A Van Gogh painting ferried across thousands of years offering a terrifying prophecy, a message on the oldest cliff-face in the universe and a love that lasts a thousand years: in 102 AD England, Romans receive a surprise visit from Cleopatra. Nearby, Stonehenge hides a legendary prison-box. As it slowly unlocks from the inside, terrible forces gather in the heavens. The fates are closing around the TARDIS. The Pandorica, which contains the most dangerous threat in the Universe, is opening. Only one thing is certain: “The Pandorica will open…Silence will fall”.
I’ve mentioned in previous penultimate episode reviews how much I love these stories, setting up as they do an epic finale to a series of adventures. When watching the show “live”, the week between the penultimate episode and the finale is one where my brain was fizzing with possibilities to the extent that series finales always used to make me feel quite anxious that the story would pull off a satisfying conclusion. After having my uncertainties about Matt Smith at the beginning of his debut series, I was completely sold on him by the Doctor by The Pandorica Opens, which moves arguably one of the best revived series towards its end.
Total event collapse! Every sun will supernova at every point in history. The whole universe will never have existed. Please! Listen to me!The Eleventh Doctor
This story is really a great fun romp, encompassing cameos from characters we have met this series, Romans, River Song, and an alliance between the Doctor’s greatest enemies, and unsurprisingly, the pace never lets up from the cold open. Steven Moffat manages to balance everything in this penultimate episode really well, leading into a satisfying cliffhanger where all four leads are in some sense of peril. We have had seeds of the idea that Amy was somehow linked into the arc this series, and here it is revealed that she has unwittingly contributed towards a trap for him and the story through writing and direction does a really good job in misdirecting us as to the nature of the Pandorica. The story works really well to convince the audience that there is some great threat contained within it that when its true nature is revealed, it shocks the audience. Everything about the story’s central mystery has almost got hallmark Doctor Who written all over it. The Pandorica is a mystery that the Doctor cannot help be intrigued by and when River tells him that his greatest enemies are approaching Earth with one thing on their mind, the dye seems to be cast. As is usual with a Moffat script, there are some lovely moments of humour here too – I’m particularly fond of River’s drawing on the wall of her cell in the Stormcage and Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill’s performance when the latter acknowledges that Rory is back. Ultimately, this is a story about overconfidence and complacency, whether this is the Doctor’s; being utterly convinced that he can deal with the hordes of foes circling Stonehenge and whatever is contained within the Pandorica, or Amy’s overconfidence that she can prevent Rory’s change to fully-fledged Auton. The story benefits from the direction of Toby Haynes, who helps this story feel really cinematic and sweeping, whilst ensuring that the the high octane pace doesn’t drop. Even transition scenes, like the Doctor, River and Amy travelling to Stonehenge, feel epic and well edited and this feels very much in the vein of action-adventure films like Indiana Jones, especially when they enter the Underhenge for the first time. Needless to say, this story showcases the music of Murray Gold perfectly, encompassing some of his best known villain scores into Beneath Stonehenge, suitably underscoring the Doctor’s big hero moment with the epic Words Win Wars and capturing the tragedy of Rory shooting Amy in The Life and Death of Amy Pond.
I really love how the universe feels more connected here, as it helps the universe feel more lived in and, ultimately means that the ending of this episode has more weight. Scenes like the ones with River and Dorium at the Maldovarium or the Alliance make it feel like conversations and events are transpiring off-screen rather than characters and aliens simply returning to a massive toybox at the end of their stand-alone adventures. Here, they are mistaken into thinking that they are acting in the best interests of the universe – by imprisoning the Doctor in the Pandorica, they will prevent the explosion of his time machine and therefore the end of every universe – but the impact of seeing some of the Doctor’s greatest enemies working together remains striking to this day. Arguably, if they had continued in this arrangement it would have lost some of its shine, but them working together for this story means that it maintains some novelty. Personally, I’m a sucker for the Autons and the Sontarans, so seeing them get included alongside the A-List threats of the Daleks and Cybermen is great for them, even if the nature of the episode and the number of creatures included means that most don’t really get a moment to shine. Really, the Autons get an activation scene which is really well done and there’s the sequence in the Underhenge with the broken Cybermen which is really creepy and makes the Cybermen feel even more like an unstoppable force. There’s something about that scene where the Cyberman head opens up and the skull falls out that makes me jump every time.
The performances of the companions, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Alex Kingston, are great, but it is the performance of Darvill which really hits home the most. His sudden appearance in the Roman encampment is suitably well handled by Toby Haynes so as to not make it obvious that the volunteer Centurion is Rory, so that we share the Doctor’s surprise when Rory sudden turns up at Stonehenge. Rory handles a lot of the story’s emotional heavy lifting and Arthur Darvill really makes you feel his pain when confronted with a fiancée that does not remember him, as well as his struggle to avoid being activated towards the end of the story. The tragedy is merely heightened by the fact that Rory’s feelings are so great that he manages to fight the Auton programming off for a little while. Far from being the comedic relief, Rory is a seriously strong character. Gillan accurately depicts a companion who is growing in confidence, bolstered by the knowledge that she managed to previously stop Bracewell’s programming in Victory of the Daleks and believing that she can do the same for Rory’s, which just increases the feeling of tragedy when she is unsuccessful, despite regaining her memories of him in the closing moments of this episode. Kingston is her usual commanding self, and seeing her posing as Cleopatra – who should be in Egypt, and in fact is dead – is good fun.
This story demonstrates Matt Smith at the peak of his powers. After a successful debut series, we see him face-to-face with arguably the biggest threat that the Doctor has ever faced and Smith passes the test with full marks. He is particularly powerful in his scenes when he is imprisoned in the Pandorica in the closing moments and in his big hero speech. Everything in that scene is constructed to portray this as a great victory – the writing, the direction, Murray Gold’s score – but it is actually just playing into the hands of his adversaries. In a way it mirrors his speech at the end of The Eleventh Hour to the Atraxi, this time to a greater audience. It is a speech that will be front and centre in any compilation video of Matt Smith’s best moments in the role, and I know some fans don’t like these big grandstanding moments, but here I think it works better. The Doctor, certainly since the revival, has traded on his reputation being enough to make his enemies stop and think and this is the culmination of his pride coming before a fall. But if there were any lingering doubts about Smith as the Doctor, this episode goes a long way to allay them.
Verdict: The Pandorica Opens sets up an epic finale, with a well written story, strong direction and great performances from the central cast. Doctor Who wouldn’t be interesting if it always did stories with team-ups between its villains, but it really works really well here. 10/10
Cast: Matt Smith (The Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Alex Kingston (River Song), Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams), Tony Curran (Vincent), Bill Paterson (Bracewell), Ian McNeice (Winston Churchill), Sophie Okonedo (Liz Ten), Marcus O’Donovan (Claudio), Clive Wood (Commander), Christopher Ryan (Commander Stark), Ruari Mears (Cyber Leader), Paul Kasey (Judoon), Howard Lee (Doctor Gatchet), Barnaby Edwards (Dalek), Simon Fisher Becker (Dorium Maldovar), Joe Jacobs (Guard), Chrissie Cotterill (Madame Vernet) & David Fynn (Marcellus).
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Toby Haynes
Behind the Scenes
- The first story written by Steven Moffat to feature aliens and monsters that he did not create. The aliens who appear or mention include the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, Drahvins, the Autons and the Nestenes, the Silurians, the Draconians, the Zygons, the Tereleptils, the Chelonians, the Slitheen family, the Roboforms, the Sycorax, the Hoix, the Weevils, the Juddon, the Uvodni, the Atraxi and the Haemogoths.
- This episode is unique for the revived series in that most filming took place outside Wales and the first to bring actors back from previous single stories in the series.
- The first episode to show the newly designed time vortex in-narrative.
- The first story directed by Toby Haynes, making him the first director whose first assignment was a series finale.
- Sophie Okonedo previously voiced the companion to the Shalka Doctor, Alison Cheney, in Scream of the Shalka.
- Ian McNeice, Bill Paterson, Tony Curran and Sophie Okonedo reprise their roles from earlier episodes in the series.
- Clive Wood has appeared in several Big Finish audio dramas – The Rosemariners, Must-See TV (from Stranded), For the Glory of Urth (from The First Doctor Adventures) and Peepshow (from The Diary of River Song).
- Christopher Ryan previously appeared as General Staal in The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky, as well as having played Lord Kiv in Mindwarp. He has also played Sontarans in various Big Finish productions, including The Sontaran Ordeal.
- Chrissie Cotterill previously appeared in Vincent and the Doctor.
I really enjoy the Doctor’s double take at realising that Rory is back – especially the poke, combined with Darvill’s slow rock backwards onto his heels, before leaning back again.
Hello, Stonehenge! Who takes the Pandorica, takes the universe! But bad news, everyone, ’cause guess who? Ha! Listen, you lot! You’re all whizzing about; it’s really very distracting. Could you all just stay still a minute, because I! AM! TALKING! Now, the question of the hour is “Who’s got the Pandorica?” Answer: I do. Next question: Who’s coming to take it from me? Come on! Look at me! No plan, no back-up, no weapons worth a damn! Oh, and something else, I don’t have anything to lose! So if you’re sitting up there in your silly little spaceships with all your silly little guns, just remember who’s standing in your way. Remember every black day I ever stopped you, and then, and then, do the smart thing: let somebody else try first.The Eleventh Doctor
Previous Eleventh Doctor story: The Lodger