Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon

Chapter The 67th, involves those who have - in almost the words of Sir Billiam of Idol - ties without a face.

A future version of the Matt Smith Doctor invites Amy, Rory, River Song and an old American guy to watch him get shot and killed by someone in an astronaut suit standing in a lake in Utah. The Doctor also invites his own younger self who turns up late and misses it all, but following up on some hints he takes Amy, Rory and River Song to meet the younger version of the American guy in the White House in 1969, where he's investigating a mysterious little girl who keeps contacting President Richard Nixon. The TARDIS team help him find the girl, which leads them to discover that a group of aliens, the Silence, are in control of the Earth, but no one realises this as they have the power to make you forget them as soon as you look away. This large, global organised group, who have access to advanced technology and mental powers, have secretly been manipulating humans for thousands of years as it is somehow easier than just building their own spacesuit. They have also been raising the girl as a child assassin who will eventually be the one in the suit in Utah that kills the Doctor, as this is somehow easier than just shooting him themselves during any of the dozen or so opportunities they have to do just that in these two episodes alone. They could at least have a crack; if he survived, he wouldn't remember who shot him, would he?!

Three months pass during which everyone goes to elaborate lengths to do, erm, something important, probably. Anyway, that means it's time for the moon landing; the Doctor cleverly uses the footage of Neil Armstrong stepping out onto the surface as a way to incite mass murder of the Silence for all eternity, which is just what you imagine Neil would have wanted. (The Silence killed one person and helped humans go to the Moon, the sentence for which is genocide apparently.) Despite many unanswered questions, and a possibly vulnerable possibly dangerous child on the loose, the Doctor decides not to investigate any more and goes off to have some unconnected adventures, like he knows he's just been in episodes 1 and 2 of the season rather than 11 and 12.

The whole family bar the eldest child (boy of 11) sat down to watch this one from the Blu-ray; we watched one episode per day over a weekend, and it must have sounded like fun as it attracted the final member of the family halfway through, who joined us to watch the second part on the Sunday. The Better Half got (justifiably) apoplectic at times with Moffat's plotting. 'What's the point of this? was said more than once.

First-time round: 
I can't remember whether I sat down to watch these episodes live in 2011, or - more likely - timeshifted them and watched them later in the evening. One thing that does stay with me, though, is a feeling I got watching the first episode, and the Doctor Who Confidential documentary that was shown alongside it, a feeling invoked by seeing the three leads - all played by thin beautiful people ten or more years younger than me - making a big deal about hitting America. The feeling was this: Doctor Who isn't mine anymore. Sure, the show had had blockbuster appeal at times before, and it had had a huge American following in earlier years too; but, one never thought those periods would last (and they didn't really). It's a silly feeling to indulge, like the reluctance as a fan you feel for your favourite indie band making it big; one knows deep down it doesn't matter, but it did feel like a loss. Forever after, the faithful would have to share their show with the viewers of BBC America, and an even wider international audience across the globe.

Steven Moffat's idea to launch his second year with a bang was to do a season finale style story - an expensive, expansive plot-heavy blockbuster two-parter - right up front. I mean, why wait, huh? Hmm. This approach could be summarised as "Skip the foreplay", which is never a good idea (so I've been told), except it's worse than that; it's more like "Do the foreplay afterwards" which is an easy way to achieve an, ahem, anti-climax. The story after this, just when we're engaged as to who River is, how the Doctor will avoid his fate, what exactly are the Silence's plans, and whether Amy is or isn't pregnant, doesn't talk about any of that; it's just larking about with rubbish pirates. An implicit promise has been made to the audience, and then broken. It doesn't help that the plotting of the arc - even just the bits in these two episodes alone - is crazy ape-shit bonkers. A finale engenders more forgiveness, as that's when all the Bad Wolves, Torchwoods or Pandoricas are finally explained, and the slate is wiped clean; there's no such luxury here - the slate is splattered in muck that's going to stay there for months; so, by The Wedding of River Song, the series is going to require infinite forgiveness, and no possible explanations are going to satisfy.

Moffat does get something in exchange for squandering this advantage, and that's spectacle and originality in the story and the season's shape. So, kudos to him for trying something new, it's just a shame it didn't really work. The positives then: there are some great jokes, Stuart Milligan is fun as Nixon. Canton is a great character as played by both the young and old Sheppards. The opening comedy sequences are nice enough, the American landscapes are vibrant and interestingly used (an astronaut emerging from a lake in the middle of a desert, for example, is an arresting image despite not making any sense in the real or story worlds). The early beats of the story pleasantly confound audience expectations, as suddenly the Doctor is older and has shared lots of adventures with River Song, and then - blam - he's dead. As a beginning it's hard to top unless you're the sort of cynical viewer who's automatically thinking "there's no way they can write their way out of that without it being a cop out". Okay, you got me, that was exactly what I was thinking; but a showrunner shouldn't be jumping through hoops to cater for any audience as cynical as me.

The Silence are a great design, and their affect on memory is a great concept. But, alas, the idea that they're scavengers that can only influence people to create technology and never create their own just stretches credulity beyond snapping point. And, worst of all because it was easily fixable in a rewrite, they just aren't shown to be evil enough. The Silence have just as much right to be treated as legal cohabitants of the Earth as the Silurians, say, and they haven't unleashed any plagues to wipe out mankind, but they get brutally offed. It just appears totally disproportionate, and that's just because all the horrors are presumably offscreen in the unnecessary three month gap between episode 1 and episode 2. Even if the TARDIS crew were shown some horrors though, they wouldn't remember them, so the mass killing ending would never feel justified.

As mentioned above, both stories feature villains in smart attire who haven't got much in the old boat race department. Also, both are set in the sixties and feature a space rocket.

Deeper Thoughts:
Simple enough for adults but complicated enough for children. It was around the time of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon's broadcast that articles became prevalent complaining of how the show's plots had become too convoluted. If this was not the case for the youngsters watching, it certainly was true for the adults; my commentary above, now I've read it back, shows me in this case at least to be quite surprisingly grown-up. These stories don't make a whole lot of sense, true. The criticism was probably overstated, though. It was easy enough with a modicum of concentration to keep up with what was happening, it just didn't - couldn't - add up. Watching Doctor Who in random order highlights things just as watching in the transmission order does. Some stories work much better with the weight of the preceding episodes as build up. But, some stories are undermined by revelations that you know are to be made in their future, and that is really what weighs the Astronaut episodes down. Taken on their own terms they form a nonsensical but visually stunning adventure romp. Once you know how it fits together with the future narrative, though, it can do your head in.

Some spoilers may ensue (but only if you haven't watched Doctor Who in five years) as I've got to get my head round this. So, the creatures that we see at work in Florida, are a violent breakaway group from a semi-religious order that wants to neutralise the Doctor to stop him from bringing the Time Lords and the Time War back to the universe on Trenzalore. They have foreseen that he will do this, and that will be bad, so they try to stop it by killing him at Lake Silencio. It's a matter of historical record that he dies at Lake Silencio, which might explain why nobody tries to kill him before that despite numerous opportunities. Except when they try to kill him at Demon's Run. Are they trying to kill him at Demon's Run, though, or is it just a diversion to get the baby River away? But, that would be a rubbish diversion as it would be one that involved leading him to the very place where the baby is for ages before they get it away, a bit of a risky manoeuvre. But anyway, they do get the baby away, and they train it to kill then put it in a spacesuit in a lake. They must know this is the foretold spot where the Doctor dies, not just because it's supposed to be a fabled fixed point, but also, why bloody submerge the suit in a lake otherwise; it would be a lot easier for it to arrive in a car. BUT if they know the Doctor historically, fixedly dies at Lake Silencio, which - as far as the Universe is concerned - he does, why did they ever think he was going to get as far as Trenzalore to become a threat in the first place? Their plan seems to involve them knowing for sure that he's going to die and that he's going to escape his fate. Simultaneously.

And, even though the Doctor is not dead, and is just pretending, the aged Canton says "That most certainly is the Doctor, and he is most certainly dead" and adds that the Doctor says they would need a can of gasoline. How does Canton know any of this? No one is in a position to tell him this in 1969. Maybe it's written on his invitation? Everyone else just gets a date and time and a map reference, but maybe his invite says a bit more. But how would the Doctor have known to write any of this to him? At the point, just after the story Closing Time, when he writes those invitations, he doesn't even know for sure that Canton was invited. He's only met the guy once, and his earlier self only gets told that the relevant. Is there any way he could know for sure to invite him, let alone to add a note to the gist of "I'm really dead, make sure they burn the corpse". Also, given that he's inside a robot suit, it was a bit lucky the Doctor's friends decided to go the whole viking ceremony. If they'd burnt him on the shore, it would have been immediately obvious that he wasn't even getting singed, and his whole faking his own death would have been blown immediately.

Amy gains memories from the aborted timeline which is created and uncreated by spacesuited River's resistance to her mission, sometime between two moments by that lake in Utah; Amy mentions later that she can remember these events in The Wedding of River Song. So, when does this come to her exactly? The logical point would be right there at Lake Silencio. So, she's aware of Madame Kovarian and so on throughout the three months in America, and the pirate one and The Doctor's Wife, but just not mentioning it? Okay, maybe there's some kind of block because she's really a ganger at that point. So, she would remember first during the action at Demon's Run, and all through the Hitler one, and Night Terrors... but again would just not bother to mention it? Obviously, the time it must have occurred to her is post The God Complex, when the Doctors gone, and she can no longer make any use of the knowledge; but there's no logical reason for it to come to her then, except that it's more convenient for the overall confused jigsaw plot.

I have barely scratched the surface (why does River, knowing exactly who is in the Spacesuit, still shoot at it as it disappears under the lake? Who took the photo of Amy and her baby that is in the orphanage, when, and why? How does Amy make tally marks on her face so neatly without looking at her reflection?); but, I've got a nerd headache already. Undoubtedly, Steven Moffat was planning ahead more than any other Who writer of any previous era, but he was still almost certainly making it up as he was going along a hell of a lot too.

In Summary:
At the time I did Enjoy The Silence. But looking back, it was definitely a narrative rule Violator.

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