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The Doctor’s American Picnic

April 24, 2011

Once more the wait is over and a new series of Doctor Who, the BBC’s flagship Saturday night drama, is back on our screens. Regular readers of this blog will know how big a fan I am of the show, so much so that I reviewed the last series in its entirety as it was broadcast, or at least as soon after broadcast as possible (isn’t it annoying when real life gets in the way?). If you were one of the regular readers of my Who-related posts and fancy more of the same this series then I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that I will be reviewing the new series in a similar way. The bad news is that I’m going away next week – on Saturday as well, which means I’ll only just miss the next episode – and I’m away for a month in a place where I’m unlikely to have access to primetime BBC shows, or in fact much television at all (see what I mean about real life getting in the way?). However, appropriately enough it’s the USA that I’m traveling to, and as that’s a nice little tie in to the episode that’s just been aired (The Impossible Astronaut) I feel we can dispense with further ado’s for now and get stuck into some reviewing. Please be advised that the rest of this review contains significant spoilers and a lot of stuff that will make absolutely no sense unless you’ve already watched the episode.

And what an episode it was! Credit is due to Stephen Moffat because he’s a man why definitely knows how to capture an audience’s attention. Though I did my best to avoid spoilers I did hear the hints about one of the four main characters dying within the first 10 minutes of the episode and my initial reaction was something like ‘oh god it’s going to be Rory again’. Now, Rory has technically been killed twice already – once in Amy’s Choice, though that was just a dream, and the other in the Silurian two-parter which now never happened thanks to the Doctor sealing all the Cracks. Confusing no? But I thought surely it has to be Rory because we know how River dies so it won’t be her, they’d be unlikely to kill Amy because she’s the main companion and the Doctor can’t die because that would involve a regeneration or him, you know, actually dying. The fact that this last option is actually what happened came as rather a shock. And he wasn’t just killed either; he was cremated! On a boat and everything! That’s a fairly conclusive killing of the Doctor there by Moffat, and although some viewers may be expecting an everything-will-be-ok conclusion to this plot, given what else happens in the episode and the fact that Moffat’s still left himself 200 years of the Doctor’s life to play with this may not be the sort of ending that we end up with. Whatever happens though I’m going to maintain my faith in Moffat and his writing team. If anyone can get us into this sort of plotty-quagmire and then out the other side again it’s these guys.

One of the most powerful aspects of The Impossible Astronaut for me was the power shift. Normally whatever’s going on the Doctor’s the one who’s in control. He’s the instigator, the one everyone turns to to explain things, the one who understands the threat and the one who formulates the clever plan that save the day, so to see him not fully understanding what’s going on – particularly when it’s so early on in the episode, and particularly when he can see how worried the situation is making everybody else – is a very interesting shift in the show’s usual dynamic. This isn’t to say that he was totally out of his depth. When he’s talking to President Nixon and the FBI guys he’s his usual witty self, and his exchanges with River Song manage to maintain much of the sparkle that there usually is between the two of them. But it bothers him hugely that he doesn’t fully know what’s going on. It’s also clear that River’s not in control either. Normally she’s on a par with the Doctor, sometimes even leading scenes and leaving the Doctor to catch her up, but when she asks him to trust her and he retorts by bringing up her crimes you can see immediately how this exchange robs her of any control as well, leaving Amy to get the Doctor on their side. River here is being forced to realise that whatever the Doctor currently thinks of her he simply doesn’t trust her, and you can see from the look on her face how much this hurts her.

In terms of acting and production The Impossible Astronaut was very impressive. Shooting on location in America (for the most part anyway, I doubt that was the actual Oval Office) lent a certain gravitas to the episode’s setting. The effects too, in particular the digital effects with the Doctor’s near-regeneration, the TARDIS’ cloaking effect and the monster’s attack, were all very effective, and I also noticed the clever way the cut the scenes together when we were introduced to the young Canton Everett Delaware III so the Doctor et al were learning about this new character while we were watching him in action. Nicely done I thought. The acting was very good too, particularly from Alex Kingston who’s always stellar as River Song, and Mark Sheppard who played the young Canton also impressed me, particularly when he first meets the Doctor.

For a season opener, and one with so much spectacle and intrigue in it, it did very well to grab the attention and set the tone of things. However I did find some parts of the episode a little… disjointed. The opening for example. Though I enjoyed seeing Amy and Rory enjoying what looks like fairly ordinary married life before they get the Doctor’s letter I found the bit with River in jail and ‘packing’ a bit forced. We’ve seen her escape before and once is fine, but the implication that she can escape whenever she pleases makes the jail look rather rubbish, which potentially lessens the impact her crimes and her shady past could otherwise have. I also think that if I watch the beginning of The Pandorica Opens again now the impact of her escaping then will be less impressive. I know it was something to set up the plot, and the ‘packing’ line was probably intended as a throwaway joke, but even so it made the whole thing seem not as polished as Moffat’s episodes have been previously. I thought this was also true of the scene just before the TARDIS lands in the Oval Office where the Doctor and River are adjusting the controls. Again this was a good scene and quite a funny one, but again it was a little disjointed, clunky, almost slapstick, which I didn’t find worked hugely well considering it follows the very serious exchange between the Doctor and his companions about what’s going on. I think it’s a shame that these parts of the episode didn’t seem as slick as usual because in places the writing and delivery was its usual sparkling self. The scene where the TARDIS lands in Florida and the Doctor reveals that the names were street names has some absolutely beautiful Doctor/River banter:  “…and Dr Song, you’ve got that face on again.” “What face?” “The he’s-hot-when-he’s-clever face.” “This is my normal face.” “Yes it is.” “Oh shut up.” “Not a chance.” I’m also intrigued to find out what the Mrs Robinson reference is about and why it annoys River so much. In general then I’m not sure what happened with the disjointed bits. It’s almost like Moffat’s getting back into the swing of things, or maybe his plot was so ambitious that it was inevitable that some bits couldn’t be as slick as things were in The Eleventh Hour. I’m not saying that The Impossible Astronaut wasn’t a cracking season opener because it was, but in my opinion a tad more polish would have made it perfect.

Another thing I noticed about this episode, which is obvious when you think about it, is that it’s very Stephen Moffat. Consider the following: there’s a new monster, one that’s humanoid but not like a proper person who can be reasoned with; there’s a strange and complicated use of time travel going on with the Doctor as well as with River turning up again (I thought actually seeing her and the Doctor compare diaries was a lovely touch); there’s a lot about memory here (“A lot more happens in 1969 than anyone remembers…“) which resonates strongly with the last series; the Doctor has a strong aversion to guns (the 10th Doctor in particular) and there’s a fairly prominent gun used just before the cliff-hanger, as there was in The Time of Angels except that there it wasn’t aimed at anyone; and there’s a frightened child who may not be all she seems. Consider some of Moffat’s previous episodes: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (gas mask zombies in WWII led by a mysterious orphan); The Girl in the Fireplace (clockwork robots from the 51st century stalking a girl in pre-revolutionary France); Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (hungry shadows walking around in space suits while a child inside a computer watches it all happen on TV. Also we meet River for the first time). The child in particular is one of his favourite mechanisms. I’m not pointing this out for any critical reason – these are themes that obviously work for Moffat and have resulted in some of my favourite episodes of New Who – but I did think it was interesting to consider this episode in a wider Who-niverse context and see some of the patterns that have emerged thus far. I also wonder what else is going to pop up here that we may see again in some form in the future. As they say, time will tell.

And while we’re talking about the monsters, my goodness they were creepy! Moffat’s monsters seem to manage that very well (think Weeping Angels and Vashta Nerada), and thanks to him I bet there were many children hiding behind the sofa last night. Moffat’s monsters are also explained pretty well – the American woman (Joy) in the toilets with Amy, aside from being rather excellent herself, was a perfect mechanism to explain how the monster manipulates memory. And the dementor-esque effects on the monsters face when it killed Joy were little short of terrifying! Brilliant stuff! I’m intrigued as to how it knew so much though, particularly Amy and Joy’s names. I sense stealing other people’s memories isn’t all that these things are capable of. On that note as well, did you notice how both River and Amy “felt a bit sick” after their encounters with the monsters? And then Amy tells the Doctor her ‘news’ at the end of the episode? I don’t reckon these two things were linked, but you can never be sure with Moffat. One to keep an eye on I think.

Now, as is traditional with these Doctor Who posts I’m going to finish with some of my best bits, but before that there are few things I wanted to mention that didn’t really fit into what I’ve talked about above. Firstly, do Rory and Amy know about the Doctor’s regenerations? Neither of them have known any Doctor but the 11th so will what River said about his regeneration cycle have made much sense to them? Secondly, dedicated viewers can’t have failed to notice that the spaceship in the tunnels is similar to the one that was upstairs in The Lodger. We know that James Cordon’s character from that episode comes back at some point this series, and as this is a similar spaceship maybe this will be the plot point that brings his character back into the story? Thirdly, if you’ve read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger then you’ll recognise the relationship River and the Doctor have and how they do things in the wrong order. This is one of my absolute favourite novels. I read it after River Song first appeared in Doctor Who because someone mentioned that it’s where Moffat may have got the idea for her character from, and when River is telling Rory about her and the Doctor I saw some really strong parallels with The Time Traveler’s Wife, as well, obviously, as with the episodes in the Library where the thing that River says she’s worried about here – meeting the Doctor and him not knowing her – actually happens. Watching River share this with Rory was an extremely poignant moment  of dramatic irony and one that I suspect resonated with many Doctor Who fans. Finally for this section, given that the issue of what happened to the TARDIS to make it explode in The Big Bang wasn’t resolved, are we to assume that these creatures (in the credits they are referred to as The Silence) are the ones that somehow took control of it and caused it to explode? We’ve seen that they manipulate memory to make others forget them so maybe that’s part of their motivation for wanting there to never have been a universe in the first place? Just a thought.

Best bits:

  • That’s most definitely the Doctor, and he’s most definitely dead“. A powerful statement, but again they’re being told this rather than discovering it for themselves, like in The Big Bang when the Doctor told them his future self was dead and he wasn’t. If rule 1 is ‘the Doctor lies’ then who’s to say that the older Canton is completely truthful?
  • We’re his friends. We do what the Dr’s friends always do. As we’re told.
  • I won’t be seeing you again. But, you’ll be seeing me.
  • 11 hundred and three? You were 908 when I last saw you.” “And you’ve put on a couple of pounds, I wasn’t going to mention it.” Miaow!
  • River: “He’s interacted with his own past, this could rip a hole in the universe.” Amy: “But he’s done it before!” Rory (brilliantly deadpan): “And in fairness the universe did blow up.
  • Hippy!” “Archeologist.
  • The looks on their faces when Nixon and Delaware first see the Doctor. His little ‘carry on’ hand wave is great.
  • Fellas the guns, really? I just walked into the highest security office in the United States, parked a big blue box on the rug, and you think you can just shoot me?
  • Jefferson, it’s alright, I’m sending my best people.
  • So we’re in a box that’s bigger on the inside and it travels in time and space… How long have Scotland yard had this?” Ha! Brilliant.
  • Why would anyone want to trap us?” “Let’s see if anyone tries to kill us and work backwards.” Flippant but rather good nonetheless.
  • River talking about first meeting the Doctor: “…imagine what that does to a girl” Rory: “I don’t really have to“. And, having seen Rose, Martha and now Amy do the same, we don’t really have to imagine it either.
  • The Elisabeth Sladen dedication at the beginning of the episode, and the tribute that was played for her afterwards on CBBC. If you haven’t seen it yet then please go and watch it, it’s a very moving tribute to a wonderful woman and actress, and one of the Doctor’s greatest ever companions.

Phew. So there’s my take on The Impossible Astronaut. Like I said I’m not going to be around next week – which is a shame because the trailer for the next episode looks amazing! – but there will be a review of it at some point so check back here after May for more Doctor Who goodies. ‘Til then have a good month and I’ll see you on the other side.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2011 1:05 pm

    The Mrs Robinson is referencing “The Graduate” she is the older woman who seduces Dustin Hoffman. I guess she is annoyed because he is implying she is the “older woman” despite him being 900! 😉

    • April 24, 2011 1:16 pm

      Oooh, that makes sense. I’ve not seen The Graduate so that’d be why I didn’t get it.

  2. Bright Blue Shorts permalink
    April 24, 2011 1:52 pm

    On your Moffat themes … you sort of touch on it … I think Moffat is on record somewhere as saying that the scariest monsters are those with no emotion. Hence the Angels, the clockwork robots, the gasmask people … and now the Silents … (they’re a touch close to The Scream) …

  3. Clive the flying Ostrich permalink
    April 30, 2011 10:14 am

    “Let’s see if anyone tries to kill us and work backwards.”

    I thought that was the best line – a perfect summation of the plot with a bucket full of dramatic irony.


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