Review by Martin Odoni.

Steven Moffat isn’t half labouring the digs at Russell T. Davies to death. This episode was very consciously a series of loosely-connected set-pieces in the style of Doomsday, David Tennant’s first season finale, the Doctor’s P.A.-delivered speech about, “You’re all scared of me!!!” was overflowing with the Tenth Doctor’s messiah complex, and the sight of yet another vast fleet of alien spaceships in season-ending orbit around the Earth is getting so tired now that I just can’t understand why the occupants of Earth still seem terrified and bewildered when they show up. But all of these aspects are being done this time around as part of a deliberately snarky mindset. Moffat appears to be saying, “Here’s a reminder of how it used to happen… wasn’t it crappy? But now, here’s a glimpse of how it should be done!”

There’s no doubt that the ending redeems the episode to some degree, as the total transformation of the show’s dynamic is a stroke of incontrovertible genius. For nigh-on fifty years, there has been an unceasing campaign by the Doctor to fight the evil of the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Zygons, the Sontarans, Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all, in order to save the Universe. Now, these monsters have united because they believe that the Universe – themselves included – needs saving from the Doctor. That is such a startling turnabout that it arguably disguises how implausible such an alliance is. Would the Daleks really agree to work with all those other species? I can accept them working with the Autons, and possibly even with the Cybermen, as they were both integral to the plan, but most of the others, such as the Zygons and the Judoon, had no clear practical role. So I can’t quite picture the Daleks, what with their racial superiority complex, tolerating them for long.

Still, remarkable the last few minutes undoubtedly are. They put the previous forty-three or so into perspective as a snide mickey-take out of RTD at his contrivance-spewing worst. But does that mean it was a great episode in disguise? Does the way it caught us rolling our eyes and fearing the worst mean it was brilliant entertainment all along? No. As I’ve pointed out before, forty minutes of rubbish may be deliberate, self-conscious rubbish designed to lull us into a sense of false familiarity, but that does not stop it being rubbish. It was still tiresome to sit through, and a departure-from-formula should have happened more quickly. All of this is to say nothing of the annoyance I’ve highlighted before that Moffat’s roll-call of swipes at RTD is getting really old and boring. The reason I was happy that RTD would be gone was that it would allow for a new approach, not that we could see an ongoing parody of the old one.

The Pandorica itself spent much of the episode reminding me of the Genesis Ark from Doomsday – again, probably deliberate – but it was a genuine surprise to discover it was empty and that its purpose had not even begun yet. And the reason for its creation is another of those time paradoxes that have been done to the point of cliché; the old ‘event-in-history-is-caused-by-the-very-attempt-to-curtail-it’ routine. In this case, imprisoning the Doctor to prevent him from splintering the universe means he is powerless to prevent the TARDIS from exploding, and it is this very explosion that will causes the fabric of space to fragment and unravel. It can be a fascinating irony when done well, but in this case, it’s at the tail-end of a lot of pulpish mediocrity, and so it’s hard to ignore the seen-it-all-before feeling.

The series’ penchant for stealing ideas from Douglas Adams continues apace, with God’s Last Message To His Creation, from So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, parodied with barely even a pretence of disguise. Even the message itself is every bit as twee and throwaway as the one in Hitch Hiker. And again we appear to have a continuity gaffe surrounding River Song. It was established on her last appearance that it was the first time she had ever met Amy. From the dialogue here, it seems this is earlier in River’s personal timeline, yet she shows signs of knowing who Amy is already – she doesn’t even need to be introduced to her, even though she did In The Time Of Angels.

Sorry, gotta ask this; why the horses? Why didn’t The Doctor, Amy and River just get into the TARDIS? It would’ve taken them to Stonehenge in seconds. Do I hear the distant clang of ‘any-excuse-will-do-so-long-as-it-gets-the-Doc-to-ride-wild-stallions’? He’s not a cowboy, and he’s in pre-Dark Age Britain anyway. (Yes, I realise similar questions to this could be asked about a great many episodes through Dr. Who’s history, but it only really occurred to me during this one.)

Rory’s return in this story was widely predicted, and for all the sweetness of his later scenes with Amy, much of the time his return was handled too flippantly to leave much room for pathos. But it was genuinely shocking and saddening to see his Auton-programming force him to attack her.

Production was a cut above the average, with some fairly good sets and effects. Acting was also better than usual, the Doctor’s “I’m tough and you’re afraid of me” speech excluded. Alex Kingston’s performance was sharper than previously, and she allowed River to appear generally a lot less pleased with herself. Karen Gillan thankfully only got one of those cocky head-bobbing moments, and so largely managed not to annoy. But Murray Gold… please, someone slap him. Slap him and repeatedly, it’s what he does to us every week with his overblown music after all, and sometimes a good hard slap across the chops is the only kind way.

I can’t deny I am looking forward to part two, an enthusiasm based almost entirely on the last five or so minutes here. Without quite enjoying the episode, the closing scenario has left me eager to learn how the Doctor is to redeem things. We can assume he does so given that the River in The Time Of Angels is from a later part of her time-stream.

Well, what score can I give? I’m going to be generous and emphasise the positive here and give it a 7 out of 10, but that’s largely because I don’t want to give out yet another 6. This one has had the benefit of the doubt, so part two can expect no such favours should the issue arise.