DOCTOR WHO: Series 6 - A Good Man Goes To War / Review

BBCHD - 4 June 2011 - 6.40pm

The mid-season finale A Good Man Goes To War is a curious beast. Like The Pandorica Opens, Moffat structures the episode in a very particular way. A series of flashbacks and forwards are a typical device from the writer, with the similar time-jumping elements and brief character sketches of last year's finale here replicated in order to show us how the Doctor calls in his debts with those we know well and those who are entirely new to us. The danger here is that with those we know nothing about at all the episode has to work very hard to ensure these characters have an instant impact because down the line that is what will matter. If they are to succeed as characters the audience will need to emotionally engage with them.

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 narratives 
There'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.

This statement is followed by an immediate cut to Rory now attired as his heroic alter-ego Roman Centurion, striding through a door to deliver a message to the Cyber fleet. Rory has become the in absentia Doctor-as-hero figure, donning his alter-ego as "the Last Centurion" in order to perform fully the proper duties of the masculine hero (reflecting the cos-play 'manning up' seen in the Christmas special as well as his role in The Pandorica Opens).

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."

Interesting to note that the other homosexual couple in the story, Fat One and Thin One (they don't even have names because they are defined simply by three things - sexuality, religion and war - as "gay Anglican marines") don't fare at all well and their presence is an off the cuff bit of black humour where one of them is undergoing "conversion" to join the order of Headless Monks. There's a suggestion here that "conversion" is not just the beheading of chosen ones to join the order but also a deliberate mechanism of power to enforce the likes of Fat One into a compulsory non-gay existence. It's a strange sub-plot that doesn't quite work because the two men are hardly given screen time and the consequences of "conversion" on this married couple are rather flippantly unresolved and the idea is dubious at best.

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.

When Dorium faces Madame Kovarian (a scenery chewing Frances Barber), he too visualises the Doctor as "a mighty beast" from whom all the demons must run, the archetypal Mephistophelean trickster figure. Meanwhile, Colonel Manton assures his Clerics that the Doctor is "not a devil, he is not a god, he is not a goblin, or a phantom or a trickster" and that "the man who talks, the man who reasons, the man who lies" will be brought down.

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 lovely moment of Amy and Rory's reuniting with baby Melody ("crying Roman with a baby, definitely cool") is finally a signal that the script needs to start clearing up some of the loose threads in the overall series arc. With Vastra's claim of "my friend you've never risen higher" to the Doctor, as Manton and his troops leave Demon's Run, the look on Rory's face reminds us that we are now due for the imminent fall from grace. Out comes the old Gallifreyan cot and the tried and trusted question about the Doctor's own role as a parent. That's something he denies here but we all know he lies and he doesn't respond to the specific question of him ever having children.

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

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26 Responses to “DOCTOR WHO: Series 6 - A Good Man Goes To War / Review”
  1. KAOS says:

    So if you can't write Doctor Who, write something that's a mishmash of Star Wars (as you, Frank, have pointed out), Buffy, and Blake's 7 (with the mythic hero everyone's afraid of and the bad guys want to get).

    People like to attack Colin Baker's "arrogant" Doctor, but the self-aggrandising oaf we're presented with in the new series, high on his own legend (in itself, a thoroughly nauseous idea) is deeply unappealing.

  2. Yes, but the point here is that self-aggrandising gets you into a whole heap of trouble and possibly leads to your death. It's supposed to be a nauseous idea for the Doctor to have such hubris. The whole episode is 'pride comes before a fall' really.

    Besides, Tennant's Doctor met the same fate. His aspiration to be a God-like Time Lord scuppered his chances. Hartnell and Pertwee were also very arrogant versions of the Doctor too, don't forget.

    It's doing a lot of things it's always done. And Moffat is not the first 'Doctor Who' writer to ransack 'Star Wars' for inspiration.

  3. Considered review as always, Frank. As for multiple narrators, I thought it was a great idea to give baby Melody this status too, from the Doctor's translations of her observations to the heart-wrenching sight of Madame Kovarian's hatch sliding open on the wall.

  4. KAOS says:

    I know, but that being the point of it doesn't make it right in the first place. That's simply not, and never has been, part of the Doctor's make-up. It's crass and it totally undermines the Doctor's character.

    In fact, it's the kind of deluded ranting the villains do.

    Hartnell and Pertwe were arrogant, of course, but they'd never have resorted to this sort of lazy boasting. Even the idea of the Doctor being some sort of intergalactic celebrity is tacky and uninspiring.

    Never mind Disney's Junior Doctor Who - what we've got now is Peter Andre In Space.

    I mean where do you go with an idea like that - if the Doctor's known by EVERYONE EVERYWHERE, and is feared by EVERYONE EVERYWHERE, throughout ALL TIME. It's self-defeating, incestuous grandstanding.

    I come away from every episode angry and frustrated, and a little bit heartbroken, at the scale of the damage being done to the series' integrity.

  5. Indeed, Melody is one of the many narrators here. I loved that shot of her looking over Amy's shoulder at Kovarian as she appeared in the wall. And she talks to the Doctor right from the start too.

    If this review ever becomes a chapter for a book then Melody's role will be part of the overall analysis of this.

  6. Yes, but then the entire revival since 2005 must be a disappointment to you because the legend of The Oncoming Storm and the Doctor's 'celebrity' has been part and parcel of the series since RTD brought it back. It's pretty much writ large as a consequence of the Time War itself.

    Besides, it's pretty logical to assume that after 900 years of travelling the Doctor is bound to be well known and as a consequence feared and loved in equal measure by an awful lot of beings.

  7. KAOS says:

    There was a lot to dislike about RTD's era, but there was a lot of positives too.

    I guess the direction Moffatt's taken the show in just ain't for me!

    On a more positive note, Frank, I wondered if you had plans to publish your excellent essays on proper (hehe) Doctor Who, either as collections by Doctor or once you'd done all of the original series? I for one would buy it!

  8. John says:

    Furthering this discussion of the Doctor's fame/infamy and its consequences, didn't the Moff recently disclose that this is indeed a central theme of the season, and that he aims to (somehow) return the Doctor to a more anonymous state (by next season?). I know I read something to this effect online recently.

    Nice review as ever, Frank. I love the "Character Options free association" line; so true. And yet this was a hugely enjoyable episode in a season which I find to be consistently stronger than last year's, so far.

  9. Hi, John

    D'you know now that you mention it, I think I read or heard something along those lines.

    If that is Moffat's plan then good for him because I think the 'lonely God' stuff has really become a bit worn thin now. I think it is time he returned to a mysterious state.

  10. Liberator - You may be interested in John Doyle's comment about Moffat returning the Doctor to a more anonymous state by next year. Perhaps there is a method to this madness after all?

    On the classic Who front, I do have an option to collect the essays and write some new ones with the current publisher of The Pandorica Opens. However, it has not been discussed yet so I can't assume that it's definite. When I've signed the contract I'll let you know!

    To be honest, I'm also quite interested in doing another Matt Smith book as the reviews for this series have gone down very well.

  11. KAOS says:

    Your reviews are excellent, Frank, and provide the most thoughtful analysis around (even if I don't agree with your positive take on it) and are always my first port of call (even last year, when I gave up watching).

    With regards to John Doyle's comment, it makes no difference, because the damage is already done. And frankly, I'm sick of this kind of writing that believes you can do absolutely anything - kill anyone, destroy the whole universe - then press some magic reset button and pretend it never happened. On a practical level, it removes all the drama, because you're left thinking nothing that's bad (say, Rory dying) matters, because it'll somehow undone later.

  12. Steve H says:

    ***There's a suggestion here that "conversion" is not just the beheading of chosen ones to join the order but also a deliberate mechanism of power to enforce the likes of Fat One into a compulsory non-gay existence.***

    I think you're scraping the barrel there, Francis. Didn't see any such suggestion.

  13. Steve H says:

    Liberator Emigre Eire has it right. Much as it may provide grist to your own mill, Frank, of Miltonian imagery and man and superman thingummies, some of us don't reckon that the writers have the right to turn this children's character into a posturing prick in order to explore ideas of fallibility.

    We have one showrunner giving us a Doctor who behaves like the worst pub bore in bragging about all the women he's shagged. Now we have another showrunner giving us a Doctor who sets out to humiliate people just because he can. I can well imagine the post-2005 fan revelling in all that Colonel Runaway taunting but I despised the Doctor at that point as a snide little shit.

    They should do that with their own characters but not with a character they're briefly holding in trust.

    Did you chose to describe it as "menippean" because you couldn't have justified treating it to a piece of serious literary criticism if you'd called it what it was: "all over the bloody place"?

  14. "Did you chose to describe it as "menippean" because you couldn't have justified treating it to a piece of serious literary criticism if you'd called it what it was: "all over the bloody place"?"

    That's really beneath you, Steven.

    If you want that sort of review then Gallifrey Base is the place to be.

    I don't need to justify the episode using the forms of literary criticism I choose to use, thanks. I am certainly not saying, in debating such ideas, that these episodes are without fault.

    I always aim to give balanced reviews and find the positives, even if something's well below par. I'm not just using concepts like 'menippea' and the Man/Superman ideas to cover up what you see as Moffat's deficiencies when those ideas are clearly central to the script.

    I do understand why you and Liberator don't like what is happening to the Doctor. But since when has the Doctor been as pure as the driven snow? He's not the innocent you claim him to be. He does have a lot of blood on his hands.

  15. "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)"

    It's often been said before,but Doctor Who fans in the 1980s used to criticse JNT & co. for featuring too many unnecessary elements from past stories...yet
    DW fans Segal, RTD and Moffat all made DW stories which the same criticism can be made!

    I enjoyed "A Good Man Goes to War",
    but it didn't feel like the show at
    its best. I don't feel this script
    played to Matt and Alex's strengths
    as actors,it felt disjointed, and it didn't form a coherent whole.

    As the "The Shadow Line" showed a few weeks ago, there can few things more terrifying to a parent
    than having his/her child stolen from them and placed in danger, but I feel we didn't see this
    nightmarish situation impact on Amy
    and Rory (perhaps Moffat & co. thought it would be too dark for the family audience, especially given some of this year's stories have been criticised for being too
    scary for children).

    Still, I liked the Silurian duo
    the Sontaran, and the gorgeous Lorna Bucket, and the SFX were good. I'd give it 3/5.

  16. KAOS says:

    @Steve: And I thought I was the only one!

    @Frank: I'm not on an anti-Moffat trip. Press Gang is one of the best TV shows of all time. Blink is one of my favourite new series episodes. The Empty Child's only crime was that it was dull as dishwater, and the library one had a lot to like.

    I suspect many of the failings of the new series are down to the way TV is made these days - Coronation Street too, in parallel to Doctor Who, is now really succumbing to what I suspect is TV executives demanding BIGGER! LOUDER! MORE!

  17. David says:

    Good review, as always. This episode made me realize why I've found this series so uneven - like the rest of the series so far (and Moffat's two parter opening) I've found much to love and much to be frustrated by. Which has been hard because, despite its flaws, on balance I loved series 5 so much more than this one.

    The bad: the overly-meta misdirects about the Doctor being Melody's father, over-egging the pudding with one-off scenes and characters one after the other before getting to the plot halfway through, the over-hyping of the Doctor's darkest hour (really? I mean the man's committed genocides), the ridiculousness of River Song being Amy and Rory's daughter - she couldn't keep her emotions about the Doctor hidden from him, so how did she keep her feelings toward her parents so completely concealed? It makes River's character too unbelievable for me, because now I can never trust any of her apparent emotions. Where before she was hints about the future, having her own prescient emotions toward others, now I just see her as completely unreadable.

    But it was also at times a rollicking good fun. Many of the one-off characters were quite wonderful, the speech about Colonel Runaway was brilliant, especially as Matt Smith begins with his normal, half-absentminded Doctor smile, making it all the more unsettling to see there's something so dark underneath all the play. The Headless Monks were delightfully Headless Horseman like. That's an American legend (and one that I found terrifying as a kid) - so I don't know if it was an intentional reference or not, but I picked up on those echoes quite strongly. Surprised you didn't mention it actually!

    But this strange being pulled in both ways at once, both upset and enjoying it, is something I've just had to get used to with this series.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing the reviews. I joined up with Gallifrey Base this season and now regret it - just going to go back to reading your more interesting take on the episodes.

  18. David - I agree. It has been an uneven series thus far. Like you, I think I did prefer Series 5 as it felt much more contained as a story over 13 episodes.

    There is still a lot to like in this episode but as I said in the review it's pretty much Moffat on auto-pilot. That's the whole point of looking at the narrative structure in the review because it pretty much matches what he did on 'The Pandorica Opens'. Lots of incidental scenes/characters before you get to the plot - here at about half an hour in - to broker a sense of the epic.

    And many of the themes of the fallible Doctor are, as you, Liberator and Steve point out, not new. I'm hoping it is going to play out as a way of making the Doctor more anonymous. How much longer can everyone in the universe know about him and or love/hate him. Let's not forget we still 6 more episodes to go and this feels like a sub-plot that will be taken forward to the end of the year.

    River. Well any big reveal like this is going to throw into question the whole relationship with Rory and Amy. However, this may constitute a reviewing of Series 5 episodes that feature her. Hopefully, Moffat will have left some clues behind. Mind you, I suspect he's winging it a bit because even he didn't know who she was until Series 5. He lies. Just like RTD does. And that of course then makes the relationships between River and Amy look terribly false. It'll be interesting to see how he climbs out of this hole.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Hello Frank,

    My name is Anna and I’ve been reading your Doctor Who reviews for a while now. I’ve decided to delurk to thank you for your excellent work. When a new episode is out the first review I read is yours because I think that you are always able to offer a unique insight into the show. You did a very good job with your review of A good man goes to war because you pointed out some aspects of the story which I hadn’t noticed and so I got to re-evaluate at least some parts of the story, which has been a total disappointment to me.

    There are some aspects that really bug me, and I would like to point them out. I’m all for Dark Doctor stories, that’s why I loved so much last year’s Dream Lord, but I think that there’s too much of a contrast between last year’s fairytale Doctor and this year’s warrior. Was nobody else bothered by the fact that he destroyed a whole Cybermen fleet without batting an eye? And how did he do it, exactly? With his sonic screwdriver? And the way he chanted Colonel Run-Away... I would be more impressed if this were the first time his hubris got the best of him, but it happens to him periodically (The Waters of Mars, The End of Time) and he doesn’t learn anything from it, ever. He doesn’t remember that it always costs more lives than it saves. This is not the Doctor I love. I think that Doctor Who is at its best with minimalist storylines. Midnight is my favourite episode from the RTD era, and last year I loved Amy’s Choice and The Lodger more than any other episode. The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang didn’t make a whole lot of sense logically, but I think that they were internally consistent and they made sense emotionally. This year we are treated with a mess that doesn’t satisfy neither on an emotional lever nor on a logical one. River is Amy and Rory's daughter, so? Everybody on the internet had guessed it! The only ones who hadn't were the ones who didn't like the idea, like me, so what is the big reveal? Timey-wimey stuff, yes, so it shouldn’t be so surprising to meet someone from the future who is also your daughter. The only part of this storyline that could be interesting, that is the fact that Rory and Amy will not see their daughter grow up, has been completely ignored. I really don’t like the way this reveal will influence Amy and Rory's role in the series. Are they going to become the Doctor’s in-laws?

    But the thing that really bugged me and put me off the episode immediately was Amy’s speech to her child: "He’s the last of his kind, looks young but has lived hundreds of years and he's known as the Last Centurion". Sorry, what? Since when Amy started calling Rory the last centurion? How could she know that he would come to her rescue dressed as such? And why should he be known as the Last Centurion? It’s an extremely incongruous way of talking about someone, and the only purpose of this speech was to make the audience shit themselves thinking that the Doctor was the baby’s father. Also, when the Doctor says "It's mine", you can see from Rory's face that he's afraid he's talking about the baby. These parts serve no purpose and are there just to screw with our minds. I’ve had enough of this. I think that it’s ridiculous that this baby has Time Lord DNA because she was conceived in the TARDIS while in-flight. Really? How did Eye-patch Lady and her posse know that? What I get form the episode is that they got wind that Amy was pregnant (wonder who told them since real Amy hadn’t told anyone yet) and decided to kidnap her and see if her baby had any viable properties. So they risked enraging the Doctor, this deadly warrior they hate and fear so much, just for a chance that they could raise their own Time Lord baby to fight him? It’s just unbelievable. And why do they hate the Doctor so much anyway? I’m afraid that Moffat, like the Doctor, has started believing his own hype, and this is the result.

  20. Liberator - The whole business of 'epic' or 'event' telly started back in the 1990s. It is the way television tends to be made now. Remember RTD saying he wanted 'Doctor Who' to be all about big pictures and have the thrill of event shows like 'X Factor' and 'BGT'? Whether we like it or not, that's the way 'Doctor Who' has been fashioned since 2005. Of course, it means that a lot of it is just empty spectacle but at least we do get episodes like 'Blink' or 'Human Nature'.

    I think what's happening has to be partly attributed to Moffat. A lot of the interpersonal realtionships - particularly between men and women - are typical Moffat tropes. The weakening of the Doctor as a male authority figure is a Moffat trope - see 'Coupling' and 'Press Gang' for examples of that. So a lot of the dynamics between characters are very much in his style.

    Have a look at Piers Britton's new book 'TARDISbound' for a superb examination of how RTD 'heterosexualised' the Doctor and the attempts by Moffat to try and reverse this trend (the casting of Smith is integral to this).

  21. Alexander says:

    In Doctor Who, "A Good Man Goes To War", 4 June 2011, "the Church", headed by a "papal mainframe", is portrayed in the future as an evil entity and enemy of the Doctor. The antipathy displayed between the Doctor and the said future "Church" was apparent in episodes last year. However, the inimical relationship is now characterised as full-blown.

    This has all the appearance of a blatant attempt by a particular mindset operating within the BBC to affect children's relationship to the Christian church (which in many cases includes their own parents) through setting it up in opposition to a much loved character. Trying to explain why the Church should be evil in the future puts Christian adults in an impossible position. This is not family viewing but an undermining of family cohesion.

    Parents should not be forced into the position of refusing to allow children to watch Doctor Who because "the Church" is portrayed as ultimately evil in the future.

  22. Alexander - Organised religion does not have the monopoly on good. I'd rather see the story as a questioning of those aspects of organised religion that have engaged in wars in the name of their beliefs.

    If one positions the Doctor as a Christ-like figure then does it not follow that the future Church is merely an allusion to all the holy conflicts waged in Christ's name? Look at Saint Justine and Saint Thomas Aquinas and their criteria for a Christian 'just war'. And let's not forget the Crusades too, sanctioned by the Papacy, which I think Moffat is directly referring to here. When River tells the Doctor that all this is because of him then she's underlining this aspect of the story.

    Perhaps it's putting adults in the position of explaining to children about the less palatable aspects of organised religion? Something they see everyday on the news, no doubt?

  23. Jo says:

    Frank, just dropping you a note to thank you, once again, for your thoughtful and enlightening reviews.

    Having said that, I do wish that people would just kick back and enjoy the new series for what it is. Yes, it has all that history which plenty of people are in love with but, equally, the rebooted series is making new fans of our children, children who might be interested enough to go back and watch the old series, read the books, enjoy what we enjoyed all over again. In my book, that's priceless.

    At the end of the day, in my opinion, there's usually enough in a series, if not an episode, to keep a die-hard fan watching and the Moff doesn't poo all over the old series in the way that RTD did, even though some of the stories are less fantastic.

  24. Thanks Jo! Agree wholeheartedly.

  25. Paul C says:

    Maybe because it's because Moffat's other episodes have been to such a high standard, but I felt a bit disappointed in this one. It was almost as if he was trying to do way, way too much in this episode and stuff kind of got squeezed out the sides.

    Things like why had Kovarian assembled such a large army, and what had she said to them to convince the soldiers to practically die for this baby. Or Amy being switched out with the Flesh "before America" means it happened off camera so we, as viewers, can't look back on a particular scene and go ah ha, that's where it was. Moffat seems to have just given himself a really easy out with that too. Also Moffat giving Smith "I have big balls!" speeches in front on hordes of goons have become a bit of a crutch. I mean there were two in this episode.

    Also some of the supporting cast where given the bare minimum development. Why the focus on the Fat Thins gay guys if it ultimately came to nothing? Why did the Headless Monks choose that person in particular, what criteria did he fulfil?

    Big deal if Lorna Bucket, ahem, kicked the bucket, we barely got to know anything about her, except for some random encounter we never saw. Also poor Jenny barely had her name mentioned (it took me a bit to figure out she was the maid), and had me wondering if this was his daughter of the same name, only regenerated.

    Also, even though they hit us over the head with it, no way should the Doctor have been duped not once, but twice, by the Flesh-y Amy & Baby.

    Perhaps the worse though for me was the Cybermen being reduced to a sight gag (admittedly a pretty cool & bombastic one). Big bads of this calibre should have been saved for a truly epic and important episode, yet they look like a bunch of chumps. Plus it didn't help that the BBC went out of their way to spoil their appearance (and River Song's and the Sontaran).

    Positives though, and so nice to see that Rory grew a set and manned up. Also Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey & Catrin Stewart were all wonderful as was Kingston & Barber. Plus the fight scenes were really cool, and some nice lines in there as well. And I would totally watch a Vastra/Jenny spin-off.

    But I just don't see WHY they had go with a mid-season break, especially as last week's cliffhanger was more exciting & unexpected. (The clues for River Song were there, and I kicked myself for not connecting the dots). Moffat said it was for "narrative reasons" and that he will incorporate the real-time (3 months?) break into the stories, but it just sees odd given The Doctor is flying solo. When I heard initially about the break and then the spoiler that Amy was pregnant I had guessed that would be the cliffhanger and when we returned she would be all fat, but obviously not.

    I should be clear that I didn't hate the episode. I don't know if it was Moffat on cruise control or being too over-ambitious for it to work, but it was a little underwhelming especially given the build.

    Terrific and insightful review though. And sorry that this post got a bit long (and for any spelling errors, it's late!)

  26. Lurking Grue says:

    This has certainly been a complex and confronting episode, par for the course these days for Moffat. A standard series 5/6 story which is a d#mn shame but the title has me intrigued. With such a tricky writer (albeit one who seems to have a very small bag of tricks) I think the title may be something to consider: 'When a Good Man goes to War'. This being a two parter (at least!) have we yet to see who is the good man? Perhaps it will be crisis time for Rory to oppose the Doctor or find himself seated on the horns of another dilemma? Least these stories can provoke some interesting ideas.

    Another interesting thing to consider, who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall when Vastra is introduced to Jenny's parents for the first time?

    My preferences are definitely with the earlier series and it is interesting to see two of my favourite stories name checked, Dalek and Human Nature (and I forgot Midnight! Thanks Anon.) Sometimes a simpler story told well surpasses the more baroque offerings and Ardal O'Hanlon as a cat just nudges out Rory as centurion in my books. Won't be too upset though if we see more of the armour again. Imperious WIN.

    Small postick for anyone doing Doctor Who in the future. Can we have a moratorium on schemes, shenanigans, plots, contrivances, inescapable prisons, deathtraps, timewimeys and madcap fast-paced action involving the Doctor and his companions for a while. Possible exception is where the time travel is used a little more imaginatively than the timeline stuff. The Space Museum provided an excellent example of what can be done as did the one Slider episode I ever watched involving Time's Arrow, "As Time Goes By".

    Still, it's good to hear we may be getting back to the anonymous Doctor. I think a real test of today's writers would be to write some first class historical stories with no aliens, ghosts, screwdriver of sonicness etc. just good, solid drama. Something me and a friend have speculated about for a while. Won't happen but a man can dream... At least they may dial the angry, shouty, sexy, action, spy stuff down from an eleven to a six for a while.

    One thing about the modern writers, many times they seem to have lost the knack of writing good characters but on the other hand they come up with some very evocative names: Papal Mainframe, Nightmare Child, Skaro Degradations etc. they effectively counter TVs tendency to show the spectacle by providing some nourishment to the imagination. I've written a little myself and am too aware at how difficult it is to come up with really good names at times.

    Overall, I'd just stamped my big Meh stamp of indifference on this episode when they drop in the next title, "Let's Kill Hitler".

    /*sarcasm */ I take it all back, this is the best season ever!

    Excellent review again. I have neither the background nor experience for literary analysis at this (or perhaps any) depth, but I always feel 30 IQ points smarter after reading them.

    Reading am fun!

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