Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review of Series 6, Episode 1: “The Impossible Astronaut”

“The Impossible Astronaut” makes for an epic and cinematic opening episode that looks like it was made on the budget for a Hollywood movie instead of a BBC TV show. The plot starts strong and grabs you by the lapels, making innovative use of the Doctor’s ability to travel through time without becoming overly complicated for the kiddies. Basically, it’s a fantastic way to kick off Series 6!

After several not-so-funny vignettes in which the Doctor tries to get Amy and Rory’s attention throughout time (although I must admit that it was fun seeing the Doctor dance with Laurel and Hardy), the plot finally gets moving when the happy couple receives a mysterious TARDIS-blue invitation directing them to coordinates in the good ole U.S. of A. I thought it was funny that Amy and Rory arrive at the location on a traditional yellow school bus given that those buses scream “American” to Brits in the same way that red double-decker buses say “English” to those of us in the U.S. It’s like they were trying to overload on Americanisms right off the bat by including the yellow school bus, Monument Valley, a vintage Cadillac, a Stetson, a six-shooter, and (soon enough) a 1950s-style diner complete with American flag and Elvis murals. Kitschy, but fun.

Having received a blue invitation while incarcerated in Stormcage, River Song (making an explosive entrance, as always) joins the little group – and also reveals that the statues on Easter Island were actually modeled after the Doctor. They do kind of look like Matt Smith! The friends’ reunion picnic is then interrupted by the mysterious arrival of a silent astronaut from out of the nearby lake. This was a very creepy sequence that was only made even more eerie by the fact that the Doctor seemed to know what was happening. A few moments later, the Doctor is dead, having been willingly shot several times by the astronaut, the last time in the middle of his regeneration cycle, stopping him from changing into a new body. So, in the first 10 minutes of the episode, the Doctor has been finally and irrevocably murdered. Hell of a way to hook the audience!

But, of course, things aren’t that simple when you’re dealing with time travel. Another Doctor (“our” Doctor from the previous season, which means the Doctor who was killed was actually from a couple of hundred years in the future) arrives with a blue invitation, and River convinces Amy and Rory that he has to be kept in the dark regarding his ultimate fate and the identity of who invited them all. The fact that the audience now knows more than the Doctor about what’s happening made for a nice inversion to River’s oft-frustrating “spoilers!” comment; we’re on her side now instead of the Doctor’s so we can see that there are, indeed, facts that she would need to keep secret from him. The scene in the Oval Office was outstanding because it managed to combine creepy and funny in just the right proportions without giving the audience emotional whiplash. Breaking the tension from the creepy little girl’s recorded phone call with the Doctor’s antics and the appearance of the TARDIS was a stroke of brilliance.

The new aliens introduced in this episode had a great design (not to mention a great conceit – that you forget about them as soon as you’re not looking at them). The aliens’ scary faces are somehow rendered even creepier in contrast with their rather standard “man in black” suits. I noticed that these aliens didn’t have mouths and seemed to communicate telepathically. Does that mean that they are the “Silents” that were teased throughout last season with the phrase “The Silents will fall”? Whoever they are, it was spooky when River and Rory entered their spaceship only to reveal to the audience the same interior as the makeshift TARDIS from last series’ episode “The Lodger.” Of course, River and Rory wouldn’t recognize that fact because they were not in that episode, which I’m sure is no coincidence on the writer’s part. In any case, I guess we can assume that these same aliens were behind that plot as well.

Aside from the intriguing plotline, this episode also had an abundance of clever and funny lines. “You were my second choice for president, Mr. Nixon.” “They’re Americans!” “The Legs, the Nose, and Mrs. Robinson.” “Brave heart, Canton.” “She’s just a friend!” Good stuff.

The performances were all around excellent as well. Of course Matt Smith was great, but Karen Gillen as Amy Pond wasn’t as abrasive as she was last season. I found her a little annoying last year, but I liked her in this episode. I’m glad to see Arthur Darvill’s Rory become a full-time companion, too. And River is as intriguing and likeable/untrustworthy as always. Even the supporting cast was good. I don’t know if they actually hired American actors for the bit parts (I kind of doubt it), but the accents weren’t terrible. Usually Brits trying to do American accents are pretty intolerable (see the David Tennant two-parter set in New York during the Depression for some examples). The only annoying over-Americanism that I can recall from this episode was Joy’s overuse of the word “honey” in the bathroom. Her voice made me glad the alien blew her up, actually.

I did have a few very minor criticisms. As I said, I wasn’t a fan of the opening series of vignettes, which I just thought were silly and not funny. And did they really need to do the old “Doctor Who?” joke not once but twice in the episode? I know that there are probably some newer members of the audience who haven’t heard it before, but they certainly had already heard it by the time it cropped up a second time in the episode! I also wasn’t thrilled with the decision to go all slow-mo on us during the cliffhanger. I’m not a fan of slow-mo in general, but I like it even less when there are lines of dialogue during it. Always reminds me of those horrible last scenes from The Return of the King. You know the ones. “Gaaandaalf?! Haaa haa!”

Aside from those minor nitpicks, though, I thought this was an excellent episode. I can’t wait for next Saturday to see how they wrap all of this up in “Day of the Moon.” Who is the murderous astronaut? The Doctor himself? (I kind of can’t picture anyone killing the Doctor but himself, for some reason.) Or is it River Song? After all, we know that she is imprisoned in Stormcage for killing “a great man.” Speaking of River, I wonder if we’ll finally get to learn her true identity next week. Is she a Timelord, as some have suggested? The Rani, maybe? Or the Master? Or the Doctor him/herself? Or is she just a human? She says she was “an impressionable young girl” when she first met the Doctor. Is she, maybe, the girl in the spacesuit at the end of the episode? I have no clue and I’m not even going to bother guessing because I’m sure Steven Moffat has some tricks up his sleeve yet!