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Doctor Who Recap: ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

I am so confused. Whenever Steven Moffat gets cute and clever with his writing, I usually end up scratching my head wondering what the hell is going on – not really a good thing.

This post is ripe with spoilers so if you haven’t seen “The Impossible Astronaut”, go watch it, then come back. I’ll wait…

The season premiere of Doctor Who had almost as much fanfare as the premiere of Game of Thrones on HBO. This was due in no small part to the fact that, for the first time in the shows history, they were filming in the US. But the gorgeous landscape of Monument Valley wasn’t enough to distract me from what came to be a short-feeling, confusing episode.

The episode begins with Rory and Amy settling into their life together while the Doctor is off having adventures in the past that seemed aimed at simply getting their attention. One day, they receive a ‘TARDIS blue’ envelope – inside are coordinates and a day/time. Cut to the prison where Doctor River Song is being held. She, too, has received an envelope with coordinates. Turns out, those coordinates lead all of them to the Utah desert where the Doctor is waiting for them. He is 200 years older than the last time we saw him, clocking in at over 1100 years.

The Doctor tells them they’re soon to be off to 1969, but first, the gang has a picnic on the beach (lake shore, really), during which Amy spots an odd looking alien up on the rocks, but when she looks away to tell the Doctor, she immediately forgets. A moment later, an astronaut steps out of the lake. The Doctor tells his friends that he must go and greet the astronaut alone and that, no matter what happens, they can’t interfere. To their horror, the astronaut shoots the Doctor. This kicks off the Doctor’s regeneration.

Then the astronaut shoots the Doctor again, interrupting his regeneration and ending his life forever. Another person who was invited, Canton Everett Delaware III, appears. He was told not only to come to this spot at this time on this date, he was also told to bring gasoline. Together, they give the Doctor a Viking funeral. River realizes that the envelopes were numbered, 2-4 – so where is number 1?

Turns out, envelope number 1 was delivered to a younger version of the Doctor – the one who is 909 years old, and now it’s up to his companions to convince him to travel to 1969, to find the younger version of Canton Everett Delaware and unravel the mystery of The Impossible Astronaut.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again – Steven Moffat does weird things. I know that he is this massive Doctor Who fanboy, and that he has written some of the best episodes – but when he gets clever, or when he thinks he’s being clever, I get lost. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

The story felt rushed but empty. Once again, Moffat has created a new, creepy alien race with a similar ‘power’. Like the Weeping Angels who can only move when you look away, these new aliens can only be remembered when you’re looking right at them – look away and you instantly forget.

From the death of the Doctor, the team travels to the White House in 1969 where they meet President Nixon and Canton Everett Delaware as a young man (cleverly played by Mark Sheppard as a young man, and his father, W. Morgan Sheppard as an old man), who has been recruited by Nixon to investigate strange phone calls from a little girl that follow him everywhere he goes. This leads them to Florida, to Cape Kennedy Space Center, where they find alien technology lying around and ancient tunnels underneath.

As I said, it felt rushed. The commercials didn’t help. We’re used to commercials in our shows in America, but in Britain, they air without commercials. As a result, the commercial cuts felt awkward – just when something would happen, cut to commercial. And those breaks were frakking long, too. I clocked em (cuz I’m a nerd). They took 5 commercial breaks during a 58 minute long episode (sans end credits) and those commercials totaled a whopping 15 minutes. That means the episode itself was 43 minutes long, which felt short for an episode of Doctor Who. Add to that the abrupt ending and I was not happy. It felt short and disjointed.

I was also amused that ‘Doctor Who was brought to you with limited interruption by BMW’. 5 commercial breaks was ‘limited’? I’d hate to see what would’ve happened had BMW not paid for that sponsorship…

A standout moment was Any Pond mourning the Doctor’s death. I thought Karen Gillan did such a good job.

My overall feeling is agnostic. I’m interested in seeing how they tie things up next week, but as it stands, my excitement for the new series has been dulled by this episode.

Okay – let the comments begin…

About Patrick Hester (527 Articles)
Patrick Hester is a writer, blogger, podcasting dude, Denver transplant and all around Functional Nerd. Don't hate him cuz he has a cool hat.

10 Comments on Doctor Who Recap: ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

  1. I agree fully, was disappointed. Hopefully (but not expecting) the second part to save the day.

  2. As a single episode, it was lacking, I concur. A lot of running around with not enough heft to it.

    Moffat’s pattern, however, seems to be to work on a bigger canvas than just one episode–a pattern that has held since his first stories back in the Davies era.  

    Heck, if you look carefully, there is stuff in his episodes last season that didn’t make sense or connect until the very last episode. I suspect that this is going to be true for this season as well. We might not get resolution on what we have seen for many episodes.

    I admit that its very different than the self contained episodes that are the overwhelming pattern in Doctor Who serials.




  3. Completely different reaction, and I am a very grumpy passenger on the Smith/Moffat bus. I was “pleasantly surprised” by this episode. The set-up is a puzzling yet compelling mystery, I appreciated the injection of increasingly rare gravitas, and I actually didn’t want to smash the monitor every time River Song was onscreen. Not perfect, but better than anything I saw from this team last year. (But I’m still moping about Christopher Eccleston’s departure, so there you go.) Also, concurrence: the commercials were absolutely brutal in the BBC/AM broadcast, and the “tribute” for Elisabeth Sladen was, ah… less than it should have been. I mean, come on. 

  4. Much to busy for my liking, and I do agree that the new monsters (which look cool and are a ‘good monster’) are just to similar in intent to the weeping angels (something I think was spoilt last season). I am curious to note that you missed out one of the key things from this episode… (well at least according to Dr Who Confidential – a making of program we get here in the UK, not sure if you get it on yourside of the pond, but its worth checking out) and that was Amy announcing she was pregnant…. Yup I missed it as well.

    I have a feeling that Stephen is trying to be incredibly clever and ‘play’ with us fans… all that really tends to do is annoy me… The Dr isn’t dead, or if he is dead then there will be some clever get out of jail free card pulled at some moment… simply because I can’t see Matt Smith being the last Dr… which in show law he should be now, as it was the future MS Dr who get killed.

  5. Daniel S // April 27, 2011 at 8:26 am //

    I loved the episode. I thought the overarching story is fantastic. There’s only so many time you can save the world, the universe, all of space and time, before upping the ante becomes ridiculous. A personal story is much better than a grandiose one (in the case of Doctor Who, who haven’t had a great track record of mixing the two). 

    I thought the specifics of the story just as interesting and the ending was gripping. The aliens ‘powers’ seem to be part of the wider story rather than gimmicky, I thought, although the child’s voice over the phone is a bit overused.  

    I’d love to know more about why you thought the episode was empty, though. From the review it sounds like your biggest problem was the ads.



  6. The Picard // April 27, 2011 at 10:16 am //

    The episode ended abruptly with a cliffhanger, what is confusing about this? It seems to me that, besides the ads (were you suprised… really?), the problem you have is that you have to wait a week to see the concluding episode. There are a lot of interesting questions raised that I expect will be resolved in the next episode. This is good for a two part story, right? I can’t wait to see it.

  7. I found the episode a bit annoying, but mostly because the annoyingly long and too often commercial breaks that seemed to be advertising the episode itself.  Whatever ads you saw in the UK, we saw twice as much on BBCAmerica.  if the station keeps that up, I’ll skip the entire season and wait till it shows up on DVD or OnDemand.


    but the show itself,  Mark Sheppard was a wonderful surprise, and I loved the scary creepy aliens who you forget when you’re not looking at them. And I’m gonna love anything with River Song in it.  But still, the ep felt rushed and empty, at the same time.  Much running around, but not much happening.  I’m sure the 2nd part will make eveyrthing  make sense. . .

  8. TheAderian // April 27, 2011 at 1:18 pm //

    I just don’t understand how people manage to enjoy these episodes. Is it like when you’re dating a girl who hates you and you can’t see it because you’re afraid of not dating someone?

    I have been a Who fan since the 70s and the renewed series is basically a kids show whereas the original was a family program for a variety of intellectual levels.

    The show was really awful and contained the same elements I’ve seen over and over.

    1. A talking/moving mundane object. A talking fireplace, shoe, spacesuit, etc is used to create “creepy mystery” and it’s not creepy unless you’re ten and sitting near a fireplace.

    2.  Static aliens who have nothing to say and no point beyond being another creepy object.

    3. Fake drama. That’s where nothing much is happening and the actors scream, etc to pump up the tension when nothing tense is happening.

    4. The doctor dying.

    5. Fake heavy stories about the tragic fate of whoever.

    Dr. Who, and any good time travel story, is about “what ifs” and that’s what Who should get back into. Science Fiction is about exploring what people are doing now and how that could affect the future and imagining what technology could do to human behavior. It’s not about SciFi Channel “Mansquitos” and other such crap.

    The writer needs to be fired and the old method of having different writers for each show should be adopted.

  9. @drax

    Agreed – I think Sarah Jane deserved a little something more in way of remembrance.

    Maybe they’ll do a little something special for her in an upcoming episode.

    @Andy W

    I didn’t mention the pregnancy thing because I don’t believe it yet.  It’ll be interesting to see what they do with that, but I’m thinking it’s something else.  Not sure…

    Of course there will be a way out.  No one stays dead in television except for Ms. Calendar…

    @Daniel S

    The ads bugged me, but they always bug me. Last year, episodes ran nearly an hour and a half with commericals – this one ran one hour with 15 minutes worth of commercials. Something is going on and yes, that bugs me.

    If you want to know the truth – the most distracting thing about watching anything at all on BBCAmerica is the sound…  I go from any other channel over to BBCAmerica, and I can’t hear a blessed thing.  I had the sound turned up three times higher (I went from 15 on a ‘regular’ channel to 45 on BBCA!) just to hear it.

    Why I felt it was empty…  Maybe empty is the wrong word.  It was definitely rushed.  The pacing was off.  It felt like it wanted to be a longer story or like there were moments that were missing.

    @The Picard

    I don’t mind cliffhangers, but at least give me a full story arc – beginning, middle and end before you hang me over that cliff πŸ˜‰


    Yep. Sheppard is always great.  So is his dad, really. 


    Hey now!  From what I understand, the Mansquitos don’t appear til episode 6…


  10. Adam Duclos // April 28, 2011 at 7:35 am //

    I think the new direction the series is taking is pretty interesting.  This is the first time I’ve seen the Doctor not in control of his own destiny.  Right now, he’s the one in the dark, taking a back seat to his companions.  After all, River Song knows a lot of his future and can run the TARDIS better than the Doctor can, and Amy Pond is the one interacting with the creepy new aliens the most.  I wonder if the writers have read a lot of Piers Anthony?  The backwards/forwards relationship between the Doctor and River are straight out of the ‘Incarnations of Immortality’ series, and the forgetfulness powers of the aliens are just like those of the main character in ‘Mute’…

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