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Mr. Smith Goes To Washington: Doctor Who, "The Impossible Astronaut”

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | April 25, 2011 |

By C. Robert Dimitri | TV | April 25, 2011 |

“I’m being extremely clever up there, and there’s no one to stand around looking impressed. What’s the point in having you all?”

We open in The Doctor’s usual hangout, London. We’re back in the sixteenth century, where we find The Doctor hiding beneath a lady’s ample skirt from a British nobleman, who is none too happy about the semi-nude portrait of The Doctor in the works.

Flash forward to the present day, where Amy and Rory, two months removed from adventures with The Doctor read about the incident, including The Doctor’s subsequent imprisonment and escape from the Tower of London. It would seem that The Doctor is attempting to attract their attention, as also evidenced in the history book by his unusual escape from a P.O.W. camp and his blatant appearance in the Laurel and Hardy movie that they are watching on the television at that moment.

A “TARDIS blue” telegram summons them to a very specific place and time in Utah, and off they go to America. River Song, sporting a sidearm that befits the Old West, escapes from Stormcage prison yet again to meet them there, although “again” is only the appropriate word from our perspective, as her timeline in running backward from our point of view. The Doctor, aged two hundred years and wearing a Stetson hat that is quickly discarded courtesy of River’s sharp-shooting, is there to meet them. At a local diner River and The Doctor compare diaries to determine which time-skipping adventures they have had together and which ones they have not. Much has happened since the season five finale, and The Doctor informs them that their next adventure will take place in 1969.

The four share a lakeside picnic, and the strange and tragic events that follow seem to meet The Doctor’s expectations. On one ridge, Amy spies a strange figure, but she quickly forgets the vision that promptly disappears. Over another ridge, an old man in a truck arrives, just as an Apollo-era astronaut emerges from the lake. The Doctor tells his three companions to stay back no matter what happens. From a distance they watch The Doctor engage in conversation with the astronaut, who raises the visor on the helmet before shooting The Doctor with an energy weapon repeatedly. The Doctor’s biology kicks in to begin his regeneration.

A new incarnation of The Doctor? Cool! The BBC certainly did keep that one under wraps. So long, Matt Smith!

Unfortunately, the astronaut then shoots The Doctor in the middle of the regeneration when he is at his most vulnerable, thus killing The Doctor permanently.

Well, folks, that sums up this episode of Doctor Who. There was so much hype, and now The Doctor is deceased. This was not how I expected things to end after all these years.

Oh … there are still over 50 minutes left for Amy, Rory, and River to do something. In a vengeful rage, River fires her gun futilely at the astronaut, who is unfazed and disappears back into the water. The old man, Canton Everett Delaware III, walks down to meet them, sadly confirms that The Doctor is truly dead, and displays his own TARDIS-blue invitation to this shindig. He gives them a gasoline can to give The Doctor’s corpse proper fiery funeral rites on the boat that is conveniently located nearby. The four of them give The Doctor a proper send-off, and in so doing prevent any other creatures in the universe from recovering his Time Lord DNA. Delaware leaves but tells them that they will meet him again.

A mystery remains, however. The envelopes were numbered two, three, and four. Who received envelope number one? Back at that same diner, the companions share grief and frustration over what has occurred, before noticing said open envelope resting on another table. Emerging from the restroom is our good old Doctor, played by Matt Smith! (What relief! Maybe this series can continue.) This incarnation is two hundred years younger than the one we saw killed, as evidenced by the fact that he is picking things up with River exactly where we left off at the end of season five.

On the TARDIS, the three companions lobby The Doctor to take them to 1969 to meet Delaware’s younger self so that they can unravel this mystery. Amy is intent on preventing The Doctor’s death, but River privately warns her about the danger of creating paradoxes.

River: “He’s interacted with his own past. It could rip a hole in the universe.”
Amy: “But he’s done it before.”
Rory: “And, in fairness, the universe did blow up.”

The Doctor refuses to take them anywhere without more information, namely the identity of the person that arranged for all of them to convene. (Of course, if the older Doctor can prioritize those whom he trusts the most with those envelopes, you might think the young Doctor would reach the same conclusion of using himself.) River asks The Doctor to trust her, and he pointedly asks the questions we all we want to know: who is she, and whom did she kill to earn incarceration in Stormcage? She does not answer, but Amy convinces him to trust her by swearing on fish fingers and custard, their first meal together.

Thus, to 1969 Washington, D.C., they go, in search of ex-FBI man Delaware. The TARDIS takes them right to him, although he happens to be meeting with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office at the time. The TARDIS uses its cloaking device to remain invisible as The Doctor slips out just in time to overhear a conversation between Nixon and Delaware, who serendipitously have their backs turned. Nixon has brought Delaware before him as outsourced help. The Doctor stealthily takes notes as Nixon plays Delaware the recording of a phone call that he has repeatedly been receiving. A child asks the President for help with the “spaceman.” Nixon and Delaware turn to see The Doctor after the call ends, and the Secret Service quickly subdues The Doctor. River deactivates the cloaking device, revealing the police box resting on White House carpet.

With wit and wisdom, The Doctor manages to convince the President to allow him to help unravel the source of the phone call. Nixon and his bodyguards are resistant, but it is Delaware who convinces the President to give the Doctor with his amazing, unexplained arrival a chance. The Doctor begins his search scouring maps of Florida, home of the space program and the source of the phone call.

While The Doctor works, Amy experiences a twinge of illness and takes a restroom break under Secret Service escort. Inside the restroom, she meets a suit-and-tie-wearing creature with elongated facial features reminiscent of Munch’s “The Scream.” (Trivia: said painting was the inspiration for the design.) She realizes this is the creature she saw on the ridge, but that she can only recall its existence while she is actually looking at it. A lady named Joy emerges from the toilet stall and essentially serves as the guinea pig that proves this to Amy, as Amy warns her to watch out. Joy laughs the alien off as a Star Trek costume, looks away, looks back, and dismisses it a second time as the same joke. The creature puts out its hand, charges the air using electric power, and blasts Joy into nothingness. It then cryptically tells Amy to let The Doctor know what he must know and what he must never know. Amy cleverly attempts to remember the creature by taking a photo of it with her phone, but once she leaves, she forgets the creature and the saved photo.

Back in the Oval Office, the child in distress calls again, letting them know that the spaceman is going to eat her. The Doctor rushes off in the TARDIS with Amy, River, Rory and new passenger Delaware, who receives the usual bigger-on-the-inside and travels-through-space-and-time tutorial from Rory. It is Rory’s job, as Amy sweetly informs him, because he is the newest. The child’s formerly assumed name, Jefferson Adams Hamilton, is actually the name of the three-street juncture where they have tracked the call near Kennedy Space Center.

In the dark building at this address, the astronaut watches the five of them investigate. They find obviously advanced alien technology, as well as another set of Apollo astronaut garb, which the aliens have apparently confiscated.

River: “Stolen?”
Amy: “What, by aliens?”
The Doctor: “Apparently.”
Amy: “But why? I mean, if you can make it all the way to Earth, why steal technology that can barely make it to the Moon?”
The Doctor dons the helmet and exults.
The Doctor: “Maybe ‘cause it’s cooler! Look how cool this stuff is.”
Amy: “Cool aliens?”
The Doctor: “Well, what would you call me?”
Amy: “An alien.”

After sharing a private conversation with Amy about the paradoxical dangers of trying to stop the astronaut should they run into it here, River follows cables from the alien technology into an underground tunnel. The Doctor asks her to shout if she runs into trouble. She assures him that she’s “quite the screamer,” and quips, “Now, there’s a spoiler for you.” Below, River spots several of the creatures that Amy saw in the restroom. They appear to be in some sort of hibernating state but rouse when they see her. She retreats back above ground, but she has forgotten them and reports that all is clear.

River goes back for another look, and this time Rory tags along. River feels a twinge of queasiness, perhaps in response to the forgetful spell the creatures placed on her. This time the creatures are no longer in the same passage where River encountered them, but they lurk in the shadows, following River and Rory as they explore the extensive underground network.

They find a vault door, and as River works to crack the electronic lock, she tells Rory the story of how The Doctor met her when she was young and knew everything about her. Now they meet going in opposite chronological directions, as she lives for those moments when she can see him, even as he knows her less each time. There is no real new information here for the viewers who are so hungry for it, but it is a brilliant, quiet piece of acting by Alex Kingston, with nice subtle musical scoring by Murray Gold. If you previously were not invested in the mystery of River Song and her relationship with The Doctor, that scene should have sold you. I did not think it made much sense for River and Rory to be splitting off from the group at that moment other than to separate the characters for the imminent cliffhanger, but this made me forgive the contrivance.

She cracks the lock, and they enter an alien console room that activates an alarm when River attempts to use the controls. Rory looks back out the door, sees the creatures, and forgets about them. River turns to Rory, and - although we do not see it - it would seem that he is under attack.

Meanwhile, The Doctor, Amy, and Delaware hear a cry for help from the child that made the phone calls. Delaware rushes to investigate, and The Doctor must stop to tend to Amy, who is undergoing abdominal pain. They catch up to Delaware and find him knocked unconscious. Amy has been fumbling to recall what she needs to tell The Doctor; she uses the panicked moment to tell him something terribly urgent: she is pregnant.

The astronaut that killed The Doctor comes around the corner, Amy quickly picks up Delaware’s gun, The Doctor shouts for her to stop, and Amy cries that she is saving his life. The faceplate on the helmet goes up to reveal the face of the little girl who has been asking for help, but it is too late. Amy has fired the gun.


There we have it: another old-fashioned Doctor Who cliffhanger to open the season! Who is the little girl? Did Amy just kill her? Is Amy actually pregnant? Is Rory OK? How are The Doctor and his companions ever going to remember to fight these creatures? Will we learn anything new about River Song? Can The Doctor’s death in the Utah desert be stopped? What do you think of the new enemy? Does this episode rank well compared to the other Moffat-penned episodes? Discuss!

I give Steven Moffat credit for creating yet another memorable new enemy for The Doctor. As one of my Doctor Who-watching companions mentioned, Moffat does tend to recycle some of his story components: the voice of a child used in a creepy manner (see “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances”), the dehumanizing faceless helmet as menace (see “Silence In The Library” / “Forest of the Dead”), and the enemy whose chief power depends upon whether or not you keep them in your field of vision (i.e., the Weeping Angels). The good news is that those devices still work, and they work so well that they feel fresh. It is frightening to imagine how powerless one would be at the hands of this memory-erasing property. It is essentially a step up on the Weeping Angels in terms of dangerous potential, and their grotesque appearance and characteristic sounds are downright unsettling.

I give Moffat even more credit for keeping the dialogue moving at that breakneck pace that he has perfected. Even when this show is logically preposterous, it is great fun hearing these actors sell it. The almost constant barrage of one-liners (e.g., “The Legs, The Nose, and Mr. Robinson” as nicknames for Amy, Rory, and River, respectively) makes any talking over the episode when watching with a group utterly prohibited.

I am still trying to wrap my mind around River Song. If she knows more incarnations than those of Tennant and Smith, which I feel has been implied, then would not the permanent death of Eleven be a shocking paradox to her? I realize that the number of Doctors she has met has not been stated definitively. Perhaps we can consider tossing out the theory that killing The Doctor is what put her in Stormcage. For if that is the case, we again have a paradox with her witnessing the apparent permanent death of The Doctor. Or could River be holding her tongue about this adventure with respect to knowledge that The Doctor gives her in his future (and her past)? It seems to me that The Doctor (and Moffat) will need to do a bit of paradox-dancing to defeat these creatures and resolve this mess. The plot to kill The Doctor would in fact seem to depend upon the paradox and the companions’ effort to avoid revealing the wrong information, which is reinforced by the creature’s directive for Amy in the restroom.

One theory that I think we can permanently throw away is that River Song is Amy Pond’s future self. That is dissatisfying to me on a narrative level if the romance of Rory and Amy is to mean anything to us. More than that, though, River’s monologue that she delivers to Rory - if true - about The Doctor’s knowing everything about her completely contradicts that she could be Amy Pond. (Again, Alex Kingston deserves big credit for that scene.)

There might be nothing to my doubt, but I question Amy’s pregnancy for a couple reasons. First, River seemed to be experiencing similar illness symptoms to Amy, and I guessed that was a side effect of the memory erasure by the creatures. Second, even though Amy’s first bout of sickness had led me to guess that she was pregnant, I wonder why it was so urgent to tell him right when she did. Is it because she suddenly was reminded of the physical danger of traveling with The Doctor and wanted to protect her unborn child? It seemed to be odd timing, particularly when she was also struggling to recall her encounter with the aliens throughout the episode. The two thoughts seemed conflated in some way.

That said, having a companion give birth while an active part of the show is something that we have not seen in the illustrious history of Doctor Who (at least to my memory), so it would be novel in that respect.

We were given a new opening montage before the standard credits sequence, in which Amy narrated a quick primer on The Doctor and her travels with him. I assume this was in anticipation of yet more new viewers this season, as the hype and publicity for the program continue to increase. It does seem a long journey from that humble little BBC science-fiction show that kept me in for the late Saturday nights of my youth (hardly primetime) thanks to PBS syndication. I thought the improving production values showed in this premiere, so I for one am thankful that the support has increased.

Very mild spoilers for next week: my Internet reading about this episode tipped me that the enemy in this episode is known as “The Silence.” I refrained from using that nomenclature up to this point because it does not appear in the episode, and it seems that this is highly indicative of a link to the primary season five narrative arc. Perhaps you all already know this, though.

C. Robert Dimitri wishes a sad farewell to Elisabeth Sladen. She gave much to us Doctor Who fans over the years and will be dearly missed.

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