Tom Steward blogs at Watching TV with Americans.
The Impossible Astronaut
Anticipation ran high for this opening two-parter following publicity images of Matt Smith in a Stetson on the American frontier and an internet prequel featuring a 1969 Richard Nixon recording strange phone calls from a frightened child. The stage was set for a fun western-themed story along the lines of the William Hartnell serial The Gunfighters, and a return to the historical (which the previous season had veered towards with Vincent and the Doctor) populated by some fascinating figures (Nixon, Armstrong) and culturally cataclysmic events (the Moon landing, Watergate).
To paraphrase an expression popular in America in 1969: ‘they blew it!’
Writer Steven Moffat was completely uninterested in the period he had perfunctorily plonked his story in, giving viewers scant historical context save for a few garbled soundbytes about Nixon’s legacy, and paying only saliva service to the western setting and iconography, with the shot of The Doctor as a cowboy reclining on a Cadillac (somehow) shorter in the final edit than in the 60-second trailer.
So many precious minutes were wasted on a comically lukewarm opening montage of The Doctor getting into various bawdy and slapstick scrapes throughout history. I hope these vignettes will be followed up on in the latter half of the series but suspect they’re frivolous window-dressing for Moffat’s inability to give us a coherent introduction to his stories.
The other major problem was the laboured and smugly self-conscious reference away from the episode’s self-contained storyline towards ongoing story arcs. This demonstrated a detrimental lack of faith in the effectiveness of the plot and seriously delayed its development, meaning that the action had barely got going before this first episode had ended. The murder of The Doctor by a mysterious being in a NASA spacesuit capped off a plethora of false starts, reducing the introduction of villains The Silence to a mere footnote, lacking the suspense or anticipation to help them reach their terrifying potential.
Fighting against the narrative first gear, Smith did a wonderful job conveying the melancholy wisdom of his future self (that boy can do old!) and his and Arthur Darvill’s (unfortunately clipped) character-crystallising exchanges were superbly witty and subtly executed.
Day of the Moon
Part two of this double-header clarified how Moffat’s oblique storytelling had become simply incompetent. Some narrative ellipsis was necessary in a story involving aliens that people forget once out of sight and to delay the resolution of a narrative mystery. However, the time ellipses in this episode spiralled way out of control. A three month gap between this and the previous instalment undermined the impact and purpose of the preceding cliffhanger. Further jumps in narrative continuity acted as smokescreens for the potholes in narrative cause-and-effect and plot development.
The episode’s opening montage was successfully exhilarating, largely down to the commitment of the performers and macabre twists in the telling rather than the tired content, a recycling of the ‘pretend death’ ploy which Moffat favours with incredulous regularity. This was epitomised by Karen Gillan’s near-asthmatic vocal performance following a chase across the desert, a tour-de-force typical of an actress who, like all great Doctor Who protagonists, can make you believe the unbelievable. The marks recording sightings of The Silence that cover the bodies of the protagonists like tattoos of hideous scars made for chilling viewing.
Though massively overdue, after the credits the show finally played its horror card, and very nearly took the haunted house. The visit to the creaky and creepy children’s home complete with abusive graffiti and deranged custodian was graceful in its slow and understated building of disquiet and fear. Again, most plaudits should go to actor Kerry Shale as the syrup-voiced Southern gentleman in mental distress Dr. Renfrew, whose trembling and traumatised appearance propagated the lingering feeling of unease. The episode (not for the last time this series) channelled The X-Files to gain legitimacy as TV science-fiction (particularly for American audiences who are simultaneously addressed here) but recognised only the superficialities (dark-and-smart outfits, magenta blue lighting), and barely qualified as pastiche.
Elsewhere, the history became pure pageantry, full of embarrassingly on-the-nose musical cues and dramatic ironies (‘say Hi to David Frost’) that compounded the thinly realised portrayal of the era. Smith continued to rally pluckily against the characterisation of The Doctor as a lothario, making clear to viewers through precise physical comedy his thoughtful interpretation of the character as sexually naive and alien to romance.
For a discussion of how this series-opener was shown on BBC America and spoke to American audiences, see the post from my blog here.