‘A Good Man Goes To War’ by Steven Moffat begins with a fairy tale, told to Amy’s child to give her courage. There is a man who will never stop looking for her, a man who is hundreds of years old and that man is her father, Rory.
This is an apt way for an episode which is very much about how far the characters have come since their beginnings. Rory has elevated himself from playing second fiddle to Amy’s imaginary friend to being a legend in his own right.
Commander Strax has gone from a warrior to a nurse, Madame Vastra has gone from avenger of her people to Victorian adventurer and of course the Doctor has become such a feared figure he is changing the definition of the word doctor from healer to warrior.
There is no getting away from the fact that this felt very much like the type of finales that RTD produced during his run. Epic in scope, vast in scale with plenty of cameos from previous characters. A real feel that everything has come to a head.
The difference was the pacing. Most of the previous finales had two episodes to spread the action across. The first half would have the Doctor discover the threat and only by the last half of the second episode would he actually start taking down the enemy. The closest parallel would be ‘Parting of the Ways’ where the Doctor was already on route to save Rose from the Daleks.
This story begins with the Doctor already aware of the danger. His enemies know he is coming, that they are dealing with someone who has attained the reputation as an almost mythical being. All they can do is prepare for the worst.
All the while we see his allies being recruited, the Doctor literally kept in the shadows until 20 minutes in. We feel his presence by the effect he has on the universe. The increasing pressure applied on his enemies. It is easy to see where he earned his reputation as the Oncoming Storm.
It is to Moffat’s credit that the characters recruited are so instantly likeable. Commander Strax was the first time a Sontaran has been interesting in the new series, his cheery nature as a nurse who hopes to one day kill his patients on the battlefield making him amusing but never letting you forget his true nature.
I was underwhelmed with the reintroduction of the Silurians last season but the adventures of Madame Vastra and her ‘companion’ Jenny is just crying out for a spin off series, if not a range of Big Finish audios some years down the line. There is just something about the era that fits the Dr Who cast of monsters and characters so well.
While some might complain about the lack of the title character until the second act I enjoyed this recruitment sequence. It opens up the universe, establishing that there are adventures happening to interesting people when the Doctor isn’t around.
In ‘The Pandorica Opens’ the alliance of aliens required a major suspension of disbelief as many of the members were from very different eras. There was a feel that they’d just had to use whatever costumes were available with little thought given to ‘how’ those aliens were there.
In contrast the appearances of various characters felt more natural. One of the races to benefit the most from this were the cybermen. It was good to establish that they have fleets which occupy quadrants of space. Hopefully, like the Daleks, they are no longer a race made up of a few survivors but an on going threat to the rest of the universe.
These opening sequences also gives us chance to know more about those holding Amy. As a group the Clerics are just a large group of soldiers but we learn that they are also individuals, such as the gay married couple and Lorna Bucket who has a connection to the Doctor in her past. We learn that these aren’t just bad guys, these are people.
When the Doctor does finally appear he shows just why people should fear him. All that preparation, all those firearms and within minutes he has them turning on each other before then disarming themselves so his allies can capture them.
This gives the characters plenty of time to start asking questions. Why did they want Amy’s child? The answer has huge consequences for the series as whole and there was plenty of humour in how to tactfully tackle the subject of when a child was conceived on a family show.
This more relaxed period of reunions and apparent happy endings only further unsettles the viewer. The big blue Dorium acting as the voice of the audience, rightly worrying that this has all been a little too easy.
Triumph turns to tragedy as the headless monks begin a second wave of attacks. Allies are lost and the Doctor realises that he has been tricked, again. After all of that Amy’s baby is still in the hands of the enemy.
River Song had earlier stated that the Doctor would rise higher than ever before and fall much further. A good description of the emotional rollercoaster the viewer is put on. The heroes early victory makes their subsequent loss all the more bitter.
There is so much sadness in the realisation that Commander Strax is dying before he’s even reached his 12th birthday and in the Doctor telling Lorna that he remembers her only to then, after she dies, have to ask who she was.
The climax of the episode has to be the answering of the big question ‘Who is River Song?’
From the moment that Amy announced she was pregnant, there was a real possibility that the baby would be River Song. Way back in my review of ‘Day of the Moon’ I mentioned that only Lost fans spent as much time speculating on which main character gives birth to other main characters. It turns out those people were right.
The reveal is nicely done, reinforcing the idea of people and things changing their meaning to have Melody Pond translated to River Song. This was foreshadowed in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ with the TARDISs cryptic message that the only water in the forest was a river.
Does this knowledge diminish the power of River Song? Much of her core appeal was that we didn’t know who she was. The thing is that there is still much we don’t know about her and as with all the best revelations the answer raises more questions.
Is River Song the same girl in ‘The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon’? Can River Song regenerate and if so why didn’t she in ‘Forest of the Dead’? Does the Doctor return her to her parents when she is a baby? What does she do that means she spends most of her adult life in prison? What is her relationship with the Doctor?
All of which illustrates that River Song is still an enigmatic character. We know her start and her end but much of what occurs in-between is still a mystery. At least it does make sense why she couldn’t tell the Doctor who she was prior to the events in this episode. She had to ensure that she’d still be born.
As always there were great performances across the board. Alex Kingston was delightful as she went from the giddy highs of returning from a birthday trip with the Doctor and promising Rory to never tell Stevie Wonder that he sung in 1814 to the terrible burden of knowing more than those around her and being unable to spare them the pain of what is to come.
Arthur Darvill was convincing as he turned Rory into an action hero, particularly his early scene where he intimidates Cybermen. Karen Gillian had to portray an array of emotions as Amy was put through the wringer. Her highlight was the scene where she wants to blame the Doctor for the loss of her child but holds herself back.
At the forefront was Matt Smith. One of the best bits about his characterisation of the Doctor is he is a man who has difficulty with emotions. Not in that he doesn’t have them but that they are so powerful he has difficulty controlling his actions or knowing what he’ll do.
The Doctor is filled with righteous anger for much of this episode, tinged with the fear of what he might do if he gives into those feeling. By the end River Song forces him to face the consequences of what he has done.
He has cultivated a fearsome reputation. He wants the enemy to run in terror at the mere mention of his name. Can he really be surprised that people would take up arms against him? Is this the man he wants to be?
There are still many questions to be answered, not least of which is how the Doctor’s death in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ will be resolved. Yet this is not the end, only a pause. There is still another half of the series to go and if this episode demonstrated anything it was that Steven Moffat does give answers.
One can only imagine where this series will go now. At the end the Doctor goes off to rescue Melody Pond alone in the TARDIS so when will Amy and Rory re-join him? Will there be any changes to his behaviour now he knows what he has become? Who is behind this plan?
There is still much to talk about in this episode but I’ll leave that for another day. The important thing is was this a good episode? In all I think it was. It moved at a good pace, it had the action, humour and tragedy that you find in all the best Moffat scripts and it didn’t feel like an anti-climax.
Some might complain at the break but it is only 4 months and winter is a more natural home for Doctor Who anyway. During that time there will be plenty of time for more speculation and discussion.