One Last Step: The Impossible Astronaut

The title could refer to the Doctor as much as the Apollo spacesuit filled with alien technology and a terrified little girl at the center of the story. He revels in the impossibility too, gleeful even as he arranges his own unknowing funeral party and even more so when he talks his way out of, and into the Oval Office. This isn’t the Lonely God of the 10th Doctor’s era, this is Puck in a bowtie, cheerily blasé about the important things and utterly invested in the trivial. This is a man who invites himself to his own funeral, knowing he’ll be late, and knowing that may save his life, a man desperately interested in everything that could hurt him and desperate to protect his friends. This is, above all else, the Doctor, a very English hero, and, two hundred years into his future, a very dead English hero. It’s a romantic, almost Byronic image, the quiet, polite English hero riding to a possible doom with only the slight hint of a plan to save his life. That idea, the romance of possibility, the romance of space and time travel, the inherent romance of the Doctor is what lies at the heart of the episode.

It starts with a very deliberate and fascinating image; a spacesuited figure murdering an impossible man in a bowtie, the rational walking out of the middle distance and ending the irrational’s life. Space travel as a science kills space travel as an art, an adventure, a romance and all that’s left is to burn the body and salt the ashes. That’s quite a subversion to open a season of what’s nominally still just a children’s TV show on.

Except of course, the Doctor is a time traveller, and does everything and nothing all at once. So his funeral is attended by two dear friends, a woman who will one day be his wife even though they’re meeting backward and Everett Canton Delaware III, a man none of the others know but who knows them very well. We see the end of the Doctor’s story first, we see Everett for the last time before we even meet him and then we’re off at the gallop, into the second romance of the episode; America. ‘Space: 1969’, a delicious pun delivered with relish, opens the door to the year of the moon landings, Richard Nixon and a wide variety of excellent suits. There’s an interesting collision here too, with the slightly mundane world of BBC Wales colliding with the lush location shooting in America to create something which feels not unlike the Doctor himself. TV and film, quarries and the Valley of the Gods collide to create something which is uniquely mundane and surprisingly arresting. This is a world of serious people in serious suits, two fisted idealists and a President who can be reached anywhere, any time by a terrified little girl in a spacesuit. This is a world we’re more accustomed to seeing on the big screen, and, like the Doctor, we’re just tourists. Like the Doctor, we’re fragile too.

This feels big, bigger than any episode before simply because for the first time we’re in a country where you need to travel for hours to see a coast, a country that takes more than a day to cross. The US locations are used sparingly but they all score, the big, wide expanses and ornate militarism of the White House providing an unusually large canvas for the story to play out on. One tiny throwaway scene, of Amy being escorted to a bathroom by a secret service agent, involves a busy corridor and a sense of multiple other stories happening around them. Yes the world may be ending, yes President Nixon’s getting mysterious phone calls from a little girl, but there’s the business of government being carried out too. Somewhere, far beneath that corridor is the Situation Room where, one day, President Jed Bartlet will battle with his distrust of the military, nearby is the briefing room where Jack Ryan will be told about a nuclear weapon heading towards American shores. This the White House, a place where stories connect and fiction and history intertwine. The Doctor looks rather at home there, relishing finally getting to sit behind the President’s desk and demanding SWAT teams, street maps of Florida, 12 Jammy Dodgers and a Fez. Everything and nothing, romance and silliness meet pragmatism and horror. The 1960s become a glorious, lush time of austere suits, good men in bad situations and aliens wearing excellent suits.

Which brings us to the third romance of the episode; the Greys. The episode’s villains are the Silence, and much like the Doctor steps out of fiction onto the stage of history, the Silence have stepped out of very nearly every UFO report for the last three decades. The series cleverly combines them with the Men in Black, human simulacra in old fashioned suits with no idea of how to interact with people to create an arresting but familiar image; the Silence are taller, more menacing than the Greys but they’re Greys nonetheless, aliens that have walked through the nightmares of everyone from Whitley Streiber to, allegedly, Boutros Boutros-Ghali Former Secretary General of the United Nations. They’re nightmares, and the episode’s twist, that their defence mechanism is you can’t see them unless you’re looking right at them and forget the second you turn away, is typically elegant. This is expanded later with the revelation that the Silence have tunneld through the entire surface of the Earth and have been here for centuries. It’s a simple and chilling idea that instantly puts the episode at the intersection of history, conspiracy theory, myth and fiction. Suddenly, a line from the old X-Files episode, ‘Deep Throat’ becomes relevant;

‘They’re here, aren’t they?’

‘Mr Mulder, they’ve been here for a long, long time.’

There’s another UFOlogy term that seems relevant here, coined by English UFOlogist Jenny Randles. ‘The Oz Factor’ refers to the sense of otherworldliness, of surreality that surrounds many UFO encounters. For some it’s a defence mechanism, for others it’s a means of coping with experiences that they can’t otherwise deal with and for others it’s a sense of running off the edge of the film strip, seeing what happens at the edge of reality. Here, the edge of reality is an idealistic former FBI agent, a man who is late to his own funeral and a romance lived in reverse. The Silence fit right in.

That romance in reverse is the heart of the episode. River Song has been a fascinating presence in the show for three years, ever since she was introduced in ‘Silence In The Library’. Here we see her not only finally meet a Doctor who knows everything she knows but finally realising how finite her relationship with him is. There’s a wonderful, sparky, flirty back and forth to their exchanges but undercutting it all is River’s desperate sadness as she realises every time she sees him is a step closer to him not knowing her. They will meet in the middle and, for too little time, be absolute equals. Then he’ll move forward and she’ll move back and meet him for the last time, just as he meets her for the first time. She’s brilliant, and devious, and crippled with guilt and knows far more than she’s letting on, but she can’t hold on to that forever. River loves him, he’s going to love her but never for long enough and the realisation of that is in the process of breaking her. Alex Kingston plays River with a combination of playfulness and forcefulness, and she gets some of the best scenes in the episode, fixing the TARDIS, admitting she knows she doesn’t have long left to Rory and tearing into the Doctor after they’ve returned from his funeral. Her normally playful catch phrase of ‘Spoilers’, when he asks about something he hasn’t done yet takes on a different, darker, sadder tone. River knows everything, knows it won’t be enough and knows she’s going to try anyway. She’s a time traveller and like the Doctor she does everything at once and nothing at all.

In contrast to the reverse romance of the Doctor and River, Amy and Rory Pond are remarkably grounded. Karen Gillan was criticised last season for being too one note but in the space of an episode she opens Amy up. The spiky, distanced, angry Amy of the previous season has been replaced by a woman who is calm, grounded and happy. She’s also, for the first time, part of a marriage of equals. She and Arthur Darvill as Rory have an easy chemistry, an ability to finish each other’s sentences that feels real but never feels sweet or driven by a writer. These are two people who love one another, have spent time together and instinctively give and take as they go. The wonderful moment where she tells Rory that he gets to tell Canton about the TARDIS because he’s ‘newest’ is a perfect example. Rory’s not inferior, he’s just closer to Canton than her, still amazed by the impossible life they lead, still entranced by the mad man in a box.

Gillan gets to build on this familiarity and subert it with her grief stricken reaction to the Doctor’s death, shutting down, showing us the cold, hard Amy that was present for much of the last season. People leave Amelia Pond, and she hates it, and when the Doctor leaves her, again, she decides to push back and push back harder. Amy’s a fighter, and here, she’s handed three fights; saving the Doctor’s life, saving a little girl and defending the Earth. She’s so intent on the first that she’s willing to commit murder and it’ll be fascinating to see how her actions, and what she knows, affects her relationship with the Doctor and Rory.

Finally, W. Morgan and Mark Sheppard continue their semi-regular party piece of playing the same character at different times in their lives. The elder Sheppard gives his brief appearance as Canton an easy sense of dignity and authority whilst the younger remains one of the most pathologically watchable actors working today. Sheppard has the same energy as actors like Kenneth Branagh and Val Kilmer, small, intense, fiercely intelligent and never stopping thinking. Canton adopts to the TARDIS in record time, with Rory’s help, and is on the same page as the Doctor within seconds of meeting him. He’s an easy, physical addition to the crew and serves as a bridge between rationality and romance, America and England, the past and the future. He’s of his time in exactly the same way the others aren’t, and as a result eases every transition, helping to create an episode which feels unlike very nearly everything else that’s gone before it. Canton’s a hero, like the Doctor, but he’s a different type of hero. Different approaches, different times, different places but the same result; standing between humanity and the things we don’t know about, but know about us. It’s a romantic notion but this is a romantic episode. The Doctor is dead, long live the Doctor.

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