Midseason Finale: Doctor Who – “A Good Man Goes to War”

“A Good Man Goes to War”

June 11th, 2011

My choice not to review “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People” is partly due to the awkwardness created by BBC America making the idiotic decision to take a one-week hiatus over Memorial Day Weekend, but I’ve also got to be honest: I didn’t think they were very good.

I saw a Twitter conversation go by, I think involving Jeremy Mongeau, and it really captured what I think the problem was. He made the argument, if memory serves me correctly, that serialization has actually damaged the show through the first half of the sixth series: everything has been so caught up in laying groundwork for future events or setting up the seasonal arc that it doesn’t really have time to breathe (or, if you’re “The Curse of the Black Spot,” was kind of just too dull to stand out).

Even if we argue that the serial elements have remained intriguing (which I would), and even if “The Doctor’s Wife” was a really compelling standalone that spoke to overarching themes in a strong fashion (which it was), “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People” were like a narrative fetchquest. The Doctor needed to learn more about the flesh, and therefore traveled to where it first originated in order to better understand it, and a story had to be created around that particular event. It just seemed like Matthew Graham’s script never quite managed to make the characters compelling enough, implying a sense of depth instead of actually showing it to us.

Did the two-parter lay some important groundwork for explaining the Doctor’s “death” back in the premiere? Absolutely. And did it quite effectively transition into the reveal that Amy has been flesh since the beginning of the season? Yes. But it becomes a two-hour exhibit in exposition when “A Good Man Goes to War” begins, a too-long detour in a season that seemed to lose its momentum. Mind you, Steven Moffat regains that momentum in about three minutes and forty seconds, give or take a minute or two, and “A Good Man Goes to War” is a stellar effort that benefits from having some truly substantial exposition to relay.

It also tells a compelling story to go along with it, one that we can be certain will resonate both in the fall and beyond.

What makes the reveal at the heart of “A Good Man Goes to War” satisfying is that the actual reveal is more or less besides the point.

Yes, the moments are played well by all parties involved, are punctuated with some strong musical cues and visual elements, and nicely capped off what was to that point an eventful and exciting episode. But the real poetry of the moment is how it embraces the diverging timelines of the Doctor and River Song, reframing the events of our past (which is River’s future) and our future (which is River’s past) in a whole different light. The episode doesn’t really rely on an element of surprise: the hints are there from the moment the name “Melody Pond” is revealed, and River herself actually lays out the basic framework of the episode when she explains to Rory why she can’t join the Doctor in his assault on Demon’s Run. I didn’t actually figure out what the twist was, but it was clear that a twist was coming, which meant that it was less about surprise and more about how it impacted our understanding of the series.

What really surprised me about this episode was that I kept being convinced that it was tapping into back story that I just didn’t understand. Because I’ve got some pretty substantial gaps in my viewing experience, I presumed that Commander Strax was a recurring figure, and that we had some sort of previous experience with the Victorian Silurian. I recognized Dorium from “The Pandorica Opens,” but I even thought he had to have been around longer. So it was to my surprise that, when researching the episode after the fact on the Wikis, I discovered that the Doctor’s favors were as much a surprise to long-standing viewers as they were to me. While I got a definite fan service vibe from the episode, especially during its conclusion, it was actually the sense of “returning players” which drove me to that conclusion initially: now, with an understanding that Moffat was manufacturing this history, I can see how Moffat is more accurately playing with the notion of a “rally the supporting players” finale of this nature instead of simply recreating it.

Indeed, Madame Kovarian’s plan is organized such that it gives us all of the beats we expect from this story while simultaneously forcing us to question whether it’s actually what we want to have happen. Obviously, we want the Doctor to save Amy and Melody, and there is something thrilling about seeing the Doctor thwart the Cybermen and eventually lay out a master plan of absolute effectiveness. However, the episode clearly marks a note of concern through Lorna’s observations that something else is afoot, and so we have to watch as the Doctor executes this perfect plan that we know will fail. The episode doesn’t try to hide it: heck, as Rory makes his way through time/space to round up the troops, River actually lays out the entire structure of the episode, so the impact is in how it effects our understanding of the Doctor.

Lorna’s final moments, where she reveals that Doctor has taken on an entirely new meaning in her culture, is something I find very compelling. Part of me just loves the fact that it’s all based on etymology, about how words shift based on how they’re experienced. The TARDIS is capable of translating almost any language, as we’re reminded when River reveals the truth about her identity to Amy, but can it translate what words mean within a culture? That Doctor means Warrior in the Gamma Forest is a reflection of how the Doctor’s actions, so often viewed as heroic efforts to defeat evil on our terms, can be considered very differently in different perspectives. It’s an issue that forced me, at least, to separate the actions in this episode from the narrative thrust behind it: while we obviously want the Doctor to save Amy and her child, are all of his actions justified? No blood was shed during the invasion itself, but what about his “message” to the Cybermen? The speed at which this all comes together shifts may inspire awe, but it would also inspire fear, and not necessarily just among his enemies.

I like the reminder that there are alternate histories of the Doctor, that our understanding of the character is but one historical narrative that has been carefully constructed and would be different within various locations he has traveled. This even goes back to the central premise of Moffat’s time with the series, actually: what else is Amy Pond but someone whose narrative of the Doctor was carefully framed by his arrival, departure, and eventual return? Of course, Amy’s narrative has become our own narrative, while Lorna was an unseen adventure – although this caused me some initial confusion, as I never quite know whether they’re referencing something that I simply haven’t seen before, the thematic work it undertakes is well worth the confusion.

The actual episode itself has a large number of fun action beats, a good sense of momentum, and obviously an emotional and effective conclusion that reframes our entire experience with River Song up to this point. However, for me the episode works best as a rumination on these larger ideas of history and narrative as framed through different experiences. The way the show pulls from both our experience with the Doctor’s history and unseen experiences when he is drawing on favors, and the way that the conclusion gestures towards the timey-wimey nature of the Doctor’s relationship with River and the etymological and cultural flexibility of the Doctor, raises the stakes in ways that go far beyond explosions or kidnappings.

Sure, I like everyone else was delighted to see that we’re starting the back end of the season with the brilliantly-titled  “Let’s Kill Hitler,” but the real impact of this episode is on broader understandings of the world in which it takes place. Instead of functioning as a cliffhanger, it puts as at the edge of the cliff and simply lets us take in how different the world looks from that vantage point. It’s a sharp finale that identifies key characteristics of Moffat’s approach to the series while promising more of the same in the future, moving beyond its simple reveals to larger revelations about the series as a whole.

Of course, “A Good Man Goes to War” was also fun, exciting, and poignant while bringing these larger issues to the surface. Although obviously wrapped up in the show’s serialized arc, there was an energy to the episode which kept it from ever feeling like a simple course correction. The episode may function on some basic level as a collection of reveals which reframe the show’s future trajectory, but it also delivers a thrilling sort of adventure that compliments (and meaningfully contradicts) the themes at hand, properly merging the show’s two modes with plenty of momentum heading into the back half of the series in the fall.

Cultural Observations

  • In terms of spinoff potential, the Victorian Silurian slewing Jack the Ripper is kind of tremendous.
  • Loved the details about the Doctor flashing around at Demon’s Run: “It is not Sonic. It is not a Screwdriver.”
  • No shock that we didn’t get a precise date on when Rory was meeting with River early in the episode, as opposed to when we meet the various other figures the Doctor is rounding up, but I am curious just how River’s timeline works given what we’ve come to know – a lot more questions than answers, this one.
  • One last time, let us reflect on how stupid BBC America was to delay this by a week – Memorial Day Weekend or no, this just created more headaches than it was worth. Yes, spoilers will always happen when it airs eight hours earlier in the U.K., but the conversation could on some level be shared, instead of delayed by an entire week. I will never understand why, after finally deciding to air day/date from the beginning, they willingly lose that value. Just bizarre.
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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Midseason Finale: Doctor Who – “A Good Man Goes to War”

  1. Cameron White

    Actually, there’s kind of a date on Rory’s visit with River — it’s her birthday. (Get it? Because she’s Melody Pond? Ahahaha, Moffat, you crazy man. Please keep writing sweet lullabies to me.)

  2. Peter

    The venn overlap of the gay community and sci-fi fans collectively freaked out at how awesome the victorian silurian lesbian couple were, and I’m told that Neil Gaiman tweeted that he was a fan as well. Just an inherently awesome premise.

  3. djoneson

    I couldn’t help but wonder if the team of new characters assembled here will be “introduced” in some of the back 6 of the season. I didn’t predict River Song’s identity (and I thought they got a great deal of emotional resonance out of that material), but it also didn’t feel even remotely surprised, given that this is a show that really only has those four characters.

    Overall I’m finding this to be a bizarrely inconsistent season, with three phenomenal episodes (1, 4, 7) a strong one (2) and three bland ones (3, 5, 6). I’m usually extremely biased toward serialized narratives over self-contained stories, but I find that I miss the one-off adventure stories in Doctor Who, which feel like they’re being sacrificed for the larger narrative this year.

  4. I’ve seen a general dissappointment with the previous two episodes in American reviews, I do wonder whether the extra delay in the middle managed to damage these episodes further – I didn’t really like the first episode of the two, but the second ep really made up for it for me, because I loved the Doctor as flesh, and the questions about perception that scenario created. However if I’d had to wait an extra week for that experience maybe it wouldn’t have worked for me either.

    On to this episode, what a great review – extremely intelligent and incisive. Peter, you are very right and boy were those victorian lesbians (already having the advantage of victorian hotness) AWESOME. I didn’t really love the gay army couple though – it felt very early RTD era and unnecessary to me. Though it did make me sadder for them both when the one lost his head to the creepy order of monks.

    I do hope we get to see some of the adventures with these unknown allies, because all of them were potentially really interesting (Victorian silurian most of all), and while I enjoyed the fact that we hadn’t seen all their adventures previously, I’d really enjoy seeing it now.

    I don’t always feel up to understand Moffat’s plans, even when I have seen every episode, and I feel like before the second half of the season I’m going to have to do an entire re-watch of the Moffat seasons to try and wrap my head around River and everything else. But I really enjoy the way he makes my brain hurt and I’m so glad to be challenged rather than spoonfed. I know the ratings haven’t been as good this year in the UK, but Matt Smith is back for another 14 episodes (which fills my heart with happiness) and I hope we get even more of this timey-wimey, well planned reveals and complicated plot twists.

  5. Eleanor (undeadgoat)

    As an internet viewer in Wisconsin, I had no idea about the U.S. schedules . . . Anyways, yeah, I’d say that you’d know more about Sontarans if you’d seen Series 4 all the way through, and you’d know more about Cybermen if you’d watched one of the old stories which I haven’t either, or Series 2; but you wouldn’t necessarily know more about THESE Sontarans and THESE Cybermen. Here’s what was fanservicey about the episode: Roman Rory and tons of minor gay couples. (Still waiting for the gay companion . . .)

  6. Absolutely and 100% spot-on, Myles.

    I particularly like your point about assuming that we had previously seen the calling-in-favors-characters. I knew that we hadn’t seen them — though I had to rack my brains about it for a minute!!! — and I very much enjoyed the reminder of all the stories we’ve never seen. (And, as you say, the sense that our particular Doctor-narrative is only one, constructed perspective.)

    The idea of the Doctor-as-Warrior might be my favorite theme. Donna said it when they met Martha: “This is what you do? You turn people into warriors?” Rory said it back at the beginning of Season 5: “You never do it yourself, you make people be brave for you, because they don’t want to disappoint you.” (I believe the Doctor was thinking of this when he said “They’re always brave” after Lorna’s death.) ( <– all paraphrasing, of course). And I don't believe he remembered Lorna at all — it's a pretty safe bet that anytime he met someone, he'll have said "Run!"

    P.S. "I don't know why you put up with me." [flicks her tongue out ten feet to punch a guy behind her]. PURE AWESOME.

  7. Sobbed my eyes out at the River Song reveal (I guess I missed the hints!) … Truly love every moment (strong and weak) of this show, and wait impatiently and doing a little tappy-tap dance for each new episode. Loved Christopher and David … and ADORE Matt!! So thrilled about the renewal!!!!!

    Please keep it coming. And coming and coming!!

  8. Denise

    So disappointed. This episode was all over the place. Less would indeed be more. I love M. Smith but the writing is not thrilling me. I don’t mind being challenged by a storyline, but there has been way too much stuffed into one episode, and I just would like a space in which to let Matt Smith do his thing.

  9. I loved this episode. Roman Rory! And the Victorian Silurian! And the Doctor speaks baby! There was a lot about this episode that was just so fun which for me made the more dramatic part that much more striking. I about lost it when baby Melody turned into flesh in Amy’s arms. (I couldn’t believe I didn’t see that one coming.)

    I thought they did the reveal very well. I’d read some speculation that River could be their daughter and I hoped that wouldn’t be the case but the reveal scene completely changed my mind. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

    Come on September!

  10. Pingback: Fall Premiere: Doctor Who – “Let’s Kill Hitler” | Cultural Learnings

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