Warning: this review contains spoilers. You can find our spoiler-free review here.
6.1 The Impossible Astronaut
“That most certainly is the Doctor. And he most certainly is dead.“
Crikey. Well there’s forty-five minutes of telly to put the cat amongst the proverbial pigeons.
Teased for weeks by a quartet of Doctor Who Magazine front covers suggesting one of the Doctor, Rory, Amy or River would die in the first episode of the new series, it’s fair to suggest that not one of us would have suspected the former. Mind you, not one of us suspects that there won’t be a way to wriggle out of it somehow (and it will take some wriggling. Having the Matt Smith version of the Doctor die doesn’t allow for regenerations, even if it’s clear that the Doctor has two hundred years left).
But the themes that are set to underpin this series are coming in thick and fast, right from the first ten minutes of this episode. The Doctor is doomed. Amy is pregnant (and we’re coming back to that). And River? Well, she’s who, exactly?
And on top of that, there are some damn scary new monsters in town.
In fact, it’s the monsters that pick up on the themes of last series directly. Silence is coming, we’d been told, and The Silence have well and truly arrived. Genuinely unnerving creatures they are, too, with the mixture of skeletal head and a Men In Black-riffing suit and tie, meaning they have visual impact, too. But there’s a bigger problem. Never mind don’t blink, The Silence pose a potentially even more sinister threat: you can’t remember them the second you turn away. Uh-oh.
They’re at the heart of the episode’s most sinister scene, when Amy encounters one of them in the White House toilet. It was brilliantly done, threw in a Star Trek gag, and might just have given one or two younger viewers an uncomfortable sleep.
But they are just part of what makes The Impossible Astronaut so bold and effective. For it really is to the credit of Who chief, Steven Moffat, that he’s jammed so much into one episode and made it all stick.
I, for one, really enjoyed watching the roles reversed in the Tardis, for starters. Three companions at the start of a series harks back to the Peter Davison years, but each of them here has some complication at heart, a part to play.
Plus, it’s the three companions who, for a change, have the knowledge advantage over the Doctor. And while it doesn’t totally change the roles, it does alter the mechanic somewhat.
It also brings out a slightly sinister side to Smith’s Doctor (“Don’t play games with me. Don’t ever, ever think you’re capable of that.”) and that looks set to be built, on too.
A year ago, some people were questioning whether Smith was the right man for the job. Surely all of those questions have disappeared by now.
Going back to the start, though, this particular episode shot out of the traps. Comedy has been a major ingredient of Who under Steven Moffat’s watch, and the wonderful opening few minutes had a lot of fun before the tone had to darken a little. We got Marilyn Monroe at Christmas, and now we get Laurel and Hardy here. You can’t help but love little touches like that.
It was after the credits that the ante was thoroughly upped, though. The Doctor getting shot. His body burned. The astronaut. And the arrival of Canton Everett Delaware III, at least the older version of him. For we get the younger one once the Doctor breaks into President Nixon’s office in the White House. As the man himself said, “I won’t be seeing you again, but you’ll be seeing me.” And it’s the younger Delaware who eventually persuades the President that the Doctor is on his side.
President Nixon (Stuart Milligan, just brilliant) has a problem of his own. He’s getting mysterious phone calls, but from who? Tricky Dicky’s tapes have a recording from a young girl, but which young girl isn’t clear. She’s scared of the spaceman, which presumably is something to do with the astronaut, but where does she fit in? Even when they track down where her recording is coming from (albeit without either Jammie Dodgers or a fez), it’s hard to be entirely sure.
Could she be Amy Pond’s future daughter, I wonder? For right near the end of the episode, Amy has that massive revelation: she’s pregnant. The ramifications of that might just be immense. Never have we had a married couple in the Tardis. And never have we had a married couple with a baby. A trip to intergalactic Mothercare may be in order. It’s one of several questions to ponder.
Let’s spare some words, too, for guest star, Mark Sheppard, a veteran of shows such as Leverage, Supernatural and Chuck, who is terrific as Delaware. And Arthur Darvill, too, is really coming into his own as Rory, and making a once-background role into something more significant. His nervousness, and demeanour of not quite fitting in is suiting the Tardis mechanic a treat.
Then there’s that haunted look on River Song’s face when she starts talking about the Doctor, as she reveals that the two of them are drifting further and further away. Is theirs to be a doomed love story? It’s certainly looking that way.
One final element I want to praise, and that’s the setting, and how director, Toby Haynes, made the most of it. The last time Doctor Who tackled America, it was the troubled Daleks In Manhattan, notorious for British actors attempting to do American accents. By shifting the location shoot to the US, Haynes has some glorious scenery to stage his shots in, and he really doesn’t disappoint. This is, at times, wonderfully cinematic Who (backed by a terrific Murray Gold score), and hopefully, such ambitious location shoots will be back on the agenda again in due course.
The Impossible Astronaut was, in all, a triumphant return for Doctor Who, bubbling with confidence and throwing down story strands that hint at an engrossing series. I could quibble about the fact that I struggled to always hear what The Silence had to say, if I was being really picky. But I don’t want to be. This was glorious television, all the more remarkable for being a 48-year-old show that’s still, time after time, finding interesting stories to tell.
And that’s only episode one, remember…