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Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon

May 8, 2011

First, some questions raised, but left unanswered, by Steven Moffat’s two-part opener to Doctor Who‘s 2011 run. Who shot the 1100-year-old Doctor? Where was that Doctor’s TARDIS? Why was the spacesuit impervious to gunfire at the start? How did a Silent survive to watch the Doctor’s death? Whose is the black TARDIS? Is it the same one as that found in last year’s ‘The Lodger’? Why did the Silence need a NASA suit to keep the little girl in? Who was she? Who was the lady with the eye-patch, and what is she up to with Amy? Is the little girl Amy’s daughter? Is/isn’t Amy actually pregnant? How did River and Rory escape the Silence at the end of Part One, and how did they and Amy get to the places where we see them captured in Part Two? After all that buildup, are the Silence really defeated? Who is the little girl really, and how can she do what she does at the cliffhanger to Part Two?

Then there’s the ongoing story arc which has run through Doctor Who for more than three years now and involves questions this two-parter alludes to without answering: who is River Song, and what is her relationship with the Doctor? Why exactly does the TARDIS explode on Amy’s wedding day? What, in general, is up with ‘perfect companion’ Amy?

Oh, we’ve long memories, Who fans, and unlike the old saw which says human beings generally ‘edit out’ painful or negative memories in favour of positive and satisfying ones (childhood summers that go on forever), we’re disposed to remember the worst. The 1980s hiatus and cancellation of Doctor Who cast a long shadow, and any apparent dip in viewing figures still has us worrying, on some fundamental level, about history repeating itself. (Viewing figures are mental, anyway: the first time I saw their proportional-representation system explained — a small number of people round the UK have a set-top box on their telly which reports what they’re watching at a given time, and from this BARB extrapolates what number of viewers across the country must have been watching — I felt sure this was a hoax on a par with farmers harvesting spaghetti from trees.) Worse yet, fans’ faintly OCD-ish obsession with statistics means that a good number of them do conflate viewing figures with perceived quality: thus they infer that ‘The Day of the Moon’s 5.4m viewers on first transmission is perceived by the public to be on a par, quality-wise, with the much derided ‘Silver Nemesis’ (1988), and then use this as a stick with which to beat the episode. Thus: “Is Doctor Who now too complicated for the average viewer to follow?” “Are the linked stories and ongoing plot arcs alienating casual viewers?” (That’s the other thing fans do: habitually posit themselves as being superior to ‘the casual, average viewer’.)

Well, this is an elaborate two-parter, and although ‘The Day of the Moon’ presents itself almost as a standalone episode — it begins in media res and only (sort of) recaps and solves the cliffhanger from ‘Impossible Astronaut’ some way into the episode — it’s sort of difficult to see as anything other than a semi-satisfying resolution to the story. What this leaves space for is something the nerds are arguing about. Does ‘TIA’/’DotM’ have an excess of story but not much plot, or too much plot at the expense of story? What it boils down to is the Doctor and co investigating a spate of phonecalls a little girl is making to President Nixon (a great performance by Stuart Milligan, even if he’s reduced to comic scenes in the second episode, culminating in a peculiar coda to his scenes with Mark Sheppard, playing quasi-companion Canton Delaware III). Either way, boiling this story down to a brief summary gives us something like: Doctor Who investigates a series of mysterious phonecalls President Nixon has been receiving from a little girl. They track the girl’s origins to an orphanage where uncover she’s involved in some way with an alien occupation. Doctor Who defeats the monsters and, er, that’s it. Even for a series which knocks on the fourth wall once in a while, the very studiedly blasé way in which the Doctor decides not to find out more about the girl at the end of ‘DotM’ is highly suspect. It’s not that plot-strands go nowhere, it’s more that the audience is encouraged to work a little harder than they might (I only twigged ages after transmission that the spacesuit, programmed to tap into the local communications network and establish a contact with the highest available authority, in this case Nixon, seems to be warning the president rather than threatening him — see the internet-only ‘prequel’ for confirmation — and therefore suggests that the girl and the spacesuit aren’t the tool of the Silence in quite the way they often appear.)

It only struck me later, too, that ‘The Day of the Moon’ contains one scene which could easily work as the get-out clause for a whole lot of what’s to come. Apparently chained up inside “the perfect prison” (in Area 51, nicely underplayed), the Doctor is actually free to move about and has access to the TARDIS. I suspect we’re going to see a fair bit of ‘bearded Doctor’ at some point in the future as he scurries about setting traps in motion. This would be a bit more worrying if part of the fun of Moffat-era Who weren’t the fun of seeing how the overarching plot fits together: turning Doctor Who into something resembling boxset television — designed to be watched and rewatched in multi-episode chunks, rather than as standalone stories with a faint arc (as per the Russell T Davies era) is a new departure for a show which has often co-opted zeitgeisty things in this way, either as plot elements or storytelling tools. We can be fairly clear, for instance, that the Doctor shares some secret information with Canton Delaware offscreen, hence Canton’s ‘older self’ being so sure that this really is the Doctor who’s died, and that his body needs to be set alight. It’s also highly likely that the Doctor is responsible at some remove for setting up that amazing initial meeting scene: if so, he’ll soon be overtaking Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor as the most manipulative incarnation of the character so far (even if his interference is largely being played for laughs).

As spectacle, meantime, these two episodes continue a run of Doctor Who stories that look just beautiful. Christmas special ‘A Christmas Carol’ was one of the most gorgeous stories ever, sumptuous and filmic, and here we have a super-saturated brilliant red desert, the cold bluelit investigation into the monsters’ lair, and the astoundingly atmospheric scenes set at Greystoke Orphanage (presided over by the unhinged, amnesiac Dr Renfrew, chatteringly brought to life by Kerry Shale — one of the series’ neat coups of using recognisable casting not to draw in viewers as a big guest-star name but to round out a distinctive character). Out of the corner of the eye lurk the Silence — besuited, super-tall, with grotesquely enlarged hands and vast, hollow-eyed, mouthless deathmasks for heads. More like something from Hellraiser than even the most gory of previous monsters, they’re superbly horrible-looking. In closeup, human eyes blink, deep in the cavernous eye-sockets; I slightly prefer them shot out-of-focus, loitering in the background of scenes, looking somewhat Magic Eye-ish: the early defocused pictures suggested monsters with vast googly eyes, deeply freakish. (After ‘The Day of the Moon’, the Monkey and I watched Inception and it struck me that — aside from the budgets required to net A-list stars and to film in a huge number of different locations — there’s very little between current Doctor Who and that sort of vast Hollywood blockbuster in terms of spectacle and vividness. We’ve come a long way from base-under-siege stories, very obviously reused sets (‘The Mutants’), or oddly unpopulated crowd scenes (‘The Unquiet Dead’). Thankfully Who hasn’t lost sight of the silliness and slapstickery that distinguishes it from po-faced science-fiction. Matt Smith’s Doctor has a first/last kiss with Alex Kingston’s increasingly doomed-looking River Song and spends most of the time not knowing what to do with his hands; even the nerds horrified by any hints of a romantic/sexual Doctor must have appreciated that visual gag.

All this means, after two episodes, is that we’ve had a lot of atmosphere, a lot of possible plot directions and misdirections, some sterling performances, and a welcome back to Doctor Who which eschews previous season-openers’ chatty, colourful style in favour of throwing us into a more consciously mythic/mythological series arc. This is television which rewards repeated viewing and yields instant, immersive pleasure — monsters lurk, portentous dialogue is swapped, landscapes stupefy — but becomes, on reflection, as a Doctor Who story taken on its own merits, oblique to the point of inscrutable.

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