I want to be in America
A few minutes into The Impossible Astronaut, Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill) have arrived in Middle of Nowhere, Utah, dropped off by an iconic yellow school bus. As the bus drives away, we see the Doctor (lanky Matt Smith). Not leaning nonchalantly against the TARDIS, that blue police box, a little outpost of Britain where e’er it goes. But lying on the bonnet of a bright red Edsel wagon (is it his TARDIS with a working chameleon circuit?), a stetson pulled down over his face. The message is clear; the Doctor has swapped UK for USA.
This story, New Who‘s series six opener, is the first of two pivotal Matt Smith stories set and partially shot in the US. Both are steeped in Americana. The Angels Take Manhattan features Central Park and a rampaging Statue of Liberty, but also uses the tropes of US film noir so that it feels authentically American. The Impossible Astronaut goes even further. Apart from the breathtaking starkness of the Utah desert (and this story surely has the best location footage of any Doctor Who story), there’s a classic roadside diner, NASA and its space paraphernalia, Area 51 and the monstrous Silence, who echo long rumoured saucer headed alien visitors, familiar from texts as diverse as This Island Earth and Whitley Strieber’s Communion. And of course the White House and the President. I’ll come back to them.
The US is a huge market for Doctor Who, the brand as much as the TV show. It seems completely logical that the show should start paying America more attention in its fictional world. I would be very surprised if there aren’t more episodes shot State-side in the future. And that’s a good thing. Courting a new audience or pandering to US broadcasters it may or may not be. But more practically, filming away from Wales is vitally important to save the series ‘filming out’ its locations. It keeps the series looking fresh. After all, how many times can you redress Millennium Stadium or the Temple of Peace?
Series Six is also where overseas viewers got a specially filmed pre credits primer on the program, narrated in character by Karen Gillan. It was odd watching these in Australia, a country which has been broadcasting Doctor Who almost as long as the UK, and whose audience does not really need to have the basics explained to them. But these little intros weren’t designed for us, but for the US.
So in more ways than one, The Impossible Astronaut is where the series starts directly addressing America. And that’s quite a leap when you consider the rather cartoonish way the old series had presented America in the past: the lampooning of The Gunfighters, caricatures like Morton Dill, Bill Filer and Mrs Remington. The old series’ introduction of an American companion (played by a British actress) seemed like a crass attempt to appeal to the fan convention circuit rather than a genuine attempt to recognise a potential new market. And if you think about the string of new series episodes set in the US (Dalek, Daleks in Manhattan, The Impossible Astronaut, A Town Called Mercy), they gradually become more invested in the US; not just stories set there, but stories about there.
But where does it end, worried fans sometimes ask? A US reboot of the series? An American Doctor? Both feasible, but unlikely I think. But what might be possible to garner if you can point to a sizeable US audience, is interest in a Doctor Who movie. That may or may not be the game plan, but a few more episodes set in America couldn’t hurt.
Hail to the chief
Steven Moffat’s favourite TV series is presumably Doctor Who, then Sherlock. Maybe the other way around. Either way, what comes in third?
I reckon there’s a good chance it’s The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s celebrated White House drama which ran for seven series from 1999 to 2006. Moffat mentions it every so often, sometimes in relation to Doctor Who‘s ability to speak to a US audience without losing its fundamental UK trappings. His argument (and it’s a valid one) is that you didn’t have to have a detailed understanding of US politics to enjoy The West Wing.
Fast moving, funny and at times mind bendingly complex, The West Wing is addictive stuff, particularly in its first four seasons where Sorkin was showrunner. And it’s a hallmark of the iconic success of the show, that it’s impossible to leave any TV depiction of life in the White House uncompared to it. Even a science fiction version such as The Impossible Astronaut, because knowing that Moffat is a West Wing fan, he must have been influenced by it. But what can a series about a fictional Presidency, striving for realism, have in common with a fictionalised one with alien monsters?
For a start, Sorkin and Moffat have similar styles; rapid fire dialogue, peppered with jokes. And a recurring habit of not spelling everything out; trusting that the audience will get the joke or reach a conclusion without it being didactically spelt out. But the main similarity is that both The West Wing and The Impossible Astronaut put the President front and centre. In its initial conception, President Bartlet was meant to be only a tangential presence in The West Wing before Martin Sheen’s powerhouse performance pushed the character front and centre. In a similar manner, The Impossible Astronaut features President Nixon heavily, eschewing the approach of The End of Time which kept President Obama on the sidelines.
Nixon (deftly played by Stuart Milligan) adds a note of winking postmodernism to proceedings. History’s judgement of him flavours much of the script, including the Doctor’s instruction to him to tape every call that comes to his office. Nevertheless, Nixon is an almost loveable presence, with Milligan’s knack for mimicry helping sell a number of comic moments. He even gets to travel in the TARDIS, which must be a first for any world leader. But despite the fun that Moffat has with Nixon, you can’t help thinking that if he’d had the chance, it would be Sheen’s President Bartlet stepping through those doors to the tune of ‘Hail to the Chief’. Maybe that’s a crossover which could still happen.
Things I’ve forgotten
The Impossible Astronaut is a thing of beauty; slickly directed by Toby Haynes, and lovingly shot by Stephan Pehrsson. But there are a few details about it which seem to have slipped my mind.
Why, for instance, is Canton’s three month mock hunt of the TARDIS crew necessary? Sure it gives the second episode a brilliant opening, but as the Doctor’s investigations have the President’s blessing, why the need for subterfuge? Why does the Silent in the White House tell Amy to tell the Doctor about his death? If she does, doesn’t this spoil their plan to use River to kill him? And what exactly possessed that imprisoned Silent to say such an ideally convenient sentence as ‘you should kill us all on sight’? Lucky it did though, because the Doctor had already gone to all the trouble of rigging Apollo 11 for its broadcast.
No doubt there were perfectly good reasons for these things but maybe my memory has been edited. Along with how those flipper handed Silents did up their ties.
LINK to The Android Invasion. As someone who isn’t Gary Gillatt pointed out in the DVD review of The Android Invasion, its white suited, helmetted androids are a bit similar to the eponymous Impossible Astronaut.
NEXT TIME: We ride to destiny with Silver Nemesis. We surely do, honey!