The Impossible Astronaut

I am being extremely clever up here and there is no one to stand around looking impressed! What is the point of having you all?

The Eleventh Doctor

Synopsis

Amy Pond, Rory Williams, River Song and the Eleventh Doctor receive a mysterious summons that takes them on an adventure to 21st Century Utah and Florida in 1969.

Review

The Impossible Astronaut (and by extension, Day of the Moon) feel like a shake-up of the formula after following the tried and tested formula that had served Doctor Who through its first five full series since 2005. Whilst Series 5 quietly shook things up a bit with a younger Doctor, it relied on the format of the Russell T Davies era to give the audience some sense of familiarity. With this opening for Series 6, it feels as though a lot of that has gone out of the window and we’ll get to the other changes to ‘tradition’ when I get to reviewing those episodes in future posts. These two episodes also featured location shooting in the United States, something that the stories set in America in the RTD era had not done – apart from the Second Unit stuff in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks – and this filming really helps the story feel more grounded.

When I was rewatching this story for the review, I realised how much I love this story and it still works really well when considering the whole of Series 6. Steven Moffat’s series opener is bombastic, throwing the Eleventh Doctor into 17th Century England to a Prisoner of War Camp in World War Two and whilst these serve a purpose of getting Amy and Rory’s attention, I kind of wish that at least the first setting was used for a full story, but I think that’s more because of my interest in history. However, after setting up the story arc for the rest of the series with the death of the Doctor, it becomes a conspiracy-thriller – in a story set in 1969 around the moon landings, how could it be anything else? We do start, however, with the subplot of the Astronaut rising from the lake and the Doctor being killed mid-regeneration. Of course, this is classic misdirection, as the murdered Doctor is older than “our” Doctor and this is more relevant to the series arc rather than this story in general. It does lead to some nice moments of tension between our TARDIS crew.

The story progresses visually from going to the light and bright Lake Silencio into darkness after the death of the older Eleventh Doctor and the palette remains pretty murky right up to the end of the episode, and it feels a lot longer than 43 minutes, in the best possible way. There are some lovely moments of humour here though, and I especially enjoyed the awkwardness between the Doctor and River Song. Whilst this story has a lot of Moffat’s tropes, it is actually quite welcoming to new viewers and spends time explaining things, like the Doctor and River syncing their diaries, an effective shorthand for the fact that they are travelling in the wrong order to the other. Richard Nixon is used as a plot device more than making a statement on his controversial Presidency, even though Watergate does get alluded, and the story certainly isn’t making statements on his virtues or otherwise.

You were my second choice for this, Mister Delaware.

That’s okay. You were my second choice for President, Mister Nixon.

Richard Nixon and Canton Everett Delaware III

The Silence are another example of a terrifying idea out of the Moffat playbook. The concept of a creature you forget when you look away is so simply elegant and effective that it’s amazing that nobody had thought of it before as a Doctor Who creature. This, combined with the Edvard Munch’s Scream inspired face and the Men in Black suits, make for one creepy creature. The scenes in the tunnels under the warehouse are really creepy, and the fear and shock is wonderfully performed by Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Alex Kingston, aided by the sound effect when characters forget, which works really well. The bathroom scene in the White House establishes that they are not to be messed with, and sets up a nice moment after Rory has forgotten them in the tunnels, and you can just see the electric attack sparking behind him.

The location filming in America is beneficial to the show for reasons both on and off-screen. On-screen it adds a degree of realism to the filming, rather than trying to convince the audience that a bit of Cardiff is actually New York, like in the Dalek two-parter in Series 3. The location shooting in Utah additionally lends a sense of reality to the White House sets, which look fantastic anyway, especially the Oval Office. Off-screen, it capitalises on the upsurge in the popularity of the show in the United States towards the tail end of the Russell T Davies era and continuing into the Moffat era.

I think that Amy is really interesting in the aftermath of the Doctor’s death at Lake Silencio. The character is unrelentingly negative and realistic after this, even whilst faced with River and Rory’s optimism. It is a nice counterpoint, and perhaps an after-effect of her childhood where her parents were not present. I think Karen Gillan is great in this episode, especially in her scenes with Matt Smith and the conversation that takes place under the TARDIS console room, which takes full advantage of having a multi-level console room. Arthur Darvill possibly has less to do than the other three, but he is great when given things to do. I love the way that, as the newbie on the TARDIS, he is given the responsibility of talking Canton through his shock at finding the famous box is bigger on the inside. Additionally, the moment where he pokes the younger Doctor in the diner, as the Doctor did to him in The Pandorica Opens when he reappears as an Auton. Canton makes an interesting outsider to this TARDIS team, managing to combine his FBI experience to be competent but finding this all completely unbelievable. With the three regulars plus Kingston all being established as companions with knowledge of space and time travel in the previous series, Canton almost acts as the audience surrogate, looking slightly bemused throughout and Sheppard performs this role admirably.

Careful? I tried that once. Ever so dull.

Shout if you get in trouble.

Don’t worry, I’m quite the screamer. Now there’s a spoiler for you.

Tell me what’s going on here.

Er, nothing. She’s just a friend.

I think he’s talking about the possible alien incursion.

River Song, the Eleventh Doctor, Canton Everett Delaware III and Rory Williams

Matt Smith carries on his superb performance from his debut series here, and he is great playing both the younger and older Doctor. I really like how he captures the almost blundering fool part of his Doctor, like the way he assumes that Canton and Nixon will continue their conversation about the phone calls after they notice him standing in the Oval Office. He’s great in the scene where his companions try and convince him to go to 1969, and his relationship with Amy is brought to the fore when she is the one who can convince him. What I love about Smith’s Doctor is that he is able to effectively combine the lightness of moments like the former and darker moments like the latter when he gets moody and reticient. Alex Kingston is definitely channeling some Han Solo vibes when she appears in the deserts of Utah, effortlessly shooting the Doctor’s new Stetson off his head – she really has something against hats. I love the way River moves around the console correcting the Doctor’s actions when they land in the Oval Office, which even he is aware of and the chemistry between the two gets better and better. Kingston really shines in the scenes talking about her relationship with the Doctor, especially with her conversation with Rory where she talks about her fear of the day the Doctor will not recognise her any more.

Verdict: A bombastic opener to Series 6, The Impossible Astronaut sets up the arc for the series and introduces a creepy new villain. 9/10

Cast: Matt Smith (The Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams), Alex Kingston (River Song), Mark Sheppard (Everett Delaware), William Morgan Sheppard (Old Canton Delaware), Marnix Van Den Broeke (The Silent), Stuart Milligan (President Richard Nixon), Chuk Iwuji (Carl), Mark Griffin (Phil), Sydney Wade (Little Girl), Nancy Baldwin (Joy), Kieran O’Connor (Prison Guard), Adam Napier (Captain Simmons), Henrietta Clemett (Matilda), Paul Critoph (Charles) and Emilio Aquino (Busboy).

Writer: Steven Moffat

Director: Toby Haynes

Behind the Scenes

  • The broadcast episode featured a dedication to Elisabeth Sladen, who passed away four days before the broadcast of this episode. Due to a typographical error made at the beginning of her acting career, her birth year is erronously cited as 1948, rather than 1946.
  • This story featured significant location filming in Utah, U.S.A., with cast and crew travelling there for filming.
  • The first two-part series opener for the revived series – it would happen again with The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar and Spyfall Part 1 & Part 2.
  • The story features the most witnesses to a regeneration (6 – Amy, Rory, River, Canton Delaware, the astronaut and a Silent) in the revived series. It is also the first attempted regeneration of the revived series to take place outside the TARDIS.
  • Joy asks if the Silent is wearing a Star Trek mask. The original run of Star Trek would come to an end in the year in which this story is set, 1969.

Cast Notes

  • Mark Sheppard is the son of William Morgan Sheppard, and they appeared in two other productions together. William Morgan Sheppard passed away in 2019.
  • Chuk Iwuji had appeared in the Big Finish audio A Thousand Tiny Wings, playing Joshua Sembeke.

Best Moment

This episode is full of them, but I particularly enjoy the Eleventh Doctor behind the President’s desk:

I’m going to need a SWAT team, ready to mobilise. Street level maps covering all of Florida. A pot of coffee, twelve Jammie Dodgers and a fez.

The Eleventh Doctor

Best Quote

What did you mean? What you said to Amy. There’s a worst day coming for you.

When I first met the Doctor, a long, long time ago, he knew all about me. Think about that. An impressionable young girl and, suddenly this man just drops out of the sky and he’s clever and mad and wonderful, and knows every last thing about her. Imagine what that does to a girl.

I don’t really have to.

The trouble is, it’s all back to front. My past is his future. We’re travelling in opposite directions. Every time we meet, I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days when I see him, but I know that every time I do, he’ll be one step further away. And the day is coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes, my Doctor, and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me.

Rory Williams and River Song

Previous Eleventh Doctor Review: A Christmas Carol

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