River Song returns for her second appearance in Series 5 here – and it’s arguably one of her best episodes. The character is generally best used when she’s slightly more peripheral – more of a second companion than the main star she was for half of Series 6 – and she’s used perfectly here, slowly revealing morsels of the mystery that would be revealed in the next series. She actually plays a fairly major role in events, but The Pandorica Opens has far more on its plate than focusing on one character.
The scenes set in the ‘Underhenge’ where the Pandorica resides are some of the best of the episode – there’s little action in the episode (and next to none in the opening stages), but the central, intriguing mystery of the Pandorica is the fuel of the episode – lending the episode a sense of urgency that it might have been lacking otherwise, leading up to the superb, drip-feed reveal of fans’ dreams: the reveal of the alien spaceships outside Stonehenge.
While the episode itself is superbly written, it’s anchored by some excellent performances from the regular cast. Minor parts aside, the episode is mostly compromised of four main characters: the Doctor, Amy, River and Rory – with all their respective actors giving easily their best performances of the series – a highlight being the Doctor’s rousing speech to the spaceships – (at least in this reviewer’s humble opinion) one of the finest moments of the revived series, and certainly the best of the episode.
But, as I’ve said several times before, this is a Cybermen review – so how did the metal monsters fare in this already crowded episode? Rather well, and if the Cybermen had had a little more screen-time this episode would have shot to the top of the Cyber-leaderboard (see next review). Surprisingly enough, the head of a Cybermen is more threatening, scary and imposing than all of the Cybermen in The Next Doctor put together – the shot of the skull being ejected is genuinely a rare (for the Cybermen) behind-the-sofa moment.
Understandably, the armless Cybermen is used for all of about a minute – something I heavily criticized in my review of The Next Doctor. It’s not really a fault of the episode’s however – as the episode has far more on its plate than being just a simple Cybermen story, so it’s forgivable to see so little of the Cybermen, and pleasing to see the Cybermen made scary again, albeit briefly. The Cybermen do return later briefly… but more on that later.
The Pandorica Opens is a great episode for the first half-hour, but what really makes it soar is the last fifteen minutes. Steven Moffat is known for seeding in small hints throughout his series – and the final fifteen minutes of The Pandorica Opens is where all the plot threads throughout the series come crashing together to make one of the best cliffhangers in the history of the show.
I haven’t touched upon the return of Rory (well, Auton Rory yet – but it’s a nice (if not hugely surprising) little twist, giving a fairly dark episode an emotional core that while not being integral to this episode (it’s far more important in The Big Bang, of course), is still a great plot element that is boosted by Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan’s superb performances, leading up to the low-key, shocking moment where Rory loses control and shoots Amy dead. It would be a great cliffhanger all on its own… but The Pandorica Opens has far more up its sleeve.
The reveal that the Pandorica is a prison created to incarcerate the Doctor is fairly obvious in retrospect (the ‘goblin who would tear down your whole world’ speech carries a lot more weight with the knowledge that the Doctor is talking about himself) – but the sight of all the Doctor’s greatest foes (including the Cybermen, and the Judoon. No-one knows quite why space police would ally with the biggest criminals in the universe, but they’re there) more than makes up for the twist’s obviousness (and viewing it from the perspective of the first-time viewer, it’s a pretty clever twist).
If there’s one fault with The Pandorica Opens, it’s that the triple cliffhanger of the TARDIS exploding, the Doctor being imprisoned and Amy dying is slightly marred by the slow-motion shooting style and the music accompanying it, giving the ending a slightly melodramatic feel to it – but considering the scale of the events, it’s hardly surprising.
Overall, The Pandorica Opens is a superb penultimate episode, anchored by an intelligent, careful script that satisfyingly reveals some, but not all of the mysteries of Series 5, great performances and one of the best ‘how are they going to get out of that?’ cliffhangers in the show’s history. It’s not quite the best Who will ever get, but it’s extremely close.