Directed by Toby Haynes, written by Steven Moffat, 2011
Talk about tardy to the party. However, I did write this immediately after the episode aired – only circumstances have prevented me posting it till now – so it’s written without any foreknowledge of the subsequent five episodes.
I’ve tried more successfully than normal to avoid all spoilers for this season. Ood… Cybermen… yeah, yeah. But we know this isn’t the real meat. There’s been a real emphasis in interviews and publicity on this season’s game-changing nature, its re-engagement with the mystery of the Doctor, the way it will push the series in whole new, internet-melting directions… All par for the course, you might think, with new series publicity. But the specificity of this hyperbole, the idea that this new run will indeed do some unprecedented things, seems tangible enough that I haven’t been able to stop wondering maybe they do have something definite up their sleeves. It’s all dreadfully, dreadfully exciting anyway.
There’s undoubtedly a danger that this level of massively-inflated hype might derail the series if it’s perceived to have been out of all proportion, but then, it does seem quite apparent that the post-Davies honeymoon period is over, and that’s exciting in itself. Whereas Moffat’s first series mainly adhered to the format laid down by his predecessor, here we appear to be dealing with something entirely different: a two-part opener? And a big, dark, ‘important’ two-parter to boot, the sort of thing previously saved for the last part of the season. Filmed in the US, for the first time. Oh, and a season split in two?
These might not seem like revolutionary changes to a casual audience, so it’s easy to be blasé – but they’re pretty audacious after five years of a quite definitive format. Add to that Moffat’s assertion that where last year was designed to assure those suffering Tennant-withdrawal that the show could continue as successfully, here he’s kicking into gear and willing to challenge the audience in unforeseen ways.
I don’t really watch other genre shows – well, sci-fi – which are the area in which season-long (or longer) story arcs have gained prevalence, so I can’t really comment on the oversaturation that some people seem to feel has hindered their efficacy. (Obviously dramas can have numerous long-running plot strands which may twist and turn and surprise the audience, but this strikes me as being more a reflection of life, whereas plots and schemes and misdirection in something like Doctor Who are a much more contrived form of narrative (not using ‘contrived’ in a necessarily negative way).) I’m quite excited by their potential, especially as it’s a potential I don’t think twenty-first century Doctor Who has yet realised (the ‘memes’ of Davies’ series do not a story arc make). It is in Moffat’s first series that the most fully-formed through-story has been realised, so I’m fascinated to see where he goes with an arc that not only binds a season together but continues directly from the previous one, and, in turns of River Song, from even further back.
While I agree that there may be some concern about story arcs hinging on a level of engagement with the series which might alienate a broader audience (not unlike the early-eighties continuity deluge), I can’t find myself worrying too much. I’m really not going to complain about a surfeit of intelligence or complexity in Doctor Who, and in fact find it massively exciting that Steven Moffat is allowed to go in a direction that demands so much from his audience.
But, on to specifics…
That was a difficult one. Obviously, as a ming-mong, it’s safe to assume that I’m on the series’ side; however, though the audaciousness of a dark, complex, American-set two-part opener isn’t lost on me I am still able to look beyond those elements, and, unfortunately, beyond those elements this episode didn’t satisfy me.
Maybe I’m just too impatient – having grown up with a complete 1963-89 run on tap where I never had to wait for anything to unspool at its own speed – but the twists and questions The Impossible Astronaut raised seemed contrived in a way Moffat’s generally managed to sidestep previously.
Naturally I appreciate that it’s hard to judge a two-parter on its opener alone, but, especially given this is a season opener, surely this is an episode that demands to feel coherent on its own terms, in the sense that The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, though dependent on each other, also felt satisfactory independently. Similarly, the humour, scares, and complexity don’t hang together as effortlessly as in, say, the similarly wide-ranging Big Bang (which I’ve recently re-evaluated as being the more effective episode of last year’s finale) – here, regrettably, those elements feel just a tad forced. I sort of wish Moffat’d just try to write a solid story with mystery and twists and clues naturally arising from the plot, rather than contriving an all-over-the-place narrative (such as it is) around those things. I have no doubt Moffat can make the next episode pay off, but does that excuse the first episode of the season feeling quite so exclusively expository?
Considering how many ace pre-titles sequences series five provided, The Impossible Astronaut’s opening is slightly baffling – not in terms of understanding it, but simply in appreciating quite why he did it the way he did. Surely something as simple as Amy and Rory’s relationship to the Doctor is unnecessarily complicated by having them suddenly separated from him for two months, rather than have him pick them up from their extended honeymoon (as I’d presumed was the case from the trailers). Also, why did the Doctor even need to attract Amy and Rory’s attention by gallivanting through history – especially when these scenes led to unpleasant echoes of the Tenth Doctor’s pre-End of Time shenanigans.
Perhaps I’m less well disposed to this story because of the aforementioned massive hyperbole that’s preceded it; I’d be very surprised if The Curse of the Black Spot and even The Doctor’s Wife don’t benefit from not having so many elements trumpeted months in advance. The slight sense of anticlimax ranges from the Silents not being any scarier than Doctor Who monsters have ever been, to the sense of underuse of the US locations. Hmm… America. Yes, it’s unusual to see the Doctor there, but I can’t help feel, ‘Ehh. Seen it’. The Silents/Silence are also too obvious an attempt to best the Weeping Angels, and that kind of inorganic approach (‘They’ve got to be THE SCARIEST MONSTERS EVER!!!’) never works. You can’t force these things, and they’re too similar anyway, with their comparable psychological gimmick.
Even in terms of its ‘darkness’, while, yes, unusual for an opener, this story has little more than a veneer of ‘adult’-leaning atmospherics - but no more so than the previous few late-season two-parters. Certainly, tonally, this is far less adult (ie, serious, uncompromising, harrowing) than, say, 100,000 BC or The Daleks (alright, I admit, not up-to-date points of reference…).
To be honest, I’m slightly at a loss as to how to respond to this episode – partly, it seems too much is shoved in, but conversely it felt like nothing actually happened, or, at least structurally, it’d all just been vommed out… Again, yes, it’s the first of a two-parter. But does that excuse how unsatisfying this episode was? The Doctor orchestrating his own death is the only brilliantly Moffat-worthy conceit here, and I’m not sure that warrants the entry fee.
There are also a couple of what, to my mind, seem rare Moffat missteps – which is all the more unfortunate when relating to things that didn’t need tweaking anyway. Namely, River and the Doctor’s lives explicitly going in different directions seems a mistake; I can buy random interactions, but pinning their encounters down to a structure doesn’t really make sense, and takes the fun out of that. (Isn’t very timey-wimey, is it?) Also, my worry with River, since Silence in the Library, has always been: when is there going to be time for the full scope of their relationship to realistically play out? Surely it must be more expansive than just fleeting meetings for occasional adventures? And does her apparent youth in their initial encounters (from her perspective) preclude us getting to see those meetings - or will Alex Kingston be recast?
And, the pregnancy revelation – well… so what? Okay, maybe this will simply be something which drives the Doctor to decide he should no longer be endangering Amy and Rory, but it would at least seem fresher if we hadn’t already seen Mrs Pond great with child (after a manner) in Amy’s Choice. Last year’s cracks through time look increasingly pedestrian in light of Moffat’s escalating tortuousness, but at least it’s a – superficially, at least – easy-to-grasp concept to string through the season. It’s probably pre-emptive, but I’m puzzled that no more definate new-season strands have emerged, despite the Doctor’s death seeming to be being discussed in these terms… Which might just prove a case of overegging the pudding. Could this not be tied up next week…?
Hmm. Definitely one that will stand or fall on its resolution. Can’t help feel I may have been a bit harsh – would I prefer the return of the Adipose?
...Well, no. Obviously.