Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Mark Sheppard ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Toby Haynes ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: Bold, bewildering and more than a little barmy, the opener to Season 6 of Doctor Who‘s new incarnation is an attention-grabbing adventure that may be a little too complicated at times, but certainly sets up one hell of an ongoing story arc…
What’s it About?: Mysteriously summoned to the Utah desert, the Doctor, Amy, Rory and Professor River Song are soon involved in a bizarre quest back to 1969, where dark events are occurring in the White House, and a sinister alien force lurks behind the scenes…
The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)
The RTD era is over. I mean, yes, it’s been over since The Eleventh Hour hopped onto our screens a year ago, but if there’s one thing that this opener to S6 brings home, it’s that this is very much a different show now. The Impossible Astronaut plays more like a season finale (which is a deliberate choice), and it’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the light, fluffy runaround nonsense of RTD opening episodes like Partners in Crime and Smith and Jones. In fact, it’s rather as if we’ve already leapt to Moffat’s equivalent of S4 continuity-fest The Stolen Earth with the sheer level of interconnections and fan service going on, and there’s a part of me that’s a tad concerned at this (especially as it’s always been the mix of daft showstoppers and brainier episodes that have kept the show’s popularity up) – but, admittedly, the rest of me is well and truly along for the ride.
And it’s certainly an eye-catching ride, managing to pull-off an epic, American adventure far better than the distinctly lacklustre Daleks in Manhattan two-parter in S3. There’s spectacle, there’s some great visuals- but on top of the gorgeous US location footage (which is sparing, but about as much as I figured we’d be getting, to be honest), there’s the major twist in the first ten minutes of the episode. Now, I already knew that one of the regulars ‘was going to die’ thanks to spoilers on the front of Doctor Who Magazine, and my money was on the Doctor, but not in the way it happened – a stark, bizarre and powerful scene that managed to have vague (probably deliberate) echoes of 1981 adventure Logopolis, where the soon-to-regenerate Doctor talks to the mysterious Watcher (who’s actually a projection of the Doctor’s future self). It’s really nice, very well acted, and is best because from then onwards it places all the characters in a really interesting emotional situation – the story does seem to be building up that everyone’s going to be keeping secrets from everyone else, and Moffat is also finding new wrinkles to the idea of having a married couple as TARDIS companions (especially if the ‘I’m Pregnant’ line is anything to go by).
Of course, there’s a get-out clause – and the Doctor being secretly enlisted by his own future self to possibly prevent his own death is a great set-up for a story, leading us in an admirably nutty direction while also giving Matt Smith plenty of chances to shine, showcasing the Eleventh Doctor’s comedy and his darker edges (along with his new status as Biggest Flirt in the Universe(TM)). The Impossible Astronaut is a fun, enjoyable and intriguing episode with plenty of standout moments and a great support performance from SF TV veteran Mark Sheppard, but in spite of the incredibly fast dialogue and the multitude of well-timed gags, it is a slow-burner – we’re more in character-building territory than all-out adventure, while the various enigmatic plot-threads have yet to connect up, meaning the final cliffhanger is more bemusing than thrilling simply because we don’t know yet what the hell is going on, leaving us with far more questions than answers (Why exactly is the Astronaut also a little girl? Why is Amy telling the Doctor right then that she’s pregnant? Is it because of what the Silent said? Why was the Future Doctor on the run for 200 years? Why are both Amy and River feeling ill after witnessing the Silents?).
I suspect that this’ll play much better once we’ve seen episode 2, and that maybe this story should have been shown as one big, attention-grabbing 90 minute special rather than a two-parter. With a new and intimidating enemy in the Silents (whose sequence in the White House bathroom is brilliantly spooky, even by Who standards) and a massive mystery (which is connected to the TARDIS-like craft from S5’s episode The Lodger, and may feed into the supposedly game-changing mid-season finale that’s coming in six weeks time), this is a different kind of Who opener that’s dark and demanding, but possibly a little too complicated at times. There’s also the feeling that Moffatt needs to be careful with the trans-temporal shenanigans from now on, as there’s the distinct danger of repeating himself and losing any freshness the concept had in the first place. A gripping opener, The Impossible Astronaut may not have won me over 100% in the way that The Eleventh Hour did, and much is going to depend on how Day of the Moon pans out (from the end-of-episode teaser, it certainly looks demented) – but Doctor Who is still a wildly inventive adventure, and one of the most unabashedly fun SF shows around.
The Verdict: Season 6 is go – and we’re already off to a head-spinning, complex start. Despite a few reservations, this is a strong opener, and if Moffatt can keep focus and not let things get too over-complicated, this could be a seriously impressive Who adventure. Now all we need is episode 2…