Doctor Who: Series 6
“The Impossible Astronaut”
Aired: April 23, 2011
Writer: Steven Moffat
“Let’s see if anyone tries to kill us and work backwards.”
– The Doctor
If you were ever wondering how to successfully create a season premiere, I really hope you were taking notes while watching this week’s Doctor Who.
The execution was nearly flawless. In addition to having a fun “getting the band back together” vibe in the beginning, the episode set up several intriguing plotlines that will unfold as the season rolls on and introduced a new creepy villain for The Doctor to battle. And somehow it did it all in a very natural way that never felt forced or tedious.
It probably helped that the show was set in America, which gave the proceedings an entirely new feel and a different look. The best part was you could tell they were enjoying being there. The show had fun presenting a nostalgic version of America even before The Doctor, The Legs, The Nose and Mrs. Robinson all traveled back to 1969. In the United States circa 2011, you got a vintage diner, a picnic by a lake and The Doctor in a Stetson hat sprawled out on top of a station wagon. And all the visuals were really quite beautiful – particularly the stuff shot on location in the desert in Utah.
And back in 1969, you got a surly former G-man, the moon landing and President Richard Millhouse Nixon. Seeing the TARDIS parked inside the Oval Office was worth the price of admission alone. But, without a doubt, my favorite “American” moment was River reminding an overly-cocky Doctor that the Secret Service members, unlike the British government, will actually shoot him.
Of course, as fun and as funny as the episode was, there was a dark cloud hanging over the entire proceedings – the opening scene in which a Doctor 200 years older than the one we’ve been following is killed by someone in an Apollo astronaut suit. It was a very jarring moment to watch unfold and one that Karen Gillan (as Amy Pond) performed beautifully. The Viking funeral was a nice touch – though I’d feel remiss if I didn’t point out that for a true Viking funeral they needed to throw a live virgin into that boat.
Both the dialogue in the episode and comments by Steven Moffat made it clear that that really is The Doctor and he really was killed, which creates a fascinating corner for Moffat and the rest of the writing team to get themselves out of (since, let’s be honest, there’s no way that’s actually the end of The Doctor). Amy certainly seemed determined to rewrite history at the end of the episode when she broke one of The Doctor’s guiding principles by picking up a gun and firing it at the little girl astronaut, um, thing, but I doubt saving his life will be that simple.
While I’m incredibly excited to see how all of that plays out, I’m equally as excited to see more of our new nameless alien foes. Like Moffat’s Weeping Angels, there is something truly creepy about a creature that is most powerful when you look away from it. The 60s setting and the black suits the aliens had on gave them a cool Men in Black feel – only these creatures are their own “flashy thingy.” Plus, most importantly, they just look cool.
The episode gave us all a lot to digest and set up a lot of promising storylines for down the road. And it was really fun to watch and full of some really great one-liners. (I love the dynamic of this whole team as well – Rory the whipping boy, in particular, never gets old for me.) Like I said, it was an incredibly effective season premiere and I can’t wait to see next week.
And another thing …
- This week’s episode was dedicated to former Doctor Who companion Elisabeth Sladen. If you missed it, there’s a really nice tribute to her here.
- In case you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned it until now – the Amy Pond pregnancy storyline does absolutely nothing for me. I hope it turns out not to be true.
- If what River said is true and the blue envelope marked “1” means The Doctor trusts himself the most, does that mean the other envelopes denote the rest of the team’s place in the pecking order? If so, that means River ranks second, Rory and Amy rank third and Canton Everett Delaware III is (most likely a distant) fourth.
(While this order may be true for the 1103-year-old Doctor, clearly the 909-year-old version has more faith in Amy than River, as we found out in the TARDIS when Amy was the only one who could convince him to trust them.)
- Speaking of Canton Everett Delaware III, here’s a fun bit of trivia for you: the two actors portraying the older and younger Canton are father and son in real life.
- On Doctor Who Confidential, they said they built a replica of the Oval Office just for this episode. This seems crazy to me. With all the shows and movies that use that setting, you would think someone would have just built a detailed replica to rent out to production crews. In fact, I think I just found my next business venture. Let me just start googling blueprints for the Oval Office right now – I’m sure that won’t land me on any government watch lists.
- Speaking of the White House, if I’m nitpicking, the one detail I thought they were way off the mark on was the casting of Richard Nixon. Stuart Milligan did a pretty good job with the voice and the mannerisms, but he just didn’t look much like Nixon. Couldn’t they have found someone who looked the part? Was the guy who played Charles Logan on 24 busy or something?
Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff
There’s definitely a lot of time travel goodness to mull over here, so I’ll do my best to make sense of it all.
Perhaps the best place to start is in pointing out that Canton is the only member of the team who actually experiences the events in this episode in chronological order. He lives through the events in the 60s as they happen and then has to wait until 2011 to get his letter. (And Amy has the nerve to complain The Doctor made her wait two months for hers.) Interestingly, he also seems to know more than the rest of the crew – he knows to bring the gas can and he’s the one who declares that The Doctor really is dead – but we’ll have to wait to find out if that’s because of what happens in the 60s or if The Doctor gave him additional info with his letter.
We also learned a bit more about the mysterious Dr. River Song (including the fact that she is apparently a “screamer”). For the first time, we get a Benjamin Button-esque explanation from River that sheds a bit more light on her interactions with The Doctor. Apparently they are on opposite ends of two intersecting timelines and her greatest fear is the day when he no longer recognizes her (which should be a moment we’ve already seen – her first encounter with the Tenth Doctor in “Silence in the Library”).
Now that we got all of that out of the way, let’s talk about the tricky stuff …
River tells Amy they can’t just kill the astronaut who is fated to kill The Doctor because it would create a paradox. This would be an example of Novikov’s Self-Consistency Principal – in essence, the older version of The Doctor sending everyone letters and getting gunned down on the beach creates a temporal loop that leads everyone back to 1969. If Amy were to kill the astronaut in the past, then the astronaut doesn’t gun down The Doctor in 2011, but that means Amy would no longer have a reason to travel back in 1969, so Amy wouldn’t go back and the astronaut would still be alive – thus, a paradox.
However, there’s another paradox at play here that isn’t addressed. If it really was the 1103-year-old Doctor who sent out the letters to everyone that got them all to assemble in the U.S. in 2011, then how did he know to send the letter to himself? It’s clear that the 909-year-old version only goes back in time because the rest of the team convinces him to – which they do on order from the older version of him. This shouldn’t be possible – The Doctor shouldn’t be able to set in motion a series of events that he only knows about because a future version of himself set them in motion. The initial push to go back in time has to come from somewhere – but where?
I’m not sure if Moffat will address the second paradox, but one possible explanation is something Chris Kirkman brought up in one of his excellent Lost recaps – temporal evolution. Temporal evolution is something akin to the movie Groundhog Day where the characters are all caught in a time loop until they get things right, but I won’t even attempt to explain it here. So if you want to read more about it, Chris talks in-depth about it here.
And, since all of this time travel stuff probably has your head hurting as much as mine is, I offer this new weekly feature as a palate cleanser …
Gratuitous Amy Pond photo of the week
There, that makes it all better.
Until next week …
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his recaps, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.