A Good Man Goes to War

goodmanThis is something new: a mid-season finale.  It functions in a very different way to a season finale because instead of bringing all the plot strands together and resolving them, it instead resolves some while creating others, but leaving the big mystery in tact: the death of the Doctor as seen at the beginning of the season.  What we seem to be getting is a big battle, but in fact what we get in reality is an examination of the nature of the Doctor, his relationship with River Song and her identity.

So the first thing that happens is that the title turns out to be referring to Rory, not the Doctor.  As it is Amy who has been kidnapped while pregnant, of course it has to be Rory who is the hero who will fight any foe to come and rescue her.  In contrast, the Doctor has to be something different.  Firstly, he is not the “good man”, or so he likes to claim:

Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.

So if he is not a “good man”, is he instead a general?  He brings together a motley kind of army, including some former enemies.  But of course they are not his enemies, they just look like them.  And here is where an important distinction is made.  The Doctor’s friends, at last, are not just a collection of humans or aliens who look like humans.  Two of his best friends are a Sontaran and a Silurian.  Not only does this put forward an important message that Doctor Who has been playing with on and off since Galaxy 4, not to judge by appearances, but it also uses aliens as individuals rather than races of monsters.  To do this with a Silurian seems natural, as the Silurians are the one recurring alien race in Doctor Who where there have always been shades of grey, but to do the same with a Sontaran, a member of a clone race, is very clever and ties in nicely with issues raised in The Rebel Flesh.  Even more cleverly, they are introduced with such confidence that they immediately seem like old friends we have known forever, despite this being their first appearance.

I mentioned above that the Doctor is specifically not the “good man”, and asked if he is a general going to war.  The kidnapping of Amy motivates him to try to fit that role, but he doesn’t fit at all.  He gains only a pyrrhic victory with the resultant deaths, and saving Amy but losing her baby.  And when River turns up she makes it clear that she considers it to be a victory at too high a price, referencing John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee, who won the battle of Killiecrankie and died in the process, with her quote:

Well then, soldier. How goes the day?

The problem is, he doesn’t quite know how to fight a war.  He cobbles together some troops from his previous adventures, either seen or unseen: Captain Avery, the spitfires in space from Victory of the Daleks, the Paternoster Gang, the Judoon.  But when he tries to be a general, he instead ends up being a childish bully, and we discovered right back during the Pertwee era how the Doctor defaults to the bully he was as a child when things aren’t going his way:

Those words. Run away. I want you to be famous for those exact words. I want people to call you Colonel Run Away. I want children laughing outside your door, because they’ve found the house of Colonel Run Away. And, when people come to you, and ask if trying to get to me through the people I love is in any way a good idea, I want you to tell them your name. Oh, look, I’m angry. That’s new. I’m really not sure what’s going to happen now.

This is the Doctor trying to be something other than the Doctor, and in the end he tries to blame his failure on River, until he learns the truth about her and the baby in one of the greatest reveals in Doctor Who’s history.  Then he’s all cheerful and bouncy again and off he goes…

But Amy has still lost her baby.  She knows that her baby will survive, but she doesn’t get to be her mother during her childhood, Rory doesn’t get to be her father, and Amy has just survived being kidnapped during pregnancy and having her baby stolen.  No mother on the planet would rest for a second in the desperate search to get her baby back, and in the meantime would be completely broken.  There is going to have to be some major fallout from this when the series returns…  RP

The view from across the pond:

A Good Man Goes to War marked the conclusion of the first half of season 6, the one that started with the Doctor’s death on the beach, Amy’s pregnancy, and her kidnapping.  It promised to be BIG!  And it delivered on the action!  “My friend, you have never risen higher!”  But why did it leave me with a bitter taste?

The biggest failing for me was the Headless Monks.  Perhaps I’m weird; I like there to be some logic behind the monsters of the week.  I can live with magic and fantasy but there should be some idea of reason behind it.  When Moffat wrote this, he introduced these “Headless Monks” that wear robes with hood which, what, hover at head-height?  And the neck gets tied off like a Hefty trash bag?  So how do they see, walk, fight, or chant?  Yet, Colonel Manton has to raise the hoods to reveal the Headless Monks are, in fact, headless.  How are the hoods hovering? A half-gallon of starch?  When we get jarred that significantly, it’s hard to recover no matter how much we want to.   For a 45+ minute episode, so much happens that this should be among the most memorable of the season.  And yet, I never loved it!  It’s not the worst, but any means, but it’s lacking.  Here’s how…

When the Tenth Doctor had to build an army, we saw people we knew and loved: Sarah Jane, Jack, Rose, Martha, Mickey… Just one season later, we get a new army built of people we’ve never encountered before.  Vastra and Jenny live in 1888 like Holmes and Watson, solving crimes.  Strax is paying off some form of debt as a nurse which is totally out of character for what we know of Sontarans.  Maldovar might be known but he’s little more than a background character.  We do get the pirate crew and (the unseen) Danny Boy from earlier Smith episodes, but we don’t have the relationship with them that we had with Tennant’s army!  And of this ragtag crew, I’m annoyed by Moffat’s writing in a big way.  As if to make a quota, Moffat makes sure to advance the “gay agenda” that Doctor Who is accused of frequently pushing.  I take no issue with people’s personal preferences, but in a story, it should in some way advance the story.  Vastra’s comment of Jenny “she’s most definitely a girl”, and the saucy “oh stop it!” just to make sure the audience hasn’t missed out on their relationship is unnecessary and does nothing for the plot.  We are Doctor Who fans!  Did Moffat think that we could accept that a lizard and a human are a couple, but we would have a problem with them both being women?  WHY??!   But wait, there’s more!  There’s the security guards, aka “the thin fat gay married Anglican marines”.  Come on!  They serve no purpose other than to balance that there are two women together so we needed equal opportunity.  I like edamame, so do I have to make sure I push edamame in every episode to make others feel it’s a safety food?  “It’s ok to like edamame, really!”  How does it advance the story?  If we’re going to have to deal with it, is there a secret message Moffat is trying to tell us that 2 men together are bad and 2 women are good, because we know who was on the side of the good guys, right?  (No, I don’t really feel that way, but if Moffat has to treat us like fools, I think I can serve one back to him!)

This episode is visually stunning though and the music is fantastic.  But in that visual treat, the Doctor has a message for the Cybermen and it’s rather unlike him: abject murder of potentially thousands of Cyber-kind.  This coming off the murder of Flesh-Amy one episode earlier, it’s extremely unsettling.  And speaking of unsettling, the abduction of an infant is not light stuff.  There’s trauma, which never seems to be fully realized with Amy or Rory.  Perhaps she’s dealing with it in her own way, but when Lorna Bucket comes bearing a gift, Amy is extremely rude to her even after she has explained why she’s there.  The prayer leaf means your baby will always come back to you.  Does that warrant a nasty comment?  And Lorna is developed like someone we should care for but is written out in the same episode.  Like so many before her, I wanted to see her become a companion but alas… that wasn’t to be!

There are some redeeming elements that dull the force of some of the harsher bits.  No matter how idiotic the monks are, having the Doctor pop up when he does is awesome.  Although this “long and bitter war” could be ended if the room full of enemies open fire, like Styre, they probably have more important matters to attend to first!  There’s a few very subtle but marvelous bits of comedy too.  Look at Rory’s face when the Doctor says “It’s mine”.  Rory clearly isn’t sure if the Doctor is saying that about his baby, but the realization that it’s the cot gives Rory visible relief.  And who doesn’t love the line: “Crying Roman with a baby girl; definitely cool!”   But for those good bits, there’s still other counterpoints that may not be game changers, but they are embarrassing.  When Dorium is beheaded, his body can be heard hitting the floor.  But less than 5 seconds later, his beheaded body is walking out of the shadows with the Monks.  It’s a heck of a thing to overlook!

The most intense moment is delivered by Matt Smith.  Smith does sad very well and has a surprisingly skilled approach to anger.  He conveys such ferocity when calling Colonel Manton “colonel Runaway”.  There’s a sense of righteous triumph but it is also scary because we see just how dangerous the Doctor can be.  The only problem is that we’ve seen that with David Tennant’s Doctor in even more unwavering terms.  Speaking of Manton, I’d love to get into a debate about Moffat’s religious ideas since Manton’s people are “soldiers of god”… (Maybe another time!)

And we can’t ignore River who, for no readily apparent reason, cannot be with the Doctor until the end.  There’s the whole (forgive the pun…) pregnant pause when the Doctor reads something on or in his crib.  I don’t think I’m being too forward in saying we were all holding our collective breath.  Finally the big reveal: will it be Susan, in the Doctor’s crib?  It’s got to be!  … Nope.  It’s Amy’s kid.  The kid she and her husband never got to know!  There’s so much to be said about this…   It gives a creepy new meaning to Amy’s line “oh Doctor, you sonic’d her!” in The Time of Angels.  (In fairness, she didn’t know and River was too far away to hear it, but if Moffat knew where he was going with River back then, a little discretion might have been nice.)  So the reveal is both big and weird at the same time.  It’s got that epic quality, but somehow fails to deliver, probably because the episode needed more time for that fallout to hit us!  (And speaking of the cot, why does he have it?  If he stole that TARDIS from Gallifrey, did he go back one day and take all his belongings?  How many readers on this site still have their own cribs around?!)  One of the best pieces of writing is another long-game maneuver.  Moffat gave us the line in The Doctor’s Wife that “the only water in the forest is the river” and it plays out here to be wholly unexpected.

I’ll leave off with this: once upon a time, the Doctor tricked a guard twice with the same stunt using jelly babies.  That was funny.  Watching Amy’s newborn baby turn to milk while she’s holding that baby was not slightly funny even though it’s the same trick played on the Doctor twice.  Madame Kovarian got one over on the Doctor and she should laugh it up while she can but it absolutely justifies the ending that is coming for her… in time.   ML

Read next in the Junkyard… Let’s Kill Hitler

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Doctor Who, Eleventh Doctor, Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A Good Man Goes to War

  1. Mike Basil says:

    This was one of the modern Who episodes that remind me why the classic Who is always worth reminiscing with more. Because even for the Doctor’s negative attributes that clearly existed for classic Doctors, it was more enjoyably tolerable in a potentially comedic way. But that was pre-Time-War. The darker post-Time-War tone for the modern Who is essential for keeping up with today’s TV drama, certainly in reflection of how gritty most TV dramas had become thanks to X-Files and Law & Order, even the Star Trek shows. But Babylon 5 proved that such gritty shows could still be science-fictionally adventurous. So the modern Who mixes it up enough so that it feels justly easy to shift between painful drama and extraordinary twists. This of course is how River’s revelation to the Doctor, Amy and Rory falls into place so beautifully, so much so that it doesn’t even matter if you already worked out the twist for yourself.

    Dr. Who’s uniquely flexible format makes negative attributes unusually forgivable, as the Doctor realized with the Master/Missy and Davros, so that earns our forgiveness for his tendency to be more on the nasty side. He’s not willfully blind to his own limitations as a hero. But he’s openly easy enough to relate to because of his own breaking point and he reminds us that we all need breaking points to consequently propel us back onto the right paths. Superman, Batman, Capt. James T. Kirk and Agent Fox Mulder were no exceptions either. So the Doctor reminds us that genuine heroism is achieved by simply being a real person.

    Thanks for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

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