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Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Impossible Astronaut originally aired in 2011.

Rory, would you mind going with her?

Yeah, a bit.

Then I appreciate it all the more.

- The Doctor and Rory

While Steven Moffat’s first season as showrunner followed the same basic format as the seasons run by Russell T. Davies, his second up-ends that. Viewers had become so conditioned to that structure that The Impossible Astronaut proves quite a shock. Far from an accessible and enjoyable romp in the style of Rose or New Earth or Smith & Jones or Partners in Crime or The Eleventh Hour, The Impossible Astronaut jumps right into the middle of things.

Taking advantage of the fact that this is the first time since New Earth (and only the second time in the revival) that a season premiere hasn’t been burdened with the weight of introducing a new Doctor or companion, Moffat is able to really mess up the structure of the season. Indeed, you might go so far as to suggest that he’s reversed it. Moffat’s second season ends with a one-part adventure that introduces us to a new era and new mission statement, but opens with a bombastic two-part climax.

It’s certainly ambitious.

Cowboys and aliens…

Indeed, Moffat’s entire second season departs radically from the template established in the Davies era – a template that Moffat observed quite diligently in his first year running the show. Instead of being broadcast one thirteen-episode chunk, it is split into two blocks to broadcast over the year. And instead of opening with a stand-alone episode introducing a new Doctor or companion (or both), the series opens with an epic two-part adventure filmed on location in “some planet called America.”

That feels like a rather shrewd move. This time around, the show brings the whole cast and crew over to the country – as opposed to just sending the second unit over, like it did for Daleks in Manhattan. Shooting a two-part episode justifies the location footage, and filming in America provides a suitable dramatic hook for the episode. In fact, it’s a recipe that’s so successful that the return to America for the following season’s A Town Called Mercy is decidedly matter-of-fact. It’s not the opener, it’s not a two-parter. It’s fairly stand alone.

Talkin' bout regeneration...

Talkin’ bout regeneration…

Of course, 2011 was the year that the show was really beginning to break into America. The series had already begun to engage with geek culture in America during the Davies era, sending representatives to Comic Con International. Voyage of the Damned was the most watched revival episode on American television since the show debuted. The Waters of Mars became the most watched show ever on BBC America in 2009. David Tennant attended Comic Con in his final year in the role.

However, the Moffat era really pushed this engagement into overdrive. Rather tellingly, Moffat himself was the guest of honour at the Doctor Who panel at Comic Con in 2008, before he formally assumed charge of the show. The sixth season’s Christmas special, A Christmas Carol, was broadcast in America and Great Britain on the same day. The sixth season continued this trend, with episodes broadcasting on the same day in America and Britain. Davies did his bit, bringing Torchwood to the United States with a series that was announced in 2010, but aired in 2011.

Silent night?

Silent night?

This strategy reached its climax with the broadcast of The Day of the Doctor, which earned the highest ever ratings on BBC America, but also placed second at the American box office the Monday following the free broadcast of the episode around the world. So I think it’s fair to describe this strategy as a success, and The Impossible Astronaut is a vital part of Moffat’s attempt to expand Doctor Who into the United States, and it’s a large part of the show’s success.

You can see that in the way that The Impossible Astronaut is clearly intended to be accessible to new and casual fans, with some odd moments of exposition between an ensemble that should be quite familiar with one another at this point in time. There’s considerable space devoted to covering the ground rules, which is just good house-keeping. “Sorry, what are you two doing?” Rory asks the Doctor and River when they do their standard diary check. “They’re both time travellers, so they never meet in the right order,” Amy explains for the viewers at home. “They’re syncing their diaries.”

River runs through it...

River runs through it…

Unlike the Davies’ eras attempt to tell stories in and around the United States – Evolution of the Daleks or the New New York setting of Gridlock – The Impossible Astronaut feels a lot more consciously steeped in Americana. It’s a lot prouder of its setting, and a lot more conscious of the tropes and conventions that it is playing to. (Although A Town Called Mercy would take it one step further and actually collide the show’s British perspective with a decidedly American genre.)

It isn’t just the involvement of Richard Nixon or the use of a set built to resemble the Oval Office. It isn’t just the genre trappings like River and Rory’s decision to dress up like extras from Mad Men. The focus on the moon landing is a massive part of it, given that it’s one historic event better preserved and recorded in America than in Great Britain. Had the Doctor pulled the stunt from the end of Day of the Moon with the BBC coverage of the moon landing, his plan would not have been half as successful.

It's no picnic...

It’s no picnic…

The Impossible Astronaut revels in American popular folklore. If Moffat’s Doctor Who is a story built around fairy tales and myths, he shrewdly builds The Impossible Astronaut about American mythology. This is most overtly represented in the physical appearance of the Silence. They clearly resemble taller versions of the iconic “grey” aliens that tend to pop up around UFO-ology. They are conflated with the black suits most associate with the Men in Black.

Aspects of the popular myth like abduction and missing time are vital ingredients of The Impossible Astronaut. In a rather overt shout-out to The X-Files, it turns out that these aliens abduct a pregnant Amy – combining both the abduction of the red-headed Dana Scully and the production reason for the character’s departure into a single plot beat. However, The Impossible Astronaut‘s engagement with popular American myth is more fundamental than that.

Shocking...

Shocking…

Moffat’s Doctor Who does connect with many of the grand British narratives. It’s telling that Winston Churchill is a recurring supporting character on Moffat’s version of Doctor Who, and that his first two Christmas specials riff on iconic British Christmas stories. In The Impossible Astronaut, he connects with one of the most fundamentally American popular narratives. The Impossible Astronaut is a conspiracy thriller. More than that, it’s the conspiracy thriller.

Conspiracy is a popular preoccupation of the American subconscious. The X-Files is a defining piece of nineties television, which gave us a bunch of rich white guys controlling the world. 24 filled that niche following the 9/11 attacks, building off paranoid concerns about surveillance culture and those architects of grand schemes that lurk in the shadows – just out of sight. Conspiracy theories are by no means an exclusively American art form – look at David Icke – but they are a very significant part of the subconscious.

Parking it there...

Parking it there…

Following the death of Kennedy, there seems to be a conspiracy theory for every occasion. The subjects of The Impossible Astronaut are mired in various conspiracy theories. There are those who believe that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing, or that the astronauts may have met something strange up there. While Moffat might deny any fore knowledge that he’d be writing for Nixon, it’s telling that he wound up with a President who is famous for an eighteen-minute gap in his meticulously maintained recordings. Eighteen minutes of silence.

Because, after all, isn’t that what sits at the root of every conspiracy theory? Isn’t a conspiracy about filling in the blanks or populating the gaps in popular memory? Conspiracy theories often lean more heavily on what is unknown (and unknowable) than what is actually known. Anything could exist in those eighteen minutes missing from those tapes, so we can populate it with whatever we want.

Doesn't it just burn?

Doesn’t it just burn?

The notion of the conspiracy really took root in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, which remains perhaps the grandest conspiracy narrative in American popular culture. It’s also a narrative to which Doctor Who must inevitably be linked – An Unearthly Child broadcast on the same day that news broke, even earning a repeat to help viewers catch up on what they’d missed during the media frenzy. The assassination is a vital part of Doctor Who, playing out in episodes like Robert Holmes’ The Deadly Assassin or even in the decision to name the Doctor’s companion “Oswald” for the show’s anniversary year.

At the centre of the Kennedy conspiracy theories are the gaps – the sealed reports tucked away from human eyes. The elements of the event that unaccounted for. And you can understand why the conspiracy theory takes root. Why would those reports be hidden away if there wasn’t something to hide? Doesn’t it all seem a little bit convenient? Isn’t it a bit unlikely that the Lee Harvey Oswald narrative fits together so perfectly? How can one man acting along kill the most powerful man in the world? And the spectre of the Kennedy assassination haunts The Impossible Astronaut.

Not so Great Escape...

Not so Great Escape…

The moon landings are really seen as a continuation of Kennedy’s legacy, as close as America ever came to reaching his “New Frontier.” The popular image of Nixon is defined as much by his loss against Kennedy as by his two subsequent victories. Despite the infamy of Watergate, most people still remember Nixon losing the election to Kennedy at that televised debate in 1960, even if it never quite happened that way; certainly more than remember his impressive defeat of McGovern. (No candidate has managed to match Nixon’s total percentage or margin of the popular vote.)

So The Impossible Astronaut really engages with these grand conspiracy theories. The Silence are the ultimate conspiracy theory. They are not an invading army, they are an occupational force; a secret New World Order that is actually an Old World Order. They are the sharp-suited individuals pulling the strings behind every major decision mankind has ever made, manipulating them from the shadows. They are parasites, but they are parasites that control the world, and paranoia is the only justifiable response to them.

Lower deck...

Lower deck…

More than that, though, they are as self-justifying as any conspiracy theory. The beauty of the conspiracy theory mythology is that the absence of evidence becomes evidence itself; the whole “isn’t it convenient…?” school of rhetoric that suggests that any conspiracy worth it salt must so good at covering itself up that the complete lack of evidence is proof of its existence. The Silence are protected by a defence mechanism that causes humanity to wipe their own memory once they come into contact with one. They clean up after themselves; they tidy up their own loose ends.

Of course, the Silence are also very Moffat monsters in that they play with the fourth wall a great bit. Indeed, the Silence are much like the Weeping Angels, who work so effectively because they make the audience complicit in the scare. Blink strongly suggested that the Weeping Angels can’t move even when they are observed by the audience, thus making the fourth wall seem a lot less insulated from the action. After all, if our presence affects them even through the television, can’t their presence affect us?

It has no mouth, but it must scream...

It has no mouth, but it must scream…

So like the Weeping Angels play with the medium – with the implication that they can’t move even when observed from beyond the fourth wall – the Silence also toy with the audience. There are several neat visual tricks and cues and sequences in The Impossible Astronaut which suggest that the Silence are exerting some influence over the narrative itself; causing little continuity gaps, causing strange edits.

This is most obvious in the scene early in Day of the Moon where the Doctor creates an image of a member of the Silence (a Silent?), but we cut to an exchange after everybody has already seen it and forgotten it. The same principle is at work during Amy’s trip to the creepy orphanage. When Rory explains what the Silence are, he consciously uses the word “edit”, a word associated with the production of film and television, and a technique that is often used to play with their presence.

Letter be...

Letter be…

(Of course, the Silence do borrow a few familiar Moffat tricks. After all, the writer has some favourite storytelling tools that he likes to use, and he’s bound to revisit a few of them from time to time as he write Doctor Who. Most overtly, the Silence’s manipulation of memory to control the lives of ordinary people can’t help but recall the techniques of Doctor Moon in Forest of the Dead. Even the phrasing of “…and then I forgot” recall’s Doctor Moon’s “… and then you forgot.”)

Of course, there are a wealth of other clever things playing out in The Impossible Astronaut. Most obvious is the fact that Moffat makes it clear that he’s up-ending the structure of the season by making The Impossible Astronaut the Doctor’s last adventure of the year, but placing it at the start. The opening twenty minutes of The Impossible Astronaut are, after all, pretty close to the Doctor’s last twenty minutes of the season. This is the grand epic two-part season finalé that we’re used to, we’re just seeing it from an unconventional angle.

Darkness on the edge of frame...

Darkness on the edge of frame…

The Eleventh Doctor is presented here just as manipulative of his Seventh self. It does feel like this is as manipulative as the Eleventh Doctor has ever been, inviting his friends to watch him die. “This is cold,” River observes. “Even by your standards, this is cold.” Indeed, the hook of having the Doctor caught up in the manipulations of his future self can’t help but invite comparison to the underrated Battlefield.

While The Wedding of River Song tries to mitigate a bit by suggesting he invited Amy and Rory and River because he didn’t want to die alone, it still seems like this is the most coy and manipulative we’ve seen this version the Doctor. Then again, his actions at the climax of Day of the Moon are also the most brutal and ruthless of Matt Smith’s tenure in the role – the only time that the Eleventh Doctor wanders into the role of out-and-out anti-hero.

Hot shots...

Hot shots…

To be fair, The Wedding of River Song is pretty clear in its condemnation of the Doctor’s ruthless streak. There, his decision to keep his ultra-secret “cheat death” plan from River ultimately destroys the universe when she manages to come up with a less elegant solution to his problem. Trust is not a bad thing, after all. Tempering some of his earlier views about the McCoy era (which were less than favourable), Moffat reappraised the manipulative Seventh Doctor by observing there was a “terrible sadness” about him, which explains the way that the Doctor’s scheming is portrayed in this season.

To be fair, the sixth season’s arc isn’t nearly as complex as it might initially seem. Things progress in a fairly linear fashion once The Impossible Astronaut gets out of its first twenty minutes, and it’s clear that Moffat is pulling a decidedly “timey wimey” version of the “start at the end” approach to literature. This is a flashback story without a flashback, which is something that’s only really possible in a time travel show. And it finds a clever use for the time travel, which is clearly a part of Doctor Who that Moffat is particularly fond of.

The Doctor trusts himself...

The Doctor can’t heal himself…

And Moffat is relatively up front about this. Characters explain, quite clearly, what has happened; reiterating the point to avoid conclusion. Moffat is as candid as he can be. When the Doctor dies, Amy suggests possible explanations. “Maybe he’s a clone or a duplicate or something,” she offers. While Canton shoots down her theory, she’s ultimately correct. Not only does she guess the solution to the season’s mystery without watching any of the rest of the season, she even points towards the primary red herring as well, for good measure.

Then again, Moffat is good at this sort of set-up. He is able to establish who the Silence are and what they can do through a decidedly atmospheric sequence that conveys their essence rather efficiently – and with a minimum of exposition. The sixth season does have some difficult with its longer arcs, but none of them are to do with clarity and ambiguity. Most of them concern the consistency with which the show handles what really should be the primary focus of these characters’ lives, struggling with the difficulty of integrating stand-alone stories with pending death or kidnapped children.

A complete Utah-turn...

A complete Utah-turn…

It’s worth noting that Moffat’s Doctor Who owes a clear debt to the work of Lawrence Miles. Then again, Miles has been a formative influence on the revived Doctor Who, despite never actually writing for the show. Russell T. Davies’ Time War owes a conscious debt to the work of Miles, and this is particularly obvious in The End of Time, where Rassilon’s plan to burn the universe seems to have been lifted from the villains of Miles’ Alien Bodies.

However, Moffat draws even more inspiration from Miles’ work. For one thing, he makes the implicit reference to Alien Bodies with the Master’s funeral pyre in The Last of the Time Lords explicit in The Impossible Astronaut. Alien Bodies was a novel about the Doctor attending an auction for his own remains, which were easily weaponised. Here, River expresses the same concerns. “A Time Lord’s body is a miracle. Even a dead one. There are whole empires out there who’d rip this world apart for just one cell.”

It's the perfect fit... both Nixon and the Doctor have missing tapes...

It’s the perfect fit… both Nixon and the Doctor have missing tapes…

There are other elements that seem loosely familiar. The Silence seem like a variation on The Enemy from Miles’ future War saga, an opponent named for with a generic (and abstract) noun, manipulating and controlling history. Even the “River dives into the TARDIS” scene from the start of Day of the Moon feels like a riff on a familiar sequence from the start of Alien Bodies, when the Doctor escapes into a TARDIS parked on the side of a building. This is to say nothing of how heavily The Pandorica Opens, or The Name of the Doctor, touches on Miles’ themes.

All of which shouldn’t really be controversial. After all, various writers for Doctor Who (and any number of other properties) inevitably build upon the work of their predecessors. Russell T. Davies builds off the end of the Cartmel era, while the show homages Hinchcliffe and Holmes with consistency. While the use of actual characters (and races) inevitably receives a clear credit, it’s harder to acknowledge the appropriation of themes or high concepts.

The lady in the lake...?

The lady in the lake…?

The case of Lawrence Miles is complicated by several factors. The most obvious is that Miles had an influence shaping and re-shaping Doctor Who while it was off the air, and so his contributions are less well known than those made by Holmes or even Cartmel. The Davies era quite happily built on the expanded universe of Doctor Who, and Davies acknowledged the influence of writers like Paul Cornell or Rob Shearman by drafting them to write for the revived show. (Indeed, Davies and Moffat themselves both wrote for Doctor Who during the wilderness years.)

Many of the core ideas and forms of Doctor Who in the years since 2005 can be traced back to the work of creative individuals during the wilderness years – in novels or audio plays. Paul Cornell and Lawrence Miles have had just as much of an influence on the revived series as Andrew Cartmel. And they deserve recognition for that – something that Moffat has been willing to concede by trying to draw that expanded universe into continuity with The Night of the Doctor.

The Silent treatment...

The Silent treatment…

The difference between Paul Cornell and Lawrence Miles is that Paul Cornell got to write for the show. He contributed a script to its first season, and also adapted his own Human Nature for the third. Lawrence Miles never got that chance. It’s easy to feel the author is a bit hard done by, but there are several factors that justify the decision to never approach Miles to write for one of the BBC’s highest profile shows.

The most obvious is that Miles’ style is very much out of step with the show. He released his own version of the Doctor Who reboot in 2008, making The Book of the World available for download. It’s quite brilliant, and packed with high concepts, but it’s tonally incompatible with the revived show. Miles isn’t interested in all the trappings of modern television drama. His characters feel more like cyphers and he’s more interested in high concepts than character drama. Which is a fair choice, but one out of step with a lot of the appeal of the new show.

Sitting this one out...

Sitting this one out…

From a more practical standpoint, Lawrence Miles doesn’t play well with others. He was notorious for “feuding” with other tie-in writers over a variety of issues. He has been quite public in his attacks on the revived show. He would concede himself that he lacks any real diplomatic tact. Even ignoring the burnt bridges, Lawrence Miles is not a writer you can have doing interviews for one of the BBC’s flagship shows or providing commentaries or even pointing to him as somebody for fans of the modern era to engage with.

One of the biggest problems with the Colin Baker era was the sense that nobody behind the scenes could behave professionally – with the personality conflicts playing a big part in turning the whole era toxic. Inviting a writer with the personality of Miles to get involved in the Davies or Moffat era would be an incredibly risky manoeuvre, and one impossible to justify in any practical terms.

Astronaut what you were expecting?

Astronaut what you were expecting?

So while Cornell’s Timewyrm: Revelation and Love and War might not get officially recognised within Doctor Who as a major influence on the form of the revival, Paul Cornell gets acknowledged with a chance to write for the show. Alien Bodies is a massive influence, but Lawrence Miles himself is an author who can’t be brought inside the tent. It’s a shame, and it would be nice to see more acknowledgment of his importance in the history of Doctor Who, but it’s also easy enough to see why that is impossible.

The Impossible Astronaut is a strong start to Moffat’s second season, and a promise of things yet to come.

Check out our reviews of the current season of Doctor Who:

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15 Responses

  1. Truly wonderful review, I love how you go in-depth on the different modifications of the mechanics of the show from last season. I too hope that Moffat will end up tying the whole mystery up in the next episode – while this certainly was an intriguing way to kick things off, I feel there are many more interesting things he could implement into the series rather than making this one stretched-out plot. I absolutely loved your possible idea of the Doctor being the one to kill himself, an idea I regrettably didn’t imagine myself but now wholeheartedly agree with ;) All I can do is wait for next week to see how Moffat will piece things together with impatient yearning XD Cheers, great job, would love to see more reviews from you in the future ^.^

    • Thanks Nick! I think I’ll be reviewing as I go this year. And I already have plans for the fiftieth anniversary!

  2. This why in twitter #DoctorWho was trending :D

  3. I loved it. Easily the best season opener since the show returned in 2005 and The Silence are genuinely creepy.

    • I liked it. However, I think last year’s opener takes the biscuit as the best season opener. It was just so good, and so perfect. I don’t doubt we’ll look on this in an entirely new light when Moffat finishes the season, but I didn’t think it was epic or brilliant. In fact, I’d probably rank “Smith and Jones” above it as well – easily Dvies’ best opener, in my humble opinion.

  4. I loved this episode. Moffat has written some of the best Doctor Who stuff and so I’m really excited to see where he takes us this season. ^_^

    BTW, I liked your “family” reference in terms of the Doctor and companions. Back when there was Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric, there was a family feeling, even down to having some family disagreements. Of course, if Amy’s reveal remains true, then there will literally be a family on the TARDIS. ^_^

    • Thanks AstroNerdBoy. I have an irrational fondness for Davison. Maybe it’s because the Caves of Androzani matches The Parting of the Ways as the best regeneration story ever, or because it feels so different than what came before or after, but I do like that era.

      And I, too, am curious to see how this pays off.

      • The thing about Caves of Androzani is that I was never a fan of Peri as a character, no matter how much of a babe she was. As such, she killed that episode for me. *_*

  5. Just to point out, there will be another 12 episodes between now and the end of the current first 2011 season, leading to the final six of the second part of the 2011 season in Autumn, There will be at least three months inbetween.

    • Yep, I am aware of same. Still, the gap is until September, so it is a long time. It just makes it feel almost like two half-seasons instead of one full one. And I know Moffat’s leaving it on a cliffhanger… so there’s that…

      Still, I’m also hugely excited. Can’t have the show feeling too safe or comfortable.

  6. I’d imagine Rory is sticking around given where his name is in the opening title sequence

  7. Am I the only one who really dislikes Rory and hopes that he finally kicks the bucket?

    • I actually quite like Rory, perhaps more than I like Amy. I think it’s just because Amy comes across as quite a bit spoiled at times, and Rory is just a well-intented idiot. There’s not a lot of depth there, but I think it works in the context of the ensemble.

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