“Look, I’m angry, that’s new. Not sure what’s going to happen now.”
There’s a rather magnificent, fan produced, 13 minute faux anime version of Doctor Who on Youtube. If you haven’t seen it, go and have a look. Go on, I’ll wait…
(Plays teletext style music)
There. Great, isn’t it? It consists of beautifully produced crowd pleasing set pieces in which icons of the show are shoehorned into a typical series of anime action sequences. What it doesn’t have (and as an experiment in style, probably doesn’t really need) is any kind of coherent plot formed out of these sequences. Unfortunately, an actual episode of the show does need that, and arguably, that’s the problem with A Good Man Goes to War.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about this episode. As the (unprecedented) mid season finale, it’s ‘the spectacular one’ at which they’ve clearly thrown all the money. It looks sensational, with masses of CG of varying quality all over the place to give it an epic feel. Director Peter Hoar has clearly got a good eye for vistas and action, and the Clerics’ asteroid base has the real feel of an epic Hollywood action movie villains’ lair. Not to mention some genuinely good spaceship action – the destruction of the Cyber Fleet in the pre-credits sequence looked sensational.
The episode is also brimming over with brilliant ideas. A lesbian Silurian detective hunting down Jack the Ripper in 1888 (the incurably silly Primeval is, coincidentally, heading for that year next week). A disgraced Sontaran is forced to act as a battlefield nurse rather than a warrior, the ultimate humiliation. Either of these sumptuously mounted set pieces could easily form the basis of an exciting episode in their own right, and Steve Moffat just chucks them blithely into the mix.
We also get much more expansion on the idea of the ‘Church Military’ concept first seen in last year’s Angels two-parter. The Headless Monks, mentioned then, are finally seen, and really are headless – the blank gap beneath their cowls reminded me of the similarly freaky Brotherhood of Demnos in 1976’s Masque of Mandragora. Crucially, they have no heads so that they act entirely from the heart – a metaphorical concept taken literally that’s a central theme of this episode. We also get throwaway lines that hint at how Christianity and the military work together. The Monks’ declaration that each ‘army’ must offer a ‘sacrifice’ hints at the idea that there might be other religions who have armies – a Jewish one perhaps, or Hindu or Muslim. And another throwaway line gives an idea as to the workings of Christianity in the far future as Colonel Manton refers to “the Papal mainframe herself”. Along with the inclusion of gay married couples, that proves the Church has really moved on in accepting science and women too!
In fact, dialogue was another strength of this episode. Aside from random lines hinting at staggering concepts, almost every line seemed to be an instantly quotable classic. Lorna Bucket says, portentously, “he meets a lot of people. Some of them remember. He’s like… I don’t know… a dark legend.” Rory, getting brilliantly heroic this week, enquires as the Cyber Fleet is destroyed, “Would you like me to repeat the question?” There was some great humour too, as one of the clerics declared, “We’re the thin fat gay married Anglican marines. Why would we need other names?” Later, as ‘the fat one’ is led unsuspecting into the Monks’ sacrificial chamber, he comments on their choice of interior decor: “I like this. Lot of red. Hope it’s not to hide the stains!” And when the Doctor finally appears, twenty minutes into the story, he immediately mocks the soldiers with, “Please point a gun at me if it’ll help you relax!”
Some immediately likeable characters too. Probably best were the lady detectives from 1888, Neve McIntosh again brilliant as Lady Vastra (her chauffeur is called Parker and says “Yes, m’lady”) and Catrin Stewart was fun as her maid/lover/assistant Jenny (the same name as the Doctor’s ‘daughter’? Hmmm). It’s hard to know what would have scandalised Victorian society more – an interspecies romance, a same sex romance, or an inter class romance! Dan Starkey was great fun as Sontaran Commander Strax, who seemed to be finding being a nurse more enjoyable than he had anticipated: “One day we may meet on the battlefield and I will slay your puny human form. Now get some rest.” And it was nice to see Simon Fisher-Becker back as fat, bald, blue Dorium Maldovar – a sort of futuristic version of Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca.
So, yes, there was a lot in this episode that was really brilliant. Why then didn’t it really work for me? Firstly, I think, because there was simply too much of it. Each new idea was tossed eagerly into the mix without pausing for breath, making the whole thing seem like something of a staggering melee. It’s like when I first started cooking curries, and thought that the ideal way to do it would be to use the entire Schwartz spice range.
Secondly, to me at least, the fan-pleasing inclusion of so many old friends and foes seemed pretty gratuitous and self-indulgent. It reminded me of nothing more than Journey’s End, in which Russell T Davies similarly included every trope he’d established during his tenure as showrunner. That was slightly more forgivable though, as Russell was nearing the end of his tenure and wanted to sum everything up. Still, I didn’t think it worked then, and I don’t think it works here, particularly with Steve Moffat only a year and a half into his tenure. By the time the still-ridiculous spaceborne Spitfires turned up, I was getting pretty bored with it and wondering if we’d be treated to a return appearance by such memorable characters as Breen from Victory of the Daleks (remember her? Thought not). And while I’m on the subject, if the Doctor was collecting in favours from all his debtors and old friends, where the hell was Captain Jack Harkness?
Also as in RTD’s era, we got beautifully staged and brilliant set pieces that impressed but existed entirely outside of the plot. The introduction of all the Doctor’s allies fell into this category. This was possibly a good thing, though, as what plot there actually was probably only really merited about twenty minutes of screen time once the spectacle and set pieces were stripped away. I mean, what did the Doctor actually do? He sneaked into a top secret military base and rescued his companion. Sure, there was some advancement of the big plot arc, but essentially, that’s the gist of it. In some 70s episodes, he got that done in five minutes.
Of course, it was painted as something much more significant as that. The Doctor was angry! (Which isn’t really new, even for this incarnation). And River commented that “he’ll rise higher than ever before, then fall so much further”. But the stakes were, apparently, nowhere near as high as they’d been in the past. In fact, River’s statement more accurately sums up last year’s The Pandorica Opens, which has the same basic plot but plays for much higher stakes – the existence of all of space and time. In that one, the Doctor rises high as he sees off a gigantic, multi-baddie space fleet all by himself (not just a few piddling human soldiers), then falls far as he’s seemingly imprisoned for eternity while the universe is erased from existence. Whereas here, his ‘fall’ is losing Amy’s baby – a very big deal on a personal level, but lessened even on those terms by River’s big revelation. After all, if River was the baby, we know she’s going to be just fine.
Still, that revelation was played well, even if the last ten minutes were basically just exposition that even further unbalanced the structure of the plot. I can’t say it came as too much of a surprise that River was Amy’s daughter (that theory’s been all over the internet for weeks, not least in my earlier reviews!), but it was all very enigmatically played. When she told the Doctor himself, it was all played in half sentences and gestures – could she actually have told him more than she told Amy? She seemed to be gesturing at the Gallifreyan words on the Doctor’s cot every bit as much as the scrap of cloth within it. We still don’t really know the nature of her relationship with the Doctor, though he seemed amused and embarrassed that they had kissed. It only tells us part of who River is, so there’s still plenty more scope for mystery, and I’m glad Moffat isn’t giving us all the answers in one go.
Mind you, if River is Amy’s daughter, and Amy’s daughter was the girl in the space suit, how come she didn’t remember that at the time she was actually examining the suit? And what, if anything, should we make of the seemingly throwaway bit of innuendo when she first meets Rory this week; she says she’s been off with a Doctor from a different part of his timeline, and Rory jests, “unless there’s two of them…” And we now know that River is part Time Lord – or has a ‘time head’ as Amy referred to it earlier – because of being conceived while the TARDIS was in flight in the vortex. Can it be that easy to make a Time Lord? And if so, are we seeing some sort of origin story here? Some people have already said that, if River can regenerate, it makes a nonsense of her death in Silence in the Library. That’s definitely not the case though; she sacrificed herself there to avoid the Doctor’s death, and if that computer/brain connection would have killed him, then it surely would have killed her.
Still, the subject of Time Lords was central to the episode’s real theme, and amid all the sound and fury, I have to say that was handled well. Moffat was interested in what the Doctor has become, the consequences of it, and what will happen if he goes further down that path. It’s beginning to seem very reminiscent of the McCoy/Cartmel story arc and its enlargement in the Virgin New Adventures books. “Why would a Time Lord be a weapon?” muses the Doctor, to which Lady Vastra responds, “Well, they’ve seen you”. Matt Smith’s stunned realisation, as he sinks horrified into a nearby chair, was brilliantly well-played. The Doctor started out as a healer and a wise man – but now he’s a ‘dark legend’, ‘the oncoming storm’ and a warrior to be feared. RTD touched on this theme occasionally – most notably with Davros’ accusatory speech in Journey’s End – but never made it so central. It was underscored by River’s nicely judged speech about the word ‘Doctor’ meaning a healer entirely because of him, and what it might come to mean in the future. Interestingly, many fans have now dug out this little nugget from Steve Moffat, written on rec.arts.drwho back in 1995:
“Here’s a particularly stupid theory. If we take “The Doctor” to be the Doctor’s name – even if it is in the form of a title no doubt meaning something deep and Gallifreyan – perhaps our earthly use of the word “doctor” meaning healer or wise man is direct result of the Doctor’s multiple interventions in our history as a healer and wise man. In other words, we got it from him. This is a very silly idea and I’m consequently rather proud of it. “
So he’s been thinking about this one for a while…
Overall then, A Good Man Goes to War is a slim plot padded out but unbalanced with some brilliant ideas and dialogue, standalone set pieces, and visual spectacle. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed it, and still think it’s head and shoulders above the rest of what’s on television at the moment. But it seemed to me to be something of an incoherent melee, with too much of everything and not enough actual plot. The overall baddie, Madam Kovarian, still has no clear motivation and consequently comes across as a sneering pantomime villain. Mind you, I’m prepared to accept that this is because Moffat doesn’t want to show his full hand yet, and both she and this episode may be redeemed by further developments in the plot arc.
This episode may have disappointed me – and I gather a few others – partly because of that arc, and it’s worth noting that, of 7 episodes so far, only two haven’t been heavily connected with it. Some more strong standalone stories would be a very nice thing, especially if you want to attract more casual viewers who haven’t been following a complex overall plotline. But the arc may also mean that, when it’s over, we can look at all the preceding episodes in a new light. Let’s hope this is the case, when we reach the intriguingly titled Let’s Kill Hitler. More Doctor Who reviews in September – I’ll try to write something else in the mean time!