The Big Bang

It might be facile to say that Russell T. Davies wrote Doctor Who like a soap opera and Steven Moffat writes it like a sitcom. I’ve actually never seen any episodes of Queer as Folk or Coupling. Also, RTD was funny even when he was being serious, and Moffat is serious even when he is being funny. But bear with me a moment.

Consider the consequences of RTD’s finales (and let’s include The End of Time). We have two regenerations of the Doctor, two deaths of the Master, one companion lost in a parallel universe (twice), and one companion’s memory erased, not to mention numerous deaths of supporting characters and extras. Conventional wisdom holds that in soaps no one ever permanently dies, but they DO die.

As far as we know for certain, Steven Moffat’s first finale has had the consequence of…a wedding.

All of the finales have employed some form of “reset button” deus ex machina, and I’m coming to accept that this is just how the show will be in the 21st century. The stakes are so high that the writers have little choice but to put the whole universe in peril just to top last year, and unless you stop the disaster each time with two seconds to spare, you have to do a bit of rewinding. The difference is that even with RTD’s reset buttons, something still changed in the end. There were casualties. With Moffat, we get all but the freeze-frame over the credits, and next week (well, next year in this case) we start over with a new situation and new comedy.

That may not be a terrible thing. I’m just pointing it out.

“The Big Bang” is really great up to the opening credits. I love the bit where Amy remembers the stars but no one else knows they’re there (a nice callback to “Starry Night,” and love the shout-out to Richard Dawkins). I love seeing her hide in the museum. I love the surprise as the Pandorica opens and it’s not at all who or what you’re expecting.

Unfortunately, almost immediately after the opening credits, it quickly becomes clear that not only is the Doctor alive and well, he hasn’t really suffered at all. Not that we wanted him to, as such, but after fan speculations that he would have to spend 2000 years in the box, perhaps going mad, perhaps turning into the Dream Lord, it really bled out the tension. After that there’s a lot of zapping around “Blink”-style to figure out what has to happen in the future to fill in the holes in the past. It’s fun, and it’s funny, and it’s clever, but it’s not as dramatic as it could have been.

And what good is a prison any idiot with a sonic screwdriver can open from the outside? Even if the silly Monster Alliance figured they’d averted disaster and planned to post guards outside it to prevent this, it seems a bit weak (and why couldn’t he do it in the previous episode?).

Still, I did like Rory guarding the box for 2000 years. I liked him having an Auton gun. I liked Rory in general, and I must admit I like River Song now too. Companions with guns who aren’t afraid to use them make me happy. And I loved the fez bits. The Doctor’s rewind was great, and even though you knew it wasn’t forever, it was still pretty moving.

The problem is, after this “reboot” (the Doctor’s actual word for what happens) I have no idea what’s happened to the rest of the universe. I’ve watched it twice and I still don’t know. I could fill this entire post with questions. Here are a few examples:

  1. Do people remember the Daleks now, as Amy didn’t in “Victory of the Daleks”?
  2. Did the Cyberking still appear in Victorian London, something else the Doctor identified as a surprising lost memory?
  3. Did the Saturnynes still invade Venice, since they fell through a crack in time that now is closed and has always been closed?
  4. Does River still remember the Doctor? Presumably, since she brings the diary to the wedding (and how did she get there without the Vortex Manipulator?), but if so, why isn’t it enough for her to remember him?
  5. Is Rory still an Auton? (I assume he isn’t, since we hear him say when the TARDIS reappears “I was plastic” rather than “I am plastic,” but…see next question.)
  6. Did all Amy and the Doctor’s adventures still happen? Rory still remembers them, apparently (but see previous question). If so, how were they changed, since all the cracks are presumably erased, which (for example) took away the means by which the Doctor defeated the Angels? If not, what happened to the rest of the Doctor’s past — how far back is “just a dream” now?

These aren’t really trivial questions. I no longer know how much of the foregoing season is still “real” as far as the story is concerned. This is brilliant from a metafictional point of view, but I’m no longer sure how to take the series on a literal level.

Maybe these are Moffat’s consequences. Maybe lots of events in history, both in general and specific to the Doctor’s life, have been rewritten and the next season will involve discovering some of them. That would be pretty interesting, particularly since there are still some explicit unanswered questions to be dealt with. As the Doctor points out, we still don’t know who or what caused this disaster in the first place, and apparently the Silence wasn’t just the death of the universe but the name of the unseen “villain” of this piece. This is cool and suspenseful — this gives us a reason to watch the next episode of the “sitcom,” whereas otherwise we might have had a convenient place to quit. It’s also gutsy, because it’s really frustrating — we don’t even know who or what landed outside Amy’s house and left burn marks on her lawn.

Will it turn out to be the Dream Lord? Or some other extratemporal being (who presumably can’t have been part of the exploding universe)? My money’s on the former for now, since Moffat’s approach is more solipsistic (focused on the main characters, and without warning any external reality could be a dream) than RTD’s, but who knows?

In the end, this finale turned out to have all the most important “flaws” we criticized in RTD’s: overblown threat, too many monsters, deus ex machina, and worst of all, “wishing” the Doctor back to life, though at least this last wasn’t quite as cheesy as in “Last of the Time Lords.” But, as I’ve said before, the mark of a good Doctor Who story is that most of the “hang on a minute” and “oh come on, what?” questions don’t occur to me until after it’s over. By that standard…this one was pretty good.

So yeah, I think I’ll watch another year. Even if this one was all dreams, I’m more than happy to sleep a little longer.


  1. JoAnne Thrax · June 27, 2010

    “All of the finales have employed some form of “reset button” deus ex machina…”

    Well, almost all…the one exception being “Doomsday”. Sure, the void stuff and giant cartoonish levers may be a bit “fantasy” and all when compared to, say, what we know of the actual world, but at least the story was internally consistent, rather than just pulling some magic out of a hat at the end. This is why I think “Doomsday” is the best of the Nu Who finals (including “The Big Bang”) despite my annoyance with much of RTD’s unfortunate output.

    The “Wishing the Doctor back into existence” was pretty cringe-inducing. While “The Last of the Time Lords” was a terrible, terrible thing all around (far worse than “The Big Bang”), and the whole power-of-faith solution was unbearably bad, at least there was some hint of pseudo-technological bollocks hidden amongst the this-is-the-story-of-Jesus-everyone-pray-now! solution, even if it was magical and deus-ex-machina bollocks.

    However, the rest of that episode was painfully pretentious, insufferable crap. “The Big Bang” at least had some entertainment value and acceptable acting and characterization moments…

  2. encyclops · June 27, 2010

    “Doomsday” was probably a cut above the others, certainly. There’s still that sense of pulling an enormous, unmanageable threat out of a hat, and then using some sort of time/space vacuum to suck it back where it came from, so if not “deus ex machina,” still “reset button.” The alternative would, unfortunately, be violence and ugly consequences (smoking, charred Dalek casings and oozing bleeding mutants all over Earth, for example), so I can understand why this show’s reluctant to go there, but reset-button plots mean you can do more or less the same one over and over again and it’s not inconsistent.

    I haven’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about how I’d do it differently. Maybe I’d try to decrease the scale of the threat a bit, raise the emotional and dramatic stakes instead. I think one reason “Doomsday” really works is that it does have consequences, with Rose trapped in another universe. (Then again, this sort of thing didn’t save “Journey’s End,” so who knows.) One classic story that did both: “Logopolis.” The entire universe is threatened (and presumably parts of it are irretrievably lost; wonder if any of it came back with “The Big Bang”?), the resolution doesn’t require buckets of blood (though I can’t remember what stopped the disaster), and there are personal consequences in terms of regeneration (still my favorite regeneration at that).

    “The Sound of Drums” had its moments, but I’d easily agree “The Big Bang” was far more entertaining.

    Thanks for the comment!