(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:
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,
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”:
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”:
In “The Eleventh Hour,” she turns to her window and spies this:
Which elicits this response:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
And alternate world Amelia’s painting looks strangely relevant:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.