Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Peter Hoar, 2011
Last update for a while, as I’m going to South America for three months. If I don’t die, I will return to post more in October. Mm, the anticipation’s so palpable, I could bottle it...
Well. Doctor Who has repeatedly confounded expectations this season (at least in the event episodes), and so – again – I find it quite hard to know what to think of this episode. Less a story, as with The Impossible Astronaut, and more a culmination of various plot strands and scene-setting for continued narrative, its resultant lack of resolution renders it somewhat less than the triumphant story it’s been heralded as.
Don't get me wrong - in some ways it’s highly impressive, not least for having a structure pretty much unlike any previous DW story, with its various fleeting visits to disparate locations – in former years the sort of thing only budget-less media like the novels or comics could muster. I absolutely applaud this sort of outside-the-box thinking; DW is all about variety, but stories like The Curse of the Black Spot or The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People belie the possibilities that affords by delivering such staggeringly overfamiliar premises.
In A Good Man Goes to War, though not up with Moffat’s best – or maybe it didn’t feel quite worthy of him for the lack of voices over radios, memorably contrived monsters, or even narrative chicanery – it’s in its ability to prove that Doctor Who’s box of tricks need never be emptied in which it suceeds. Otherwise, there is something lacking to it. Like the season opener, it suffers for its dearth of answers – which, as I don’t really care that much about how a general audience might respond, doesn’t really matter a great deal, as they will presumably come; though we get a couple of biggies here (who the 'impossible astronaut' was and why she could regenerate; River’s identity – more on that later), the basics are somewhat neglected.
For example, the Eye Patch Lady – maybe we’ll get to know more about her, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if the details will be considered unimportant and we’ll have to simply accept that she’s the head of a Doctor-hating organisation… just because she is. This role inevitably brings back memories of Army of Ghost’s Torchwood 1, so perhaps it’s a mercy that that was fumbled so spectacularly (a woman with bad hair in a white room with some soldiers) that this can’t help but have slightly more impact. Still, it is a bit flimsy – a default baddie: a militia on a secret base. But then, coming up with a non world-domination premise is pretty good. The grandeur the episode aspires to, certainly in its first quarter is laudable, but perhaps doesn’t quite come off, and feels almost unbalanced in its size (would, say, the Third Doctor really have bothered to scour the universe and tear battlefleets apart to find Jo Grant? Even if she was carrying Mike Yates’ child).
That aside, Moffat nevertheless makes some of the tricks he’s already previously played seem impressively fresh, like the cameoing guest characters from previous stories; I was somewhat dubious about a surplus of returning monsters (…again), but that he makes this work in a different way than in The Pandorica Opens is quite a thrill. (I was all ready to rant about how no-one really gives two shits about the Silurians or the Sontarans (“Don’t slump; it’s bad for your spine”) being rolled out as a gambit for ratings, so I’m massively appreciative in this instance for an entirely unexpected take on raiding Millennium FX’s storeroom.)
But - while I’m a sucker for glimpses of new characters and situations from Doctor Who’s huge universe, and as charmed as the next ming-mong by the idea of a sword-wielding lesbian Silurian crimefighter in Victorian London, broadly-sketched characters based more in concept than characterisation are symptomatic of – for all the talk of how ‘dark’ the series is becoming – the cartoonish universe Doctor Who inhabits. That it’s hard, for example, to imagine, say, Jago and Litefoot coexisting with Madame Varna, even though they share the same peasouper milieu, goes some way to illustrating how much the series' tone has shifted across the years. As with the lack of answers, or insufficiently developed Actual Plots, the guest characters here do seem rather underwritten and ultimately only really fodder for Character Options (Arthur Darvil even describes it on Confidential as feeling like a dream team of action figures and cartoon characters).
Moving on - as for that revelation (spoilers! Of course): well, River Song’s identity is unsurprisingly a victim of its own expectations. I suppose I was expecting that Moffat’s tortuous imagination would confound us all, so her identity being relatively easy to guess (as one of only a few viable options), certainly given the clues in this episode, is a bit underwhelming. Also - and I don’t know how I feel about this - there’s the fact that her identity doesn’t really change anything…
In a way, I'd've almost preferred that she turned out to have been a baddie or have dubious allegiances, or at least play up here moral ambiguity. The question of her physiognomy does raise some questions, but it’s overshadowed for me by it all seeming slightly cobbled together: Amy and River’s names tie in, but that could be happenstance on Moffat’s part; also, she’s never previously given her parents anything but the most cursory attention, which doesn’t ring true and makes the whole thing feel like a last minute fix. I don’t buy the idea that Moffat is pulling things out of his arse as he goes, but there wasn’t the big, ‘Ah, OF COURSE! It all fits together!’ moment which I was hoping for. (Especially when there’s loose ends like, why did River investigate the child and the spacesuit as if she knew nothing about it?) Also, the effect of the circumstances of her conception seem a bit too easy to me, whereas (perhaps because it hasn’t been the subject of a few years’ speculation) at least the baby’s appropriation as a weapon in a campaign against the Doctor himself is rather neat and satisfying. Though, personally, I thought it’d make most sense for the child in the opener to be River and the Doctor’s.
At least, though the hyperbole surrounding the Doctor reaches hitherto unseen heights here (something I've been becoming bored with), it’s refreshing to find this story fundamentally engaging with the idea that the Doctor’s self-aggrandisement and ‘impending godhood’ isn’t necessarily the best path along which to take the character. Perhaps disappointing is the total failure of the story to live up to its own bullshit: darkest day? Anger being new? We-ell, not really. That’s the trouble with hype; we’ve seen the Doctor go so much further into dark, vengeful territory in The Waters of Mars and The Family of Blood, while having him confronted with his own failings would be interesting if it hadn’t already been done in former story, and even Journey’s End.
In short… Well, I don’t really know what to think. As with my reaction to The Impossible Astronaut, there’s almost too much detail to take in… but also too little story to be ultimately satisfied. As with Moffat’s earlier contribution to this half of the season, it’s unarguably impressively audacious, and genuinely does new things with the series, certainly ramping the story-arc format to hitherto unseen heights. But, I feel we have to admit that judgement must be deferred until the autumn, when maybe some resolution will retroactively render this mid-season finale a landmark rather than a mildly frustrating curiosity.
More broadly, I’ve come to prefer the finale episodes of the Moffat administration over the dispiritingly soulless affairs they were under Davies, but, still, the thinking that increasing the amount of event episodes with a split season like this equates to a big win seems dubious territory to me; predicating the series around shock tactics and revelations is a dangerous, ever-escalating precedent to set – I’d much rather see storytelling held above attention-seeking twists, which, paradoxically, both court and alienate mainstream audiences (based on mainstream reaction). A Good Man is an exciting, confident episode, but outside of its place in this story arc, one wonders how much merit it’ll have in future; ironically for a hugely hyped EVENT EPISODE, I cant imagine it being held up as a massive classic in the way the more self-contained and satisfyingly standalone Doctor’s Wife could conceivably be.
But, yeah. ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is a brilliant title, anyway, and given the strength of this half-season’s highs, I’m pretty excited. Only two stories were underwhelming, and generally speaking the remainder more than made up for any shortcomings, delivering some extremely successful and surprisingly challenging entries into Doctor Who’s canon.
But, until then, questions and speculations…
- Why’d the church give the child to the Silents to look after? (...I hope there actually is going to be a satisfying answer to this and not just ‘because they did’.)
- The deliberately playful intimations of incest or hardcore ‘hanky-panky in the TARDIS’ aside, surely the idea of River growing up as the love interest of someone who’s essentially her godfather is a bit freaky, is it not…?
- Initially I didn’t like either “I speak baby” or the idea of Time Lords developing through exposure to the vortex – but, actually, both those ideas do make sense (especially given the seeming existence of a Time Lord rank and then a Gallifreyan hoi-polloi).
- Interesting in retrospect seeing the things that have been foregrounded in previous stories – not so much stuff like the Flesh, but the signposting that, say, Amy and Rory do, yes, have a bedroom onboard the TARDIS, etc.
- And, most nigglingly - why would the Doctor’s own cot be onboard the TARDIS, hmm? Was William Hartnell dragging it around with him when he decided to nick her (or her him). It doesn’t even make sense that he might have used it for Susan, as she apparently remembered Gallifrey - so who’s this someone else Alex Kingston has let slip it was used for...?
PS I’m ashamed to say I missed the Silurian cunnilingus gag. What’s wrong with me?!