Review by Mark Bousquet
“THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT” – Series 6, Episode 1, Story 214 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Toby Haynes – A new season of WHO starts with a lot of old faces. For the first time in the relaunch, the same Doctor/Companion partnership is back. Amy and Rory and River all receive a mysterious envelope telling them to head for Utah, which is on a planet called America, according to a guard in Stormgate Prison. So they all get there and the Doctor is there and now he’s 1103 and they have a picnic and he gets himself killed. Yeah, and that’s just the first 10 minutes. After they burn the 1103 Doctor they had back to a diner where the Doctor pops out of the bathroom. Nobody tells him because he’s chewing on a straw. They all hop in the TARDIS and go to the White House in 1969, where they meet President Nixon and a lot of creepy ass aliens called The Silent, who look like an Edvard Munch painting. Lots of spooky stuff happens. Because The Silent Have Been Here For A Very, Very Long Time. Oh, And They’re Trying To Build A TARDIS.
I’m writing this after watching the show only once, which is something I really don’t like to do with complicated episodes because I’m sure I’ve missed a whole lot of somethings. But, hey, I watched the broadcast, it was awesome, and I want to chat. Nothing says I can’t come back later and add more stuff. So, let’s dig in to Series 6, and please feel free to speculate all you like in the comments. I can tell by the page hits that there’s a whole lot of new readers to the Anxiety (this past week saw the two busiest days in the blog’s almost year-long existence, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two days were the day of Elisabeth Sladen’s passing and the premiere of THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET) so feel free to jump into the conversation.
What’s immediately striking about THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT is that everything and everyone feels much more assured of what they’re doing. Perhaps this is a product of having all the principles back for a second year, but I think it’s more than that. I think the people working on the show realize they did good work last season and I think they feel they are really on the verge of doing something special. Showrunner Steven Moffat upped the ante on the season-long story last year. Unlike the Russell T Davies years, Moffat wasn’t interested in having a season with loose connections running through the edges of episodes. No, Moffat actively engaged his Crack in the Universe plot all season long. Shows still worked on their own, but DOCTOR WHO was taking a big step away from the Monsters of the Week format and towards a fully realized 13-episode serial. Series 5 was less CSI and more LOST, not only rewarding viewers for turning in every week but actively requiring it.
IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT opens with the marital bliss of the Ponds. It’s been a couple months since they’ve seen the Doctor and Amy is starting to get itchy. She’s reading historical accounts to try and find the Doctor’s presence in them, while Rory is content to sit on the couch and watch old movies in which the Doctor now appears. A mysterious blue envelope arrives and tells them to go to Utah. Meanwhile, across time and space, River Song sits in her cell in Stormgate Prison and gets the same envelope, also telling her to go to Utah. There’s a great bit at Stormgate where one of the guard gets on the phone to talk to a higher up and in a panicked voice says, “She’s doing it again. Packing!”
The Ponds get to Utah, step off a bus, and the Doctor is laying on the hood of an old car awaiting their arrival. He hops off the car and greets them warmly, telling them, “I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool,” right before River shoots it off his head. It’s a terrific reunion scene as you really get the sense that they’ve spent time apart. They’ve all spent different times apart since they last saw each other in BIG BANG (or wherever River is in their shared continuity) but you can see they’re glad to be back together.
They go to a diner to catch up and then the Doctor takes them on a picnic to the shores of Lake Powell, where they eat and laugh and he spits out his wine. Mysterious things start happening. First, an old dude shows up and stands apart from them. Then Amy sees a creepy guy in a suit on a nearby ridge, but then forgets she sees him. And finally, an astronaut comes walking out of the man-made lake. The Doctor, who’s told them he’s now 1103 instead of the 907 or so that we last knew him to be, starts to look every bit as old as he claims and orders them to stay back, no matter what happens.
Which is TV code for, “Something bad is about to happen but if you interfere you’ll screw up the plot.”
The Doctor goes forward to talk to the astronaut (wearing Apollo-era gear) and the astronaut (whose face we never see) shoots the Doctor, sending him into a regeneration. But if you were worried about some new Doctor being the big surprise of the first episode, you can bury them. The Doctor doesn’t regenerate into someone new because the astronaut shoots him again, killing him before the regeneration can complete itself.
Which means the Doctor is dead.
For real dead, not “Amy just before they stuff her in the Pandorica” dead, or “Rory getting snuffed out by the Silurians before his body gets absorbed into the white light” dead, or even “River sacrificing herself so all those people in the library can come back to life” dead. But really, truly dead.
Well, until we find out otherwise later in the season, I suppose.
But the Doctor is dead and his three Companions all react different. River pulls out her gun and starts firing away at the astronaut, whose walking back into the lake. Amy starts freaking out with the yelling and screaming and hysterics, and Rory is just sort of stunned. They’re now visited by the old dude in the distance. He’s brought a gas can, telling them they’ll know what to do. Amy wants to know what they’re going to do and River delivers the bad news: “We do what the Doctor’s friends always do – what we’re told.”
It’s Rory who takes control of the situation, insisting that if they’re going to do it they’re going to do it properly and puts the Doctor’s body in a boat and gives him the same full-roasting send-off that the Doctor gave the Master back in LAST OF THE TIME LORDS. The old man tells them he’s Canton Everett Delaware III and that he’s here because he received an envelope, too. He adds that “I won’t be seeing you again, but you’ll be seeing me.”
The TARDIS 3 head back to the diner as they try to figure out what to do. They spot the fourth envelope on a table and while they’re trying to ascertain who it was that was sitting at that table, the Doctor comes walking out of the bathroom. The Companions are obviously floored by his reappearance. River slaps him hard, telling him that “this is cold, even for you.” This Doctor is only 909 years old and he doesn’t have a little blue journal that the 1103 Doctor had to help him and River keep track of where they are in each other’s respective timelines.
Deciding not to tell the Doctor what they know, the TARDIS 3 are confronted by the Doctor back in the TARDIS. They tell him they have to go to 1969, but sensing something is up, the Doctor tells them he’s bringing them all back home instead. River tells the Doctor to trust her, but he scoffs at her plea. “Trust you?” he asks, calling up thoughts of FLESH AND STONE, where he asked her if he could trust her, and River replied with, “Where’s the fun in that?” Not trusting River means it’s up to Amy and she begs the Doctor to trust her. “Swear on something important,” he tells her, and she replies with “fish fingers and custard,” a reference to his food of choice when they first met back in ELEVENTH HOUR.
The Doctor agrees but you can see there’s a subtle shift in the TARDIS dynamic. River, Rory, and Amy are the ones with the knowledge this time around and there’s a great moment where they’re huddling together in the sub-floor beneath the center console discussing what to do and whether to tell him and the Doctor drops his head below the floor and tells them that he’s being brilliant and none of them are there to see it.
The obvious question, of course, is who killed the Doctor. The new Moffat Gimmick Monsters are The Silent or the Silence, who you forget the moment you’re not looking at them. (Is Silence the plural of Silent?) I’m not sure what to make of Moffat’s Monsters: the Silence, the Vashta Nerada, and the Weeping Angels. I’ve never been a big fan of OHOTMU Storytelling, which means that writers need to write to the dictates of a set of rules. (OHOTMU is a reference to the old Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which was full of encyclopedic entries on all of the company’s characters. I probably should have called this form of storytelling something like, “RPG Storytelling,” but I’ve just never liked that idea of writing to pre-determined rules.) I just don’t like writing where you say, “Here are the rules” and then can never work around them. It’s like the Green Lanterns having an inability to stop things that are yellow. It’s just silly. I can fly from Earth to the edge of the universe but I can’t stop a Twinkie. Stupid.
On the other hand, at least Moffat is trying to create new and interesting villains that aren’t just “space aliens who want to kill everyone,” and their quirks are taken into account in the plot.
The Silence have a great visual look to go along with their gimmick, as they look like Edvard Munch’s The Screamer had a baby with Buffy‘s Gentlemen. The Gentlemen, you’ll remember, were the baddies in the episode “Hush,” where no one could talk.
Meaning, silent. Moffat is even tying in his plots with shows that haven’t been on air for a decade.
I’m doubting it was a member of the Silence in the Apollo suit, and I’m guessing it wasn’t the little girl we see in the suit at the end of the episode. The obvious suspect is River because River is in prison for killing “the best man I’ve ever known,” but my instant gut reaction is that it’s the Doctor in the suit. When the astronaut blasted the Doctor the weapon flashed green, not unlike the Eleventh Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.
The TARDIS fires off to 1969, headed for “the most powerful city in the most powerful country” on Earth. The Doctor wants to know who’s the President in 1969, meaning for once it’s him asking the question for the audience and he’s disappointed to find out it’s Richard Nixon. When he makes a face, River jabs, “Hippie,” to which the Doctor jabs back, “Archaeologist.”
The exchange highlights the comfort level between the Doctor and River this time around; where River has usually had the upper hand on him, this time the power balance between them is much more equal, allowing them both to get in a few zingers at the expense of the other.
The Doctor materializes the TARDIS in the Oval Office with the Invisibility Cloak on (thanks to River correcting his mistakes in setting up the controls), and he sneaks out to listen to Nixon discuss some mysterious phone calls he’s been getting. He’s brought in an ex-FBI agent named … wait for it … Canton Everett Delaware III. (Which reminds me – a great gag in the TARDIS. When they decided they need to find CED3, the Doctor wonders aloud, “How many of them could there be? Well, three obviously.”) Canton is played by Mark Sheppard because it is written somewhere that Mark Sheppard has to appear in every science-fiction show made anywhere on the planet.
I wonder at what point Sheppard turned to his wife and said, “You know, as long as they keep making sci-fi shows and as long as I don’t lose my cool-ass voice, I’m never going to be unemployed. Seriously, I don’t even know what a Warehouse 13 is, but they want me enough to pay my rate.” (In a neat bit of casting, the elder CED3 is played by Sheppard’s real life dad.)
The scenes in the Oval Office display American’s love of guns and after the Doctor is wrestled to the floor, Canton tells the President, “You can listen to the guy with the gun or you can listen to the guy who just got past them,” then tells the Doctor he’s got five minutes to impress them. My favorite bit in the Oval Office is when the cloaking device is turned off and the TARDIS appears in the middle of the room. Nixon looks at the TARDIS and disbelievingly asks, “What the hell is that?”
As this is going on Amy is taken to the bathroom (because why use the TARDIS bathroom when you can use a White House bathroom?) and she’s confronted by another Silent. We get the rules made really clear for us here as another woman in the bathroom sees them, freaks out (thinking they’re from Star Trek), and then forgets them as soon as she turns her back. For her troubles and for our benefit, the Silent zaps her until she blows up, and tells Amy that she will “tell the Doctor what he needs to know and what he must never know.”
Thanks, Creepy Alien!
When the Doctor figures out that the little girl who’s been calling the President is in Florida, he takes Canton with them so he can do the whole, “it’s bigger on the inside bit.” What’s nice is that the Doctor passes Explanation Duty onto Rory who wants to know why he has to do it. Amy tells him, “You’re the newest” and kisses him in a nice, quieter moment.
In Florida they go walking around dark places so Toby Haynes can shoot a bunch of scenes with flashlights.
The best scene of the episode takes place underground between Rory and River, as River explains to Rory how she and the Doctor are moving through time in opposite directions. “Every time I see him he knows me less and less,” she says, admitting that she fears the day when he’ll look at her and not recognize her at all. When that happens, River feels like she’ll die. It’s an emotionally understated but powerful scene and it’s exactly the kind of honest admission that makes you give a crap about a character. Alex Kingston is simply amazing here, as she is throughout the episode. For her first couple of appearances as River I still thought of her as “that woman from ER,” but she will forevermore be “River Song” in whatever she’s in.
River and Rory break into a room and find that someone is building something. What we know and they don’t is that this room is exactly like the room that was upstairs from Craig’s apartment in THE LODGER. And if you remember that episode, you’ll remember that the Doctor said that someone upstairs was “trying to build a TARDIS,” meaning the Silent are trying to build a TARDIS.
Awesome, awesome, awesome.
Maybe it’s the geek in me but I was more excited to see that room than I was to find out that Amy’s pregnant. As the episode draws to a close, the Impossible Astronaut appears and closes in on the Doctor and Amy, and our mother-to-be freaks out and tries to save the Doctor’s future self by firing a gun at the astronaut, even though we see that it’s actually only a little girl inside.
Unlike THE ELEVENTH HOUR, this isn’t a season opener that makes you think, “Hell, yeah, this is gonna be so much fun!” THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT has touches of humor but they’re just touches. This is a dark episode, full of danger and teasing you with what you don’t want to see coming down the road. It’s “look between your fingers” television and it’s extremely well made.
What follows is not so much a review of THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT because I already wrote that, but an attempt to get down some general thoughts and dig a little deeper into some of the things I missed or just didn’t talk about during my initial reaction to the episode. I wrote this in between watching THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT and DAY OF THE MOON during their initial broadcast run.
THE DOCTOR/COMPANION RELATIONSHIP
One aspect of the Eleventh Doctor’s personality that’s really starting to come to the fore is that he seems to have two relationships with his Companions. Relationship #1 is that he clearly thinks about, and treats, the Companions by their functional role, especially in times of crisis. This is made most clear post-death of the 1103 Doctor when River tells the others, “We do what the Doctor’s friends always do. What we’re told.” The Doctor feels this way, too. After the Companions convince him they need to go find Canton Everett Delaware III in 1969, the Doctor rightly feels they’re ganging up on him and refuses to go to 1969 until he’s convinced they can’t tell him why they’re acting all secretive. Later, when they’re looking for the little girl, the Doctor sends Rory to follow River into the dark, even though Canton is the most obvious choice; Canton, however, is still an outsider that isn’t trusted. (Yet, since Canton is most certainly trusted by days of the 1103 Doctor.) It’s in these moments of crisis, when tensions are running high, that the Doctor seems to revert to treating the Companion simply as “the Companion” who does whatever the Doctor tells them to do.
Relationship #2 is primarily concerned in the smaller, quieter moments and this is where the Doctor individualizes his relationships and largely treats them differently from one another.
THE LEGS: THE DOCTOR/AMY RELATIONSHIP
For all of the flirtatiousness with River, Amy clearly has Favored Companion Status in this TARDIS. The 1103 Doctor’s hello to Amy is the biggest and longest. “Someone’s been a busy boy,” Amy teases, referencing all of his adventures that seem to have been purposely done to catch the Pond’s attention. “Stalker,” the Doctor retorts, clearly pleased with himself for getting her attention. It’s Amy, too, who has the biggest reaction to the Doctor’s passing, and it’s Amy who insists on telling the 909 Doctor about what they know (even though she bows to River’s preference to not tell him). When the Doctor refuses to trust River, he takes Amy’s word for it, though after she swears on fish fingers and custard, the Doctor makes a point to call her Amelia, signaling the root of his trust in her comes from Amy as a kid.
I love how genuinely concerned and affectionate he is towards her, too, when the 909 Doctor sees how worried she is when they meet him for the first time in the episode. He hugs her comfortingly and tells her, “Of course I’m okay. I’m the King of Okay. Oh, forget that title,” he says quickly. “That’s a rubbish title.”
When things get tense and the Doctor has to focus on solving things, Amy’s takes the biggest backseat. The Doctor knows he can rely on River’s experience and resourcefulness in a jam and he’s more willing to put Rory in harm’s way while he sidelines Amy. When things get tense at the end of the episode and Amy needs to tell the Doctor something, the Doctor is back in universalizing mode and doesn’t have time for her secret right then.
MRS. ROBINSON: THE DOCTOR/RIVER RELATIONSHIP
It’s flirty but the Doctor is also capable of telling River exactly where she stands with him. After being totally befuddled by River in THE TIME OF ANGELS, the Doctor has slowly found his footing with River and now he’s the dominant force in the relationship. Their best exchange in ASTRONAUT comes when they land in Florida and the Doctor explains why he knows this is where the little girl will be calling from, ending with:
Doctor: And Dr. Song, you’ve got that face on again.
River: What face is that?
Doctor: The “he’s hot when he’s clever” face.
River: This is my normal face.
Doctor: Yes it is.
River: Oh, shut up.
Doctor: Not a chance.
It’s playful and assertive, similar in force but not style to his earlier, ruder approach. After he’s told the Companions he’s taking all of them home, and River asks him to trust her, the Doctor lets out some of his beneath-the-surface anger. “Trust you?” he asks rhetorically. “Be serious.”
Based on River’s talk with Rory (covered last time) we see that River is operating less and less on solid ground with the Doctor and she really fears that their time together is coming to an end. Check out how she says, “Spoilers” to the Doctor in this episode; where before it was always teasing, here it’s tragic and somber.
River also sets up one of my absolute favorite lines from Eleven. After 909 pops out of the bathroom and the TARDIS 3 stare at him in shock …
River (hurt, angry, disbelieving): This is cold, even for you.
Doctor (confused): Or … Hello, as people used to say.
Great stuff and it’s nice to see Moffat continuing to complicate the Doctor/River relationship.
THE NOSE: THE DOCTOR/RORY RELATIONSHIP
The least developed, the Doctor clearly has gained a measure of respect for Rory. His “Rory the Roman!” greetings are heartfelt and since and it’s Rory he chooses to ask about everyone seeming to be mad at him. It’s also Rory who the Doctor asks to go after River:
Doctor: Rory, would you mind going with her?
Rory: Yeah, I would.
Doctor: Then I appreciate it all the more.
Rory (totally not excited): Hang on, River. I’m coming, too.
THE RIVER/AMY/RORY RELATIONSHIP
The gravity of the situation has put all of them on the same side, and while River takes a leadership role, there’s plenty of give and take. It’s River who continually forwards what they all recognize would be the Doctor’s wishes and Amy who forwards the “let’s make it better” position. Rory is in the middle, but he is the most rational about everything, willing to stand up to Amy when the situation calls for it. During their conversation beneath the TARDIS floor, River and Amy lay out the situation and desired solution and Rory sides with River, putting the situation into proper context for his wife.
River: He’s interacting with his own past. He could rip a hole in the universe.
Amy: He’s done it before.
Rory: And in fairness, the universe did blow up.
And in the sequence that occurred just prior to the TARDIS scene, Rory has his finest on-screen moment when he becomes the driving force in the decision to go after the Doctor’s killer. With River wanting to go and Amy wallowing in despair, saying it doesn’t matter, it’s Rory who stands up to Amy.
Amy (in teary shock): You’re talking like it matters. It doesn’t matter.
Rory (adamant): Hey, it mattered to him.
Good on you, Rory. With seemingly every episode my admiration for this character grows.
THE GASMAN: THE DOCTOR/CANTON RELATIONSHIP
Whatever relationship the Doctor and Canton have is largely in the future, but there’s more here than just this adventure, I think. Elder Canton’s face has a smile on it almost the entire time, even when he’s delivering the gas can or pronouncing the Doctor as definitely dead. How does he know “that’s definitely the Doctor and he’s definitely dead,” anyway? Nah, this is a guy who knows something we don’t. Count on it.
THE MONSTER: THE DOCTOR/COMPANION/SILENCE RELATIONSHIP
Okay, so the Silence seem to be operating on two fronts, their constant presence on Earth and their actions against the Doctor. We know they’ve set up camp on planet Earth, living here for a really long time. I have two things to say about this. The first is that they’re actually perfect alien invaders because we never remember them being here and on the rare occasion when we can actually see them, they’re wearing suits and ties. The second is that they’re clearly going after the Doctor, which is why I don’t buy this whole “Amy is pregnant” angle.
Amy gives no indication during ASTRONAUT that she’s pregnant – or, more importantly, that she has anything important to tell the Doctor – until after she sees the Silent in the White House. We know that the Silence operates using post-hypnotic suggestions/mind control. Amy sees the Silent just outside the Oval Office and gets sick, so she has to go to the bathroom where the Silent is waiting for her to arrive. (It’s a little weird she doesn’t use the TARDIS bathroom, isn’t it? But I guess if I was ever in the Oval Office I’d want to use the in-house facilities, too. Is that weird?) The Silent tells her that she will “tell the Doctor what he needs to know and what he must never know,” but it’s really not clear to me if this is a threat or an order. What does happen is that after this, when River and Rory are discovering the Silent’s attempt to build a TARDIS underground and the Doctor and Canton are tracking down the little girl after hearing her voice, then suddenly Amy wants to tell the Doctor something important, which turns out to be her pregnancy.
My guess is that we’ll find out this believed pregnancy has something to do with the Doctor’s earlier comment to Amy that he’s taking her and Rory home so they can make babies. If Amy really is pregnant, then perhaps the Silence have been convincing her she isn’t, for some reason, and Amy’s revelation to the Doctor is a sign of her breaking through their programming.
I also don’t think she’s pregnant because River also starts feeling a bit sick at one point, which makes me wonder if the sickness is related to the Silence’s post-hypnotic suggestions. Or if the Silence affects women differently than men, since none of the men have shown signs of sickness, yet.
Murray Gold is amazing. He’s kept the Series 5 theme going here and I love his subtle guitar additions to the theme, giving the theme a growling edginess.
Moffat seems to have attached his narrative wagon to Toby Haynes, who keeps directing the Moffat-written episodes.
I wonder what it says that when the Brits bring their show to America they give us the following American symbols: the western desert (complete with detachable Stetson), Richard Nixon, a love of guns, and the Apollo astronauts?
I love the Doctor’s enthusiasm at seeing the stolen Apollo equipment. “Look at this stuff,” he says in his happiest moment in the episode when picking up an Apollo helmet, “it’s so cool.” The Doctor then puts on the helmet and opens it up, which may be signaling to us that it’s the Doctor who kills the Doctor at the beginning of the episode. Which, as I talked about a bit last time, is what I think happened.
Does the Silence want Amy to kill the little girl in the astronaut suit? How can the girl keep calling President Nixon? And, for that matter, just who is this little girl being in the space suit?
Can’t wait until DAY OF THE MOON.
Review Originally Published April 24, 2011
Additional Thoughts Originally Published April 29, 2011