One of these four characters will die. That was the tagline for the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine, previewing “The Impossible Astronaut,” the opening episode of Doctor Who’s new season with multiple covers showing the Doctor (Matt Smith), River Song (Alex Kingston), Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill). Of course, genre-savvy audiences will be well aware of the tendency for main characters in sci-fi shows to find clever ways of cheating the grim reaper. Doctor Who is no exception. Never mind the Doctor’s ability to regenerate; in the course of last year’s stories, Amy died once and Rory twice, while we saw the end of River’s life when she first appeared back in 2008. So writer/executive producer Steven Moffat had his work cut out for him if he wanted to genuinely surprise his audience. It’s to his credit that he not only fulfils the promise—in the very first scene after the opening titles, no less—but goes out of his way to drive home the shock. Whether it will still be the case when the story concludes next week remains to be seen, but right now the Who universe feels a more dangerous place than it has for some time.
The week leading up to the premiere had been dominated by an all too real death—the shockingly unexpected news that Elisabeth Sladen, the actress who had been most fans’ favorite Doctor Who companion in the 1970s, had passed away from cancer. After coming back to make a guest appearance in the revived series in 2006, she went on to headline her own spin-off children’s show, The Sarah Jane Adventures, to enormous success. It was good to see a tribute caption to her added to this episode; it felt particularly appropriate since “The Impossible Astronaut” is considerably darker and more ambitious than the light-hearted romps which have tended to be the rule for season openers.
Last year saw Moffat adhering closely to the same season structure used by previous showrunner Russell T Davies, but this year he’s changing things considerably. Most obviously, the season is being split into two parts; seven episodes will be broadcast, ending in (so we have been promised) a “game-changing” cliffhanger, after which there will be a hiatus of several months before the second half of the season gets shown. Also new is the idea of kicking off the season with a two-part story. There are a lot of questions, and very few answers, in “The Impossible Astronaut.”
Certainly there aren’t many carefree moments in this episode apart from the very beginning. Unexpectedly, we find Amy and Rory not traveling with the Doctor, but at home, having not seen their friend for two months. Instead, the Doctor appears to be amusing himself by having various misadventures in history (“It’s like he’s being deliberately ridiculous, trying to attract our attention”). A TARDIS-blue envelope arrives in the mail, containing a date, a time, and a map reference—an invitation to a rendezvous. Another, similar invitation reaches River Song, now back in her Stormcage prison cell in the far future. It’s a mark of Moffat’s confidence in the audience’s familiarity with River—now making her fourth appearance in the show—that we are left to imagine for ourselves how she finds her way to 2011 to keep the appointment. Last year, in “The Pandorica Opens,” she was given an elaborate escape sequence involving hypnotising a guard and conning a blue-skinned alien into giving her a vortex manipulator. This time, there’s just a gag from a worried guard making a phone call: “She’s doing it again. Dr. Song, sir. She’s… packing. Says she’s going to some planet called America…”
The Doctor’s adventures have occasionally intersected America in the past (notably in 2007, when second unit material was shot in New York for “Daleks in Manhattan”), but this is the first time shooting with the principal cast has occurred in the US. During this opening section, director Toby Haynes makes great use of wide, epic vistas of Utah (Valley of the Gods) and Arizona (Lake Powell) as the Doctor meets up with his arriving companions and invites them to a lakeside picnic.
The Doctor: “I’ve been running. Faster than I’ve ever run, and I’ve been running my whole life. Now it’s time for me to stop. And tonight, I’m going to need you all with me.”
In passing, the Doctor mentions that his age is 1103—he’s nearly two hundred years older than when Amy and Rory last saw him. He also has a hint for them about where they’re headed after their picnic: “Space… 1969.”
Rory: “The moon landing was in ’69. Is that where we’re going?”
The Doctor: “Oh, a lot more happens in ’69 than anyone remembers. Human beings… I thought I’d never get done saving you.”
With this nice reference back to a throwaway line in “The Time of Angels,” the atmosphere suddenly turns foreboding when an old man who the Doctor has evidently been expecting drives up to them. The Doctor seems to be steeling himself for something when, out of the blue, River spots an Apollo astronaut standing… well, impossibly… in the lake. It’s a wonderfully bizarre image, with the memorable white spacesuit and huge reflective helmet transplanted from their familiar lunar surroundings into a picture postcard setting of water, mountains and cloudy sky.
Warning his companions to stay back and not interfere, the Doctor goes to meet the astronaut by the lake shore. When the visor is raised, we don’t get to see the face inside the helmet, but the Doctor knows who it is—he has clearly arranged every detail of this encounter. He stands calm and still, waiting—and then all hell breaks loose, as the astronaut shoots him at point blank range. He appears to start to regenerate, the astronaut shoots him again, and he falls dead to the ground. The astronaut calmly strides back into the lake, ignoring a stream of shots fired at it by River.
Moffat labors mightily to sell the notion that we have indeed just witnessed the death of our hero. A distraught Amy (a fantastic, raw performance from Karen Gillan) hugs his body and desperately says, “Maybe he’s a clone, or a duplicate, or something.” But the old man comes up and tells her gravely, “That most certainly is the Doctor. And he is most certainly dead.” With a handy boat and a can of gasoline provided by the old man, they give the Doctor a Viking-style funeral in the lake. It’s a solemn and beautiful moment, and I found myself, if not necessarily fully accepting that this was the Doctor’s true end, at least willing to see where Moffat was going with this. By making the Doctor who died so much older than the Doctor whose adventures we’ve been following up to now, Moffat has given himself more than enough wiggle room—for as long as Matt Smith is playing him, at least. But eventually (though hopefully not for a good many years), the role will be handed over to someone else—and how could that be reconciled with this scene without cheapening it? Of course, this may all be moot by the end of the next episode, but somehow I have the feeling that there’s a more long-range plan involved here—and at the moment I haven’t the faintest idea what it could be.
The old man identifies himself as Canton Everett Delaware III—and shows River a TARDIS-blue envelope like the ones she and the others received. River realizes that their envelopes were numbered 2, 3 and 4—meaning someone else has been invited to this gathering. They soon find the missing envelope number 1, as our “current” Doctor swans blithely in, taking little note of the shocked expressions of his friends until a furious River slaps him. River quickly realizes that he can’t be told why they’re all here, telling him instead that they’ve been “recruited” by “someone who trusts you more than anyone else in the universe.”
This episode provides another installment in the ever-changing relationship between the Doctor and River Song. With the Doctor pushed to the outside of the group because the others can’t tell him what’s going on, River becomes the trusted authority figure that Amy and Rory turn to for advice. When she does her “Spoilers!” shtick which in her first appearances could be irritating, we now understand her reasons and agree with them. She acts as a restraining influence on Amy, who is inclined to tell the Doctor everything.
Amy: “River, we can’t just let him die. We have to stop it. How can you be OK with this?”
River: “The Doctor’s death doesn’t frighten me, nor does my own. There’s a far worse day coming for me.”
Matt Smith and Alex Kingston are both on top form as they switch smoothly between easy, flirtatious banter and a sudden, intense conflict as the Doctor refuses to continue on to the designated place in 1969 until he learns who sent the messages (“I know you know, I can see it in your faces. Don’t play games with me; don’t ever, ever think you’re capable of that”). River tells him he’ll have to trust her, but when he asks the old questions—Who is she, really? Why was she in prison? Who was the man she killed?—she maintains a stony silence. It’s left to Amy to break the deadlock, telling the Doctor to trust her. Eventually he is convinced, and goes off to operate the TARDIS controls without apparently a care in the world, while Karen Gillan shows Amy nervous and uncertain about whether she’s done the right thing.
In 1969, the Doctor and company encounter a younger Canton Everett Delaware III (genre stalwart Mark Sheppard; in a nice touch, Canton’s old-age incarnation was portrayed by the actor’s father, W. Morgan Sheppard). He’s a maverick ex-F.B.I. agent, called in by President Nixon (Stuart Milligan) to investigate a series of mysterious phone calls that seem to be coming from a child, who talks about being scared of a “spaceman.” Matt Smith gets to have a lot of fun with the Doctor’s ability to walk into any situation and take charge, talking his way out of a confrontation with the Secret Service, claiming to be an undercover agent on loan from Scotland Yard, and introducing “my three top operatives: the Legs, the Nose, and Mrs. Robinson.” (“I hate you.” “No you don’t.”)
Canton is intrigued by the Doctor and how he managed to get himself, three friends and a large blue box into the Oval Office undetected, and convinces the President to allow the Doctor to help track down the child. Although the President had thought the child was named “Jefferson Adams Hamilton,” the Doctor points out the voice on the phone was a girl’s, and quickly tracks down those names to a particular junction of streets in Florida (“where the spacemen live”). Taking Canton along for the ride, they make a quick TARDIS trip there to investigate.
In the midst of all this, Amy catches a glimpse of a monstrous presence which no one else has apparently seen—and introduces us to what looks like being a major thread of the season to come. Steven Moffat has an enviable track record for coming up with memorably scary threats in his stories; not just thinking up nasty-looking monsters, but tapping into common fears (especially ones that children can relate to) to create creatures and situations that are disturbing on a conceptual level. The nightmarish roll call includes the gasmask-faced child plaintively calling “Are you my mummy?”; clockwork droids that could hide under a child’s bed; carnivorous swarms concealed in shadows; and a crack in a bedroom wall through which mysterious voices can be heard. His crowning glory was the Weeping Angels—killers that looked like statues, frozen in stone until the moment you look away. When I saw claims in various interviews that the new monsters for this season would be even scarier than the Angels, I was skeptical. But after seeing this episode, I can only say he seems to have done it again.
The Silents look like an alien version of Men in Black. But instead of the flashy gizmo that Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith depended on to erase traces of their presence from the minds of those they encountered, these creatures seem to remove your memories of them as soon as you stop looking at them. They can move as they wish among us, even stand out in plain sight, and remain quite undetected—perfect paranoia fuel. They can also take more direct action if they want to: when Amy feels sick after seeing one of the creatures and her memory of it disappears, she encounters another one in a White House bathroom. In a particularly creepy sequence, the creature kills a woman by seemingly extracting her life essence, its face distorting into a parody of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
In Florida, the Doctor, Canton, and the others find themselves exploring a deserted building containing both strange alien machinery and apparently stolen Apollo spacesuits. As they search for the little girl, Amy quietly brings up the idea of somehow neutralizing the “spaceman” in 1969, thereby saving the future Doctor. However, River explains that, since they only came here because of what they saw in the future, interfering with the cause of those events would create a paradox (in fact, the same kind of disaster as occurred back in “Father’s Day” in 2005). After all the time-bending in last season’s finale and the recent Christmas special, it’s not surprising that Moffat has to go to special lengths here to make sure that “Time can be rewritten” is not an all-purpose escape clause for every story.
River discovers a trapdoor leading into a network of tunnels. As she and Rory investigate, they encounter more of the Silents, but of course after seeing them they immediately forget them. Then, when River finds a locked hatchway and works to open it, an unexpected emotional highpoint occurs as Rory follows up on her earlier remark about a worse day coming for her. In a scene brilliantly acted by both Arthur Darvill and Alex Kingston, River tells how the Doctor suddenly entered the life of an impressionable young girl, knowing everything about her. (“Imagine what that does to a girl.” “I don’t really have to.”) But with their timelines out of order, each time she meets him, he knows her a little less.
River: “I live for the days when I see him. But I know that every time I do, he’ll be one step further away. The day is coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes—my Doctor—and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me.”
It’s a terrible moment of dramatic irony given what happened in “Forest of the Dead”—and also serves as a reminder that the true identity of River Song is another mystery that we have been promised will be resolved this year. But beyond the hatch is yet another surprise, and another chance for the audience to be ahead of our heroes: neither River nor Rory could be expected to recognize what is obviously the pseudo-TARDIS or “temporal engine” from last year’s episode “The Lodger.” In that episode, the origin of this craft was left conspicuously unexplained. Even more interesting, there were one or two strange-looking shots of Amy (supposedly alone in the TARDIS) seeming to react to something she was seeing off-screen, which excited some forum discussion at the time but tended to be dismissed as mere editing glitches. It’s possible, though, that this apparently stand-alone episode might be a lot more important to Moffat’s long-running arc plot than it appeared…
Meanwhile, the episode’s climax comes as the Doctor and Amy are confronted by the impossible astronaut itself. Amy, determined to save the future Doctor, snatches Canton’s gun and shoots the space-suited figure, even as it lifts up its visor—to reveal the face of the little girl (“Help me!”). The shock is driven home as, rather than go to titles on the gunshot, we see the frozen moment of realization on Amy’s face before the credits cut in, leaving us with a mountain of questions.
We’ve heard since the start of last season that “Silence will fall.” But should that really be “Silents will fall”? The Silent that Amy confronted in the bathroom told her she must tell the Doctor “what he must know, and what he must never know.” What’s all that about? Is Amy’s sickness after seeing the Silents the result of them editing her memories, or is it to do with her seemingly out-of-nowhere revelation at the end to the Doctor that she’s pregnant? And if so, what are the implications for River, who also suffered from sickness? Is there a connection to the little girl in the spacesuit? What’s the deal with the Apollo spacesuit, anyway? And have we really witnessed the Doctor’s final, inescapable death?
Or, in summary: what the hell is going on? “The Impossible Astronaut” certainly started the season with a bang, throwing up any number of mysteries and plot threads to draw the audience into further episodes. I can’t wait to see where the rest of the season takes us.
Next Week: The story concludes—and hopefully provides some answers—in “Day of the Moon.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Nothing to do with this episode, but in view of Elisabeth Sladen’s passing, I’m recommending her final story in the classic series, “The Hand of Fear,” opposite Tom Baker’s Doctor. The story itself is middling, but Sladen gives a great performance. Sarah’s departure scene at the end was a wonderfully poignant moment at the time, and is even more so now.
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.