It's not hard for me to see why Doctor Who has become such a beloved franchise. I think there's always going to be a place on TV for an epic, fun adventure series that can be watched with the whole family. There's no other show that has quite that combination of qualities.
After a cute but perhaps too cute opening, The Doctor gathers Amy, Rory and River Song (ER's Alex Kingston, who is starting to grow on me) in Southeastern Utah, plotting something involving space in 1969. (Yes, there really is a San Juan School District.) They're all there when he is shot and killed - before he can finish regenerating - by a mysterious astronaut. Imagine their surprise when a younger version of The Doctor later turns up and rejoins them. Obviously, they can't say anything as he's now tinkering with his own past. As a Terminator fan, I'm used to paradoxes and think they can be fun if handled well, so I'm game for this. My only question is what it does for the viability of the franchise, as how can they replace Matt Smith with another actor later on if The Doctor is dead and his body destroyed? I don't fully grasp that, but I'm sure someone will sort it out.
President Nixon asks ex-FBI agent Canton Delaware (the ever fabulous Mark Sheppard of Leverage, Supernatural, and Battlestar Galactica) to investigate some suspicious phone calls he's been getting from a small child about a spaceman. Moments later, The Doctor brings the TARDIS right into the Oval Office and declares he'll help with that problem. And Amy runs into one ugly-looking alien in a White House bathroom. He likes disintegrating people and/or giving them amnesia, and thinks she should tell The Doctor about his time snafu. This introduces a nifty idea: how can you oppose an enemy that you can't remember existed in the first place? As if that's not tough enough, we're also apparently susceptible to their suggestions. It's going to be tricky and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.
Back to the action: Team TARDIS brings Canton along as they follow the girl's next call to a properly abandoned place full of stolen NASA swag. Once there, River unearths a network of tunnels under the building, in which are a few more ugly aliens and their lair. We're told that the ugly aliens have been around for centuries and across the entire planet. Well, that can't be good. And we end on one heck of a cliffhanger: Amy's pregnant, and the murderous astronaut is revealed to be the girl they've been looking for. In a panic, Amy decides to shoot her, in order to save The Doctor from being killed in the future. I'm not really surprised at either part (maybe because I have memories of "The Empty Child" burned in my brain), but it's a nice way to go out nonetheless.
I've spoken with other shows of how you can't really judge an episode if it's part one of a two-part story. This episode of Doctor Who is a prime example of that. It's not a great season opener to me, but most of the season openers I've loved haven't been two-parters either. There's more exposition - and less genuine scares and surprises - here than I was hoping for. I can only imagine that next week will make up for that difference, so I'm going to give the show a pass this week, and see how things unfold.
What I did love about this episode was Doctor Who's usual remarkable dedication to immersing us in the places and times we visit. The episode really looked and felt like 1969 America. The TARDIS in the Oval Office was a pretty awesome visual. (Although as a Futurama fan I'm too used to seeing Richard Nixon as a head in a jar.) It actually reminded me a lot of Dark Skies in that way, except that in this episode it's the aliens doing the investigating.
In addition, there were some great performances here. Matt Smith hasn't replaced David Tennant as my favorite Doctor yet, but it's 1 and 1A in my book. Alex Kingston, who sort of grated on me last season, is growing on me now that River seems a little less theatrical. I also have a soft spot for Arthur Darvill, as put-upon Rory has been allowed to be his own person and not just Amy's accessory, not unlike Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith in the David Tennant run. And then there's Mark Sheppard. I really can't say enough good things about Mark Sheppard. I'm glad to see him every time he pops up somewhere, and this is no exception. He works so well in the role of Canton Delaware, making me actually embrace the guy. The episode serves all five major characters well when so many shows often have a hard time with multiple protagonists.
"The Impossible Astronaut" isn't the whiz-bang first episode my Whovian heart was hoping for, but it's a promising start to what looks like an impressive season. I'm wagering that we're on course for another fun ride in the TARDIS. And there's no other show that could come close to what this one can offer.