The Impossible Astronaut

Doctor Who2011: Amy and Rory (having settled into life on Earth following their honeymoon) and River Song (still in her stormcage prison) receive numbered invitations consisting only of a date and a place. The place is the American plains, where the Doctor – presumably the sender of the invitations – awaits. But to their horror, an astronaut – clad in a vintage Apollo spacesuit – emerges from a body of water and shoots the Doctor, triggering his regeneration. The astronaut then shoots the Doctor again, killing him before the regeneration is completed, and returns to the water. An elderly man named Canton Delaware III appears, bearing his own numbered invitation and convenient means for disposing of the Doctor’s body. The Doctor’s stunned companions then discover the Time Lord alive and well, blissfully unaware of what’s just happened – in his own future, of which they can divulge nothing.

1969: A scant trail of clues leads the time travelers to the White House, mere months before the launch of Apollo 11. President Richard Nixon has been receiving strange phone calls, almost always on a phone line that happens to be nearest wherever he is, from a child terrified of a spaceman who has appeared nearby. Despite the Secret Service’s lack of enthusiasm about the four apparently British visitors who have popped into the Oval Office without warning, the Doctor appoints himself the chief investigator of the case of the mysterious phone calls. He deduces the location from which the phone calls must be coming, and with a younger Canton Delaware III aboard the TARDIS, goes to find the child who’s placing the calls.

At the White House, Amy sees a creature – a creature of which she saw only a glimpse in 2011. At the abandoned warehouse from which the calls are being placed, Rory and River both see the creatures as well. There’s only one problem: they’re fully aware of who the Doctor is, and of the fate he will suffer. And anyone who sees them, once they look away, doesn’t remember having seen them. Are these the assassins who have killed the last of the Time Lords?

Order the DVDDownload this episodewritten by Steven Moffat
directed by Toby Haynes
music by Murray Gold

Cast: Matt Smith (The Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Arthur Darvill (Rory), Alex Kingston (River Song), Mark Sheppard (Canton Delaware), William Morgan Sheppard (old Canton Delaware), Marnix van den Broeke (The Silent), Stuart Milligan (President Richard Nixon), Chuk Iwuji (Carl), Mark Griffin (Phil), Sydney Wade (Little Girl), Nancy Baldwin (Joy), Kieran O’Connor (Prison Guard), Adam Napier (Captain Simmons), Henrietta Clemett (Matilda), Paul Critoph (Charles), Emilio Aquino (Busboy)

Notes: The interior of the alien spacecraft was glimpsed last season in The Lodger. The TARDIS has landed as an invisible object before, in 1968’s The Invasion, though the second Doctor was able to find both the time machine and its entrance a bit more gracefully in that story. Guest star William Morgan Sheppard – often credited as W. Morgan Sheppard in the U.S. and as Morgan Sheppard in the U.K. – has guest starred on nearly every genre series under the sun, from several “generations” of Star Trek, Babylon 5, seaQuest and more, to a memorable regular role on Max Headroom in both its British and American incarnations. He is the real father of actor Mark Sheppard, of whose character he portrays a much older version. Mark Sheppard is familiar to followers of such series as Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica, The Middleman, Warehouse 13 and Firefly. Where both the Sheppards were born in the U.K., Stuart Milligan was born in Boston and has portrayed several Presidents of the United States during a career which has seen him do much of his television work in Britain.

LogBook entry & review by Earl Green

Review: Having firmly established the key players and the atmosphere of his “era” of Doctor Who, showrunner Steven Moffat is playing on the audience’s newfound familiarity with the characters and their relationships here by ripping the rug out from under everything.

The Impossible Astronaut succeeds spectacularly at creating an aatmosphere that’s unusual even among other episodes of Doctor Who. The show has never put the Doctor’s future in doubt in quite this way, and it’s a novel element to have the Doctor’s companions knowing more than he does about the long-range plot while he, as usual, dominates the immediate plot.

As has been heavily publicized prior to the episode’s premiere, a few portions of The Impossible Astronaut were shot in Utah, with BBC America chipping in to bring a few key cast members to the States for a location shoot unique in the series’ history. There have been a few attempts in the past to set stories across the pond – from the 1996 TV movie (set in San Francisco, but shot in Vancouver) to 2007’s Daleks In Manhattan – but this is the first time that the BBC has spent the money to send cast members to the U.S. There’s no denying that the Utah locations are incredibly effective, but even for scenes set in the White House, it’s back to business (in Cardiff) as usual.

As with the 2010 season’s Winston Churchill episode, the show sticks its neck out by showing the Doctor associating with President Nixon. Stuart Milligan gets much of Nixon’s verbal cadence down, but even with prosthetic makeup designed to emulate Nixon’s jowled look, he doesn’t quite manage to really look like Nixon. There’s also the tightrope act of writing Nixon as a character: the real Nixon was seldom short of an opinion (including a few that that would keep modern Presidential candidates from getting past a primary), and he was seldom short of the gumption to express those opinions. (One thing that stuck out like a sore thumb, historically speaking, is that it seems highly unlikely that there would’ve been black Secret Service agents in Nixon’s White House as early as 1969.) Here, however, he’s portrayed as gruff-but-basically-kindly-underneath – it’s hard to imagine the real Nixon having much patence for repeated mysterious phone calls from an unknown child. In service of the need to portray Nixon as one of the Good Guys, the script takes some significant liberties with history.

Where it does succeed, however, is in creating one of the creepiest villains that the show has seen in recent years. The notion of a creature that one forgets as soon as one looks away from it is an interesting one, though if that’s not enough to make the Silence scary as hell, they vaporize a hapless woman within the walls of the White House for good measure. The episode also introduces some very likeable good guys to do battle with the Silence, namely Canton Everett Delaware III, played by guest-star-in-every-show-imaginable Mark Sheppard (many fans will know him best as eccentric lawyer Romo Lampkin in later seasons of the new Battlestar Galactica). At the actor’s suggestion, rather than aging him with makeup, his real-life father, W. Morgan Sheppard, was hired to play the elderly Canton; the elder Sheppard has, of course, appeared in just about every genre series imaginable – the best part of the American location shoot may, in fact, be the guest actors recruited for it. Mark Sheppard easily gets the best lines in the entire episode – something about him screams “potential future companion material.”

The cliffhanger, given the number of actual scary things going on, is strange and almost abstract – you barely have time to take in the idea that the spacesuit is being occupied by a little girl (who we don’t know) before the cliffhanging moment of Amy scooping up a gun and firing at the spacesuit becomes the “hook” to tune in next time. Still, The Impossble Astronaut succeeds in building up an almost palpable atmosphere of doom – now it falls to the season’s second episode to capitalize on that with a coherent plot.