The Impossible Astronaut (Doctor Who series 6, episode 1)

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

Well, I certainly didn’t expect that.

I wanted to post within minutes of the end of the episode.  I was going to entitle my article “The Impossible Astronaut: First Impressions”, and the entire article would consist of the following:

“What?”

I don’t think I have ever felt so at sea during a Doctor Who, certainly not a season opener.  With Rose, New Earth, Smith and Jones, Partners in Crime and indeed The Eleventh Hour, we got nice, simple, self-contained stories that anyone coming in cold would be able to easily follow.  Not so this time: it was hugely complicated, multi-stranded, truly frightening in places, and absolutely not self-contained.  It’s not just that it’s the first half of a two-parter, but one that leaves many, many questions unresolved.  (I’d like to list them here, but I am trying not to be spoily.)

I’m not quite sure what I think about that.  It’s certainly courageous, but is it so in the vanilla sense of the word or in Sir Humphrey Appleby’s sense?  Can it be wise to throw new viewers straight into so deep a deep end?  Or are we now working on the assumption that there won’t be a lot of new viewers by this stage, that the programme’s captured everyone it’s going to?  If nothing else, it does indicate a huge degree of confidence on the part of the programme makers: both self-confidence, that they believe they can pull it off, and maybe more importantly confidence in their audience, that they can cope.  That, I like.  And there is, to be fair, something invigorating about awaiting a the second half of a story and having almost no idea what it’s going to contain.

So while I wait for the actual story to settle down and start making sense next week, what I am left with this week is a blur of individual moments, most of them delicious.  If the the episode is more of a smörgåsbord than a square meal, it’s a good smörgåsbord.  More than once in reviewing Series 5, I used the word “audacity” (The Beast Below, The Big Bang), and I’ve found myself coming back to that property of the programme again and again while discussing it with people.  It’s a quality that seemed to increase throughout Series 5 and continue into the Christmas special, and it’s certainly not fading away as we begin on Series 6.

I’ll just mention a couple of instances.

  • The Casanova introduction, surely a knowing nod to predecessor David Tennant’s earlier role as that character.
  • The Doctor waving cheerfully at Amy and Rory, unnoticed, from a Laurel and Hardy film.
  • “I wear a stetson now.  Stetsons are cool.”  Would have been funny even without the fez line from The Big Bang.
  • Rory’s rueful resignation to his job of babysitting Delaware through his first-time-in-the-TARDIS culture-shock.
  • The Doctor silently gesturing for Nixon and Canton Delaware to continue their discussion when they finally turn to notice him there, assiduously taking notes.

What does all this mean for the series?  It’s hard to tell this early, but one thing is clear: Doctor Who is not out to dumb things down for its viewers.  I imagine editorial meetings where Moffat outlined the plans, people told him “That’s too complicated, people won’t follow”, and he just refused to accept it.  Right or wrong?  In the Big Brother/X-Factor/Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? era, for my money it’s better to err on the side of asking too much of an audience than too little.  I like it that Doctor Who is throwing so very much at the wall and seeing what sticks, and I love it that it trusts us enough to make sense of it all.

Special bonus observation

The moment I saw the scene where the Doctor meets the eponymous astronaut:

It hit me like a truck that I was looking at a re-creation of the cover art from Pink Floyd’s awesome Wish You Were Here album.  If you’re not familar with that album then (A) what the heck have you been listening to all your life?  And (B) here is the front cover, with the two men in lateral view shaking hands, and the back cover with the lake:

I wonder whether it’s deliberate?  A quick bit of googling suggests that no-one else has yet picked up on it, so maybe it’s just a coincidence.  But for me, loving that album as I do, the visual allusion introduced another layer of poignancy to what was already a very surreal scene.

Update (Monday 25th April)

Two more Impossible Astronaut reviews, by people whose writing I like and which have some good insights: Andrew Hickey; and Gavin Burrows, with a short followup that makes an excellent point.  No word yet from Andrew Rilstone.

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21 responses to “The Impossible Astronaut (Doctor Who series 6, episode 1)

  1. You know, I think the new monsters in this episode are the scariest Moffat’s ever devised. I’d put the Weeping Angels at the top of my list because they were a real “Fridge Logic” monster: the more you think about them, the scarier they get. On that score, I think these things are worse.

    The key to defeating anything is knowing its weaknesses; you learn from encounters until you think of a way to beat it.

    But this… oh dear. How do you beat something that [spoiler]?!

    (Minor spoilers)

    Also, regarding the shocker moment on the beach… I’m not particularly worried about it. I don’t believe for an instant that Moffat would write the series into a corner like that. 200 years is a lot of time to think of a twisty way out of it.

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  3. I have a couple of theories, but don’t want to give spoilers for part 1.

    Hmmm… I wonder if the little girl is someone we already know? :-)

  4. John, I think it’s fair enough to put spoilers in the comments. Feel free to share your ideas.

  5. I don’t know about the 200 years, thats not really the hard limit.

    The hard limit imposed by ‘the incident on the beech’ is that the current doctor must now be the last. there can be no more regenerations.

    A colleague also pointed out that according to ‘lore’ there can only be at most 12 regenerations.

  6. This might be true about it being the last regeneration or it might not be. Last season as the doctor was dealing with the crack in the universe he started mumbling a lot about how Time can be rewritten, perhaps this series continues that line reasoning.

  7. I heard an interview with Stephen Moffat on Radio 2 on Saturday, in which he said that something surprising would happen in the first ten minutes, so it wasn’t a total shock. I thought it strange that he and River Song were talking about events we knew nothing about. Thinking about it afterwards though, we always see when they meet, so it was clear that it wasn’t “our” Doctor at that point.

    There was a news item before the last series which said that one of the episodes would blow away that regeneration limit (13 I think). However unless he goes back to the same body, after going to a different one, that’s his final one, unless we have divergent timelines.

  8. In the kiddy spinoff series this doctor already said that he now had unlimited regenerations and Moffat said that would be explained this season. This death is linked.

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