Mon, 25 April 2011
"The Impossible Astronaut" is the first episode of the sixth series of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who. Written by show runner Steven Moffat, and directed by Toby Haynes, the episode was first broadcast on 23 April 2011 in the United Kingdom, as well as the United States and Canada. It will also air in Australia on 30 April 2011. The episode is the first of a two part story, which will conclude with "Day of the Moon". The episode was seen by 6.52 million viewers in the United Kingdom, the lowest rating for an opening episode since the show's revival, but received positive reviews from critics.
Amy and Rory, not having seen the Doctor for two months but aware of his recent exploits in history, receive a "TARDIS blue" coloured envelope. The envelope contains a date and time along with a set of physical coordinates that lead the couple to Utah, where they rendezvous with the Doctor and River Song. From the Doctor's perspective, it has been nearly two centuries since his last adventure with Amy and Rory (he left them when he was aged 908 and is now 1103). The Doctor now carries a diary identical to the one carried by River Song, and it is apparent that River and the Doctor have shared many adventures together as the two time travellers compare notes at a diner.
The Doctor takes the group on a picnic at a nearby lake where he tells them he is taking them on a trip to "Space 1969". There, Amy sees a mysterious figure in the distance, but it then vanishes and Amy appears to immediately forget what she saw. The picnickers are soon joined by an older man named Canton Everett Delaware III, who had also received an envelope. Suddenly, a figure in a space suit emerges from the lake, and the Doctor warns the others to stay back and not interfere while he goes forward to talk. The Doctor appears to recognize the person in the suit when it raises its visor. They talk for a while, after which the Doctor stands still, his head bowed. Before anyone can react, the astronaut raises an energy weapon and twice shoots the Doctor, who begins to regenerate. A third shot disrupts the regeneration process and kills the Doctor. The astronaut then retreats back into the lake, leaving the Doctor's companions stunned and horrified. Assured the Doctor is dead, they give the Doctor a Viking-style funeral using a can of gasoline Delaware brought.
Regrouping at the diner Amy, Rory, and River discuss the sender of the envelopes when the Doctor—a younger version of himself now aged 909—emerges from the restroom, revealing he also was given an envelope. Hesitant to tell the Doctor of his pending death, they explain the situation so far, and the Doctor uses Delaware's name and "Space 1969" in the TARDIS, ending up at the Oval Office of the White House in 1969. They watch as President Nixon takes a call from a mysterious young girl named "Jefferson Adams Hamilton" asking for help while a younger Delaware looks on. The Doctor reveals himself and gains Delaware's trust, convincing Nixon to give him a few minutes to locate the child. While he works out her location, Amy again sees a mysterious figure, and excuses herself to the restroom. There the figure, a Silent, waits for her, and destroys an innocent woman despite Amy's pleas. Amy realizes the alien figure is wiping her memory of her encounter when she looks away, and takes a photo of the alien on her mobile phone. By the time she returns to the Oval Office, having no recall of the events, the Doctor has found the girl's location —a building near Cape Canaveral, Florida at the intersection of streets named Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton. The Doctor and his companions leave in the TARDIS, followed closely by a curious Delaware.
In the building, they find pieces of a space suit as well as ancient alien technology. Alone, River warns Amy that though they may encounter the astronaut that killed the future Doctor, attempting to stop the astronaut now may create a time paradox. River and Rory explore a vast network of tunnels under the building and spreading throughout the planet, encountering and forgetting other Silence. They eventually come on a control room similar to the one seen in "The Lodger", unaware that they are being surrounded by more Silence. Behind Rory, there is a flashing similar to the flashing a Silent had made as it was killing the woman in the bathroom near the Oval Office. River turns to see him, and shouts his name. We do not see what has happened. Above ground, the Doctor, Amy, and Delaware hear the cries of a girl. Delaware gives chase, but Amy, suddenly in pain, realizes she must tell the Doctor something as they follow. They find Delaware nearby, unconscious, and Amy finally lets the Doctor know that she is pregnant. Before they can react, the astronaut appears. Amy reaches for Delaware's gun, while the astronaut lifts its helmet, revealing the face of a young girl. Before she can stop herself, Amy fires upon the astronaut.
On 25 March 2011, a short exclusive scene serving as a prequel for the first episode was released on the show's official website. The prequel depicts Richard Nixon (Stuart Milligan) receiving a recorded phone call of a girl's voice while sitting in the Oval Office. The girl, whose voice the president appears to recognize from a previous call, begs him to "look behind you", warning him that there is something there. The president angrily refuses and the line goes dead; the camera then pans around him to show an out-of-focus, inhuman figure standing to the president's right.
The episode was written by Steven Moffat, who took charge as show runner since 2010. Having also written the following episode, "Day of the Moon", Moffat wanted the 2011 season to start with a two-part story in an attempt to begin with more gravity and a wider scope in plot. In the Doctor Who Confidential episode following the broadcast of "The Impossible Astronaut", Moffat states it was one of the darker episodes of the series, but it still maintained the same level of humour. The inclusion of the Doctor getting killed felt like a series ender for some of the producers, but was actually there to "kick it off." In writing the death scene of the future Doctor, Moffat wanted to acknowledge to the audience that Time Lords are not invincible, and could still die permanently if killed before regeneration, a fact the series previously acknowledged in The End of Time. In creating the Silence, the alien antagonists of the episode, Moffat wanted them to challenge other monsters in past in terms of "scariness." He felt these creatures are a "much bigger deal." Amy Pond's pregnancy will be involved in a story arc as the series progresses.
In October 2010, it was announced that Mark Sheppard, who appeared in other past science fiction series including Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural and Warehouse 13, would make a guest appearance on the series. Sheppard described playing Canton as a "dream job," and wished to appear in another of Moffat's works, including Sherlock. Even though Sheppard is an English actor, it was his first appearance on British television. For the scene depicting the older Canton Delaware, it was planned that Sheppard would appear older using makeup effects; he successfully suggested instead that his father, William Morgan Sheppard, play the role. American actor Stuart Milligan was cast as President Nixon, which he found exciting, having played other presidents in the past including Dwight D. Eisenhower. Prosthetic pieces were applied on his cheeks, nose and ears to resemble Nixon as much as possible. He also practiced how Nixon would speak, but initially found it difficult since he had to wear fake teeth. Milligan previously appeared in the animated Tenth Doctor special Dreamland as the voice of Colonel Stark.
Filming and effects
This pair of episodes marks the first time that Doctor Who has filmed principal photography footage within the United States; the American-produced TV movie of 1996 was filmed in Canada. Some second-unit establishing shots of New York and the Statue of Liberty were filmed on Liberty Island for the episode "Daleks in Manhattan", but none of the cast of the episode were involved in the shoot. Filming took place in the state of Utah. For the opening shot for the location, director Toby Haynes wanted it to be epic so that the audience could recognise where the episode was set. The crew wanted to add as many American icons as they could into those shots, including a Stetson hat, a 1950s Edsel Villager and a yellow school bus. Moffat, having enjoyed writing episodes featuring River Song, wanted to give her an impressive entrance. Haynes had Alex Kingston block the Sun light from the camera angle and blowing smoke from her revolver. The scenes involving the picnic and the future-Doctor dying took place on the shore of Lake Powell. The suit worn by the future-Doctor's killer was a fabricated replica of an Apollo space suit. It was waterproofed as the killer came out of the water, and in real life space suits were not designed to be used in water. In filming the death scene the filming crew noticed that Karen Gillan was genuinely upset and "was acting her heart out." In filming the "Viking funeral" scene, Haynes wished to film it during the sunset. However, the sun set over the desert, so was instead filmed during sunrise, as the sun rose over the water.
Kingston had to genuinely slap Matt Smith several times in a scene because it was difficult to fake. Kingston recalled that after a few takes, Smith got red cheeked and grew frustrated at having to do the sequence over and over again. The Oval Office set was constructed at Upper Boat Studios in South Wales. Because the production crew had access to several pictures and plans of the real office, they were able to replicate it in almost every detail. The main problem for building the set was the plastering; the crew normally plaster one wall at a time for normal rooms, but because the Oval Office was round, they had to do the entire set at once. The American-style diner scene when the companions reunite with the Doctor in this episode is actually located in Cardiff Bay. The Laurel and Hardy film the Doctor intruded was done by Smith dancing in front of greenscreen. The episode opens with a still-caption tribute to actress Elisabeth Sladen, who died from cancer on 19 April 2011. Sladen had previously appeared in the series as companion Sarah Jane Smith, and as the same character on the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures.
Broadcast and reception
Broadcast and ratings
"The Impossible Astronaut" was first broadcast on BBC One in the United Kingdom on 23 April 2011 at 6 pm. The episode also aired on BBC America in the United States and Space in Canada on the same day. It aired on ABC1 in Australia on 30 April. After its original broadcast in the United Kingdom, "The Impossible Astronaut" received preliminary overnight ratings of 6.52 million viewers, a 36.7% audience share in its timeslot. Despite winning its timeslot, ratings were down by 1.2 million from the previous series premiere "The Eleventh Hour", meaning it has the lowest ratings of all the opening episodes of the series since the shows revival in 2005. The episode became the second highest rated programme of the night, behind Britain's Got Talent, which attracted 8.99 million on ITV1.
The episode was met with positive reviews from television critics. Dan Martin of The Guardian reacted positively towards the episode, believing the cast performed better than the previous fifth series. He stated "Steven Moffat has thrown away the rule book and made Doctor Who as, you imagine, he's pictured it should be his whole life. Killing the Doctor leaves the shape of the series mapped out, raises the bar so that no one is safe, and sees Amy, Rory and River facing a terrible dilemma." Martin liked that "Amy's numbed horror ramps things up to a series-finale level on intensity from the off," and then switches "into an Oval Office comedy of manners," and "morphs into gothic horror and finally flings you to the ground with its cinematic cliffhanger." He was also positive towards the American setting, and "our eccentric British foursome bumbling through it," believing the series raised its game with this." With regards to the Silence, Martin believed it was "a standard Moffat psychological trick, but the most refined to date."
Morgan Jeffery of Digital Spy called the episode "a fantastic launch for the sixth series," adding "the Doctor Who team's US location shooting has certainly paid off, lending these early scenes a grand scale that the series could scarcely have expected to achieve in 2005, let alone in 1963." Commenting on the future-Doctor's death, Jeffery said "seven minutes in, a nation's collective jaw dropped as The Doctor — this show's lead — is mercilessly gunned down. This plot twist is simply stunning, and it's difficult to imagine even casual viewers not sitting up to pay attention at this point." Jeffery also believed that the series regulars were on "top form," adding "the more abrasive aspects of Amy Pond's personality seem to have been toned down this year, and Karen Gillan responds with her best, most sympathetic performance to date. Arthur Darvill also lives up to his recent promotion to full-time companion. His comic timing is simply superb, but he excels too in the episode's darker moments." Jeffery rated the episode five stars out of five.
Gavin Fuller of The Daily Telegraph believed it was "a cracking start to the first part of the 2011 series, with the shocking ending of Amy seemingly shooting a girl making one keen wait for the conclusion next week to see how it all resolves itself," as well as enjoying the concept of the Silence. Rick Marshall of MTV believed that "Steven Moffat and the Doctor Who crew offer up yet another great episode," but also said the "big cliffhanger will likely cause more than a few fans' heads to explode." In addition, Marshall believed the alien antagonists "give the Weeping Angels a run for their money in scare factor." Simon Brew of Den of Geek thought the episode was "a triumphant return for Doctor Who, bubbling with confidence and throwing down story strands that hint at an engrossing series." Brew liked Sheppard's performance as Delaware and Darvill's increasing presence as Rory. Brew also complimented Haynes' work in the United States, saying it was an improvement from "Daleks in Manhattan", which featured British actors attempting to play with American accents. Tom Phillips of Metro said the 1969 US setting were "beautifully used," and enjoyed the "spookiness" of the Silence. However Phillips felt the episode would be "a bit hard to get into" for new viewers.