Doctor Who #870: The Impossible Astronaut

"But all that's still going to happen. He's still going to die." "We're all going to do that, Amy." "We're not all going to arrange our own wake and invite ourselves."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.23 2011.

IN THIS ONE... The 11 hundred-year old Doctor invites himself and his friends to his own murder by as astronaut in America. Then it's off to 1969, Nixon's office and the Silents.

REVIEW: If Series 5 was Moffat's easing into things, Series 6 is where, for good or ill, he starts to impose a different style and structure to the show. From now on, series are cut into two, creating more seasonal cliffhangers and skipping over the summer; the larger arcs become puzzles that keep the audience guessing not months, but years; the Doctor starts having tons of off-screen adventures (or at least, mostly off-screen) and long spans of time going by between episodes; and the color palette gets noticeably more sober. If these are timey-wimey fairy tales, they're rather dark ones. I say for good or ill because over time, some of these elements will be a drain on the show, but here, it's all perfectly exciting. Of course, the nature of puzzles is that they will (hopefully) be resolved eventually, so a lot of this plays differently with the benefit of hindsight. Case in point the Doctor's murder 200 years on in his timeline. At the time, this was quite the "how will he get out of this?" shocker, and the emotional effect on his companions is still quite effective. Post-Series 6, we're actually looking at this for tell-tale signs of the story we actually know to be happening. It lessens the drama, but it's internally consistent. If I really need to discuss spoilers over the course of the next few weeks, I'll try to do it in the Theories section, just in case you're reading as you're watching for the first time.

The big trip to America offers vistas otherwise impossible to the program - we're really NOT in a Welsh quarry this time - and wholly American standing sets like the Oval Office. It's possible the Laurel and Hardy clip was picked up there as well, digitally ready to accept the Doctor's presence because the same scene was used for Billy Crystal's insertion at the Academy Awards. Annnnnd they get to use recognizable British ex-pats like William Morgan Sheppard and Mark Sheppard as Canton III (I did NOT know these two were father and son!). As another casting inside joke, Alex Kingston (River) and the little girl, Sydney Wade, had just played mother and daughter in something else. Nixon isn't the only tricky one in this, is he, Mr. Moffat? On the monster front, we're introduced to nameless aliens who are forgotten as soon as you're not looking at them, which we now know to be the Silents. Silence will fall, or Silents will fall? Tricky, tricky. These guys are creepy as hell, in keeping with the overall tone of the episode. The one sunlit sequence ends with a shocking death, and then we're plunged into night, dark spaces and crawlways.

Whether you buy into the big puzzle arcs or not, it's the character moments that keep on shining even on subsequent viewings. Amy swearing on fish fingers and custard, holding in her dread. Rory the Ancient Roman thinking of the Doctor's Viking funeral. River's fear that the worst day of her life will be when the Doctor finally fails to recognize her. Canton having fun showing up the Secret Service. An angry Doctor mistrusting everything and everyone, especially River. Their banter, especially where they disagree about Nixon, one ever the hippie, the other the archaeologist. All the characters overdosing on unexplainable anxiety, a signal that we're not seeing EVERY encounter with the Silents, creates a breathless pace only amplified by the dark lighting. And the shocking revelation that Amy is pregnant, and that something may be wrong with the baby, the way she's holding her stomach. All adds to the suspense, even when you've seen it before.

VERSIONS: The broadcast in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Israel began with a voice-over from Amy, explaining her relationship to the Doctor.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL:
The DVD includes a prologue showing Nixon receiving the first creepy call from the little girl.

REWATCHABILITY: High - A strong season opener, atmospheric above all else, but still managing key character moments. It hasn't lost all its shock value.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Seriously, our rock quarries aren't good enough?

Siskoid said...

Perhaps they've lost something due to overuse.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

I was always bugged by the "Silents" idea; I only ever saw it as 'The Silence,' composed of individual Silence. (Like fish and fish). Is there any canonical source that actually uses the 'Silents' spelling/concept for individuals?

"VERSIONS: The broadcast in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Israel began with a voice-over from Amy, explaining her relationship to the Doctor."
UGH. Thanks for bringing that repressed memory back to the surface. I can't watch these on Netflix, as they have that version, and it's just... so bad. It doesn't even work! It's her perspective from within Series 5! it's about running away from her wedding! And it kills the momentum of the jump into the credits! ARRRRRRRGGGGGGG!!!! Hate this!

Siskoid said...

Yes, I have a friend currently catching up on Season 6 and 7 and she reminded me of this just the other day. Awful.

 

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