Doctor Who episode 787: The Impossible Astronaut (23/4/2011)
‘That most certainly is the Doctor. And he is most certainly dead.’ Beginning the series with Part One of a season finale is a power move, like not content with playing with the structure of episodes, Moffat is now turning our understanding of a modern series upside down. It almost works, in the same way that the first episode of classic serials usually work – it’s about setting up mysteries and inescapable cliffhangers rather than providing answers.
The risk is, Moffat has set himself up as the clever writer of puzzle box stories, a sci-fi Arthur Conan Doyle, and the audience expects him to provide satisfactory solutions. The Impossible Astronaut sets up a tonne of conundrums, most obviously the final problem – the Doctor’s inevitable death at the hands of the eponymous spaceman, but also the mysteries of the astronaut; the Silence and their relationship to the Lodger and his TARDIS, and the child plaintively begging President Nixon for help. By the end of this episode, it’s clear how at least some of these are connected – but hanging the rest of the series off the answers feels like a big risk.
There’s certainly less hand-holding here than in any of RTD’s season openers – no new companion (I don’t count Canton) to introduce the Doctor with a fresh set of eyes; no lightly plotted, present-day setting to ease us back into the swing of things. It’s straight in with a funny but baffling sequence of the Doctor popping up through history (why?), and the Ponds and River receiving an invite to the USA. A quiet picnic turns to tragedy as the Doctor is shot down by the astronaut and starts to regenerate (at this point presumably, the 13th regeneration wasn’t on Moffat’s radar, or it’s grist for the Timeless Child’s mill) before an old man turns up with a gas can and Rory makes the really weird decision to cremate his corpse in a boat (if I learned anything from those World War Two documentaries, one can of gasoline won’t do the job).
But then, a relatively younger Doctor turns up with a straw, and we’re back into the world of timey wimey as he has to investigate the murder of his future self without knowing what it is he’s investigating. This is Sherlockian fun after the fairly nasty stuff at Lake Silencio, but the episode keeps being dragged back into an unusual level of nastiness that culminates with Amy shooting at a child, a scene that, had she been around, would have had Mary Whitehouse furiously jamming the BBC switchboards.
Lots of this is very good. The Silence are brilliantly designed monsters, creepy with a unique power. Alex Kingston gets some decent material, particularly in her scenes with Arthur Darvill as she explains the ‘far worse day’ coming for her. The exploration of the disused warehouse and the tunnels underneath is nicely scary as the Silence emerge, like the Xenomorphs in their queen’s lair in Aliens. I really enjoy the Doctor’s “I’ve had enough” reaction to River knowing more than him, and his friends keeping something from him. Location filming in the American desert adds a gloss that Moffat keeps coming back to through his run (he’s obsessed with diners). I’m still not convinced it was a good idea for a series opener.
Next Time: Day of the Moon