After TARDISloads of fan anticipation and promises that this will be, beyond a doubt, the most epic Doctor Who series ever, “The Impossible Astronaut” didn’t disappoint Saturday night. Though in the grand scheme of what creator Steven Moffat has planned, it may be just a glimpse, the episode serves to thrill fans at the return of their favorite characters, and inject even more mystery, danger and uncertainty into a universe already rattled by cracks in the fabric of spacetime and more than a little mystery about The Doctor’s future ladylove, Dr. River Song. Buoyed by the strange visuals and rapid fire oddball dialogue typical of a Moffat-written episode, “The Impossible Astronaut” is both the premiere we’ve all been waiting for and the primer for a season that’s said to bring The Doctor’s darkest hour.
SPOILER WARNING: We’re not giving away the ending, or who dies, or any big twists, but what lies ahead will by necessity contain some general details of the plot. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, you’ll learn a few things. Follow the jump only if you’re prepared.
Things seem to have settled down a bit for The Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions. Dr. River Song (Alex Kingston) is back in prison (she killed someone, but we still don’t know who) after last season’s finale, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) are living comfortable married life and following The Doctor’s adventures from afar. And The Doctor himself? Well, it has something to do with a nude portrait and a rather large skirt…
Things begin to change when River, Rory and Amy receive mystery envelopes, colored TARDIS blue. The envelopes contain a date and time, and a map coordinate, specifically somewhere in the American Southwest. The Doctor has called them all together again, and after a brief (and amusing) reunion, the quartet is off to America circa 1969 for mysterious reasons. In 1969 they encounter an agitated President Nixon, a new monster, and a rather shady Federal agent called Canton Everett Delaware III (Mark Sheppard). By the way, if you think that’s a sketchy plot summary, it’s because it’s meant to be that way. There’s much more waiting in the nooks and crannies of this very dense, plot-driven episode.
Though it’s only the first part of a double episode (we have to wait a week to see the rest), and much of the plot serves only to pull the veil further over our eyes, “The Impossible Astronaut” still manages to be ridiculously entertaining. That old banter between The Doctor and Amy, Rory and Amy, Rory and The Doctor and The Doctor and River is still there, just as wonderfully offbeat as it was before. And it’s deeper now, because Amy, Rory and River all have something to reckon with, something they must keep from The Doctor, which Moffat deftly maneuvers into a kind of moral struggle that gives Amy more weight than she already had, and gives River’s character the kind of dimension she never had before.
Visually, the episode is perhaps the most dynamic in recent memory, if only because it contains within it the panorama of an American desert, along with the natural visual gravity of the White House and some pretty creepy shots of monsters. Typical of Moffat episodes, it also includes a number of visual tableaus of the sort that burrow into your memory for days, from an astronaut standing in the middle of a lake to a nest of creatures under the Earth.
Though it sets the absolutely perfect tone for The Doctor’s return, “The Impossible Astronaut” is by its nature still somewhat unsatisfying. It looks great, it feels great, the cast is brilliant and the plot is the kind of satisfying complex thing that keeps you picking at it in your head for hours, but in the end it’s just a primer, something to whet your appetite. But if the previews of what’s to come are any indication, it only gets better from here.