Do you feel as if Doctor Who's ageless time traveler, the Doctor, has been getting too invulnerable of late? Too unstoppable? Too difficult to confront with a credible threat? Well, the show addressed those complaints head on. And then some.
"The Impossible Astronaut" was quite possibly the strongest season opener Doctor Who has ever had — and I say that as someone who was not overly blown away by last year's "The Eleventh Hour." This was the real business, with writer Steven Moffat pulling out all the stops and indulging all his darkest impulses.
I really think Steven Moffat is at his best when he goes dark, because he needs some serious awfulness and creepiness to balance out his tendency to write "puzzle box" stories. You can have a puzzle box without any gothic or horrific elements, but then you risk being left with just a shiny plastic toy instead of an ornate wooden box. "The Impossible Astronaut" was not the sort of upbeat, dipping-a-toe-into-the-water opening episode the show has served up for the past few years. Instead, it reminded me more of "Midnight," "Blink" and a few other disturbing midseason gems from years past. I can't help wondering how the casual viewers in the U.K., especially the little kids, felt about seeing the Doctor die in the opening minutes.
So yeah, the episode kills off the Doctor early on — and as a means of establishing a sense of urgency and dread, that's a pretty good trick.
Of course, the rest of the episode isn't just the Doctor's body slowly burning to ashes while his companions watch and sob quietly — this isn't quite that dark an episode.
Because it's not "our" Doctor who dies, it's a future Doctor. He's summoned Amy, Rory and River Song to watch his murder at the hands of a mysterious space-suited figure, and given them some oblique clues to help them start unraveling the chain of events that lead to his death. Because the Doctor can't just interfere with his own timeline, even if he is the only Time Lord left — there are still rules. He can only nudge things in a different direction, he can't rewrite his own past wholesale. In fact, the present-day Doctor can't even know about the future Doctor's death. It's nice to see that some limits remain.
While the future Doctor is on the run, he apparently finds time to get into a royal imbroglio in the 17th century, help with a Hogan's Heroes-style escape from a Nazi prison camp, and make a cameo appearance in a Laurel-and-Hardy movie, just in case you forgot what a lovely comic actor Matt Smith really is. Rory and Amy feel as though he's signalling to them through time, but can't just approach them directly... but why would that be? (Oh, and it seems like we skipped over something — Amy and Rory have been on present-day Earth without the Doctor for quite some time, waiting for him to get in touch.)
And Matt Smith totally conveys the weariness and sadness of the future Doctor — who says he's 1100-odd years old (although I suspect that may be a smidge of exaggeration to make sure his companions know the score.) The Doctor is joking around as always, with his "stetsons are cool" line and his weird references to Jim the Fish and his wall. But there's a terrible sadness and dread underlying it all. The sequences by the lake have a very "Logopolis" feel to them, with mysterious figures appearing on the hillside — first Old Canton, then our first glimpse of the Silence, and the Doctor making arrangements for his own death. Except this time, of course, it's permanent. Nooo!
So who's in the astronaut suit? And how does this relate to the Doctor's cryptic comments about "Space 1969," and the weird old guy named Canton who says they'll be seeing him again soon but he won't see them? All becomes slightly clearer after River, Rory and Amy meet the present-day Doctor, who's also been summoned to that strange planet called America and is more confused than anybody. So his companions urge the Doctor to go back in time to 1969 and discover the secrets of Canton Everett Delaware III, but he has misgivings.
How is it that present!Doctor doesn't guess what's going on? After all, as he points out himself, nobody can play games with him like he can. Maybe he's blinded by his mistrust of River Song, who holds some terrible secret from his future, and who he knows killed a great hero and is in prison because of it. Or maybe he's just developing trust issues since his TARDIS blew up and destroyed the entire universe. The Doctor definitely has a weirdly worried look on his face after he asks Rory if everybody's cross with him for some reason, and Rory says, "I'll find out."
Actually, another interesting question is, why can't future!Doctor go back to 1969 and deal with things himself? Has he already polluted his own timeline to the point where he can't cris-cross his own path any more without some catastrophic results? Is there something the future!Doctor knows that will make the Silence, or whoever's in the astronaut suit, kill him on sight?
As for River Song... we've been told that we'll have to wait until halfway through the season to find out who she is, but we basically already found out what we need to know, thanks to that scene with Rory — she's the Doctor's great love, after all.
And it's not just that they're meeting "out of order," as we've been told before — they're actually going in reverse. So her last meeting with the Doctor (in "Forest of the Dead") was his first encounter with her, and vice versa. From her perspective, as time goes by, she gets to know the Doctor better and better, but he knows her less and less well. And even though she doesn't know about the events of "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead," she knows there's a day coming when she'll meet the Doctor and he won't know who she is.
Meanwhile, even though he doesn't trust her, he's starting to flirt with her. "Doctor Song, you've got that face on again. That 'He's hot when he's clever face.'" "But this is my normal face." "Yes it is." And then later, Canton asks what's going on, and the Doctor's all like, "Nothing, she's just a friend." Heh.
It's all very beautiful and elegant — although I'm not sure I like the idea that she sacrifices her life in "Forest of the Dead" purely because she knows her time with the Doctor is over and life isn't worth living without him — which is what "The Impossible Astronaut" seems to be hinting. The River Song that we've grown to admire over the past couple of years would have tons of other reasons for living besides one measly Time Lord.
The neat thing about this episode, though, is that River Song gets what she's always wanted — for a moment, and then it's snatched away. She meets a Doctor who remembers everything she remembers. Everything that's in her diary, he's already lived through. And that means they're able to have this huge shared history together, the sort of thing any long-term couple takes for granted — and then this Doctor who's actually "in sync" with her gets murdered right in front of her eyes. This incident seems to crystallize her recognition that she'll never get to be on equal footing, knowledge-wise, with the man she clearly loves.
(Oh, and whatever terrible thing about River Song we're going to learn in a month and a half, it's clearly not something the Doctor can't forgive — since they go on to have all these other adventures together afterwards. And it seems as though all of River's experiences with the Doctor are with this Doctor, since she's not surprised that the Doctor with whom she shares all of this history still looks like Matt Smith.)
Whether you've had your quibbles about her performance in the past, Alex Kingston really makes you feel the sadness of someone who knows she's almost at the end of a love affair. I also love the grief-stricken way she says "Spoilers" to present!Doctor in the diner.
Meanwhile, who is Canton Everett Delaware III? We don't have to wait long to find out. He turns out to be a former FBI agent, drummed out of the Bureau because he has problems with authority. Canton gets a summons from Richard Nixon himself, who's been plagued by phone calls from a terrified child who's being stalked by a spaceman. Who can help unravel this mystery? Perhaps the man who bursts out of an invisible door in the wall and winds up sitting at the President's desk issuing demands for jammie dodgers?
Oh, and I love the Doctor's "I'm being extremely clever up here, and there's nobody standing around looking impressed. What's the point of having you all?" Perfect comic timing, upside-down head and all. Also awesome: his idea of studying either biplane-flying or knitting, and his comeback when River Song calls him a hippie: "Archeologist." Also: "Oh look, this is the Oval Office. I was looking for the Oblong Room. I'll just go." Oh, and "Why would anybody want to trap us?" "Let's see if anybody tries to kill us and work backwards."
After we visit the Oval Office, that's when we finally meet the new big bad, the Silence. And they're easily the creepiest monsters since the Weeping Angels. (And unlike the Weeping Angels, the Silence seem like they can keep sustaining a lot of stories to come.) The Silence have the perfect natural camouflage, in that you forget you saw them the moment you're not looking at them, but they also have some undefined mind-control powers. And they are as creepy as all fuck — the bit where that Silent sucks out that one woman's life essence, with its disturbing kissy face, is absolutely skin-crawling.
Constantly seeing and forgetting the Silence is making Amy all queasy and sickly — or is there something else going on? She has a big secret, even apart from the secret she and the others are keeping from the Doctor. And for some reason, the Silence want her to tell him. Finally, she blurts it out to the Doctor while Rory and River are exploring the horrific tunnels underneath the Silence's Evil Florida Lair — Amy is pregnant. Whaaa?
And Rory and River discover a duplicate of the Fake TARDIS from last season's "The Lodger," which looks like it's gearing up to cause more temporal mayhem.
Meanwhile up top, an astronaut-suited figure appears and stalks towards the Doctor and Amy — who shoots at it before she realizes there's a child inside. Oh noes — Amy has done the Full Sayid!
It's one of the most eventful episodes ever, and given that it starts with the Doctor dying and ends with Amy apparently murdering a child, it's pretty intense stuff.
There are clearly a lot of familiar Moffat motifs at work here — the creepy child voice over the phone, the survival suit with something menacing in it, the monsters that you have to keep looking at no matter what, the intricate time puzzle — but the good news is, they're assembled in a genuinely fresh and inventive way. Rather than pulling stuff out of his bag of tricks at random, it really feels as though Moffat is using these things in the service of telling a great story.
All in all, a most propitious beginning to the new season. What did you think?