Read all the posts in this series here. Doctor Who airs in the U.S. on BBC America on Saturdays at 9PM/8C (and though it’s by no means necessary, those interested in watching the first four seasons can find them streaming on Netflix) — ed.
James F. McGrath__________
The Doctor Opens Pandora’s Box and Steps Inside
Have you ever seen a miracle/ you couldn’t doubt or imitate?
What’s it really worth to you to shake the holy hand of fate?
—Kansas, “Rainmaker” from the album In The Spirit of Things
The first of two episodes that together make up the season finale of Doctor Who is “The Pandorica Opens.” Although it ends with quite a cliffhanger, the fact that Doctor River Song had already passed through these experiences when we encountered her in a previous episode suggests that all will turn out okay for her and her husband. Time travel can make for interesting plot twists, but it can also take some of the suspense out of the story.
But that is true even without time travel—on most TV shows, regulars survive and “red shirts” are expendable. But this episode leads us to wonder whether Rory was such a “red shirt.” The Doctor travels to Roman-era Earth because the Pandorica is opening beneath Stonehenge. The Pandorica was thought to be a fairy story about a prison in which the most dangerous and powerful warrior is imprisoned. As we’ll learn by the end of the episode, it is indeed such a prison, and rather than already having the individual locked inside of it, it has been prepared to receive the individual in question: none other than the Doctor himself!
There among the Roman soldiers, the Doctor and Amy find Rory. He cannot explain how he got there, nor can the Doctor. And so the Doctor suggests in a surprisingly nonchalant fashion that it must be a miracle: although in his 900 years of life he hadn’t seen one, the universe sometimes does surprising and inexplicable things. And so that is what Rory’s presence there is presumed to be, even though he had been erased from time and space so as to never have existed.
At this point, we are presented with one scientific approach to the seemingly miraculous: infinity. In an infinite universe, everything will happen sooner or later. And so the miraculous will happen—indeed, it is inevitable that it will happen—but only because in such a universe (or multiverse) everything happens. And so the miraculous becomes simply an unlikely event.
Another approach to explaining the miraculous can also be found in science fiction, including Doctor Who: technology. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law is famous, but it deserves to be recalled here alongside the other two. Clarke said in his essay “Hazards of Prophecy”:
1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
And so science regularly shows that what was thought to be impossible is possible, and when it has advanced sufficiently, it becomes indistinguishable from magic, able to do almost anything. This statement of faith in technology has often been interpreted as also implying its converse: anything indistinguishable from magic (or miracle) is advanced technology. In this case, it seems that someone (presumably the Doctor’s enemies) worked to fabricate a fake reality, using memories and items from Amy Pond’s past, and thus they produced an artificial Rory, somehow managing to duplicate not just his appearance but his memories—in spite of his being erased from history and never having existed.
And so perhaps there is a “real miracle” in the episode: that, in spite of the odds and the laws of physics, Rory is remembered. And perhaps the act of remembering those who had passed from life among us is indeed something more marvelous and miraculous than the creation of a copy of a deceased individual using technology.
The Pandorica Opens
Be warned: spoilers abound ahead.
Stonhenge is an appropriate setting for an episode with so mysterious and ominous a title as “The Pandorica Opens.” Following a message sent through the centuries by River Song, the Doctor and Amy arrive in Roman Britain. There is strange energy around the famous standing stones (that much is to be expected in a sci-fi show) and the time travelers find a staircase beneath one of the stones, leading to the “underhenge.” There, they find the Pandorica—an enormous box designed to trap the most dangerous monster in the universe for all eternity. The Doctor doesn’t know for sure what’s inside, but he speculates: “There was a goblin or a trickster or a warrior, a nameless, terrible thing soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies, the most feared being in all the cosmos. And nothing could stop it or hold it or reason with it. One day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.” The Pandorica is the perfect prison—and, as that ominous title suggests, it’s opening.
So what happens when the universe’s most elaborate prison is about to open, presumably releasing its most dangerous prisoner? The universe’s many alien species are aware of the Pandorica’s imminent opening, and the Doctor’s most hated villains—the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and dozens more—have turned up to witness the events. The Doctor thinks they want to claim the Pandorica and use its evil inhabitant as a weapon. As for the Doctor himself, he’s mainly just curious to see what’s in there.
And when it does… well, I wish I could say the surprise is too good to spoil, but much of what follows hinges on it, so I’ve got to. The Pandorica was constructed to contain a “nameless, terrible thing,” “the most feared being in all the cosmos”—but those words describe the Doctor himself perfectly, don’t they? To his enemies, the Doctor is the most feared being in the cosmos, and they’ve teamed up to do something about it, devising the Pandorica as an elaborate trap for the time-traveling do-gooder.
The Doctor—in this incarnation in particular—has deliberately cultivated this fear. Back in the first episode of this season, “The Eleventh Hour,” he stared down alien invaders who were poised to destroy the earth, and fear was precisely the emotion that he invoked to drive them off. “You’re not the first to have come here,” he tells the Atraxi. “Oh, there have been so many. And what you’ve got to ask is, what happened to them?… I’m the Doctor. Basically—run.” “The Pandorica Opens” features a remarkably similar speech to the assembled masses of his greatest foes: “If you’re sitting up there in your silly little spaceship with all your silly little guns, and you’ve got any plans on taking the Pandorica tonight, just remember who’s standing in your way. Remember every black day I ever stopped you. And then, and then, and then—do the smart thing. Let somebody else try first.”
Fear is what the Doctor hopes to inspire in his enemies, and he succeeds all to well. He’s made his enemies so afraid that they do the unthinkable, putting aside their differences to unite against a common foe who they are convinced will destroy the universe. When the final reveal comes, it’s a moral reversal that forces us to question the Doctor’s attitude toward his villains. Is fear the best emotion to instill in the unstable, the power-mad, the violent? This has been a season replete with this kind of turnaround—think of the Doctor’s inadvertent resurrection of his most hated enemies in “Victory of the Daleks” by his insistence that they be villains, his inability to see a third option to save both space-London and the starwhale in “The Beast Below,” or the unseen multiples in “Amy’s Choice.” I don’t think we’re meant to see the Doctor quite as his enemies see him at the end of this episode, but I do think we’re supposed to question the wisdom of some aspects of his brand of interstellar diplomacy. When you make yourself feared, this episode tells us, you make yourself a target, and if that fear is extraordinary than the plots against you will be extraordinary as well. It might be asking too much for the Doctor to seek for the Daleks and the Cybermen to love him, or even to trust him—but after this episode’s moral reversal, I suspect we may see him looking for a “third way” in the show’s future.