Warning: total spoilers, much rant.
I just finished watching A Good Man Goes to War. I was not impressed. In fact, my unimpressedness is such that I’m close to declaring it the Worst Episode Ever. I mean, even the one with the Ikea Darleks wasn’t this bad – or maybe it was exactly this bad, and only a sudden rosiness of hindsight is making it seem otherwise. Either way, unless the series manages to execute a pretty fabulous face heel turn, I’m going to call shark jump from this point onwards.
So, look. The idea of the episode – the significance of Amy and Rory’s baby, why she’d been stolen, how the Doctor set about getting her back – is a good one. Ditto the reveal about River Song, although seeing as how I already picked this a few episodes back, it was less of a big surprise than a confirmation of fact. Even so, the laboured business of waiting to see her name spelled out really bugged me: the only time the TARDIS has struggled to translate written language was back in Season 2’s The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, with the given reason being that the script in question predated Timelord civilisation – so seeing a sudden, convenient time-delay trotted out for the sole purpose of garnering a few seconds’ extra anxiety over River’s identity felt like retconning at its cheapest.
Which, you know. It was.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, here: let’s start at the very beginning, wherein Amy Pond spends a good few minutes telling her newborn daughter about the wonderful and magnificent man who’ll always, always look out for her. So far as I can see, this monologue was designed to do two things:
1) tug our heart-strings about her having to hand over Melody; and
2) pull a big ‘surprise!’ moment when we realise she’s been talking about Rory, not the Doctor.
Fine. Whatever. I get that, though at this point, the joke about confusing the two men in Amy’s affections is wearing very, very thin. Ship Tease a love triangle once, I thrill to it. Ship Tease a love triangle every single episode, and I start to get stabby. More practically, though, this exposition serves no narrative purpose other than the above: it doesn’t move the plot forwards, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, and it goes on longer than is strictly comfortable. Cut to Rory in a Cyberman base, dressed as a Centurion and issuing Manly Directives while the Doctor blows shit up outside.
I’m sorry, what? The Doctor, that is to say, the man who has spent the better part of forty years trying not to blow shit up and interacting very sternly with those who do, is blowing up an entire base just to make a point?
Sorry. You’ve lost me.
Oh, wait, right – but Amy is special, so she gets a special rescue! Very, very special, although as Cat Valente and Stephen H. Segal pointed out on Twitter this week, that specialness is looking less earned and more forced the longer the series goes on. Or, to put it another way: the Doctor has a time machine that can go anywhere. Even if he really did need to call in all these amazing debts across the universe and put together a crack team of aliens to help him break into Demon’s Run, blowing up the Cyberman base was just gratuitously violent. I don’t care that River sort of, almost, indirectly calls him on it at the end; that we’re meant to worry about the sort of man he’s becoming because of this one, out-of-character incident. Bullshit: we were worried already. This is the big contradiction of the Doctor, the subtle line that Moffat and Davies before him have played from minute one of the reboot: that the Doctor is a wounded soldier, recovering from his unwilling genocide of the Timelords and Darleks, battle-forged and fighting the violence of grief, power and loneliness as the last surviving member of an all-powerful species.
All of which says to me that the Doctor does not, will not wipe out a whole Cyberman base just to make a fucking point. If such a heinous act really is his tipping point, a sign of character slippage that signals an end to everything he’s tried to be, we should see him at that pivotal, damning moment, and not just be pacified with a shot of Rory looking all badass before the credits come up.
From this point on, what fast becomes notable about A Good Man Goes to War is how little screen time the main trio actually gets. The Doctor himself is conspicuously absent from the first half hour: instead, we follow innumerable secondary characters through various disparate locations. This is meant to give us a sense of grandeur, and to some extent, it works, in that each individual setting – the Battle of Zarathustra, Victorian England, a skeezy alien bar, Demon’s Run itself, even River’s prison block – is somewhere we’d like to be; or rather, a place where we’d like to see a story told. Instead, we skim into each one for about three minutes: just enough time to introduce a new character, a vague sense of context and their debt to the Doctor before we’re whisked away to the next one. This is, to say the least, dizzying. And then there’s River herself, who declines to show up only because she has to be there at the very end, when the Doctor finally finds out who she is. She says this in such a way as to intimate, backed up by ominous music, that he will be angry at the truth, shocked or betrayed or poisoned, that she must stay away in order to savour these last few moments of anonymity, when of course – as it turns out – he’s delighted. This doesn’t surprise her at all, though: the earlier, melodramatic scene with Rory was a bluff.
Which makes no sense: because now there’s no good reason why River stayed away. Conceivably, it would’ve been awkward to have her there – except that there’s no narrative reason why this should be so, no mention of the don’t-cross-your-own-timeline directive (which, frankly, would have made more sense). The only reason River refuses to go, it seems, is because Moffat wants to tease us with the prospect of finding out who she really is, and feels her revelation will have more impact if she doesn’t show up until the very end. That’s an obvious ploy I don’t appreciate, and one that serves otherwise to ensure that an episode full of oneshot characters doesn’t accidentally stray towards meaningful development of the regulars.
Then there’s a bit which just plain doesn’t make sense: the introduction of a married, gay marine couple who talk to Lorna, yet another oneshot, and to each other, about the Headless Monks, the Doctor and various other sundries. Then we see one of the couple get taken away by the Monks, whose ranks he is forced to join. At the time, this is set up as an emotional thing: we’re meant to feel sorry for the chosen man, and briefly, we do – right up until it becomes apparent that neither he nor his partner have anything else to do with the rest of the episode. That is to say, we never see them again, and the five minutes we spent in their company are wasted. Lorna, at least, is important, though her scene with the couple isn’t: she sews the name of Amy’s daughter onto a prayer leaf and gives it to her, sympathetic because she, too, spent time with the Doctor as a child, and has only joined the army in order to meet him. This is, alas, an emotionally borked scene: in yet another hideous, long-winded display of telling rather than showing, they talk about how awesome the Doctor is, how worth it and wonderful, by which point both my husband and I were shouting at the episode to get on with it!, sadly to no avail.
Because then we have the army itself (no, we don’t ever find out why they’ve decided to fight the Doctor – he’s just the Big Bad as far as they’re concerned, and we have to take River’s nebulous word for it that possibly, maybe, somehow he deserves it, or is in danger of making himself deserve it) getting geed up by their commander. More Headless Monks emerge; we get another long speech about What The Doctor Is And Is Not, followed by more speachifying about how, just this once, the papal authority in charge of the Monks – who wear big, voluminous hoods – are allowed to show people what they Really Look Like, even though doing so is normally a heretical offence. This is, I mean, um. Because the Headless Monks? The big reveal about them? Is that they are headless.
Let’s ignore the fact that if Moffat wanted anyone to be astonished by this, he could quite easily have called them, I don’t know, anything other than the Headless Monks. Their lack of heads, for all its obviousness, isn’t the biggest problem. No: it’s that he’s introduced a cowled, hooded order of Mystery Mystics, established that looking under their hoods is heresy, then lifted their hoods in a one-time special offer all in the space of fifteen fucking minutes. Which, you know, tends to kill the mystery pretty quicksmart.
Also, they fight with red lightsabers, like headless Sith Lords. LIGHT. FUCKING. SABERS.
And then, finally – FINALLY – the Doctor shows up. We don’t see his oh-so-carefully gathered compatriots at this point; instead, he talks a bit about himself (because nobody else has done that yet, oh wait), some stuff happens, he disappears, and then we get the whole army chanting WE’RE NOT FOOLS over and over again, somebody please kill me, Rory shows up and rescues Amy with their baby, the Doctor’s secret army (not his chosen few, who are doing things elsewhere at control panels, but some other random guys) show up and surround the enemy, and then we have an excruciatingly saccharine ten minutes of Everything Is Over And Yay We Won, Look At Our Cute Baby. Which, OK, I get that babies are cute, and I know the point is that everyone is happy and safe, but you’re trying to make me feel relived at the cessation of what is, in fact, a total lack of tension. Because up until the very end of the last episode, we didn’t know where Amy was, or that she was actually pregnant; we don’t see the birth, we don’t flash back to her capture, she isn’t threatened at all, Melody isn’t harmed, and the most menacing thing that happens in the whole episode is when Amy has her baby taken from her in the opening scene. The rest has just been strangers and oneshots talking, talking, talking – and so, to return to the point, when you follow half an hour of dialogue up with two minutes of something almost happening and then celebrate a bloodless victory with ten minutes of schmaltz, I am not feeling relieved that the characters are safe, because so far as I can see, they were never actually in danger. Telling the danger is not showing! Show. Me. The danger!
Which, of course, eventually comes. There’s a small trap, in that the Monks come back and attack the Doctor’s chosen guardians, one of whom dies, and Lorna, who also dies, but not until she’s had a tearful farewell in the Doctor’s arms. (Of course he remembers her. Apparently, he remembers everyone, even though he’s been known for forty years as an irascible, absent-minded professor. But I digress.) Oh, and the flesh copy of Melody that Rory thought was his daughter dissolves, thus putting the real baby well and truly beyond rescue. Except she’s not, really, because then River Song shows up, castigates the Doctor a bit, then reveals herself to be Melody Pond grown up, regenerated (because she’s sort of a Timelord, but not quite) and with her name changed via translation into an alien language.
Oh, and the name of the next episode is Let’s Kill Hitler.
I’m not making that up. Believe me, I wish I was.
There were other things, too, small gaffes and glitches that niggled. Where did the photo of Amy and Melody come from in Day of the Moon? I can’t see eyepatch lady stopping to take one. Why were the Headless Monks and their order so heavily invested in a battle against the Doctor, when we’ve never seen or heard of them before? The music, too, was desperately OTT, swooning and sugary well beyond what the situation called for, making this the first time since Eragon that I’ve actively wanted to mute a soundtrack.
So, yeah. I wasn’t impressed with A Good Man Goes to War. Not because it didn’t work, but because, despite all the problems, this should have been a good episode. There’s so much potential there, I can just about rewrite the episode in my mind. In fact, despite the probable arrogance of doing so, I can and will. So here’s my version of how things should have been.
In the opening scenes, Amy poses for a photo with her newborn daughter. Her smile collapses as soon as the flash dies. She tries to talk bravely to Melody, but three sentences in, she’s rudely interrupted by the army officers. The eyepatch woman declares how little patience she has for sentimentality; Melody is taken forcibly from a crying Amy, cuffed to the ground when she tries to snatch her back. They don’t need her alive any more, she’s told, but maybe she’ll be useful as bait. They leave, and we are left uncertain about Amy’s future.
Cut to Rory and the Doctor at the TARDIS controls, talking about a Cyberman base. It’s the only place they can go to get the information they need, but dealing with Cybermen is always tricky: without a show of force, they won’t tell them anything. Rory goes in, but keeps in touch with the Doctor by comm. We see the moment when the Cybermen refuse to speak; we see the Doctor’s face as he realises that violence is his only option. He tells Rory to brace, and then we see him go cold and hard, blowing up an entire base to make the remainder reveal where Amy is being kept. Later, he looks to Rory for absolution, but Rory says there’s nothing to forgive. They weren’t innocents, they were Cybermen. They needed to die.
While the Doctor picks up everyone else, the same as before (except he also grabs a regiment or two), Rory goes to River. She tells him she can’t come because she can’t cross her own timeline; that she’s already been to Demon’s Run. Rory assumes this means she’ll show up during the fighting and help, which perspective River lets him believe. We see her face as he walks away, though, and know that she’s lying – but not why. Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor asks Rory where River is, and he tells him she’s already there; and the Doctor says, of course she is. Now, we see the strike team all together in the TARDIS, listening as the Doctor explains the situation: what’s happening, what they have to do to save Amy, and why there’s an army after him. Cut this with slice shots of them actually infiltrating the base in real-time, sneaking through to their positions, fighting their way in. End with the Doctor telling them cheerfully not to die, then smash cut to Amy blank in her room as Lorna comes in, proffering the prayer leaf, which she puts down on a table when Amy won’t take it. Their conversation is different this time: it starts out with Lorna telling Amy that she used to know the Doctor as a child, but when she describes him, it’s as a great warrior, held reverential in her eyes for the violence he did. It’s why she became a soldier, to meet him in battle – an almost Sontaran glory – and Amy becomes furious, yelling at her to get out. She throws the leaf at Lorna, but the other woman won’t take it. Close the scene on Amy picking it up, trying to rip it, failing, then crying over it, all while trying to pull herself together. This she does – but just then, the lights go out.
Red light flickers on; we follow back to the Doctor’s posse, watching them put the finishing touches on their infiltration. Soldiers in chaos during a drill; Lorna rejoins them, excited because she knows what this means. But when the lights come up, there’s an army there instead of the Doctor, surrounding them: all weapons must be laid down. Elsewhere, we see Rory and the Doctor split up, looking for Melody. The Doctor reclaims her from eyepatch lady after a tense confrontation; he pulls a weapon,says he’ll spare her if she gives him the child, then prepares to shoot anyway when Melody is handed over. Eyepatch lady expects him to do it, which is all that stays his hand; and then Rory arrives, desperate for his daughter, in which moment of distraction eyepatch lady flees. The Doctor hands Melody over, gets word on the comm about what’s happened with the army, then leaves Rory to be the Amy-rescuing hero while he goes off to take charge of things on the ground.
Back to Amy, who’s actively trying to break out of her cell rather than waiting passively to be rescued. Just as she finds something to prise open the door, Rory opens it from the other side. Reunion! They go to the window and watch, tense, as the Doctor negotiates the final stand-down of the other army’s troops, sending them out with only a few casualties on either side. All three reunite; Rory explains to Amy what’s been happening while the Doctor goes to check the records with his Silurian sword-master. The scene about Melody’s genetics happens mostly as before, except that, when the trap is revealed and eyepatch tells him about the Monks’ involvement, they’re a new threat, one he recognises as deadly when their name is spoken. This time, we actually see the fight between them and his motley crew, including Lorna joining fight, the disintegration of the false Melody, and then the death scene of the Sontaran. A difference with Lorna’s death, though: the Doctor doesn’t remember her at all, and the last thing she sees is his face, stricken with apology, as he tries – and fails – to recall her name.
Only then, into the silence, does River emerge; she’s been watching from the shadows. The Doctor shouts at her: where has she been? She argues back, bitterly, about how rich this is coming from him, who’s forever swanning about and showing up where he pleases, never a care for those left behind, like the dead girl whose name he couldn’t remember; the Doctor retorts that he, at least, is always where he needs to be, to which River calmly replies that she is, too. Both reside a bit: he says she told Rory she’d be here; what did she mean? At which River breaks a little and says, I was, but you missed me. He understands the truth, then – heavy with the weight of what it means – but Rory and Amy don’t. The others are curious, but know this isn’t their business: he leads the survivors back to the TARDIS, giving the trio privacy. River tells Amy to pull the prayer leaf, forgotten until now, out of her pocket. Amy can’t understand how she knew it was there at all, and Rory is totally baffled, but both stop talking when they see the name on it: River Song, translated by the TARDIS. Lights, curtain, exeunt all.
Aaaand now I’m done. But seriously, is it so hard to throw in a little danger, to show us the conflict and tone down the melodrama, so that the emotional moments actually mean something? Apparently. And yet also, to my mind, not.