‘Doctor Who’ – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’: A death in Monument Valley

Senior Television Writer
04.23.11 117 Comments


The new season of “Doctor Who” has begun (both here and in the UK), and after posting a bunch of interviews with Matt Smith, Alex Kingston and Karen Gillan, I finally have a review of the premiere coming up just as soon as we’ve done Jim the Fish…

“That most certainly is the Doctor, and he is most certainly dead.” -Canton Everett Delaware III

Well, that was a hell of a thing.

On a purely technical level, “The Impossible Astronaut” was about the best I’ve ever seen a “Doctor Who” episode look. The original series dabbled in location filming a handful of times, but never on the kind of scale as what the new production team was able to do in Utah’s legendary Monument Valley. The old Tom Baker serial “City of Death,” for instance, put the Doctor and Romana on the streets of Paris, but only briefly, and the location stuff felt particularly jarring compared to the classic cardboard sets. The location stuff here all looked spectacular – I particularly liked the viking funeral at sunset – but because the show that Russell Davies resurrected and Steven Moffat now runs is so much more technically accomplished, the outdoor stuff flowed seamlessly with the scenes inside the Oval Office, or in the mysterious office near the Kennedy Space Center.

And Monument Valley, which was home to so many iconic movie moments involving everyone from John Wayne to Tom Hanks, is such a grand location that it seems the only place on Earth that’s suitable as the final resting place of the Doctor.

Not that I believe the Doctor is destined to be killed by someone in an astronaut suit 200 years into his future. Moffat’s not foolish enough to cement Matt Smith as the last actor who can ever play the Doctor. He wants this series and character to continue long after he’s handed the keys over to someone else, possibly even long after he’s on this Earth.(*) And one of the things his first season established, and that the recent Christmas movie confirmed, is that he’s rewritten the show’s time travel rules to make paradoxes possible. The Doctor may look very dead right now, but I have a strong feeling that by the end of Moffat and Smith’s run – really, before the end of this particular season – Amy, River, Rory and this younger Doctor are going to somehow undo that event without destroying all of time and space in the process.

(*) In case you’re a fan of the series and somehow missed it, Elisabeth Sladen died of cancer earlier in the week, and Moffat’s comments in the BBC’s obituary are, unsurprisingly, a beautiful celebration of her life, work and legacy.

But until we get to that point, his mid-regeneration death provided some great material for Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and, especially, Alex Kingston to play, as each of the companions had to deal with their knowledge of the Doctor’s death even as they had to work alongside the man himself at a younger, more oblivious age.

Over the course of his episodes in the Davies era and his first season at the helm, Moffat has established certain pet themes he likes to visit over and over with this character. So we again get a bunch of monsters who are most powerful when you’re not looking directly at them, and through River we again get a long discussion of the effect the Doctor can have if you first meet him as an impressionable youngster, as Amy and Madame de Pompadour did before. For Amy, having the Doctor flit in and out of her life has almost always been a good thing (at least during those periods when he’s around), but for River – who clearly has stronger feelings for the guy than Amy, even if we still don’t know exactly what their relationship is(**) – it’s been much more difficult. Her conversation with Rory not only suggests a direction the show could take the Doctor/Amy friendship – particularly given what she tells the Doctor about being pregnant – but provides much more depth to River, and helps explain why she’s so glib and cocky in her other appearances: it’s armor she’s erected to prevent herself from being hurt some more after all she’s been through with the Doctor, and possibly because she’s already witnessed his death, the same way that he’s seen hers.

(**) Was this the first time River specifically said that all their meetings were backwards? Her previous appearances seemed to suggest it was simply an out-of-sequence thing, where sometimes they’d be on close to equal footing in their knowledge of each other and sometimes very far apart. This is different than that, and would mean that, for her, both of last season’s appearances took place after the events of this two-parter. When she and Amy “met” in “The Time of Angels,” did she act like it was their first encounter? Dammit, Steven Moffat; somehow, you always make my head hurt, and I usually love unraveling time travel questions.

The American setting also required some American characters, so here we got Richard Nixon filling the kind of role that Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria have in previous jaunts back into the past, and we got Mark Sheppard – a British-born actor who’s spent most of his career living in America and playing Americans – as ex-FBI man Canton Everett Delaware III (in a younger incarnation from the man who brings the gas can with which Rory burns the Doctor’s body in 2011). Sheppard apparently has some kind of deal where every sci-fi series is eventually required to hire him at some point or other, and I liked seeing how quickly Canton came to accept all the crazy things the Doctor was up to, with less explanation than TARDIS visitors usually get.

And even in the midst of all the time puzzle questions, the tears and the creepy monsters, there was still plenty of room for Moffat’s brand of madcap comedy, from the opening montage of the Doctor deliberately making a nuisance of himself throughout history so Amy and Rory would keep track of him during his long time away to the Doctor introducing his three operatives as “The Legs” (Amy), “The Nose” (Rory) and “Mrs. Robinson” (River). And, of course, we got a continuation of the running gag about Eleven’s fashion sense, though in this case, I think he was right: Stetsons really are cool.

So lots of laughs, and tears, and mysteries, and then one particularly bananas cliffhanger. This sure wasn’t dull.

What did everybody else think?

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