Monday, 25 April 2011


Doctor Who - The Impossible Astronaut (Series Six, Episode One). Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) are right in the middle of the Utah desert, summoned by the Doctor (Matt Smith) and joined by archeologist Dr. River Song (Alex Kingston).

Something comes out of the water with a tragic consequence. An old man, the president of the United States, and some events in 1969 could be part of the explanation - if not of the solution - to what happened.

When Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat promised us "the scariest opener to any Doctor Who series yet" during the promotion of the upcoming sixth series (1), he surely didn't mean to include what would occur BEFORE the airing of the premiere. Not only BBC One programmed The Impossible Astronaut at 6pm versus a bunch of CGI dinosaurs and Stephen Fry on ITV1, but the return of the Doctor was preceded by the terribly awful game Don't scare the Hare and followed by the struggling So You Think You Can Dance.

« I'd like to meet you in a timeless, placeless place
Somewhere out of context and beyond all consequences. »
Suzanne Vega, Language

The episode is written by Moffat himself and directed by Toby Haynes. It opens with the Doctor trying to be "deliberately ridiculous" (as Amy points out to her husband) and, in some respects, succeeding. Then River Song escapes again from Stalag 13, going to "some planet called America" as explains a thinner version of Sergeant Schultz. Because The Impossible Astronaut is the first half of the two-part event series opener marking the first time Doctor Who is filmed stateside, thanks to BBC America (2).

Past the superb cinematic arrival of "Mr and Mrs Pond" in a yellow school bus, the pre-credits sequence goes on with a string of nods to the TCM Hollywood delivered with the joy of Prince Akeem of Zamunda arriving in Queens. "Stetsons are cool" and River does her Calamity Jane or something. The BBC logo appears under the title, our friends are having a picnic, something (someone?) wicked this way comes and the Kenny of the week dies. With Steven Moffat following the tradition launched by RTD of reducing one of the most important elements of the Doctor Who myth to a plot device.

« You were my second choice for this, Mr. Delaware.
That's okay. You were my second choice for president. Mr. Nixon. »

But you can't kill Kenny, can't you? "Time isn't a straight line, it's all bumpy wumpy." The time is 1969 and President Richard M. Nixon needs the help of FBI outsider Canton Everett Delaware III. Nixon is played, with the heavy assistance of prosthetics, by Stuart Milligan, and - in a nice casting choice - Canton III is played by both Mark Sheppard (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, etc...) and Sheppard's father, the legendary William Morgan Sheppard. Sheppard Jnr is simply brilliant (« If he doesn't I'll shoot him myself. ») but Milligan's expressions look frozen by his Tricky Dicky mask. Michael Sheen will arrive later in the series, he can't impersonate them all.

The Prez and the ex G-Man are interrupted by the Doctor, undeliberately and clouseauesquely ridiculous, and Amy is escorted to the rest room by Don Draper's older brother. There she meets the big baddie, Roger from American Dad in a Men In Black suit (« Is that a Star Trek mask? ») There's a actually whole family of not so jolly Rogers and Mrs Pond does a really bad bad thing. Or does she? Avoid the Next Time trailer if you can... Oops, too late!

« And we walked off to look for America » (Simon and Garfunkel, America)

The Impossible Astronaut is impaired by the two-parter format and has too much exposition. Steven Moffat writes classic lines («These are my top operatives: the legs, the nose and Mrs Robinson. ») and great scenes (the standoff with the White House security service) but tends to recycle his tricks of the trade when it comes to fear.

The editing of some TARDIS scenes with certain US sequences looks like they artificially fit with each other (see the introduction of younger Canton III and the slapstick Doctor in the Oval Office). Like if a too rich material was "squeezed" into 45 minutes. Also what a pity they didn't use the clever White House internet "prequel" for the pre-credits sequence (« There are no monsters in the Oval Office. ») And we'll see to what extent the "creative" split of this year's episodes in two blocks will affect the narrative.

The episode was dedicated to Elisabeth Sladen, who recently died. The beloved Elisabeth Sladen was of course Sarah Jane Smith, popular companion of two Doctors in the classic Doctor Who. She appeared in the David Tennant episode School reunion of the 2005 version, and two years later she got her own series with The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Sooner in the year, the Doctor Who family lost Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart). Both him and Elisabeth Sladen are missed.

P.S. CGI dinosaurs and Stephen Fry: 1.18m viewers (7.9%). Doctor Who: 6.52m (36.7%). Nuff said. See:




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