Doctor Who complete reviews: The Impossible Astronaut
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
John says nay to the Doctor Who naysayers, as a superior Matt Smith season gets under way...
Never mind me wittering ten to the dozen about TV's greatest ever series, it seems that the world and his wife want to talk about Doctor Who these days. Especially when a brand spanking new series hits the airwaves – that's cause for all sorts of newspapers, magazines, websites and TV shows to promote, discuss and analyse the latest escapades of the good Doctor.
Take the latest season – NuWho Season Six - or Season 32 if we're including the entire history. There's been plenty of drama happening in the latest season, but equally, there's been equal helpings of drama dished up by various critics and scaremongers who can't resist making a meal out of the slightest issue. So before entering the maelstrom of The Impossible Astronaut/Day Of The Moon (Impossible Moon), it's worth having a look at some of the furore surrounding its début. With that in mind, here then is Have I Got News For Who:
SENSATIONAL HEADLINE ONE: DOCTOR WHO IS TOO DARK AND SCARY
In the context of Impossible Moon, the right wing papers suggested that Doctor Who was way too dark and scary for kids. Take the first episode which not only features Amy apparently shooting a young kid in cold blood at the cliffhanger, a brand new scary monster race called The Silence, but also the apparent death of the main man himself.
The sequence that the papers really latched onto was the one in which hapless Olive From On The Buses lookalike Joy gets blasted into tiny pieces by one of what's known as The Silence, a gaggle of freaky-looking skull-heads in suits: part Gentlemen from the Buffy episode Hush/part Munch painting (which also influenced a motley gathering of psycho killers to terrorise Sydney Prescott in the Scream films).
Now by the standards of the last season (in which there were hardly any scares), this is something of a blessed relief. Doctor Who's head honcho Steven Moffat had luckily promised that this time around the new season would be more of a Ghost Train ride than those little kiddie roundabouts that move at the pace of a snail. And the aforementioned sequence is a notable attempt at showing scary death. It's fairly prolonged, and it's also nasty in that poor harmless old Joy's only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But with regards to the Whitehouse-channelling hacks, it's no different a sequence to lots of other Doctor Who death scenes. Like poor old Warlock coming to grief at a mummy in Pyramids Of Mars . Or Chub screaming like a big girl's blouse after getting a painful neck massage from one of The Robots Of Death . Or more recently, Daniel Llewellyn failing to teach the Sycorax the meaning of compassion in The Christmas Invasion . Innocents coming to grief is nothing new in Doctor Who, and big, scary monsters and equally chilling deaths are part and parcel of the programme. So quite why some of the critics were lambasting Doctor Who for what's it always done in the past is just the first of a number of misplaced jibes.
SENSATIONAL HEADLINE TWO: DOCTOR WHO IS TOO CONFUSING
OK, even I'll admit that in the last season Steven Moffat was trying too hard to be clever – in particular, the timey-wimey shenanigans of The Pandorica Bang, which could never hope to live up to its apocalyptic premise. In addition, the previous season was too bothered with the Story Arc, to the point where some adventures couldn't hope to function in their own right, because mysteries hadn't been solved yet.
So Season 32 (or NuWho Six) takes this notion of the Story Arc to extremes, and if there is one criticism that can be levelled at Impossible Moon, it's the fact that there are too many plot strands left unresolved. And also throughout this season, one or two adventures will serve as no more than chapters which are part of a bigger book – whether or not you can appreciate this is down to your own personal liking. Myself, I still maintain that I'm not a fan of the Story Arc, simply because some people don't want to have to commit to 13 weeks of storytelling. If they miss one vital episode, that's it – trying to find some reasonable explanation the next week may be like asking for directions in Worzelese.
So there's a whole load of mysteries to wade through in Impossible Moon, and this is where the old Confused card gets played. However, I'd say that the story's not so much confused, more that there's too many plates being spun. There are tons of plot strands fighting it out amongst each other to claim victory as to which is the biggest poser. Is The Doctor really dead? Is Amy really pregnant? Who is inside the spacesuit that kills The Doctor? Who is the enigmatic She-Travis? What's River Song's angle? Where do the Silence fit in among all this? There's so much going on in Impossible Moon, and not only that, it's also got to tell some sort of story in the process too.
"To Steven Moffat's credit, this season is far superior to its predecessor, boasting a number of more compelling, well-crafted stories that manage to be thought-provoking, scary and at times, deeply poignant in equal measures"
So with that in mind, you could possibly argue that maybe the doomsayers do have a point on this one. Try and spin too many plates at once, and at least one of them will fall to the floor and crash. Like the Weeping Angels two-parter, it's sometimes hard to appreciate Impossible Moon in its own right because most of the questions posed are not answered until the end of the season.
But then mind you, what's the alternative? The Only Way Is Essex (a programme that's purely designed for lobotomised toddlers)..? Given that most papers spend even more time promoting this depressing prick parade than Doctor Who (simply because this sort of programme provides tons of scandal and inconsequential gossip), to be honest, I'd rather watch a programme that may be difficult to follow at times, but is at least still challenging and densely written. And to Moffat's credit, this season is far superior to its predecessor, boasting a number of more compelling, well-crafted stories that manage to be thought-provoking, scary and at times, deeply poignant in equal measures.
Plus, the solutions to the big questions are easy once you know how.
SENSATIONAL HEADLINE THREE: DOCTOR WHO LOSES ITS VIEWER MOJO
It only follows that the possible outcome from confusing plots is dropping viewer figures. This will be a common stick to beat Doctor Who with, as some of the papers revel in gleefully reporting that the series isn't pulling in the punters any more.
The crisis apparently reaches its nadir when by the second part of the season, the show's losing out to foghorn voice, Vernon Kay, TV's walking waxwork dummy who apparently presumes that everyone on the planet has gone deaf, given that he seems to bellow every word he says at the top of his lungs.
However, the papers are apparently not quite getting the full picture these days, given that nowadays, you've got the iPlayer ratings to take on board as well. It's a bit of a contentious one this – it's a bit like saying that The Android Invasion got so many viewers, plus however many watched it on YouTube or however many bought the video or the forthcoming DVD release. But hey, that's the way it goes these days, and with that in mind, the viewing figures for Impossible Moon are nowhere near as bad as you may think (nearly 9m for Part One, just over 7m for Part Two). The rather odd decision to split the season in two probably didn't help – neither did the UK scheduling which was typically all over the shop, following the likes of Total Wipeout or worse still, Don't Scare The Hare.
Still, ratings aren't exactly a great gauge of quality. The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing, for example, get viewers by the shedload, but they're the worst form of lowest common denominator rubbish, touting average to poor talent and passing them off as the greatest thing since sliced bread. So even if the Doctor Who ratings do take a bit of a dip at times, at least this season is of higher quality than the last.
So those are the sensationalist headlines, but even with such wanton scaremongering, I doubt that Doctor Who's going to meet its maker just yet (what, with all that ever-popular merchandise?). Unlike The Doctor in The Impossible Astronaut, who's apparently dead and burnt to a crisp, as his funeral pyre sails away into the ether. It's an audacious premise to launch your new season, and to be honest, I always thought that there would be some handy caveat to make sure that the title hero isn't dead. After all, the previous season killed Rory and Amy, and still brought them back to life. So Moffat's hardly going to do something different with The Doctor is he? Nevertheless, the real fun comes from figuring out how The Doctor does cheat death this time around (a similar sort of deal to how the Liberator can possibly be destroyed in the Blake's 7 story, Redemption) – and as Amy, Rory and River Song are recruited with the aid of some gaudy envelopes, they're on the hunt to see if they can stop the inevitable from happening. All without the help of the younger version of The Doctor, of course. Too many Spoooiiilllaaaahhhs in that, you know.
Talking of which, the regulars seem to have had some sort of personality bypass in between seasons – in that they're much more agreeable company this time around. Take Amy for example – she's much more of a genuine person than a one-woman hen party shouting at the top of her voice. There's a bit more vulnerability this time around, for example, her raw sorrow at the 'death' of The Doctor (“Wake up! Go on, wake up you stupid bloody idiot!”) or her temporary capture (“It's dark, it's so dark, I don't know where I am!”).
"The Impossible Moon is a funny one to try and rate, because it's a story that can't quite be rated on its own merits"
Fortunately, she's also got a better rapport going with Rory, who himself comes across as more of a proactive player in events rather than a moping buffoon (“She always knows that I am coming for her, do you understand me? Always!”). Not only that, but even River Song, the Queen Of Smug, has also mellowed a bit. There's a bit less smirking bravado, and more an air of muted contemplation (although The Doctor Dances-esque joke of trouncing the Sonic Screwdriver - “Go build a cabinet!” - is genuinely funny). Having enjoyed a crafty tongue sandwich at the end of the story with The Doctor, the Time Lord excitedly bumbles “You know what they say, there's a first time for everything” to which River sadly says: “And a last time”. Events are evidently moving up a gear for River Song, and where she fits in the great big cosmic jigsaw, and this more subtle character is brought to life well by Alex Kingston. And of course, the regulars – Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Matt Smith turn in some equally strong performances.
As for The Impossible Moon itself – it's a funny one to try and rate, again because it's a story that can't quite be rated on its own merits. There's more of a feeling that this is a tale that's more concerned with setting the plot pieces into position rather than telling a coherent story in its own right. However, there are a number of elements that bear merit – the Silence, for example, are a good, creepy race to kick start the show. Their eerie skull masks are well designed and it's nice to have a monster who's more proactive than say, the lazy Smilers of The Beast Below, the squabbling Silurians or the wimpy Daleks of Victory Of The Daleks.
There's a bit of a Jagaroth thing going on here, in that they've influenced humanity into the Space Race in order to build a spacesuit for their own purposes. They're also well shot – director Toby Haynes shoots them in such a way that they really do have that unearthly, dreamlike aura. The aforementioned scene in which Joy comes to grief is a memorably scary one for the kids, as is the scene in the Orphanage in which they nestle on the ceiling like suited bats.
"The overseas location filming in America really is astounding"
Another notable aspect of The Impossible Moon is that it's not told in a simple narrative fashion from beginning to end. We get flash-forwards and jumps in time. For example, the second instalment jumps ahead by three months from April to July 1969. The preceding cliffhanger of Amy shooting the kid in the space suit isn't resolved until a throwaway line about halfway through (she missed, apparently), and so, we're thrown bang into the action as Canton Delaware reunites the team by capturing them as criminals. Even the ending in which the girl regenerates takes place six months after The Doctor and his friends leave in the TARDIS. It's a bold manner in which to tell your story, and it generally works well (even if the wait for the cliffhanger results in a resolution that is a bit disappointing).
Still, even if the plot may meander a bit too much for its own good – and come to that, it's a hell of a talky set of episodes too – then at least it looks magnificent. The overseas location filming in America really is astounding. Toby Haynes makes the thing look a million dollars with carefully chosen shots, managing to combine action with a real feel for including as much of the beautiful background scenery as he can. His guest casting is generally good, with stand-out turns for Stuart Milligan (better known as the hapless Adam Klaus from Jonathan Creek) as Nixon, Mark Sheppard as Canton and Kerry Shale as Dr Renfrew. About the only mis-step casting wise is Frances Barber (at this point simply billed as Eye Patch Lady), who had evidently been watching too much of Eric Roberts in the TV Movie the night before she started work on this.
Notably different to previous season openers, The Impossible Moon is much more difficult to keep up with and fails to provide all the answers to the questions posed in the story. But it is a bold bit of story crafting, there are some highly atmospheric set pieces, it provides good material for the regulars, contains some scary monsters and one scary death (finally!), and benefits from some stunning camera-work throughout. It's the start of (what's generally) a far superior season to the 2010 run, so ignore the doomy papers and enjoy a return to form for Moffat-style Doctor Who.
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