THIS EPISODE TAKES PLACE BETWEEN THE
COMIC RELIEF SPECIAL
"TIME" AND THE TV
EPISODE "DAY OF
'THE COMPLETE SIXTH SERIES' BLU-RAY DVD
LIKELY TO BE RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2011.
The Doctor AND HIS FRIENDS ARE summoned to assist President Nixon in saving a terrified little girl.
23RD APRIL 2011
(45-MINUTE EPISODE, PART 1 OF 2)
Every year the fans try to predict, from the scant information available, what will take place and what secrets revealed in the next series of Doctor Who. It’s a futile task, doomed to failure, perhaps striking a lucky shot amid a flurry of fervent speculation ho-pelessly wide of the mark. Still, it’s a bit of fun, so here goes - but beware, of course, of spoilers...
Two questions hang over the series: what is the Silence and who is River Song? Both, Steven Moffat assures us, we be answered in Series 6. Personally, I expect a slow drip-feed of information rather than a big reveal, and for the first two-part story to leave us with more questions than answers. The Silence have been hinted as being a group, rather than an entity or process; thanks to the some classic spoilerism by The Radio Times we now know that they are the race of pale-skinned, skull-faced aliens seen in the trailers for The Impos-sible Astronaut - aliens who, perhaps significantly, have no mouths. However, with the threat of the Silence hanging over the entirety of the previous season, I feel that this first story will not be the last that we see of them - unless, of course, even they are working on behalf of some greater Big Bad who will be revealed later in the series.
Intriguing hints have been released about this story. Suggestions in the press releases for the second part, Day of the Moon, suggest that the aliens will come close to victory, already occupying, or at least influencing, the Earth. The Doctor will be shut in the perfect prison (hasn’t he already been shut in one of those?) Intriguingly, we know that the Doctor and his three comrades will be summoned to the USA for this story, each of them receiving a message in a sealed envelope. Just who could have the power to do this? A tantalising sneak-preview clip has been released which sees the Doctor confronting both River and Amy in the TARDIS. While he is reluctant to obey the summons - he’s never been great at following orders - Amy and River insist that he trust them, and that he can’t know who is behind it. All very intriguing, while at the same time providing no answers! Images in the trailer of a bedraggled, bearded Doctor give me cause to wonder. Does this story cover a long period, with the Doctor trapped in his prison for some little while? Or is the message sent, somehow, by a later Doctor, into his own past? Or am I reading too much into a stick-on beard?
River Song is another matter. Personally, I hope that they resolve this mystery sooner rather than later. The River question has been ongoing since 2008, and it’s about time we got a definitive answer. And if his outburst in the aforementioned clip is anything to go by, the Doctor agrees! It now seems that her being his wife is too simple and straightforward an answer; that there has to be something more to it after this long. It seems the question won’t be answered in the opening story, however - River is set to return in the seventh episode (the mid-season finale, in practised American series style), A Good Man Goes to War. This appearance will no doubt be earlier in her timeline than the previous, as is the current pattern. “She has a secret, and this is the day she tells it,” says Moffat in the Radio Times preview snippet. The title, naturally, brings to mind the ongoing mystery of River’s crime. “She killed a good man, a hero to many,” said Father Octavian back in Flesh and Stone. Surely, then, this is when we discover who her victim is?
Well, the obvious candidate is the Doctor. Far too obvious, surely? I’m going to go out on a limb here and put my money on Rory. If anyone showed true heroism last series, it was the boy who waited. Perhaps there is some significance in Rory’s presence in this episode. We know that something will happen to Amy, and that it will anger the Doctor. But what of Rory? “The last of the Time Lords and the Lone Centurion blaze across the galaxies to the save the woman in both their lives,” says the tease that is Moffat. Is it Rory who will be fighting and dying? He has, it has to be said, a habit of doing so.
“One of them will die in the amazing season opener?” screams the cover of the latest Doc-tor Who Magazine. Hyperbole? Hard to say. Moffat has a habit of providing unusual deaths that offer a second chance. Both the Doctor and Rory were killed and erased from history last year, and they both came back. Surely the death of any of the four characters can’t be permanent this early on? Rory, Amy and the Doctor are all set to appear in the full run of episodes, at least as far as the mid-season. As for River - she will be returning later on, but there’s the time travel element to consider. Yet we’ve already seen her death in The Forest of the Dead. We’ve not long to wait to find the answer to this particular conundrum, yet it’s perhaps the most thought-provoking of all, since it defies all logic. How can one of them die and still play their role in the series? Unless we see a character’s future self die. Could that be the answer? Or is it all far more straightforward than that?
Questions abound over all the episodes in this initial run. Every bit of information raises more questions than it answers. Episode 3, The Curse of the Black Spot, seems to be fairly straightforward - a fun prate romp with Lily Cole appearing as a siren, which all sounds very much like my sort of thing. Steve Thompson, Sherlock scribe, pens this one. Neil Gaiman, finally, descends from his throne as the king of fantasy writers and pens a Doctor Who script. The title of this one, The Doctor’s Wife, is clearly designed to wind up fans. I’m cynical - I’m fully expecting it to be a swiz. The Next Doctor was a bloke with delusions; The Doctor’s Daughter was some sort of clone. Surely his wife will be another such rug-pull? Yet there are some very interesting hints about this story. Idris, the character played by Suranne Jones, has been hinted to be someone from the past, but “with a new face.” Could she be, just possibly, literally the Doctor’s wife? Escaped from Gallifrey somehow? We know he had a family once, long ago. Still seems more likely to be a con, though. The most common assumption is that she’s the Rani - but then, almost every female character since the series’ revival has been seized by fans as ‘obviously’ being the Rani. One thing seems clear, though - whoever the Doctor’s wife is in this episode, she isn’t River!
There are so many mysteries surrounding this episode. “Fear me - I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.” “Fear me - I’ve killed all of them.” The coolest lines of the trailer, revealed by Moffat to have come from this episode. Could the Time Lords, or some of them, at least, be coming back for this story? And what of the presence of the Ood, confirmed to be in this episode by DWM? It has occurred to me in the past that, with Gallifrey gone, there’s a gap in the universe that needs filling, and who better to become the new Lords of Time than the Ood, those powerful, peaceful beings whose minds can reach back through history? And how on Earth is The War Games linked to this episode, as mentioned by Gaiman himself? It could just be the recurrence of a remote-controlled TARDIS, or it could be something more significant.
The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People, once referred to as Gangers, sees Matthew Graham, creator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes return to Doctor Who. Brilliantly, Moffat describes it as “The Thing meets Made in Dagenham,” which boggles the mind. Although it involves shapeshifters, and we have rumours of a duplicate Doctor, we don’t know too much about this one. It’s been described as terrifying, epic, and “integral to the series arc.” It’s clearly an important one, but we don’t know why. Although - shapeshifters? And one of the cast has, supposedly, already been killed? Could there be something afoot here? Is someone not who they seem?
A definite trend becoming apparent is that there’s a significant ongoing storyline running throughout these episodes, culminating in A Good Man Goes to War. The Cybermen turn up in this one (there have also been shots of Cybermats released from the second half of the series, in the episode that brings back James Corden as Craig). Rory stands in Roman attire in the one publicity image pegged to this episode. Does he remember that timeline? Or does Auton Rory somehow still exist? Perhaps Rory and Amy have just been playing again. Nonetheless, we’ve all been told to prepare for a “game-changing cliffhanger” at the end of this episode.
One word keeps coming to the fore: dark. “The Doctor’s darkest hour is now,” declares Moffat of the above episode. ‘Dark’ seems to be synonymous with ‘cool’ and ‘well-written’ and ‘meaningful’ these days, but it’s also a trap that can sully the finest of concepts. Taking Doctor Who too much in that direction could damage it as the hit family show that it needs to be. Still, there doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about. Moffat has reassured my fears here. “Doctor Who has a fundamentally optimistic and positive view” he tells DWM. “…you can go darker, because Matt is never, ever going to be completely dark. You can be as dark as you like, because here’s Stan Laurel playing the Doctor!”
Steven Moffat has been raving about Matt Smith’s performance this series, saying that it totally eclipses his work last year. If this is even half true, then Series 6 is something to get really excited about. Matt smith was fantastic as the Doctor last year. If he can make his performance even better, then he really could become the best Doctor ever.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2011
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Doctor Who’s good at impossible things; always has been. In fact, so superl-ative is the series when it comes to the impossible, with enough exposure to it one starts to think in degrees of impossibility - which is, of course, impossible. We can all accept the everyday impossibility of the TARDIS, and of the Doctor himself, but every so often the show will hit us with something even more impossible; something really impossible; something that takes all the rules and conventions of the series and throws them out of the window. The Impossible Astronaut is one of those times.
In production terms, what could be more impossible than an expensive location shoot in the USA? Back in the day, the series made a habit of shooting abroad, taking in locations from Paris to Lanzarote for no good narrative reason. Whenever a script came along that had been tailored a US setting, the writer would be asked “could you make it work in Seville?” Even when the BBC joined forces with Fox to make a Doctor Who TV Movie in the 1990s, they didn’t go so far as to film it in the States – they saved a few quid by doing it in Canada. Accordingly The Impossible Astronaut’s lush location shoot in Utah feels like impossibility epitomised - the episode’s opening moments alone boast red deserts, blue skies, yellow school buses and perched Stetsons in all their 1080p glory, suitably underlined by Murray Gold’s guitar-driven rendition of I am the Doctor and complemented by an enduring emb-lem of American achievement: an Apollo 11 astronaut, albeit a damp and murderous one.
“I won’t be seeing you again, but you will be seeing me.”
However, it’s within the story itself that the true impossibility lies, and it’s an impossibility that will either shock or inflame the viewer - perhaps both. As he is able to regenerate when mortally wounded, there’s a widely held misconception that the Doctor is immortal. Moffat quickly quashes this common misapprehension here, as within ten minutes a lake-wading astronaut shoots the Doctor at point-blank range, triggering the regenerative process, before blasting him again in order to kill him outright. Amy, Rory and River (or, if you prefer, “the Legs, the Nose and Mrs Robinson”) burn the Doctor’s body and mourn him, and there is no cop-out to be had. At least not yet.
I had my suspicions about where this was going when the death-bound Doctor let slip that he was nearly two hundred years older than when we last saw him. Even so, they didn’t detract from the golden moment that the Doctor strolled out a diner’s restroom, straw in hand, talking about fizz as if he’d live forever and setting the stall for the rest of the two-parter, if not the whole season. Is the Doctor’s death a fixed point in time, making this incarnation the Doctor’s last? Or will he and his friends somehow retcon his murder? I think we all know which is the more likely outcome, but if this opening episode is anything to go by, getting there is going to be gripping in the extreme.
“I have to tell the Doctor…”
I can’t say much about the plot at this stage because everything is wide open. For now, suffice it to say that prior to his death (for which he seemed eminently prepared) the future Doctor arranged to direct four people that he trusted – his ignorant younger self amongst them – towards the Oval Office in 1969 and a mystery concerning President Nixon, another phone-friendly child, and “the Silence”.
The Silence have enjoyed almost thirteen months’ hype, which is unprecedented, and thus far they do not disappoint. Long, thin and with a head torn straight out of Edvard Munch’s Scream, they certainly cut an ominous figure, but like all the best Moffat monsters it’s what they do, not what they look like, that really gives them their edge. With this lot, one can only remember them when looking directly at them - an unnerving attribute that begs some intriguing questions about the length of the Silence’s residency on Earth, and one that will no doubt go down every bit as well in the schoolyard as “don’t blink” did. Moffat seems to delight in creating monsters that people have to look at – but then, that it is his job.
“There’s a far worse day coming for me.”
For me though, the most successful element of this episode by far is Moffat’s exquisite characterisation and the performances that flow from it. Every regular has a definite angle that they each convey impeccably – Matt Smith’s Doctor is dead, and whilst he doesn’t know it yet, he knows that his friends are trying to keep something from him. Meanwhile Karen Gillan’s Amy is pregnant, doing a pitiful job of concealing it, and hating every second of having to keep the Doctor in the dark about his future. Arthur Darvill’s Rory is tiring of being ordered around, and is apparently envious of the bond between the Doctor and his wife; and Alex Kingston’s River is haunted by both her future and her past, ruminating on past crimes and future heartbreak, and then seeking to mask the same with increasingly audacious flightiness. She’s probably pregnant too, if her bout of nausea is anything to go by. Even the principal supporting performances – particularly Mark Sheppard’s beguiling turn as former FBI agent Canton Delaware III – possesses the same sort of energy and finesse as those of the regulars, frantically flitting between gravity and gaiety with the same commensurate ease.
Finally, I must also applaud the less patent American influence here – the structure of the season. Since it returned to television in 2005, Doctor Who has always opened with a fairly light-hearted one-off caper, but The Impossible Astronaut is clearly the first instalment of a big “event” two-parter that has “US season-opener” stamped right through it. Say what you will about American drama, but it knows how to hook you from outset and keep you there squirming, and with a mid-season break on the cards in six weeks’ time, the trend looks set to continue...
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
So, after weeks of speculation, I finally discovered who was destined to die in this year’s opening episode, when The Sun decided to ruin the surprise for everyone by printing a big picture of the Doctor being shot in its TV section on Saturday morning. I only read the bloody thing at work - if I’d had the day off, I could have watched it on broadcast and avoided the spoiler! Thankfully though, this didn’t damage the overall effectiveness of the scene. As soon as the Doctor tells his friends not to interfere, whatever happens, and approaches the impossible astronaut that has risen from a lake in the middle of America, there’s an air of tense, foreboding and inevitability. It can only be deemed a great triumph of writing, acting and direction that, even with events clearly going this way, the scene still packs an incredible shock.
In retrospect, it could only really have been the Doctor who died; who else could still be a major player from beyond the grave? Nonetheless, the scene has a powerful emotional resonance, due to some excellent performances all around. Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Alex Kingston portray absolutely convincing horror and belief at the Doctor’s death that sells the scene completely. Having the act itself play out at such a distance only adds to the effectiveness of the scene, strengthening the feeling of helplessness as we watch the Doctor walk calmly to his death. After several years of seeing the golden regeneration effect used and reused, there’s immediate recognition of what’s happening; this is then subverted when the Doctor is shot again right in the middle of the regeneration, killed for good. The series’ now arguably over-familiar tropes are utilised in such a way as to shock the viewer.
“Just popped out to get my special straw. It adds more fizz.”
It’s indicative of the confidence of this episode that the stand-out scene occurs within the first ten minutes. This is a show that is now being produced safe in the knowledge that five million people are going to come in from the sun specifically to watch it. It’s a brave choice to open the year with a deliberately challenging two-parter, rather than the more familiar approach of kicking things off with a fun-filled romp. Not that fun and humour are absent here; given the overarching seriousness of the situation, the amount of comedy is gratifying and greatly needed, and there are some truly hilarious lines throughout (the Easter Island one is my favourite). Still, it’s questionable just how the casual or younger viewer would take such a complex, talky episode. Such ambition and confidence is laudable, but is also an undeniable risk.
A multi-layered and slow-paced episode, The Impossible Astronaut demands, and indeed deserves, close attention. There’s a great deal on offer here. The central performances are superb; it seems that everyone has settled into their roles now and are perfectly embodying the characters. Arthur Darvill is hugely sympathetic as Rory, who brings a much-needed grounding to the show as a recognisably ordinary and everyday character. Alex Kingston is playful and likeable as River, never drifting too far into the cocksure side of the character that can make her irritating, and instead showing us a more emotional, vulnerable side. Karen Gillan is astonishingly good in the small, quiet moments in which she has to face the Doctor, confront his suspicions and earn his trust. Matt Smith shows just how much he’s made the role of the Doctor his own, perfectly balancing slapstick humour and straight, earnest drama to give a powerful performance. Mark Sheppard is an immediate success as new face Clanton Delaware III, drifting nonchalantly between gravel-voiced, hard-faced gravitas and schoolboy enthusiasm. It’s a performance not a million miles from Smith’s, and he’d be an interesting choice of Doctor one day (and before anyone gets irate at the idea of an American actor as the Doctor, Sheppard is in fact British, not that you’d guess from his flawless American-ness here). Credit must also go to W Morgan Sheppard, his father, who plays the older Clanton with great dignity.
“These tunnels... they’re running under the surface of the entire planet. They’ve been here for centuries!”
The much talked about enemy, the Silence, finally make their debut appearance, and do not disappoint. One of the series most effective recent designs, they combine the look of such classic American sci-fi elements as Men in Black and Roswell-style Greys with good, old-fashioned creepy skeleton men. The voice of the creature that addresses Amy is somewhat indistinct, which is a shame as this damages the scene. This is a small quibble, though, when put against the ingenious concept of the creatures, beings who can remove themselves from your memory as soon as you look away. The notion that these skull-faced beings are all around us, watching but unwatched, is creepy as hell (although I wonder why none of them have ever shown up on film before - perhaps Amy’s mobile snapshot will lend some clues). The mouthless face, suddenly opening up into a gaping maw, only adds to their distinctly disquieting nature.
The pace increases towards the end of the episode, promising a more action-oriented conclusion. There are elements that are unsatisfying in this episode - the continual feed of revelations means that, by the time Amy suddenly, insistently reveals that she’s pregnant, the surprise is lost amongst the information overload. In fairness, however, the pregnancy was signposted half an hour earlier, when Amy didn’t object to the Doctor mentioning that she’d put on a couple of pounds. What’s more interesting to wonder is whether Rory knows about this yet - I’d suggest not, or he’d be even more protective of her. Each scene is near perfect, yet the episode as whole seems strangely less than the sum of its parts. However, I expect this has as much to do with its nature as the first of a two-parter, and that the overall package will be more satisfying. The mystery of the astronaut and the little girl is strange and compelling - how is a child looking out of the visor of an adult-sized spacesuit? How is she contacting President Nixon? How is she involved with the Silence? And how is she related to the astronaut that shoots the Doctor in 2011? We don’t know if they’re the same or not. Other mysteries pertain to the Silence themselves, as we still have no idea what they want, or, looking back, how or why they were involved in the destruction of the universe in The Pandorica Opens. They also seems to be holding a TARDIS-like control chamber in their sewer-like base - one which appears to be the same, or at least very similar, to the one seen in The Lodger.
“If we’re gonna do this, let’s do it properly.”
Of course, all this pales against the mystery of the Doctor’s death and his plans surrounding it. With references to the past and Doctors from the future, The Impossible Astronaut builds on the successes of last year to create a mystery that is characteristic of Steven Moffat’s thought-provoking, complex approach. Under his stewardship, Doctor Who has ceased to be a series that simply uses a time machine to move from one adventure to the next. It is now a series about time travel, and the nature of time itself.
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2011
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The Doctor who dies in this episode claims to be 1,103 years old. If he’s been telling the truth and speaking in Earth years since Rose, then this makes him 184 years older than the Doctor that he summons, yet not a day of it is visible on his face. Earlier incarnations (particularly the Doctor’s first, fourth and seventh bodies) have appeared to age as their lives have worn on.
Following the Doctor’s death, River speaks of how valuable and dangerous the Doctor’s corpse is, before proceeding to immolate it. The notion of the Doctor’s corpse as a commodity formed the basis of Lawrence Miles’ popular novel, Alien Bodies, which saw the eighth Doctor stumble upon an auction for his future self’s cadaver. That novel also saw the eighth Doctor bury his final incarnation’s body on the planet Quiescia.
The Impossible Astronaut also has much in common with Steven Hall’s recent audio drama A Death in the Family, in which the seventh Doctor dies outright in the opening episode, only to return at the story’s end. Let’s hope Eleven does as well...
Silence technology was first seen in The Lodger.
This episode reveals that the TARDIS is equipped with a cloaking device. The Doctor’s lack of expertise when it comes to using it might explain why it hasn’t been utilised before.
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