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The Fanwankica Opens

June 20th, 2010

The current season of Doctor Who has been an object lesson in the perils of expecting too much. As I’ve discussed previously, new showrunner Steven Moffat has been responsible for several of the very best episodes of the revived Who. While I knew that it was highly improbable that an entire season could equal the heights of “The Girl in the Fireplace,” I certainly believed that some truly extraordinary television was coming.¬†Yet, with only one episode to go (in England, at least*), I can’t help but feel a bit let down.

Now, of course, it would be silly to actually complain about this season. I’ve been a Whovian for several decades, long enough to have suffered through terrible, incomprehensible and (worst of all) boring stories. Nothing this year has approached the horrors of “The Horns of Nimon,” “Warrior’s Gate,” “Timelash” or “Ghost Light.”** It’s still a very good time to be a fan.

It’s just that Moffat’s reputation as writer, producer and uber-Whovian suggested that we wouldn’t see any of the lazy plotting or dubious decision-making that occasionally marked Russell T. Davies’ run. Then came “Victory of the Daleks,” which threw away its killer premise (Winston Churchill employs the Daleks to fight World War II for him) in favor of a non-story that did little more than reboot the Doctor’s deadliest foes.

The controversial redesign of the Daleks themselves seems another example of something that could’ve used one more pass through the production office. I think that they look great from the front, and I like the candy colors which recall the ’60s Dalek feature films. However, the odd “hunchback” of their profile view just seems off. I know that it’s a minor detail, and that I’ll get used to it, yet I can’t help but be boggled that Moffat looked at it and said, “yes, that’s the one.”

Even Steven’s own scripts have struck me as not quite fully-baked. “The Beast Below” lived up to the series’ new focus as a modern-day fairy tale–and it was certainly a lot of fun–yet in hindsight the plot made very little sense. A couple of episodes later, Moffat revived his dreaded Weeping Angels for a two-parter intended to do for them what Aliens did for Alien. While not entirely unsuccessful, he had to do an awful lot of handwaving and flat-out fudging to turn an entire army of unstoppable monsters into a plausibly-defeated menace.

As the season winds down, I find myself more satisfied by the episodes written by hired hands than by those coming from the pen of the Grand Moff. “Amy’s Choice,” “Vincent and the Doctor” and “The Lodger” have been my favorites to date. And again, that seems wrong. This is the first year of new Who that doesn’t seem to have hit an out-of-the-park homer (remember to insert cricket equivalent here).

Which brings me to “The Pandorica Opens,” the opening half of the season finale. (ALL SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT FORWARD. YOU-HAVE-BEEN-WARNED.)

What’s becoming clear is that Moffat has been playing a much larger game. If some of the earlier episodes have been lacking in logic, it may be because Steven has been focused on the big picture of the seasonal story arc.*** Inexplicable events have been planted throughout, all apparently tied into the over-plot. And I think that’s somewhat a problem; rather than telling fully satisfying tales, he’s been laying down pieces to form the puzzle box of the titular “Pandorica.”

“The Pandorica Opens” is very much in the tradition of Russell Davies’ season-ending spectacles. Once again, there’s an attempt to top everything that’s come before. Previous years have featured mass armies of Daleks, the Master’s total conquest of Earth, the return of Gallifrey and the threat of omniversal armageddon. So, where could they possibly go from there?

How about an unholy alliance of pretty much every alien species the Doctor has ever faced? Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Autons, Sycorax, Judoon, Silurians and Atraxi are joined by whatever happened to be lying around the creature shop**** to construct a fiendishly intricate trap for their archfoe. Oh, and to save the universe.

It’s still unclear what’s really going on. Throughout the season there have been cracks in time, presumed to have been created by the explosion of the Doctor’s TARDIS sometime in the near future. The cracks have erased characters from history (including Amy Pond’s fiance Rory) and generally made a mess of things. And there’s an still-unrevealed menace which may or may not be behind it all. Is it, as some have speculated, a future version of the Doctor, his mind broken by his imprisonment within the Pandorica?

As he put it himself, “There’s one thing you never put in a trap, if you’re clever, if you’re smart, if you value your continuing existence, if you ever want to live to see tomorrow, there is one thing you never, ever put in a trap. Me.”

We’ll know in a few days. And we’ll also know whether Steven Moffat manages to pull his big, timey-wimey ball of stuff into a satisfying story.

*As always, I am using Gallifreyan blogging technology to write this from several weeks in the future, when “The Pandorica Opens” has already aired on BBC America.

**That’s right, I said it. I HATE “Ghost Light.”

***Old-school Who dabbled in season-long story arcs long before the likes of Twin Peaks, but never to the extent that new Who has embraced them.

****Also name-checked were such classic series enemies as the Zygons, Terileptils and Drahvins. Sadly, the budget appears to have fallen short of granting them screen time.

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