Doctor Who preview: The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon

Get a tantalising taster of the two-part series six opener...

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“You make Doctor Who to be frightening. That’s how children rank the episodes – in order of ‘frighteningness’,” said Steven Moffat, the show’s storyteller-in-chief, at last night’s big-screen preview of the two-part season opener, which sees a return to proper, scary Doctor Who.

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After a reception at the superb Doctor Who Experience in London’s Olympia – jammed up against horrors from the series’ past – fans young and old and just-as-eager ladies and gentlemen of the press piled into the auditorium. We sat pinned to our seats for 90 minutes or so of electrifying, bamboozling television, which might just be also the most unsettling since the series came back in 2005.

I certainly don’t think my nearly-four-year-old niece, who’s obsessed with Amy Pond but still creeped out by last year’s relatively tame Prisoner Zero, will last long into episode one before quailing behind a cushion.

There’s a creepy Nasa astronaut and new aliens the Silence, who lurk in tunnels, haunt a derelict children’s home and hover at the fringe of our perception. Spookily, once seen, they are forgotten, and looks-wise they’re hideous – drawn from Edvard Munch’s The Scream. (Or is that vice versa? Mmmm, something to ponder.)

I can’t even begin to summarise the plot, and you probably wouldn’t thank me for doing so. Let’s just say that much of the action revolves around the Moon landing in 1969. The time travellers befriend President Nixon, and though Amy and Rory haven’t seen the Doctor for some time, their paths converge, along with River Song’s, in the spectacular environs of Monument Valley, Utah. Where – rather shockingly – one of the quartet dies.

This is the first time Doctor Who has filmed wholeheartedly in the USA. Previous outings, The Chase (1965), the Paul McGann TV movie (1996) and Daleks in Manhattan (2007), were a bit of a cheat. Steven Moffat’s script celebrates all that is great about America while having a few digs at our ally’s expense. Hell, even Nixon gets a good press here.

The chills are leavened with laughs (the Doctor flits through history, upstages a timeless comedy duo, and dubs his chums “the Legs, the Nose and Mrs Robinson”). River makes two spectacular entrances. There’s a new use for dwarf star alloy (conceived 30 years ago in Warriors’ Gate, it enchained one of The Family of Blood in 2007). And the number 1,103 may be significant.

Moffat ladles mystery upon mystery, so that by the end we’re gagging for answers. The second instalment concludes with a mouthwatering cliffhanger.

“But episode six has the biggest one,” revealed Moffat, on stage afterwards with his lead actors, all four looking spruce and enthused. “There are so many cliffhangers and secrets,” said Arthur Darvill (Rory), recalling the cast’s reaction as each new script arrived. “We’ve been theorising ourselves,” said Matt Smith, sitting alongside Karen Gillan (Amy).

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Soon River Song’s secret will be uncovered. Alex Kingston has known for some time, but remained sphinxlike last night. All she would say was: “Can she be trusted?”