New Who Openers In Perspective: The Impossible Astronaut / Asylum of the Daleks
Mark McCullough concludes the series looking at past openers with Series 6 and 7’s.
As our countdown to Deep Breath enters its final hours, it is time to complete our series looking at its predecessors. Both these openers are rather unique as will become evident throughout the course of the article:
The Impossible Astronaut
The Impossible Astronaut can be considered as a major oddball when it comes to opening episodes. The main reason for this is that it was the first series opener since the revival to feature the same Doctor and the same companion which ended the previous series. This means that it did not have to introduce a new character to the audience like all other openers had. Tonight’s Deep Breath will have the honour of doing so for a new Doctor. What this allowed was for the episode to be bold and inventive as it already had a stable base with which the audience could relate with. The use of a two part narrative was something that allowed a larger scale of story which afforded Moffat the opportunity to hit head on, one of the major questions from Series Five.
“I’m going to need a SWAT team, ready to mobilise. Street level maps covering all of Florida. A pot of coffee, twelve Jammie Dodgers and a fez.”
The story of the episode is a true sci-fi. We are re-introduced to our eleven hundred year old protagonist as he is reunited with his friends in Utah. Once everyone is assembled (via TARDIS blue envelopes) in true Doctor Who fashion, they have a picnic on the beach. If you thought that was strange, before we had reached the ten minute mark, in a very bold move by Mr Moffat, the titular Time Lord was dead. However, before the characters (and the audience) have time to grieve the Doctor, he is replaced with a younger model bearing a grin we were all accustomed to. Cue confusion and a mystery which spans the arc of the entire series before an inevitable cop-out.
The narrative then shifts course as the TARDIS team follow a lead given to them by the future Doctor before his death. This leads them to the Oval Office in 1969 with the Doctor initially reluctant to go, but yielding under persuasion from Amy swearing on something which matters, which naturally is fish fingers and custard (symbolic here for the relationship between the two, founded upon the unorthodox food pairing). The addition to the narrative of a little girl able to phone the President (Nixon) about a spaceman who is trying to eat her leads to an immediate mental connection with the astronaut which killed the Doctor. We are introduced to a younger version of Canton who has been tasked by the President to help with the situation. He allows the Doctor an opportunity to showcase his genius in locating the source of the call and his disappointment at being denied a fez.
Whilst this is occurring, Amy has a rather unpleasant bathroom break where she encounters one of the creatures who were first seen on a cliff in Utah in the future. A tense dialogue ensues with Amy being informed that she must tell the Doctor “what he must know, and what he must never know”. Admittedly even now I’m not one hundred percent certain as to what this line refers to. One can only assume due to Amy’s horrendous timing to announce her pregnancy that it was some sort of suggestion from the creature. That said, the line could equally pertain to the Doctor’s death at the hands of the astronaut which for obvious reasons the Doctor should not be told about. Maybe the and means that they are two separate things rather than an attempt by the Silent at being cryptic. Who knows? (*taps nose*)
The story then shifts to an abandoned warehouse where the TARDIS team, now with Canton in tow discover the origins of the suit whilst the Astronaut watches on from the shadows. The discovery of a series of tunnels which are revealed to spawn the entire planet leads to the return of a familiar setting last seen in The Lodger. Whilst this in ongoing Amy decides to tell the Doctor she is pregnant shortly before the Astronaut appears. In the dénouement to the episode Amy shoots at the approaching Astronaut as it visor lowers to reveal the little girl inside the suit.
“Oh. Hello. Bad moment. Oh look, this is the Oval Office. I was looking for the er, oblong room. I’ll just be off, then, shall I?”
Surprisingly a large part of the episode focuses on character development. For Amy we see her relationship with the Doctor questioned by Canton. This question is ultimately answered in the cliff-hanger when Amy shoots the Astronaut in an attempt to save the Doctor. It is also worth mentioning that from the fish fingers and custard line that Amy really values their relationship to the extent that it is the thing she cares about the most to swear upon.
The Doctor’s characterisation is an interesting one; in fact there are notable differences in the two Doctors which correspond with the two hundred year age gap. Not surprisingly the focus of the episode is slightly more on the three companions; this is typical of the style for a series opener. What is evident about the Doctor is that he comes across as slightly more disturbed than usual, almost as if he knows more about the circumstances than he lets on. Another point that should be picked up is actually the Doctor’s initial reluctance to travel to 1969. To me it seems very out of character as I have never seen him shy away from an adventure before, this to me confirms some prior knowledge and an element of fear.
Rory is the character who has come on the most in the gap between series; it is shown here how much his experience as the lone centurion has changed him. Perhaps one of his defining moments in this story was when he refused to give up on the Doctor despite Amy doing so.
For a one off character Canton is surprisingly well rounded, he is an intelligent man who takes no nonsense and has the confidence to defend himself against others, even the president. He is developed so well that he is one of the few one-off characters that I would happily have back. Day of the Moon is probably his better of the two episodes, although he is fantastic here too.
River’s development is perhaps the most interesting. It is facilitated mainly through individual conversations with Amy and Rory. For example in her conversation with Rory in the tunnels we get a small glimpse into the personal anguish which the character suffers due to her lifestyle with the Doctor. The character we see in the series is River at her best when she is with the Doctor, but off-screen a very different woman occupies a Stormcage Cell. What we get here is a glimpse into who this woman is and how unlike our River she is, it is rather heartbreaking. In retrospect having seen the finale too we get an appreciation for the intelligence of the character as she acts and lies in such a way to appear like she doesn’t know what is happening. We also get an appreciation as to how much she loves the Doctor through the implications of a conversation with Amy. The fact that River had considered killing the girl in the spacesuit (herself) to save the Doctor’s life shows just how highly she holds him.
“Joy. Her name was Joy. Your name is Amelia. You will tell the Doctor.”
The Silence, I could very easily write an essay on them, but I’ll not bore you. Suffice to say, I absolutely adore them and feel that they are without a doubt the best monster that Moffat has ever created. They are conceptually similar to the Weeping Angels in that they play on a fundamental fear that you cannot know what is happening to something unobserved. It’s like Schrodinger’s Cat, only a lot more lethal (or maybe not, the cat could be dead). The twist with the Silence is that you can observe them, but they remove the memory of the observation as soon as you look away. The result: you remain unaware of the existence of the Silence. Memory is a tricky subject, one which is not yet fully understood so a creature capable of attacking this is possibly one of the shows scariest concepts. Have you ever walked into a room and forgot what you were there for? IT’S THE SILENCE. No? Well if you can’t remember, how do you know it wasn’t? That is the beauty of Moffat’s concept, the fact that something could be there, ready to kill you and you are blissfully unaware it exists.
The use of the Silence in this episode is minimal but effective; they feature much heavier in the second part. What the narrative establishes here is how much of a threat they can be and the basics of their concept. First encountered on a hillside in Utah we are teased about their presence and their special ability. It is not until we meet them the second time that we learn what they are and what they are capable of. For starters the narrative establishes them as being extremely intelligent having knowledge from outside their time zone. The sense of threat is upped as Joy is brutally murdered at the hands of the Silence. Interestingly the name ‘the Silence’ is not revealed until the second episode maintaining a sense of mystery for the duration of The Impossible Astronaut. The creature’s final appearance in this episode hints to the scale of their invasion while also providing scenes with a unique fear factor which places our heroes in grave danger.
Without a doubt The Impossible Astronaut is one of the darkest openers we have had, it has genuinely terrifying monsters utilised to their maximum potential. The concepts explored have severe and lasting consequences for the characters and there is a genuine sense that danger lurks around every corner. The scale of the episode is notable too as the directors do a superb job especially in the shift from the vibrant colours of Utah to the dull and dank warehouse driving home the shift in the tone of the narrative. Given what we have been teased as to how Capaldi’s Doctor will be presented onscreen, I would suspect that this will be the opener that Deep Breath is most similar too, if that only be tonally.
Rating – The Impossible Astronaut
Throughout this series of In Perspective articles we are going to provide a rating for the episode to allow for some comparisons and to see what elements are actually important to making a good opener. The following ratings were produced by taking the individual ratings of five contributors (David Selby, Jack Hudson, Lewis Hurst, Simon Mitchell and Tomas Edwards). These ratings were then averaged to provide a number which should be relatively free of individual bias. The results are as follows:
- Episode Rating: 9.3/10
- Effectiveness as an Opener: 9.6/10
- Monster Rating: 9.5/10
- Character Rating: 9.3/10
This gives the episode a total score of 37.7/40
Asylum of the Daleks
Perhaps you are wondering why Asylum is here instead of getting its own article. The answer is rather simple; it has already been covered extensively via an absolutely superb In Perspective article by Michael Coats. (You can read said article here) There really is very little that wasn’t covered, so there was little point in producing another article of the same title which would have struggled to come across as eloquently. As a compromise (so as we can still score it) I have included a paragraph on what little remains to be covered.
As Coats’ article was written before The Bells of Saint John, (which many consider to have more qualities of an opener than Asylum) it could not have covered how the episodes since then have affect the way in which the episode is viewed. In truth, not much changes other than the fact that we know that Oswin is a splinter of Clara Oswald after stepping into the Doctor’s time stream. This makes Asylum one of the only two instances where we actually see the Impossible Girl’s splinters save the Doctor. The premise of the Daleks having their knowledge of the Doctor wiped is unfortunately retconned in their next chronological appearance as the Daleks download memories of the Doctor from the corpse of Tasha Lem. On one hand it’s unfortunate that we didn’t get a story which played upon this new dynamic, but on the other hand it showed how ruthlessly intelligent the Daleks are re-establishing their threat further.
The episode also adopts a darker tone and like The Impossible Astronaut features and already established TARDIS team albeit with an altered dynamic and being brought together not by their own choice. The concepts featured within the episode are superb and it was nice to see the Dalek Puppets brought back in The Time of the Doctor in a really shocking twist. The Asylum itself is something that was visually stunning and has the potential for reappearance at some stage, perhaps even when fully operational.
Rating – Asylum of the Daleks
As above, the following ratings were produced by taking the individual ratings of five contributors (David Selby, Jack Hudson, Lewis Hurst, Simon Mitchell and Tomas Edwards). The results are as follows:
- Episode Rating: 8.7/10
- Effectiveness as an Opener: 8.2/10
- Monster Rating: 8.5/10
- Character Rating: 7.5/10
Final ratings and conclusion
This gives the episode a total of 32.9/40 and puts us in the position to view our final list to see how the series openers rank up.
- The Impossible Astronaut: 37.7/40
- The Eleventh Hour: 36.8/40
- Smith and Jones: 34.9/40
- Rose: 34/40
- Asylum of the Daleks: 32.9/40
- Partners in Crime 31.7/40
- New Earth: 28.4/40
Perhaps the list is not what you expected it would be and I would hazard a guess that is down to the monster rating which is probably least important in openers compared to regular episodes. I thoroughly hope you have enjoyed reading this series of articles. With only a matter of hours left until Deep Breath excitement and anticipation are at their height. So relax, put your feet up (or get your popcorn at the ready), take a Deep Breath (sorry) and enjoy!