Doctor Who is back and what a season opener. ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ certainly sets the tone that we are in new territory. Amy and Rory have left the Doctor’s company, the episode is filmed in America, we’re shown that the Doctor will die and this is a two parter so unlike every opener of the New Series we don’t get resolution.
I was slightly worried during the opening sequence of the Doctor ‘waving’ at Rory and Amy through time. Deliberately messing about with history in such a trivial matter would be out of character for the Doctor, even the more whimsical 11th incarnation.
Things got back on track once Amy and Rory arrive in the US and were reunited, not only with the Doctor, but with River Song as well. Some people find her character irritating but I think that is more down to the fact she knows more than we do about the Doctor, exactly the same reason that the Doctor gets irritated.
I’ve always found her an entertaining character and sensitively played by Alex Kingston. River Song adds a sense of epic scale to every adventure she is in, a feeling that this is all one big tapestry that we’ll look back on when its finished and see the pattern. One day we’ll know who she is and know the meaning of every averted gaze and pained expression.
The picnic by the lake was a good example of how a scene is improved in retrospect. Initially this the Doctor, unaccountably older and having had some unseen adventures with River Song, catching up with his friends. His mood is sombre and he seems tired. Only later do we realise this is his last supper. A final farewell to his friends before facing death.
The location shooting in this episode was an unqualified success, particularly the scenes by the lake. The rock formations and the moon reflected in the blue of the water all create such otherworldly feel we might as well be on another world. In ‘Planet of the Dead’ I was disappointed that they’d gone to all that trouble and expense just to shoot among sand dunes, something that would have been much easier to achieve filming on a beach in the UK and green screen in a horizon.
‘The Impossible Astronaut’ capitalises on the alien environment by having the titular space man appearing out of the water. The music only adds to the dream like atmosphere than all to rapidly becomes a nightmare.
Steven Moffatt has apparently killed the Doctor off before in ‘The Big Bang’ so he certainly goes to some lengths in to prove that the Doctor is really dead. I think we all suspected that the Doctor was going to get back up once everyone had left but instead Rory eliminates this possibility by giving the Doctor a Viking burial. There doesn’t seem any obvious way to cheat this death.
Our perspective of time is again being played with here. We are seeing the end of the story here. The Doctor, the Astronaut, Canton Delaware and even the Silence all know what has gone before but our point of view is that of Amy, Rory and River Song. We don’t know why this had to happen or why.
As a viewer this is where I’m gripped. I want to find out why the Doctor accepted his death and why the Astronaut killed him. I want to see what their conversation was that we didn’t see.
The reveal that the younger, not dead, version of the 11th Doctor is at the diner is both shocking and hilarious. In many ways Amy and Rory share something in common with River Song. They know his future and can’t tell him.
We can see that the Doctor isn’t happy about this and probably already suspects what is going on. What is interesting is that after finding out where they’re supposed to go he still wants to drop everyone off at their respective homes.
What has happened since the Christmas break to make the Doctor travel alone again? I hope that this will be addressed in subsequent episodes but it does give future writers plenty of gaps to put unseen adventures for the inevitable books and audio adventures.
For all his playfulness Matt Smith is very good at showing the darker side of the Doctor’s nature. He can be stubborn and bitter, as any 900 year old man would be. He doesn’t have time for games and doesn’t like people withholding information from him as we saw in ‘The Beast Below.’
He flat out tells River Song he can’t trust her. Taken in the context of her later conversation with Rory this scene is heart breaking. The Doctor has more faith in a companion he has spent less time with than his entire future history with River Song.
The introduction of the young version of Canton Delaware is very cinematic, given us a quick feel for the character as he is whisked from a bar to the Oval Office. Mark Sheppard might not be a big name but he is a genre stalwart appearing in everything from Medium to Firefly to Battlestar Galatica. This experience really shows, even in this first episode, putting in a solid performance.
Well done to the BBC for providing a prequel that actually connects to the main show. For those who remember watching the ‘TARIDSodes’ during season 2 it was frustrating when these exclusive scenes would often be contradicted in the show itself or have no relevance. I think the only one of any importance was the ‘Girl in the Fireplace’ prequel that showed the crew being turned into spare parts.
When Nixon, played Stuart Milligan (who might not have a close physical resemblance did capture the manner), explained to Canton how a child was ringing him those who’d seen the prequel were one step ahead.
This establishes another creepy puzzle for the story. How is this child ringing the President directly, where ever he is? What is frightening the child and what is that weird stuttering noise we can hear in the background?
Back in a lighter mood the Doctor makes a mess of trying to subtly gather information. I’ve loved him trying to be quiet as possible as he took notes and the amount of time it took him to realise that he’d been spotted.
The fast talking scene where he convinces Nixon that he needs his help shows why the telepathic note paper was unnecessary. A good writer can justify why characters believe each other without resorting to alien technology.
The White House is where we get our first encounter with the Silence. We’d glimpsed one, almost like the Watcher, at the scene of the Doctor’s demise but it is here that we see them in all their glory, standing in the women’s toilets.
In such a location, dressed in its smart suit, the Silence could have been laughable. Instead the contrast is unnerving, as its ability to make people forget them once they look away. Just so we don’t think that is all they do it disintegrates poor Joy just to show they’re not messing around.
The Silence share some lineage with the Weeping Angels. Both prey on ability to perceive them in that you need to look at them, whether it be to stop them in their tracks or know that they exist. Where the Silence go further is that looking at one won’t save you.
Matt Smith has said that they are his new favourite monsters and I can certainly see why. They make you feel completely helpless. You know if you run then you’ll forget and you won’t be able to get help but you can’t stay. If you stay you die.
The Doctor shows off his deductive reasoning, working out where the phone calls are coming from. I enjoy the way Moffatt teases us, having the Doctor state that if you think about it there is only one place in the country where it could be coming from. That fact he doesn’t immediately tell us the answer challenges the viewer to work it out.
The scenes in the museum, in the dark, make the situation even more puzzling. The phone is disconnected so how could anyone ring out? What is alien technology doing there? Why do they have cutting edge NASA space suits? What would a child be doing here?
During the crowded TARDIS era of the 5th Doctor writers found it difficult to give all the characters something to do. This isn’t a problem here, showing how characters can be paired off in interesting combinations.
For the first time we see Rory and River Song have a scene alone together and what a scene it is. River Song’s speech gives an excellent explanation of her plight. When she first met the Doctor he knew everything about her but every subsequent encounter he knows less and less. One day he won’t know her at all and she fears that will kill her. Little does she know how close she is to the truth.
Like the Doctor we know how River Song will die. Both are condemned by time. If the Doctor can escape his fate is there any hope for her?
By the climax we’ve had the return of the faux TARDIS from ‘The Lodger’, River and Rory menaced by the Silence and Amy’s confession that she is pregnant. The true cliff-hanger however comes with the arrival of the mysterious Astronaut.
In the hopes of averting the Doctor’s fate Amy shoots. Only to discover that the astronaut is the girl they’ve been looking for. Earlier we had River Song casually shooting the Doctor’s hat off his head but here we see how deadly and tragic the consequences of using firearms can be.
I find it fascinating that the cliff hanger isn’t a character in danger but the fact that a character has done something terrible. I suppose you could say that the child is in danger, having been shot, but she isn’t a main character. The real issue is what the consequences will be for Amy.
I think it was a bold experiment to start with a multipart adventure but there is nothing like a good cliff hanger to bring back the spirit of the classic series. That week between parts gives the viewer time to mull over what they’ve seen and theorise how the plot will develop.
With a Steven Moffatt story we are certainly left with a lot to think about. We still don’t know what the Silence plan, who the little girl is or why she is in the space suit, we don’t know why Canton Delware becomes so important to the Doctor he is invited to his funeral.
All I know is that I’m looking forward to next episode.