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.
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.