "five minutes from Belgium"?

So what actually happens when the TARDIS explodes is that the ship creates a tiny "bubble Universe" (not difficult for a TARDIS – she's one herself) containing the Doctor, Amy and Rory and enough of an alternative Earth for them to sort out their business there.

Alex asks: if a TARDIS exploding can destroy the Universe so much that it never happened, then – what with the whole Time War – why hasn't this happened already?

Well, I answer, in the Time War, the Time Lords were around to fix things like cracks in the surface of the Universe, possibly by chucking in a "complicated space-time event" (or the Castellan). And actually, that sort of Universe-unravelling might have been the basis for Davros' whole reality bomb idea.

Alternatively, now that the TARDIS is the last timeship in the Universe, I suggest that the Eye of Harmony must be on board (notwithstanding "City of the Daleks"). And as the Eye of Harmony is probably the singularity from the first Big Bang, then the whole point of Rassilon nicking the thing in the first place was that it would be linked to every point in history. So an explosion of the TARDIS now would do what happens here.

Hmm, says Alex, but in that case, even if it's only this threat post-Time War, even if he's only just discovered it, wouldn't the Doctor still have to say "sorry, old girl, it's been a hell of a ride but I've got to power you down now so that can never not-have-ever-happened again!"

It's a valid point, because the Doctor himself acknowledges that they've only solved the symptoms of this current crisis: whoever was behind it, whatever "silence will fall" is supposed to mean, we don't yet know.

The suggestion, then, is that next year there will be an even more serious story-arc.

Of course, if you're going to talk story arcs then at some point you're going to have to mention Joss Whedon. Yes, there were Joe Straczynski's five-year "Babylon 5" or Steven Bochco's "Murder One" first, but those were one story apiece. What Joss does in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is set up multiple nested story-arcs: the first season deals with the conflict between Buffy and the Vampire Master; the first two seasons develop the Buffy/Angel relationship; the first three seasons lead up to the story of the Mayor.

(Alex remarked that like Joss's season four, the "big climax" is in the penultimate episode and this week is a quieter more thought-provoking, "Restless" type of episode, and I've been trying fruitlessly to find where I actually suggested Doctor Who should do something just like that.)

Do we hope to see the same sort of developing stories here, with Doctor Who's thirty-first season concentrating on the "cracks in time", but then its thirty-first and thirty-second dealing with "the silence" who or whatever that is or are; and maybe the thirty-first through thirty-third series exploring the history of the Doctor and River.

Or, is Moffat heading in a different direction completely?

Doctor Who always evolves. It is itself a meme. With William Hartnell it began as a "Lost in Space", with Ian and Barbara kidnapped by the titular anti-hero, but when they left it mutated into the story of the heroic Doctor's erratic travels; under Patrick Troughton it was a series of monster yarns and bases under siege; when Jon Pertwee arrived it became an ITC adventure serial, with alien invaders instead of "foreign" spies; and as Tom Baker took the helm it turned into an anthology of Hammer horror pastiches; and so on.

The teaser ending – a telephone call from "your majesty", an Egyptian goddess on the Orient Express… in space – suggests that Moffat has another classic English form in mind. The eccentric extraordinary agent with his gorgeous, capable – married! – sidekick, investigating the most outlandish of situations. Or, if I can put that another way:

"Mrs Pond… we're needed!"

I'd have to say I approve: it would give Moffat a whole rich new vein to rip off tap.

And he might even commission Alex's excellent "England Avenged". One of the authors of "About Time 2" would hate it, though.

The idea of the Doctor going on "missions" might sound like making one of the most anti-establishment characters a bit, well, establishment – Tom's Doctor always railed against the Time Lords when they sent him on their errands, and even the ultra-establishment Pertwee Doctor resented being given little things to do.

But John Steed was the most anti-establishment establishment man and if you could carry it off with the kind of insouciance, even playfulness of Patrick Macnee's performance – and if there's an actor who could do it it's Matt Smith – then it would add a sense of dramatic purpose and dynamism to the show.

You could even, with the bigger, overarching "season mission", just about have a passing attempt at an excuse for the Doctor still using his potential-Reality Bomb of a TARDIS: "I know it's a terrible risk, old girl, but before we both lay down to rest we have one last mission: find who did this and stop them ever doing it again!"

Unfortunately, the Doctor seems to find this only mildly interesting, preferring to go straight to "Woo hoo! Let's have fun at Christmas" instead.

I stand by what I said last time – the problem is one of escalation: how do you follow this?

In 2005, the Daleks returned and threatened to destroy the Earth a hundred thousand years in the future!

In 2006 the Daleks and the Cybermen returned and threatened to destroy the Earth in the Present Day er, one year in the future!!

In 2007 the Master returned and did destroy the Earth one year in the future and threatened the entire universe!!!

In 2008 Davros returned and threatened every Universe ever!!!!

In 2009 the Time Lords returned and threatened to destroy not only the Universe but all time so it never even happened!!!!!

And in 2010 that actually happened!!!!!!

Possibly, Steve has in mind an idea for "the Silence" (oh, I've sneaked in a capitalisation, like "the war" becoming "the War" becoming "the Time War") that will make it or them a new enemy worthy of seven exclamation marks. If not, sooner or later we are going to have to pitch the season finale down a little bit or invent a new form of punctuation.

Last thought: crudely put, Comic Relief skit "The Curse of Fatal Death" (author a Mr S. Moffat) begins with the Doctor messing with predestination paradoxes – nipping back in time later to arrange to avoid death-traps – before the Daleks turn up and take him prisoner – sticking him in a chair even though they have no need of chairs – and concludes with him building a machine to save the Universe which accidentally kills him. And then his companion impossibly wishes him back to life.

But that's fair enough, because "The Curse of Fatal Death" was written as a paean to Doctor Who, recalling the ludicrousness of some of the series' conventions fondly not mockingly, and asserting just how good an idea it was and how, however impossibly, it really should come back.

Anyway, it's nothing like "The Big Bang"; it's got the Master in it.

But then Doctor Who did come back.

And that is what is really at the heart of "The Big Bang" – rammed home with the image of the Doctor literally at the heart of the Big Bang: a celebration that you cannot kill an idea, and that deep down we want that impossibly silly wonderful man back.

"How could we forget the Doctor?" asks Rory for all of us when that big, borrowed, blue box re-materialises in the middle of his wedding.

So for all that the Doctor becomes god (as well as an angel), both the creator god who sets off the Big Bang at the start of creation, and the eternal sacrifice who surrenders his life to redeem everyone, this isn't about a man who "burns in the centre of time"; this is about a man who saves little girls from the cracks in their walls and dances at weddings… badly.

Oh, and I loved the final effect shot: the TARDIS taking off from Earth into space, into the time vortex which then turned into the opening (not the closing) title sequence as the end titles played over.

Next Time… Guess what ITV have planned for their Christmas Poirot? Classic timing again from the commercial channel. It's the Doctor on the Orient Express!

Actually, Daddy, before then you've got to go back and review "The Wampires of Wet Stuff" and "Amy's Choice"!



Nick Campbell said...

I have to say, the more I think about The Big Bang, the less I like it. There were so many good things – and I don’t think I’d really worry, if I hadn’t been turned bitter by the constant internet carping about Russell T and his gods in boxes. But really I think Moffatt was trying too hard here – if you set up a cliffhanger so good that people ask, ‘How can that possibly be resolved?’, I think it’s a bit off to say, ‘Well, not possibly, actually. The Doctor appears out of nowhere; the Pandorica can now bring people back to life...’ Essentially: don’t think about it too hard. Which is a shame, because everything but those two little cheats was masterful, hilarious, clever, terrifying. But those little cheats underpin the whole story.

Even the crack itself, which destroys the Universe – but not the Tardis itself (or its sign). If there had been a bit of technobabble to cover everything like that in this story, we’d be back in the 1980s, the stuff of Victoria Wood parody: “But of course, it couldn’t deactualise your metachronons - because they’re wedded to an intertemporal rematerialisation circuit! Ingenious!”

I loved it, though. I will forgive it this once. The pace, direction, I absolutely adored: ‘What sort of time do you call this?’ And I like the way the erasure of history works, and memory. Didn’t we have this conversation before, about gods manifesting? But you make an interesting point about the difference between stories and facts. I suppose you have to ask (well, maybe you have to) how the timey-wimey light erases somebody from history? It ‘unwrites’ them; does that suggest that at some point, like a story or a program, they are ‘written in’?

This is now more of a blog than a comment on a blog – for which, apologies... But can I just add, I think the duck pond still awaits!


Unknown said...

"Really, the paradox is a visual comment on coincidence in story-telling, in this case, the coincidence of Amelia happening to open the Pandorica at just the right time – that is within minutes of the moment when the Doctor pops up out of the past with River's time gizmo. It's the equivalent of the "clumsy juggler" act; it's Les Dawson at the piano; "

Or, Tommy Cooper, perhaps?

I loved this episode and don't want to delve to deeply into it, as I think it might just undo the magic of the story.

Tommy Cooper's act was not about the magic tricks.


Bill Reed said...

This is definitely the best review of the episode I have yet seen. Great stuff; love the memetic theory.