It’s 6 days now before Matt Smith bows out of Doctor Who after an astoundingly brilliant 3 (nearly 4) year run in The Time of the Doctor, after which we’ll be opening the TARDIS doors to Peter Capaldi. Matt has already moved on to work on a Hollywood film with Ryan Gosling (How To Catch A Monster) and I will hopefully be going to see his performance of American Psycho in London which has been getting stellar reviews, it’s clear that Matt has already used Who as a springboard to launch into what I hope will be a long and vibrant career because he’s such a wonderful actor.
So I thought I’d do a countdown to Christmas Day by talking about my top five episodes of his tenure, kicking off with The Impossible Astronaut.Kicking off just after the end of Series 5, we see the Doctor travelling around by himself getting into various spots of trouble – being pursued by Charles II as he poses naked for a painting with Charles’ daughter, getting imprisoned in the Tower of London, helping a group of British POWs escape the Germans in World War II, and dancing around with Laurel and Hardy in their film The Flying Deuces. It was a funny and exciting way to kick off the Doctors journey as we see he’s trying to get Amy and Rory’s attention (who are now married) by waving at them through history.
Amy then receives a TARDIS blue envelope from the (Teselecta) postman and finds that it contains a date, time and map reference. We cut to River Song who is still locked up in Stormcage Prison with a mischievous smile, her guard is on the phone telling his superior that “she’s doing it again… she’s packing” and she’s off to “some planet called America”. Like with the Doctor, this was a great way to reintroduce the characters and set the scene for the story.
What is immediately striking about this episode which makes it one of my favourites is how the colour palette stands out. It’s bright and vibrant during the outdoor scenes and ominously dark during the scenes in the abandoned warehouse, I love the art direction that Matt’s tenure took on because every frame stands out as being very distinctive. Not to mention that this episode, along with Day of the Moon (the second part), was actually filmed in America. There’s some absolutely gorgeous scenery porn going on with places like the sandstone Valley of the Gods in Utah appearing, and the place where Lake Silencio was filmed for the picnic was just as beautiful.This is where the main action of the story starts to build up. While the TARDIS crew are enjoying a picnic by the lake, Amy sees a Silent (the main villains of the episode), a red truck turns up behind them and an astronaut appears in the water. The Doctor tells his friends that they mustn’t interfere with what’s about to happen, and after a short exchange with the astronaut we see the Doctor get shot and start to regenerate. If your jaw wasn’t already on the floor when you first saw this, it definitely was when the astronaut fired again and killed the Doctor in the middle of his regeneration cycle.
It’s a lot to process, especially with Murray Gold’s AMAZING musical score accompanying the scene – I’m still not quite over how great this track is. The man in the red truck approaches the TARDIS crew while they debate what to do with the Doctor’s body, Amy is in complete denial of what has happened, and he drops a can of gasoline. River tells them that a Time Lord’s body is a miracle and that whole armies would rip Earth apart for just one cell of it, they have to burn him. Rory spots a boat and says that they should say goodbye to their friend properly.It looks like they filmed this at night, but apparently the cast and crew waited up into the early hours of the morning for this sunset to get this perfect shot. At this point, we’re barely 10 minutes into the episode and the Doctor has seemingly been killed, kicking off the arc for the rest of the series. The envelopes sent out to the TARDIS crew are numbered 1-4, number 1 being sent to a younger version of the Eleventh Doctor two hundred years before he’s killed. Despite knowing now how the story ends, I still look back at this episode extremely fondly for how it managed to get pretty much everything right – the sound, the music, the visuals, the character interactions, the comedy… and the Silence. Oh, boy. The Silence are easily my favourite villains of the show, they look absolutely terrifying with a really interesting premise behind them – they’re memory-proof, look away from one and you forget that it was ever there, and that’s not all because it can plant thoughts in your head which makes you do things for reasons you can’t remember why. Moffat’s best monsters in my opinion, so glad to see that they’re coming back for The Time of the Doctor as the Silence Will Fall arc draws to a close.The Silence are those kind of ‘what if?’ creatures where you think they could be real and you’d never know. Moffat interweaves them with human history in a really interesting way, as they have been on Earth since the Stone Age and have influenced the development of humanity for thousands of years. They’re sinister in appearance and their intent isn’t fully known, their voice is incredibly creepy too. There are a number of scenes in this episode which genuinely feel like Doctor Who is crossing into the horror genre’s territory, as River and Rory explore the underground tunnels forged by the Silence and see dozens of the creatures brooding in dark corners before suddenly disappearing.
This episode is host to some amazing character moments as well, it’s worth noting. Amy having to persuade the Doctor to set into motion the events which will eventually lead to his death was beautifully acted, as well as River’s conversation with Rory about the Doctor’s effect on the lives he’s touched, how their time streams are set in opposite directions and how she fears the day she’ll look into his eyes and he won’t know who she is was a beautiful moment between the (then-unknown to Rory) father and daughter. People like to criticise River’s character for various reasons but she’s one of my favourites in the show’s history and The Impossible Astronaut (and the following episode) start to push deeper into illustrating River’s feelings, thoughts, fears and history. Her witty banter with the Doctor and the chemistry between Alex Kingston and Matt Smith can only be described as ‘electric’, it’s fast paced and they act perfectly off one-another.There are some great comedic moments which go alongside the darker elements of the story, I still can’t help but giggle at the bit where the Doctor stumbles into the Oval Office, gets caught by Canton and President Nixon, trips into the lamp and claims he was looking for the “Oblong Room”. Matt continues to step up his game when it comes to acting as the Doctor, he’s incredibly dynamic and nails every nuance of the character to the point where Neil Gaiman said that his scripts for the Doctor revolve entirely around the energy which Matt brings to the role because no other actor could pull it off the way he can.
At the end of the episode, everything is set to bursting point. Amy fears that she is pregnant, the Silence have ambushed Rory and River in their TARDIS, Canton is knocked unconscious and the astonaut reveals itself to be an exoskeleton for a young girl who Amy shoots with Canton’s gun because she believes that she can save the Doctor by making sure the astronaut doesn’t live to find the Doctor at Lake Silencio.The Impossible Astronaut is a non-stop trill ride of scares, shocks, laughs, and sadness – the sorts of things usually only seen in the series finales. It really set up an extraordinary year for Doctor Who, raising the bar further than any of the previous seasons. The ending cliffhanger had me questioning everything, scouring every minor detail of the episodes, to try and work out where Moffat was taking us. He’s a writer who loves to tease the viewers and keep them guessing, as a set up for the series I think that he not only succeeded, but this was some of his absolute best work with the show. This is why it makes my top 5 list of Matt Smith’s best episodes.