The beginning of the new season felt like the end of one — and not just because the Doctor was killed less than 10 minutes out of the gate! The episode had so many reveals (and a guest appearance by River Song) and such a grand scale that it felt like the sort of thing that is normally reserved for a season-capper; the kind of show that leaves a lingering impression to lure viewers back next season. But in “The Impossible Astronaut,” all that effort was directed at making people tune in for the rest of the season.
But did we see what we thought we saw? (Or is that, “are seeing”?) As fans learned last season, executive producer Steven Moffat is not the least bit afraid to revisit an entire season, shake it around, and cast it in a different light. In this case, it looks like he’s going to circle back at some point, rather than have the Doctor directly backtrack through the stories, as in Series 5’s “The Big Bang.” I suspect the identity of the person in the spacesuit will be a long time coming — though I don’t think I can bear to wait until No. 13. (My initial guess? It’s Amy. Having the Doctor say, “My life in your hands, Amelia Pond,” is just too larded with portent. Moffat doesn’t waste words.)
The story began with Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill) and Dr. River Song (Alex Kingston) gathering in the American Southwest, obeying instructions contained in four mysterious letters. As the group picnicked by a lake, a mysterious spaceman appeared and killed the Doctor — striking him down in the middle of his regeneration, thus permanently destroying him. Amy, Rory and River disposed of the body, only to be confronted by another version of the Doctor — this one some 200 years younger than the one who was just killed, and completely oblivious of the fate awaiting him 196 years down the line. The assistants agreed not to reveal the ultimate “spoiler” to the Time Lord, and instead follow the course the older Doctor was intent on: visiting 1969. There, they encountered the problem of President Nixon (Stuart Milligan) receiving mysterious phone calls from a child. Aided by former FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III (Mark Sheppard) the Doctor traced the calls to a warehouse in Florida, where River and Rory uncovered an alien craft seemingly identical to the timeship visited in last season’s “The Lodger.” All along the way, Amy was dogged by a mysterious, skull-faced creature known as a Silent, from a group of powerful and deadly monsters who operate in secret because the moment you look away from a Silent, you forget him. The Doctor and Amy found the Spaceman, and a panicked Amy blindly shot at the figure — before realizing the suit was occupied by the mysterious Little Girl (Sydney Wade) who had been calling the president…
See what I mean by likening this to a season finale? There was a lot of story packed into this one episode, so it’s no surprise Moff needed a Part 2. The Silents are another one of Moffat’s trademark “gimmick” monsters: You’re only aware of them when looking directly at them. (Compare to the Weeping Angels, who move when you’re not looking at them, and Prisoner Zero, who can only be seen out of the corner of the eye.) Clever girl, that Amy, snapping a pic of that Silent! Let’s see if that turns out to be the key to defeating them. The Silent appeared to kill Joy in the same manner that the Spaceman killed the Doctor, leading to the initial impression that one of the creatures was wearing the spacesuit, but… why? (Could it be as the Doctor suggested – that the suit is just so “cool”?) Moffat claims the Silents will become the scariest DOCTOR WHO monsters ever, but they need to amp it up in part 2, “The Day of the Moon,” if they are to have any hope of overtaking the Weeping Angels. My biggest complaint about the Silents? The oversized hands that look like Mickey Mouse gloves! Those hands can kill – but I’d be afraid of dying laughing!
Matt Smith was at his buoyant best in this episode, really coming into his own as the Doctor. He knows where he wants to take the Time Lord, and he’s going there full throttle! The Doctor’s childlike joie de vivre, obsession with hats (“I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool.”) and fascination with shiny objects (“Look at how cool this stuff is!”) make him a joy to watch and fun to root for. He’s the perfect hero for children — of all ages. Smith’s trademark physicality is still there, but dialed down a little. I can’t wait to find out what the Doctor was trying to accomplish while gallivanting through time in the pre-title sequence.
Gillan’s Amy is still clearly the lead companion here, and I couldn’t be happier. Domestic bliss has not mellowed Mrs. Pond; she’s just as brassy and smart and brave and irrepressible as ever. Is Amy really pregnant, or just assuming? (Remember, she was pregnant in “Amy’s Choice.”)From the way she was enjoying that wine at the beginning of the episode, she didn’t think she was pregnant then. So when did she have time to pop over to the chemist (or whatever the Scots call a drug store) and pick up a pregnancy test? I’d hate to see Amy tied down with a baby, and a TARDIS is no place to raise a child.
Darvill continues to make great strides with “Rory the Roman.” Originally, I didn’t like the character (although, I have to admit that may have been due to some slight jealousy that Amy fancied him), but over the course of last season Darvill built him into a charming and loyal friend. Rory doggedly standing watch over Amy inside the Pandorica for 2,000 years was probably the most romantic gesture in all of SF/fantasy. And he took Amy’s name when they married, so how can anyone resist that kind of dedication?
This story also treated fans to another appearance by River — who is “Dr. Song” at this point in her timeline. Apparently she waltzes in and out of Stormcage Prison whenever she wishes; in fact, she is so blasé about escaping, she takes the time to pack before busting out! Kingston has this character down pat now, and seems relaxed in the role. She’s good at playing confident River, but also vulnerable River. She revealed that on the day she first met him, he knew everything about her, but she knew nothing of him. Now every time she encounters him she knows him more, but he knows her less; they’re traveling in opposite directions in their personal timelines. She knows that one day she will be a complete stranger to him – and it will kill her. And longtime fans remember that the first time the Doctor met her – in his 10th incarnation (David Tennant) in “Silence in the Library”) River will be proven right on both counts, as the Doctor had no knowledge of her, and she later died (“Forest of the Dead”).
Moffat’s script, while packed with action and plot, was also overstuffed with great dialogue; laugh lines (“I really hate you/him!”) and portentous lines: “A lot more happened in 1969 than anyone remembers,” the Doctor mused. “Human beings… I thought I’d never get done saving you.” And the eternal “Doctor…who?” gag was actually used twice!
In a lot of ways, this was also a heartbreaking episode. When the Doctor died, I got a little misty (even though I know he’s going to be okay…right? Right?); when Amy vouchsafed on “fish fingers and custard,” I nearly burst into tears. There was nothing more meaningful that she could have said. “My life in your hands, Amelia Pond,” he sighed. Was the Doctor…frightened in that moment?
And then there were the grace notes: Dancing with Laurel & Hardy in a fez; syncing diaries with River; the Doctor in the Oval Office, motioning to Nixon to continue talking while he took notes; dubbing his assistants “the Legs, the Nose, and Mrs. Robinson”; Canton getting the honor of reciting the traditional “It’s bigger on the inside” line; the Doctor saying, “Brave heart, Canton!”
Yes, the Series 6 premiere did everything perfectly, including a card dedicating the episode to the memory of Elisabeth Sladen, our beloved Sarah Jane Smith, who passed away on April 19. It’s hard to figure how this opener could have done anything better. On to the next part, “The Day of the Moon”…