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Doctor Who: A Good Man Goes to War (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

A Good Man Goes to War originally aired in 2011.

Demons run when a good man goes to war.

Night will fall and drown the sun, when a good man goes to war.

Friendship dies and true love lies,

Night will fall and the dark will rise,

When a good man goes to war.

Demons run but count the cost.

The battle’s won, but the child is lost.

A Good Man Goes to War is pretty much the epitome of Moffat’s “let’s cram as much as possible into forty-five minutes” approach to Doctor Who. This is the episode directly following Matt Smith’s last proper two-part adventure, and it firmly sets the status quo for the rest of the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure. Moffat doesn’t opt for two-parters after this point, and you can see the roots of the “blockbuster” approach he adopted for the show’s fiftieth season.

A Good Man Goes to War has enough crammed into it to sustain a bombastic Russell T. Davies season finalé. There’s character arcs, betrayal, redemption, heroism, continuity, twists and radical game-changers – all bursting at the seams of this episode. There’s a staggering amount of ambition powering A Good Man Goes to War, and even attempting to do all this in the course of a single episode earns Moffat a significant amount of respect.

What’s even more impressive is that A Good Man Goes to War manages to carry it all off.

The Doctor goes with the flow…

That said, there are already fault lines forming. For one thing, A Good Man Goes to War is really something of a big tipping point for the show. There’s no backing away from this approach now. As A Good Man Goes to War draws in cameos from Victory of the Daleks and Curse of the Black Spot, this seems to be the point at which the show throws down the gauntlet. Some measure of serialisation is the way forward.

With Hugh Bonneville’s cameo here, A Good Man Goes to War confirms that the only truly independent stand-alone episode of this half-season has been The Doctor’s Wife. And even that drew on decades of history and continuity. A Good Man Goes to War ends with the Doctor promising to recover Amy’s missing daughter, Moffat has very clearly raised the stakes. There’s really no way for the series to back away from this season-long arc – this extended and ambitious continuing narrative.

There’s a snake in those boots…

Except, of course, that it eventually does. Using Let’s Kill Hitler to brush aside a significant amount of arc-building, the back-end of the season is pretty much completely divorced from the events of A Good Man Goes to War. Amy and Rory’s loss is quickly forgotten, when it really should be the emotional tether in stories like Night Terrors or The Girl Who Waited or The God Complex. The biggest single problem with A Good Man Goes to War is that it pushes the show in a direction Moffat ultimately can’t commit to follow.

On its own terms, though A Good Man Goes to War is a tremendous accomplishment. It feels like an absolutely huge season finale. It is as big as The Big Bang and as huge as anything Russell T. Davies used to pull out of his hat towards the last episode of any given season. Of course, this is somewhat counter-intuitive. The Big Bang had the universe itself at stake as Moffat effectively rebooted Doctor Who. Davies tended to place the entire world in jeopardy (at a minimum) in his season finalés. A Good Man Goes to War is about a kidnapped woman and a stolen child.

Eye for an eye?

Then again, that’s a core motif of Moffat’s Doctor Who. There’s a focus on children – both their own anxieties and anxieties relating to them. As River delivers her rebuke to the Doctor, she tries to explain the consequences of his actions – the reactions to his darker deeds. “And now they’ve taken a child,” she states, as the crescendo of her accusations. The armies and the threats and the assassinations are all small fry – these are predators who prey on children. As with the Silence in The Impossible Astronaut, it’s an immediate demonstration of just how evil these people are.

The Doctor is defined by children. His complicated relationship with Amy Pond is perhaps the most obvious example, but A Good Man Goes to War features another young woman who had a brief (and formative) encounter with the Doctor during her childhood years. (And the climax of A Good Man Goes to War makes River a third… and also makes their relationship a little… icky, to say the least.)

A Rory-ing success?

Moffat’s always been fascinated with the idea of the Doctor as a story. It tends to play out in a lot of his episodes. Silence in the Library features a subplot about a little girl watching Doctor Who on television. Day of the Doctor features the Doctor escaping from a painting. In The Big Bang, Amy needs only imagine the Doctor in order to bring him back to life. So it’s no surprise that A Good Man Goes to War is focused rather heavily on the Doctor’s own personal mythology and folklore. (With River immortalising him as a nursery rhyme at the episode’s climax.)

“Colonel Manton,” Dorium explains, “all those stories you’ve heard about him, they’re not stories, they’re true.” The Doctor is a creature of myth. When Manton tries to deny that (“he is not the devil; he is not a god; he is not a goblin, or a phantom or a trickster; the Doctor is a living, breathing man!”), he is swiftly proven incorrect. He is humbled. And he is swiftly reduced to a story himself; a humourous anecdote, a punchline, “Colonel Run Away.”

Just Roman around…

And here Moffat hits on an interesting idea – what kind of a story is the Doctor? The Davies era of Doctor Who was driven by the idea that the Doctor was something between the best thing that ever existed and one of the most horrifying creatures in the cosmos. David Tennant’s penultimate adventure, The Waters of Mars, saw the Doctor becoming truly monstrous. Moffat has generally avoided this portrayal of the Doctor.

This makes sense. Moffat is, after all, the writer who gave Christopher Eccleston’s bloodstained Doctor is “everybody lives!” moment. While the “good man” in this episode’s title might also refer to Rory, The Day of the Doctor frames it in the context of the Doctor himself. Moffat was the writer who could not countenance the Doctor killing all the inhabitants of Gallifrey in one fell swoop, even to wipe out the Daleks and the High Council. That isn’t who the Doctor is.

Having a blast(er)?

A Good Man Goes to War actually manages to capture the essence of how Moffat sees the Doctor very effectively. “He’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further,” River explains, and we get a sense of where Moffat places the strengths and weaknesses of the Doctor. A Good Man Goes to War sees the Doctor achieving a tactically brilliant victory over his enemies, without breaking a sweat. “Demon’s Run is ours without a drop of blood spilled,” Vastra summates.

And yet the Doctor still fails. His failure is more intimate. He loses Amy’s baby. He doesn’t provide his friend with the support that she needs. It is a very personal mistake, but still a massive one – rather similar to how he accidentally caused so much damage by miscalculating his trip to the moon all those years ago. While Davies’ Doctor often seemed to struggle with the big universe-threatening problems, Moffat’s Doctor is great at saving existence – he’s less skilful at the personal stuff.

It went down a storm (cage)...

It went down a storm (cage)…

After all, one of the better gags of the episode reveals just how little the Doctor understands Amy and Rory. Vastra has to talk him through how their child could have “a time head.” The Doctor is incredibly thick-headed on the point, and seems to have no real understanding of human interaction. “Well, how would I know?” he demands. “That’s all human-y, private stuff. It just sort of goes on. They don’t put up a balloon, or anything.”

(One of the smarter things about A Good Man Goes to War is how Moffat grounds all this in a very personal way. It feels almost like a relationship comedy on a galactic scale. We get Amy reaffirming that she loves Rory, not the Doctor, as in Day of the Moon. We get the Doctor’s “delicacy” over “human-y, private stuff”, and we even get a few gags on the potential that the plot has to go off on soap operatic tangents. Vastra dances around suggesting that Melodi might be the Doctor’s love child (“is she human?”) and the Doctor’s bit reveal, out of context, is “it’s mine.” When Rory does a double-take, he reveals he was talking about the cot.)

Soldiering on...

Soldiering on…

And while the Moffat era makes it quite clear that the Doctor is fuelled by resentment and guilt – as in Let’s Kill Hitler or even Amy’s Choice or The God Complex – he’s not an absolutely terrifying force of nature when left to his own devices. The Tenth Doctor came off the rails repeatedly without a companion to ground him (as in The Runaway Bride or The Waters of Mars). In contrast, the Eleventh Doctor travels alone for an extended period without descending into mania.

In The Angels Take Manhattan, both River and Amy seem more concerned about how the Doctor travelling alone might fall prey to fits of depression than they do about the safety of the wider cosmos. “He’s sort of like a, I don’t know, a dark legend,” Lorna offers here as she tries to explain what the Doctor is. “Dark?” Amy scoffs. “Have you met him?” Amy is hardly the most objective observer when it comes to the Doctor, but the show clearly sides with her.

Cloak and dagger...

Cloak and dagger…

So A Good Man Goes to War is built around a cautionary tale – it’s a story about why the Doctor’s myth can never become dark and cynical, why his name should never be a threat. After all, if the Doctor is such a threatening force of nature, there would be consequences. If the Doctor were terrifying, groups like this alliance would be justified in their private little war. If the Doctor were a monster, then he wouldn’t have chosen the name the Doctor.

Names are a vitally important part of A Good Man Goes to War. It firmly outlines Moffat’s preoccupation with the name of the Doctor, in a way that clearly builds towards The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor. “Doctor,” River states. “The word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean?”

Bang-for-their-buck...

Bang-for-their-buck…

(Moffat even rather bluntly explains that there’s really no mystery about the Doctor’s real name. His real name is the Doctor. It doesn’t matter if he was born with another; it’s immaterial. When Lorna meets two fellow soldiers, she asks their names. “We’re the thin fat gay married Anglican marines. Why would we need names as well?” Moffat’s point is clear. Why would the Doctor need a name as well?)

Moffat even foreshadows the whole “too big” point that he raises in The Wedding of River SongA Good Man Goes to War seems to be a story struggling with the fact that the Doctor is the centre of the narrative – the focal point. That isn’t the way that Doctor Who works, and having an entire plot built around the Doctor himself is an uncomfortable fit for the show. “They’re talking like he’s famous,” Amy states at one point. “The Doctor isn’t famous.”

A River runs through it...

A River runs through it…

After all, Doctor Who is a show about the Doctor and his magic box dropping into a strange new world and shaking things up. The Doctor isn’t the centre of the story – he’s a narrative force that imposes himself on whatever is happening. Turning the Doctor himself into the focus of the show is a risky move, and Moffat seems to concede as much. Doctor Who features the Doctor and his companions, but it’s not really about the Doctor. At least not in a week-in and week-out sort of way.

This explains the decision to have the Doctor go off the grid at the end of the sixth season, providing a nice framework by which the Doctor can get back to being an outsider who meddles in other people’s affairs rather than an iconic galactic figure. Of course, doing this right before the show’s fiftieth anniversary season proved to be something of a miscalculation. Of course the Doctor himself would be the focus of the show’s fiftieth year. As a result that whole thematic “too big” point gets a little bit muddled and winds up dead on arrival.

Get to the point...

Get to the point…

Still, there’s a conscious sense here that Moffat has firmly cemented his grip on the show. His first season was a little tentative, following the structure laid down by his predecessor almost to the letter. His second season as executive producer is a lot more confident, and Moffat is clearly trying to re-work the show a bit to bring it into line with his vision. Moffat isn’t content to simply tread water or emulate Russell T. Davies, and he deserves a great deal of credit for that.

(Proof that Moffat is very much evolving can be seen in the increased focus on LGBT supporting characters in this half season, a conscious attempt to remedy the lack of LGBT content in his first season as executive producer. Moffat deserves considerable credit for being willing to look at his weaknesses and trying fix them. Whatever one might think of Moffat’s work on Doctor Who, there’s no shortage of ambition on display.)

He can try to get out of it until he's blue in the face...

He can try to get out of it until he’s blue in the face…

As an aside, it’s interesting to consider what A Good Man Goes to War hints at about humanity and the Time Lords. The Time Lords have always had a strange relationship with humanity. “You look human,” Christina remarked in Planet of the Dead. The Tenth Doctor deadpanned, “You look Time Lord.” In The Mysterious Planet, the Time Lords steal the planet Earth across the universe to hide it for some reason. It seems like Earth is the destination of choice for refugee Time Lords, like the Doctor or the Master or K’anpo.

It’s not anything the show is ever likely to explicitly comment upon, but I quite like the idea that the Time Lords are distant descendants of humanity. So visiting Earth is a bit like a trip to “the old country”, a way of getting in touch with the roots. It makes the Doctor’s fixation on the planet strangely nostalgic and tragic; a quirky romanticism that suits a lonely old man travelling around inside a blue police call box. It also makes the Time Lords’ decision to exile the Doctor there particularly cruel.

Be Sil(urian), my beating heart...

Be Sil(urian), my beating heart…

A Good Man Goes to War seems to hint towards this assumption. “You’ve told me about your people,” Vastra tells the Doctor. “They became what they did through prolonged exposure to the time vortex. The Untempered Schism.” River is a human baby who becomes a Time Lord through being conceived in proximity to the time vortex. She’s described as “human plus”, but she’s very clearly Time Lord – she can regenerate using the exact same special effect that the Doctor uses.

This would seem to hint at the possibility that Time Lords are simply humans altered by “prolonged exposure to the time vortex.” After all, if River’s conception in the vortex is enough to evolve her from a human into a Time Lord, it certainly seems like a logical explanation for all the strange connections between the Time Lords and humanity. Of course, it could also just be a convenient plot beat. Perhaps we’ll never know.

Looking in...

Looking in…

A Good Man Goes to War is pretty spectacular, even if it’s ultimately let down by the second half of the season.

Check out our reviews of the current season of Doctor Who:

6 Responses

  1. What a wonderful episode. For me, it lacks the grand concepts and sheer mind-twisting nature of The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, but as a mid-season finale it had to be a slightly different beast, as it has to give us set-up as well as (a bit of) resolution. Moffat manages this masterfully.

    His masterstroke here is not just the story, it is in giving us three new characters – Vastra, Lorna Bucket and Strax – who all have a key role to play but limited air-time, and yet by the end of the episode I was totally invested in all three like they were old friends. Strax in particular had some brilliant lines, and as a warrior-turned-medic, he provided a neat counterpoint to both Rory and the Doctor.

    So, some questions answered. Still more unanswered, though. It’s all beautifully set up for the series’ return in the autumn.

    http://slouchingtowardsthatcham.com/2011/06/05/doctor-who-mid-season-6-review/

  2. Yup, I enjoyed it, and have to share Tim’s love of Strax and Vastra. I felt a little let down by the reveal of who River Song is. It felt to me like pretty much the dullest revelation they could’ve made – especially as it lets us know that Amy’s daughter survives her kidnapping. But, that aside, it ticked all the right boxes for me.

    • I am more worried about the Doctor “pulling a Woody Allen” with that revelation – it’s his best friend’s daughter and somebody who is practically (if not literally) family! But I think it makes sense. The only other alternative might have been a Timelord of some kind, and I like the fact that the Doctor (and the Master) are (mostly) the only ones left.

  3. A fine review, Mr D, and I don’t think there’s a word I disagree with. Having another negative response to last week”s episode, I thought I’d avoid weighing your blog down with yet more negative thoughts. What a joy to be able to say that I thought this half-series closer was everything I’d hope for. In particular, the dialogue in the last five minutes of the show, and the acting employed to deliver it, was superb. There’s so much of it which I can ALMOST remember after just two times through; “You helped my friends. Thank you.” “I don’t know who she was, but she was very, very brave.” “They always are.” and so on. I will admit that for a hardened cynic, I was close to tears at the closing, although in that old-school-I-must-have-something-in-my-eye fashion. That the Splendid Wife was the same tells me that this response is something other than geek-o-motion, although there’s nought wrong with that either. Yet she’s no nerd at all, and so all the continuity and cleverness in the end was exceptionally well-judged window dressing. What counted was the characters, and that’s the end of it.

    Which is not to say that it’s perfect, but the problems were incredibly minor. A few problems with set-dressing, a few quibbles about 21st century weaponry in whatever future we’re in, making it too easy for our team to survive as long as they did. But that’s quibbling of an excessively quibbling scale. There’s been 4 highly enjoyable episodes so far of the series in 2011; let’s hope for 3 or 4 more in the second half!

    • Yep, really looking forward to the new half-season. When you mention it like that (4 of 6 great episodes), it sounds impressive and fair, but perhaps the reason I’ve felt a little let down is because (when you split the season in two), that means I’m going to go through the summer ahving only seen four exceptional Doctor Who episodes.

      Moffat is just an exceptional writer, isn’t he? I loved the final scene, because it wasn’t filled with action and threats and THE END OF ALL THINGS, but four characters standing around talking about their situation. To make a wonderful cliffhanger out of all that… kudos to him, eh?

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