THIS EPISODE TAKES PLACE BETWEEN THE TV
EPISODES "THE ALMOST
PEOPLE" AND "LET'S KILL
'THE COMPLETE SIXTH SERIES' BLU-RAY DVD
LIKELY TO BE RELEASED IN NOVEMBER 2011.
The Doctor assembles an army to face the Battle of Demons Run - and River Song has something to tell him.
4TH JUNE 2011
(50-MINUTE EPISODE, PART 1 OF 2)
This proves once and for all that Stephen Moffat can do big, barnstorming fin-ales with all the panache of his predecessor, Russell T Davies. If this is to be viewed as a finale, that is - it’s more of the conclusion to volume one of this series, with volume two to follow later this year. One thing’s certain: the seven episodes of the series so far this year form one, continuous story; chapters in an ongoing narrative, rather than discreet elements. There’s no way that this one episode, even with the huge array of delights on offer, could function on its own. Its purpose is not to function as a story in its own right, but to tie up this half-series with the maximum style and flair.
It must be tempting, as the man running Doctor Who, to throw in every alien, monster and iconic character from the last five decades of the series’ history. Chucking in Sontarans, Silurians, Cybermen and Judoon, not to mention pirates, Spitfires and gratuitous sauciness could easily go over the top and crash back down. Well, over the top this is, but triumphantly so. If you’re going to go for a big, end of term party, then this is the way to do it. It’s a fair criticism that the first half of the episode lacks any coherence; the focus is on impressive imagery and broad character strokes. Yet this approach allows Moffat to set up a complex situation with a wide cast of characters, so by the time the pace settles down, we’re familiar with who’s who and what’s what without having to worry about fine details.
“The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name...”
The real joy of it though is that I expected something so much less interesting. The BBC publicity machine cranked up over the last couple of weeks, promising us monsters galore - the Cybermen were coming back, then the Sontarans, then the Silurians... It really seemed as though we were going to get The Pandorica Opens mark two - the monsters gang up on the Doctor again. Instead, this expectation was subverted. The only alien race to play the villain role were the Cybermen, and they were dispatched astonishingly quickly. It’s almost a shame; the Twelfth Cyber Legion are the Cybermen at their most impressive in years, possibly ever. A whole episode could easily have played out in their gleaming battleships. On the other hand, the Silurian and Sontaran characters were revealed to be on the side of the heroes, allowing them some much needed individual characterisation. Instead, the main villains of the piece were good old human beings.
It was a great idea to bring back the Clerics, the religious army of the future. Manton is a powerful, charismatic leader, which makes his eventual defeat, and rebranding as Colonel Runaway, all the more satisfying. Odd that he’s a colonel, though, rather than a bishop or archdeacon or something. There are some interesting hints at details of this future, too - there’s talk of ‘heaven-neutral’ locations and a Papal Mainframe (the Pope’s a computer?), not to mention the idea of military affiliations between denominations. It’s a pity that there wasn’t more exploration of the reasons behind their war on the Doctor. Madame Kovarian (forever to be known simply as Eye-Patch Woman) I can get; she’s quite a dull character, the female equivalent of a moustache-twirling villain. I don’t expect three-dimensions to a character like that. The Clerics are much more interesting - just why do they hate the Doctor so much?
“And all this, in fear of you...”
The Headless Monks, on the other hand, are a mediocre addition to the show. A creepy enough idea, to be sure, and they add to the whole Star Wars-y feel when they wield their flaming lightsabres, but they actually add very little to the proceedings, for all Manton’s hype. Still, the reveal of the Doctor, flipping back his hood in front of the congregation, is worth it, although it was a bit predictable. Likewise, for all the nice details to the life of people on Demon’s Run - the psychic paper training, the gossip about the Doctor - there are clunking misses. Why are the Thin One and the Fat One introduced? Fatty gets killed and turned into a monk, and is never mentioned again. We just get a brief annoyed look by Thin. Surely some kind of emotional reaction to the murder and mutilation of his husband would be expected?
Still, in the main, this episode gets the characterisation spot on. New and old characters are brought to life with commensurate aplomb. Poor Lorna Bucket, the beautiful girl who joined an army just for the chance to meet the Doctor again - and he didn’t even remember her (unless he hasn’t actually met her yet, of course). Dorium is just marvellous; I loved every minute he was on screen. What a shame they killed him off (although apparently he will be returning, in some form or another - previously in time perhaps, or will he just be head?) Of particular note are Vastra and Jenny, the 19th century lesbian adventuresses. Doctor Who has flirted with alternative sexuality a lot over recent years, but these lovers cross taxonomic classes with gay abandon (pun intended). They’re brilliant, though. A Silurian warrior, her murderous instincts curbed - or at least diverted - by the Doctor’s schooling; and her foxy cockney housemaid. I loved the Thunderbirds reference, too. And as for that joke about Vastra’s tongue…
“Don’t slouch. It’s bad for your spine!”
The real standout character, however, has to be Commander Strax, the shamed Sontaran nurse. What a wonderful conceit. The lactating Strax gets all the best lines in this episode, and against some stiff competition too. “Don’t slouch! It’s bad for your spine!” His death is surprisingly touching, as well. There’s some wonderful nurse solidarity between him and Rory. What a marvellous character. There’ll never be a Sontaran like him again.
This isn’t to say the regulars are forgotten about. Far from it; this is perhaps the strongest episode for the three of them all year. Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are on top form here, all having truly perfected their characters. Amy’s moments with her daughter are tender, yet she can still pack a punch when her dander’s up. It’s touching how she never loses faith in her boys coming to her rescue. Rory, meanwhile, gets to be first-class awe-some. Storming onto the Cybership, confronting the legion in his armour, demanding the answer to one question: “Where is my wife?” Hard as nails on the face of it, yet still he’s a tearful wreck when the time comes. He also gets a brilliant line, set to go down in Cyber-history: “Don’t give me those blank looks.” Genius.
“Where is my wife?”
As for the Doctor… has Smith ever been better than he is here? While still recognisably the same dotty professor that he’s played since The Eleventh Hour, he imbues the part with incredible authority. He manages to seethe with anger, yet still look oddly vulnerable. You can understand, when you see him here, why he’s so feared across the universe. You wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of him, that’s for sure. What makes it so effective is that the Doctor is made so acutely aware of the fact. Death follows him around; there are certainly a lot of deaths while his back his turned. Friends die because his strategy isn’t as foolproof as he thought. Enemies are slaughtered to make a point; OK, he lets the Clerics leave with their tails between their legs, but his non-human opponents aren’t so lucky - the Cybermen are blown to smithereens. The Doctor is made acutely aware of how he is seen as a threat, not only by the actions of the Clerics, but by Vastra bluntly pointing it out to him. Then he learns what his name means in the Gamma Forests. It’s a wonderful conceit that Doctor means ‘healer’ or ‘wise man’ because of him; to have that turned round, so that Doctor comes to mean ‘warrior,’ is a great notion, and the reveal hits the old Time Lord hard. He really isn’t the same character who started out all those years ago.
Amongst all the emotion, death and the cold, hard truths, there are plenty of laughs here. In fact, this is easily the funniest episode of the season, all the more so for the sharp relief of the warfare. “They don’t put up a balloon or anything!” The Doctor being able to speak baby is perhaps a little bit much, but he delivers the line with deadpan perfection. There’s such a sense of fun to this episode, particularly for the fast-paced first half or so. The last twenty minutes slow things right down, settling into a gentler pace to make sure we appreciate the gravity of events.
“Amelia Pond, get your coat!”
Which brings me to River Song - or should I say Melody Pond? The last-minute reveal wasn’t as shocking as it might have been; the idea that River was actually Amy’s daughter has been floating around the interweb for a while now, and as soon as we heard the name Melody Pond I did think “aha!” Still, the episode kept me guessing right to the end. I don’t, for one minute, believe that this is what Moffat had in mind for the character when she was introduced back in 2008’s Silence in the Library; we still don’t have a concrete answer to the question of her relationship with the Doctor. Nonetheless, it’s blatant now that they’re time-crossed lovers (and River really has known him all her life); regardless of whether they actually marry, that much is clear. River’s parentage takes the mystery up a notch, and it’s a suitably interesting place to leave the series on. It’s an odd predicament, to be sure; we know that the baby will ultimately be safe, because her adult self stands before us, yet the Doctor is duty-bound to track her down and save her. Still, with a TARDIS-travelling couple for parents, one of whom is a huge temporal paradox himself, she’s bound to have an odd life. There are still some huge questions hanging in the air, mostly from the season opener, but now it feels that we’re finally getting some answers. Whether this is the game-changing cliffhanger that we were promised rests on how well it’s followed up. Nonetheless, the future looks very bright. It’s going to be a tough wait for the next episode, especially with a title like that! Honestly, Let’s Kill Hitler!
Copyright © Daniel Tessier 2011
Daniel Tessier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Living as we do in the iPlayer age of television on demand, Sky Plus and media centres, more and more series seem to be shifting their stall towards the long game. The success of series such as 24, Lost and, for a while, Heroes has proven that audiences love nothing more than to hole up for a long weekend with a box set and immerse themselves in addictive season-long (or sometimes even series-long) storylines. And since Doctor Who returned to our television screens in 2005, it has gradually become more and more arc-heavy, culminating in this latest season which, while still comprised of discrete adventures, is the closest that we’ve come to a mammoth year-long story since The Trial of a Time Lord in 1986. Thankfully though, Series 6 is a damned sight better.
A Good Man Goes to War is Doctor Who’s first mid-season finale. In recent years more and more American dramas have effectively divided their seasons into two, with the first half of the season usually culminating in a either an agonising cliffhanger or some game-changing reveal, but this is the first time I’ve noticed a BBC programme doing the same. It’s both a refreshing and welcome change, as it rations out what usually amounts to just fourteen substantive episodes over a year fairly evenly, instead of spoiling us for three months and then leaving us hanging until Christmas. It also lends itself nicely to the continuing story format, particularly when that continuing story has been structured so very tantalisingly.
“Demons run when a good man goes to war...”
Perhaps the biggest boon though is the fact that we now get two finales for the price of one. In terms of scope and grandeur, A Good Man Goes to War is on the same level as The Sound of Drums, The Stolen Earth or even The Pandorica Opens – if anything, it feels a little grander. This is probably because, River Song and Baby Pond trappings aside, it’s such a strong Doctor story. There are hundreds of Doctor Who stories out there now, but so few of them cut straight to the hearts of the man, and even fewer do so as incisively as these fifty minutes do.
When the series began in 1963, it was very humbly, and the same was reflected in how the Doctor was portrayed. He was a mysterious, old runaway; just as prone to selfishness as he was philanthropy. Almost fifty years on, and the Doctor is just as much of a legend as Doctor Who. Such are his deeds that his name – well, his handle – has inveigled its way into most languages as meaning “wise man” or “healer”; English amongst them. But the older the Doctor gets and the more of a legend he becomes, the darker the shadow that trails him. The many novels that bridged the gap between the series’ cancellation in 1989 and its return in 2005, whilst their minutiae was often contrary, recognised this and pushed the character into darker waters still, making him a destroyer of worlds; even the killer of his own kind. Russell T Davies then seized upon the popular conceit, making his Doctor both a pragmatic time warrior and an anti-violence crusader who demonstrably forges his friends into weapons. Herein lies the crux of Steven Moffat’s story: the Doctor is the titular good man gone to war. But some might say that a good man can’t.
“I can produce magnificent quantities of lactic fluid!”
Interestingly, this episode did put me in mind of many of the Virgin Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s as, instead of telling a “Cyberman story” or a “Sontaran story” abounding with cipherish monsters, it cherry picks one or two unique alien individuals and showcases them. In a beautiful reflection of The Big Bang, this story sees the Doctor turn to many of the species that tried to lock him away for good to help him storm Demon’s Run and rescue Amy and her newborn child - but these species aren’t the rampant, faceless monsters that some might expect. We have Madame Vastra, a female Earth Reptile living in the 19th century, shacked up with a sprightly human girl with whom she fights crime (and no doubt, more besides). We have a Sontaran who, as atonement for some past misdemeanour, must now serve his many enemies as a nurse. Commander Strax is the single greatest Sontaran character that we’ve seen outside an Alan Barnes audio drama; he’s by turns grossly hideous and sympathetic, not to mentioned damned hilarious. “I can produce magnificent quantities of lactic fluid!”, he boasts. Just like the missus.
But with such unlikely allies onside, who is the Doctor fighting? Answering that question, at least, is easy – the militant Clerics that we first met in The Time of Angels, led by the eye-patch sporting Madame Kovarian and the imposing Colonel Manton. Their Headless Monk allies are, perhaps, a little extraneous, but it’s hard to grumble when they’re so damned unsettling. With their drawn cowls and bloodshine lightsabres, at first the Monks could be mistaken for an ancient Sith army. However, the revelation that their “Headless” soubriquet has been paid for in full is so horrifying a moment that I half-expected Mary Whitehouse to exhume herself to protest about it. What I find so grotesque is the practicality; these Monks don’t just have empty spaces where their heads should be - they have terminalised neck stumps. Never mind the children watching, that’s an image that’s going to be hard to force out of my mind.
“My friend, you have never risen higher.”
The difficult question though is why are they fighting the Doctor? Why kidnap Pond, steal her child, and try to use that child to destroy the Doctor? What makes him so great a threat to them? What will the Doctor become in his future that will cause the people of the Gamma Forests to take the word ‘Doctor’ and as their word for ‘warrior’? “Intrigue” doesn’t even begin to sum it up, and that’s before we get to what makes Baby Pond so very special.
A Good Man Goes to War is leant further weight through the inclusion of what the Doctor claims was once his cot. It would be such a throwaway thing in any other show, but as the Doctor’s origins have, and hopefully always will, be shrouded in mystery, to offer viewers something as momentous as his cot in itself feels illicit. Some will of course grumble that suggesting that the Doctor was once a baby is a little lazy, and certainly far less intriguing than the ‘looming’ theory championed by acclaimed author Marc Platt, but this is effectively compensated for by the antique appeal of the stunning, time-beaten prop and the sublime role that it plays in the episode’s climactic revelation.
“The only water in the forest is the River.”
Nevertheless, A Good Man Goes to War was ultimately sold on the promise that, at long last, the Doctor would find out who River Song is, and on that front too it delivers. The Pond-lookalike Cleric, Lorna Bucket, serves as an almost-convincing red herring throughout, but in the end the clues are too numerous and too strong. If most viewers hadn’t worked it out when River first laid eyes on Rory, they had by the time that Baby Pond was ripping the piss out of the Doctor’s bow tie. So Melody Pond grows up to be River Song, but is she the weapon that the Clerics want her to be? Did River murder the Doctor in The Impossible Astronaut (presuming, of course, that he was the ‘proper’ Doctor)? Did River regenerate? Like all the best bombshells, the revelation wasn’t so much of a shocker in itself, but the ramifications of it throw up a plethora of questions and controversies that will keep the net ablaze for a long time yet.
Yet for all its tension, weight and grandeur, A Good Man Goes to War retains the warmth that has, in many ways, defined the show since Davies resurrected it. The Doctor is a man of matchless history and magnitude, yet he’s so bamboozled by human reproduction that he wonders why Rory and Amy don’t put a balloon out when they’re making love. Rory is a man whose pregnant wife has been violently torn away from him, yet he can still don a centurion’s outfit and hurl a mordant quip at a room full of Cybermen. No matter how dark this show gets, it remains as light as air, and I hope that it always will.
“Don’t give me those blank looks.”
In summary, then, A Good Man Goes to War is uncompromisingly enjoyable, edge of the seat television. Matt Smith is mercurial, Alex Kingston alight, and together Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill set new standards for intra-TARDIS soap opera. Steven Moffat’s script does what it promised to do and far more besides, offering us fleeting glimpses into the Doctor’s inviolate past and overcast future, whilst never taking its eye off the drama of the moment. This episode showcases the very best of Doctor Who the show; Doctor Who the headline; even “Doctor Who” the man, and if the series can continue to mould itself to the times, yet remain indelibly Who, then the long history of the Doctor is soon going to become far too torturous for anyone to navigate, let alone chronicle.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The very fact that the Doctor once had a cot suggests that he was once small enough to fit in it. This does not sit well with the notion that he was “loomed” fully grown (or thereabouts), as posited by Marc Platt in his notorious novel Lungbarrow – at least, not on the face it. It is important to remember that Lungbarrow was predicated on the suggestion that the Doctor’s existence somehow stretched back to before his looming; to a time when he may have lived as ‘the Other’ member of ancient Gallifrey’s ruling triumvirate – a person who it is rumoured had at least partial human lineage. It might also be the case that the cot is bigger on the inside, of course. That, or the Doctor lied about it being his.
For River Song, this story takes place long after Let’s Kill Hitler and prior to The Impossible Astronaut.
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.