TV Review: DOCTOR WHO, 6.1 – "The Impossible Astronaut" (Part 1 of 2)

Steven Moffat's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. The episodes he wrote during Russell T. Davies' era of Doctor Who's revival buzzed with a complex playfulness that was mostly absent at that time in its history. As the incumbent showrunner he can indulge himself with similar takes on almost a weekly basis, and there were times during "The Impossible Astronaut" when you missed the show's simplicity and, to be honest, the narrative somersaults were too dominant. This is a show that, while still fundamentally simple and beautifully accessible (eccentric alien travels through Time and Space saving the universe with human companions), now revels in in-jokes, Cat's Cradle plotting, and geeky references. The good news is that most people watching can keep up, or want to try, but this was still a dizzying, hectic storyline -- and one that likely confused Americans the BBC so clearly want to convert into Whovians... An unspecified time after series 5's finale, newly-married companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), together with time-travelling enigma River Song (Alex Kingston) are summoned to the epic vistas of Monument Valley in Utah by cryptic TARDIS-blue letters supposedly sent by their mutual friend The Doctor (Matt Smith.) From there, things get complicated, as they're apt to with a script from Steven Moffat: involving the apparently irreversible death of one of their party by a creepy "astronaut" emerging from a lake, which necessitates a trip to the White House of 1969 to help President Nixon (Stuart Milligan) solve the riddle of a crank caller. Oh, and there are bizarre aliens at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue known as "The Silents", resembling alien Grey's that have had their mouths dunked in toxic waste before being sent to Saville Row for a tailored suit. "The Impossible Astronaut" barreled along at a frantic pace that was giddily enjoyable for the most part, if occasionally too spirited for its own good. A standout scene was a simple moment where River told Rory about the gift/curse of having a relationship with The Doctor that's not chronologically sequential, while she broke into an underground vault. The reason being it was the first time in almost the episode where the story came up for air, and let the characters interact in a way that wasn't 90% banter. There's a passion and urgency to Doctor Who that's commendable, but the alternative doesn't have to be abject boredom, so it's frustrating Moffat's episodes often feel so fast-paced out of fear people will change the channel. Attention spans may have halved since Who's "golden age" in the 1970s, but "The Impossible Astronaut" was occasionally paced for goldfish. Ironic, given how one facet of new villains "The Silents" is how they erase your memory of their existence if you look away from them. Moffat appears to have the same fear regarding his audience, no matter how loyal they've already proved themselves. That's not to say this wasn't a very good premiere, of a show that's improved every year since its 2005 revival. Now under Moffat's stewardship, Who is more nuanced than ever before, and the production values belie what's a shoestring budget by US standards. This two-parter's much-publicized trip to Monument Valley delivered a rare sense of scope, scale and ambition Who's incapable of achieving with Cardiff-based greenscreen, and director Toby Haynes delivered some gorgeous visuals of its burnt-brown cliffs and never-ending desert, evoking a Dali-esque otherworldly weirdness. Unfortunately, much of the interior scenes at the White House suffered in comparison, not helped by yet another laughable Nixon impersonation to add to the pop-culture archives. It's at times like this, similar to the Dalek two-parter set in '40s New York, where you begin to realize why Doctor Who doesn't tend to work in an American context. The British eccentricity can look infantile in a US milieu, especially as audiences associate American sci-fi with something typically more straight-laced. When the two cultures, with their two distinct styles, collide in episodes such as this... well, it's just more noticeable how much better Who works when it's taking place in quaint English villages, modern London, and fantastical futures. Nothing here was as awkward as the 1996 Fox TV Movie starring Paul McGann, but that's mainly because the story wisely kept American characters on the periphery, beyond presidential aide Canton Delaware III (veteran genre actor Mark Sheppard), his older self amusingly played by real-life father William Morgan Sheppard. The regular actors were all as strong as we've come to expect now. Matt Smith has perfected his "bow-legged cockatoo dressed as the nutty professor" act that's turned his Doctor into a mesmerizing, tweedy force of screwy passion. Arthur Darvill didn't get too much to do as Rory in this episode, but it's just nice to see his character isn't going to become a house-husband as his wife has life-and-death adventures without him. Alex Kingston is still a pleasure to watch as the secretive River Song, although it could be argued the idea behind her character is now more appealing than River as a personality. It's been confirmed the three-year mystery about River's connection to The Doctor will be explained this series, which I'm very pleased about. I just hope the reveal doesn't destroy, or weaken, the worth of River's character itself. Personally, I still suspect River is Amy and Rory's as-yet-unborn daughter, and the possible lineage of water-based names (pond begets a river?) has always nudged me in that direction. For me, actual improvement came solely from Karen Gillan. I really enjoyed Amy last season when she was introduced as the feisty, intelligent young woman who had waited years to reacquaint with The Doctor after a childhood encounter, but then she became a fairly one-note kook. As you can tell from interviews, Gillan's a peculiar person in reality, and there's certainly nothing wrong with unusual people (this show celebrates them!), but I'm so pleased Gillan appears to have toned down Amy's saucer-eyed stares and lilting vocals. She appears to be giving us a more assured take on Amy Pond, finally, and it was a pleasure to notice that Gillan's performance has been steered in this better direction. Amy's encounter with a "Silent" in a White House restroom was a tremendously creepy moment, primarily effective because of the villain's freakish abilities and appearance, but also because Gillan sold the outlandish face-off without resorting to pulling faces or getting in a flap. Instead, she treated it with the seriousness it deserved, improving the scene in the process. Overall, "The Impossible Astronaut" delivered all the speed, surprises, shocks, scares and spectacle demanded of a series premiere to get the ball rolling. The aspiration and pure love Doctor Who's makers have for their show isn't in doubt, and this was a confident and clever start to what promises to be an inventive year (if only to see how Moffat will possibly avoid a certain someone's fate...), but it was also something of a cluttered mess. Storytelling elegance only came in brief bursts, although there's every hope next week's resolution will retroactively change opinion of what was still an entertaining, funny, ambitious, if confusing hour.
WRITER: Steven Moffat DIRECTOR: Toby Haynes CAST: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Rory Williams, Alex Kingston, Mark Sheppard, William Morgan Sheppard & Stuart Milligan TRANSMISSION: 23 April 2011, BBC1/BBC America
I will continue to review Doctor Who weekly at my blog, Dan's Media Digest.
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