The Impossible Astronaut
23 April 2011
The Doctor has been travelling alone for over 200 years, desperately trying to outrun his destiny. Reunited in the deserts of Utah, the Doctor’s companions witness his death at the hands of an astronaut. All of the clues to, his death lie in a series of note cards delivered to four people that he trusts above all others, including himself… aged 200 years younger.
Head writer Steven Moffat is obsessed with experimental narrative styles, specifically involving time travel. His creation of River Song, a character from the Doctor’s future who dies the first time the Doctor meets her, proves this, the series five two part finale from last year cements it in place, the series six opener is very risky indeed. The problem with telling stories backwards is that it holds all of the most important details until the end, rather like a murder mystery. But like many mysteries, the entire story can be undone by the ‘big reveal’ if it proves to be contrived, ham-fisted or just stupid.
The identity of River Song has been held over the audience of Doctor Who for several years now. We know that once the Doctor discovers who she is (and presumably who she murdered), it will ‘change everything.’ But suppose that big reveal is a clunker? What a waste of several years’ worth of programming. I will say that for all of the risks that Moffat has taken so far, he has proven himself worth the trust that he has demanded from viewers. The revelation of Amy Pond and the ‘Crack in Time’ along with the Pandorica were all quite satisfying (in my opinion, anyway) and utilized clues that were presented to viewers rather than inventing new ones like some other writers I could mention.
This over-extended preamble is my way of saying that Moffatt had better deliver the goods with next week’s episode because he has essentially given us half a story in this one.
(warning, nothing but spoilers here. If you haven’t seen this episode, read no further.. but go watch it)
Inexplicably, the story opens with a flurry of scenes depicting the Doctor in ridiculous situations throughout history. We are then transported to Amy and Rory living the domestic life of a young married couple, discussing the possibility that the Doctor has been doing all of this to attract their attention. It is then established that some time has passed since the closing moments of the Christmas Carol of 2010 and that the Doctor and his companions had parted company for some reason. Odd beginning for a heavily marketed opening episode.
Just before The Impossible Astronaut aired on BBC America, a ‘catch up’ program was screened offering anyone who had never seen Doctor Who a summary of last year. This kind of thing always strikes me as dubious, but given that the advertising has been so aggressive for this evening’s story, the possibility that much of the audience may be new to Doctor Who was very likely. Given all that, I have no idea what a newcomer would have made of this one.
After establishing that the Doctor has been traveling through time like some prankster without Amy and Rory, a mysterious letter arrives compelling them to travel to Utah for a specific date. We are then transported to River Song in prison where she receives a similar letter, leading to another break out from the most escapable institution this side of Arkham Asylum. All of the players finally unite to meet the Doctor who is lounging on a vintage car in the middle of the desert, donning a stetson, cool as you like.
It’s a neat visual but… convoluted? We’re just getting started.
The main cast members definitely behave like old friends getting back together after a long break. Actress Alex Kingston is back to her snarky old self, dressed head to toe in denim with a six-shooter on her hip. The newly weds Amy and Rory are far more toned down than we saw them last year, appearing far more ‘ordinary’ and pedestrian than the same characters who had witnessed the second big bang and tussled with vampires in Venice. I imagine that this is intentional so as to use the pair as an easy point of reference for the viewer rather than dumping newcomers in the deep end to a program starring four strangers.
In fact, the US premier began with as preamble spoken by Karen Gillan offering a sort of recap of Doctor Who from Amy Pond’s point of view. As a seasoned viewer this was incredibly weird, but as BBC America are tailoring the program to a target demographic… I can see the logic.
After a calm picnic reuniting old friends, the Doctor establishes that 200 years have passed since he has last seen his friends. He has been running from something but has finally decided to stop and face it. Amy, Rory and River are there to bear witness only. For a brief moment, Amy sees a suited alien being in the distance, but just as quickly forgets that she ever saw it. A stranger pulls up in a pickup truck just as an astronaut arrives at the edge of the lake near the picnic site. The Doctor and the astronaut have a heated argument and then the astronaut fires an energy ray from its fingers. As the Doctor begins to regenerate, it fires again, killing the Doctor outright. The man in the truck identifies himself as Canton Delaware III. Using a container of gasoline he was apparently ordered to bring with him, they burn the Doctor’s body in a viking funeral.
Shaken by the experience of seeing the Doctor murdered, the trio of friends retreat to a diner where they discover that they are not the only ones who have been summoned. The Doctor enters the diner, 200 years earlier than the version they had just met in the desert. One of the more amusing moments from Smith, it counters a lot of the heavy drama earlier in the episode.
Clearly the invitations were sent to the Doctor’s friends for a reason, but given the importance of the time line, they cannot change what they have seen (unless you count the many times the BBC Wales version has dodged that problem). The Doctor must die. As she herself is a time anomaly, River Song stresses to Amy that they cannot save the Doctor’s life in his past. Despite all of this, it is clear that Amy intends to change the course of events any way she can.
With very few clues to go on, the time travelers use the only one that makes sense, the stranger in the pickup truck. Using his identity as a marker and the Doctor’s odd mentioning of Space 1969, they arrive in the Oval Office of the White House just as President Richard Nixon is briefing a much younger version of Canton Delaware on a series of phone calls that have been haunting him. The calls are from a child terrified of an attack from an astronaut. After some awkward introductions, the Doctor establishes himself as the ideal man to solve the mystery.
The new character of Canton Delaware III is apparently very popular with fans. Played by actor Mark Sheppard (familiar to viewers of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica), he acts as an anchor to the 1969 storyline. A gravelly-voiced man with an ‘attitude problem,’ he makes for the perfect ally capable of convincing President Nixon of trusting the Doctor.
While the Doctor struggles to unravel the location of the President’s phone caller, Amy visits the toilet where she sees the bizarre suited alien once more. The creature kills a random White House staff member, yet retains knowledge of the woman, indicating to Amy that she must tell the Doctor that he is going to die. It’s a chilling moment and a really impressive entrance for the new monster called the Silence. I wasn’t sold on them at first glance, but they grew on me. Weird, unsettling and dressed in a simple black suit, the Silence has no mouth until an orifice opens up and sucks its target out of existence.
The Doctor tracks the phone call to Florida and departs with is trio of companions plus the gravelly Canton Delaware. Arriving in a spooky warehouse filled with stolen NASA equipment and an autopsy table built with alien technology, the crew finally get a moment to gather themselves and the audience gains a (brief) moment as well. River traces a line of cable to a manhole cover leading to a set of caves that her handy Star Trek scanner-thing identify as ancient. She stumbles upon a nest of Silence monsters, but forgets all about them as soon as she turns away. With Rory in tow, she descends for another look and finds a locked door.
On the other side is an experimental time machine (last seen in the series 5 story, The Lodger). As this was a major unfinished plot thread from last year, I am happy that they are picking it up here.
The Doctor, Canton and Amy are meanwhile looking for clues in the warehouse when a girl’s voice calls for help. Canton is off in a flash, but Amy suddenly remembers that she has to tell the Doctor something terribly important. This keeps the Doctor from keeping up with Canton, so when they finally do reach him, they find the former FBI man unconscious. Almost manic with anxiety, Amy tearfully tells the Doctor that she is pregnant just as an astronaut enters the room. It looks identical to the one Amy and the others saw kill the Doctor in 2011. Thinking quickly (and not clearly), Amy swipes Canton’s sidearm and fires at the astronaut as it raises it’s visor, revealing a screaming and frightened little girls trapped inside.
It’s an astounding cliffhanger. Traditionally, episodes end with either the Doctor or his companion in danger. By setting up the plot as an elaborate house of cards, Moffat has created a very impressive moment that will leave viewers hanging by their fingernails until next week. It’s exactly the kind of thing that will bet people chatting at the office or wherever and pull in a larger viewing figure for part two.
All of my praise aside, the Impossible Astronaut is a mixed bag and frankly I’m not sure what to make if it. On the one hand it is very tense and well-paced with an haunting new monster (always welcome) and features Matt Smith once again proving that he was born to play the role of the 900 year-old Doctor. On the other hand, it is a convoluted mess with far too many changes in setting and far too many characters, making the experience a bit of a carnival ride. All that said, the pieces do fall into place when the ride stops running and the more that I think of it, the more excited I am for the next episode when more clues are revealed… I hope.
I’d like to also refer readers to the Bigger On The Inside blog which has an excellent review of the Impossible Astronaut in addition to some of the best analysis of the program that I have seen online. Great work!
There are a lot of mysteries in this 6th series of Doctor Who including the identity of River Song, the meaning of the phrase ‘silence will fall’ (definitely spoken by actor Julian Bleach who last appeared in Doctor Who as Davros) and the importance of Amy Pond to the Doctor. It’s a hell of a lot to juggle while also delivering a coherent enjoyable 45 minute episode. I worry that there are far too many plates spinning for the new series of Doctor Who, but that seems to be the method of the BBC Wales version of the program; big wild ideas that lay interconnected through plot strands left in each episode leading to a big major finale at the end.
In my opinion this is a flawed approach that takes what was once a clever and evocative program and transforms it into a spectacle. But if that’s the way it has to be, I prefer Moffat’s approach to Davies’ any day.
As always the only way to see if it’s worth the ride is to buy a ticket and take your chances.
Update: In a recent interview with Express.co.uk, Karen Gillan discussed the ‘dummy ending’ of series 6 and the implications of how episode 7 ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ will impact the main cast…
“Cliffhangers normally have the characters’ lives being threatened. With this one three lives will be changed for ever,” she says.
“Even I got given a dummy ending to episode seven and it was only at the read-through that Steven Moffat took me, Matt and Arthur into the corridor to read the proper version on his laptop. We then all paced around going: ‘Oh my God!’
“There’s a really interesting plot arc in this series that involves all of the major characters and it’s evident from the first episode that everyone on the Tardis is withholding secrets from one another. It will make for a fascinating dynamic between the characters and it’s really important to the whole series.”
Next Time: Day of the Moon