Series 6, Episode 1: The Impossible Astronaut

“A lot more happened in 1969 than anyone remembers. Human Beings. I thought I’d never get done saving you.”


So, a two parter to open the season, for the first time since Doctor Who returned. With that, a mid season break and a one part finale, Steven Moffat seems to be introducing some much needed variation into the increasingly formulaic structure of Doctor Who seasons. I think that’s a very good thing, as I don’t like knowing what to expect – but it does come with the risk that, as a setup for a second part, the season opener might not be as gripping as in previous years.

And was that the case? Actually, I don’t think so. Certainly The Impossible Astronaut set up many questions without answering them, but that’s the nature of a first episode. Nonetheless, this was gripping, atmospheric stuff, helped to achieve an epic feel by the advantage of some expensive (looking) US locations. And it started with a bang, with the much hyped spoiler about the death of a main character resolved in the first ten minutes. That, more than any other element of this first part, set up the biggest question to be resolved in the second part – if indeed it is. I have the feeling that a lot of the issues set up in this season opener are going to play out over the season as a whole, rather than being sorted out next Saturday.

The answer to the much hyped spoiler/poser about which main character was going to die was a genuine surprise. I’d inferred that it couldn’t be River, as we’ve seen her die already later in her timestream, but it could be either Amy or Rory, with most people’s bets being on Rory. However, with Arthur Darvill’s name now in the opening credits (excellent), this seemed unlikely.

Such was my uncertainty as the Doctor was shot by a mysterious figure in a spacesuit, I actually wondered if the production team had pulled off a major coup and sprung a surprise regeneration on us! I had conflicting feelings about that for a second, until the Doctor was, actually, shot dead. A Doctor, we later discovered, who was from some 200 years into his own future.

Yet again, then, it seems Steve Moffat is going to take us on a ride through ‘wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff’. The Doctor seems decisively dead, but in his current body. Since I can’t imagine that the BBC want to rule out the possibility of any more Doctors after this one, there’s going to have to be a very clever way out of that. After the last couple of years, I trust Steve to be clever enough to make this work, but it might cause a few ructions among those who already feel his plotting is a little… overcomplicated.

That aside though, what of the episode itself? From the outset, it seemed to be taking a different style than last year’s deliberate ‘fairy tale’ approach. We were into dark territory here, reminiscent in many ways of the better years of The X Files. The director obviously picked up this feel from the script, giving a very X Files visual feel to the story – aside from the epic Monument Valley locations, we saw the American corridors of power, spinning tape reels, and most notably, a creepy deserted building with our heroes using flashlights to penetrate the darkness.

There were plenty of memorable images too. The Apollo astronaut rising improbably from a Utah lake was unsettling, if surprisingly reminiscent of the similarly suited and armed Kraal androids from the mostly awful Android Invasion of 1975. But the most disturbing –and X Files like – image was of the new monsters, the Silents (or is it ‘Silence’?). Obviously tied into last year’s unresolved master baddy in some way, they were very creepy to look at, combining the Men in Black suits with a shrivelled, skull-like take on the classic alien ‘grey’ frequently reported in the close encounters that formed the backbone of The X Files.

And the concept that, as soon as you look away from them, you forget they’re there is an inventive twist on the perception-influenced Weeping Angels, another Moffat creation. The scene in the White House restroom as an innocent bystander was wiped out by one (“her name was Joy”) was deliciously creepy as she kept forgetting it was there the instant she turned away – until it vapourised her. Mind you, I suspect the White House cleaning staff may wonder what those peculiar bits are all over the floor…

Ah yes, the White House. The Oval Office set was superb, every bit up to the standard set by shows like The West Wing. I was fairly surprised to learn, from Confidential, that it was built especially for the show – it seemed so good that I had assumed it was a standing set used by various productions. But no, although it seems odd that no such standing set exists. I know there’s one for the House of Commons, I went there once!

Mention of the White House brings me to the guest cast. Since it has returned, one of the standard tropes of Doctor Who has been the episode eulogising a significant historical figure – Shakespeare, Dickens, Churchill, Van Gogh and so on. Richard Nixon is rather harder to eulogise, history having a fairly uniform perception of him as the bad guy. The Doctor did at least mention that he’d done things other than Vietnam and Watergate, at least. Stuart Milligan did a passable imitation of ‘Tricky Dicky’ from under more mounds of latex than Anthony Hopkins had to endure when playing America’s least loved President.

But the story’s not really ‘about’ Nixon. In fact, thus far there is only one fleshed out guest character, but he’s a doozy – the cynical hard bitten former FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III. It’s almost a stereotypical role – with shades of The X Files again- but Moffat’s script and particularly Mark Sheppard’s performance bring it to life. Sheppard’s a bit of a genre legend, what with his appearances in Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and, yes, The X Files. I did wonder about the logic of bringing a British actor, based in LA, over to Wales to play an American – but it was great to finally see him in Doctor Who, so I could hardly quibble. And as if that wasn’t enough, we got the added bonus of his father, the legendary Morgan Sheppard, playing the character in old age. I loved his line – “I won’t be seeing you again. But you’ll see me.”


Mark Sheppard in Firefly, and Morgan Sheppard in Max Headroom

The dialogue in general had that flair of wit we expect from Moffat, who knows very well how to strike the balance between humour and chills in Doctor Who. Matt Smith was given some marvellous lines, which on a second viewing complement his actually distinct performances as the older and younger Doctors. The older was still somewhat playful – “ I thought wine would taste more like the gums” – but has an almost resigned, doomy air to him. By contrast, the younger one has all of the manic energy we’re sued to, bumping into the invisible TARDIS and memorably referring to River as ‘Mrs Robinson’. (“I hate you.” “No you don’t.”)

The relationship between the Doctor and his companions is now very strained by the secret they have to keep – the secret that they’re all there because of his death. That’s going to have an interesting effect on the drama from hereon in, depending on when he gets to find out. And find out he obviously will, as when he confronted the ‘astronaut’ he was obviously expecting what happened.

So, questions, questions, questions. Who was in the spacesuit that killed the Doctor? Could it be River, who hinted last year that her prison sentence was for killing a much-loved man? Could it be the Doctor himself? And who is River? Since Amy’s pregnant, could she be Amy’s daughter, adrift in time? Or perhaps even Romana in a future incarnation? Knowing Steve Moffat, the answers won’t be nearly so obvious.

Overall then, a good, atmospheric season opener, with a nicely dark new tone along with the customary wit and humour. The involvement of BBC America doesn’t seem to have diluted the show’s Britishness – in fact I wondered how American audiences would take to the Doctor’s assertion that two of the Founding Fathers had fancied him!  A pretty good ep – though not as good as last year’s earth-shaking Eleventh Hour – but hard to really say how good until we’ve seen the conclusion. Decisive opinion next week…