So here we are. It’s that most precious of moments – a new season of Doctor Who. We’ve been here before on so many occasions, but the first night is always sacred. All the build up, all the anticipation. Will it all pay off? Was the waiting worth it? To judge by the evidence of The Impossible Astronaut (Saturday, BBC1), the answer from this side of the sofa is… oh, my. Yes. I do believe so.
Sadly, for most of us the last few days have been tainted with sadness. We lost one of the most beloved members of the Doctor Who family last week with the passing of dear Elisabeth Sladen. Instead of crashing straight into the first episode Doctor Who started with a simple, tasteful dedication to our absent friend. Lump in the throat time, before we’d even started. It had to be done though, and I’m so glad they did.
Within seconds though, we were off. Steven Moffat’s been promising for months that this would be the season where everything went darker than we’ve ever been before. You wouldn’t have known it from the pre-credits sequence.
There’s always a moment at the start of a new season of Doctor Who (not to mention various Christmas Specials) where you wonder how the Doctor’s going to make his appearance. Most of them since Who came back in 2005 have been relatively low key. Eccleston made his debut with one word – “Run”. Not counting the Children in Need trail, David Tennant first appeared falling out of the Tardis in his predecessor’s gear. Next season he spent a couple of minutes slouching about on a bit of Apple Grass. The year after that he took off his tie and chucked it at an understandably non-plussed Martha, and for his last season he mooched about for fifteen minutes not crossing paths with Donna. All fairly relaxed, easing you back into the routine.
Matt Smith has no truck with such nonsense. Much more fun to fall out of the sky at high speed, then demand an apple. In last year’s Christmas show, he made his first appearance cannonballing out of a fireplace. This time? Stark naked, under the skirts of a young lady. What a boy.
The quickfire comedy opening was a sweet way to grab the viewer and drag them into the action before the serious business starts. My little heart sang at the sight of Eleven dancing in a fez with Laurel and Hardy. Two of my favourite things colliding in one show. Lovely. But then…
Things started to get dark. Then darker. Then a bit darker again. Then, a bit more dark. By the time we’d reached halfway, Doctor Who was as sombre as I’ve ever seen it, even when Tom Baker was towering over us being sepulchral. Despite this (or perhaps, because of it) the one-liners which peppered the episode hit the spot perfectly. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but thankfully our regulars have the chops to cope with these sudden gear changes.
Interesting to note that this year wasn’t really the traditional “jumping on” point for new viewers. The episode wasn’t impenetrable to the casual viewer, not by any means – its just that Steven Moffat knows enough about television writing and respects his audience enough to assume that we’re smart enough to pick things up as we go along. A quick interlude with The Ponds, a visit to the Stormcage to pick up River and we’re off to the heartland of America.
My word, but Doctor Who has never looked this good. So expansive, so downright beautiful. The location’s been rightly talked up as somewhere the programme has never been before, and Toby Haynes made use of it. That gorgeous long shot as the Ponds get off their Little Yellow Bus. Matt Smith, lounging on the bonnet of the car. River, backlit and iconic as she delivers one her trademark “I’m here!” introductions. Couldn’t get that in a studio at BBC Wales, no matter how much money Doctor Who has hurled at it these days.
Our heroes are given one brief moment of happiness together with a rather charming picnic scene. Within moments the alarm bells start ringing. Suddenly the Doctor’s age has jumped by a couple of hundred years. His little speech sounds like someone saying “goodbye” for the last time. So it proves to be, as he’s summoned to the lakeside by someone in an astronaut’s costume. Then shot. My heart reached my mouth at this point, and stayed there as the Doctor started to regenerate. It nearly exited my mouth when he was then shot again, and died. No tricks, no last minute reprieve. As has been threatened in the publicity, one of our team did indeed die. No coming back from this one, especially after W. Morgan Sheppard turned up with a petrol can. I spent an entire day trying to place where I’d seen him before, and eventually it clicked. It’s probably not deliberate, but the idea of one of Babylon 5’s soul-hunters turning up just at the moment our central hero breathes his last… well, it’s a nice tip of the hat to an American SF series that did so much to revive interest in the genre during the nineties. I also find it resonant that deep in the American desert, a hugely charismatic cult figure beloved by many is given a viking funeral by his best mates. I wonder if Steven Moffat’s a Gram Parsons fan?
Thank god for a traditional Moffat time-travel twist, then. Within seconds the Doctor’s back. Two hundred years younger, and utterly mystified as to why all his friends are so angry with him. River’s beautiful “even for you, this is cold” moment was another highlight, as was Amy’s desolation. Karen Gillan’s grief over the Doctor’s body moments before was so real, so heartbreaking, that it actually felt offensive when he turned up again with a straw sticking out of his mouth.
It’s remarkable the way this first episode uses familiar characters to explore unfamiliar territory. We’ve never seen the Doctor’s friends angry with him for such a concentrated period of time. We’ve never seen him so wrong-footed (that moment where he attempts to claim superiority while so obviously knowing nothing at all). We’ve certainly never seen the focus of the series shift so comprehensively away from the Doctor that he has to poke his head into a scene to draw attention back to himself. While hanging upside down. As ever, Matt Smith nails this remarkable new version of The Doctor to the point where I think – I really do think – that he might well have displaced the blessed Troughton as my favourite Doctor. The line that did it this time was (and I paraphrase) “I’m doing something terribly clever and none of you are even up here to be impressed. Honestly, what’s the point in having you?” He’s such a little boy, always keen to be at the centre of things, wide-eyed and impressed by the world. But only if he has some chums to be impressed with him.
Things began to get seriously disturbing when we got to 1969. A return of a Moffat favourite with the freaky child’s voice on the tape-recording (hello, “Empty Child”), and a welcome return to Doctor Who for Stuart Milligan (“Dreamland” seems mere moments and an eternity away now). Not that Nixon really looked like Nixon. Or indeed, sounded like him. Even Frank Langella was more convincing, and that’s saying something. Mind you, Nixon these days seems to have existed entirely as a caricature of himself. It’s as if even with acres of footage of the real thing, we’re content to remember the tics and the impressions. Still, he got across the essence of the man, albeit one who was oddly ineffectual. Battlestar Galactica’s very own Mark Sheppard is clearly the alpha male in the White House at this point, taking charge and putting Tricky Dicky in the background. I’m amused to find Nixon tape-recording his own phone conversations though. Presumably that one’ll go missing or be rendered unintelligble as well.
As for our monsters this week… well, the Silence are the freakiest we’ve had for quite some time. I believe they’re (in part) based on Munch’s “The Scream”, which presumably is why when they took out the poor innocent in the washroom they began to look like the painting. Sucking away someone’s life essence and then rendering any witness unable to remember what’s happened… that’s something new. Karen, Arthur and Alex were all called upon to switch-back between terror and normality within seconds this week, and they all managed it effortlessly. I’ve said before that the teaming of Eleven, Amy and Rory is one of the finest we’ve had in years. Adding River to the mix makes it almost perfect. We’re blessed with a group of actors who quite obviously love working together, who spark off each other even in the simplest scenes. When you’ve got that, you’re off and running.
Speaking of River…
In amongst all the mayhem, this week’s episode found time for one of the things that Doctor Who does best – when it just… stops, and concentrates on a tiny human moment. River’s conversation with Rory as she tries to pick the lock was one of those. I’m not sure what the opposite of a foreshadowing is, as she manages to refer back to events we’ve already seen, but which have yet to happen for her. “He’s not even going to recognise me. And I think that’ll kill me”. We know that’s true, because we’ve seen it. With every one of her appearances I find myself resenting that first two-parter more and more. A character so rich, so full of life, so much fun, and we know that we’re destined to lose her. Because we’ve already seen it. Good lord, but that’s smart writing.
All that, and a moment of elegance for Rory as he responds and empathises with everything River’s saying, because something similar has happened to him, once removed. I’ll keep saying this – Arthur Darvill is one of the show’s greatest assets. Never flashy, never showy, but absolutely the perfect audience-identification figure. “Rory, would you mind going with River?” “Yeah. A bit!”. Very nice. Very nice indeed.
The surprises kept on coming. That console room, as last seen in “The Lodger”. Amy’s little revelation to the Doctor, at the most inconvenient moment. Her sudden willingness to pick up a gun and try to kill a child, in order to save the man who means so much to her. Does she even realise the irony in that, given what she’s just revealed? Could it possibly be her own child, several years in the future? How will our heroes even be able to carry on for the rest of the season, if all of this is going to lead up to the death of the central character? As we heard back in Flesh and Stone, can time be rewritten? Will next week perform a traditional Moffat two-parter left turn, refusing to pick up where we left off?
It’s tantalising, fascinating, and I’m more pleased than I can say to have it back. Welcome back, Doctor Who. See you next week.