Editor’s Note: The following recap discusses things that happen in the first act of “The Impossible Astronaut” that are played for surprise. While it’s not a spoiler per se, you are probably better off having seen the episode before reading any further.
Over the course of their first season at the wheel of the TARDIS, new Doctor Matt Smith and wheelman Steven Moffat have presented us with one common theme: anything and everything is on the table for The Doctor and his faithful companions. Be it the explosion of the universe or the erasing (and subsequent reestablishment) of a character from the whole of human history, they are not afraid to take the adventure in unexpected and sometimes joyously mad directions. But the idea presented to us in the first ten minutes of “The Impossible Astronaut” is an even more interesting one. There in the middle of the picturesque American frontier, we see what might be the end of The Doctor’s journey. And while we know it’s only the beginning, there’s a bigger question looming: will he go through with it? Everything we know about the show up to this point — 48 years rich in history — tell us otherwise, but it does stand to reason that he’s been playing this game from the start. After all, he isn’t afraid to go where no Doctor Who showrunner has gone before.
Beyond it’s big opening salvo, one that probably played to be a bit of shock — a “welcome back to the wild world of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who” moment — the episode finally slows down and begins to tell us a story. Unlike the opening of series five, everything about this new series seems to happen all at once. Invitations. Mystery. The Doctor is back. Sharply dressed, but creepy aliens. An astronaut in a lake. The Doctor is gone. The Doctor is back. River Song is still a mystery. By the time we make it back into the TARDIS and are being whisked away to meet President Nixon, there’s an eerie feeling that almost nothing has been established. The hope here is that there’s a big payoff to the opening scene, but we don’t get one in this episode. We may not get one in the second part of this episode, either. But here’s hoping that we get one eventually.
“Lets see if someone tries to kill us and work backwards.”
As the story moves along, we begin to see the unraveling of this series’ first major theme. The idea of working backwards. We begin with the end of the story, seeing The Doctor slain by a mysterious swimming astronaut, and are set along the journey to figure out how this came to be. River Song, played gracefully as always by Alex Kingston, reveals to Rory at one point that she an The Doctor are working in opposite directions. Her past is his future, and one day she will meet him and he won’t recognize her. One can only hope that we’ll see her story come to fruition during this season, as her character brings with it a wealth of questions. Were she and The Doctor romantically involved? Why is she in prison? How did she get placed in the one prison that allows her to leave and come back whenever she likes? Why does she carry around a six-shooter, rather than some cool futuristic space gun? She’s an enigma, that River Song, and if we have anything to take away from this frantic first episode, it’s that she will play a major part in series six.
Less of an enigma are The Doctor’s wonder twin companions, The Legs and The Nose, otherwise known as Amy Pond, returning the lovely Karen Gillan, and Rory Williams, played by the doofishly heroic Arthur Darvill. There’s a danger in keeping them around while River and The Doctor do their dance through time, the simply might not have enough to do. But as is the tradition, there are layers. Amy has a secret (or three) and it’s likely that Rory will be killed once or twice. They are different characters this year, that’s evident in episode one. Amy is less feisty, which comes from a year of blowing up time and space with her newfound Time Lord friend, so it’s somber Amelia Pond that we’ll have to deal with, at least for now. And Rory is just there, until someone kills him. Which may have happened already. As we found out last season, he’s best when he’s the destination of Amy’s journey, not the journey itself. But we’ll see how it plays, as there is plenty more twists and turns and all-around weirdness in store for the companions this year.
On the whole, “The Impossible Astronaut” feels like Steven Moffat’s shock-and-awe campaign of introductions. We are reintroduced to some old favorites, Matt Smith continues to be wildly erratic as The Doctor, and we get a glimpse at characters who might come in handy later — like Battlestar Galactica vet Mark Sheppard as FBI Agent Canton Everett Delaware III (did anyone notice the three names trend for American characters in this episode? Oh, those cheeky Brits.) The only problem is that of the ending, which doesn’t exactly feel earned. Amy’s slow-motion turn and shoot feels dropped in, as if they needed a stopping point. And the post-credits “next week on…” roll shows off all the stuff we really, really wanted to see. Why cut it into two-parts? We can handle a two-hour premiere. It’s not like we’re going to stop watching…