Monday, April 25, 2011

"The Impossible Astronaut"

So for the first time ever, this blog turns to reviewing Doctor Who episodes as they are released rather than over the course of a rewatch. I think Moffat made quite a few bold decisions in this episode and while it's not quite the strong opener we had last series with "The Eleventh Hour" it certainly goes a long way towards refreshing the format of the show. For instance, it's the first part of a two-parter, and besides that the Doctor dies about ten minutes in, only to be replaced by his past self, which is to say the Doctor with whom we're more or less concurrent. I find it a bit jarring that apparently he's been absent from Amy and Rory's lives for a couple of months and a lot of the silliness of him being painted or showing up in Laurel and Hardie films maybe overplays the kookiness a little bit. That being said, Matt Smith as usual puts in an as-expected impressive performance, particularly when he confronts his companions in the TARDIS about what they're not telling him, and these serious moments, which also include when he confronts the astronaut and the cliffhanger, are all effectively done. It's unfortunate then that Moffat has also included a lot of references to the Fez, Jammie Dodgers, using the term 'cool' and so on which are perhaps becoming slightly overplayed to the point where there's a risk of the Eleventh Doctor's character descending into self-parody. There's also a lot of weird flirting between the contemporary Doctor and River which comes across a little strangely and I wonder if Moffat is attempting to build up the sexual tension here for some reason. I really hope not because it doesn't exactly complement the Doctor's character but I'm willing to see where things go. That's a pretty big sort of issue with this episode as a whole - a lot of it hinges on the next episode and probably the series as a whole and unfortunately it means I don't have the hindsight with which to review this episode the way I did with earlier stories. On this note River is in a similar situation to the Doctor - all her cheekiness and flirtation seem a bit tired by now but the bit where she talks to Rory about her anxiety regarding her future, the Doctor's past, is done very well, so there's a bit of conflict and tension I feel here and in River's case this dialogue prevents her from falling into the rather needless Captain Jack role of Second Technician to the Doctor. It's a pretty talky episode in general which isn't a bad thing, and the large number of locations help make it feel like there's a lot going on.
Now I believe I mentioned Rory just now, and I want to do so again because the subtlety of his performance is as usual very effective, but I think a little underutilised, and I'm looking forward to the episodes where we're sans River because with three companions and a guest (Canton) the action feels a little overcrowded at times. Similarly, when they divide up we've got Rory chatting to River, Canton talking to Amy and no one talking to the Doctor and the story can feel a little abstracted from our main protagonist at times. I also find River's appearance perhaps a little too similar to the opening of "The Pandorica Opens". I think we need to start seeing River from before her imprisonment.
As I've said Rory is as solid as ever and Amy is good too, although continuing with my previous statements she doesn't get enough time either. Rory and Amy certainly have a more serious role and lose a lot of the flippancy which is focused on River and the Doctor but I'm skeptical in regards to the big revelation about her pregnancy. So what? It's all a bit soapy and I hope Moffat does something clever with it. Again, it's hard to judge these plot elements without seeing the next episode. I think Canton is reasonably good although there's mystery there too, and the presence of Nixon is reasonable, although I can't help feel that even this toes the 'celebrity historical' line a little too much. At least they don't slobber all over him like they have done with historical figures in the past. His dialogue is a little stupid though - would he really refer to himself as 'President Nixon' on the phone? What's more, he is a little characterless and seems like he's going through the motions a bit. I feel like they could have played up Nixon's familiar character traits more - his drunkenness, his paranoia and so on.
What about the Silence? They're our villains and they're a sort of hybrid 'Grey' alien and Man in Black type character and while I'm not a twelve year old child and therefore don't find them particularly scary they're suitably mysterious and the idea that they've sort of taken over the world in secret is a nice conspiracy theory which I hope is played out in the next episode. As for the Astronaut, well, who knows? Its surreal nature is nice, though, and it's clever that Moffat can make something which is so notionally a symbol of hope and achievement into such a thoroughly disturbing and weird image. Any other opinion can't really be formed until the resolution of this story. There are some weird plot things though. For instance, if the future Doctor was only up to 'Jim the Fish' or whatever with River, surely she knew he couldn't die on the beach in Utah? How did River escape from Stormcage if this is (presumably) before the events of "The Pandorica Opens" for her? Does she keep stealing Vortex Manipulators?
Presumably all will be revealed in the next episode, or at least some. I think it's good to see Moffat shaking things up a bit after playing it safe with the established formula last series. Nonetheless I think he needs to avoid too much silliness and emotional manipulation to prevent his stories descending into self-parody and melodrama. I really hope Moffat isn't trying to make this series into a hype-driven cliffhanger-fest, overloaded with mystery and intrigue to get people talking on forums and tuning in next week because it's not Doctor Who's place to go pulpy on us in the era when things are improving. Nonetheless there's a lot of plot going on which prevents excessive character focus but there are also soapy whiffs in here and a lot of the final analysis hinges on what happens next episode.