Yes, it’s Doctor Who time again. One of sci-fi’s greatest shows smashed back onto our screens tonight with The Impossible Astronaut, the first of a two-part episode, set, for the first time ever, in the United States of America. And now I’m reviewing it. SPOILERS. As River would, and did, say.
The episode begins with the Doctor sending four blue envelopes to certain people, asking them to meet at a particular time and location, which turns out to be the middle of the Utah desert. Amy and Rory, River Song, and an elderly man called Canton Delaware III all turn up to see the Doctor… die. Wow. I mean, wow. What a dramatic opening gambit from Steven Moffat, to kill the central character 10 minutes into the show! The death scene was suffused with a real sense of emotion, helped by some powerful sobbing from Karen Gillan, who’s finally made the role of Amy her own. But what really made it was the utter bathos of having the Doctor spring back into the show two minutes later, bouncy, arrogant and two hundred years younger. He himself was the fourth person invited to his own funeral, and, arriving after the fact, “can’t know” how he dies.
Then it gets even more interesting. The Doctor visits President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office and has to deal with mysterious voice who keeps ringing the President’s direct number. Weird. I can’t write any more about this strand of the plot at this stage, because I know as little as you. So then we meet the aliens, who are creepy. They are a very Moffat creation, scary by concept rather than by physical appearance; their unique twist is that you can only remember them when you are looking at them. (An interesting inversion of the Weeping Angels, really.) I have to say, I like this idea a lot. I hope it’s explored more next time because it is, really, brilliant.
America The Beautiful. This episode didn’t mess about with its presentation of the USA at all. All the classic elements were there – the stetson, the Mustang, the yellow school bus, the diner, the Oval Office; a veritable smorgasbord of Americana. Added to this, the production team managed to find some staggeringly beautiful locations to film in, with a wonderful sunset (or, in fact, sunrise, according to the behind the scenes footage on Doctor Who Confidential!) illuminating the Doctor’s cremation gorgeously. The brightness of the Utah sun really gave this episode something more in visual terms, and the whole thing had a wonderfully filmic quality about it.
It’s now clear to me that Doctor Who has completely left behind the Russell T Davies era. The kitschy set design, bright colour palette, soap opera characters and bombastic plotting all belong to the past. This is now definitely Steven Moffat’s show, and, as such, it’s cleverer, darker, more humorous, more experimental and more cinematic. I personally like this style A LOT more. It feels more like science fiction, and seems both more modern (or even a bit postmodern) and more traditional in terms of the show itself – I was recently watching 1980’s Full Circle, and you can definitely see the similarities with 2011 with regard to the pacing, dialogue, visual style and concepts. In short, this is Doctor Who again. Similarly, Matt Smith, who I confess took a while to get used to, has now leapfrogged David Tennant and Patrick Troughton to move from fourth to second in my list of favourite Doctors. He now sits below only Tom Baker. And, as his Doctor develops, I think he could have a real chance at the top spot.
Overall, this was a wonderful episode, though not without its flaws. It was so very different from any other season openers that it’s difficult to compare it to anything, but nevertheless, I’m going to compare it to something. You have to question how much of the plot would have been understood by younger viewers and the fact that it raised SO MANY questions while providing so few answers must have been disconcerting to people used to watching episodes as discrete stories in their own right. I guess I need to wait until Day of the Moon to see exactly how good The Impossible Astronaut was, but, on the whole, I was thoroughly impressed.
Other things I didn’t have time to write about: the Doctor and River flirting, the reusing of concepts such as secrets and hidden memories, the awesomeness of Mark Sheppard, the fact that Stephen Milligan looked more like Lyndon Johnson than Richard Nixon, and Amy’s pregnancy.
Your thoughts would be welcome in comments. Follow this blog, tweet me @ antmoorfield, and be back here next week for the Day of the Moon review. In the meantime, politics. Because.