DOCTOR WHO: THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT is Silent, and Almost as Creepy as A Silent

“THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT” – Series 6, Episode 1, Story 214 – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Toby Haynes – A new season of WHO starts with a lot of old faces. For the first time in the relaunch, the same Doctor/Companion partnership is back. Amy and Rory and River all receive a mysterious envelope telling them to head for Utah, which is on a planet called America, according to a guard in Stormgate Prison. So they all get there and the Doctor is there and now he’s 1103 and they have a picnic and he gets himself killed. Yeah, and that’s just the first 10 minutes. After they burn the 1103 Doctor they had back to a diner where the Doctor pops out of the bathroom. Nobody tells him because he’s chewing on a straw. They all hop in the TARDIS and go to the White House in 1969, where they meet President Nixon and a lot of creepy ass aliens called The Silent, who look like an Edvard Munch painting. Lots of spooky stuff happens. Because The Silent Have Been Here For A Very, Very Long Time. Oh, And They’re Trying To Build A TARDIS.

I’m writing this after watching the show only once, which is something I really don’t like to do with complicated episodes because I’m sure I’ve missed a whole lot of somethings. But, hey, I watched the broadcast, it was awesome, and I want to chat. Nothing says I can’t come back later and add more stuff. So, let’s dig in to Series 6, and please feel free to speculate all you like in the comments. I can tell by the page hits that there’s a whole lot of new readers to the Anxiety (this past week saw the two busiest days in the blog’s almost year-long existence, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those two days were the day of Elisabeth Sladen’s passing and the premiere of THE IMPOSSIBLE PLANET) so feel free to jump into the conversation.

What’s immediately striking about THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT is that everything and everyone feels much more assured of what they’re doing. Perhaps this is a product of having all the principles back for a second year, but I think it’s more than that. I think the people working on the show realize they did good work last season and I think they feel they are really on the verge of doing something special. Showrunner Steven Moffat upped the ante on the season-long story last year. Unlike the Russell T Davies years, Moffat wasn’t interested in having a season with loose connections running through the edges of episodes. No, Moffat actively engaged his Crack in the Universe plot all season long. Shows still worked on their own, but DOCTOR WHO was taking a big step away from the Monsters of the Week format and towards a fully realized 13-episode serial. Series 5 was less CSI and more LOST, not only rewarding viewers for turning in every week but actively requiring it.

IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT opens with the marital bliss of the Ponds. It’s been a couple months since they’ve seen the Doctor and Amy is starting to get itchy. She’s reading historical accounts to try and find the Doctor’s presence in them, while Rory is content to sit on the couch and watch old movies in which the Doctor now appears. A mysterious blue envelope arrives and tells them to go to Utah. Meanwhile, across time and space, River Song sits in her cell in Stormgate Prison and gets the same envelope, also telling her to go to Utah. There’s a great bit at Stormgate where one of the guard gets on the phone to talk to a higher up and in a panicked voice says, “She’s doing it again. Packing!”

The Ponds get to Utah, step off a bus, and the Doctor is laying on the hood of an old car awaiting their arrival. He hops off the car and greets them warmly, telling them, “I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool,” right before River shoots it off his head. It’s a terrific reunion scene as you really get the sense that they’ve spent time apart. They’ve all spent different times apart since they last saw each other in BIG BANG (or wherever River is in their shared continuity) but you can see they’re glad to be back together.

They go to a diner to catch up and then the Doctor takes them on a picnic to the shores of Lake Powell, where they eat and laugh and he spits out his wine. Mysterious things start happening. First, an old dude shows up and stands apart from them. Then Amy sees a creepy guy in a suit on a nearby ridge, but then forgets she sees him. And finally, an astronaut comes walking out of the man-made lake. The Doctor, who’s told them he’s now 1103 instead of the 907 or so that we last knew him to be, starts to look every bit as old as he claims and orders them to stay back, no matter what happens.

Which is TV code for, “Something bad is about to happen but if you interfere you’ll screw up the plot.”

The Doctor goes forward to talk to the astronaut (wearing Apollo-era gear) and the astronaut (whose face we never see) shoots the Doctor, sending him into a regeneration. But if you were worried about some new Doctor being the big surprise of the first episode, you can bury them. The Doctor doesn’t regenerate into someone new because the astronaut shoots him again, killing him before the regeneration can complete itself.

Which means the Doctor is dead.

For real dead, not “Amy just before they stuff her in the Pandorica” dead, or “Rory getting snuffed out by the Silurians before his body gets absorbed into the white light” dead, or even “River sacrificing herself so all those people in the library can come back to life” dead. But really, truly dead.

Well, until we find out otherwise later in the season, I suppose.

But the Doctor is dead and his three Companions all react different. River pulls out her gun and starts firing away at the astronaut, whose walking back into the lake. Amy starts freaking out with the yelling and screaming and hysterics, and Rory is just sort of stunned. They’re now visited by the old dude in the distance. He’s brought a gas can, telling them they’ll know what to do. Amy wants to know what they’re going to do and River delivers the bad news: “We do what the Doctor’s friends always do – what we’re told.”

It’s Rory who takes control of the situation, insisting that if they’re going to do it they’re going to do it properly and puts the Doctor’s body in a boat and gives him the same full-roasting send-off that the Doctor gave the Master back in LAST OF THE TIME LORDS. The old man tells them he’s Canton Everett Delaware III and that he’s here because he received an envelope, too. He adds that “I won’t be seeing you again, but you’ll be seeing me.”

The TARDIS 3 head back to the diner as they try to figure out what to do. They spot the fourth envelope on a table and while they’re trying to ascertain who it was that was sitting at that table, the Doctor comes walking out of the bathroom. The Companions are obviously floored by his reappearance. River slaps him hard, telling him that “this is cold, even for you.” This Doctor is only 909 years old and he doesn’t have a little blue journal that the 1103 Doctor had to help him and River keep track of where they are in each other’s respective timelines.

Deciding not to tell the Doctor what they know, the TARDIS 3 are confronted by the Doctor back in the TARDIS. They tell him they have to go to 1969, but sensing something is up, the Doctor tells them he’s bringing them all back home instead. River tells the Doctor to trust her, but he scoffs at her plea. “Trust you?” he asks, calling up thoughts of FLESH AND STONE, where he asked her if he could trust her, and River replied with, “Where’s the fun in that?” Not trusting River means it’s up to Amy and she begs the Doctor to trust her. “Swear on something important,” he tells her, and she replies with “fish fingers and custard,” a reference to his food of choice when they first met back in ELEVENTH HOUR.

The Doctor agrees but you can see there’s a subtle shift in the TARDIS dynamic. River, Rory, and Amy are the ones with the knowledge this time around and there’s a great moment where they’re huddling together in the sub-floor beneath the center console discussing what to do and whether to tell him and the Doctor drops his head below the floor and tells them that he’s being brilliant and none of them are there to see it.

The obvious question, of course, is who killed the Doctor. The new Moffat Gimmick Monsters are The Silent or the Silence, who you forget the moment you’re not looking at them. (Is Silence the plural of Silent?) I’m not sure what to make of Moffat’s Monsters: the Silence, the Vashta Nerada, and the Weeping Angels. I’ve never been a big fan of OHOTMU Storytelling, which means that writers need to write to the dictates of a set of rules. (OHOTMU is a reference to the old Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which was full of encyclopedic entries on all of the company’s characters. I probably should have called this form of storytelling something like, “RPG Storytelling,” but I’ve just never liked that idea of writing to pre-determined rules.) I just don’t like writing where you say, “Here are the rules” and then can never work around them. It’s like the Green Lanterns having an inability to stop things that are yellow. It’s just silly. I can fly from Earth to the edge of the universe but I can’t stop a Twinkie. Stupid.

On the other hand, at least Moffat is trying to create new and interesting villains that aren’t just “space aliens who want to kill everyone,” and their quirks are taken into account in the plot.

The Silence have a great visual look to go along with their gimmick, as they look like Edvard Munch’s The Screamer had a baby with Buffy‘s Gentlemen. The Gentlemen, you’ll remember, were the baddies in the episode “Hush,” where no one could talk.

Meaning, silent. Moffat is even tying in his plots with shows that haven’t been on air for a decade.

I’m doubting it was a member of the Silence in the Apollo suit, and I’m guessing it wasn’t the little girl we see in the suit at the end of the episode. The obvious suspect is River because River is in prison for killing “the best man I’ve ever known,” but my instant gut reaction is that it’s the Doctor in the suit. When the astronaut blasted the Doctor the weapon flashed green, not unlike the Eleventh Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.

The TARDIS fires off to 1969, headed for “the most powerful city in the most powerful country” on Earth. The Doctor wants to know who’s the President in 1969, meaning for once it’s him asking the question for the audience and he’s disappointed to find out it’s Richard Nixon. When he makes a face, River jabs, “Hippie,” to which the Doctor jabs back, “Archaeologist.”

The exchange highlights the comfort level between the Doctor and River this time around; where River has usually had the upper hand on him, this time the power balance between them is much more equal, allowing them both to get in a few zingers at the expense of the other.

The Doctor materializes the TARDIS in the Oval Office with the Invisibility Cloak on (thanks to River correcting his mistakes in setting up the controls), and he sneaks out to listen to Nixon discuss some mysterious phone calls he’s been getting. He’s brought in an ex-FBI agent named … wait for it … Canton Everett Delaware III. (Which reminds me – a great gag in the TARDIS. When they decided they need to find CED3, the Doctor wonders aloud, “How many of them could there be? Well, three obviously.”) Canton is played by Mark Sheppard because it is written somewhere that Mark Sheppard has to appear in every science-fiction show made anywhere on the planet.

I wonder at what point Sheppard turned to his wife and said, “You know, as long as they keep making sci-fi shows and as long as I don’t lose my cool-ass voice, I’m never going to be unemployed. Seriously, I don’t even know what a Warehouse 13 is, but they want me enough to pay my rate.” (In a neat bit of casting, the elder CED3 is played by Sheppard’s real life dad.)

The scenes in the Oval Office display American’s love of guns and after the Doctor is wrestled to the floor, Canton tells the President, “You can listen to the guy with the gun or you can listen to the guy who just got past them,” then tells the Doctor he’s got five minutes to impress them. My favorite bit in the Oval Office is when the cloaking device is turned off and the TARDIS appears in the middle of the room. Nixon looks at the TARDIS and disbelievingly asks, “What the hell is that?”

As this is going on Amy is taken to the bathroom (because why use the TARDIS bathroom when you can use a White House bathroom?) and she’s confronted by another Silent. We get the rules made really clear for us here as another woman in the bathroom sees them, freaks out (thinking they’re from Star Trek), and then forgets them as soon as she turns her back. For her troubles and for our benefit, the Silent zaps her until she blows up, and tells Amy that she will “tell the Doctor what he needs to know and what he must never know.”

Thanks, Creepy Alien!

When the Doctor figures out that the little girl who’s been calling the President is in Florida, he takes Canton with them so he can do the whole, “it’s bigger on the inside bit.” What’s nice is that the Doctor passes Explanation Duty onto Rory who wants to know why he has to do it. Amy tells him, “You’re the newest” and kisses him in a nice, quieter moment.

In Florida they go walking around dark places so Toby Haynes can shoot a bunch of scenes with flashlights.

The best scene of the episode takes place underground between Rory and River, as River explains to Rory how she and the Doctor are moving through time in opposite directions. “Every time I see him he knows me less and less,” she says, admitting that she fears the day when he’ll look at her and not recognize her at all. When that happens, River feels like she’ll die. It’s an emotionally understated but powerful scene and it’s exactly the kind of honest admission that makes you give a crap about a character. Alex Kingston is simply amazing here, as she is throughout the episode. For her first couple of appearances as River I still thought of her as “that woman from ER,” but she will forevermore be “River Song” in whatever she’s in.

River and Rory break into a room and find that someone is building something. What we know and they don’t is that this room is exactly like the room that was upstairs from Craig’s apartment in THE LODGER. And if you remember that episode, you’ll remember that the Doctor said that someone upstairs was “trying to build a TARDIS,” meaning the Silent are trying to build a TARDIS.

Awesome, awesome, awesome.

Maybe it’s the geek in me but I was more excited to see that room than I was to find out that Amy’s pregnant. As the episode draws to a close, the Impossible Astronaut appears and closes in on the Doctor and Amy, and our mother-to-be freaks out and tries to save the Doctor’s future self by firing a gun at the astronaut, even though we see that it’s actually only a little girl inside.

Unlike THE ELEVENTH HOUR, this isn’t a season opener that makes you think, “Hell, yeah, this is gonna be so much fun!” THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT has touches of humor but they’re just touches. This is a dark episode, full of danger and teasing you with what you don’t want to see coming down the road. It’s “look between your fingers” television and it’s extremely well made.

ADDENDUM: TO READ THE SECOND POST ON THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT CLICK RIGHT HERE.

Looking forward to DAY OF THE MOON, even though BBC America absolutely screws the show by inserting way too many commercial breaks. I’ll be interested to see what’s resolved next week and what mysteries get extended deeper into Series 6.

Here’s the trailer for DAY OF THE MOON:

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19 thoughts on “DOCTOR WHO: THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT is Silent, and Almost as Creepy as A Silent

  1. “Mrs Robinson’s” comments that she fears a day when the Doctor doesn’t recognize her will be the day she dies is exactly what happened to River Song in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.

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  2. Oh, I am so pleased you managed to see this!

    Well, Rory must be human, or Amy is pregnant with someone else’s child, I suppose. I still wondered if he were plastic.

    All this putting things into place reminds me of the Seventh Doctor. I loved the ‘Brave heart’ from the Fifth which Eleventh said to the FBI agent.

    It’s very early days but it looks like we’re going in a very interesting direction this season. And again, Mark, I’m glad you’ve found a way to join the ride!

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  3. Great catch on that, James!

    And Chrys, yes on “Brave heart!” I meant to mention this was at least the second time he’s made an overt reference to the Davison Doctor, after he asked for celery from the Silurians. Davison is apparently Moffat’s favorite Doctor, so it’s a nice touch.

    My biggest question is, “What am I going to review now?” In all the excitement of getting Series 5 reviewed and watching the new Series start, I completely forgot that I’m all caught up! I started this journey something like 20 months ago and now I’ve watched every available DVD minus the few that have been released after I moved through those Doctors.

    I haven’t written full reviews for Doctors 3-5, yet (and part of 6) so I’ve still got a LOT of serials to review but I think I’ll take a break during the first half of Series 6 and then pick up the reviews with the Third Doctor after the mid-season cliffhanger.

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  4. I seem to recall you haven’t yet watched any Jon Pertwee? Oh, there are some good stories in there! Some friends and I watched ‘Carnival of Monsters’ a year ago and apart from giggling at the hand puppet monster, we were absolutely gripped by the story.

    There is also a wealth of Big Finish audio adventures to sample. The Seventh Doctor ‘A Death in the Family’ is possibly my favourite DW story in any medium.

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  5. No, I’ve seen all the Pertwee DVDs that were released up until about a year ago. I was amazed at how Pertwee kept me interested even through some of the lesser stories; he seems to be the most underrated of all Doctors, to me, and I think that has to do with the repetitive nature of his stories much, much more than Pertwee.

    I’ll definitely look to you for help and guidance when I finish with the DVDs and make my way to the audio adventures.

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  6. So I think you’ve yet to see Pertwee’s last story? It’s just been released on DVD.

    If we lived on the same continent I’d be very happy to lend you countless audio adventures! Alas… by the way, I believe some of the Eighth Doctor audio adventures are on the BBC website. You may be able to listen to them?

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  7. Oh, my goodness, I liked this episode. NEWS FLASH: I even liked Amy. Long may that last. She actually had something to do here, and Gillan pulls it off, and for the first time I felt emotionally connected to these characters.

    I will be very, very surprised if she’s actually pregnant though; I think there’s something else going on here.

    Moffat’s got a lot of balls in the air with this one; hopefully he won’t drop them through some giant plothole. But for right now, he’s got me; I can’t wait till next week. This is the happiest I’ve been since he took over the show.

    And, oh, my, the show looked GORGEOUS.

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  8. Wow! :)

    I’ll be most interested to see how much gets resolved next week and how much gets spun out over the course of the season. I definitely need to watch this episode again, too, to see if there are any clues about Amy’s pregnancy – like when she decides to tell the Doctor about it. Might be a post-hypnotic suggestion from the Silence.

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  9. Hey Mark,

    Are you able to get the Doctor Who Confidentials? It helps me make it through to the following week’s episodes. :)

    A great way to start off the new series. A bit thin expecting Amy to be looking at historical accounts to see where the Doctor pops up, but it provides a brief chuckle with the Laurel and Hardy sketch, Thin on River getting out, unlike last time with her lipstick kiss, but we ignore it because it moves us quickly on to the meeting in America.

    The joy of the Doctor greeting Amy is better than the wide grin David Tennant’s Doctor might have given. If you’ve seen interviews with Karen and Matt and the playfulness of them, the greeting is spot-on as is how he then greets Rory. And this is what makes this Doctor and these companions, including River, such a great welcome to me.

    It is still confusing about River moving backwards in time as if Chronos in Piers Anthony’s “Incarnations of Immortaility” series, but the journal that is kept is a great gimmick and “spoilers” a great line. Since we know from the early episodes that River has a vortex manipulator, perhaps that has something to do with them heading opposite directions. Still too confusing to me. We are getting to know her better, and it seems like the Doctor is as well, so she should be remembering him less. The first time they meet and we see her, she dies, so each new time they meet, he should know her more, right? Oh wait, I’ve got it. Each time he gets to know her more, it is in her past, so she won’t be experiencing anything new with him. No, that doesn’t make sense!!!! Good thing Moffat has a handle on this, lol. OK – he knew all about her from day 1 of HER perspective since she knew him, and each time they meet, he knows her less and less from HER perspective. Whew!

    I love River blowing into her gun after shooting the Stetson off.

    I think that maybe there are enough “huh?” moments that it distracts a bit in this episode. Almost like some of these tidbits need to be rolled out a little slower. I’m still wondering why the Silent Big Heads wear suits, much less about why the lady was destroyed in the bathroom, ha-ha.

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  10. Hey Zombeezy!

    I think I end up seeing most of the DWC stuff through free clips on iTunes and BBC America, but maybe I don’t. :) I’ve just decided to re-watch the episode a second time mid-week and go through it nice and slow.

    The whole River/Doctor/time thing comes off to me as what the characters say and what they do being at odds. I think River saying, “I move backwards, he moves forwards” is a nice, if misleading, short hand infodump of their situation.

    Because other than their journal comparison I don’t see any real evidence that she knows him less – it’s all him knowing her more, ain’t it?

    Like you say, Moffat keeps things moving pretty fast so we’re willing to overlook a few things – it’s nice to see he learned a few of RTD’s tricks! :)

    Do you know what I wonder about the Silence’s suits? If they’ve been here since the dawn of humanity, when did they decide to wear them. Do they just adapt to their time? If so, are we going to see a Silent wearing a caveman’s pelt in a flashback? Because that would be pretty awesome. :)

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  11. Mark, I’m heading off to work, but email me and let’s talk a bit more about Confidential. I can probably send you some to decide for yourself if you like ‘em and NEED them. :)

    Right, right. From her perspective, it is almost like a parent getting older with Alzheimer’s, remembering less and less, except that she mentioned his very young eyes (when talking to the 10th Doctor in the Library) so she is seeing him when he is getting chronologically younger. She remembers everything, but she just keeps popping up in time earlier and earlier in his life until the point not where they just first met (because the Doctor would know all about her) but to the point where they won’t meet any more.

    That still doesn’t make sense, lol.

    I think that the Silence came up with the idea of the business suit and we copied them.

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