[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.]
Warning: Doctor Who spoilers from the start.
Read on after the break only if you’ve seen all the episodes of Doctor Who Series 6 apart from the last.
So tomorrow night sees the final episode in Series 6. We know from the end of Closing Time that the Doctor is off to Lake Silencio to enact the events of The Impossible Astronaut. He even has his Stetson. He has the TARDIS-blue envelopes in which he is going to send the invitations to Amy and Rory, River, Canton Everett Delaware III and his two-hundred-year younger self.
We know, from having seen TIA before the Doctor has, how things are going to happen. So let’s review what we know, and see if we can put it all together into a credible hypothesis. Having seen episodes 2-12, I am now going to go back and watch the first part of episode 1, The Impossible Astronaut again, and note the relevant clues. Off we go.
@1:38 — Amy: “He said he’d be in touch.” / Rory: “Two months ago.” / Amy: “Two months is nothing, he’s up to something, I know he is.” This exchange suggests that from Amy and Rory’s perspective, The Impossible Astronaut takes place after the Doctor drops them off at their house at the end of The God Complex. But I don’t think that can be right, as we have followed Amy and Rory’s timeline pretty constantly through the series. They were travelling with the Doctor right up to the time of the drop-off, so I think this must be a red herring.
@3:13 — just after “I wear a Stetson now; Stetsons are cool.” River shoots the hat right off the Doctor’s head. We can’t tell exactly how far away she was, but far enough that the others didn’t notice her approaching. What does this tell us? River is a good shot; so good that she’s confident enough to shoot the hat off the man she loves without worrying about hitting him. This will be important later.
@3:50 “I’ve been running. Faster than I’ve ever run. And I’ve been running my whole life. Now it’s time for me to stop. And tonight I’m going to need you all with me.” The Doctor’s line, and the downbeat delivery, are very much of a piece with the latter parts of Closing Time. Likewise @5:54 “Human beings. I thought I’d never get done saving you.”
@5:22 Amy sees a Silent, and of course immediately forgets about it. The presence of a Silent at the scene of the Doctor’s death indicates their involvement (or it’s a very odd coincidence). Of course we know that the Silents are associated with Madame Kovarian, because there are two of them with her at the end of Closing Time when the newly Ph.D’d River is put into the spacesuit.
[Which reminds me: all the time we’ve known River, she’s been Doctor River Song, which means that all those adventures happened after the sequence in which the was put in the suit and left in the lake. In particular, I think we can conclude that the River at the picnic is from later in her own timestream than the River in the lake.]
@6:00 Canton Everett Delaware III turns up, and the Doctor acknowledges him. He’s obviously expecting him. No-one talks to him at this point. He’s arrived just in time to see …
@6:20 The astronaut standing in the lake. Doctor: “You all need to stay back. Whatever happens now you do not interfere. Clear?” He’s not surprised to see the astronaut. Why not? He knows when and where he is scheduled to die from the screen in Let’s Kill Hitler, but I don’t remember that saying anything about how. Has he been finding out more?
Why is the astronaut in the lake? Of all the ways that Madame Kovarian and the Silents could arrange to have the Doctor killed, why this bizarre way? I have no ideas on this. I think by now we pretty much have to assume that it is younger River in the suit (although at this point in Series 5 we all assumed it was the Doctor in the Pandorica, and look how that turned out.)
@6:50 a decidedly careworn Doctor speaks to the astronaut. “Hello. It’s OK, I know it’s you. Well then …” They continue to speak for another fifteen seconds but we don’t hear the rest.
@7:15 the astronaut shoots the Doctor. Amy runs towards him. River restrains her: “Amy, stay back. We have to stay back.” She gives the impression of having more idea what is happening than the other two.
@7:20 the astronaut shoots the Doctor again. He starts to regenerate, but @7:50 the astronaut shoots a third time, mid-regeneration, interrupting the process. The others run towards the Doctor.
@8:10, River shoots at the astronaut. (As she stands up to do so, she looks resigned more than sad or angry.) She fires five shots, all from pretty close range, and misses every time. The pulls the trigger a sixth time but there is no shot — presumably because she used a bullet earlier shooting the Doctor’s Stetson off. Why does River miss? We have already seen that she is an excellent shot, able to safely shoot the Doctor’s hat off from similar range, yet she fails to his a much larger target even once from a much shorter range. My best guess? The Doctor replaced her bullets with blanks. (After all, we’ve seen him pull similar tricks on immediately-post-regeneration assassin!River in Let’s Kill Hitler.)
@8:22, River says “Of course not.” This could be construed as “of course there isn’t a sixth bullet” but it’s much more reasonable to read it as “of course I missed”. Does that mean she knows it’s her in the suit, and of course she wasn’t killed otherwise she wouldn’t be there now?
@8:33, River says “Whatever that was, it killed him in the middle of his regeneration cycle.” The “whatever that was” is strange if she knows it’s her.
@8:45 we have the escape routes cut off. Amy: “Maybe he’s clone or a duplicate or something”. But her thoughts are immediately shown to be incorrect by Canton’s first words: “I believe I can save you some time. That most certainly is the Doctor. And he is most certainly dead. He said you’d need this.” (A can of petrol for burning the body.)
@10:01 they cremate the Doctor’s body. More ensuring that we know there is no way back. It was the real Doctor, he is dead, and his body is destroyed.
@12:30 “This is cold. Even by your standards this is cold.” River was not expecting to see the younger Doctor. However much she knew in advance of these events, she didn’t know this part.
What does all this mean? The key questions are:
- Who is in the spacesuit? Let’s assume it’s River, from the part of her timeline when she’s just obtained her doctorate.
- Does present-day River remember the events now happening from her earlier perspective in the suit? The evidence is equivocal.
- Why does present-day River miss the astronaut with all five of her close-range shots?
- Why does the Doctor go willingly to his death?
- What are the Doctor and the astronaut talking about for those fifteen seconds?
And most important of all …
- How can the Doctor be saved when we know (A) that it is really him, not a clone or a duplicate; (B) that he really is dead, with no chance to regenerate; (C) that his body has been burned.
And, not obviously related, but worth throwing in:
- What is the “first question” which, when asked, will (the Silence believe) cause the universe to end? And how is it relevant to Kovarian’s anti-Doctor crusade? Does she believe that he is going to ask that question, should he survive?
Well, I’d hoped that laying all the evidence out here would guide me to a flash of insight, but I’m afraid it’s not happened. I am just as mystified as when I started. But you good folks out there — I bet one of you can figure out what’s going to happen. Leave a comment — let us know!