Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Impossible Astronaut: It's 1969, Okay? All Across The USA

'Time isn't a straight line. It's all bumpy-wumpy. There's load of boring stuff. Like Sunday, and Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons. But now and then there are Saturdays. Big temporal tipping points where anything's possible. The TARDIS can't resist them, like a moth to a flame!' In 1996, after seven years away from our TV screens, the BBC's long-running popular SF family drama Doctor Who returned. For ninety minutes. In a television movie made in a co-production deal with Universal. It wasn't very good, to be honest. (Although Paul McGann in the role of The Doctor was genuinely excellent and it's a real pity we never got to see more of his interpretation of the part which had previously been played by William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.) However, one thing about it was memorable, the BBC chose to trail the event with a simple, but beautifully formed, tagline. 'He's back. And it's about time.' That's always been the way of things ever since the drama began, in the unearthly surroundings of a London junkyard in November 1963. Every time The Doctor returns, something magical and thrilling occurs. In 2005, the show was resurrected by BBC Wales and, over the last six years it has become one of the most important shows for the BBC. Dependable. Reliable. A sure-fire hit, critically and commercially. Last year, those eight previous Doctors and their Twenty First Century successors, Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, we joined by a new name on the roll-call of the most famous part in British TV history, Matt Smith. Impossibly young - just twenty seven when he was cast - and yet, as last year's finale poetically noted 'Brand new and ancient.' But, like his predecessors, still solid, dependable, always there. In The Impossible Astronaut, he returned in his TARDIS. And so did his young friends Amy and Rory and his not so young friend, River Song. Within ten minutes, one of these characters was dead. And, unlikely as it may seem, it was The Doctor. That, admittedly, wasn't in the brochure.

The Impossible Astronaut was an odd episode. I mean bloody odd. Decidedly, mad-as-a-box-of-badgers odd. It was staggeringly good in places, yet complex and strangely confusing in others. Lots of characters, lots going on, lots of shouting, not an awful lot of obvious straightforward answers. That's okay, complexity is not the worst crime in the world and I have a strong feeling that many of those questions in search of answers will be taken care of easily enough in part two. But, as it stands, this is the first time since The War of the Daleks that a Doctor Who episodes has left me with a feeling of wishing for something I didn't get. And, that surprised me, frankly. To begin with the positives, the witty pre-title sequence of a series of untold adventures in which The Doctor 'waves from history' to his companions was worthy of its place in any show's canon. I particularly loved the Laurel and Hardy bit. That was funny. The ominous moment when the Doctor tells his friends 'I've been running. Faster than I've ever run. And I've been running my whole life. Now it's time to stop,' set the tone for an at-times funeral atmosphere to the opening scenes. Like Logopolis episode one with a proper budget (and a proper script too). The influences ranged from the dead obvious (The Man Who Fell To Earth, Capricorn One, The X-Files, Oliver Stone's Nixon, the visual design of The Silence based heavily on Munch's The Scream) to the oblique (The West Wing, The Graduate, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Pirates of the Caribbean).

What begins as a charming and uneventful picnic on the beach among friends ends with the - shockingly effective - execution of The Doctor. The subsequent scenes of guilt, regret and outright pain - including the beautiful floating funeral pyre - will have likely confused the bejesus out of any casual watchers. So, is The Doctor really dead then as a bunch of numskull tabloids asked, seemingly in all seriousness, this morning? Yes, of course he is, guys. I'm not sure who that bloke is that looks exactly like Matt Smith whose on-set photos from the next twelve episodes you've been happily printing in your waste-of-space rags over the last nine months, though. Planks. Anyway, it was lovely to see Rory briefly blossoming when the Doctor's shadow is, albeit temporarily, ripped away from covering him like a blanket. Amy's reaction is to mourn, River's a more pragmatic wish to complete The Doctor's mission. Whatever that might have been. 'She's packing. She says she's going to some planet called America.' Then, The Doctor - implausibly - walks through the door of the diner in which they're holding his wake and Alex Kingston gets one of the most gorgeous lines in the show's history: 'Even by your standards, this is cold.' For once, the Doctor is four steps behind his companions and completely discombobulated by their reaction to his sudden appearance. Why aren't they glad to see him? Especially, in his really cool stetson.

This is a story about secrets and, of course, spoilers. Lots of spoilers. In the case of the former, there's a huge one revealed just before the end of the episode from right out of left field that may, or may not, have some significance in episodes to come. As may 'Jim the Fish', though I wouldn't bank on it. But, given the nature of other elements of the text - trust issues, clear false memories, the altering of history and the differences between nine hundred and nine and eleven hundred and three) then it's worth asking how much of what we see is, actually, real. 'Time can be rewritten,' we already know this, although according to River 'not all of it.' How, is the hard part to answer. Responding to a slap right across his chops by River, the Doctor asks the obvious question: 'I assume that was for something I haven't done yet.' Ironically, it might, possibly, have been for something he never will do either. Or maybe not. Time will tell. It usually does. 'The Doctor's death doesn't frighten me. Neither does my own. There's a far worse day coming for me.' The Matt Smith/Alex Kingston interaction is brilliant, like a 1940s Hollywood screwball comedy couple you're never too sure if they're going to end up in bed or in a divorce court. It's Josh and Donna in The West Wing. (Or, actually, even more pointedly, it's CJ and Danny in the same show.) A mature, mutually sarcastic relationship between adults that is, nevertheless, punctuated by moments of childish squabbling. Because, like the man said many years ago, 'what's the point of being a grown up if you can't act like a child now then then?' 'I'm quite the screamer,' River notes. The look on The Doctor's face indicates that he approves. For fans, there are the expected continuity references: To The Eleventh Hour ('swear to me on something that matter,' 'fish fingers and custard'), The Pandorica Opens and A Christmas Carol. Largely these are there to cement the history of the characters interaction rather then propel anything related to the plot. Though the phrase 'silence will fall', whilst not actually spoken in the episode itself, nevertheless hangs over it like a thick and onimous shroud.

The acting is, of course, great all round; you'd expect nothing less, frankly. Besides Matt and Alex, Karen and Arthur are on top form too. Amy's the key to the episode again, hovering between the lines of lucid empathy and angry outsider. But, Arthur Darvill probably just about steals the episode. Rory's achingly sad scene with River concerning her back-to-front life with The Doctor and how she is losing the person that she first met with each successive crossing of the paradoxical divide might just be the best scene in the show for years. And I mean years. One of this generation's 'How shall a man know his Gods?' scene from The Aztecs or the Doctor explaining how his family 'sleep in my mind' to Victoria in The Tomb of the Cybermen. Timeless. Eternal. Magical. To quote my mate Mietek Padowicz: 'I particularly enjoyed Rory as [both] TARDIS orientation officer and funeral director, in both cases he shows he could yet be a big player if he doesn't get eaten, dissolved, vaporized or otherwise sent off to the old companion's home.' Jonathan Creek's Stuart Milligan as a nuanced, rather haunted President Nixon and Mark Sheppard as a straight heroic-liberal cross between Fox Mulder and Seeley Booth are also both terrific. 'You were my second choice for this Mr Delaware,' the Prez tells Canton. 'That's okay, you were my second choice for President, Mr Nixon!' Brilliant. Sheppard's character gets many of the episode's best lines. 'So, we're in a box that's bigger on the inside and travels in time and space?' Canton asks Rory, rhetorically. When Rory replies that, basically, that's about the size of it Canton wonders 'how long have Scotland Yard had this?!' The effective SFX (horribly so, in the case of the death of minor-character Joy) are another bonus - although we shouldn't really be surprised by that any more. Just for a second to return to Joy, is that the first time that a character has even been killed in a lavatory in Doctor Who? I think it might be. Normally, the netties are off-limited even to the nastiest of nasty aliens.

So, The Impossible Astronaut. Well-acted, well-written, beautifully put together and dealing with some big ideas in an intriguing way in which the audience have to do a bit of the work. It's still as daft and British and ... well, Doctor Who as ever, it's just donned some of the clothes of great American TV drama for a couple of weeks. And, it wears them pretty well, let it be said. Full of great dialogue too: 'Hippy!' 'Archaeologist!' And: 'I'm your new undercover agent on-loan from Scotland Yard, codename The Doctor. These are my top operatives, the legs, the nose and Mrs Robinson!' And: 'Do not compliment the intruder.' And: 'I'm going to need a S.W.A.T team ready to mobilise, street level maps covering all of Florida, a pot of coffee, twelve Jammy Dodgers®™ and a Fez!' And: 'Canton, on no accounts follow me into this box and close the door behind you!' And 'Lovely fellahs. Two of them fancied me.' I think that, with the benefit of hindsight, in years to come The Impossible Astronaut is going to be one of those stories that today's generation of first-time viewers will reference as their own personal Doctor Who epiphany. It's probably going to become a favourite of this blogger, too. Stranger things have happened. But I'm going to have to see the second episode first. For it all to make proper sense and for the viewers to discover that all of the little things they think they picked up on, are actually what Steven Moffat meant when he sat down at his word processor to write the script. For the moment, I remain as I was after The Empty Child and before The Doctor Dances, in the 'impressed, but waiting for the punchline,' column. Mind you, dear blog reader, somewhere on an Internet forum near you at this very moment some plank with about four brains cells and an advanced degree in spouting drivel is, almost certainly, writing 'well that was boring.' To the no doubt sycophantic slurping of half-a-dozen other crass malcontents with a chip on their shoulder the size of the Philippines. This is the world we live in, dear blog reader. A world in which you should never, ever, use eight hundred mostly positive words to describe a piece of fiction when four negative ones will do just as well. Silence will fall. And it can't come quickly enough.

For yer actual Keith Telly Topping's - latest - 33 of the Day, what did you think of it, Iggy?