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Time can be rewritten. And will be. Try and keep up.

[ 23 ] February 22, 2012 |

(This will be the second-to-last Who-related visual rhetoric posts for a bit. It concerns the complicated conclusion of the fifth season, which is why it’s the second-to-last. It’s also a sequel of sorts to this post, though I reserve the right to introduce new material and present spoilers so inscrutable to the casual fans that unless you’ve watched the series three times through they won’t even register as such.)

At the conclusion of “The Pandorica Opens” we learned that all of the Doctor’s old enemies had formed a committee and decided the Doctor was responsible for the universe unwriting itself. They weren’t wrong. As I noted in the post on “Vampires of Venice,” the Doctor tells Rosanna:

Doctor who 01

He may have even wanted to believe this at the time, but he changed his mind in the next episode, “Amy’s Choice,” after vicariously experiencing the death of Rory Williams through Amy Pond, who asked him quite the cutting question. If you can’t go back and change time,

Doctor who 02

At the time, the only answer he could provide was that he someone becoming accustomed to either causing mass extinctions or standing idly by while entire species are wiped from existence. The former may be a more morally reprehensible action, but the passivity of the latter brings him no glory. In order to redeem himself—and I’m going to insist that this season is, among other things, a redemption narrative—he needs to rethink his relation to universe he tends. Which is precisely what happens in the episode “The Big Bang.” He discovers that the point of him is that he can change time, so writer and showrunner Steven Moffatt and director Toby Haynes proceed to do exactly that. “The Big Bang” opens with a repetition of the slow tracking shot from the first episode of the season, “The Eleventh Hour”:

Doctor who - the big bang00965
Doctor who - the big bang00965
Doctor who - the big bang00965
Doctor who - the big bang00965
Doctor who - the big bang00965
Doctor who - the big bang00965

Just as in the beginning of “The Eleventh Hour,” the camera slowly glides through Amelia Pond’s garden before jump-cutting to a shot of her praying to Santa for help. Her confession in “The Big Bang” is identical up to a point. Cut back to “The Eleventh Hour”:

Doctor who - the big bang01010
Doctor who - the big bang01010
Doctor who - the big bang01010
Doctor who - the big bang01010

In “The Eleventh Hour,” she turns to her window and spies this:

Doctor who - the big bang01010

Which elicits this response:

Doctor who - the big bang01010

Only in “The Big Bang,” there’s no TARDIS crashed in the yard and her fervent wish ended up in the same dustbin Santa’s missives always do. In other words, from the opening scene of “The Big Bang,” the audience isn’t merely aware of the fact that the Doctor’s changed his mind about the possibility of rewriting time, he’s embraced the endeavor. Not by his own choice, mind you, but given what happens later in this episode, the indication is that even if this decision weren’t a consequence of his imprisonment, he’d choose revision nonetheless. Speaking of his imprisonment, I should note for casual fans why the Doctor’s currently manipulating time behind the scenes. Remember that great speech he gave to the “WHIRRING AND THRUMMING” alien armada intent on capturing him?

He did an effective job of stalling them for a few minutes. Unfortunately, River was correct:

Doctor who - the big bang01017

The Doctor didn’t listen to her—and why should he have? She may be the central compositional element in the frame but she’s not even important enough to warrant focus. This is one of those moments where the Doctor’s misguidedly listening to his internal muse instead of what the camera’s telling the audience he ought to be. The proof is not long in coming:

Doctor who - the big bang01014

If he’d paid attention to his framing and just listened to River, he wouldn’t have a lovely view of his own personal rogues’ gallery:

Doctor who - the big bang00011

He’s not wrong, but given that these are the species he’s extinguished from history, imprisoned in time-locks for eternity, or banished to hostile alternative dimensions, they’re not too concerned with his threats here. They should be, given their past experiences with him, but they figure that between the strength of their unholy coalition and the fact that they’ve locked him in a box that only someone as clever as the Doctor could escape—and only then from the outside—they’ll be fine. The only problem with their plan? The Doctor’s correct. Every sun did supernova at every moment in history:

Doctor who - the big bang00023

And if every sun’s supernova’d at every moment in history, what does that mean? It means time can be rewritten. The lot River referred to as “everything that ever hated [the Doctor]” did him a favor: this season’s turned into a redemption narrative, and what better way for the Doctor to redeem himself than to get another chance. And where does that other chance begin? With Amelia Pond fervently wishing for Santa to bring her a savior. But there’ll be no mulligan for Amelia Pond. Or is there? The Doctor’s continued existence is predicated on the fact that he’s inhabiting the eye of a erasure storm, but he’s not alone in perceiving the untoward events swirling about him. The image of the universes winking out of existence is a familiar one after all:

Vincent and the doctor

And alternate world Amelia’s painting looks strangely relevant:

Doctor who - the big bang00997

It’s no “Starry Nights”—but in a universe devoid of stars, it can only be a reference to a painting she’s not yet and will never see but somehow remembers. Such is the power of Pond. Like Vincent Van Gogh, she can see the deep currents roiling behind ordinary existence, which makes her petulant response to her aunt and social worker all the more meaningful:

Doctor who - the big bang00998

Only someone who knew what stars were and what they meant would insist upon their importance absent their existence. I’m not saying that children won’t advocate for the ethical treatment of unicorns or insist upon the reality of their imaginary companions, but at this point in the rebooted narrative, Amelia Pond’s an orphan who’s never seen a star or met the Doctor. She is, as the downward drift of her eyes in that close-up suggests, a belittled child whose convictions have been mocked as the stuff of Dawkinsian cults—she’s had the universe pouring itself into her head, only this time the voices she hears aren’t Atraxi alarums that “Prisoner Zero has escaped,” because there are no more Atraxi around to imprison anyone.

The universe that pours into her head shares more in common with Vincent Van Gogh’s visions: it’s form without content, because every sun’s that ever existed has never existed anymore, and no sun means no Atraxi or anything else for that matter. Before the Doctor outwits everyone who’s ever hated him and begins rebooting the universe, he concedes as much:

Doctor who - the big bang00117
Doctor who - the big bang00117
Doctor who - the big bang00117
Doctor who - the big bang00117
Doctor who - the big bang00117

So what universe is pouring into Amelia’s mind? The one that literally never happened. She’s got unadulterated access to some sort of universal quintessence. Which is a good thing from the Doctor’s perspective, since he wasn’t too keen on his recent behavior in this universe of the never-were, and now he has a chance to revise it. So too do the filmmakers. There’s much more to write about this episode, but because I’m already pressing against the patience of even the most devoted fan, I’ll keep it short. It’s not a coincidence that the audience is formally introduced to the new Doctor in “The Eleventh Hour” thus:

Doctor who - the big bang01063
Doctor who - the big bang01063
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Doctor who - the big bang01063
Doctor who - the big bang01063

I’ve jumped around a bit, but the important part is that Amy and the Doctor are both in frame, then the director, Adam Smith, emphasizes the Doctor’s power by using an extreme close-up to dominate the composition. This is the original version of the Doctor’s rooftop encounter with an alien: he’s there with Amy and Rory, but Rory’s not in the frame and the only character of import is the Doctor. In the revised version in “The Big Bang,” director Toby Haynes knows that the Doctor’s epiphany has as much to do with Rory’s deaths as Amy’s life, which results in Rory sharing more of the glory:

Doctor who - the big bang00388
Doctor who - the big bang00388
Doctor who - the big bang00388
Doctor who - the big bang00388

In point of fact, this new universe will be birthed in part because of poor previously excluded Rory. His deaths were such catalysts that the scene from the first episode, “The Eleventh Hour,” couldn’t be rescripted and reshot in the final episode, “The Big Bang,” without Rory playing a central role in the narrative. So what does Haynes do? Cuts from the Doctor occupying a powerful position within the frame to Rory being in a powerful one relative to Amy. This restores the balance implicit in the fairy tale structure of the series: in “The Eleventh Hour,” Amy was “The Girl Who Waited,” but in “The Big Bang,” Rory’s christened “The Boy Who Waited.” They’re not coequal in capability, as my next post will show, but they are coequal in the effect they can have on the Doctor.

Comments (23)

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  1. Scott de B. says:

    So what universe is pouring into Amelia’s mind? The one that literally never happened. She’s got unadulterated access to some sort of universal quintessence.

    Maybe. Or mayne the universe pouring into Amelia’s mind is the one on the other side of the crack in her wall.

    • SEK says:

      Which would that be? The never-was that didn’t exist? I’m not saying there are only two — I know better than to do that — but there’s no indication as to what that universe is, only that Amy and Vincent see stars and exploding TARDIS’s via their access to it. If you think about it, the latter’s just Van Goghian perspective at it again, but the former? What’s Amy seeing over there? Nothing but stars? This isn’t a critique, mind you, I like the mystery.

  2. superking says:

    I’m sure that this post is about something–there are pictures after all. But man it feels like gibberish. British TV is all strange.

    • SEK says:

      I did warn you that it gets a little difficult to follow. Seriously, though, it’s brilliant if you can keep up with it, but absolute gibberish if you can’t. After all, each second iteration of an event introduces a new rhetorical situation that includes the first iteration of the same event, except that event’s now turned out differently, etc.

      • superking says:

        Yeah, I watched some Doctor Who back when Christoper Eccleston was the Doctor. Honestly, it’s the production values that turn me off. Even when it’s well written and directed, they still use a bunch of cheap props, bad CGI, and terrible lighting. I’ve never figured out why the Brits can’t light their sets correctly. In some places it feels almost like they’re using a different video standard than most TV shows use here in the US. Strange.

        • Jeremy says:

          It’s not just the British. I can’t think of any series I’ve ever really seen that didn’t look like that.

          I wonder if it’s more that Americans have come to expect their TV to look like the movies, while other countries look at it more as theater on film? That’s a lot of painting with broad brushes, but I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

        • Ian says:

          Even when it’s well written and directed, they still use a bunch of cheap props, bad CGI, and terrible lighting.

          The show currently has fewer rubber suits and garbage can lid death-rays than it did in its original run. Perhaps the total cheeziness of the Doctors 1-7 special effects made it easier to use my imagination to fill in the gaps, or perhaps it helped that I was a child when I saw them.

          • Tcaalaw says:

            I agree. Criticizing “NuWho” for its VFX/CGI is snobbishness. The quality is comparable or superior to the vast majority of American basic cable or network television science fiction/fantasy programming, IMHO.

        • Tcaalaw says:

          I’ve never figured out why the Brits can’t light their sets correctly.

          The British also have some sort of cultural aversion to decent sound engineering. I find that I have to crank the volume up on virtually all British-produced television programs and many British-produced movies to be able to hear what the actors are saying.

          • Spud says:

            I always figured that was due to PAL to NTSC conversion.

            Nowadays with digital recording/editing media and widespread use of hi-def TV’s, I am not sure if it is a relevant factor anymore.

            • Those are picture standards; the audio should stand apart from that, literally on a different place on the tape…which must I guess now be digital.

              It’s probably just got to do with different sound-engineering orthodoxies. There was some Beatles-related story about how engineers were scared to turn up the bass because needles might skip out of the grooves of the pressed album.

      • Medrawt says:

        I guess I’m swimming against the tide of the internets here, but while I loved Moffatt’s contributions to the Davies years of the show, I increasingly can’t stand his turn at the helm. Byzantine bullshit climbing up inside its own self, tittering about how complex and clever it is. “Doctor Who” indeed.

        And while I know Moffatt is to some considerable extent telling one really long story here, as opposed to Davies’ more discrete arcs, I think there’s something weirdly claustrophobic about the fact that Davies’ four seasons built to climaxes where the Doctor was the protagonist in a story about saving the universe, whereas Moffatt’s two seasons built to climaxes where the Doctor was a protagonist in a story about the Doctor. Especially since in thematic terms it feels a little like Moffatt pouting that he didn’t like the way RTD wrapped up the Tennant Doctor, so he’s going to hit the same character beats again, but this time allow the actor in the cast who’s Scottish to use a Scottish accent.

  3. amused says:

    Thanks so much for these posts. Not only do I get to relive my favorite show, but I get to look even closer at it.

  4. Gwen says:

    Not to be a snark, Professor, but are you going to explain to us how the Doctor got himself out of the box from which there was no escape?

    (Cuz nobody seems to have a coherent explanation for that one).

    • SEK says:

      You’re not being a snark, but best I can tell you is that that’s a future version of the Doctor who’s crossing his own time stream. Rory mentions in “The Impossible Astronaut” that the last time the Doctor crossed time streams the universe exploded, so it’s not impossible. Plus, it’s unclear what happened to the Present Doctor at the end of that episode, since it seems to have been the Future one in the Pandorica.

      Shorter: I don’t know, and now my head hurts.

      • mds says:

        Space and time had effectively already ended, with events that we saw playing out in a cooling-off, decaying fragment or echo. The normal rules of cause and effect (even the Doctor’s version of same) were out the window. Blinovitch didn’t apply without a universe around it. This has the virtue of explaining why the Doctor doesn’t continue freely rewriting time all the, um, time. There’s usually some substantial resistance to crossing his own timeline. See “Father’s Day.”

        Or, all these events had already happened from Pond’s viewpoint, so the actual order was irrelevant. Ties into the “I made up stories about the Raggedy Doctor that were true” angle.

        Or … Oh, look at the time. I need to head over to that seminar on superstring theory and relax.

  5. colin says:

    Dr Who is a kids programme, it scared me witless in the 70s as a kid with episodes like Green Death. It has always been made on the cheap but we brits are like great content not just flashy production values.
    There is lots of fun to be had with deep analysis of series storylines which keeps the adults amused, but basically kids still love it for its thrills,adventure and sense of fun.
    Take what you need from Dr Who and enjoy.

  6. Heron says:

    Bluh, not a fan of Doctor Who and this is a good example of why. No stars=no complex elements=no life. A starless universe is just an endless, undifferentiated mass of hydrogen.

    • mds says:

      No stars=no complex elements=no life.

      Yeah, I thought everything in the season up to that point had been scientifically plausible, but the bit where there was a tiny scrap of space and time left over where no one remembered the stars that had been there before the universe ended? Totally blew my willing suspension of disbelief. There weren’t actually penguins on the Nile, either, whatever that museum exhibit claimed. And bow ties aren’t cool.

    • Karla says:

      I was willing to accept that the burning Tardis was a star substitute. Plus, what mds said.

  7. Ken says:

    I told you, you can’t go back and change time.

    I always had trouble with that line, since he knows very well he can change history – “Waters of Mars” most obviously, and even further back “Pyramids of Mars”, and a few other episodes*. I was once one of those people who tries to find a logical explanation for the way time travel works in the show, but am much more at peace since I abandoned the idea that it is governed by anything more than scriptwriter convenience.

    *Some of those episodes can be explained by invoking the rule Kage Baker used in her Company stories: you can’t change known history. In “Fires of Pompeii” for example the Doctor didn’t know whether or not that family died, so he could rescue them. But this doesn’t work for “Waters of Mars” where we see newspapers and other records changing, Back to the Future style. Which also made no sense, but: scriptwriter convenience.

  8. [...] but his given that his moral code only seems to allow him to significantly alter history when its in need of a significant alteration, the consequence of him having lost his social stature which much more likely lead to lots and lots [...]

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