Don’t you just love a season finale? The epic storytelling, the payoff for everything that has gone before, the big bad monster, the ensemble cast, the complex plot threads coming together as a satisfying resolution. This article covers the episodes The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, which together form a single Doctor Who story, and our season finale… except it’s at the start of the series.
This was actually a deliberate move, to have something that felt like the end of a series and put it at the beginning. The thinking behind it makes sense, starting the series with a bang, but also reversing the standard practice of rewarding loyal viewers by paying off the series arc plot strands; instead the plot strands come afterwards, so instead of rewarding loyalty, it invites loyalty. There are three issues with this: firstly the series becomes something of a box-checking exercise, secondly if you put the finale at the start then what do you have at the end? And thirdly if you put all your big impressive moments at the start you get an inevitable feeling of all downhill from here. But that’s a discussion for another day, and looked at on its own merits this story is stunning in its bravery and complexity.
So how do you raise the stakes from our last two-parter, which saw the destruction of the universe? Well, you can’t really, but killing off the Doctor is a good try! His permanent death by being killed again mid-regeneration adds a level of danger to his adventures because it makes him that bit less indestructible, but it also fits perfectly with the Doctor’s preference for regenerating inside the TARDIS. If he is so vulnerable in that moment it makes sense that he would want to be somewhere safe from his enemies. The series will take us through various possibilities of how the Doctor will cheat that moment, with red herrings along the way, but it also felt like a strong possibility that it would not be resolved in the same series and we were actually seeing the final moments of Matt Smith’s Doctor, such is the age gap between the Doctor’s two time streams in this story. It feels big and important, and it’s a good tactic to keep us watching, setting up a whole bunch of mysteries at the start of the series, because the Doctor’s death is just one of them. In fact, this is not just a reverse process of showing the finale first, because there is more to it than that. There are also mysteries set up that will play out later in the series that are only tangentially connected to this story, principally the arc that Amy is embarking on, which is heavily teased.
When Steven Moffat took over as showrunner we were all hoping for some Blink-like stuff. We wanted more of the same, more creepy and incredibly clever monsters. For the most part, Moffat’s time in charge has been the story of never quite managing to live up to those sky-high (and frankly unreasonable) expectations, but this is the one huge unequivocal exception. The Silence are fabulously creepy, playing on some frightening horror tropes: the face reminiscent of a skull, the sealed off mouth, the human eyes staring out from the distortion of a face, the monster in human clothing, the disproportionate hands, in fact the whole proportions of the monster that cannot fit into its clothes by anything other than supernatural means. Basically, the image of a being that feels wrong.
Added to that is the old horror movie trick of having a monster cling to the ceiling, which is immediately inhuman and frightening, and plays on the human tendency to have a wide peripheral vision but only on the horizontal plane. We are less inclined to notice things above the horizon of our vision. A monster that takes advantage of a basic human characteristic feels dangerous and disturbing.
The Silence pull a similar trick to the Weeping Angels. They are a scary looking monster who defy you to avert your gaze from them. To do so has consequences. Blink involved the audience by having the Weeping Angels obey some set rules when the viewers were watching (foolishly broken in their next appearance), whereas that is impossible for the Silence because we cannot be made to forget, like the characters on screen are. However, some attempt is made at a similar tactic by having the camera experience the Silence in the same way as their victims in the second episode. Note that this does not happen until we are well into the story, so is a clever way to ramp up the fear factor. It is also a necessity to make the resolution work, which relies on the audience now being subject to the effects of the Silence and unable to remember part of the moon landings broadcast on rewatching. But then if you don’t remember that, you might have a Silent hanging from your ceiling right now. RP
The view from across the pond:
I’m covering this as one story, though it encompasses The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.
Around Christmas of 2011, a colleague of mine asked what the best episode of Doctor Who was. That’s a difficult decision, to be sure! I thought he was asking so he could start watching; it turned out he was asking so he could buy me a Christmas gift. A damned nice guy! After very little thought, I selected The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon. It’s nearly impossible to go over all that was right with this story but it started with my first viewing of it. Back in October, I was reminiscing about some friends. When The Impossible Astronaut premiered in NYC, my friends were unavailable with one exception: Reza. Reza and I traveled to the premiere, met the actors, and were utterly awestruck by the episode. Most of the drive home had us gabbing about it and how amazed we were by it! (Well, until he fell asleep.)
The opening on the beach is typical Moffat, giving us a mystery the likes of which have never been equaled. The death of the Doctor is one of those moments that you know will haunt you all season long until the mystery is solved. (That’s another story, but we’ll get there eventually.) There’s a new alien race that rivals any other: the eerie Silence. Tall, gaunt and mouthless… until they are ready to kill, those sunken eyes are images from our darkest nightmares. And they are magnificent. That creepy Predator-esque sound they make just adds to their horrifying allure. The fact that they can only be remembered when looking at them is just icing on the cake! Christmas came early! Then there’s that outstanding White House scene. Funny, sure, absolutely, but also so triumphant. As the Doctor tells River to “make her blue again”, the looks on everyone’s faces is one of those winning moments. Not to mention, Stuart Milligan is President Nixon. (Note the heavy emphasis on the P in president.) He clearly did his research and brought the former president back to life. Mark Sheppard and real life father William Morgan Sheppard play Canton Everett Delaware III and they are both awesome in their respective roles. (And such a fun name to say!)
Then there’s the mystery surrounding that little girl. Who is she? Why does she regenerate at the end? Why do we have to wait for the next part? Surely this could have been delivered Netflix-style, so we could binge the season! And speaking of that ending… the Doctor has had many triumphant moments in his life. Smith even gets one just last season when he bellowed over Stonehenge. But when you watch him beat the Silence with a subliminal clip, and River starts her best impersonation of Annie Oakley, it is just amazing. The music is spot on. The victory is the Doctors and River’s. This is new Who done right – the lead actually wins the day without his friends having to become supernatural entities to make it happen!
And how about River’s escape attempt from the Silence? Amy and Rory have good ones, but River’s… awesome! What about Amy’s visit to the mental home and the Silence hanging upside down? Or the ink marks to count how frequently we encounter this terrifying enemy? How about that box the Doctor is being trapped in? A little too much like the Pandorica? I thought that too until I saw where they were going with it! Bottom line here, guys, this episode is utterly epic. Just about any episode has its ups and downs, but I’d be hard pressed to find a “down” in this one! And the surprises just keep coming – the episode was dedicated to Sarah Jane Smith herself, Lis Sladen, who died just four days before this episode was broadcast.
I usually have something I can critique; some little nit I can pick to offer a flip side to all that I loved in an episode. I’ve got nothing for this one. I genuinely can find nothing wrong with this story. It is just one mystery, one victory, one narrow escape, one horrifying moment, and one impossible thing… after another. If you watch this episode and tell me you don’t love it, I have just one reply to that: Impossible! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Curse of the Black Spot