...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Day 3765: DOCTOR WHO: The Impossible Astronaut


The Doctor, like Marley, was dead to begin with. Or didn't we do "A Christmas Carol" last time?

So let's talk about death in Doctor Who.

Death has been devalued in this series since 2005. Russell declared that the series was "steeped in death" but no one important ever actually dies. Or if they do, they're back again! Even the "death analogue" of "trapped in a parallel world" ends up being optional. There is just too much "in science fiction, no one is gone forever".

Well they should be. It matters that you do not lie to your audience, especially this audience of this show and especially about this.

To be fair, Russell started it. Rose didn't die. Donna didn't die. Rose's dad did die… but then there was Parallel-Pete, so he kind of didn't any more.The Master did die, but he got over it. The Daleks died again and again and again; it barely slowed them down. The Time Lords, they're all dead. Oh, wait, no they're not. But forgive that one, because it says that coming back from the dead has consequences; and because they're the only ones thrust properly back into the grave. Or at least the Time War. And they are never ever coming back from that. Because the Master will never… Oh pish.

But Moffat, whose "everybody lives" was supposed to be "just this once", has carried it further than it can sustain. He killed Rory and killed Amy and destroyed the entire universe… and it didn't matter. They all came back. He wiped out the Doctor… but he came back…

(sidebar: I thought of an alternative explanation for "that thing that happens so "The Big Bang" has a happy ending" – Amy's memories don't "rewrite" the Doctor back into existence; instead they give the TARDIS something to lock onto so that he can guide her back from wherever "outside time and space" the crack led to. So he didn't actually "die". Well, it might work… Mind you "he crossed his timeline and the Universe blew up" really does not describe the events of "The Big Bang"; in fact, almost the exact reverse is true – the Universe blew up so he started crossing his timeline to get out of it. Universal calamity as a result of, ahem, crossing the timestreams would have been much, much more satisfying than the TARDIS's mere existence being a threat to all creation.)

But that wolf has been cried too often, and no one, no one believes that the Doctor is really, really dead. Or "going to be dead". There will be a get-out clause, a temporal glitch, a back-up plan. Pray to anything you believe in that it's not David Tennant from a parallel universe falling out of a parallel TARDIS.

(Yes, the opening cop-out of "Journey's End": "I'm regenerating… but I think I won't actually" remains the nadir of "death doesn't count" in modern Doctor Who.)

Given the teaser "one of them will die" it was obviously going to be the Doctor who bought it. Not least because that's the teaser on the back of Lawrence Miles' impossible pre-Millennial two-part novel "Interference". The one where – SPOILERS – the Doctor dies.

Once, it would have been absolute genius to start the series there, with the impossible horror of the lead being dead. But not now. Not this time. Now we simply don't believe you.

Matt Smith is not the last Doctor, nor is Moffat going to end the series, or hand the TARDIS on to some other "Doctor". He'll write something "incredibly clever" that will leave you going, "hmm, but I'd rather have had a proper resolution".

This week has seen the lovely, lovely LisSladen pass away, and it was handled with extraordinary sensitivity and care by the BBC, particularly CBBC, who have clearly thought carefully about the need to handle this sensitive subject in a way that treats kids with honesty and compassion. Death is forever. There is no coming back, no cheating, no time being rewritten.

The series on BBC1 has a lot of catching up to do.

I suppose the problem with "The Impossible Astronaut" is that it's not a proper story at all: it contains no answers. Even part one of an ordinary Who story will have some explanation of what the frak is happening. Here, it's all a series of escalating questions.

We have no idea what is going on. The Doctor has no idea what is going on; by the end, he hasn't even met the aliens – and we don't know that they are the baddies. Evil, yes – they blew up Joy for no reason – but that doesn't make them responsible for what if anything is happening; they might for example just be investigating, just like the Doctor. Obviously, they aren't. But at no point does "The Impossible Astronaut" tell us that. For that matter we don't even know that anything is happening, apart from a spaceman and some odd phone calls from a little girl. And only the cliffhanger tells us how these are connected.

Perhaps all this mystery is a good thing; apparently it precipitated an hour of discussion with my nephew and niece and their mum and dad; though my niece – who is newly nine – found it a bit difficult to follow. And – unlike some reviews – I'm not saying that it didn't flow: each sequence followed logically from the last; each question raised a clue that led to the next question. It just didn't answer any of the questions along the way.

Envelopes lead us to America, to the picnic, the killing and funeral. Canton Everett Delaware III and the (older) Doctor's cryptic/haha "Space 1969" remark lead us to Washington. Nixon's White House Tape of the little girl's call leads to a very clever deduction from the Doctor of where to go next ("spaceman" plus three founding fathers leading to a very specific street corner in Florida, which is really smart). But after forty-five minutes of television: we don't know what the plot is.

I have no idea what you would make of it if it were your first episode of Doctor Who, as it makes not a single concession to exposition. Who is the Doctor? Who is River Snog? Why is it significant that she might be packing? (Yes, yes we know that she's in an inescapable prison, but if it was your first time, would you?) Who for that matter are this domestic couple Amy and Rory?

There is a distinct sense of having missed a bit. When did Amy and Rory settle down to this domestic life? At the end of last year, they quit Ledworth for "everywhere" and they've been on extended honeymoon since then. Yet now they seem to be part-time time travellers, expecting the Doctor to pop back from time to time, ready to be whisked off again but also getting on with their lives. (Yes, there is some irony that this happens in the week when I said that Sarah Jane was unique in continuing her travels while still having a life outside the TARDIS.)

What was the purpose behind the "waving to them from history" opening? (Incidentally, that was the worst sticking the Doctor into a Laurel and Hardy film ever seen; having him join the dance: subtle and funny; having him rush to the front of the screen and wave? Like that wouldn't end up on the cutting room floor! And again, we did that last time. Plus, you need better photoshop if you want your film grain to match the original.)

Of course, there's a hint of the "Neil Gaiman" here, with the idea that the Doctor ought to have left them behind now that they are settled and "making babies" but– like Gaiman's Sandman – he is still meddling in their lives because that baby will be significant in his own future.

Which leads us to the most obvious question, to which almost everyone has the same answer: is the child in the spacesuit Amy's daughter or River Snog or in fact both at the same time. "Are you my mummy?" she might ask. Ahem. We know River has killed someone and we're almost certain that it's the Doctor – anything less will just be a letdown after all the hints – and that she's been in prison for a long time. What if she's been in Stormcage a really long time, almost all her life?

(Although, given Moffat's habit of making things more complicated for himself just for a laugh, I suppose it will turn out to be Rory in the spacesuit that kills the Doctor and getting to deliver the "this is where it gets complicated" cliché.)

Of course the resolution to many of these problems is not to think of this as a Doctor Who story, or even part one of a two-part Doctor Who story, but as part one of a seven-part television drama. Drama serials, from "Edge of Darkness" to "State of Play", even to Moffat's own "Jekyll", often do begin with episodes that are nothing but questions, designed to hook you in to the world (often, world of conspiracy) that they are drawing. To say "but Doctor Who doesn't work that way" is to put limits on the way that supposedly the most versatile show on television does work, and it's to Moffat's credit that this year he's willing to push at the boundaries of what is and isn't the way the series works.

Moffat has certainly upped his game when it comes to writing for his characters. All four of his leads are given new depth and shading and more interesting things to do. Even Rory. Arthur Darvill carries a lot of the episode's more understated comedy moments as Rory's not-actually-going-to-take-it-in-silence long-suffering continues. "Husband" and "Why is it always my turn" and "actually, I do mind!" all spring to mind. And then there are moments of genuine pain under the usual grumbles, as when he tells River she doesn't need to tell him what effect the Doctor falling out of the sky can have on a girl.

That same scene adds some needed pathos to River too, as we start to see her relationship with the Doctor from her point of view as well. It's almost that the fun of this relationship for the Doctor is the very thing that is most painful to her – where he sees a game of knowing and not knowing, she sees him going away. And yet River, it seems, becomes a better character as she knows less and the Doctor more. Her piloting the TARDIS better than he does works as a joke here, and doesn't come across as smug. And of course he then reveals that he knows and more than that expects her to be better at it and doing the things he needs her to do. I hate to talk about "on screen chemistry", because it's such an overrated cliché, but you can see that both the Doctor and River (or Matt and Alex) enjoy the flirtation between them, they enjoy trying to frustrate each other, and they enjoy being cleverer than each other. It's lovely the way River tells Amy to look after the Doctor and he responds by telling Rory to go and look after River.

Chronologically speaking, this has to be placed after "The Pandorica Opens" for River as well as for the Doctor and his companions, because River recognises Rory, which she didn't in "The Pandorica Opens". In fact, it's a plot point of "The Pandorica Opens" that River does not realise that this Roman centurion is identical to Amy's boyfriend. So, despite what River says about every time they meet "her" Doctor being further away, this is proof that they can meet in order too, that their timelines zigzag rather than one being exactly backwards to the other.

And River's reaction to the death of the Doctor is… interesting. I feel that her immediately shooting at the retreating spaceman until she's out of bullets is entirely instinctive, the vengeance of the River who faced down a Dalek, made it beg, and killed it anyway. But when the bullets have no effect, she says to herself "of course not". If that is her inside the spacesuit, then "of course not" because she couldn't have shot her own younger self, that would be a Grandfather Paradox. Of course, River doesn't know the order of the Doctor's faces, but it's also been implied that she's seen more than ten and eleven, so she doesn't realise that this can't be "the end". It is harder to judge whether she's expecting this outcome: again, if it's her inside the suit, then certainly a confused child trapped in a spacesuit might remember the incident in a way that her older self does not recognise the setting when they arrive for their picnic, but seeing a spacesuited figure ought to trigger something of a memory surely.

Ever since "The Eleventh Hour", Matt Smith has been revealing to us the layers of his Doctor's character: the madman with a box persona that he wears as a cloak while underneath there is a colder, cleverer, calculating character, and an angrier, spikier character too. He conceals from Amy the real reason he's taking her with him; he lashes out at everyone human in "The Beast Below". Here we have two perfect moments in the TARDIS that capture both surface and depth: the petulant child moment of "I'm being clever and there's no one to notice" and then the collapse into the chair and telling them all not to play games with him. That's the dark, hard, brilliant Doctor right there; like the seventh Doctor, a manipulator who will not be manipulated. Plus you've got love that he's either late for a biplane lesson or knitting.

He is playing two Doctors here, as well. The Doctor at 909 and the Doctor at 1103 (oh for a moment we thought he was going to have got over his mid-lives crisis about his age, and how many times have I said he needs to announce he's into four figures?) The older Doctor is, if anything, even more the seventh Doctor. Only letting it slip with that "the human race: I never thought I'd be done saving you" moment which is the first intimation of coming mortality.

"My life in your hands", though, really? He isn't stupid; River gave him enough clues, and the fact that none of them will tell him who recruited them has to be another one – he could work out that he's dangerously close to finding out his own future.

Meanwhile, to me Amy seemed more kind. Her concern for ill-fated Joy was genuine and selfless. It's really too early to say, what with this being only one episode so far ("A Christmas Carol" hardly counts, though there were hints of a softer Amy there too, thinking back), but I wonder if she isn't being written as a, I hesitate to say "better person", but a less defensive, less damaged one because in "The Big Bang" the Doctor fixed the thing that he broke and gave her back her childhood.

(This will probably last until the first writer-who-isn't-Moffat gets a go and writes her as the character they remember from last year. Can I hear you say "New Adventures Angst" at all?)

And she is as appalled as the Doctor that she has shot at a child. She grabs the gun and fires at the spacesuited figure before she has time to realise that the visor has been raised, before she has time to see. And she was primed to do this; primed by River. Twice, in fact: the first time, by River shooting at the spaceman herself, while Amy is collapsed with grief; the second time when River suggests dealing with the spaceman now to stop him killing the Doctor in the future. Which she then says would be bad. It's all playing on Amy's "time can be rewritten" fixation

It was interesting that he also wrote Nixon entirely sympathetically, while not playing down that history (and the Doctor) regards him as another baddie. Stuart Milligan (yes, Jonathan Creek's old boss, Adam Klaus) while recognisable under the latex put in a believable, understated Nixon, playing an actor's part: doing him as a real person rather than an impression or a caricature. (Let's just say not doing a "Churchill".) The prosthesis was fairly ridiculous, I'm afraid, barely even a cartoon Nixon: "it's Saruman as President," said Alex "no, just some other magician," I replied. Sorry.

Mark Sheppard was terrific as Fox Mulder, er, I'm sorry, Canton 3… no, look, sorry, but they even "borrowed" Mulder's opening scene from the first X-Files movie for him; it's not that subtle. Nevertheless, he was worth the money: great at keeping control in the Oval Office scene, putting down the President's FBI security and getting the Doctor his five minutes; nicely boggled by the TARDIS interior, and then phlegmatic with his "like your wheels"; and with an as-yet-unrevealed backstory (more questions) that may be to do with marriage or authority issues giving him something troubling to keep him from being too two-dimensional.

And we loved that his dad, Morgan Sheppard, played the older Canton – not least because, as Alex put it, it's the Soul Hunter come for the Doctor's funeral.

The space-time ship from the Lodger showing up again was cool. Again, no explanations at all. Not even "this might be someone's attempt at a space-time ship", which would have helped. (Seriously, it's the "The Phantom Menace" problem all over again: the exposition is in a different movie!) Alex and I were both expecting River to say that the tunnels extended under the surface of the Universe not merely the Earth – as though the aliens' ship (assuming it is their ship; again, no actual clue if that is so) has scratched itself under the skin of reality, like it travels by "crack".

In fact, the idea of a network of tunnels, a "labyrinth" if you will, underscoring the Spiral Politic is a direct lift from (guess who) Lawrence Miles' "The Book of the War". Mind you, so is a now-you-see-them-now-you-don't "enemy" who edit themselves out of your memory.

(That is not to excuse Lawrence's response to Moffat, in particular that photoshopped RadioTimes cover. Quite apart from being highly insulting to the two actors, it's wildly insulting to Moffat himself, who so clearly does not consider women as inflatable sex toys as even the most cursory glance at the number of strong women he has written and cast, from Julia Sawalha in "Press Gang" onwards, would show.)

So we come to the "Scariest Monsters Evah" (copyright all newspapers). Oh look, America is secretly run by the Grey Aliens who are also the Men in Black (and they don't even need flashy-things to make you forget them!). Alex, who was even less impressed than I was, found this schtick dull when The X-Files was fresh; and The X-Files itself was always more interesting when suggesting that the greys were faked to cover up a more grisly (and terrestrial) conspiracy with a faked alien one. And anyway, didn't Phil Ford do Men In Black more amusingly in "The Sarah Jane Adventures"?

It was a nice mask (and the long fingered hands were nice too) and they are certainly threatening and creepy, but there had better be more to them than The Gentlemen from Buffy gifted with the Weeping Angels USP. And in fairness there probably is: Moffat himself has implied it goes much deeper. At the very least, though, I will expect a reason why this new ultimate foe (capable of blowing up the TARDIS, allegedly) has only just appeared (and to be fair again, "they're something that's come about because of the Time War and/or the Time Lords being gone" would be acceptable).

So what to make of it all?

In plot and visuals it is incredibly dense: clearly one for the video age – or rather the iPlayer age – to be watched again and again, and for the HD age to see all the packed-in detail. Visually, it is utterly striking, literally getting darker over the course of the episode as the story takes us to darker and darker places: opening with a Technicolor Monument Valley in Utah; fading to sunset at the Doctor's Viking funeral, fading to dark blue of the Oval office at night; fading ultimately to the greys of the Silent tunnels and their black timeship. It is bolder than any season opener since "Rose". It uses all the Moffat tropes again – a spooky child's voice; something in the corner of your eye; timey-bloody-wimey – uses them to the point of cliché, to the point where it risks being accused of recycling. It teeters on that edge and it might, might fall over. It gambles everything on being intriguing rather than baffling. And it probably succeeds.

Ultimately, it remains what it is: a mystery. How successful it is we won't know until we have the answers.

Next Time: The answers. Or some of them anyway, starting with how do you fight an enemy you don't even remember? How do you escape from the perfect prison (without looking up the answers in Interference: Book Two)? And what really happened to Apollo Eleven on the "Day of the Moon".



Jennie Rigg said...

Lawrence Miles lost the tiny amount of respect I had remaining for him with that radio times cover. What a bitter, twisted, misogynist.

Millennium Dome said...

I agree that portraying Ms Karen Gillan as a blow up sex doll is stupidly unfunny and rude, but having read Mr Hickey's piece on Asperger's I would also like to think that this is a wall that needs gently if firmly pointing out to Mr Lawrence rather than banging his head against.

I think that Ms Karen has had quite a big ask in portraying Amy Pond, possibly bigger than many may have realised if I am right about the damage left by the crack informing her portrayal for the first year. And the scripts of Mr Moffat do walk a fine line between empowering and objectifying her though her more overt sexuality. I believe that the Grand Moff is trying to show a modern woman who is in touch with her own sex rather than the "porcelain doll" companions occasionally seen in the pre-Millennium series. However, I can see that that could be interpreted as "having a sexy lady that walks and talks as you command" which I suspect is Lawrence's angle. I think he's wrong, but I think that may be where he's coming from.

However, I don't want to let that get in the way of my continued respect for Lawrence's creativity. He put really quite a lot of really quite big ideas into Doctor Who and, consciously or coincidentally, the new series does appear to be working its way through them (and the Neil Gaiman episode looks like it may contain another biggie). That deserves a bit of recognition, if only saluting the flags that show LM got there first even as the Mister Moffster gets the credit for climbing the mountain.