• 24th April 2011 • Review by Julian Hazeldine •
It feels like sacrilege, really. Attempting to review “The Impossible Astronaut” on only one viewing seems somehow inappropriate. On the other hand, however, it’s quite possible that even a dozen viewings would leave one under-equipped to convey the full impact of the next stage in the evolution of Doctor Who as a television programme.
Setting aside the TV movie, the train that leads from “Survival” to “Rose”, via a decade of original, mature-readership novels, is clear. The faster storytelling of the last few seasons of McCoy is built upon, and the increased emotional complexity of the companion character made the linchpin of the series, not a welcome bonus. The key element is the re-use of a chance inclusion, with something very similar to Ace’s Perivale council estate retained to provide a permanent and identifiable backdrop to the Doctor’s more outlandish exploits.
A process very similar can be seen in the changes which “The Impossible Astronaut” makes to the programme we’ve come to know. The show is again condensed, with themes and moments which would have once come weeks apart compressed into a single episode. Previous series have shown us the TARDIS team hob-nobbing with famous historical figures, investigating mysterious space-suited predators, the quiet tragedy of falling in love with a Time Lord and enemies whose shadow is large enough to fall across an entire series. Steven Moffat now judges the show’s audience literate enough in the programme and its possibilities to absorb all these elements in one hit. The change in approach hinted at by “The Pandorica Opens”, with the many races of the Whoniverse seen as a status quo to fuel the story, not a patchwork of isolated elements, is cemented by the new incarnation of the programme.
Essentially, the show is now being written in the style of the novels that sustained it during the 1990s, taking the complex and original premise of the programme and treating it not as a raison d’être but as a foundation from which a more complex and involved story is to be built. The baby steps last year of making the running thread of the crack in time an active component of stories such as “Flesh & Stone” and “In Cold Blood” are dwarfed by an inversion of the status quo. The mystery of the weekly phone calls to Nixon and the titular astronaut, in reality the A-story of the episode, is a mere incidental feature to the Doctor’s execution and the introduction of the Silents, which will presumably play out over at least seven weeks. The accessibility of the programme is reduced as a result, with moments such as River’s explanation of who she is buried in a moment of downtime with Rory instead of being positioned at the top of the episode.
After a Christmas special which put him firmly centre-stage, Matt Smith’s Doctor is once again more distant to the viewers, who firmly side with his three friends thanks to their shared knowledge of the story’s opening. He’s single handedly charged with providing the story’s lighter moment, plaintively crying his delight at a NASA helmet as the rest of the shot is literally immersed in gloom. The fact that what should be a jolting and disjointed ride through a massively varied episode feels so comfortable it due to the ease with which the regulars settle into their roles. Rather than the spare part of Mickey Smith, Rory fulfils the duties of a stage manager, explaining time-travel story elements to Amy, filling in the guest characters on the nature of the TARDIS off-camera and bringing River out of her shell. Despite the humanising of Dr Song, the biggest change in role goes to Amy. For once, we see experience of travel with the Doctor displayed not as a cessation of questions on what the psychic paper does, but a full appreciation of the value of the Doctor, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to protect him. While the cliff-hanger is undercut by the astronaut being shown as bulletproof early in the episode, the possibility of the Doctor being driven away from his friend by the extent of her devotion to him is an interesting one.
There’s a slight disconnect, however, arising from the episode’s only flaw; the off-screen departure from the TARDIS of Amy & Rory to start a new life together. It’s easy to imagine Moffat tearing his hair out at trying to find a way for the future Doctor to step in while the present version as out of the room, but his solution to the problem is a little jarring. Given that we last saw the Ponds getting used to married life aboard the TARDIS only a few weeks ago, it’s rather odd to find them at home in an unspecified location, initially raising expectations of another “Amy’s Choice”-style dreamscape. Instead, it looks as if the Ponds have genuinely decided to distance themselves from the Doctor, and establish a life of their own in the rebooted universe. Again, this is an intensification of trends seen last year; whereas series five saw the fetishisation of the role of the companion reduced, with elements such as receiving a TARDIS key dismissed, here we see a looser and more organic scenario presented. The Doctor and Amy Pond are best friends, but that doesn’t mean they spend every day in each other’s company.
Confounding expectations is something that the story does very well, particularly in respect of the inaccurately named Silents. It turns out that the description of them wasn’t entirely accurate, with their ability to manipulate minds a far more important power than their ability to evade observation. As with the Weeping Angels, Moffat has broken the mould for a Doctor Who monster; the menace of the Silents lies not in that they will kill, but their obvious intelligence and sense of purpose. The creatures tap into a rich stream of paranoia about memory and control of your own mind, inadvertently resonating with sci-fi references ranging from Half Life’s G-Man to Planetary’s Randall Dowling. It’s not clear whether Amy’s pregnancy is genuine or a false belief (her nausea could be morning sickness, but was also shown as a symptom displayed by other characters who have had their memories altered), but the Silents’ compelling her to make the statement shows a knowledge of what will throw the Doctor off his game. For what may well be the first time, we have an antagonist who feels like they appreciate the scale of the challenge involved in defeating the Doctor.
It’s possible that Moffat’s undiluted vision of the programme will crash and burn. If this episode is indicative of Series Six, then it’s perfectly conceivable that the resultant creation, too fraught for young children and too fast and complex for a mass-market audience, could commercially flounder without these two key market segments’ buy-in. But what would the alternative be? Reheating Russell T Davies’ formula for diminishing returns until cancellation? Instead, Moffat has taken the bull by the horns, and produced a work of such quality that even killing this show stone dead seems a bargain price for the entertainment that doing so will offer. It’s almost tempting to a read a metaphor into the opening scene of the story. We may well have just seen the fate of Doctor Who sealed, but it’s arguably worth it for what follows.