5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT/DAY OF THE MOON
It’s ten years ago this year that we started this site (cue cheering, balloons, streamers, etc). At that point, Doctor Who was a footnote in television history. Beloved by its loyal fans, kept going in books, yes, but long off the telly with no prospect of that ever changing. If you’d told us then that a decade into the future Doctor Who would not only be back but be one of the biggest shows on UK TV, not to mention breaking in in the US, we would have screened you for substance abuse. And if you’d told us that that ten-year-down-the-track Who would be some of the most rock ‘em, sock ‘em, head-turning, gobsmacking, flat-out amazing SF TV ever, we’d have screened ourselves for substance abuse.
But it’s true. Having now shaken off all traces of the previous reign and shifted into top gear, Steven Moffat is serving up Doctor Who in these episodes that’s utterly dazzling.
It’s wrong to call this a two-parter: it’s clearly much more one episode of an arc, followed by another. So let’s look at them separately.
THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT
We really don’t like things where somebody dies and yet you know they’re not really dead. Why would we care? That’s precisely what Steven Moffat does at the beginning of The Impossible Astronaut. And it still works. The shock of the mysterious astronaut, the emotion of the Viking funeral, the (more than anything) stellar acting of all involved practically wrung caring out of us.
Especially, can we say helloooo, Amy! Glad to see you back! The character went a bit off the rails in the last series, ending up difficult to like a lot of the time, but this Amy is a very welcome change, and Karen Gillan is rising to the challenge of a more subtle performance magnificently. Same with River, who started off way too smartarse: all that’s been sheared away here and Alex Kingston turns in a gorgeously nuanced performance in these episodes, the vulnerability under the Indiana Jones swashbuckler shining through. It seems pointless mentioning that Arthur Darvill does a great deal with what’s always too little for our taste, because he always does, but he does.
And Matt Smith is even better here. We didn’t think it was possible, but he’s taken his Doctor to a whole new level. The scenes in the TARDIS, for example, where his usual self is underlain by his watchfulness with the others and his trying to work out what’s going on with them is… astonishing? Incredible? Amazing? All of those and more. Honestly, we just don’t have the words for what he’s putting on the screen. Matt Smith proved from the second he opened his mouth as the Doctor that he had the eccentric persona down stone cold, but he’s also absolutely perfect at showing the powerful, fierce, sometimes cold intelligence underneath. The guy‘s still in his twenties, yet doesn’t break a sweat convincing us totally that he’s hundreds of years old. It’s…well, like we said. No words.
And the episode itself? From the stunning location shots to the fantastically creepy Silence to the brilliantly witty dialogue to the terror of the tunnels, it scoops us up and sweeps us along on a tide of sheer joy. Not joy because it’s so cheerful, of course, because there’s pain, fear and anguish aplenty, but because it’s just so bloody good. There isn’t a single moment wasted: every single thing hits its beat perfectly. We were utterly engaged from the first moment to the last. And that never happens.
And you know what, that’s pretty much all we want to say about it. Oh, there might be a few things here and there in the Outtakes. But what else is there to say but LOVELOVELOVE?
So since we like this episode so much, would we put it up there with the total zingers like Amy’s Choice? No. By definition, we can’t do that: it’s always easier in SF (and usually more fun) to ask questions than to answer them, and it’s not fair to compare an episode that relies at least partly for its impact on mysteries that aren’t resolved with a complete story. Nevertheless, it does exactly what it’s supposed to and does that superlatively. Bravo.
DAY OF THE MOON
Remember we said these episodes are dazzling? And they are - but bear in mind that dazzling can have more than one meaning.
When we first watched Day Of The Moon, we’re sure we had the same reactions as everyone else: essentially, wait what who what whatwhatwhat WTF? There’s a tiny bit (a tiny bit) more resolution in it than in The Impossible Astronaut, but you’re so constantly blindsided by one slam-dunk shocker after another that there isn’t much to do but sit there with your mouth open as each one zonks home.
So much to like. The gorgeous location shots and the stunner of death after death of the companions. The horror of the Doctor’s imprisonment and the fun of the fakeout. The utter, utter gobsmackery of the kid starting to regenerate.
And particularly, the astonishing set piece of the children’s home, which has got to be some of the most impressive Who footage ever produced. For a start, it’s straight up pants-wettingly terrifying. The pathetic, scarily trapped Renfield, sorry Renfrew. The daubed messages. The locked door. The Silence roosting on the ceiling. The sudden appearance of the marks on Amy’s face. Brrr!
And it also contains our favourite scene of these episodes: the disappearing Francis Barber and her “No, I think she’s just dreaming”. Stunning. Twin Peaksy goodness or what? Yum.
On top of that, there’s mucho wonderful character stuff in this episode. River alone breaks your heart effortlessly, and a standing ovation goes to Alex Kingston, who rivals the Doctor here for being able to speak eloquently without saying a word. Arthur Darvill, too, is absolutely magnificent as the ever-insecure Rory. As for Amy, like we said, wow, what a leap forward from last year. It’s all subtlety and believable emotion these days. Wahoo.
But there’s a big difference, a BIG difference, between watching this episode once and watching it twice. And that’s where the other meaning of dazzling comes in: once the shocks the first time through are over, the flim-flam, wires and misdirection become evident. Once you scrape those away, the wheels do come off a bit.
Let’s start with the most difficult bit: the Silence. That we can’t remember. That somehow, despite not remembering, we can actually remember a bit of. OK, maybe we’re just too thick to get it, but how does this work? Somehow, the Silence have the ability not just to make people forget seeing them in person but also images of them, whether hologram or photo, or spoken info about them. O…..K. They’re aliens; who knows how they do it, but we can’t prove they can’t.
Moving on. The TARDIS crew have been making marks on themselves to record their encounters with the Silence. But once the encounter is over, how do they know what the marks signify? The nanorecorders don’t help much with this, either: it’s clear from the way Canton reacts to his first press of the button that it’s not as if hearing the encounter again brings the memory of it back. No matter what records you make, you only know about the Silence while you’re staring at them. So how have the TARDIS team managed to amass this body of knowledge about how the Silence are everywhere? One sighting forgotten is the same as many sightings forgotten knowledge-wise, isn’t it? And if they don’t know what they look like, how do they know to press the record button when they see a Silent anyway?
And the nanorecorders, too, by the way. Lovely and skiffy and all, but what’s the point of all that fancy tech other than looking nice? If they just used their phones, they’d get an even better record, with video as well as audio. And you don’t even need a fancy phonecam - a camera would be fine. Even a movie camera. In all the time since these devices were invented, no one on meeting a Silent ever whipped out a camera? No one accidentally captured one in a long shot while making a movie?
Also, just what are the TARDIS team, sans Doctor, doing during the three month gap? Establishing that there are Silents everywhere, yes, but how? There’s a limit to how far you can travel and how many nooks you can peer into in three months, even when you split the job up between three. Not to mention: the Silence are right there in the Oval Office when the Doctor’s putting together all the evidence. Why don’t they stop them?
OK, let’s start again. What happened to kick all of this off? Presumably, Amy accidentally finding the Silent image on her phone. When she saw the Silent in the restroom, she remembered seeing the one near the picnic, so maybe when she sees the phone photo she now remembers both of those two encounters. So she tells everyone else that there’s this weird-looking alien who she only remembered while she was looking at it. And from there, they extrapolate the notion that there are lots of them everywhere who everybody sees and forgets. Seems like quite a leap to us (why not assume there’s only one who Amy has seen twice? It’s just as likely) but never mind.
So now what? The TARDIS team assume they’re all seeing and forgetting the Silence too, so they decide to make a mark every time that happens. ……No, still not getting it. We’re back to the fact that they can’t retain what the Silence look like, so how do they know to make a mark at the time? Bending over so far backwards we could win a limbo competition, we suppose they might see an alien, remember they were supposed to make a mark if that happened, assume the alien they’re seeing is the one in question, make the mark, and because they keep talking about it they still remember afterwards what the mark is actually for. So yeah, it might squeak by. (Is it meant to be this hard? We suppose Rory does point out the degree of difficulty. Or have we just missed the one thing that makes it all make simple sense?)
What doesn’t stand up Silence-wise, however, is the Doctor’s evil plan. First of all, he’s quick to jump to conclusions, this Doctor, isn’t he? No Silurians-style dithering or “Have I the right?” for this guy. We know they’ve been manipulating humans, sure, but do we know that’s for the bad? Who’s to say they haven’t just been deftly nudging humans into coming up with, say, silly putty? Just for a laugh? Or to be more boring, preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis and suchlike?
They might have. And they mightn’t. The point is, we haven’t a clue, and neither has the Doctor. All we know is that they killed Joy. And while that’s not a good thing, obviously, we have no idea if they had a good reason for that. It’s not much to slaughter a whole species on. Yes, we know the Silence themselves opine that humans should kill them on sight, but this is the Doctor we’re talking about. Shouldn’t he at least stop to consider the question?
Then there’s the plan itself. According to the Doctor, the whole world now will be killing the Silence on sight. And they make that look easy by showing US security people gunning a few down. It’s not quite as simple as that, though, is it? How many people are actually packing heat at any given moment? Even in the US, not that many people, relative to the total population, actually carry guns around with them. And without a gun, how are you supposed to do it? Throw a lamp at their heads? It’s not as if the Silence are without their own defences, either.
Of course, there’s also that trifling little matter of the “whole world”. Really, Doctor? The whole world? Only half a billion, out of a total population of three and a half billion, saw the broadcast at the time. Now subtract out all the non-gun-carriers and non-ninjas. Not looking too whole-worldy now, is it?
Let’s tiptoe away from the Silence and let them snooze, shall we? But alas, the flimflammery is not done. A big chunk of the emotional heft of this episode is about River and the tragic course she and the Doctor are on, where his firsts are her lasts. But wait a minute. What? They’re both time travellers. Neither of them is on a linear course through time. So why would River assume that she and the Doctor will see each other in a nice tidy incremental/decremental order?
Well, actually, she doesn’t, at least in The Time Of Angels. There, she says "I've got pictures of all your faces - you never show up in the right order". Oops. Don’t look there, look here! Pretty colours! Spangly bits! Let’s face it, when you’re zipping about in time anything could happen. River and the Doctor might have the most epic snog of all time in their futures for all she knows. Which kind of undermines the tragedy of it all.
There are other types of smoke and mirrors in here, too. Wave away all the dry ice and you see some very familiar ideas. Some are Moffat: Amy pregnant, a plot dealing with perception and memory, a perfect prison, people dying and reviving. Some are not: a gap between episodes, the Doctor held prisoner while his loyal sidekicks trot about an enemy-festooned world, it was all a trick all along: yes, it’s Last Of The Time Lords again! Either way, it’s a bit samey.
Do we care about all this? Well, it depends which way you squint at it. First time through: excellent. The good stuff more than carries the stuff that’s not quite up to par. After that, it gets a bit more problematic, but we still give it props: despite the flaws, there is some wonderful, wonderful stuff in here. And in any case, with an episode which relies so much on surprise for its impact it seems a bit unfair to judge it on what it looks like once the surprises have been sprung.
Of course, it’s all going to look very different once we find out what’s actually happening. Even more than with The Impossible Astronaut, how good Day Of The Moon is depends a great deal on how well the half of the story we haven’t seen yet resolves it. Steven Moffat has dug himself into a pretty deep trench: the twin dangers are that either he spends most of a later episode/s laboriously explaining every single mystery (and dear God, there are a lot of them) or he leaves threads dangling and pisses off attentive viewers. Which is probably most of the audience. All we can say right now is that, taken on its own merits, it’s not perfect, but it contains some amazing moments and overall does a lot of things really well. Even with its imperfections, if every episode were as good as this we’d be very happy fans indeed.
So what’s going to happen? We dunno, and we are trying very, very hard not to speculate. As one of us said (after a marathon round of speculating): “What’s the point? He’s going to do what he’s going to do and us guessing it in advance isn’t going to change anything.” Quite. What’s more, just in case we do guess something right, we don’t want to accidentally spoil anyone who prefers not to know in advance. We’ve confined our wilder speculations to the Outtakes section. You have been warned.
MORAL: Here come the Men In Black. They won’t let you remember.
A FEW OBSERVATIONS WHICH WE FIND INTERESTING AND ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO, AND PROBABLY WON’T, ADD UP INTO ANYTHING
In The Lodger, with the same TARDIS as River and Rory find in the tunnels, the hologram says they’re looking for a pilot.
In Blink, the Doctor and Martha say they’ve been to the moon landing four times. They are also stuck in 1969.
In Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead, when River dies, she leaves her diary in the library. (She has it with her in the database, but that’s not the same thing.)
Amy’s memory, which can rewrite the universe, is being futzed with.
The Doctor says “You only live once”.
Rory still remembers a timeline which never happened.
Amy has previously been pregnant/not pregnant in two duelling realities in Amy’s Choice.
Amy is having kittens about her baby having a “time head”. (That, in case you didn’t catch it, is an immensely witty and subtle play on Amy’s on-again-off-again pregnancy and Schrodinger’s Cat. NO, IT IS.)
The Doctor commands Amy and Rory to “go and make babies”.
The President comments on Mr Grant’s forthcoming new baby. Babies, babies, babies.
The Silence say Amy will bring, er, the Silence.
Several days elapse during which Amy has no knowledge of what the Silence have done to her. Remind anyone of the Eggs-Files?
A similar, but decayed, setup to the one Amy’s in with the Silence was in the NASA warehouse where the little girl was.
I’VE EXPLAINED THE JOKES
We were puzzled as to why they did the “Doctor Who?” thing not once but twice, until we discovered that BBCAmerica were giving the series a big push in the US. Which is pretty funny considering how opaque these episodes are to regular viewers, let alone first timers.
BE SEEING YOU
River’s not the only one confused about the fact that time travel doesn’t mean in a straight line. Old Canton says he won’t be seeing them again: unless he’s planning to top himself when he gets back to the pickup, how does he know?
IT’S ALWAYS BEEN A MATTER OF TRUST
With the numbering of the envelopes, River is 2, meaning the Doctor trusts her more than Amy. That’s certainly not the case yet, as the Doctor makes clear. Obviously things are going to change.
ICE ICE BABY
“This is cold. Even by your standards, this is cold.” What an interesting insight into the Doctor’s character from someone who knows him very well.
TO SERVE AND PROTECT
What a hilariously benign view of American security. The actual response of the security team in the Oval Office when the TARDIS appeared would be to attempt to blow it full of lead - and no doubt the Doctor as well. What’s more, someone found in the Apollo 11 capsule would not be questioned in a lecture theatre by a couple of scientists.
“Lay a finger on me or my friends and you’ll never ever know.” What, not even with a bit of waterboarding?
The Silence’s faces are obviously at least partially modelled on The Scream, especially when they do that thing with their mouths when they’re attacking, complete with protoscream. It’s just a shame that the figure in the Scream isn’t the one screaming. That’s why it has its hands to its ears.
I SAY I SAY I SAY
Considering that the Silence have been around for, like, ever, they don’t seem to have got very good at this memory thing. River clearly thinks at some level that something’s going on after her first encounter as she wants another look at the tunnels. Even Joy has a vague memory of saying the same things a minute earlier.
DOES MY NOSE LOOK BIG IN THIS?
The Doctor tries on the space helmet. IT’S A CLUE! A CLUE THAT IT’S AN ALTERNATE VERSION OF HIM IN THE SUIT!
The fakeout at the end of The Impossible Astronaut when it looks like Amy’s going to tell the Doctor about the Silence but she actually tells him about her pregnancy doesn’t make sense. Why would she insist on telling him at that very moment when the girl’s calling for help?
DO NOT COMPLIMENT THE PRISONER
All that stuff with the Doctor loaded down with chains reminds us of Dalek.
I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE CANDYMAN
What with the rain, the dark and the Nixon era, we were kind of disappointed when Riff Raff didn’t answer the door.
TRANSLATION: WE HOPED YOU WOULDN’T NOTICE
The nanorecorder “defaulted to a live feed”? Huh?
I’M QUITE THE SCREAMER
We’re normally not fans of companions screaming, but when it comes to Amy screaming in that room with the astronaut and the Silence we have no objection at all. We would have been yelling our heads off.
When Amy’s in that contraption with the Silence, the marks are gone from her face. Have the Silence been giving her facials?
LITTLE GIRL LOST
Why does the little girl, after calling for help, hide from the TARDIS crew when they come looking? Why would the TARDIS team leave the home without searching for her, then wonder where she is? Why would the Doctor think the girl is in a children’s home in the first place, and not still where they left her? “They’d probably stay close to that warehouse because why bother doing anything else?” - why leave it at all?
HE’S THE ONE WE ALL SAY HAIL TO
“I’m President Nixon” – he really had to say that? With the hilarious ghostly wafts of “Hail To The Chief” that seem to accompany him wherever he goes?
I KNOW I AM, BUT WHAT ARE YOU?
The Doctor says: “You’ve been interfering in human history for thousands of years; people have suffered and died”. How does he know that? Also, as one of us remarked, “Bit of a pot/kettle situation, isn’t it?”
IT’S TRICKY TRICKY TRICKY
We didn’t mention Nixon in the review because we found him the dullest and most pointless part, up to and including the silly little jabs about tape recordings and how everyone would remember him. But we did like Nixon’s “I can‘t trust anyone”, which echoes Nixon’s actual paranoia while also adverting to the theme of trust.
We didn’t mention SF stalwart Mark Sheppard’s character, either. He was perfectly fine, but as far as we’re concerned the character doesn’t seem to add much. There just doesn’t seem to be room for him: we kept forgetting he was even there (ha!).
So it’s clearly vital that they find this little girl. Or, as the Doctor proposes, “We could just go off and have some adventures.” Um…