Season 32, Episode 1 – The Impossible Astronaut, by Steven Moffat
April 24, 2011
Review by Martin Odoni
Seconds out, round two….
The second blessedly non-RTD-led series is up and running with a fairly interesting starter. First thing I should say is congratulations to Steven Moffat for finally giving the series the courage to shake up its own running format, and dare to open a season with a two-parter. One of the tiresome, formulaic qualities of NuWho so far has been that it always seems to follow the same order every year i.e. three single-episode stories to get started, a two-parter for episodes four and five, another run of single episodes for the mid-to-late stages etc. Breaking this needless and highly restrictive format is a simple act that could do a lot to keep the series fresh.
Moffat does seem to be developing some more unfortunate traits in his writing though. One of them is by-the-numbers hackery. The aliens in this are an example. The Silence look quite similar to the Ood, so they get no points for originality on the visual front, and also their powers have a very familiar echo to them. If we consider the Weeping Angels, they’re creatures that only move when our heroes’ backs are turned. These new aliens are creatures that no one remembers… as soon as our heroes’ backs are turned. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad idea, it’s just it does sound a bit too similar to ground the series has already been over in the recent past, and it does lead me to question whether Moffat has any really new ideas left in the locker.
This question is reinforced by his insistence on once again having a story about events happening out of sequence (the Doctor of the future sending a message to the Doctor of the ‘present’ – such as there is one), more talk about ‘spoilers’ (a joke that was quite engaging on River Song’s first couple of appearances, but nowadays I can imagine most of the audience singing along to a slow hand-clap, so predictable has it become), the Doctor hanging out with black-and-white-era movie stars (Marilyn Monroe in A Christmas Carol, now Laurel & Hardy), Amy again being pregnant (please don’t let us have another round of her wandering about with a balloon stuffed up her shirt, a la Amy’s Choice), a guest appearance by a prominent world leader, admittedly superbly played on this occasion (see Victory Of The Daleks), and yet another mysterious child figure making lots of arcane remarks, sometimes through electrical apparatus (remember the gas-masked kid in The Doctor Dances, and the computer in Silence In The Library, among others). Even the title sounds almost identical to The Impossible Planet.
The episode doesn’t start too well. In fact, the scenes with the Doctor showing off by deliberately leaving a trail through recorded Earth history are silly and self-indulgent. Some of the dialogue in those first few minutes is also typical of the rebooted series in being smug and far too quip-heavy.
But once it stops trying too hard to be clever and punchy, it settles down a bit and actually starts being clever, and packs a really solid punch. The moment the ‘old’ Doctor is assassinated is quite a shock, and suddenly all the silly, forced light-heartedness is thankfully swept away. We have a story in progress at last. How about that?
It’s quite easy to figure out, of course, that we would see the Doctor again very quickly. His declaration that he was two hundred years older than he was last time we saw him, coupled with experience of Moffat’s constant ‘timey-wimey’ ideas, leaves us plenty of chance to predict the impending arrival of a younger incarnation. (The Doctor’s slightly bitchy remark about Amy looking a bit heavier these days immediately makes her condition very clear too.) This scene is quite a bold risk on the part of the Mighty Moffat though, as it appears to discount the possibility of future regenerations. So if Matt Smith does choose to leave the series in the near future…
Get out of that one, Doctor Who. (Could’ve done without those uses of the series title in the dialogue, by the way, it’s needlessly demonstrative when the show does that.)
The friction aboard the TARDIS is fascinating, especially the Doctor making plain how little he trusts River. After all, what reason does he have to trust her really? The difficulty the other three have over whether to tell the Doctor about seeing his future self die leads to some real antagonism. At its core, I suspect, is the Doctor, usually the one who knows everything, suddenly being the only one aboard the TARDIS who isn’t in on the secret. Usually the others all have to trust him, now he is being asked to trust them, and it’s clear that his intellectual pride is bruised by the experience.
The character of Delaware is what really makes the episode for me. He’s potentially an excellent foil for the Doctor, in that he shares the same boundless, open-minded sense of curiosity for the unknown (the wonder in his eyes when he enters the TARDIS is startlingly innocent given how cynical he is about individuals), but he also has a very grisly air of ruthlessness to him, that is clearly just below the surface. This paradoxical mix of cynicism and boyish enthusiasm somehow works, making him unpredictable, and therefore intriguing. He is also terrifically played by Mark Sheppard.
That the story is turning out not to be a Western after all is perhaps a shame, as the ground it is instead covering is, as I’ve already stated, somewhat derivative. It does allow it to have Richard Nixon in it though, which is kind of amusing, especially hearing all the hints at his arrogant paranoia littering his speech. Really, some of the people who’ve been elected to the Oval Office down the years. They’ll be voting for some right-wing, alcoholic, draft-dodging, Texan born-again next.
Somehow there’s something just not scary enough about aliens in a dinner suit. Maybe they just remind me of how silly the Jagaroth looked in City Of Death, but so far, the Silence ain’t doing it for me, just as the Human Dalek failed to affect my bladder-control in Daleks In Manhattan. It was very lurid the way the creature annihilated that woman in the lavatory though, and oddly chilling how even that sight just vanished from Amy’s memory as soon as she was out of the door. The ending, with Amy apparently shooting a little girl in a spacesuit (possibly the future self of her unborn child? Perhaps) was rather shocking as well. I guess this episode certainly delivers in terms of startle-value, so we can’t complain it’s ever dull. Does it count as a cliffhanger though, seeing none of the regulars are definitively in danger? Yeah I’d say so. A moral cliffhanger is as valid as a physical one.
Possible bloopers; this incarnation of River appears, from what she says to Rory, to be younger than the one at the end of the last season, and yet she also seems to remember the business with the Pandorica. Also, she discusses the business of the Doctor’s regeneration being interrupted. Amy and Rory seem to know what she’s talking about, but they’ve never seen the Doctor regenerate before. Not necessarily a contradiction, but it does rather go against the grain; in the past, the Doctor has never really talked to companions about his power to regenerate unless they’ve seen it happening.
To sum up; not brilliant, but very, very absorbing, and as I say, it earns a bonus point for finally plucking up the courage to break series formula. In its own right, 7 out of 10. In this context, it just barely scrapes an 8.