Doctor Who 6.01: The Impossible Astronaut
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Toby Haynes
Right. This is really late. Nevermind. What follows are some thoughts on This/last (depending on when you read it) week’s Doctor Who.
[WARNING, HERE BE SPOILERS]
First things first, that was brave. Astonishingly brave, you might say. The Doctor returns, again, but this time, there’s a difference. We’re treated not to the light, throwaway fluff of a season opener – take Partners in Crime and the silliest monsters in the who-niverse – but instead to a character-driven piece that takes the Who template and shatters it into pieces.
And so it is that Amy, Rory and River Song are reintroduced to the audience again, summoned by a series of blue envelopes to a particular location. But it is the way we are reintroduced to the characters that is interesting. Amy and Rory have left the Doctor – for some unknown reason – and have begun to move on with their lives, to the point of getting a house. The message reaches River in prison – for murder: this is not the light fluffy Who of Russell T Davies.
America. It’s Who’s first outing to location shooting in America, and that first shot as the bus pulls up is breathtakingly beautiful. Not only that, its American. The pan over to the Stetson-wearing Doctor, sitting atop his Station Wagon is gorgeous. River’s entrance is similarly stunning, blocking out the Sun – a classic gunslinger pose. Full credit to Toby Haynes for crafting a scene that oozes the frontier. But America isn’t here purely for the money shot – it’s here because this place feels truly alien to Who. This is truly different, truly new. So then, it makes perfect sense to frame the end of the Doctor here. The emotional centre of the episode, the motivation for what is to follow, is gut-wrenching. Equally powerful as Tennant’s death, and a whole lot darker – as the Doctor invites his own friends to his demise. The inevitability of the event as Smith walks down to the shore to meet the Astronaut – which, in itself is a brilliantly composed image – is enormously effective. The reactions of the character’s is perfect Davrill’s silent grief as Rory, looking out across the ocean, Amy’s outpouring as she cradles the Doctor in her arms, River’s intensity and rage. This is Nu-Who, but not as we know it. The Doctor shouldn’t die. The companions shouldn’t be left behind – and they certainly shouldn’t use guns.
When the Doctor does return then – chipper and unaware – the diner is no longer the place of laughter and memories it was just 5 minutes earlier. Smith’s comic acting is as good as ever – his reaction to the slap is particularly funny – whilst Gillan’s acting has matured somewhat from the “flirtatious” or “shouty” of last season. The change in tone demanded a change in portrayal, and Gillan has stepped up to the plate well. The episode continues to go against the grain of Who season openers – as the first time we enter the TARDIS, we’re almost half-way through the episode – and there hasn’t even been an action scene yet. The scene inside the TARDIS, though, is both great and a bit of a disappointment. The scripting is great, and it’s funny, heart-warming, and provides drama but it relies on the Doctor being a bit of an idiot. Smith does a good job with scene – “swear to me on something that matters” is a beautiful moment – but fundamentally, the Doctor isn’t an idiot. Blue envelopes. River. Amy. Rory. Isn’t it blindingly obvious that it’s him? The Doctor might be foolhardy, eccentric and occasionally rash but he isn’t stupid.
But then, just as I was starting to doubt, Canton Everett Delaware III turned up. And he’s brilliant. In fact, he might be the best thing in Who since The Weeping Angels. He’s absolutely marvellous. Genre veteran Mark Sheppard (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, and tonnes more) is brilliant: he’s completely at odds with the Britishness of the show, and yet at the same time he completely fits. He’s brilliantly written - “that’s alright, sir, you were my second choice for President” is one of the best comebacks ever - and brilliantly acted - his reaction upon entering the TARDIS is brilliantly played, and his eventual reaction - “so, how long have Scotland Yard had this thing?” - is fantastically underplayed. Basically, he’s great.
Nixon is similarly good, and it’s here that the story really starts to get going. The Doctor’s finally back to his brilliant, bubbly self, and there’s a really, terrifyingly creepy monster. They’re wonderful - iconic and, brilliantly unforgettable. Moffat’s talent for writing monsters continues - the scene in the bathroom is chilling - and art department have created a stunning creature. Part The Scream, part 60s pop-culture, the monster is brilliantly crafted, and I am extraordinarily glad I’m not 10.
That said, there’s plenty of other reasons I’m glad I’m not 10. One: River’s speech is touching and dramatic, but it’s referencing the events of 3 years ago. Two: there’s a hell of a lot of exposition here. In fact, it’s mostly men talking in corridors. Three: some of the other references are quite obscure - the TARDIS from The Lodger shows up again; the silence turned up at the end of the last series. Four: there’s a fair amount of double entendre here. Possibly a bit inappropriate for a family show. This shows wonderful potential for the rest of the series - it’s darker, more adult, more sf. That said, I’m glad I’m not 10.