Doctor Who – A Good Man Goes to War – Review

Amy and Melody Pond

James Willetts reviews the mid-series finale, with a somewhat less positive take than that of this week’s commentary team. Who do you agree with? Let us know in the comments!

If the first half of the episode was all about building the Doctor to be an all-destroying Action Hero, crushing everything in his path, the second was all about drawing him back from that path.

I’ve written a couple of times this season about my unease at the way the Doctor seems to solve problems with battles, and I’m glad that it was addressed here. I recognise that there is an intrinsic problem in television in showing conflict-resolution which doesn’t involve stuff blowing up. The problem many people have with much of Star Trek is the endless diplomacy. No one wants to see the Doctor changing people through dialogue and mediation with no running around and shouting. That’s boring, even if it is a better, more realistic route.

So instead we get the Doctor solving any problems with a swiftly abandoned stab at talking it through, followed by a far more successful round of fighting. Generally that’s fine – after all, most of the villains on Doctor Who are not the talking type. It would be unreasonable to suggest the Doctor tries to convince the Daleks not to exterminate and to instead sit down for a talk.

But recently this has been elevated far beyond simply stopping a single villain, into the total and absolute destruction of entire fleets of ships or armies of enemies. For all that the Doctor won’t shoot a gun, he’s always happy to blow someone up, and while it never usually reaches the absurdity of using the water pistol on the Pyroviles (it doesn’t shoot bullets, so it can’t be a gun) it’s always been a little annoying.

It makes far more sense in the context of a Doctor who’s mad enough at the kidnap of his friend to make these horrible decisions. It’s picked up on that this is the first time that Eleven has been angry – which may come as a surprise to the Atraxi – but it’s a nice touch in setting this version of the Doctor apart from the perpetually enraged Nine and Ten.
For all that, however, the Doctor’s turn at action hero’ing – and the moralising by the Silurian (of all ‘people’)* – didn’t especially work because this wasn’t anything new. The Doctor wipes out Cybermen just to make a point. So what, he does that practically every other week. The Doctor calls in favours from all the people we’ve seen in the last few seasons – how very ‘every-RTD-season-finale-ever’. The twist that these were former enemies hardly seems that big a deal, nice as it was to see some familiar faces turn up.
I get that this is the Doctor seeking out and destroying enemies, rather than him waiting for them to come to Earth, but it’s hardly an extensive step forward. Quibbling about where and when you carry out arbitrary mass destruction can come across as a little crass.
Despite all this, there were some moments when the Doctor was suitably cruel in a novel and appropriate way. The idea of using words to destroy Colonel “Run Away” was effective and vindictive, and the kind of thing that the Doctor should be doing more of.
I’ve always liked the Doctor best when he’s the big thinker – the Holmesian figure who can effortlessly whip up a gambit to defeat people by working things out. This should have been his Ocean’s 11 moment – a chance to put together a team to knock over Demons Run. Imagine a heist episode to break Amy and the baby out, with the Doctor given the time and resources to come up with an elaborate plan.
In comparison to this, we had an aborted war, which was a little bit of a let-down. This was hardly the tactical master class of a great warrior. It also led to the always annoying face off between people with swords and people with guns. It’s always a little hard to understand how people with guns can be overwhelmed by people with a close combat weapon. Making them plasma pistols and glowy lightning sabres doesn’t alter that. All they had to do was keep backing away and shooting.
The Doctor comforts Lorna Bucket as she kicks the bucket

This was further complicated by the inclusion of a character so unnecessary, so futile and so apparently important that I still can’t believe there wasn’t a last minute twist of identity. Lorna Bucket was introduced and killed in an episode in such a way as to totally misrepresent her actual impact on the story.

Add to this Fat One and Thin One, who are introduced for no purpose. After the first ten minutes one gets to go off and be killed and never mentioned again, and the other is just never mentioned again. They weren’t even characters – they were a single joke, shoehorned in for no reason and then forgotten about. Quite why these were our entry level characters I’ve no idea.
And I’m still not entirely certain what their role is. They’re apparently mercenaries (judging by the fact that they’re being paid to fight the Doctor) yet also work for the Church? Why does the Church even want to kill the Doctor? I know that Moffat has been trying to push the way that the Doctor is seen by the wider universe, but introducing a straw-Church Army to serve as the bad guys still requires them to have an agenda. Why do they fear the Doctor? Why do they need another Time Lord as a weapon against him? How did they even know that Amy was pregnant and that she had conceived a time baby in the first place?
See, the thing I’m struggling with was that this was a pretty naff episode. It answered a few questions in the way I’d expected, without actually feeling the need to have anything interesting happen**. River Song’s identity was the big twist, but it was hardly a totally out-of-the-blue revelation – having been worked out by roughly everyone online. That being said, I can honestly point to the Doctor’s reaction to this revelation as the single loveliest moment in New Who. The little chuckle, the excitement and the glances over at Amy and Rory were brilliantly done.
But that seems to be all anyone is actually saying – it was well done, but hardly Earth shattering, and at this point I’m not sure whether that’s actually enough. In a season this good, where the best episodes have been so fantastic and the plot twists so unrelenting this just felt flat.
This may just be me though. I know that it’s a far cry from the garbage-fests that were previous series finales – but I don’t want that to be my point of comparison. I want a season finale to be the best bit of the season, the bit that seals the deal for the previous episodes, that sorts everything out. I thought that the end of the last season did that – it made everything make sense, picked up the majority of the season’s plot points and was a great story in its own right.
This was not on a par with that episode. It was Moffat’s most reserved script to date, and that hurt it. He’s at his best when he’s piloting the brain through a series of hairpin turns that leave you asking for more whilst simultaneously leaving you wondering what the hell is going on, and who is that person, and is this real?
This didn’t manage that. It wasn’t a bad episode – I loved big parts of it, but it never really made me care.

On the other hand, there was a lot that was good here.
Throughout this season Matt Smith has been breathtakingly good. He’s raised the character of the Doctor so far beyond Tennant it’s hard to remember why we cared so much for him. The alien otherness he brings to the role is still its best asset. I still feel like they may have crammed a Grand National winning thoroughbred into the skin of a man and let him canter onto set, but that’s unequivocally a good thing!
Meanwhile, Rory has again shown just why he is the most engaging and lovely companion in New Who. Whilst I started off loving Amy I’ve often found her difficult to like, and it’s been left to Rory to provide the emotional and personal heartbeat of the series. His performance here is another stellar one. For all those who complain that he has been too weak-willed in previous episodes, here is the answer. Rory Williams, intergalactic bad ass.
For all the stupidity of it, and it was very stupid at times, there was never any sense that this wasn’t what had been intended all along, the way there has been in the past. I just wish that what had been planned had been interesting enough to justify the build up.

*Lizard woman bounty hunter in Victorian London is the kind of concept that deserves so much more than just a throwaway reference in an episode like this. It’s an inspired idea, raised to levels of absurdity by a lesbian subtext, a reference to eating Jack the Ripper and the inclusion of a couple of Katanas just to add to the total brilliance of the character. This is the kind of thing that Doctor Who excels at – the Napoleonic war in space is another example, where I wished we had seen more of these bits. It seems to be one of Moffat’s strengths to dash off a setting or concept that sells itself within seconds.

**Although I have to admit I was wrong footed by the baby being Flesh – and I still wonder where exactly she is. Maybe part of the problem is that I’m too much of a geek on this. After all, for the casual viewer the return of the Cybermen, or River Song’s identity might be a huge thing, and this episode a start-to-finish circus of unexpected delights. For me it was, to quote the History Boys, “Just one bloody thing after another.” It’s interesting that there has been so much publicity about Moffat’s disquiet at the spoilers being put out there – maybe this is where all that speculation comes back to bite us.

4 thoughts on “Doctor Who – A Good Man Goes to War – Review

  1. A very accurate review. However how can you miss the comey genius that is the Sontaran Nurse and the Stevie Wonder line.

  2. Er, the comment about the swords is simply wrong: the Headess Monks also have the ability to fire balls of energy at their opponents. Which does render your criticism a bit meaningless.

    The whole futile death while impacting upon the episode in such a big way aspect of Lorna Bucket is surely the point of her character in relationship to the Doctor's arc: he should have shown her more attention. The fact that he didn't is an indictment of what he has become. And, of course, in true Moffatian style, we have a character whose fate is in her name, as in "Kick the" Bucket.

    Meanwhile the Fat & Thin Gay Bishops are another indication to the audience that things aren't going in the direction they may think. They're a combination Holmesian double act with Russell T Davies larger than life comedy character that you'd imagine would survive the episode, even if only until the end. Instead one is brutally decapitated in his second scene.

    I think the story wonderfully subverts the action film formula it is aping– the real story is the Doctor's hubris, where instead of stealthily exploring the base to make sure he has all the facts before an attempted rescue he decides to teach them a lesson. And gets taught a lesson because of this.

    And we also get the lovely Melody Pond story, where a litany of nightmarish events fall upon two new parents only for their to be a bittersweet happy ending. River's reveal is there to reassure Amy and Rory. Yes things are bad now, but they get better– after all, doesn't the fact that River is standing there mean that whatever trials and tribulations Melody endures, she reunites with her parents? And even this is undermined by Moffat's script, as we the audience have already seen her eventual death.

    On a surface level, I can understand some of the complaints directed toward this that say it's simply a grandiose space opera, or a play on Star Wars motifs. But Moffat subverts these at every turn, which for me is fittingly Doctor Who.

  3. Thanks for the response, one of the most amazing (and amusing) things about doing the Podcast and reviews is just how often we all disagree with one another about what even happened in an episode, so it's always good to hear other peoples thoughts.

    Rambler: I hated that Sontaran nurse. Hated it. Stevie Wonder was good but the best lines in the whole thing still belong to Baby Pond.

    Carey: You're quite right, and on a quick rewatch now Bucket does get struck by one of the hand balls. However, my point still stands. If they had simply continually backed away whilst shooting they remove the major weapon of the monks. It's especially annoying as at one point the swords are not even electrified, they're just swords.

    I'm also willing to concede that you may be right about the wasted characters – personally, if it is a tip of the hat to the RTD years comedy aliens, I'd rather it be ignored. They were bad enough at the time. I don't want Jar Jar Binks to show up and get shot either- it may be therapeutic but it ruins the atmosphere.

    I don't even have a problem with it being a Star Wars pastiche, or a grandiose Space Opera – I don't think it's really either of these things to be honest. I have a problem with it being the climax to a series that has never shown any signs of being what this becomes, which is camp.

    In the Flash Gordon sense.

    Really, it's just not Moffaty enough – and for all that we moan that he overuses tropes and themes, he's still too good a writer to let a sub par 'Journey's End' knock off overshadow the real achievements of this season.

  4. You're quite harsh on this episode James – I thought it was pretty great. "A start-to-finish circus of unexpected delights" about sums it up for me. Far from being one of Moffat's "most reserved" scripts (what?!), I thought it was one of his boldest, liveliest and most interesting.

    I agree with Carey about Lorna Buckett, the Doctor's hubris and how this subverts a lot of the space opera tropes. The way that it acted as a wake-up call to the Doctor, and River taking the Doctor to task at the end, were really interesting. It makes me wonder if the Doctor's "death" will be a way of him somehow resetting his universal reputation to zero, or at least making everyone think he's no longer around.

    Yes, lots of people had guessed that River Song is Amy and Rory'd daughter, but that's because it makes sense and it's an interesting development (and has a lot of comedy potential – Amy as the Doctor's mother-in-law, anyone?)

    And it wasn't just handled well; it was handled brilliantly. The episode brought me close to tears twice: once with the reunion of Amy, Rory and baby Melody, and again at the end when River tells them she's their daughter. If it didn't make you care, well, perhaps you're just a Cyberman or something!

    As for not being Moffaty enough… well, I think the humour and the jumping around through time were signature Moffatisms. It might have been lighter on the time paradoxes than the last few stories, but since his previous three stories (The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang; A Christmas Carol; and The Impossible Astronaut/The Day of the Moon) were all based around those, it was time to give them a rest. And this had all the emotional punch and pathos of the best of RTD's finales.

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