Doctor Who – The Impossible Astronaut – review and spoilers

I’d expected the new series of Doctor Who to strike another blow in Steven Moffat’s ongoing battle against average television, but even by his astronomically high standards, this was impressive. Witty, ambitious, scary and more entertaining than a Jeremy Kyle Bankers Special, tonight’s series opener suggests that the show can do what many feared was impossible and improve on the last series. Yet just as we were settling in to enjoy the return of Matt Smith and his geography teacher bow-tie – he got shot.

Realising that even Moffat wouldn’t be bold enough to kill off the corporation’s most popular icon since Basil Fawlty, I was confident that the Doctor would return after being gunned down by a mysterious spaceman in the breakneck opening minutes of The Impossible Astronaut. The show’s writer had been telling everyone that a main character would be getting the bullet in the first episode of series six, but as ever, he caught us on the hop by blowing away the star. The Outcasts writers tried that tactic a couple of months back and ended up staring down the barrel themselves within a matter of hours, but of course they weren’t able to reincarnate their man as an earlier version of himself with a fiendish time-travel storyline. Suffice to say, that impending catastrophe will be ticking away in the background for the rest of the series and we’ll definitely be seeing a few flashbacks of the fateful moment before the end of the year.

Moffat had begged the blogging community not to reveal who would be killed until the episode was aired this weekend (the audience at the press screening even clapped his request – apparently Doctor Who does funny things to people..) but after biting my lip for a couple of weeks, it’s finally safe to talk about the ramifications of Matt Smith’s potential demise. If his death was bothering me, then it was driving River Song bananas, and she still can’t mention it to her time-travelling companion in case her blabbing pulls the universe apart (..again).

After the initial gun-crime, the American theme continued and were whisked off to the Oval Office to find Richard Nixon worrying about the space-race and some unsettling phone-calls… *I will not do a Watergate gag, I will not do a Watergate gag, I will not do a Watergate gag* …Matt Smith soon stumbled into the room, but struggled to dominate a scene for the first time ever. Was I the only person who couldn’t take my eyes off the President’s nose?

The historical pokes came thick and fast as per usual (“Do I know how Rome fell? I was there..” “They’ll never forget YOU Mr President..” etc) But what sets this runaway ratings-winner apart is the potent mix of rapid and ingenious plot development, mixed with some slow but sophisticated plot arcs. The love triangle and that whole River-Doctor situation are not only wonders to behold, but play a key part in making the show more popular than Christmas. Indeed all the signs are that series six will be focusing on the long-game to a greater extent than its predecessors. Previous episodes usually see the foursome – who all share the plot burden pretty evenly – become imperilled, the Doctor would make us laugh, everyone would look a bit worried, then that music would kick in just as the Doctor saved the day. But The Impossible Astronaut asks plenty of questions and leaves most of them tantalisingly unanswered.

The second plot teaser that will be prodding our brains for the next six months concerns the Time Lord’s on-off girlfriend. River’s relationship with the Doctor has been much debated in the mid-series lull (not least in an excellent article on this forum..) but those strange fans who suggested that she could be his mother will surely have to rethink their theories in the coming weeks. There are some genuinely heart-rending moments when Miss Song laments the fact that she and the Doctor are growing apart. “My past is his future, every time we meet he knows me less..” she says, which is another intriguing arc, although it doesn’t explain why they still seem to be getting on like a house on fire.

It goes without saying that all the other standard Moffatian hallmarks were still present here: Fine action sequences, whip-like banter and crucially, some genuinely menacing villains. We got a taste of The Silence last year, but the whole back-story surrounding their millennia-old domination of the human race is truly haunting. Based on a similar premise to the Weeping Angels (last year’s best protagonists) this bunch of aliens in Scream masks will surely be going the distance in 2011. All these elements are crucial to the unique sci-fi family cocktail, but what continues to take Doctor Who from strength to strength is the potent mix of rapid storyline development in individual episodes, mixed with some slow but sophisticated plot arcs which will endure for much longer. I can’t wait..

Saturday 23 April
6.00-6.45pm BBC ONE


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