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

A cracking two-parter set in the USA takes in Nixon, Nasa, the Silence, a mysterious astronaut girl and the death of the Doctor

189
5.0 out of 5 star rating

Story 214

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Series 6 – Episodes 1 & 2

“So, this little girl. It’s all about her. Who was she?” – the Doctor

First UK transmissions
Saturday 23 April 2011
Saturday 30 April 2011

Storyline
Tardis-blue envelopes invite Amy, Rory and River to meet the Doctor, now aged 1,103, in the middle of the American West. As they enjoy a picnic at Lake Silencio, an Apollo 11 astronaut emerges from the water and blasts the Time Lord dead. Later, at a diner they meet the 909-year-old Doctor and conceal his fate from him.
They travel to the White House in 1969 where President Nixon is haunted by eerie late-night phone calls from a child in trouble. Assisting the investigation of FBI agent Canton Delaware, the Doctor’s team trace her to a warehouse in Florida, five miles from Cape Kennedy Space Center. The Silence have a base here – hideous creatures that our minds forget as soon as we look away – and they’ve encased the little girl in the astronaut suit.
Three months later, a bearded Doctor is incarcerated and River, Amy and Rory are on the run from the FBI. This is a smokescreen to fool the Silence. The child is now located in the derelict Graystark Hall orphanage, where the Silence ensnare Amy. As Neil Armstrong sets foot on the Moon, the Doctor cuts into the live TV broadcast and transmits footage of a Silent so that humans will at last register the insidious aliens and turn against them. Amy is rescued, but what of the little girl? In a New York alley, she starts to regenerate…

Production
October to November 2010. At Tredegar House, Newport; Avondale Crescent, Grangetown; Millennium Stadium, Cardiff; Coal Exchange, Cardiff Bay; Troy House, Monmouth; Johnsey Estates, Pontypool; Cardiff University; and Upper Boat Studios. November 2010 in the USA at the Valley of the Gods and Monument Valley, Utah; and Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona. January 2011 at Fillcare, Llantrisant.

Cast
The Doctor – Matt Smith
Amy Pond – Karen Gillan
Rory Williams – Arthur Darvill
River Song – Alex Kingston
Canton Delaware – Mark Sheppard
Old Canton Delaware – William Morgan Sheppard
The Silent – Marnix van den Broeke
President Richard Nixon – Stuart Milligan
Doctor Renfrew – Kerry Shale
Carl – Chuk Iwuji
Phil – Mark Griffin
Little girl (Melody) – Sydney Wade
Joy – Nancy Baldwin
Prison guard – Kieran O’Connor
Captain Simmons – Adam Napier
Matilda – Henrietta Clemett
Charles – Paul Critoph
Busboy – Emilio Aquino
Gardner – Glenn Wrage
Grant – Jeff Mash
Sergeant – Tommy Campbell
Doctor Shepherd – Peter Banks
Eye patch lady (Madam Kovarian) – Frances Barber
Tramp – Ricky Fearon

Crew
Writer – Steven Moffat
Director – Toby Haynes
Producer – Marcus Wilson
Designer – Michael Pickwoad
Music – Murray Gold
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
Not everyone likes their Doctor Who sliced the same way, but to my taste The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon are two of the most savoury morsels yet made. Top marks to writer Steven Moffat, director Toby Haynes and the cast for 90 minutes of hugely entertaining television. Witty, creepy and bamboozling, this demands the viewers’ close attention to keep up with the plot and catch tiny yet significant details.

In 2017, with some trepidation, I went back to watch this season opener for the first time in six years. I found it just as enjoyable – perhaps more so, now knowing how all the head-scratching mysteries would play out, observing how deftly they’re established here…

The “killing” of the 1,103-year-old Doctor…The identity of the assassin inside the Apollo spacesuit… Amy’s pregnancy that never was… The sidelong glances of mistrust the Doctor casts her way… The weirdness of the little girl, and why there’s a photo of Amy and a baby in her room… Frances Barber peering through a hatch, saying, “No, I think she’s just dreaming”… The agonising tease of “Who is River Song?” and how much she knows… And then that gob-slackening cliffhanger as the sickly girl, looking like Cosette from Les Misérables, wanders the backstreets of New York and suddenly regenerates. Who the hell is she!?

It’s hard to cast back to a point when answers weren’t readily available. But I vividly recall the night when I first saw this story – several weeks before transmission, on 4 April 2011. The BBC staged a screening for cast and crew, industry bigwigs, fans young and old, and eager ladies and gentlemen of the press at the Doctor Who Experience’s first home at Olympia. We piled into the auditorium and sat pinned to our seats for a feature-length edition up on the big screen.

“You make Doctor Who to be frightening. That’s how children rank the episodes – in order of frightening-ness,” said Steven Moffat afterwards, on stage with his four lead actors. All were enthused about the coming series. “There are so many cliffhangers and secrets,” said Arthur Darvill, recalling their excitement as each new script arrived. “We’ve been theorising ourselves,” said Matt Smith, sitting alongside Karen Gillan. Alex Kingston promised that River’s secrets would soon be revealed, but she remained sphinx-like that night. All she’d tease was: “Can she be trusted?”

Move over, Barbarella, Uhura, Ripley, Rose Tyler… Kingston’s River Song is the number one science-fiction female. She’s got it all: fearlessness, fierce intelligence, sex appeal, an in-built enigma, dazzling gun skills (she’s fabulous when she spins round zapping the Silents), plus she dabbles in archaeology (“Love a tomb!”). With immense serenity she’ll dive backwards off a Manhattan skyscraper, quite confident that the Doctor will save her with his police box – and swimming pool.

Just when River and her spoilers edge towards infuriating, Steven Moffat undercuts the swagger and gives her a moment of tenderness. She opens her heart to Rory and reiterates the sorrow of her relationship with the Time Lord: “We’re travelling in opposite directions. Every time we meet, I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days when I see him, but I know that every time I do, he’ll be one step further away. And the day is coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes, my Doctor, and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me.”

With great skill, he inserts this interlude into the tense sequence when River and Rory are exploring the eerie tunnels leading to the lair of the Silence – or Silents (both spellings apply). The new aliens are simple but effective. Echoing the tormented soul in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, they lurk on the fringes of our perception – like so many of Moffat’s creations. If we look away, the Silence edit themselves from our memory. They lurk in deserts, the White House and ladies’ toilets, haunt an incredibly creepy, derelict orphanage…

The scenes here, with Silence dangling from the ceiling, provide some of the eeriest moments ever presented in the programme. And director Toby Haynes is in total command, racking up the suspense and delivering thrills. He’s completing a run of five consecutive episodes, and – as I once told him in 2015 – it’s such a shame he hasn’t come back to direct more.

He’s just as assured with the Wild West vistas, the open expanses of Monument Valley and the serene lake where the Doctor is supposedly killed. Even when filming in Wales, Haynes achieves a convincing sense of time and place. “Space, 1969!” the Doctor coos, excitedly – as the action encompasses the Nasa space program and the Moon landing.

This is the first time Doctor Who 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. The script celebrates much that is great about America. Hell, even “Tricky Dicky” President Nixon gets a good press here. His reactions to the Tardis and Canton’s request to marry another man are priceless. And thus the chills are leavened with chuckles: at the start the Doctor flits through history, upstaging Laurel and Hardy, and dubs his chums “the Legs, the Nose and Mrs Robinson”.

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The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon launches series six like a rocket. It marks a return to proper, scary Doctor Who, leaves many tantalising threads dangling and ends on a dazzling cliffhanger. What more could you ask for?