The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon, by John Toon

As my regular reader knows, I like to preface my write-ups of the Black Archive series of monographs on Doctor Who stories with my previous writings on each story. In this case, the two-parter that opened Matt Smith’s second season as the Doctor in 2011, I seem to have failed to write anything much about it previously. I watched it on first broadcast and again before reading the Black Archive.

If you saw it, you’ll remember that The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon is the story that starts with the Doctor apparently being killed by a mysterious astronaut, and then reappearing as a younger self; it turns out that a mysterious alien race called the Silents have been infesting humanity for a very long time, but people forget that the Silents exist as soon as they stop looking at them. The TARDIS team (Eleven, Amy, Rory, River Song) discover this while visiting Richard Nixon as president in 1969.

The Doctor embeds a subliminal message in the broadcast of the first moon landing encouraging humanity to rise up and destroy the Silents, and meanwhile a little girl who has been phoning the Oval Office regenerates a la Time Lord.

I’ll be frank. Series 6 is my least favourite of the three Matt Smith seasons, and my second least favourite of New Who as a whole (after last year’s Flux), and the opening two-parter is a large part of that. It’s difficult to take the supposed shock of the Doctor being killed too seriously; we know he’s going to be bouncing around again for more adventures after it’s all resolved. Too many threads are left hanging after the second episode (and resolved in haste months later at the end of the series). Steven Moffat is working so hard on trying to make us interested in the complex scenario that he has dreamed up that he forgets to be funny.

And to be honest, the Silents don’t actually seem to be very evil; sure, they look scary, and one of them vaporises a White House staffer, but if we decide that we’re going to exterminate any species where one of them has vaporised a White House staffer, where will we stop?

One casting comment – we’ve been watching Firefly, from a few years earlier, and it’s been amusing to see Mark Sheppard as Badger there; here he is the 1969 version of FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware (the 2011 version being played by his father, William Morgan Sheppard).

The story came in at a respectable 85th in last year’s rankings of all Doctor Who stories, run by Twitter user @Heraldofcreatio, below Robot and ahead of The Seeds of Death, but I’d put it lower myself.

John Toon had previously written the Black Archive volume on the Tom Baker story Full Circle; I commented then that it was largely about the intellectual ideas behind the story rather than on how the story was actually made, and why certain things were done or not done in the course of production, and the same is true this time. There are indeed a lot of ideas in this story, but they are not as well executed as they might have been; Toon does a good job of pulling them into the light, without going into too much agony about the story’s disappointments.

A short introduction talks about withholding key information from the audience, and conspiracy theories.

The first chapter, “Who World Order”, briefly looks at conspiracy theories around the Moon landings, Men in Black, Area 51, fake celebrity deaths, secret underground tunnels, government mind control, subliminal advertising, the Templars and Freemasons, and (at more length) Watergate.

The second chapter, “A Conspiracy of Silents”, looks at the general phenomenon of conspiracy theories, and in particular how they have fed into and been presented in Doctor Who over the years.

The second paragraph of the third chapter, “Killing in the Name of the Doctor”, is:

The term ‘genocide’ has been in circulation for less than a century. It was created in 1944 by Raphäel Lemkin in a book describing the murderous social policies of the Nazi regime that would later come to be known collectively as the Holocaust; genocide was first recognised as a crime under international law in 1946 and codified as such by the United Nations in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article II of that convention specifies that genocide is an act ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such’ and lists five behaviours that could be defined as genocidal:
‘a. Killing members of the group;
b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical
destruction in whole or in part;
d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’3
3  ‘Definitions: Genocide’.

The chapter looks at the dubious ethics of the Doctor’s instruction to humanity to kill the Silents, and whether or not the audience is intended to question the Doctor’s morality. He doesn’t go on about it for fifty pages, at least.

The fourth chapter’s title is “‘Waste No More Time Arguing What a Good Man Should Be. Be One.'” It attempts to find a justification in plot terms for the Doctor’s actions against the Silents, looking also at other similar plot twists in the Moffat era. The discussion is interesting but the justification is not really found.

The fifth chapter, “Controlling the Narrative”, looks at the Moffat-era shift to the Doctor finding more aggressive solutions in general, and also speculates that the Silents are a metaphor for a particular type of fan, closing the main thread of discussion in the book.

The sixth chapter, “When the President Does It, It’s Not a Celebrity Historical”, switches tracks completely and asks if the story can be considered a “celebrity historical” story in the same was as The Unquiet Dead (Dickens), Tooth and Claw (Queen Victoria), The Shakespeare Code (I needn’t say) and Victory of the Daleks (Churchill), if we grant that The Girl in the Fireplace (Madame de Pompadour) may not fit that category. The answer is, probably yes.

So, I felt that the book is a valiant attempt to look at themes of interest in a story that doesn’t quite deliver. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)