BBCHD - 4 June 2011 - 6.40pm
But it's also about the expanded universe of Doctor Who with Moffat using the vernacular of Star Wars and more importantly the western, The Magnificent Seven particularly, and their original templates that can be found in Kurosawa's Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress, to give us glimpses into areas of the Doctor Who universe that are usually the provenance of original novels and comic strips. A Good Man Goes to War therefore offers a good example of how the current television incarnation is willing to entertain the influence of these texts (from the Virgin New Adventures to the output of Big Finish) and not merely replicate some of them, as Russell T Davies did with Dalek and Human Nature, but to suggest new ones. Therefore we get a set of characters, in debt to the Doctor from previous, unseen adventures, taking up a significant portion of the first twenty minutes of the story, a whole chunk of the episode in which the Doctor himself does not appear but where his influence, his status as myth is keenly felt.
... storytelling is dependent on indeterminacy, open-endedness and multi-voiced narrativesThere's a rhythm to the storytelling here, again in the Lucas and Spielberg tradition, which is another iteration of what I described in my review of The Pandorica Opens as the ancient literary tradition of menippea - a form of satire that signifies a mixed, often discontinuous way of writing that draws upon distinct, multiple traditions. Here it's the western, the samurai and war film genres that represent that Bakhtian 'carnival of life' experience. As Andrew Horton points out in his analysis of screenwriting, Writing the Character-Centred Screenplay, "George Lucas's Star Wars trilogy comes much closer to the realm of the epic as described by Bakhtin" and Bakhtin's observation that this form of storytelling is dependent on indeterminacy, open-endedness and multi-voiced narratives is reflected in Moffat's own ideas of the epic form.
Thus we intercut from Demon's Run (the asteroid as outer space womb as opposed to the Pandorica as ancient tomb) to Cybermen under attack with Amy's tall stories about the man who is about to rescue her and the recently born Melody Pond bridging these locations. As she spins her yarn, bluffing us into believing that the Doctor is the baby's father ("he's the last of his kind, he looks young but he's lived for hundred and hundreds of years…this man is your father") she looks out of a viewing port onto a special effects sequence that pretty much mimics the landing bay of the Death Star.
Rory's question to the 12th Cyber legion, the one that hears everything and will hopefully tell him where his wife might be, and the Doctor's message are delivered against another viewing port, this time emulating those iconic outer space vistas of The Empire Strikes Back (the set design, colour scheme and lighting are visually similar to the bridge of Vader's flagship) and more visual effects pyrotechnics of the Cyber legion meeting their explosive fate and the conclusion to their very short-lived story function.
On the other side of the title sequence, the pattern is replicated. Rory as the reluctant hero fits the traditional trope of the family man drawn into conflict and who must weigh up the consequences of his actions on his private life. The debts owed to the Doctor by several other characters, and their eventual fates, underlines the cost to the personal lives the Doctor has affected. As Fat One and Thin One, the gay Anglican clerics preparing to fight the Doctor, rightly point out; praising the Doctor rather than fighting him "costs way more" and as we see in the introduction of Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh successfully creating yet another female Silurian) and Jenny, Commander Strax (Dan Starkey) and Dorium Maldovar (the excellent Simon Fisher Becker making his return since his last appearance in The Pandorica Opens) this cost or debt is one that could be the difference between living or dying. As background to the Doctor calling in debts, we get a flavour of unseen adventures where Vastra was woken during the construction of the London Underground and the Doctor convinced her not to take revenge and that Strax's demotion to nurse was penance for some unspecified incident involving the Doctor.
"Yes m'lady."There are some mischievous uses of gender roles and stereotypes thrown in for good measure with the introduction of the lesbian Silurian Vastra and her maid Jenny, and the Sontaran officer Strax, who has gene-spliced himself to produce "magnificent quantities of lactic fluid" and offers himself to Amy as an unlikely wet-nurse. Moffat's paying lip service to Russell T Davies own emphasis on surruptiously introducing LGBT characters into Doctor Who, pushing the boundaries of such roles, not only the human characters but also what we would traditionally see as 'monsters' such as Silurians and Sontarans, and also reiterating some of the male fantasies (potentially his own) and gender confusions that were the benchmarks of his writing and characterisation in Coupling too.
With Vastra and Jenny we also get the 19th Century Victoriana of The Talons of Weng Chiang, evoking its Holmesian pastiche and Jago and Litefoot pairing. There's even a Thunderbirds in-joke as Vastra alights from her carriage and dispenses with the services of her driver Parker to which he responds "Yes m'lady." With Strax, we also get a lovely running gag about Sontaran honour and his bedside manner as a later promise to meet his patient, a young boy injured on the battlefield, and "destroy you for the glory of the Sontaran Empire."
Thin One's importance to the narrative is simply to provide a route in for the Lorna Bucket character (Christina Chong), a young girl who, like Amy, encountered the Doctor when she was a child on her "heaven neutral" home planet. Unlike Amy, that encounter hasn't attributed to her the status of the Doctor's friend and companion but it has cultivated an undying desire to meet the Doctor again, her neutrality in sharp contrast to the rest of the Church's army who are out to kill the Time Lord out of fear rather than love.
With Strax's initial appearance at the Battle of Zaruthstra, defying conventions as a Sontaran nurse saving the lives of humans in battle (humans dressed in retro Victoriana in the 41st Century nonetheless), perhaps there's a little wink there to Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra too and what we later see as the all consuming desire of the Church and the Headless Monks ((last seen and mentioned in Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone) to eradicate the Doctor as part of a great conflict between 'heart' and 'head', a battle between unswerving religious devotion and rational philosophy. This discussion is kicked off by the aforementioned Lorna Bucket who points out that the Headless Monks believe that "the domain of faith is the heart and the domain of doubt is the head" and it is this philosophy that inspires the religious/military crusade against the Doctor.
'one always pays dearly'This builds upon the themes outlined in Moffat's Time of Angels where the Church and its clerics seemed representative of what I described as "a futuristic religious jihad where ‘the Church’, presumably the Christian one, is a militarised force sent out to extinguish evil" and reflects what Douglas Allen sees, in Comparative Philosophy and Religion in Times of Terror, as the Nietzschean view of the "dangers of religion when it breaks free from philosophy and tries to play the legislator on its own: 'one always pays dearly'." We're back to that idea that praising rather than destroying the Doctor invokes a severe cost.
At the Stormcage facility, River is back from a bit of ice skating with the Doctor (but we don't know which one) on the Thames in 1814 and apparently, in a moment of cheeky humour, Stevie Wonder was accompanying them with a song. Here, Rory requests her help and we get the first intimation that in these circumstances, at the Demon's Run asteroid, she is not going to intervene on the Doctor's behalf. She knows the future and sees it as "the Doctor's darkest hour" and where he, fulfilling the Church's own Alpha and Omega symbol of creation and destruction, will "rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further." More Early Christian references to back up the story's delineation between the rational Doctor as a mythic figure in which we should have unswerving faith and devotion and the Church as a sacred body united as 'all against one' where scapegoating the Doctor is in itself reinforcing the righteousness within the organisation. The Doctor's fall not only suggests this Miltonesque expulsion from Paradise but also a closer examination of the way the Doctor's own actions become mythologised to the extent that he is repositioned as the figure of the warrior.
Again, this sets up that contrast between the rationalism of the brain and the faith of the heart. Contrast this with the quiet little scene between Amy and Lorna as Lorna skives off mass indoctrination to give Amy the prayer leaf she's embroidered, a symbol of personal faith that itself will reveal a truism to Amy at the end of the story where, with the arrival of River, "your child will always come home to you."
We also get that little discussion about the Doctor's fame where Amy dismisses Lorna's view that he's a "dark legend" by reaffirming her faith in the Doctor she knows in contrast to the negative hype, rather as a man who you wait a long time for "but he's worth it." She also reminds Lorna that it is perhaps time for her to choose the side she'll want to be on when the Doctor arrives. Of course, when Manton waxes on about how the Headless Monks have sacrificed their rationality for faith, he's in a for a big surprise as the Doctor magically appears as one of them.
Until this moment of revelation, everything has been window dressing. Little of the plot has been advanced and we've come no closer to an explanation about Amy's kidnap or why her baby is important in the scheme of things. This is just Moffat having some fun with the structure, a la The Pandorica Opens to which it bears a striking resemblance, before letting the whole thing off the leash. Along the way, should he choose, he could probably create a spin-off show with the samurai sword wielding detectives Madame Vastra and Jenny and has certainly made room for fans to go and produce their own takes on Strax and Dorium.
... particularly ridiculous and illogical lows"Amelia Pond! Get your coat!" is the signal for the Doctor to create some clever manipulation of the Clerics' fear of him, setting off a civil conflict between trigger happy squaddies and light-saber wielding Monks. The sacred trust breaks down and the conflict becomes what René Girard calls a "mimetic crisis" in which the religious battle, and belief, descends into a fight of "all against all". Only until Manton successfully repositions the Doctor as a scapegoat figure - telling his men that, in good faith, they are Soldiers of God and are not to be fooled by this man - does some semblance of order return.
Like The Pandorica Opens, we then get a collection of monsters popping up out of thin air to finish off the job (and any semblance of rationality in the episode), with Silurians and Judoon holding the Clerics at gun point, with the feeling that this is yet more of that particular Character Options free association that Moffat enjoys on the quiet when he's stuck in the middle of a Sherlock script. This reaches the particularly ridiculous and illogical lows of time-travelling Spitfires doing their recap of Star Wars direct from the end of Victory of the Daleks and Hugh Bonneville's Captain Avery, fresh from The Curse of the Black Spot, forcing Kovarian to stare down the wrong end of a pistol.
After this self-indulgence it's nice to get back to one of the main points of the episode: the legendary reputation of the Doctor and how it gets a little tarnished here. Believing in his own publicity now sees the Doctor demanding that Colonel Manton humiliate himself and his troops by telling them all to run away. It's that dark half of the Doctor popping out for a bit of a gloat and a chance to let off some steam, angry that the people he loves have been so personally targeted. Kovarian aptly sums up the conflicted nature of the Doctor. An angry man doesn't have any rules and his impulsive reactions can create more trouble than they are worth whereas a good man probably has too many rules, perhaps so many that his commitment to fair play and honour blinds him to Kovarian's ability to fool him.
Later, Vastra also confirms this with her observation that "anger is always the shortest distance to a mistake", a bit of the Doctor's advice given to her when she tried to avenge herself on the London Underground workers who woke her and her sisters up. It precipitates the Doctor's ultimate failing here, believing his own hype as 'The Oncoming Storm' and as the man who inadvertently turns friends into weapons, the man that Lorna Bucket believes is a warrior because that's how his name is translated in the Gamma Forests.
The scene switches to a better explanation of last week's cliffhanger, underlining the point that Amy was always a prisoner on Demon's Run, kidnapped "just before America", and that Kovarian's face randomly appearing throughout the previous episodes was simply that reality bleeding through. At last, Moffat starts asking the questions that the audience are all vexing about. Who was able to control the flesh avatar of Amy when she was in the TARDIS and what do they want with her baby? When Amy demands answers and the Doctor responds with "it's mine" take a look at Rory's face. He's fretting momentarily that the Doctor is Melody's dad and he isn't. But it's just a bit more naughty misdirection about the cot and no answers are forthcoming.
Dorium and Vastra reveal that Melody has Time Lord DNA as a result of her conception in the TARDIS during its flight through the time vortex, created through exposure to the the untempered schism when it seems Rory and Amy spent their wedding night on board ("human-y, private stuff, it just sort of… goes on. They don't put up a balloon, or anything" suggests an embarrassed Doctor). When Vastra mentions the possibility of regeneration here it signals that the little girl in the space suit seen regenerating at the end of Day of the Moon might well be the kidnapped Melody Pond.
For observant ones amongst you, you"ll also hear the Doctor refer back to Amy's supposition, in Day of the Moon, that she was worried she might have a baby with a 'time-head'. Looks like that might just be coming true. The link to the death of the Doctor back in The Impossible Astronaut is restated when Vastra suggests that Melody Pond would make a good weapon to fight the Doctor with. This scene culminates with the Doctor clearly realising that his reputation as the most feared being in the universe has come back to haunt him and that the child, as Kovarian explains, is "hope in this endless, bitter war" against him. We see, in that revelation, the Doctor's Nietzschean fall from innocence, his fall from Superman into Man.
In the aftermath of a battle between the good companions and the lifeless Headless Monks, in which Dorium apparently dies off screen and both Lorna and Strax are provided with graceful death scenes (played beautifully by Christina Chong and Dan Starkey respectively), Moffat has one more twist up his sleeve and the scene when Melody turns out to be a flesh-avatar is one of the episode's blackest, grimmest moments. It's as cruel as the Doctor erasing Donna's memories of their travels together in Journey's End. As Amy, the Doctor and Rory attempt to deal with this outcome we get to the major revelation that justifies the episode's existence as a mid-season cliffhanger.
Well, it's not a cliffhanger really. It's just the answer to a question posed way back in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead and is the moment where River appears to reveal her true identity and underline the theme here that the fear of the Doctor, his status as warrior, has brought about all these disasters, where his anger is indeed the shortest route to chaos. River revealed as Amy's daughter doesn't quite have the impact it should, probably because the question of her identity has been strung out for too long, giving rise to an abundance of theories and plenty of correct guesses in the intervening years. For many, it's confirmation of those theories rather than some left-field, completely outrageous suggestion. That said, it is beautifully played between Alex Kingston, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan and brings a very welcome emotional depth to the episode's large scale pulp histrionics.
If it is true that Melody is the Doctor's killer, and she is indeed River Song, then there's a wonderful symmetry in that River died saving the Doctor (there was an even bigger clue in Forest of the Dead to her Time Lord status with her brain's ability to provide enough space to save the inhabitants of the Library) and that it seems the Doctor will die because of the young River's actions. It's an interesting thought on which to conclude an episode that is a carnivalesque mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, full of essential and superfluous characters, well-realised and uneven sequences. My hat goes off to director Peter Hoar for managing this mad jamboree with great aplomb and the result is a highly enjoyable episode but one that sees Moffat operating mainly on auto-pilot in order to get River's identity revealed.
And Let's Kill Hitler… what on earth is that all about?
Note: For more on Series 5, including all the expanded reviews from 2010, try my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press and also available on Amazon.