Doctor Who Recap (Season 6, Episode 1): The Impossible Astronaut
I’m a recent convert to Doctor Who. It’s barely been a year since I finally heeded the advice of my friends and began making my way through the new series, starting with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor. I burned my way through four seasons in a month and a half. It’s strange looking back on that time… The sad truth about most episodes of Doctor Who is that they’re kind of terrible, but at the center of that terrible is one of the greatest concepts to rise out of 20th Century Science Fiction, The Doctor. The renegade Time Lord, now (more or less) the last of his kind, who can’t bear to watch history unfold without helping people who need it.
When I finally caught up, the Fifth Season of Doctor Who, Stephen Moffat’s first as showrunner, and the first featuring the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith, was just starting. I expected more mindless fun surrounding a great character, but something special happened… Rather than getting a few incredible gems among the more prevalent mediocrity, there was a coherent vision at play, and a marvelous one at that. Moffat has said that his approach to the story is Doctor Who as a Fairy Tale. Rather than layer on contradictory rules for the Doctor, Moffat gives off a sense of magic with his stories. There’s a great line from the mysterious River Song in the Fifth Season finale that she hates legends with kindly old wizards, because they all turn out to be about The Doctor.
Matt Smith is my Doctor. I loved David Tennant, but the stories from the last year speak to me more closely than anything I saw before. The music, the stories, the tone, the characters… Everything seemed as though it was created just for me. I realize that’s a fairly ridiculous thing to say, but it’s rare for something to capture every aesthetic that I admire in genre fiction all at once. It’s truly an extraordinary feeling, and it seems like this season is going to appeal to me just as hard as its predecessor.
The episode starts out by showing and explaining snippets of the Doctor’s unseen adventures through time and space, something Moffat started with the Christmas special. I have a feeling that he’s creating this sense of infinite possibility for what the Doctor’s done, and it helps newer viewers like myself get bearing in the future… If The Doctor mentions that he knows a certain historical figure, or an alien species, it’s just as likely that he knows them from these uncharted adventures rather than from a previous episode. It helps unchain the series from it’s sometimes overwhelming continuity.
I’m also relieved to see River Song so quickly introduced as a main character. I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t see her more than a few times this season, but it’s clear she’s crucial to everything that Moffat is doing with the series. We know from her past appearances that she’s been imprisoned for killing “the best man she ever knew,” and yet she seems to be able to slip out of that prison whenever she feels like it. There’s a marvelous beat at her introduction in the episode when she gets the call from the Doctor. The prison goes into extreme panic, with soldiers running around, and one shouting into a phone: “You better get down here, sir. She’s doing it again. It’s Doctor Song. She’s… packing.”
The basic premise is that The Doctor has summoned a group of people to America, only when they get there they find that he’s 200 years older than the Doctor they’ve all known and loved. And then he dies. Dies for real, after an attack from something in a space suit. Only this is Doctor Who and everything is a thousand times more complicated than you think it is. One of the people The Doctor summoned turns out to be his younger self, and it’s time to head back to 1969, to Nixon’s White House.
This episode is our first encounter with The Silence, the big bad hinted at all throughout last year’s season. They are delightfully creepy, as though someone with a good eye for horror recreated the popular image of the “Gray Alien” and put him in a suit. What makes them so effective is that you only remember they exist as long as you’re looking right at one, the second you look away all of your memories of all your interactions with them vanishes forever. They’re the spookiest villains since the first appearance of the Weeping Angels back in the David Tennant era, and they already seem like they’ll be formidable opponents. Particularly with the hint that they were behind the fake Tardis we saw constructed in last year’s episode “The Lodger,” it’s clear that they’ll be major players in this new series.
We also get one of the best pseudo-companions Doctor Who has seen for a while in Canton Everett Delaware III, a former FBI agent called in by President Richard Nixon. We actually meet his older, 2011 self first, one of the people called by the future Doctor to help put this story in motion. In 1969, he’s summoned by the President to help solve the mystery of a little girl who keeps calling him every night, no matter where he is. Something that shouldn’t be possible when there isn’t a direct phone line to President. Delaware is wary of the President, but respectful, but clearly doesn’t like authority figures. He’s kind of dashing and has a great, deep speaking voice that somehow makes him endearing.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle the wait between these episodes. If the rest of the season is only a fraction as good, this could be the best one yet. I was expecting the series to maintain the quality of the last, but not for it to climb. This was something special… And after these Moffat penned stories, we’re going to get acclaimed novelist, Neil Gaiman’s first run with The Doctor! Even though this season has been split in two, we’ve still got six more weeks until what will certainly be a maddening cliffhanger. But even though we’re getting less Doctor Who right away, I am totally down with the idea that we’ll get a dose in the spring, a dose in the fall, and a special over the holidays. With Moffat’s rendition of Sherlock Holmes set in the Summer, a fan like myself can enjoy some quality Moffat all year round.
I’ve landed the key points, but the story of the episode itself is too good to miss. If you’re a Who virgin, I’m not sure this is the best starting point, but last year’s Season Five is probably the best jumping on point in the show’s history. Watch the 13 episodes, and the Christmas Special, and strap in for a show that keeps getting better. If Moffat ever tries to leave Doctor Who, I think we’re going to have to start an armed uprising to keep that from happening. He’s managed to take a fundamentally great idea and turn that into fundamentally great story after fundamentally great story.
And he’s turned me from a fan into a fanatic. See you crazy kids next Saturday. At that point I’ll have probably watched this one about a dozen times.
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