“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.”
If there’s one thing modern-day Doctor Who has generally stuck the landing on, it’s entrances. Oh, sure, series 2’s “New Earth” was a bit underwhelming and introduced us to Insufferable Ten And Rose, but series premiere “Rose” was a careful yet confident reintroduction to the title character and his time-traveling blue box, “Smith and Jones” had the audacious sight of rhino policemen on the moon hunting a space vampire, “Partners in Crime” had the wonderfully farcical criss-crossing of the Doctor and Donna as they investigated the same mystery, and “The Eleventh Hour” was just out-and-out brilliant, magical, and a joy from start to finish. “The Impossible Astronaut” follows in that tradition and takes the clever, time-hopping, mind-bending style showrunner Steven Moffat and company adopted for their first season and kicks everything up a notch, starting things off with a bang and a mystery.
11. There was a moment there where I wondered if all the set photos we’d seen for months were deliberate misinformation, and if Moffat and company would take the bizarre step of continuing the series without its title character. Mind you, once River Song points out that she, Rory and Amy, and old-man-Sterling-from-Leverage have invitations two through four, I knew who had to have invitation number one. Right. So the goal is to somehow prevent the terrible thing the Doctor’s companions have witnessed from having happened. If I know my time travel stories, by the end of this Amy will have CAUSED it to have happened. That may actually be the nature of this week’s cliffhanger.
10. It did strike me as odd that it’s been two months since Rory and Amy last saw the Doctor. He’s rarely been one to drop off companions and come back for them later. I thought the implication of the end of “The Big Bang” was that the three would just go on having adventures until something brought them to a screeching halt, and despite Rory and Amy’s bit part in “A Christmas Carol,” their presence there did little to dissuade me from that notion. Ditto for the Comic Relief minisodes. Did the Doctor have some business to attend to they couldn’t tag along for, ala the end of “The Hand of Fear,” or did Rory put his foot down and say, “Okay, that’s it, enough monsters and weird planets and run-ins with historical figures, we need a bit of normal life now.” I can see him saying that, though I have a harder time seeing Amy agree.
9. Steven Moffat loves a good monster gimmick. The mind that gave us the monster that can only move if you’re not looking at it now gives us the monster you can only remember if you ARE looking at it. I do wonder why nobody bothers to scream when they’re looking at it, and instead they all quietly run away and then tell the others, “Oh, it’s all clear, I didn’t see anything.” Telepathic suggestion, perhaps? Obviously these things have got some sort of psychic ability that erects the mental block, right? Their actual physical design is creepy and big-headed in a way reminiscent of the big-headed alien design from the old Star Trek episode “The Corbomite Maneuver.” That design always freaked me out as a kid. This is certainly more intricate, more “realistically” alien, but it sends the same shiver down my spine. The “alien head and hands with human body wearing clothes” thing works a lot better here than it did with that bug alien from the gap-year special “Planet of the Dead.” I think it’s because of the way these creatures stand and move; there’s something enigmatic and animalistic about their movements. Everything we see of them this week is very tantalizing, especially the one thing that one of them says to Amy. Absolutely cold, absolutely chilling.
8. The guy playing Richard Nixon does sort of a cartoon Nixon. He and the person responsible for the makeup job are both trying too hard and the result is distractingly broad. Though I do have to admit it seems long overdue for Nixon to be in Doctor Who. There’s a certain rightness to Tricky Dick being involved in some strange historical secret the Doctor has to sort out.
7. The regulars all act up a storm, especially Matt Smith, who at different times lends the Doctor more gravity than he’s ever given him and a contrasting lightness that makes the earlier performance all the more poignant. It does always bother me when the Doctor comes off as vulnerable as he does here, but just like in the days of Davison following Baker, I guess it is still necessary in the wake of Tennant’s nigh-invincible Doctor to cut the Doctor back down a couple of notches. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever saw the Sonic Screwdriver this episode …
6. Karen Gillan also acts her socks off, as things get more serious than they’ve ever gotten in the Eleventh Doctor’s TARDIS, and Amy is forced to deal with serious trauma while holding her cards close to the vest. Gillan had some great material to work with last year, but nothing like this. Though with all the things Amy is keeping from the Doctor and wanted to tell him, when she said to him, “There’s something important I have to tell you,” I didn’t expect her to say what she said, and I’m having a difficult time understanding why it was so important to tell him at that precise moment, what with those other pressing matters. Here’s a good question: does Rory know about what she told the Doctor? I doubt. If he did, I doubt they’d be on this adventure.
5. Another one of his old tricks that Moffat’s up to: making kids scary. Unlike the tired feeling of the twisty-timey tricks of the Comic Relief special, he pulls off this old trick with enough mystery and intrigue that it still works, especially when the reveal at the end of the episode raises more questions than it answers.
4. Amy swears on a precious memory in a callback to this time last year, while River alludes to events that haven’t happened to her yet that aired way back in 2008 in a way that brings a sort of sad smile and a bit of a laugh. A shame the Doctor wasn’t there, as he’s the only person who was there who would still appreciate the remark.
3. It was a little weird hearing Mark Sheppard here, because I’m only familiar with him from Leverage, where his character Sterling talks in a low, slightly raspy voice with a tinge of smug menace. He does do a lot of the same I’m-so-much-more-clever-than-you looks I recognize from his work on Leverage here, but the voice is different. Also, very bizarre seeing an actor I recognize from another TV show going through the whole “hang on, it’s bigger on the inside” routine. I guess this must be what it’s like to be a U.K. viewer.
2. I appreciated the explanation as to why at the end of the 2007 season the Doctor burned the Master’s body. I guess there’s more to it than just a strange callback to Return of the Jedi.
1. This felt long in a good way, and momentous in a way that is usually reserved for season finales due to the shocking first act-or-so and the way all the pieces subsequently are slowly leading back to it. The show is moving into darker waters, but not without retaining its sense of fun, discovery, and adventure. Speaking of discovery, with all the strange imagery that was in the trailer for next week, I’m surprised not one bit of it was explained this time out. Interesting, that.