Sometimes you hear hype about a show, and you dismiss it, assuming that it couldn’t possibly be as good as the showrunner and cast are insisting it is. It couldn’t possibly be that mind-blowing...could it?
When the show is Doctor Who, the showrunner is Steven Moffat, and the cast includes the likes of Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, and Alex Kingston, YES, IT CAN.
Doctor Who is back for another season of adventure! And television is better for it.
Post-honeymoon Amy and Rory noticing that over the past two months, the Doctor has been popping up at odd moments (and in one hilarious painting) throughout history in order to get their attention, as if “waving to [them] from the past.” They get a mysterious invitation in TARDIS blue envelopes giving them nothing but coordinates to a location, and a date and time. Elsewhere, we see River Song get a similar invitation.
The location? Utah in the United States. The Host? The Doctor, of course.
He has summoned them in order to assist him with something very important in 1969, but he doesn’t tell them what. Instead, he distracts them with a lovely lakeside picnic, where he mentions that he’s over 1100 years old. Amy points out that he was just over 900 years old the last time she saw him just before she has a strange vision that she immediately forgets when Rory asks her about it.
And then it happens. An astronaut, whose face we don’t see, comes out of the lake. The Doctor recognizes the astronaut, and tells his friends that, no matter what happens, they must not interfere. He approaches the astronaut as River, Amy, and Rory look on. The astronaut takes out some sort of alien blaster weapon and shoots the Doctor twice. The first shot triggers the Doctor’s regeneration. The second shot happens when he’s in the middle of it. He doesn’t get to regenerate.
The Doctor is dead. Actually, truly dead. An elderly gentleman named Canton Delaware drives up with a canister of gasoline telling them, “I won’t be seeing you again, but you’ll see me.” His friends burn his body, sending it out on the lake in a boat. They mourn. And they go back to their original meeting place at a diner to talk about what to do next. River realizes that their invitations each had numbers on them. Hers was number 2, Amy and Rory’s was number 3. Who is number one? Who else would the Doctor summon if he knew he was going to die? Whom did the Doctor trust most of all?
The Doctor, of course.
Wait, what? I know. The Doctor sent his younger self an invitation, too. Because aside from wanting his most trusted friends to handle disposing of his body, he also wanted them to accomplish something in 1969; something they would need him to do. Now, River and the TARDIS crew need to get Younger Doctor to accomplish whatever it is in 1969 (Older Doctor never told them what that was) without telling him who sent the invitations. He knows they know and that they’re not telling, which places him in an awkward position. He’s not used to not having all the answers. But because he trusts Amy, and she swears on fish fingers and custard, the Doctor agrees to go along. Meanwhile, in Washington D.C. in 1969, President Nixon is receiving phone calls from a mysterious child who is afraid of an approaching “spaceman.” A child who is the lynchpin of all the events in this and the following episode, “Day of the Moon.”
Something connects the Doctor, the child, and Canton Delaware to the moon landing. Also to the most frightening alien threat in Doctor Who history. Yes, more frightening than the Daleks. Steven Moffat has outdone himself with The Silence, and they make the Weeping Angels look like characters from a children’s book.
“The Impossible Astronaut” is a brilliant first part to this two-part story. The episode begins with the Doctor’s final death, I spoil that in the opening of my review, and I still haven’t told you about all the amazing twists and turns in the script. That’s how good it is. The build-up to who and what The Silence are is perfect and makes your heart pound, and despite the “timey-wimeyness” of certain plot points, the real joy of this script is the plotting and structuring of it in its present. It’s also a brave script. Moffat has dared to build some huge things into Doctor Who canon; things that a writer with less daring (and possibly ego) might have stayed away from as showrunner. Well, thank God for Moffat’s brilliant, enormous, curly-headed ego because the story is now headed to some exciting places!
And then there’s the American-ness, which was a joy to experience. Despite the good-natured poking fun at our displays of patriotism and our tendency to do things way too big, sometimes you need to see your country from an outsiders perspective to see how beautiful and wonderful it really is. All of the locations were shot so lovingly, and the vibe from the entire cast was that they really enjoyed the fact that they got to shoot this here.
The best part of the episode, however, is that the characters now feel so lived-in. As wonderful as I thought Series 5 was overall, “The Impossible Astronaut” marks the moment where all of the regulars got into their grooves. Matt Smith showed some lovely range as the Doctor, essentially playing two versions of himself. The scene where he scoffs at River when she asks him to trust her was scathing. Even when he was yelling at Amy in “The Beast Below,” he was never this cold! Arthur Darvill (now in the opening credits! Huzzah!) as Rory is brilliant, and completely a mature man, even as he humorously expresses his concern (fear) of following River into a potentially dangerous situation. Karen Gillan does great work, too, and you believe that the Doctor would trust her completely. Her best work, however, can be seen in the next episode, and I’ll talk more about her in my next review. Mark Sheppard’s performance as Canton Delaware was wonderful, and I hope he guest stars again after this story is over. His delivery of Delaware’s snappy, noirish dialogue was pitch perfect, and the viewer will root for this character immediately. Alex Kingston as River Song is absolutely heartbreaking. When she talks to Rory about the fate she considers “worse than death,” I nearly cried. I also realized just how much River and Amy have in common.
Which brings me to the themes this episode began to explore. Among other things, River’s situation with the Doctor reminded me of what it must be like to love someone who goes on to suffer something like Alzheimer’s Disease. It was devastating to watch River acknowledge that one day, the Doctor isn’t going to recognize her anymore, and that pain is deeply relatable to anyone who’s ever dealt with a loved one who’s suffered some sort of memory loss or dementia. We also saw the Doctor willingly put his life in Amy Pond’s hands. That moment was so profound, because for once the Doctor was willing to not be the smartest person on the TARDIS. It was difficult for him, but he did it. And remember, the Doctor dies when he’s over 1100 years old. To watch the Doctor, a century younger, learn how to let go in that way was beautiful.
There’s so much more to say, but too much relates to part two of this story, which airs next weekend. If you enjoy “The Impossible Astronaut” (and I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it), “Day of the Moon” will completely blow you away. And scare the living crap out of you. As it is, the cliffhanger at the end of this first episode of the season will have you twitching in anticipation.
Welcome back, Doctor!
Doctor Who airs in the U.S. on BBC America Saturdays at 9PM ET.
Teresa Jusino is the Thirteenth Doctor. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor of Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.