Hmm… This one’s tricky to review. So let’s talk about the art of the cliffhanger.
The ending of The Impossible Astronaut reminded me of something I hadn’t considered since the revived series began: there are fewer cliffhangers in this series. Back when Doctor Who was a series of 25-minute-long episodes, you could have as many as twenty cliffhangers in a season, where the narrative of the story suddenly broke off in an exciting moment that promised you exciting things if you tuned in NEXT WEEK!
And the original series boasted some great cliffhangers. I remember in particular Snakedance part one, where a hysterical Tegan crumbles and the Mara influence breaks through, conjuring an image of a snake’s skull in a crystal ball and prompting a fortune teller to scream. The confluence of acting, plot development, musical cues and the director’s hand just left one breathless. As the credits rolled, I felt my heart thumping against my chest. My nerves sang, and I sure as heck was going to turn in next week to see what happened.
But the revival’s switch to 45-minute-long episodes, and the decision to make most of them them self contained — probably a necessity to keep the series relevant in the faster-paced world of today — has reduced the number of cliffhangers the series has to offer. Typically you get only three or four. Many of these breaks have been exciting, such as the gasmask monsters advancing in The Empty Child. Some have been a lot more intellectual, such as wondering if the Doctor would choose to let either his companion or his love die at the end of Human Nature, or the ‘what the heck is the Doctor shooting at?’ at the end of Time of the Angels. Many, however, have been pretty over-the-top, relying on the old-monsters-ascendant trope as seen in Rise of the Cybermen, Army of Ghosts or The Stolen Child. Almost none matched the right balance of fantastic acting, exciting music, and a plot that turned just enough to make you wonder what would happen next without going overboard that reminded me of Snakedance part one. (A possible exception is the end of The Impossible Planet, but that’s somewhat marred by the fact that it’s resolved as a cheat).
The Impossible Astronaut, however, had the perfect cliffhanger. Steven Moffat laid out the chess pieces, upped the stakes, made us question our assumptions, and offered the promise of answers to the many questions we were starting to ask. Then it capped everything off with a scene that basically moved the first pawn forward in attack.
We were breathless. We were horrified (and thrilled) that Doctor Who could leave us hanging like this. We had no idea what was going on (but plenty of theories), and we wanted answers. We wanted answers now. We sure as heck were going to turn in next week.
But Mean Mr. Moffat (as he will forever be known in my books) wasn’t through with us. No. This wasn’t part one of a two-part story… it was part one of thirteen.
Major spoilers after the break…
Let’s start with what we know, shall we?
It is now some time after A Christmas Carol. The Doctor has left Rory and Amy home to live their married live and gone galavanting across time and space. And galavanting is clearly the word. We see the Doctor get into trouble with kings, queens, Nazis and Laurel and Hardy, but there appears to be some strange method in his madness. There are hints (such as the big wave at the camera) that these events are messages to Amy and Rory at home. But what do they mean? We don’t get an answer in this two-parter.
But suddenly the messages get a lot more direct. An envelope arrives in TARDIS blue, giving Amy and Rory a time and a place to meet. River Song gets a similar envelope in prison. The invitation brings them to the Valley of the Gods in Utah, where a much older Doctor greets them (though he looks no different than before, he admits he is 1103, and he suddenly has far more experiences he can share with River when they sync diaries — something I didn’t notice on first viewing). Apparently, he wants nothing more than to have a picnic with his friends, but he’s planning something. His last words before events pick up are practically tragic when watched a second time: “I thought I’d never be done saving you.”
Then an old man drives up carrying a gas can, and an astronaut rises out of the salt lake. Telling the others not to interfere, the Doctor sombrely walks over to the astronaut and has a conversation, whereupon the astronaut shoots the Doctor stone dead. No fingers crossed; no takebacks. He’s truly stone dead. Totally passed on. The Time Lord has ceased to be. Expired and gone to meet his maker. A stiff! Bereft of life!
Well, you get the idea.
I, of course, don’t believe this for a second, which is just a fact of life if you’re a fan of this series. I did wonder if we would see the Doctor regenerate or something, or if this was a clone, but Mean Mr. Moffat does have an interesting twist up his sleeve.
The old man introduces himself as Canton Everett Delaware III, and he’s met River, Amy and Rory before. He has one of the envelopes that brought the other three here, and River notices that the envelopes are numbered. Canton has #4, River has #3, and Amy and Rory have #2, so who is number one? Going back to the diner, River, Amy and Rory are more than a little put out to discover that it’s the Doctor, two hundred years younger and completely clueless to what is going on. River, Amy and Rory decide they have to press matters, following the clues the 1103-year-old Doctor placed for them to take them back to 1969, and convincing the 900-year-old Doctor to take them there, even after telling him that they can’t tell him who is sending him on this mission.
Got that so far? Good. Because here is where it gets complicated…
The Doctor’s search on Canton Everett Delaware III takes the TARDIS to the Oval Office in 1969. There, President Nixon has called Canton — a former FBI officer played by Mark Sheppard — in to investigate a series of disturbing phone calls he’s been receiving. A frightened little girl at the other end asks for help, worried that a spaceman has come to eat her. These calls reach the president no matter where he is, and Nixon is more than a little disturbed. Listening into this conversation, the Doctor already starts solving the mystery, only to be discovered by Nixon and Delaware over the simple fact that the Doctor is standing right there!
The Impossible Astronaut really makes me marvel with its mixture of scary and funny. The scene where the Doctor goes through muscular contortions in order to silently pull a piece of paper from his pocket while listening into the conversation, and then casually waves as if to say, “oh, carry on, don’t mind me” while Nixon and Canton stare at him in bewilderment, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on the series, and it’s all carried by Matt Smith’s physical acting. He really is brilliant as the Doctor, and writer Moffat helps with a fair amount of repartee. My favourite lines come later in this scene where the Doctor sits at the President’s desk, staring down several secret service guns, and tries to brazen his way out.
Doctor: “You wouldn’t shoot me.”
River Song (bursts from TARDIS): “They’re Americans!!”
Doctor (hands up): “Don’t shoot! Definitely don’t shoot!!”
After winning Nixon’s confidence and, more importantly, Canton Everett’s, the Doctor traces the President’s call and takes Amy, Rory, River and Canton to a warehouse in Florida. There, they discover the Silents (yes, that Silence), who have been watching the proceedings the whole time. A bit like your X-Files Grey aliens, a bit like Eduard Munch’s Scream, they certainly fulfill Moffat’s penchant for deeply intellectually frightening monsters. As my friend Cameron noted, they are basically the reverse of the Weeping Angels: they cease to exist in your mind when you don’t look at them. And as alien designs go, I have to admit that my initial reaction was scepticism. I mean, really, Doctor Who: poaching The X-Files? Couldn’t you do better?
But the scene in the White House washroom where Amy sees the Silent, and then sees what it can do, is brilliantly executed. And the actor inside the Silent (Marnix van den Broeke) as well as the director (Toby Haynes) add a lot. Just standing there looking menacing adds a lot to the Silents’, well, menace, but when the monster raises its arms and the lights start flickering, I could not help but feel a chill up my spine. Oh, crap, I thought: it’s going to do something really, really nasty. And it does.
But at the warehouse, things get really interesting. You remember that abandoned proto-TARDIS from last season’s The Lodger? It’s back, and the Silents run it. These creatures are building a lot of interesting things, all of it cobbled together from Earth tech. There’s NASA spacesuit gear here… and the NASA astronaut that we saw at the beginning of the story. As Amy freaks out at this opportunity to change the future, we get our cliffhanger. Amy pulls out Canton’s gun to shoot the astronaut, who pulls up the visor to reveal… the frightened little girl.
The Impossible Astronaut is an exciting, well crafted episode that’s an easy 10, but raises so many expectations that the follow-up, Day of the Moon, suffers by comparison. Most of this was not Moffat’s fault. I was disappointed that the eleventh Doctor’s death at the beginning of the story was not resolved here, but I guess I’m just going to have to watch the rest of the season to see how this plays out. Then there’s the madcap race across America that takes place in the seven minute opening that leads into Day of the Moon. As my friend Cameron says, there’s compressed storytelling, and then there’s “did anyone get the license plate of that plot?”
Near as I can tell, at the warehouse, the Silents attack, and plant a post hypnotic suggestion in Canton Everett. This causes Canton to turn on the Doctor and company, locking the Doctor in a super-secure prison at Area 51, and starting a mad manhunt across America for River, Rory and Amy, as they investigate the Silent conspiracy and encounter the monsters everywhere. But it was all a ruse to investigate the conspiracy, and reunite the Doctor and company inside Area 51, in a prison that’s most definitely completely Silent free, so that the counterattack can begin.
Note that this is what I put together after watching the story. The pace of the trailer is just too rattled to allow that to clearly come out, and it throws off the pace of the rest of the story. Many have suggested that these seven minutes needed to be expanded into its own episode, and I can see the merit of that, even though such an episode would be mostly filler and Moffat, who has a budget to conform to, probably had good reason to compress things so.
The rest of Day of the Moon is a solid but not exceptional episode with brilliant bits. Arthur Darvill’s Rory shines in a scene where he, River and Nixon bail the Doctor out from NASA. There are also the heartbreaking scenes as Amy is kidnapped, but the rest of the TARDIS crew can hear her frightened voice, and Rory is again confronted with the quandary of whether his wife loves him or the Doctor (though, while Erin loves Rory’s stirring speech about being there for his wife, she hates the fact that they go and undercut it).
One of the weaker elements of the episode, however, is Nixon himself. Actor Stuart Milligan does a decent Nixon impression, but the performance is, I fear, reliant on too many cliches. Worse, he is used in Day of the Moon as a prop that the TARDIS crew pull out of the box in order to smooth over any difficulties with security. The joke is funny when it’s used the first time, but loses its appeal the second. And why is he there, really? Having him smooth over the security is a little too convenient, and he contributes little else to the plot.
Still, all of this is made up for in the climax as the Doctor pulls out his secret weapon (yes, it is Neil Armstrong’s foot). As ludicrous as the solution sounds when said like that, it’s actually kind of chilling, as the Doctor turns the Silents’ abilities against them, and unleashes the human race as a mindless army that will attack any and all Silent whenever they see them. It’s not genocide as some have suggested, as the Doctor at least gives the Silents’ the ability to run, but goodness is it cold.
Then there is the mystery of what the Silents are attempting to do. The frightened little girl reveals some uncanny abilities of her own, as she forces her way out of the spacesuit. The investigation of the spacesuit reveals some interesting clues: it has an advanced life support system, able to convert sunlight into nutrients to keep its occupant healthy. It also has the ability to repair itself. Between this and the proto-TARDIS, what were the Silents’ creating?
It is the final scene that caps off Day of the Moon as something far better than average. It was a great, unexpected moment that you deserve to see unspoiled. Seriously: if you haven’t watched this episode on your own, turn away now. If you do want to hear what I have to say, highlight the text below using your cursor…
The scene six months later where we find the girl in New York plays to our expectations, and then immediately subverts them. The poor girl, coughing piteously, but still surprisingly confident in herself even as she admits that she is dying, leads us to expect that she’s going to extend vampire fingernails and feed on the hapless homeless man in order to live. But no. Instead, we see that familiar glow in her skin, and the poor girl _regenerates_!
I can’t help but make the connection here: first the Silents were building their own proto-TARDIS. Now, they’re breeding a proto-Time Lord? I wonder, if that cloud of regeneration energy the tenth Doctor breathed out at the beginning of The Christmas Invasion is going to come back home to roost, and I wonder if Jenny (the Doctor’s daughter) won’t be mentioned at some point in the episodes to follow…
Steven Moffat is clearly playing the long game. Here we have a story that has its roots in the season before it, and which is promising explanations… tomorrow. Maybe. Is this going to be a season-spanning arc, or is Moffat going to keep the thread up for the duration of his producership?
Either way, I’m hooked. The long plot is holding together so far, and has interesting implications for the stories to come. I may have been disappointed that the aftermath to the cliffhanger of The Impossible Astronaut didn’t provide the resolution I wanted, but I’m committed to following the trail for resolutions to come.
Unlike The X-Files, I have a confidence in Steven Moffat’s ability to provide those resolutions… someday.