When a Good Man Goes to War
Doctor Who's mid-season finale, reviewed


Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting.

For the first time in years, I’ve managed to watch the new Doctor Who episodes almost entirely unspoiled. I’d heard in advance what the episode titles were, and I’d heard a bunch of rumours, but so far I’ve never taken advantage of the lead-time Britain has had on North America to glean plot details before they appeared on my television screen. It’s harder now, for one thing, since the time gap between the two premieres is down to just hours rather than days, but I’ve also taken to stepping away from Twitter, so as to greet the new episodes with no preconceptions.

Even so, it’s hard not to have preconceptions about an episode as anticipated as A Good Man Goes to War. It’s a mid-season finale, capping off a six-week build-up of appearances by that woman with the eye-patch. It’s also well known that this will be the last episode until this coming September. In interviews, Moffat promised that big revelations would shake things up. He promised that we’d be counting the days until September.

From that, I figured we would be in for one heck of a cliffhanger. I expected something along the lines of the Doctor being handed his worst defeat — possibly him being encased in carbonate, or locked in the Pandorica again. Since we were told that we’d learn the truth behind River Song, and since she was locked in prison for “killing a good man, a hero to many”, I figured we were in for a betrayal.

That isn’t what we got. Don’t get me wrong: I loved A Good Man Goes to War, and I appreciated the cliffhanger, but the episode ended with a fair amount of hope. The cliffhanger is a pause not of disaster, but of important things that still need to be done. The Doctor wasn’t handed his defeat, yet, but he has discovered that war has been declared against him. What happens next? I can’t even begin to fathom, and that has me interested in seeing what happens in September.

It still feels a bit like a cheat, though. In the beginning of the episode, and in trailers leading up to this episode, River Song said (promised?) “This is the Battle of Demon’s Run. The Doctor’s darkest hour. He’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further. And… I can’t be with him ‘til the very end.”

A Good Man Goes to War was a remarkable episode, but it didn’t feel like the Doctor’s darkest hour. I feel that he’s fallen further — even in the past five years. But this is just the case of one line clashing with the tone of the rest of the episode. The rest of the episode measures up well, in my opinion.

A full, spoilery review takes place after this break.

It’s wise advice that one should never make the Doctor mad.

Now, I do have a quibble here, albeit a small one and one I’ve made before with the Russell T. Davies series: the Doctor has witnessed an infinite number of grave injustices. He’s seen billions enslaved, he’s had to look up the plural of “genocide”. Back in the 2006 season’s The Idiot’s Lantern, I wasn’t satisfied with how Tennant’s Doctor turned into a snarling madman when a threat that had already affected dozens of postwar Londoners suddenly affected Rose herself. Dozens of individuals attacked by the alien threat in this episode, but when Rose loses her face, it suddenly gets personal? I didn’t buy it.

So, when the Doctor and Rory deal with the fact that Amy has been kidnapped from the TARDIS for the past nine months by blowing up a Cyber fleet and then combing the universe, calling in favours to raise an army, I had similar qualms. The Doctor’s faced worse things without raising an army. But, then, there is the fact that Amy’s kidnapping makes things personal. Someone has deliberately and effectively targeted the Doctor through his companions, and of course he has to respond to that.

And what is the big threat? Madame Kovarian (the eye-patch lady)’s plan seems to centre around Amy’s newborn daughter, whom Amy has named Melody. We see Amy alive and well, and taking what little time she’s been given (two minutes) to talk to her child, and to tell her that the cavalry is coming. Someone is going to turn over planets to get to Amy and Melody. There’s a wonderful tease as Amy says that this man is thousands of years old. It’s Melody’s father — not the Doctor as many of us feared they were going to suggest — but Rory, the Last Centurion.

And Rory appears to have embraced his Last Centurion persona, wearing the Roman uniform again (although, if you think about it, it likely isn’t the original Roman outfit that his duplicate wore in The Pandorica Opens but a replica that he somehow managed to pick up before heading into the honeymoon suite with his beloved wife back in A Christmas Carol. Kinky!). He stares down a Cyber army, providing a valuable distraction while the Doctor does his work. He’s also the individual who goes to River Song and asks for her help. And it’s here that the Doctor’s great plan encounters its first speed bump.

River tells Rory frankly that she can’t be involved. The look on actress Alex Kingston’s face as she says this foretells doom, but there’s no time to linger on this slight. Numerous characters have been recruited — some familiar, like Captain Avery — but most new to viewers. Their common thread is that they encountered the Doctor at some point in their lives, and managed to walk away. In letting them walk away, the Doctor left with them a favour that, at some point, he would call upon them to repay.

There’s the Silurian Madame Vastra, who woke up in 19th century England and, thanks to the Doctor, stopped just short of slaughtering the workers building the London underground. She and her assistant Jenny now run a consulting detective agency with a bit of bite (as Jack the Ripper apparently discovered, to his dismay). There is the 51st century black marketeer Dorium Maldovar (first seen selling what might have been Jack Harkness’s time-travel device to River Song at the beginning of The Pandorica Opens). There’s a Sontaran commander Strax, whom the Doctor punished for various crimes by compelling him to become a nurse (Ooo! Nasty!).

These people and many others are arrayed against an army of clerics (see Time of the Angels) in the space-station/asteroid of Demons Run. The clerics all know that the Doctor is coming, and have been kept on high alert by Madame Korvarian and her allies, the Headless Monks (who are what it says on the tin), but it’s more than just the orders of their superiors that has the army nervous. The Doctor’s name is well known to the clerics, and to say that the Doctor’s reputation precedes him is understating things. Many clerics seem to think they’re about to engage in an unwinnable battle, and the pompous Colonel Manton has to engage in a pep-rally to boost morale. Among the clerics, though, is foot-soldier Lorna Bucket, who joined the clerics specifically to see the Doctor again. He’d touched her life when she was very young, taking her hand and telling her to run. That one memory haunted her for the rest of her life. When Amy asks Lorna why she’d join an army to meet the Doctor, the young woman responds, “how else would you meet a great warrior?”

It’s this reputation that’s at the heart of A Good Man Goes to War, and it is a culmination of a change in the Doctor’s character that Russell T. Davies launched back when he revived the series back in 2005 (or, more accurately, emphasized). Steven Moffat himself had a great part to play in bringing this change about, but I’ll give him high marks from exploring the consequences of this change, rather than just blithely accepting it.

You see, when we first saw the Doctor back in 1963, he was nothing more than a lonely traveller. All he wanted to do was see the universe in a rickety old timeship. He tried so hard to avoid influencing the events around him. He told Barbara “You can’t change history… not one line!” Many of his stories involved him getting caught up in historic events and desperately trying to extricate himself and his companions with a minimum of complications. But then the monsters arrived. The Doctor witnessed the Dalek civil war. He fought the Cybermen and sent the Ice Warriors into the sun. He confronted the Time Lords and told them that there were terrible things in the universe that had to be fought. He spent years on Earth helping the emerging human race fight off alien attack after alien attack. Despite his earliest intentions, he got involved.

And as he got involved, he got known. By the time Sylvester McCoy was playing the role, the Daleks were calling him the Oncoming Storm. He was fighting evil from the dawn of time, and that was before he returned to Gallifrey and destroyed the Time Lords and the Daleks in the last Great Time War.

For millennia, the Doctor’s influence on the Universe has been growing. He may not have noticed what was happening to him, but he was becomingly widely known as one of the great forces. Without intending it, he was being prayed to. He was being feared, even by individuals he would normally have helped.

A Good Man Goes to War shows the consequence of the Doctor’s growing influence. This is the flip-side of the Doctor being hailed by the masses at the end of The Next Doctor. Here, Madame Korvarian and her band of humans (and headless monks) are the beginnings of the pushback. Melody Pond (who is likely the same young girl in the astronaut seen in Day of the Moon) is a weapon they hope to use to stop the Doctor. She’s Rory and Amy’s child and she’s human, but there’s more to her than meets the eye. There’s sign of Time Lord DNA. Madame Vastra (Mr. Moffat, bring her aboard as a companion, please; she rocks!) speculates that Melody’s conception within the TARDIS may have exposed her to forces within the time vortex — the same forces which gave the Time Lords their unique abilities after years, if not decades, of exposure.

The scene where this revelation occurs is particularly well done. I especially like how the Doctor, despite facing down armies, is completely flummoxed when dealing with the squidgy issues of his companions’ sex life. It’s a blind spot for him, and one which Korvarian appears to have taken full advantage of.

And Korvarian does seem to have an uncanny ability to pull the wool over the Doctor’s eyes. She ends up fooling him not once but twice with the Flesh gambit. She still has Melody Pond, and she makes it clear she intends to build Melody into a weapon.

It is a dark moment, as the Doctor realizes that he’s failed Amy and Rory. Matt Smith and all the rest of the cast do a great job of selling this. I continue to be impressed by Matt’s abilities as he displays the wide array of emotions that the Doctor is privy to (I am especially impressed at his abject grief at the death of the hero-worshipping Lorna Bucket — a woman that he himself either hasn’t encountered yet or, more likely, doesn’t remember). When River appears at the end and the Doctor confronts her for not showing up, the intensity of the scene is sold primarily by the acting abilities of Matt Smith and Alex Kingston. And then comes the revelation of who River Song really is.

I had sort of guessed. Back in The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, when River talked about the Doctor descending on her life when she was a young woman (possibly even a girl), I wondered if there was a connection to the little girl in the spacesuit. Then, when Amy Pond named her daughter Melody, I wondered even more (I mean, come on: Melody Pond? River Song? Isn’t that enough of a clue for you?). Still, this doesn’t diminish the import of the revelation, and the connection River Song clearly has now, not just with the Doctor but with Amy and Rory (though, Amy, would you please stop pointing guns at your daughter? Think of what you’re teaching her!).

Except that it doesn’t mesh with River’s earlier portents of doom. I mean, just the way the story is structured gives “Amy, I am your daughter” less than half of the impact of “Luke, I am your father.” To me, it’s a note of hope. Thanks to River, we know that while the intervening years may be rocky, Melody Pond is ultimately going to be all right. It’s an open question whether or not Rory and Amy can watch their daughter growing up, however.

Incidentally, this is probably the reason why River Song couldn’t participate in the battle of Demons Run until the very end: she couldn’t risk meeting her infant self and thus ripping a hole in the fabric of the universe.

So A Good Man Goes to War ends less on a disaster, and more on the turning point of the Doctor rolling up his sleeves. There is a sense that this episode is more of a prelude to stranger things as the Doctor tells Amy and Rory to go home while he deals with Korvarian’s threat himself. How the heck is he going to do that? How the heck can Amy, Rory and River just sit tight? What the heck is Korvarian’s plan? How will it all play out?

Tune in next September when Doctor Who returns to answer all of your questions in an episode entitled Let’s Kill Hitler.

Um, yeah, you read that right. I have a feeling we’re in for something really, really strange.

And I, for one, can’t wait.

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