Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon

Watching the previous season, I was reminded of Tom Baker's first season, which began with a mediocre story but a spectacular Baker performance (Robot), then followed it up with a dark, atmospheric thriller (The Ark In Space) that was the finest Who story in years, a forgettable but short and entertaining runaround (The Sontaran Experiment), one of the greatest serials in the history of the show (Genesis of the Daleks), and finished off with a dull story redeemed to a remarkable extent by the spectacular performances and chemistry of Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, and Ian Marter (Revenge of the Cybermen).  It was a hugely uneven season, but its overall atmosphere and approach to the stories (including Revenge), Baker's eccentric brilliance, and Sladen's charms made for a very promising start to both Baker's Doctor and the basic ideas of the production team (Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes).  And Season 12 delivered one of the finest seasons in the history of the show.

Series 5 / Season 31 was a lot like that.  There were some weak stories (Daleks and Silurians), a couple pretty successful experimental stories (Vincent, Lodger), a slew of entertaining ones, and three terrific yarns (Angels, Amy's Choice, Big Bang).  But on the whole, the season seemed very promising, with great ideas from Moffat, two of the best companions in Amy and Rory, and an gallery of astounding performances by Matt Smith as the Doctor.  And if The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon are any indication, we may be in for one of the finest periods in the history of the show.

Moffat superbly weaves many different mysteries and keeps them all going.  The story starts with a bang by apparently starting the Doctor at the violent, tragic end of the story and the companions watching without having any idea what's going on.  So when they meet the younger Doctor who doesn't know what's happening, further suspense is created because the companions and we both know something the Doctor doesn't, and further, he can't be told.  Moffat then adds more threads and ideas, drawing us in ever more and ratcheting up the suspense to near-unbearable levels by the finale of the first episode.

And, because he's Moffat, he conjures up even more hellish demons to frighten us.  The Silence look scary, talk scary, and do scary, and then erase everyone's memory of having seen their terrors.  Awesome.

Director Toby Haynes has a brilliant eye for visuals and how to use the superb effects and sets to the greatest possible effect.  Watching this, you'd think he had a virtually unlimited budget.  Matt Smith is fantastic as always.  He's at his best at his quietest, and he has one particularly marvelous scene where he interrogates Amy, Rory, and River.  The intensity burns like the sun when he turns it on.

Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are still perfect as Amy and Rory, effortlessly funny and dramatic, though unusually more towards the latter than the former, given the story's various twists.

Alex Kingston gets to be seductively enigmatic yet again, but the opening shoots down most of River's smugness, allowing Kingston to really dig into the character.  Her dialogue referencing Silence in the Library is highly affecting.

As usual, Moffat's dialogue is very witty, and the actors knock it out of the ballpark.  My favorite is the guard's bit in River's prison cell at the beginning, but the script is filled with great lines.  On occasion, he goes just a little too far, as in the opening scene, trying to push the envelope for cheeky humor in a family show, and just comes across as being too showy and trying too hard.  But overall, this was an excellent episode with a terrific cliffhanger.

The follow-up, Day of the Moon, is something else entirely.

You remember Ghost Light?  If you haven't seen it, it's a terrific episode from the late '80s with Seven and Ace.  But it's a strange, confusing one, because it's an incredibly complex story with an incredible amount of insane stuff going on... and it doesn't explain any of it.  It was originally four episodes long, then cut to three episodes, making it incredibly fast-paced... and with absolutely no exposition.  You have to figure out everything yourself based on suggestion and implications.

Man, Karen Gillan is gorgeous when she's passionately infuriated.

The resolution of the cliffhanger is like that.  Moffat doesn't tell us how it was resolved.  He just pretty much skips an entire episode worth of story and dumps us in the middle of an even more dire situation three months later.  It takes some time to figure out what happened, and even then, there are holes you have to fill in yourself. (and at least one that's never fully filled in - namely, what, exactly, happened to Rory at the end of Impossible Astronaut, which will probably come up later)

It's a strange, sideways way of opening the story, but it gets it off to a rousing start and gives our intelligence credit.  Letting us fill in the gaps just makes it more engaging.

Also, like Ghost Light, it probably could have been expanded to twice the length, but Moffat just packs about a million ideas into a tiny space of time and satisfyingly develops them all while still leaving room open for them to be continued.

Moffat creates a fantastic, epic yarn by, in true Doctor Who style, showing us just a portion of the epic stuff and letting us imagine the rest.  By this point, he has a true mastery of the art of serial television, knowing how to create a riveting self-contained story that also contributes to the whole of several massive stories.

His continuation of River's storyline mostly just adds to the fun.  Kingston and Smith have a terrific chemistry and knock their dialogue out of the park; now that the Doctor is a little more comfortable with her overall, they make an awesome team.  Their dialogue during the climax is especially great.  But then Moffat turns on us in a bittersweet final scene between them - sweet for the Doctor (and a brilliant bit of acting on Smith's part), tragically bitter for River.  When he introduced the River idea in Silence In the Library, I had somewhat mixed feelings about the concept, despite the excellent execution, but now I'm completely won over.  Not only is it a wonderful idea, but Moffat is playing it out ingeniously.

Also, this scene.  Just... just this scene.
Moffat also wisely allows the marriage between Amy and Rory to just be a continuation of a charming love story rather than a stagnating point in the relationship like so many storytellers.  Again, they're more fun each time they show up.

And, as always, his monstrous creations are terrific.  The Silence are even cooler once their actual story is revealed, a difficult trick.  The marks on the heroes' skin is a brilliant touch.  And when it comes down to the climax, Moffat doesn't let us down.  The Doctor's solution is brilliant, funny, and powerful all at once.  And he is all of those things.  The climax is exactly what we want in a Doctor Who climax: the Doctor heroically defeating the villains primarily by delightedly telling the villains why they suck, and also that they lose.  That sense of fun in courting danger and the fun of telling evil how pathetic it is... that's the heart of Doctor Who right there.

Oh yes, and another edge-of-the-seat cliffhanger.

The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon have the production values and visual impact of a theatrical film, but take full advantage of the nature of serial television in a way few TV shows have ever fully taken advantage of it.  It's a masterpiece of storytelling, and one that could only work in television.  Which, as a film buff, is hard for me to say.  I believe in the magic of cinema; Doctor Who makes me believe in the magic of television, a similar but different and ultimately unique kind of storytelling magic.  And this story is that magic at its most stunningly powerful.

And it's fun.

River: Apollo 11?  That's your secret weapon?
Doctor: No!  It's not Apollo 11.  That would be silly.  It's Neil Armstrong's foot.


* * * *


  • I started watching Doctor Who almost exactly a year ago, and have watched every episode since 1970 and all but 11 serials from the '60s.  Actually watching an episode the day it comes out is just an amazing experience, but I have one major problem that I haven't felt across something like 700 episodes.


    Seriously, how do you long-term fans deal with a cliffhanger like that?
  • I love the Nixon subplot.  It doesn't just bring up Nixon and go, hey, there's Nixon!  Nor does it paint him poorly.  This is a three-dimension, likable Nixon.  But far and away the best thing about his whole appearance is the extremely subtle but unmistakable implication that his crazed paranoia is the Doctor's fault.  That's hilarious.
  • Historically, this show is really, really, really bad at doing Americans.  There are exceptions, of course, but their attempts at Americans usually resemble Keanu Reeves' attempt at a British person in Dracula, both in accent and in writing.  Here, Moffat took the unprecedented step to give the American characters decent dialogue.  Oh, yes, he takes his swipes at us, (love the dialogue about guns) but with affection.  And Mark Sheppard's Canton Delaware is a nicely written and acted sidekick to our heroes. (I also like the casting of his father, W. Morgan Sheppard, as Delaware's older self.  Nice touch)
  • Okay, I can't decide whether Rory should keep the goggles or the '60s glasses and suit.  They're both just too great.

  • I got a real X-Files vibe from this story - actually, it was almost like watching a Doctor Who / X-Files crossover that Mulder and Scully didn't appear in.

    ... which is too bad, because if that had happened, this would have been the greatest artistic achievement in all of human history, single-handedly creating world peace, curing cancer, and ending world hunger.


  1. I'd give it another star (but then, if you see my review, you'll probably already know that).

    As far as American-bashing goes, this episode actually toned it down from the usual. And that's really saying something. Nixon was far more ridiculous in the teaser trailer. I kept expecting him to break into a coughing fit from all the fake-gravelly-voice.

    Man, I REALLY need to get me some classic Who so I can see the parallels that you do. Do you know any good sources for it here across the pond? iTunes and Netflix are not very cooperative...

  2. I'm using a four-star scale, so I actually liked it about the same as you. And if the second episode really pays off, I may just upgrade that.

    Speaking of which, I should probably point that out somewhere on this site -- and, done! Right next to list of reviews.

    I was very happy with the amount of American-bashing here. I'm glad Moffat found us worthy of his wit, but not his disdain.

    Unless the rentals are different across the sort-of border, Netflix has all those episodes for rent, and Ark In Space on instant play. I really wish they had more classic stories on instant. (of the ones they do have, I should probably note that Pirate Planet and City of Death were written by Douglas Adams, and are every bit as awesome as that implies)

    Personally, I saw a lot of episodes on youtube, which I redeemed to my mind by spending something like $500 that I really didn't have on Doctor Who DVDs, and will likely spend that much again twice over.

    You might as well just go ahead and buy Genesis. It's one of the rules of being a Whovian.

  3. Oh you are? Wow, I never realized. I did always wonder why you never "completely" liked an episode, though.

    Yeah, it's a good thing I have a summer job. I figure I can split my earnings 50/50; I mean, how much food and shelter does one person really need in life, you know?

  4. And as you can now see, I did upgrade this to four stars. Holy crap that was amazing.


    Okay, you know what? Seems like I may have to remove the condition on my review, because there is a shit-ton of stuff that will definitely be explained later. Or I'll eat my Stetson.

  6. No! Whatever you do, don't hurt the Stetson!

  7. FWIW, Ghost Light was always intended to be three episodes -- it was the six-part production block with Survival where three parts were all studio and three were all location (see Silver Nemesis / Paradise Towers and Delta / Dragonfire). Any density in the script is entirely intentional.

    Nice blog! Write more!

  8. (also IMHO, Ghost Light is a "story" with three "episodes", not an "episode" itself).

  9. I'm sure it was always intended that way. It just sort of feels like an episode worth of exposition is missing.

    Not that I'm complaining. Ghost Light is my third-favorite Seventh Doctor serial after Remembrance and Fenric. I love the existence of a story that dense and complex.

    And I really should remember to refer to stories as "serials" or "stories" and not "episodes."

    Thanks for your comments!