The bewildered, punch-drunk look on the Doctor’s face as he stares at his flaring hands, prior to the abruptly-terminated regeneration, was similar to my own expression at the end of this episode. I don’t know what I was expecting – possibly because last year’s series opener did everything so right, I anticipated more of the same. The verve and spectacle of opening with clinging high above London from a crash-diving TARDIS, to closing by walking right through David Tennant’s face while slipping on a pair of braces and murmuring “Basically, run.” Moffat’s second album offers us something quite different, callously murdering then cremating our hero in the first 15 minutes. I can’t deny that it’s daring, challenging and new, but I’m just not sure it’s a path I, and perhaps some of the programme’s younger viewers, really want to be frog-marched along. Moffat knows that we’re along for the ride, having famously stated that he’s given up pretending that “no-one watches this show”. It seems our reward is going to be an ‘arc of infinity’, or 13 episodes, anyway.
I’m tempted to make an extremely lazy analogy and suggest that The Impossible Astronaut is The Empire Strikes Back to The Eleventh Hour’s Star Wars. In the place of more straightforward adventure, we now have greater character development and complex interplay between them. We also have a new character who serves as both Yoda and Lando at different stages of his life, and the unresolved fate of the most popular character. Of course, the thing about Doctor Who is that it needs a Doctor, so before we can say ‘Timey-wimey’ he reappears. Was it just me, or did anyone else think it looks as if he’s stepping out of the men’s room in that Diner? Perhaps Time Lords are reborn in a place where many aged humans, despite all intentions to the contrary, meet their final end? (And this kind of speculation is why I will never write an episode – of anything). The dialogue is vintage Moffat throughout – the effervescent banter coming so fast that a second viewing is necessary just to appreciate it all. The ‘Mrs Robinson’ quip in particular brought down our house. Last year my heart sank at news of the return of Alex Kingston’s smug ‘space cougar’ whereas this year I’m relieved that she’s along for the ride. As well as bringing ‘the best bum ever’ (my wife’s words, not mine) to the programme, River Song also brings a much-needed lightness of touch to the very dark proceedings.
Please excuse further laziness, but Matt Smith continues to be so good that I don’t think I can add any praise which would be constructive. Likewise, I’ve never had a problem with twitchy, forthright Amy Pond, and Karen Gillan just keeps delivering in spades. However, I still can’t quite learn to stop worrying and learn to love the Rory. He’s the Roy Castle of this story, ever on hand with some soothing comedy relief, but as a female friend exclaimed “Oh, why can’t he die and leave Amy with the Doctor?” Brutal to be sure, but I kind of take the point. Finally, the Silents/Silence. Like Moffat’s other terrifying creation, these disturbing apparitions come with their own set of laws, suggesting that any possible defence against them is going to have to operate within these same rules, like all the best ‘Who monsters’. Their obvious influence isn’t alluded to, but adds an extra dimension for those in the know. Long before Will Smith’s oafish antics, the Men in Black were a mysterious and unsettling phenomenon accompanying UFO encounters and associated with memory suppression.
I know my feelings towards this doubtless excellent episode are probably my own problem and certainly not the fault of anything to do with the production. It’s the occasional curse of the life-time fan to over-think what’s on offer rather than just sit back and simply enjoy – as several casual viewers I’ve spoken to certainly did. As with a device employed at the end of the following episode, my final reaction to this story seems to be a Schrödinger’s paradox – The Impossible Astronaut both exceeds my expectations but at the same time falls short of my hopes for the end of what felt like an immensely long wait for series six.