In interviews leading up to the premiere of season 6 (April 23, 2011 on BBC America), the current cast of Doctor Who said almost in unison that this year -- their second year together -- they were feeling the sense of having come together as a team, and the good news for Who fans is that this bonding is solidly reflected on screen. The characters of the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and his companions, Amy (Karen Gillan) and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill), have demonstrably come into their own not only as individuals, but as a group as well.
The Doctor and Rory
Matt Smith's characterization of a brash but sober Doctor, whose fits of lunacy come across as acting out against the universe, can now be judged a success. Like the Seventh Doctor, who seemed like a clown in his first season and, in his second year, more like a chessmaster who clowned to distract his opponents, Smith's take on the Doctor is becoming by turns more and more revealing of a time lord whose mind is not entirely absorbed by what's directly in front of him, but who's thinking about a hundred past and future events as well -- the very faculty that some, myself included, thought this youngest-ever actor to play the role might not be fully adept at putting across on screen.
In fact where first it might have seemed like Smith's Doctor would be even more madcap and frenetic than his predecessor's, we're now seeing that where David Tennant's zaniness was leavened with powerful outbursts of raw anger or passion, Matt Smith is projecting a Doctor whose reserve state, in between fits of Tigger-like bounciness, is one of introspection, most fitting for a scarred, 900-year-old demigod.
Arthur Darvill likewise puts to rest fears, incited most recently by only the previous story to air, "A Christmas Carol", that amid three strong personalities -- the Doctor, Amy, and River Song (Alex Kingston) -- Rory would be sidelined into two-dimensional comic relief. Darvill here more than holds his own, coming across not only as reliable and dependable but as someone whose very dependability is a positive asset to a team otherwise made up of amp-on-eleven extroverts.
River and the Team
The sense that the cast has jelled through their common experience of filming their first season together, season 5, comes across amply. A year ago in "The Eleventh Hour" each of them related well to the others but was still self-contained, still emerging from their packaging; and throughout season 5 Amy's status as being so special that she could literally bring the universe back together from nothing placed barriers between her character and the others.
Now that we're past that story arc, we can watch the Doctor, Amy, and Rory interacting like old friends. "The Impossible Astronaut" wisely starts with Amy and Rory together at home, giving us a clean sense of the couple away from the Doctor's shenanigans. They don't interact as equals -- Amy is still the dominant personality -- but Gillan and Darvill, under the direction of Toby Haynes and scripted by Steven Moffat, balance each other in a gratifying fashion.
Another element that came out in the interviews was the repeated idea that the team seemed complete once Alex Kingston was back among them as River Song. River Song is a somewhat controversial character in Who fandom, partly because to some she seems to be a bit of a Mary Sue (in fan fiction, a term for a central character who benefits from all plot contrivances). In some previous stories, River, a pet character of new head writer Moffat, has come across as popping in and out of the Doctor's life in arbitrary and maddening fashion. But here, amazingly, she does complete the team, and her presence is for once organic rather than intrusive.
The Impossible Aliens
The storyline of "The Impossible Astronaut" is constructed well enough, driving the four regulars plus the ex-FBI man Canton Delaware (Mark Sheppard) into an urgent and peculiar mystery. One might observe that Stuart Milligan's evocation of Richard Nixon is not particularly effective, but one mustn't see any slight toward Americans in this: last season had Ian McNiece's equally unconvincing Winston Churchill, so perhaps we can simply say that Doctor Who is currently not at a hundred percent on world leaders generally.
One thing I think is worth questioning, though. Both Doctor Who and its spin-off, Torchwood, have developed an irritating habit of broadcasting their make-up budgeting shortfalls by designing aliens around head-pieces and hands only, and otherwise dressing them in ordinary clothing. (The weevils on Torchwood were a particularly egregious example.) With good costuming you don't notice it, as with the Ood or the cat-people in "New Earth." But other times it jumps out at you.
In this case, "The Impossible Astronaut" has The Silent, creepy aliens with huge dessicated heads, big stumpy hands ... and dark, conservative business suits complete with narrow black ties. My first thought on seeing them -- that if they took off those suits all you'd see was the lithe human body of 6'7" stunt veteran Marnix Van Den Broeke (who played Death on Hogfather) -- was replaced by an even more annoying question: who ties their ties for them? Those hands don't look very dexterous. Do their mommies tie their ties for them before they go out in the morning to ravage the Earth?
High Quality Action and Suspense
These concerns are legitimate -- Doctor Who needs to stop making heads-and-hands-only monsters as soon as possible -- but are also beside the point. "The Impossible Astronaut" is thoroughly good Doctor Who: strong on characterization, with a good adventure and mounting suspense. The Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory make for the best three-point team on Who in ages, and constitute a sound argument that Doctor Who doesn't necessarily work best with the standard Doctor/girl assistant configuration.
Most importantly, it's a team I'm looking forward to watching with considerable enjoyment for some time time to come.