– Dr. River Song
Is it too much to hope that the snippets of the Doctor’s deliberately outrageous escapades throughout human history are just teasers for elements of later stories this season? The only thing cooler than Steve McQueen (almost) escaping from a WWII prison camp is the Doctor (actually) escaping from a WWII prison camp. I doubt that even Steven Moffat would be brassy enough to have the Doctor and friends cavort with Laurel and Hardy — not because it wouldn’t be cool, but because he’s probably mindful enough of the contemporary audience to realize that they wouldn’t know who the hell Laurel and Hardy are. But a throwaway gag like having the Doctor (in a fez, natch) show up in one of their films is a brilliant connection of continuity: the daffy, sardonically tetchy spirit of that comedy duo lingers on into the 21st century in the form of a time traveling alien.
I’m not as eagle-eyed as a lot of other Who fans. I’m sure there were dozens of hints and little details about future story details that were sprinkled throughout the season premiere, but I was dense enough to miss the coat-no-coat scene in last year’s “Flesh & Stone,” which slotted right into the climax of “The Big Bang.” That’s the sort of thing I catch on a second viewing, and I didn’t see the episode a second time until after it hit Blu-Ray. That said, there were a lot of things going on in “The Impossible Astronaut” that, even if they don’t tie into the season-long arc, are tantalizing clues to a mystery that is still unfolding. I loved the fact that, in this season, Doctor Who is striking a very different tone right off the bat than “The Eleventh Hour,” which was a masterpiece of bullet-train pacing, screwball antics, and (most importantly) exposition-that-doesn’t-feel-like-exposition. “The Impossible Astronaut” contains a great deal of exposition as well, but Moffat is keeping us in the dark about what exactly is being exposited. Good on him for that.
For me, the key mystery is this: can we trust the Doctor? “Duh,” you say? Really? Here’s a guy who zips around space for two hundred years (relative to the experience of our main anchors, Amy and Rory), only to return to invite his closest friends to witness his murder. He doesn’t tell them why. He just has them show up and watch, powerless, as he’s gunned down in front of their eyes. He also invites his romantic foil, a fellow time traveler that he doesn’t trust and that he knows will die saving him, and himself. His younger self. The Doctor orchestrates this rather gruesome funeral, knowing that when his younger self meets them all, he’s going to question their motives and insult their intelligence, behaving like a petulant, entitled brat. Little Lord Fauntleroy of the cosmos. (Which is pretty much what he’s always been, to greater or lesser degrees.) He calmly berates his companions, in one of my favorite lines of the episode, “Don’t play games with me. Don’t ever, ever think you’re capable of that.”
Tou-chy! But awesome.
I mentioned in my introductory post that the Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy, is my favorite. Though the production values of the late 80s weren’t always flattering to the legacy of the show, the scripts were often visionary, only outmatched by the narrative dead ends and pacing problems that trying to shoehorn too many zany ideas into a half-hour episodic format inevitably produces. One of the better stories of the classic series is “Battlefield,” in which the Doctor and his companion discover that, sometime in the future, the Doctor impersonates the wizard Merlin in a time and place that are the source of Earth’s Arthurian legends. He hasn’t done it yet, but in the timeframe of the story, he keeps finding clues and helpful little dei ex machina that his future self left for his past self. But since he doesn’t know the full extent of his future self’s stratagem, he spends most of the story unraveling a mystery that he himself helped conjure up. Moffat takes a premise like that and soups it up with breakneck pacing, often adding far creepier enemies for the Doctor to defeat.
The coolest thing about the Moffat-McCoy connection is that the Seventh Doctor was probably the sketchiest character out of all the incarnations. Sure, the producers made a big deal out of the Sixth Doctor’s pomposity and casual use of violence, but his “mysteriousness” was far too calculated to actually be mysterious. He was unstable and not really endearing, but he wasn’t much of a schemer, and in the context of the era, his methods (smacking villains in the face with poisonous vines; suffocating another with his bare hands) may have been unusual for the Doctor, but were decidedly less blunt than the methods of that other great British superhero, James Bond. And the Sixth Doctor’s periodic bursts of ruthlessness were not unprecedented. Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor — generally considered to be the “nicest” of the bunch — shot a nemesis in the face.
There was just something about the 80s, though. Everything seemed to get grittier, darker, more in tune with the punk counterculture and the brutal resurgence of a more autocratic establishment. (At least, that’s how things looked in arts and entertainment.) In the hermetic universe of Doctor Who, both Six and Seven were self-conscious attempts instigated by John Nathan-Turner to make the show darker; to return to its roots. The First Doctor literally kidnapped his first companions, and he never returned them to their own time (though he came close). William Hartnell initially played the Doctor as a shifty, cranky eccentric, and his motives were deliberately kept obscure by the writers. When Andrew Cartmel took over as head script editor during McCoy’s run, he and his writers decided to model the Doctor more in the vein of his original incarnation. Thus McCoy’s goofy, almost cuddly Seventh Doctor was transformed into the sliest, most ruthless of godlike gamesmen, retaining his generally comic, mercurial mannerisms while engaging in outright sinister manipulations of both his closest friends and deadliest enemies.
Steven Moffat will never take his Doctor quite that far, but he and Smith give us glimpses of that Doctor — who surfaced in each incarnation — from time to time. “That’s cold, even for you,” River Song says in astonishment, just after she realizes that the Doctor has pulled their strings — their heartstrings — with no thought for the emotional pendulum he’d forced on them. So it is that the goofy, perpetually off-kilter “hippie” Doctor is reaffirmed as an alien intelligence, one who has no problem reminding his closest friends that they are so drastically inferior to him. “The Impossible Astronaut” thrives on this tension. I’m not worried about how the Doctor is going to cheat his own death; I’m more worried about the emotional toll that his fast and loose gamesmanship is going to take on Amy, River, and Rory. That’s the stuff of great drama.
Not that the plot isn’t enthralling as well. The pace seems to slow down a bit near the end of the episode, although I’d be hard-pressed to articulate exactly how. Moffat tosses out dazzling one-liners and story twists like handfuls of peppermint candy. Lots and lots of questions follow…
One: If the Doctor presumably defeats the Silents (the baddies in this episode) in 1969, then why is one hanging around, watching his death? My suspicion is that the awful funeral he forces his friends to endure is little more than a bit of theater staged for the benefit of the Silents, to make them believe that he’s dead so that he can mount some sort of surprise attack.
Two: Are both River and Amy pregnant? Both of them get sick in this episode, and while it initially seems to be because of encounters with the Silents, Amy’s big secret that she has to tell the Doctor is that she’s expecting. (And she tells him at the most inopportune moment, of course.) Rory doesn’t seem to get sick from the Silents’ treatment. Just Amy and River. Follow-ups: if River is pregnant, is it the Doctor’s baby? Are their pregnancies connected in some other way? And just why does Amy tell the Doctor she’s pregnant before she tells Rory? He doesn’t seem to know. Rory’s the kind of chap that would try to convince his wife not to follow the Doctor on a crazy, dangerous adventure if she’s carrying their baby. He would decisively lose that particular argument, of course, but I would think he’d at least mention it.
Three: How is the U.S. government connected to the astronaut and the aliens? I can’t believe that there’s no causal connection between them if the president is getting phone calls, as opposed to the local authorities. And they are in Utah — the American West is known for cowboys and aliens, after all. Cover-up? Possibly. Follow-ups: How does the U.S. president not know about the Doctor? This isn’t an American pride thing — it strikes me as absurd that nobody in U.S. intelligence had ever heard of the Doctor, or at least Torchwood. I’d believe that Nixon might not have been briefed, or that the Doctor might be classified above the level of the Oval Office, but come on. Has Time already been rewritten to the extent that all the previous Doctors’ adventures never happened?
Four: How young, exactly, was River when she met the Doctor? And who did she kill?
Five: The time machine from “The Lodger” is back. Is this before or after the events of that episode? Follow-up: How long have the Silents been tracking the Doctor?
Six: Is the little kid in the suit at the lake, or is that someone else? My bet is that the astronaut that “kills” the Doctor is not the child, but someone else. Possibly Delaware.
Seven: Did anyone else notice that the Doctor is not using his sonic screwdriver? At least, not as a screwdriver?
Eight: Will we get to meet Jim the Fish? Enquiring minds need to know.
So, yeah. Lots of questions. One of the coolest things about Moffat’s macro-scheme is that he manages to drop lots of these twists into his stories without losing track of too many of them. If nothing else, he’ll explain them away last-minute with a bunch of technobabble. Doctor Who is like Lost in that way, except with satisfying explanations.
By the by, I’m a fan of the Silents. They’re a mashup of little gray men, Dementors, and the Men in Black — certainly one of his more derivative nasties, but terribly effective. The scene in the bathroom where that Silent goes Dr. Manhattan on that poor woman was awful. I’m not always a fan of recursive dialogue exchanges, but here, Amy’s terrible advice (why tell her to turn around to see what’s behind her when you should be telling her to RUN?!) has a strange, horrifying magnetism. It’s the kind of nightmare situation where you’d be too mesmerized to scream in terror, and Amy’s attempt to take charge and calmly talk the hapless bystander out of harm’s way is suspenseful precisely because you know it won’t work, because it’s rationality being applied in a situation that is already way, way beyond Amy’s faculties of reason. Plus, it indicates that the Silents may be every bit as ruthless as the Daleks. One can only hope; it’s been a long time since anyone has introduced a new villain with as iconic a rivalry as Terry Nation’s pepperpot fascists.
I realize that by the time this is posted, the second episode will already have aired, but such is life when you have to wait for each episode to become available on iTunes.
The tone the series is setting shows that we’re in for a long-form arc, and that this season will be expontentially more ambitious than anything we’ve seen since the show’s relaunch in 2005. I’m absurdly excited to see how it all plays out — mostly because I have absolutely no idea how it’s going to play out, and nothing would delight me more than to have all my expectations totally upended. ☕