April 23, 2011
For U.S. fans that can trace watching Doctor Who back to cramped college dorm rooms and late night, black-and-white repeats courtesy of the local PBS affiliate (okay, I’ve given myself away), the new season premiere The Impossible Astronaut is something to marvel.
The Impossible Astronaut, the first episode of a two-part story, starts off the sixth series, that is if you’re counting the show’s revival from 2005, or series 32 for the purists going all the way back to 1963.
There are epic scenes in Utah’s Monument Valley thanks to the show filming in America for the first time in its 47 years. The 11th Doctor, bubbly Matt Smith returning to the titular role for a second season, claims a whole team of fellow adventurers instead of just a single companion. There’s a creepy alien monster, the Silence, with sunken eyes, no mouth on its bulbous head and huge, claw-like hands. Best of all, courtesy of scriptwriter and show runner Steven Moffat, The Impossible Astronaut is brilliant TV sci-fi with plenty of mystery, dead-on period details of America circa ’69, and clever dialogue from all members of its likable cast.
Still, for the show’s relatively new fans, say, my 12-year-old son, all the time loop cleverness and delicately placed secrets that will impact the entire season fail to matter if the show comes up short in action.
It’s 1969 and the Doctor’s companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill) and River Song (Alex Kingston), a mysterious time traveler who’s met the doctor before, follow the instructions of mysterious letters they all received and meet up in the Utah desert with the Doctor.
What appears to be a pleasant reunion over a picnic lunch changes dramatically when an Apollo astronaut rises out of a nearby lake and kills the doctor.
But Moffat continues to make the logistics of time travel as dizzy as possible when the Doctor makes a surprising reappearance at a nearby diner and leads his fellow travelers to solve the mystery of the deadly astronaut via a trip in the Tardis to the White House, a meeting with Pres. Nixon (Stuart Milligan) and a climactic confrontation with the Silence in eerie tunnels beneath Cape Canaveral.
Director Toby Haynes and his crew make great use of the Americana details from the Doctor’s Stetson hat, to a station wagon and soda fountain selling Coke in a bottle.
Karen Gillan replaces Any’s trademark sass with an increasing sense of mystery that brings a welcome edge to the story.
Arthur Darvill continues to make Rory stronger, braver and more relevant.
Alex Kingston (ER) enjoys an entrance every bit as showy as Matt Smith’s.
Veteran character actor Mark Sheppard boosts the drama as former F.B.I. Agent Canton Everett Delaware III who’s ordered by Nixon to follow the Doctor and find out what’s behind these mysterious aliens that you can see but suddenly don’t remember as soon you look away.
Matt Smith keeps all the balls in the air thanks to his loopy charm as the Doctor. It’s to Smith’s credit, especially during the scenes in the White House, that the show offers as many chuckles as mysteries.
By the show’s conclusion, questions remain about the face of the little girl trapped inside the astronaut, the revelation of another Tardis in the tunnels beneath Cape Canaveral and Amy’s declaration that she’s pregnant.
The Impossible Astronaut is a complicated and extended set up for the alien battle to come in the second installment Day of the Moon.
Let’s hope that next week’s Day of the Moon will deliver the action fans want, especially the show’s younger viewers.