Monday, April 25, 2011

Doctor Who - Season 6, Episode 1: "The Impossible Astronaut"

"Of course I'm ok, I'm always ok. I'm the KING of ok. Oh, that's a rubbish title, forget that title." - the Doctor

It's always very difficult to review the first part of a two-part episode. You know that the story elements will build and build towards a cliffhanger of some sort, and that you can't really judge them until you've seen how they pay off. You can always discuss what you've seen so far and how effective it seems by itself, but you run the risk of looking foolish if the second part manages to recontextualize everything that came before it.

That said, I'll do the best I can to talk about "The Impossible Astronaut" on its own merits. I hope it's not too pessimistic of me to say that next week's episode needs to satisfactorily resolve everything that went on in this first half, because this week's episode left me pretty drained and cold.

Steven Moffat set himself a pretty tall order this week simply by starting the season with a two-parter, and it's almost as though he crammed as many elements into the episode as he could to make up for the inevitable cliffhanger/anti-climax. To call this installment "busy" would be an understatement: We have the usual premiere business of reestablishing characters and stakes; all of the much-hyped "Doctor Who comes to America" stuff; a new, threatening alien race called "The Silence" (though I didn't catch it being called this during the show, only in the press materials relating to the premiere); more River Song temporal crossings; Apollo astronauts; phantom phone calls from a child to Richard Nixon; and a complicated plot that forces the Doctor to unwittingly cross his own timeline. If that sounds like a lot to handle, well, it is.

The episode starts, at least, with some pretty enjoyable scenes—including a funny cameo in a Laurel and Hardy film—in which the Doctor makes conspicuous appearances in the past to get Amy and Rory to notice him in the present. Then our companion couple receives a mysterious "TARDIS blue" invitation, presumably from the Doctor, with coordinates and a date and time. River Song receives the same invite, and once again breaks out of future-prison to attend. The coordinates point to Utah, where the Doctor is already waiting and be-hatted: "I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool."

Then, after a quick picnic lunch during which the Doctor tries wine—"Ugh, wine's horrid! I thought it would taste more like the gums!"—and reveals he's aged around 200 years since we've seen him last, our friends encounter several strange and unexpected things: Amy sees a scary-faced, suit-clad, humanoid alien, which she promptly forgets about as soon as it's out of sight; the crew are joined by a random elderly chap (played by W. Morgan Sheppard, last seen on this blog as Lane Pryce's father on Mad Men) who we later learn is called Canton Everett Delaware III and who also bears an invitation; and, finally, an Apollo-era astronaut appears in the middle of a nearby lake.

But the big shocker is that, after telling his friends that "Whatever happens now, you do not interfere," the Doctor approaches the astronaut, tells him/her/it "It's OK. I know it's you," and promptly gets shot to death. And, for good measure, the astronaut shoots him again during his regeneration cycle, making sure he can't come back.

Now, look. I wanted to be upset about the Doctor's apparent demise. But instead I found myself annoyed at the gimmicky nature of having the show's title character die in the first 15 minutes of the season premiere. Rather than getting invested in the other characters' reactions and attempts to justify or understand what happened (as well-acted as they were), I was crossly anticipating the Doctor's inevitable return. Which, of course, happens post-haste at a diner, where we learn that this is a younger, 909 year-old version of the Doctor, responding to the same invitation as the others. Amy, Rory, and River debate whether or not to tell young-Doctor that they've just Viking Funeral'd his older self, but instead opt only to tell him what old-Doctor told them: they're meant to be investigating something to do with "Space, 1969."

From here, we jump back to the White House in '69, where the paranoid Nixon is meeting with disgraced former FBI Agent Canton Delaware III (now played, in this more youthful incarnation, by Mark Sheppard, aka Badger from Firefly and W. Morgan's son) to discuss the mysterious phone calls from a pleading child that follow him around. Then Team Doctor gets involved, and travels (with an astonished Delaware in tow) to Florida to ferret out the source of the phone calls. Here they find more of The Silence, more Apollo astronaut stuff, and a subterranean control room much like the one found in my seventh-ranked episode "The Lodger."

The episode's second half really moves about as fast as I've let on here. There are plenty of lighter moments, however, and moments for each character to shine—particularly River's poignant speech to Rory about meeting the Doctor all out-of-order, knowing that every time they meet, from her perspective, "I'll know him more, he'll know me less." I also enjoyed the new villains, The Silence. These creepy-looking beings have the almost-unfair superpowers of being forgotten as soon as they're out of sight, and also of blowing people up with lightning. They appear to have been here on Earth a long time, doing nefarious things with no-one remembering long enough to stop them. At first it seemed that this power also took a physical toll on its victims, with both Amy and River feeling sick after encountering various Silents, but after the last-second reveal of Amy's pregnancy, her sickness seems to be explained away. Does this mean that River is also pregnant? I don't actually know, but to quote Dr. Song herself, "Spoilers!"

Still, whether due to my lingering shock/annoyance at the Doctor's death, or from wanting at least a few answers to all of the questions being raised, "The Impossible Astronaut" just buzzed straight past me. Many of the call-backs to previous episodes or characters' actions/catchphrases felt, to me, like they were put into the script to tick off certain boxes rather than out of any narrative need. All of this could change with next week's "Day of the Moon," or over the coming weeks as we figure out which plot elements will contribute to the season's arc, but for now I just feel like I need a breather.

Notes and Quotes:

  • I finally remembered that I'd been calling this section "Notes and Quotes," which I forgot to do for my SNL reviewcaps. OOPS!
  • "I'm being extremely clever up here and there's no-one to stand around and look impressed! What's the point of having you all..."
  • I'm not a River Song hater, by any means. But after seven appearances, I'm beginning to feel like we'll need to learn all of her "Spoilers!" soon or the character might stop working.
  • "These are my top operatives: The Legs, The Nose, and Mrs. Robinson."
  • Agent Delaware says he was kicked out of the FBI because he wanted to get married:

    Amy: "Is that a crime?"
    Delaware: "Yes."

    Hmm. Perhaps Moffat's bringing in some of the GLBTQ issues that Russell T. Davies so famously employed?
  • Rory's reaction to River's sad, time-crossed story was a bit telling. Looks like he's not yet 100% fine with the disruption the Doctor brings into their lives. And, I suspect, he doesn't know his wife is pregnant.
  • I really hope that Amy's pre–credit exposition thing isn't a permanent feature on BBCAmerica's broadcasts. It kind of made the show seem cheesy. Well, cheesier
  • I'd like to get next week's reviewcap up in a more timely fashion. This week I was derailed by the holiday and a potential migraine (which, thankfully, never blew up all the way but still kept me in bed all afternoon yesterday).

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