Warning: SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, please – go watch it before you read this.
Steven Moffat likes to subvert. . . everything. Last season’s DVD commentary features a discussion with Karen Gillan about the theory that Amy Pond and River Song are the same person. Which leaves me wondering if the mid-series finale’s payoff is both a tip of the hat and a nose-thumbing at fandom’s more outrageous ideas. (It’s probably not, but it’s still funny.)
After watching “A Good Man Goes To War”, my brain immediately popped an image of this:
Pointillism is a pretty good metaphor for the long game Steven Moffat has been playing. Each brush stroke on its own is simply a splotch of color on the canvas. It may be an interesting splotch, but it’s not the entire painting. It’s once you put all those splotches together and take a step back that you’ve got a cohesive picture. The events of AGMGTW are only important because they teach us about the characters and the way forward.
The first thing I’ll tell you, is this: The Doctor doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the episode. His presence is implied, by a silhouette and the TARDIS, but Matt Smith is not on camera. What we get instead, is the brilliant Arthur Darvill being a complete and total BAMF in Roman gear.
The opening is a cracker.
I love that Moffat subverts scenes from the first four series, as Amy tells her baby about the man who will come for her. We’ve seen companions wax rhapsodic over the Legend of the Doctor and his many names, time and again. Here, we’ve got a heroic portrait painted and it’s Rory, “I’m a nurse,” Williams-Pond. The Last Centurion. Intentional or not, it has the striking effect of building on not only the fifth series finale, but the path Rory’s taken through this series. Sensible Rory. Kind Rory. Silly Rory. Devoted Rory. Rory, who will make anyone with the temerity to harm his wife and child, rue the day they were born. You’ve got to be pretty hard, to go up against a legion of Cybermen and demand to know, “Where is my wife?” Then again, if a furious Time Lord’s got your back, and you survived the fall of Rome. . . I think we can take it as read, that Roranicus Pondicus is as hard as they come.
Demon’s Run is a patchwork of rich, tiny moments: Lorna Bucket sewing a prayer leaf, the, “Thin, fat, gay, married, Anglican marines,” two Clerics practicing how to recognize psychic paper, and of course – the Headless Monks. However, it’s watching the collection of the Doctor’s allies, that’s slightly encouraging, slightly frightening, and not only reinforces the episode on repeat viewing, but seems to lay groundwork for the second half of the series. (Maybe even a spin-off? Madame Vastra and Jenny are more than delightful to watch. Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart can wield double-entendres and katanas with the best of them.)
We see River Song breaking back into prison. Rory asks her to come help them, and River says no. She already knows the outcome of the battle, and that it’s, “The Doctor’s darkest hour. . . ” River sends Rory off with the tantalizing promise, “This is the day he finds out who I am.” Moffat, having decided to finally give his audience some relief from the relentless mysteries and questions, hasn’t hesitated to telegraph a fair few points. In my opinion, this doesn’t lessen the impact of those points. There are still more than enough mysteries at play.
In the Doctor’s adversaries, we’ve got the unnerving Madame Kovarian, played with a sense of bitter and brittle efficiency by Frances Barber. Colonel Manton (Danny Sapani,) who commands his forces with a fine sense of corps d’esprit, yet never lets on why the amassed forces of the Church are going up against the Doctor. “He’s not a goblin, a phantom, or a trickster,” does hearken back to the Alliance in “The Big Bang”. Then there are the Headless Monks, who really are, well – headless. There have to be reasons, for this uneasy coalition of foes. We just don’t really know what they are. Yet.
The Doctor is. . . the Doctor. He swoops in to save the day. However, this is a Time Lord who has been pushed much, much too far.
The Doctor: (to Manton)”I want people to call you, ‘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.”
(to Madame Kovarian) “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”
Still, all is not what it seems. We see the base vanquished, the baby rescued and Rory and Amy reunited. Yet we also know that Madame Kovarian has set up a trap.
Madame Vastra asks, “Is she human?” Melody Pond has Time-Lord DNA, possibly from exposure to the Time Vortex during conception, and presumably with further manipulation in-utero and after being born. Part of the why is explained: they’re creating a weapon. Madame Kovarian tells the Doctor that the child is, “Hope. Hope in this endless, bitter war.” A war against the Doctor. As she remarks that fooling the Doctor twice is, “A privilege,” the truth comes out: Melody is a flesh avatar. The monks with their flaming swords have ambushed the Doctor’s remaining troops in the hangar. (They’re dead. They don’t show up if you’re looking for life-forms.) Amy is devastated, Rory is disillusioned but resigned and Lorna, Strax, and Dorium have paid the price of standing with the Doctor. A price that far too many have paid, over the years.
“Well then, soldier – how goes the day?”
River arrives in a flash of light, and faces the Doctor’s failure with a rational scolding. “To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word ‘Doctor,’ means ‘Mighty Warrior. . . ‘ and all this, my love, in fear of you.”
We learn who River is, following the trail of breadcrumbs Moffat has given us. It’s no less effective, for it. Idris’s words to Rory, “The only water in the forest is the river,” were half the clue. The language of the Gamma Forests doesn’t have a word for Pond, (nor Melody.) River Song is Rory and Amy’s daughter. It’s less a shock, and less a trail of breadcrumbs, than a series of puzzle pieces slotting into place.
As the Doctor dashes off in the TARDIS, leaving River to explain what hasn’t actually been said yet to Amy and Rory, we can only assume it’s to find the infant Melody. Where does that leave everybody else? It seems as though we’ve almost come full circle in this half of the series. We began with the Doctor’s companions attempting to track his movements through time, before being invited to his wake. Even the title of the mid-series finale seems to be a bit of misdirection. The Doctor clearly tells us he is not a good man, so who is?
I wish I could say that I’ve got a clear picture of where the rest of this series is headed. I can’t. I’ve been going back to every episode featuring River and I’m still not certain I’m grasping the shape of it all. The teaser from BBC America for 6.2, is maddening.
Does that picture remind you of anything? Ditto.
We’re led to believe that the astronaut/little girl in the space suit, is Melody. I don’t think it is. I’m fully prepared to be proven wrong, but if it is some version of River, I think it will be her consciousness, somehow retrieved from The Library. Remember, River did ask the Doctor if the suit could move on its own. The question has been asked by more than one person, “If she can regenerate, how could she have died in The Library?”
The answer to that one is stupendously easy, River tells the Doctor: The electrical surge would burn out both a Time Lord’s hearts before they could regenerate. Similar to the astronaut killing the Doctor before he could regenerate, actually.
What I’m puzzling over is the repeated instances of forests, silence, and how easy it is to conflate Melody Pond with the little girl in the space suit. That little girl can regenerate, so who might she be? The gangers/flesh avatars and the nature of reality all seem to have a role as well. One thing I’ve learned is that everything or nothing might be important when Steven Moffat’s got his pen out. To be more precise, it might not be important when you think it is. I’m wondering again, about the significance of duck ponds that don’t have any ducks. Clearly, we’ve got plot-lines that run back to before Moffat’s tenure as show-runner. I’ve begun to believe that while we think the series five arc is completed, it isn’t. It’s entirely possible that the fifth through seventh series will make up a triptych of arcs that converge for Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary.
What about the rumors that Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill will be out at the end of 6.2? I’m not buying into this one yet. If knowing the actors will be back would affect the way the audience invests in the remaining episodes, I can see keeping that information locked down. The next couple of months may be hellish, but I’m more than willing to wait and see what actually happens.
“A Good Man Goes to War” is a little bombastic, and a little too easy on the audience in how it plays out the answers it gives us. Steven Moffat does realize that you can only keep putting the carrot on the stick for so long, before the audience gets weary of chasing it. The effects are mostly spectacularly cheesy, and the performances are both subtle and surprising.
Matt Smith gives us the full palette of who the Doctor really is, underneath the quirks and bow-ties. A little sliver of the, “Time Lord, victorious,” from “The Waters of Mars”, who could so very easily become the darkness he fights. The giddy, nearly wordless exchange between Smith and Alex Kingston’s River, is a joy to watch. I was very glad to see Kingston get to be more than the sly, knowing adventurer we’ve always known River to be. The first scene at Stormcage, when she finds Rory the Roman, is delicately heartbreaking. Here is a little girl telling her daddy what she did on her birthday, when she can’t actually tell him that at all. That scene makes every previous scene between Kingston and Gillan, or Kingston and Darvill, that much more poignant. (It is very difficult to remember which interactions River has actually had with them. The timelines are complicated, to say the least. While I suspect there are exceptions, I generally think of it as: Whatever we’ve already seen River do, she hasn’t done it yet, from her perspective.)
That Karen Gillan doesn’t get much to do makes sense within the story, but I was very much hoping to see Amy Pond being just as badass as her husband and best friend. That Amy is traumatized from waking up imprisoned and giving birth, is reasonable and obvious. It’s in the final sequence, after the flesh-Melody has dissolved in her arms and the Doctor has vanished, that Gillan shows us just how tough and fragile Amy is. Looking at River, who has obviously told the Doctor something very important, she makes a choice and picks up a gun, demanding the truth. If River does turn out to be the little girl from TIA/DoTM, then I think we should pay attention to the fact that Amy’s got a habit of pointing a gun at her daughter. It might be important down the line.
One thing that I found interesting about this episode: This is where Amy and Rory grow up. Up until now, it’s just been themselves at risk. They trusted the Doctor to rescue them, even when he couldn’t. Now they know that the Doctor makes mistakes, and the Doctor has enemies willing to do whatever it takes to bring him down. His companions and even infants are fair game now. Really, they’ve always been fair game, it’s simply that Amy and Rory didn’t know that. Now they do, and maybe they’re a little bit angry with the Doctor, too. How that and the fact that they’re effectively the Doctor’s in-laws plays out, should be. . . interesting to watch. I am foreseeing a number of really awkward conversations.
:A Good Man Goes To War” is Doctor Who writ large and filled with moments both exquisite and trite, because that’s what Doctor Who is. Did it work one hundred percent? No. There were too many bits that filled space but didn’t advance the narrative. They were gorgeous moments, but I didn’t really need to know that you can tell psychic paper by the fractals. I would have liked to know a bit more about the papal mainframe and how the clerics came to be an army, really. Still, it worked at giving us just enough to forge ahead with a complicated series arc, and keeps us wanting more.
Now we just have to wait and see what’s next. According to BBC America, it will be late summer. That could be any time between August and the third week of September. Let’s all hope that we’re not out of sync with the UK broadcast again, because the spoilers are unavoidable.
If you need a fix before then, the DVD for 6.1 is available for . It will be released July 19th, 2011.