Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Impossible Astronaut. Review.

Dr Who, the Impossible Astronaut, Part 1, promo

There're a million and one reasons not to listen to Talksport. The latest and best is that a couple of days ago its TV critic declared The Impossible Astronaut to be too clever and complicated and said the show should get back to doing nice simple stories about the Doctor fighting monsters.

Like anyone who expresses an opinion about anything on that radio station, he was completely wrong, because The Impossible Astronaut's simply the best Doctor Who season opener since the show first returned in 2005.

While season launchers for Nu-Who have traditionally been light, straightforward romps designed more to ease you comfortably back into the show than challenge you, The Impossible Astronaut throws twists, turns, revelation, obfuscation and confusion at you from the start, as Amy, Rory and River are summoned by the Doctor to witness his death at the hands of what seems to be an astronaut, only to then go on to meet his earlier - still living - self before going back to 1969 to help Richard Nixon.

Richard Nixon has a problem.

Richard Nixon has lots of problems. Chief of which is that he's Richard Nixon. But this time, it's not one of the obvious ones that's causing him grief.

You see, the President keeps getting phone calls from a little girl who says she's being menaced by a spaceman. The quest to find her takes the Doctor and his pals to a building near-ish to NASA HQ and leads River and Rory to an underground chamber that looks suspiciously like the interior of the ersatz TARDIS from last season's The Lodger. Interesting that those controls look like they'd work best for creatures with sink plungers rather than hands?

Meanwhile, in an attempt to save the Doctor from his future death, the pregnant Amy shoots the little girl they went there to rescue.

Dr Who, the Impossible Astronaut, a Silent
Intermingled with all this are The Silence, a race of aliens in suits who you can only remember if you're looking at them. Why they're in the habit of wearing suits, I don't know but, as with Buffy's Gentlemen, the sight of a skinny, wrinkly monster in a suit and tie's oddly disconcerting and, even as a jaded adult, you can imagine just how unsettling they could be to younger minds.

This is by far the most ambitious opener since the show came back, ever more deeply entrenching the mythology Moffat's been building up for a long while now. I complained in my last post that in the early days of his first season in charge, Moffat had at times seemed too keen to replicate the Russell T Davies style, as though scared to shock the audience with anything too different but, here, all spiritual ties with that era are well and truly cut. He's showing the difference between himself and Davies in full, as we get the sense of the show as a sort of Rubik's Cube, with the pieces ready to slot into a place we can't yet imagine. Whereas RTD's story arcs often felt bolted onto the Doctor's stand-alone adventures, with Moffat - like the concept of time travel itself - they're hard-wired in so tightly you wonder how they can ever be disentangled.

River Song:
"Easter Island? They worshipped you. Have you seen the statues?"
Matt Smith is of course excellent, as he's been from Day One, and Alex Kingston manages to make what could've easily been an obnoxious and off-putting character in River Song strangely engaging.

That's not to say there aren't some concerns. Nothing's perfect. Not even me. As we all know, at times Moffat's palette can seem narrower than it is long. As so often, there's a little girl, there's a menace with a face hidden behind a mask, and of course there's River Song, escaping from jail for the millionth time. There's also the problem of just what Rory's there for. He's an endearing character but he doesn't actually do anything.

I was also uncomfortable that the only character in the whole episode who 's treated with total disrespect by everyone around him just happened to be black. This might be coincidental, just a quirk of casting but, given America's racial politics of the 1960s, it did feel somewhat uncomfortable to watch him being portrayed as an over-excitable block-headed fool.

Still, overall, the thing was great and you don't know how relieved I am to be saying that. After the Christmas Special, I had fears of starting off my blog with a great big thumbs down. That would've seen me agreeing with someone from Talksport. And we all know that that way lies madness.


cerebus660 said...

Great review, Steve! Looking forward to your views on the rest of the series.

Judging by this episode, Nixon's second biggest problem is his prosthetic nose...

Steve said...

Thank you, cerebus. Always nice to hear from you. :)

The Nixon thing was something else. I can't deny that if they hadn't said who it was meant to be, I wouldn't have had a clue.

M. D. Jackson said...

Good review, Steve!

Steve said...

Thanks, M.D. :)

Kid said...

Steve does Doctor Who? And what was the sex like? (Oh, I'm such a wag.)

Strangely, I feel like a heretic for disagreeing with you. (Not about the Xmas special - that WAS mince.) Under Davies (I'll resist that one), Moffat wrote some of the most interesting episodes of the series, but he seems to be indulging himself too much now that he's in charge. I get the impression he complicates things merely to give the stories the illusion of greater complexity and depth than they actually have. And wouldn't it be nice to see a serious Doctor again, who we're not quite sure about - rather than a babbling idiot. Verity Lambert once made the observation (years after her departure) that, in the then-current episodes that she wasn't involved with, the Doctor and his companions looked as if they were enjoying themslves too much in what should have been dangerous situations. That aspect has crept back in again, it seems to me. ("Chase me!")

I for one would like to see a straightforward adventure where the Doctor goes back in time and tries to solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper. It would be an atmospheric detective thriller where the Doc discovers the identity of the Ripper - the only SF element being the time travel part. Okay, you could make the Ripper a stranded alien - but that wouldn't be revealed 'til right to the end.

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