“The Impossible Astronaut”
April 23rd, 2011
“Human beings – I thought I’d never get done saving you.”
As Doctor Who enters its sixth “series” (which I refer to as season above to avoid confusion with similarly titled posts on the blog), I find myself an an interesting crossroads.
As a viewer, “The Eleventh Hour” was my first experience with the start of a series (if not my first experience, as I watched the relevant Moffat-oeuvre episodes beforehand), and that episode served a very clear introductory function for Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor. It was also a contained episode, extending beyond the traditional running time to complete a single story alongside the introductions of both a new Doctor and a new companion.
By comparison, “The Impossible Astronaut” finds Matt Smith’s Doctor well-established, and despite the “official” addition of a second companion there is not much groundwork to be laid with either Amy or Rory given their importance to the previous series. It is also the first part of a two-part premiere, meaning that its full meaning has not yet been fully understood, and its role in shaping the remainder of the series remains fairly abstract.
When I suggest I find myself at a crossroads, it is because “The Impossible Astronaut” is a test of sorts for those of us who are new to the Who, so to speak. With the introductions out of the way, Steven Moffat has wholly embraced the series’ atemporality and put together a premiere which finds poetry in tragedy and tragedy in just about everything, breaking rules that we didn’t know existed and inventing rules that we can’t be sure exist. It renders viewers like me, those of us who only recently jumped on the bandwagon, not unlike the Doctor’s companions, forced to place our trust in Moffat’s vision while the questions pile up and the speculation overflows.
It says a great deal about the success of the fifth series that I barely blinked at “The Impossible Astronaut,” slipping easily into the giddy theorizing that this show can inspire and fully embracing my deep appreciation for something that I only started watching a year ago.
If “The Impossible Astronaut” creates any particular expectation for the series to follow, it surrounds the character of River Song. Ever since her introduction during the fourth series, the character has been very much at the heart of the Doctor’s relationship with time: here is this woman who he has never met before who knows everything about him, more than even his closest of companions, and who eventually sacrifices herself in order to save him and countless others. It was one of those beautifully poetic moments that Moffat is so fond of, and for the viewer (and the Doctor) there’s an element of promise there: because of her concern over spoilers, we know that there is much more of this story for us to learn.
Of course, for River Song, it was the exact opposite of poetry. It was a tragic moment, the moment where this man she knew so well had no idea who she was, and the moment where the resulting heartbreak led her to effectively commit suicide (albeit for a good cause). At the time, I think I saw that gesture as romantic, but after “The Impossible Astronaut” I think we can look at it as something more tragic than anything else. Now that we have a better sense of River’s perspective, with Alex Kingston having had more time to flesh out the character, that moment just becomes more meaningful with time. Every time she chooses to throw caution to the wind, she does so because the Doctor knows her, which means that she will meet him again at some point soon. As a result, when she reached that moment when the Doctor had never met her before in his life, she knew that she was going to die, and her discussion with Rory late in this episode establishes that she dreads that moment of total disconnect more than death itself.
It’s still incredibly poetic, gaining meaning with each passing interaction between the two characters, but the tragedy of it all seems particularly foregrounded here given the fact that Moffat went and killed the Doctor mid-regeneration a few minutes into the episode. It’s a decision that is meant to immediately establish a certain tone, and does its job quite nicely: using the Utah setting to full advantage in some beautiful shots created by Toby Haynes, the episode stages a comfortable reunion of sorts before throwing it all out the window with the vision of a shadowy alien, the arrival of a man with a gas can, and the ascension of the eponymous spaceman (or woman) from the lake. Using the companions (who number at three with River Song’s invitation) as our surrogate, Moffat tests our faith: told by the Doctor to not intervene, Amy breaks first after the initial blast of some sort, and by the time of the second blast the notion of following the Doctor’s orders is out the window. Normally, following the Doctor’s plans means letting something bad happen so that eventually something good can happen, but this turned out in a very different fashion, and raised a whole host of questions.
Of course, by revealing that the Doctor we met was 200 years older than the Doctor he is actually planning to follow (a revelation that immediately stood out to me, given that I don’t remember hearing specific ages in the past), Moffat shifts those questions to next week’s conclusion, and to the remainder of the season. It also forces River, Amy and Rory in the same position as the Doctor with River: just as he knows how she will die but can’t “spoil” it for fear of fundamentally altering her path, they now have to hide the fact that they saw him die just hours before running into him at a diner (casually late, of course). It’s a fun reveal, watching the companions merge shock, frustration and relief, but in truth it’s also a dark one. It made it clear that the Doctor’s death was a future event and not a present one, but that also means that it might not truly be rewritten: while an immediate death would have to undone for the series to even continue, his eventual death might well pass as we saw. Sure, it still seems unlikely that Moffat would attempt to tie the franchise’s end to the end of Matt Smith’s tenure, but it becomes more real when it becomes part of a longer history than if it feels isolated in this particular two-parter.
Moffat loves the timey-wimeyness of Doctor Who precisely because it has no clearly defined rules, which enables two important things. The first is that Moffat can play with it at will, having the Doctor and River moving in opposite directions, letting the future Doctor sending letters to the present Doctor, and just generally embracing the long-form potential of time travel. However, the second thing it enables him to do is to enforce rules that may or may not actually exist, or at least introduce the idea of rules. River tells Amy that they can’t just neutralize the astronaut and save the Doctor’s life, and pushes aside Amy’s notion that “time can be rewritten” by suggesting that this does not apply to some things. Moffat doesn’t bother defining which things, precisely because it doesn’t matter: Moffat doesn’t enforce these rules because he wants to protect the sanctity of the show’s time travel, it’s because he wants to make it clear that this particular instance is more dangerous/powerful than others Amy might have dealt with (such as he own life, which was of course taken from her by the same light which took Rory away).
Some might find this approach a bit arbitrary, but I presume them to be in the minority: it may not prove scientific, but Moffat picks his vague rules carefully, and uses them in just the right fashion. “The Impossible Astronaut” never feels bogged down by rules, in part because the Doctor isn’t aware of what’s even happening (at least once Amy swears on fish sticks and custard and he puts away his suspicions). He’s back to his old tricks, getting pinned down by the secret service and requesting a fez and solving mysteries while refusing to tell the people he’s solving them for what precisely he’s discovered. Even once they get down to Florida, the Doctor is bantering with River, playing around with stolen NASA gear, and just being the Doctor. The effect is a clear parallel with the Doctor we saw in that opening scene, an older soul who (based on the quote highlighted above) seemed to know that his time protecting humankind was done. It’s not an entirely “stark” contrast, given that he just replaces Fezzes with Stetsons and all, but Matt Smith mines some nice subtlety out of the two versions of the Doctor.
Meanwhile, the show does an interesting thing by separating Amy and then Rory/River from the rest of the action, allowing them (and only them) to meet “The Silence,” the physical manifestation of the threat that the Doctor faced last season. These scenes do serve as an introduction to the figures, those who you forget as soon as you look away from them, but they’re also about the characters in question. I love the look on Rory’s face as River describes what it’s like to be swept away by someone who knows all about you, thinking about how different his relationship with Amy might be if she hadn’t spent her childhood romanticizing the man in the blue box. Similarly, as mentioned above, River’s explanation of her connection with the Doctor walked that fine line between exposition and poetry and came out on the side of the latter for me. Hearing it “explained” always risks seeming forced, but Kingston captures the shift from reckless to (tragi)romantic so wonderfully. Amy, meanwhile, gets to witness Joy being killed (perhaps because she looked too many times?), and then ends in a state of limbo having finally told the Doctor what she had meant to tell him: that she was pregnant.
Here’s the point, really, where analyzing the episode just turns into speculation. Is she really pregnant (as her morning sickness of sorts would indicate), or is this an attempt to avoid revealing what she really wants to reveal? Who is the young girl, and is it the same girl who is in the suit two hundred years later (at least as far as the Doctor is concerned)? What do we make of the fact that the Silence’s underground chamber is identical to the makeshift TARDIS in “The Lodger?” I don’t have an answer to any of these questions, although I’ve read plenty of intelligent speculation which would further complicate the scenario at hand. For example, does an extensive series of underground tunnels under the Earth mean that the entire planet is somehow a mirage (not unlike that second story in “The Lodger”)?
There’s a lot left unresolved at the conclusion of “The Impossible Astronaut,” but I don’t know if it’s really much of a cliffhanger: Amy probably didn’t shoot the Astronaut, and even if she did that would create an undetermined set of consequences that have no clear resolution. Instead, Moffat has created so long a string of unanswered questions that he will surely not have time to resolve them all. For me, that’s the very definition of a strong premiere, because it gets our minds working a mile a minute and speculating on where things might go from here. While some of this will be resolved next week (since Mark Sheppard won’t be around forever), some of it will undoubtedly remain, setting the stage for an intriguing series to follow. While last year’s serialized element was more subtle at first, the various gaps signalling a constant presence which revealed itself at series’ end, here the Silence are real and deadly from the get go, and…well, the Doctor’s dead.
As a result, more than last season, I find myself desperate to know more. Perhaps this is partly a function of the shift from introduction to extension logical in the second series for this particular cast, but I think it is also the simple reality of having been caught up in this timey-wimey world. This is a fun episode on some levels and a tragic one on others, but it never ceases feeling magical and meaningful in the way that I’ve found Moffat’s Doctor Who to be, and I’m eagerly anticipating (read: desperate to see) what’s to come in the months ahead.
- A fun little montage of the Doctor’s solo adventures in the opening – I presume that those were adventures that our current Doctor, and not the future Doctor, was enjoying, but I love those little hints at other stories that could be told (I felt the same way about the Doctor running into his and Amy’s trip to “Space Florida” during the climax of “The Big Bang” last season).
- I never know how much of Moffat’s references back to his previous episodes are meaningful (like the fact that we first met River in a spacesuit, thus positing it could be her in the suit killing the Doctor) or just themes/images he enjoys (like the voice of a young child being used to draw people closer, evident way back in Series One’s “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances”).
- I mentioned the direction above, but there was something truly vivid about being outside of the UK. The Utah stuff was striking, especially the Viking funeral, and the visual shift really helped sell that moment as being pivotal to the series as a whole.
- Mark Sheppard must honestly have a science fiction series bingo card somewhere.
- I think “the king of okay” is a tremendous title, actually.
- They really weren’t trying very hard on the Nixon impression, were they? Also, in the case of historical accuracy, anyone know whether there would be a high-ranking African American within the secret service in 1969? I’m not suggesting such a thing is impossible, but it struck me nonetheless.
- “Codenames the Doctor, the Legs, the Nose, and Mrs. Robinson” – I enjoy the latter, especially since it so wonderfully captures the current state of their almost Benjamin Button-esque love affair (a connection that I had not quite made, but seems particularly apt).
- I do not know how much time I’m going to have to cover the next few episodes, but I hope to at least drop in with some quick analysis on a week-to-week basis until mid-May, when more extensive coverage is likely.