Doctor Who S6 E1 – The Impossible Astronaut

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NOTE: contains some mild spoilers, and possibly traces of nuts.

And so “the Doctor is in” once again. This time he’s hitting the ground running with the sort of big, bold, epic adventure normally reserved for season finales – including the shock moment in the first 10 minutes that would normally be the end-of-series cliffhanger par excellence, and yet here it’s merely the kicking off point and the start of things.

It’s not an episode you’re really going to understand, unless your name happens to be Steven Moffat. It’s too devious and intricate to ever let you think for one minute that you’ve got a firm grip on where its going or how it’s going to play out. In fact the best thing is to actually stop even trying to follow the plot at this time and instead just view it as a “mood piece”, where you sit back and enjoy the overall flow of it and the specific set-pieces and hope that the plot will come to you later on – after part 2, maybe. It’s certainly not the sort of easy-access starting point to the series that we may have expected given the show’s obvious efforts leading up to this season opener to really try making it big in the USA at long last.

A big problem in ‘breaking’ America is that the show, while expensive in UK terms, is on a pauper’s budget compared to US network productions. One of the biggest criticisms that people had of the previous season was that the widely publicised across-the-board BBC budget cuts had really hurt Doctor Who, with CGI not as good as previous years (Vampires of Venice) and other shows having to make do with a boutique guest cast of 5 or 6 where really it needed crowds of people to make it live up to the script’s vision (Hungry Earth).

Well, no budget problems in evidence in this season opener (perhaps thanks to a co-production deal with BBC America?) It’s hugely impressive, stunningly cinematic throughout and looks wonderful, right up there into proper movie territory, especially with the location shooting in Monument Valley and Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona adding a genuinely epic feel to the early scenes, as does the hiring of well-known US series actors (and real-life father and son) W Morgan Sheppard and Mark Sheppard in a key role (and yes, I do mean one role, that of temporary new companion Canton Everett Delaware III.)

The ensuing 40 minutes of action are non-stop, but not the story of melodramatic running about that most shows practice – every single scene has a vital role in progressing the story and the ideas forward. So you have breath-taking, show-stopping iconic scenes following one after the other: a giddy chase across history keeping up with the Doctor’s exploits; the arrival in Monument Valley and a picnic by Lake Powell; an Apollo astronaut in the middle of the desert; a shock shooting, and the death of a regular character; a Viking funeral; the Tardis in the White House; the creepy warehouse and the underground tunnels with that strangely familiar control room, and then the return and unmasking of that astronaut again. And above all, the new villains – the Silents, who are staggeringly creepy as little grey men incongruously dressed in “men in black” suits and ties: they only lack the shades. Their scenes in the White House (and in particular, in the rest room) are among the most gripping moments of the episode. All of this is hugely captivating and arresting, even if you don’t really have a clue what’s going on: but I suspect only adults will worry about whether the show is “understandable” while kids won’t think about it for a second as they’ll be too busy hiding behind the sofa or watching with their mouths open in wonder.

And then there’s the dialogue and the character interplay: I just love how the four regulars (the Doctor, Amy, Rory and River Song) play off each other, and their scenes together top any others in the show whatever the spectacle or the scare factor on offer. The main cast (Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and the wonderful Alex Kingston) are all on terrific form and really strong in their respective characters now. The team reacting to the Doctor’s surprise reappearance in the diner; later, the trio struggling to keep a vital secret from the Doctor (and his sulking about it); Amy’s revelation toward the end; Rory having to walk Canton through basic Tardis induction protocols; and in particular, River’s opening up to Rory as they search the tunnels are all genuine character highlights. There’s also a lovely character grace note where the Doctor reassures the new crew addition with “Brave heart, Canton!” immediately reconnecting us with the Peter Davison years.

However …

There are a few things that don’t quite come off. Stuart Milligan, playing President Nixon, is a good actor but he really isn’t anywhere close to a good-enough representation of America’s most notorious leader in any way. And while the Oval Office set is perfectly fine, there’s a lack of sense of genuine West Wing ‘atmosphere’ that belies the show’s British origins which fail to quite understand the nuances (one basic example being the Secret Service overlooking River Song’s firearm and never taking it away from her.) Plus, given that the show makes a big play about being a trip to Space: 1969, there’s actually an odd lack of period feel at this point too – although that might be rectified in part two.

Oddest of all, there’s a sense that Moffat – a hugely imaginative and ambitious writer – is strangely stuck on certain themes when it comes to his Doctor Who scripts. Once again we have a show that starts with a prison breakout by River Song; a series regular’s (apparent) definite-and-final death (they all died at one point last season); followed by a lot of tricksy jumping around and complex interweaving of timelines of the sort we’ve seen in several of Moffat’s previous scripts starting with his award-winning episodes The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink through to the S5 two-part finale last year, the Christmas special and still more recently the Children in Need special in March. Even the new villains are strangely familiar riffs on an old successful theme: where Blink‘s Weeping Angels could only move when someone wasn’t looking, here the Silents are able to erase themselves from memory as soon as someone looks away. It’s still working, it’s just that really it’s starting to get a little bit familiar and needs resting. Russell T Davies, for all his faults, never stayed still and was always trying something new and different – even if sometimes his approach failed or resulted in unfocused ADHD scripts, it couldn’t be faulted for always trying new directions week in and week out. Moffat is running the risk of overthinking things and finding himself stuck in a particular furrow, where Doctor Who should always be about unlimited possibilities and infinite alternatives week in and week out.

But right now, that’s carping. The Impossible Astronaut was a hugely successful and effective epic opener and one that makes you desperate to see part two right now and not have to wait for another seven days, and that’s always quite the best compliment you can pay to the show.

7 thoughts on “Doctor Who S6 E1 – The Impossible Astronaut

    Ann said:
    April 24, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Totally agree about the Nixon casting. Did not work for me at all.

    I’m still not 100% convinced by Matt Smith’s Doctor portrayal. River Song is increasingly starting to steal the show for me whenever she is on. Would LOVE a River spin-off show – so much potential material/backstory to explore. And I LOVE Alex Kingston as well.

    Something about this opening episode left me a little flat, can’t put my finger on it yet…

    Seb said:
    April 24, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    I quite agree with Ann, didn’t engage me. In fact, as soon as the episode had finished I forgot it…

    andrewlewin responded:
    April 24, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Har har, Seb!

    Any ideas/thoughts on what didn’t engage you? Or what it was that left you a little flat, Ann? I spent much of S5 in that sort of state but have to say that almost all of this episode worked for me (with the exceptions stated in the post, obviously.)

    I’m entirely happy with Matt Smith as the Doctor, but that doesn’t mean I disagree that a River Song spin-off would be absolutely brilliant. Alex Kingston is indeed fabulous and surely everyone’s at least a little in love with her now?!

    Ann said:
    April 24, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    I think it was all too quick. action. action. action. No build. This may be the price we pay for them trying to seriously crack the US market. short attention spans and all 🙂

    I’m not really sure what the plot is yet. I don’t’ need to understand it all but I need to care.

    The opening gimmick of the death didn’t shock me cuz you know it can’t be true…

    andrewlewin responded:
    April 24, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Huh, interesting. One of the few bad press reviews I’ve seen of the ep actually criticised it for being too talky and not enough happening – honest! Just goes to show. I thought it got the balance just right and was far less action/action/action than the RTD days which was far more US-market friendly.

    Yes, the opening ‘death’ is one of those over-familiar tropes that I think are being overused, I agree there. Although it was interesting in addressing the perennial problem of “oh, he’s just a Time Lord, he can’t die he’ll just regenerate” – this showed how it would be quite possible to kill him. But indeed, can’t be true, so we’re just hanging around to see how they going to get out of it this time.

    Seb said:
    April 26, 2011 at 9:14 am

    I agree with the second half of Ann’s follow-up comments, re plot and gimmick, and the criticism that it was too talky. I have a feeling it’s another situation where there’s only really enough material for one and a half episodes, stretched into two – but this time it’s the first episode that’s been stretched. From the sneak-peak we had of the second part it seems much more action packed. We shall see.

    Re possible to kill him while he’s regenerating… I’m sure The Doctor has been zapped multiple times before by Daleks etc…

    andrewlewin responded:
    April 26, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    So sounds like we have a 3-way split on pacing: too talky, too quick/no pacing – or just right (that last is me! 🙂 interestingly the reviewer on Radio 5 Live this afternoon said he saw it at the press screening as one 90 minute feature and said that this worked *much* better – less confusing, no pacing problems either way. So I guess we hold off till part 2? (Oh, and all the anecdotes agree: adults fretting about it being too confusing, all their kids not caring a bit. Just shows …)

    We’re pretty much agreed on the opening “gimmick” -al though actually it has some interesting repercussions as things go on, if I’m honest.

    Re: regeneration – the key here is that the Doctor was fatally shot again WHILE REGENERATING. We’ve never seen that before. Even if multiple shots have been required to kill him in the first place (and only the 7th-8th could count as that), nothing had then interrupted the regeneration sequence itself and this was clearly presented as the major, terminal difference here. The Doctor’s always been in a safe place (usually the Tardis itself) for the actual regeneration.

    Yeah, yeah – I know far too much about Doctor Who than is healthy!

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