Warning: spoilers ahead.
“The Pandorica Opens” gives us the pieces of this season’s puzzle coming into place, then wraps around itself to show us the placing of pieces we thought were already in place. One of the episode’s opening scenes – the Doctor discovering the oldest writing in the known universe is actually a note from his future sweetie – is played for laughs. But it’s really a clue to the heart of the whole Pandorica mystery, in which we learn the prison box of legend isn’t opening, it’s closing, and the Doctor isn’t finding it at the end of its legend, but at its beginning. Time travel, Steven Moffat loves to remind us, can let you live your whole life hearing about an ancient something, then let you go back in time and become it.
That, not the OMG!! moments of Amy’s death and the TARDIS’ destruction and the Doctor’s imprisonment and the end of all of time and space, is the episode’s most effective idea. As I mentioned months ago when discussing “The Eleventh Hour,” “Doctor Who” is a series that too often takes for granted its space/time travel basis, using it merely to get the hero from story to story; Moffat, returning to script duties for the fifth time this season, finally sets his sights back on the sort of big-picture storytelling that emphasizes the greater complexities of time travel.
And things get plenty complex. The pre-credits sequence ties together several of the season’s separate plots, creating a thread that takes us from Vincent Van Gogh to Winston Churchill to River Song to Queen Elizabeth X, and then beyond those characters, as River leaves that note, which the Doctor – any Doctor, past, present, or future (it’s surely just a coincidence it was the current one who got around to it) – would be certain to find eventually. That’s the upside to space/time travel: there’s not such thing as right now. River’s now can be the Doctor’s then, and it’ll all even out eventually.
Oh, and then Rory shows up, despite, you know, having never existed and all. Moffat’s teleplay offers a genius bit of misdirection here, since we (and the Doctor) spend much of the episode trying to work out how Rory can possibly exist. The Doctor says something about miracles and the great big unexplainable universe, then seems to agree to sort it all out later; we, meanwhile, are looking for clues, certain we’ll be given a solid explanation in next week’s conclusion.
When River arrives at Amy’s house in lovely ol’ June 26, 2010 (cleverly picked, since it’s the date of the season finale), and we’re misdirected even more: all those Romans come from Amy’s head, and maybe the Pandorica does, too, and surely that means other story elements as well – just as fans have been predicting since April. Surely thousands of fans were screaming their “a-ha!s” and high-fiving each other for having guessed that Amy Pond, whose curious world the Doctor had noticed all those adventures ago, must have some wild psychic power linked to the crack in time. The script is plenty happy to lead us down that path…
…and then tell us we’re all wrong. The Romans, the Pandorica, Rory – they’re all from Amy’s brain, sure, but only because every baddie to ever cross the Doctor’s path scanned her mind and crafted an agreeable false reality, full of guns-inside-hands Autons. Sorry, fans. That’ll teach you to try to outguess the show.
Another fan theory – the “most feared thing in the universe” would turn out to be the Doctor – was half-right; in the eyes of his enemies, he certainly fits the bill (and Moffat gives us a very Russell T. Davies-esque bombastic monologue in which the Doctor once again scares away alien hordes by reminding them who’s boss). But the teleplay twists this notion by giving us the beginning of the imprisonment, not, as expected, the end of it. Even the title is a ruse: the Pandorica opens, but that it also closes is the more significant detail.
(And oh, how beautifully Matt Smith plays that scene, the hero reduced to total panic, still so certain he is the universe’s best hope while having to reconcile how all those fairy tales reduce him to the role of villain, a terror falling from the sky. Funny thing about villains: they don’t always know they’re villains.)
The episode is happy to distract us as it sets up its trickery, giving us thrills with Roman soldiers, undead Cybermen parts, and poor, poor Rory, unfortunate enough to know he shouldn’t exist without knowing why. (That Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are terrific here should go without saying.) Curiously, Auton-Rory killing Amy is more or less secondary, what with the Doctor being locked away and the universe dying, yet it connects with us deeply, paying off a season’s worth of character work.
But Amy could be shot or walk away unharmed; neither outcome would change the crack in time. Is the TARDIS really to blame, or is something else at play? Could the alliance of villains have a point in locking away the Time Lord, who may or may not be the cause of the crack? Or do their actions cause the crack by preventing the hero from saving the day? (The answers seem obvious, but nothing is obvious this season.)
“Who” has promised the end of everything before, so reviving that threat as a cliffhanger requires a unique touch to keep it interesting. And so we have the final shot of the episode, in which whole galaxies are erased from view, leaving only Earth afloat in total blackness – and then the music itself stops, as if it, too, had disappeared from all of time and space. A nice final touch which leaves us leaning in as we begin our long, long wait until the season finale.