The Impossible Astronaut, or ‘Silence in the White House’, starts off Season 6 of Doctor Who in the most ridiculously explosive way imaginable. In the run up to this series two things have been vigorously advertised; it’s American credentials (simultaneous broadcast with America, shot on location in America, set in a quintessentially American locale of the White House, featuring the American space programme) and that one character would die in the first episode.
Now, if you’ve ever seen any Sci-Fi at all, you’ll know how that works. One character will die means it’s a hoax or a dream or a clone, or there’s a handy hand lying around to siphon off regeneration energy into*. The character will come back, or a clone of them will, or their body will be possessed by a primal force, or there will be an alternate reality version of them appearing soon, who’s left handed or has a beard or something. What it never means is that that person is gone.
So for Moffat to kill off the Doctor, even a future Doctor, inside of the first ten minutes is a huge event. To then go on and unequivocally say that is the Doctor; no clone, no trick, no hoax or dream, no come backs, and to then burn the body so no one can clone him or revive him later. Well, that’s unbelievably ballsy.
And the thing is that it makes me wonder; can it be real? Having set it up so it isn’t a clone, or a fake, or a hoax, by setting it up so that he’s definitely, finally dead, By doing all that, if they back out of this later, if there’s a get out clause inserted, that won’t satisfy. This will suddenly be a joke, the kind of thing that gives Sci-Fi a bad name. I can accept a character dying in a dream, or where it is a hoax and past the cliff hanger it’s cleared up. But you can’t write yourself such a bind and then back out of it without making the whole thing worthless.
It’s a problem that Heroes, late, unlamented Heroes, often found itself in. Last season we had a number of character deaths (how many times did Rory die?) but always there was the expectation that they would be reversed.
The end of the episode is meant to suggest that Rory has been disintegrated. He won’t have been, and that’s fine. No one expects a cliff hanger to fall. No one expects Rory to be dead, because there are clearly ways out of that, and an explanation is given. But if you do drop your character off a cliff, if you show the impact, hear the crunch and have a doctor examine them and say they’re dead and then bring them back, well, that’s just taking the audience for idiots.
The reason I bring this up is because as an audience we know that this can’t be the end of the Doctor. With two regenerations left to go the Doctor can’t be killed. To qualify this let me say that it’s almost inconceivably unlikely that the BBC would let Moffat kill off their cash cow in such a way that meant that when Matt Smith does leave there is no room to find another Doctor. Bearing in mind that there are very few franchises so profitable for the BBC, which have such a capacity to keep going with different actors playing the lead, and which are so popular, there is no way that the Doctor is dead.
Because if this is a real death we know how that timeline finishes. We know that the last regeneration will be the last. Matt Smith won’t die and regenerate. When he chooses to leave, that will be the end. Or else he dies earlier in his timeline and regenerates, in which case another version of the Doctor should be killed mid-regeneration here.
Basically I’m left in the uneasy situation of thinking that this has been set up as undoable but will be undone. The fact that I can’t see how it can be undone, and can see a lot of benefits to it not being undone doesn’t exactly help.
After all, a final Doctor is far more poignant than one with a magical ‘get out of death free’ ability. A Doctor who has already dead, whose companions know what will happen bring up a lot of interesting new stories, not least the one being currently explored of what do they say to him now. He’s got 200 years left so it’s not like they can’t tell any more stories. Companions with a secret has been a theme for Moffat’s characters (Captain Jack, before he became a joke. River Song obviously.) and it’s nice to see them having to work out what the Doctor can know about what comes next.
But all of that comes back down to that this will be rewritten. And that kind of bothers me.
So, the rest of the episode. Well, it’s very much a Moffat two-parter, one that leaves you with far more questions than answers. This is actually one of the first weeks when i’d have liked to not have any teasers for next week, because I’d spent the majority of the episode thinking that the Silence may actually be good guys**, but it appears I’m dead wrong on that as next week’s teaser shows them to be in control of the earth ***.
At the very least there are two bad guys on the go here; the Spaceman and the Silence. Why does the little girl think that the Spaceman will eat her if she’s the spaceman – or is she in the Spaceman because it’s eaten her already and she’s communicating from the dead within the suit – Moffat does love that one!
As for the future Spaceman, there’s a lot of speculation that River’s crime was killing the Doctor. Could this be the moment? I think it’s unlikely to be honest, although the set up for it is there with the acquisition of the spacesuit. River is obviously aware of what her crime was, and yet is surprised by all of the events there, and even unloads her revolver on the Spaceman. Yet she also says that there is a far worse day for her coming – her crime? Or the day that the Doctor doesn’t remember her (what a lovely reference to ‘Silence in the Library’ that was)? And if it isn’t River, who is it?
Well, the Doctor obviously knows them, and the way he goes to his death is a little too calm. I’m suspecting some kind of Dumbledoring here; there’s a larger plan than we’re being shown at work, one which I’m not even going to guess at.
The humour quotient had been upped as well, and some of the one liners were fantastic. I especially loved the code names for Amy, Rory and River. The writing on Moffat’s episodes always has that extra pop that nails the line between the dark, dark tone and the essential funniness of the Doctor.
This was helped by the inclusion of Mark Sheppard, geek royalty (you may know him as Battlestar Galactica’s ‘Romo Lampkin’, Firefly’s ‘Badger’, Chuck’s ‘Ring Director’ or other roles in Bionic Woman, the X-Files, Supernatural, 24, Star Trek; Voyager or Warehouse 13. He’s basically Geek Royalty along the lines of Nathan Fillion, Will Wheaton or Michael Ironside. He also apparently appeared in Mastodon also starring Summer Glau). His line about not being allowed to get married is going to come back up again I suspect. My guess; he fell in love with another FBI agent and is banned from marrying in house. Possible woman on the inside for next week when the Feds are hunting them down?
What’s really good about this episode is how naturally the American setting is woven in. We’re so used to getting planets and locales which are just arrived at on a whim, but this is one episode which couldn’t be set anywhere else. Little details like Nixon recording the phone calls just seemed so natural. Everything grows organically from the space program with alien’s idea.
I enjoyed this episode, but I must say that I really am hoping for some real answers next week. Especially about why the Silence would be around still in 2011 to watch them picnic, and just what they want the Doctor to know so badly.
All in all, an interesting and entertaining opening episode which has the capacity to go either way depending on how the death of the Doctor is handled and just who the bad guys are.
It’s also only fitting to finish by remembering Lis Sladen. The Sarah Jane Adventures were some of the best children’s television ever made. For a long time they were consistently better than Doctor Who. Her portrayal of a woman who refused to give up her dreams and continued the good fight even after the Doctor left was lovely and affecting. She brought a warmth and wit to the programme that elevated it beyond mere child friendly alien fighting drama. She will be sadly missed.
* Interestingly, Moffat seems to think that regeneration implies total bodily death, which means that the regeneration cheat done by Tennant into the hand was still actually a full regeneration – he had to have died to have done it, and just stuck with the same form into his new life. Even the explanation that he used the energy from regeneration to heal his wounds and then siphoned off the rest means he resurrected himself and then didn’t take the next step of a new body. Does this mean that we’re actually one regeneration ahead anyway, making this Doctor twelve, and his next life the last?
** What if? The Silence needed the energy from killing Joy, the woman in the toilet, to speak. It’s the only time we see their mouth or hear their voice and it appears that they’ve sucked the life out of her. Imagine a race of aliens whose defence mechanism is that we forget them when we see them. And they can’t communicate with us themselves unless they kill someone and get some energy out of it. Now imagine that those guys are actually protecting us from something and are utterly frustrated by the fact that no one remembers what they keep on warning us about. Asking Amy to tell the Doctor is a plea for help, and they can’t go directly to him for fear of being shot by the ever present secret service, or of being unable to communicate with him without killing, at which point they look evil. I’m beginning to suspect this isn’t the case though.
*** If they have been in control of the earth secretly for years they are hugely ineffective at thwarting the various alien takeovers that have been overtly taking place worldwide since the dawn of time. You would think they would handle those a bit better.