|In this scene Clara is cleverly, albeit tastelessly, disguised as|
It’s April 23rd, 2011. LMFAO are at number one with “Party Rock Anthem,” while Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, Adele, and Katy Perry also chart. Since Christmas, the Tunisian government has fallen, Hosni Mubarak has resigned in Egypt, and civil wars have broken out in Libya and Syria. Spring is in the air, as it were. While in the news during this story, Prince William and Catherine Middleton are married in Westminster Abbey.
It’s been just over three years and one month since this story aired. This is an odd gap to try to historicize within. It’s recent enough that it’s still easy to remember exactly how this felt on transmission, with the Moffat era’s brief quasi-imperial phase (aka “the bit Toby Haynes directed”) marching on with something that felt fresh and innovative. And yet it’s old enough, or, at least, Doctor Who’s style has changed enough since it that rewatching it, what jumps out is how little of this story would be done this way in 2014. At the time the tagline, acknowledged in interviews by Moffat, was that they were opening the season with what felt like a season finale. And sure enough, that’s the effect given, not least because of its two part structure.
But rewatched, it’s striking how slow bits are. The first episode uses half its runtime for what is in effect a massive slab of exposition, delivered before the Doctor has even begun investigating the plot. Yes, there’s a lot to cover between the Doctor’s death, how the Silence work, and a recap on River, but the way in which the episode repeatedly re-illustrates the concepts, contriving to show us the Silence making people forget multiple times, or finding multiple excuses to have River and the Doctor reiterate that they meet out of order, is striking simply because it’s the sort of thing isn’t done anymore. The series taking that kind of time to lay out exposition in 2014 is unimaginable.
There are ultimately two things that are lost in this. The first is the more obvious, which is Moffat’s exposition scenes. These have always been one of Moffat’s talents, simply because he’s adept at using the skills he honed in sitcoms for years to smooth out exposition, so that the scenes are full of gags and little brilliances that hum along. For all that the first half of The Impossible Astronaut is pure and unadulterated exposition, it’s also an opportunity to just let a very good cast do their thing. The four-man TARDIS crew is scintilating, and everybody gets a constant stream of good moments here. It’s telling that this ends up being the last time we see River in this mode – on every subsequent appearance, her primary role is to haunt and destabilize the narrative. But here we get her as a wisecracking, thrilling, fun character in her own right. This sort of willingness to luxuriate in spinning your wheels and just let an entertaining and skilled cast be entertaining and skilled rapidly drains out of Doctor Who after this story, for better and for worse.
The cast is bolstered significantly here by a particularly savvy choice of settings. This marks only the third time that Doctor Who has crossed its own timestream, so to speak, and done a story that is consciously situated in a historical setting during which Doctor Who existed. In this case, The Impossible Astronaut takes place during the transmission of The Space Pirates, while Day of the Moon is during the period where everyone was waiting for Jon Pertwee to show up. And more than just being a moment in history that Doctor Who was actually on the air for, this is a moment of history defined by a sci-fi iconography. What this means is that the story gets an incredibly rich setting (added to by the decision to use the big overseas shoot to film in the middle of Utah and get some gorgeous establishing shots) that it can draw from whenever things risk getting a bit slow. Richard Nixon, in particular, turns out to be astonishingly good if you need a spare bit of comic relief, which, to be fair, America has known for decades. Just wait til we discover Jeremy Thorpe.
The other thing you lose after this, and this is in many regards the subtler one, is a certain complexity of storytelling. The fact of the matter is that The Impossible Astronaut really does have an absolutely ludicrous amount of stuff to introduce in a short window, and that’s only the stuff it’s admitting to showing you. It also has to quietly introduce the backdrop for the entire River Song/Silence/Madame Kovarian arc, and do that with enough vividness that it can be referenced for an entire season. It’s not just in the matter of time spent that this story is heavy on exposition – it’s also the anchor for a multi-episode plot arc that’s going to be told completely out of sequence. This isn’t merely the most structurally complex story Doctor Who ever has tried, it’s also a limit point from which the series subsequently backs away. Even if it had worked, and clearly there’s no consensus that it did, this stretches the approach to its limit.
And so The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon stands as a sort of last outpost in a particular direction of Doctor Who. This is brave and probably wise. It’s a good story, and it’s good that the approach in question went out on a high note. Yes, everything that comes after it is subsequently rough, but that’s what happens when you try to find a new way of doing things. It takes a bit. Arguably it’s not until late 2013 that Moffat really figures out the details of the approach that replaces this one. (Arguably it’s not even then, though you’ll not see me making that argument) But what we might think of as the classical Moffat era really wraps up here.
Fittingly enough, it does so in a story that is largely about trying to figure out what to do after Blink. We already got that to some extent with Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone and its intensive focus on the Weeping Angels as constructs of narrative, but here we get a story that, on a very basic and fundamental level, is mostly about the camera. This was always a key aspect of the Weeping Angels – the fact that they obey the camera, and thus obey the viewer’s eyes, necessitating a continual act of watching. Indeed, it’s the entire joke of the Weeping Angels: whatever you do, don’t go behind the sofa. The Silence are a clever spin on this – ostensibly, at least, they exist separate from the camera. The camera can show them, but when it cuts away the audience remembers them. And that holds nicely right up until Day of the Moon, when suddenly the Silence start disappearing into cuts.
The key scene, and it’s possibly the most brilliant single scene in the program’s history, is the one of Amy exploring the children’s home in what is structured as a continuing scene in which editing is merely used to change camera angles and not to compress time, except that within the scene Amy’s hands and body steadily fill with tally marks that signify the presence of the Silence. In other words, the camera, which previously seemed “on our side,” unexpectedly becomes an instrument of the monsters, who can now hide within the medium. From a viewer’s perspective, the point is even more troubling: we can no longer trust that what the camera shows us is actually what’s happening. The Silence, as villains, have gained the power to manipulate the entire narrative to suit their purpose. It’s terribly fresh and interesting – it’s the one moment of the episode that still feels unequivocally edgy and creative today. Conveniently, it’s also the one moment that flags where the show is going to go, instead of just shamelessly playing to its own established strengths. This sort of trick is very quickly going to become the default mode the show works in. It’s going to be much less self-congratulatory and flashy after this, but it’s going to be not just normal but actively mundane and ordinary.
And yet all of this flash and style is ultimately a feint designed to draw attention away from the fact that everything in this story is actually about River Song. Ironically, the main clue to this is the utter lack of them: this is the first River Song story we’ve had in which there are essentially no revelations regarding the character. Instead there’s just summary of everything we’ve seen before. Because, of course, the real revelations are happening away from River. She’s all over this story, as the astronaut at the lake, as the child in the suit, and as Amy’s pregnancy. Every aspect of the backstory here is River, but with River in plain sight, for the moment, this becomes relatively invisible. Even if a viewer guesses some component part of the mystery, the whole of it is almost impossible to intuit, despite the fact that the answer to any given question is almost certain to end up being “River.” Given this, the fact that the story focuses so intently on the ways in which this relationship is painful for River, both in terms of her “far worse day” and in the sad finale of their first/last kiss is telling with regards to where the real meat of this arc is going to be.
But underneath this is what it is tempting to call a fundamental problem with the entire approach. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon was conceived of as “opening with a season finale.” The trouble is, of course, that you’re then stuck without a season finale. Ultimately, all the later revelations exist to set this story up, and they’re just placed after it instead. And it’s a joy – the mix of elements works marvelously here. It’s only going to be when we have to start treating the elements individually as parts of their own stories, instead of as a big, heady, bombastic jumble that things are going to start to go a bit wrong.
So in effect what we have is a story that shows why it has to seem dated barely three years after transmission. Because this story is and always was an endpoint – the furthest a particular approach could be taken without getting to the point where further improvements and refinements are terribly minimalist. In some ways this has been visible ever since The Big Bang, where Moffat calmly took the Russell T Davies finale to its logical limit and let the narrative collapse play out completely, then got on with it and told a different story. Here we get everything that Moffat is associated with put together into more or less the definitive statement of it. It’s as definitive a Steven Moffat story as The Pandorica Opens was a Russell T Davies story. And so what naturally follows it is a challenge to start doing something that isn’t just the well worn set of tricks that Moffat has been developing fairly linearly since The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.
But first we have to plunge into the uneasy process of remaking it. This is going to be rough going at times, to say the least. It has to be. At its best, one of the things Doctor Who has always been extraordinary at is making new mistakes. This is true on a very fundamental creative level, where even from the very beginning of the program you are forced to say things like, “well in their defense, resolving two weeks of sci-fi experimental theater with ‘oh, bother, the switch was stuck’ is not something I’ve ever seen done before,” up through the days of “racism and giant rats, huh” and “holy fuck that coat” and at last to things like “wait, they lied to their brother and told him he was a robot?” This is terribly important, because if you don’t make new mistakes you’ll never discover that obvious mistakes like evil robot salt shakers, hiring a construction worker dressed in a ludicrous scarf as your lead actor, a giant fascist Bertie Bassett, or a searing deconstruction of the normative rape/revenge plots that dominate sci-fi media in the early 21st century that argues for a focus on women’s narrative and experiences are, in fact, brilliant and important ideas that the world would be a poorer place without.
Which is to say that in many ways an entirely new sort of Moffat era begins here. One that has not, in my opinion, been particularly well-analyzed in a “what is this piece of television trying to do in the first place” sort of way. To be honest, too much Moffat criticism has focused on Season Five, with everything after it treated as “the bits that don’t work as well.” This may be a true statement about them, but it’s in no way the only interesting thing about them.
And the funny thing is, even at the time I was aware of all of this. I saw these two episodes two weeks early, at their New York City debut. My sister camped outside the movie theater for tickets at midnight the night before, and I drove into the city after my class and joined her about… oh, fifty or sixty people back in line once everyone in front of us had done versions of the same thing. The event had originally been planned for one movie theater, and I think by the end every free screen in the place was showing the episodes, and then they had another set of screenings after for the people who were too far back in line. But Tori and I were actually in the main room, so got to see the Q&A with Moffat, Smith, Kingston, Gillan, and Darvill, which was wonderful. I remember being struck, for neither the first nor last time, by the sheer number of female fans cosplaying as Amy and River, clearly invested in the show as it was in that very moment like I’d really never seen for Doctor Who before.
I’d been writing TARDIS Eruditorum for a couple of months at that point. I was late in the Hartnell era, writing up the post on the Quatermass serials, if I recall, and reading the novelization of The Smugglers. And it was the first new episode since I’d started. The impetus to write the blog really came out of the end of Season Five and the fact that I couldn’t get the show out of my head in the months after that season ended. I’d been a fan for years, but something about this precise moment of the show just felt electric and fresh and new. Like there was so much potential in it. And since I couldn’t get it out of my head, I figured I’d start writing about it. And these two episodes just… blew me away. There were so many questions and things to pick over. So many things that seemed interesting and innovative. Like the show could do anything. And more than anything, I wondered if it could.