On Living Through “The Big Bang”

Doctor Who. “The Big Bang.”

My before-the-spoiler-cut review (because there may be people reading this who watch on the North American schedule) —

I laughed.

I got weepy.

I was shocked — and amazed — at the audacity.

The Doctor got bloody damn lucky. (I’ll explain later.)

Overall, I think Steven Moffat played fair with narrative in ways that RTD didn’t.

Spoilers, ho…

For a series about a time traveler, Doctor Who has done remarkably little with actual time traveling. Time travel was more about getting the Doctor to someplace where he could have interesting adventures, like in Pompeii when the volcano blew, or in Palestine during the Crusades, or in Philadelphia when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Oh, wait. That last one didn’t happen. It should, though! Doctor Who should really, one of these days, do an American Revolution story.

One reason why time travel was probably been avoided as the hook, the basis for the story is that, by and large, time travel stories collapse under the weight of their own illogic. In a one-shot novel, which takes pains to establish its “rules” for time travel, like Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, the rules can be self-consistent. In a long-running series, like Doctor Who or Star Trek, the rules that exist are valid, by and large, only for the story that is being told in a given week, and they may contradict many other stories. (Just look at Star Trek fandom’s inability to agree upon precisely what the 2009 Star Trek movie did for a prime example.)

The cliffhanger to last week’s episode, “The Pandorica Opens,” left the status quo of Doctor Who in a very bad place — Amy was dead, the Doctor was imprisoned for all eternity, and the TARDIS was exploding. It was the latter — the destruction of the TARDIS — that was going to bring about the end of the universe as time and space tore themselves apart. (I suspect Steven Moffat has been reading up on “The Big Rip,” a theory that posits that twenty billion years from now Dark Energy Strings will rip the universe apart.) Fans, not unreasonably, asked, “Moffat, what have you done?”

The basic shape of the resolution in “The Big Bang” wasn’t difficult to guess, assuming Steven Moffat played fair with narrative as opposed to his predecessor. The Doctor would have to escape from the Pandorica. Since the universe’s destruction was due to the explosion of the TARDIS, the Doctor would have to get back to the TARDIS before its destruction ripped the universe apart. The easiest way to do that? River’s Vortex Manipulator. Rescue River from the TARDIS, stop the explosion, defeat the Big Bad, and, oh, toss in a reboot for good measure.

The only thing I had wrong? We never did find out who the Big Bad was. Who was it that said “Silence will fall” ominously in the console room? I know what the prevailing theory in fandom is to answer that, and “The Big Bang” leaves it open as a question to be addressed in the next season. If the Big Bad is who fandom thinks it is, the motives are frighteningly easy to guess.

I was impressed with the audacity of the episode. You had to pay attention as the Doctor leaped from one moment to a past moment or a future moment. Doctor Who as a non-linear narrative. I thought it was fab.

The episode raises a lot of questions. Besides the identity of the Big Bad or the precise nature of the Doctor’s relationship with River Song (I was expecting her to betray him, to be frank), what is the nature of the rebooted universe?

Yes, Steven Moffat rebooted the Doctor Who universe. Some think it’s a small-scale reboot, like “Last of the Time Lords” wiping out the year the Master ruled the Earth. Going by the dialogue in the episode, however, it’s wider-scale than that, wider even than J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek.

To stop the exploding TARDIS, the Doctor must use the light of the Pandorica to recreate the Big Bang (“Big Bang II,” he calls it), and this will recreate the collapsing universe. River and the Doctor both tell Amy that the rebooted universe will be a universe in which the Doctor never existed. This means that the TARDIS won’t have exploded (because the Doctor didn’t exist to have piloted it to Stonehenge), the cracks won’t have existed, and thus the things that fell through the cracks and “unhappened” — like Amy’s parents, like Rory, like (presumably) the ducks in the duck pond — won’t have ever unhappened and they will exist again in the rebooted universe.

But, why does the Doctor tell Amy, before he T-Mats the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS, that she must remember her parents to bring them back? Besides the fact that in fairy tales the good wizard, the kindly hero, tells the heroine something reassuring, that no matter how bad things look, there is always hope.

This is where the Doctor gets bloody damn lucky. (See? I said I was coming back to this.)

Amy will return to her “place” in time. Maybe she will have an echo of a memory of what she’s experienced traveling with the Doctor. Maybe she won’t. But she will have her parents and, to the Doctor’s way of thinking, his sacrifice to rebirth the universe is worth it because she gets the life she can’t remember back. Even though the Doctor tells her that she must think about her parents to bring them back, the reality is that the Doctor’s sacrifice is what really brings her parents back. Amy didn’t have to remember them; they would naturally exist sans the Doctor, sans the TARDIS, sans the cracks. In a universe without the Doctor, they would be there.

To the Doctor’s surprise, when the universe reboots, he finds himself in the new universe as his timeline rewinds, his adventures unhappen, his existence unravels. The Doctor realizes that he can exist, if only he can be remembered. So he makes a few furtive attempts to remind Amy of him, hoping that the command he gave Amy before he flung the Pandorica into the TARDIS explosion, to remember her parents still remains in her mind like an echo, like deja vu, as something he can take advantage of and use, like a lifeline, to pull him into the new universe. But ultimately he gives up; Amy can no longer remember him, and he knows he can no longer remain, he must be on the other side of the cracks, in the collapsing original universe, for the cracks to fully close and the new reality to fully form.

The Doctor got lucky. He didn’t know he would be able to transition over from the collapsing universe to the new universe.

At Amy and Rory’s wedding, thanks to the echo of Amy’s memories, the Doctor entered the new universe, a universe where he was never born, where he never existed. “The End is the Beginning” the first trailers said, and that’s literally what we have at the end of “The Big Bang” — at the end of the series is the beginning of the Doctor’s new life. Matt Smith is the nineteenth Doctor and the eleventh Doctor — and also the first.

The Doctor remembers everything because it happened to him, but it didn’t happen. No Time War. Gallifrey lives again.

Everything old is new again.

Who says Doctor Who isn’t awesome? 🙂

9 thoughts on “On Living Through “The Big Bang”

  1. That’s what I thought. There are people who think it would be a slap in the face to showrunners and writers who’ve gone before, though; although there are also those who’ve always described the Time War as having the same effect. However, there are also those who point out that if no one knew of the Doctor even after Amy pulled him back, the phone wouldn’t have been ringing.

    I say, it’s an excuse for Moffat (and his successors) to pick and choose what needs to have been left over from Big Bang I on the basis of each given story.

  2. Crumbs, I didn’t get that. Far as I could tell, the only changes in this universe are those related to anything that was deleted around the cracks like Amy’s family. This is still the same Whoniverse with everything that previously happened, including the Time War, the Doctor still the last of his kind. I think the phone call is supposed to indicate that.

    Only two things offer a seed of doubt.

    Does Amy now properly remember the events of Journey’s End?

    Steven Moffat has said, I think one of the interviews with his son, that next year some of the monsters will return but not in ways we might expect.

    If this is a new universe, perhaps we’ll have alternative versions of familiar Daleks.

    Or he could just mean we’ll finally see a return of the Mondas Cybermen.

  3. I didn’t take it that far, because if the Doctor didn’t exist in all timelines, even with a reboot the effects would be massive. Assuming the Daleks still exist for example, they probably would control half the universe. Did the time lords run amok? Would the time war have happened anyway?

    I see it more of a way for Moffat and co to make minor changes, and have the cracks in the universe being no longer there as an ‘excuse’ for differences.

  4. I was under the impression that River Song’s journal had text in it again when it got returned to her, meaning that once the Doctor was remembered, he was re-integrated with the universe.

  5. In many ways, Joshua, I think River Song is the best evidence for a reboot of the timeline. Bear with me, here.

    The Doctor didn’t know River prior to his tenth incarnation. Or, more to the point, River didn’t know him.

    What if the reason River didn’t know about the earlier Doctors is that, as far as her timeline is concerned, they didn’t exist?

    River can have adventures with the Doctor, and he can be secure in knowing that River isn’t polluting her past — or his — because, prior to “The Big Bang,” he doesn’t have a past to pollute.

    (No, this doesn’t explain “Silence in the Library” and River’s adventure with the tenth Doctor, but there are, as the Doctor says to Rory in “The Pandorica Opens,” things that fall through the cracks that are impossible and shouldn’t exist.)

    The Doctor not having a past in the new universe isn’t a problem for River’s diary at all. It could be blank when River passed it to Rory, because the Doctor didn’t exist. Once the Doctor crossed over into the new universe, the adventures he has with River — in his personal future, I would point out — “happen” and they fill the diary. The diary isn’t a document of his past, after all; it’s the story of the Doctor’s future.

  6. Personally, I’m glad they finally cleared up the whole Jacket-on, Jacket-off thing from Flesh and Stone. Continuity errors don’t exist in shows about time travel, but not knowing what it meant had made me a little fearful that maybe somebody had messed up.

    The Doctor’s return was also a recurring theme — remember Last of the Time Lords, when he was restored by the psychic energy of huge numbers of people believing in him? Not precisely the same, obviously, but very similar.

    I was a little put-off at first by just how whimsical the beginning of the episode was. It was so unlike the first part that at first, I felt I’d been betrayed. The Doctor in a fez rushing past Amy’s door told me right off the bat that he was alive and well. Amy is alive. Plastic Rory is still Rory, but then he burns up in the Blitz, but then he doesn’t. My anxiety from last week’s cliffhanger was all resolved in the first 20 minutes or so — and immediately replaced with all new anxiety when I remembered that the universe was ending.

    The writing here was fantastic. When cliffhangers fail, it’s because too much emphasis is placed on the hero failing to negate the threat. We’re left with the Doctor looking worried about whatever it is that he’s been trying to stop. Here, though, we were left with the Doctor alive but trapped in a prison he could never escape from, while every character who could possibly help him is out of the picture. The threat remained, but the focus shifted to something that people could actually be upset about, and therein lies the genius.

    Well, onward to Christmas…

  7. Nah, it doesn’t reset the universe to have Gallifrey and him be the first, though I’m sure Moff had the intent of allowing longtime fans to interpret it that way for the sake of any future debate about regeneration limits.

    If BB2 restores the universe to the state it was in when he was locked in the Pandorica, then it restores a universe that’s had a time war, got a time-locked Gallifrey…. etc. Because that’s the universe the Pandorica held.

  8. Count me as another one who’s not too sure this is a completely new universe; I think Moffatt is far too fond of continuity to want to undo it like this. (Also, it doesn’t occur to him that in this universe whoever wanted Silence to Fall may not exist, or be dead, or just be completely uninterested in forcing him to witness the end of the universe. Instead he regards it as a current problem, which suggests to me that he thinks it’s the same universe.)

    (Also, does the Doctor never existing mean that the Time War never happens? Or does it mean that it drags on indefinitely, with no-one determined enough to do whatever the Doctor did?)

    I’m not clear what you’re saying about River – she was always from the new universe, even in the old one? How does that work?

    I’m also not sure the Doctor gives up getting Amy to remember him, and the fact she does was just luck. Amy herself certainly doesn’t think that:
    “I found you. I found you in words like you knew I would. That’s why you told me the story. The brand new, ancient, blue box. Oh, very clever.”

  9. I don’t think Big Bang2 created a new universe.

    What appears to have happened is this: Amelia, as a child grew up with this big gap in the universe in her bedroom. By the time she was Amy, she had been exposed to enough of the universe that her memories alone were all that would be needed to render a complete copy of the universe as it had existed.

    Amy did not have to remember every detail of the Universe for it reorganize itself. She didn’t need to know the details of human DNA or the height of a Dalek for all of those things to return in their original condition. She didn’t have to be versed on history for all of history to have properly unfolded.

    The cost… the energy required… for all of this to be brought back into existence was the Doctor in the Tardis.

    But Amy’s brain was still special. Even though the universe that was recreated from Amy’s mind was recreated without the Doctor, he was able to leave such a lasting imprint on Amy’s mind that she would recall his existence while there was still enough energy left from BB2 that he could power the TARDIS back into reality.

    But reality won’t suffer a void, so the Universe’s memory of the Doctor was restored too; that means all of his history and all of his past was restored right along with him. This is why Rory (who didn’t have Amy’s special brain) was able to remember the Doctor as soon as the Doctor returned to reality.

    So… everything that the Doctor ever did is carried over into this “new” universe.

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