A Good Man Goes to War (Doctor Who series 6, episode 7)

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

It’s been just over two months since the first time I watched A Good Man Goes to War, the finale of the first half of Doctor Who, Series 6.  At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what I made of it, so I didn’t write my review straight away, wanting to give it time to sink in, and also planning to watch it a second time.  Now, with the second half of the series scheduled to start in less than three weeks, the time has come for the reassessment.

So I watched it again tonight, and the verdict is in.

There are plenty of things to complain about, if you’re so inclined.  There’s no doubt that Moffat falls into the Greatest Hits trap that also tripped him up in The Pandorica Opens — that the blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of the Judoon really added nothing, and the reappearance The Pirate No-One Particularly Wanted To See Again from Curse of the Black Spot bought the episode nothing at all.  Worse, the villains do not seem to have good motivation — at least, not yet, though that may change when we’ve seen part 2.  (The implication is there that they are the Doctor’s enemies because of something he will do rather than something he has done.)

But it turns out that I just don’t care too much about any of that.  In this episode, Moffat throws a hundred things at the wall, and if 10% of them don’t stick, that still leaves ninety wonderful things.  On my second watch through, I laughed out loud at least half a dozen times, which is good going for a basically serious drama.  The Sontaran nurse was fertile comic ground (“Give her to me, human fools, she needs changing!”) and also strangely poignant in the end (“Rory.  I’m a nurse.”)  Rory’s attempt to be cool on finally meeting up once more with Amy — superb acting, very believable.  And, needless to say, the Doctor himself, brimming with lines that simply could not work from any other character (“Amelia Pond, get your coat!”; “I want you to tell them to run away”).

So what is going on here?  Is it OK to make an episode where you merely try lots of things, and some of them are cool and some are dumb?  Can Doctor Who episodes be just variety shows?  You may not enjoy the stand-up comedian, but if you hang around for the while there’s a juggler or a singer or a ventriloquist who you might like.  Is that good enough?  And is that, in fact, all that Moffat is doing here?

No, and no.  It wouldn’t be good enough, but that’s hypothetical because it’s not all he’s doing.  Over a series and half, he’s built up three characters that we have learned to care about (four if you count River Song, but she’s never worked for me).  Amy and Rory are, for me, the most successful companions the Doctor’s ever had because their relationship is convincing and they are both, well, likeable.  I care that things work out right for them in a way that I never did for, say, Martha.  If Rose was the first companion who we could imagine having a life outside the TARDIS, Amy and Rory are the first whose outside-the-TARDIS life we could actually care about.

So what’s going on here?  Is it OK to make Doctor Who a character-based drama about how ordinary people respond to the extraordinary?  And is that, in fact, all that Moffat is doing here?

No, and no.  That alone wouldn’t be good enough, but that’s hypothetical because it’s not all he’s doing.  Because Doctor Who, both traditionally and especially since the 2005 relaunch — and especially since Moffat took over — is most of all a programme about ideas.  Moffat’s predilection for timey-wimey is well documented, and I do enjoy the challenges that time paradoxes present, but they are really only the tip of the iceberg.  This series has offered questions about perception (The Silents in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon), a meditation on the qualities we ascribe to our loved possessions (The Doctor’s Wife) and a debate on what it is to be human (The Rebel Flesh, albeit one that was muffed in The Almost People).  Its reach may exceed its grasp sometimes, but that’s because it’s reaching so very far.

In the end, then, what makes Doctor Who such a delight is not any single aspect of the programme, but the collision of genres — variety show, soap opera, psychological investigation — all happening at once, all set in the context of a sci-fi plot, and all somehow, miraculously, tied together into a unity.  It’s not just a collision of genres, its a synthesis.

So, what next?  One of my many laugh-out-loud moment on watching AGMGTW was right at the very end, seeing the title of episode that’s coming up: Let’s Kill Hitler.  That is just perfect: audacious, historical, science-fictional, timey-wimey if you will, and just plain enthusiastic.  If I had to pick three words to sum up Doctor Who to someone who didn’t know it, I think Let’s Kill Hitler might be them.  But that episode is the second half of the two-parter to which AGMGTW was the first.  So it has a lot of answers to provide.  (We’ve been saying this about every episode since the season started, mind you.)  Most urgently, what does River mean when she says that the Doctor “will fall so much further than ever before”?  And (probably related) why does everyone think the Doctor is a warrior now?  Plus we still have all our running mysteries from the first two episodes: who is the girl in the spacesuit?  (River?)  How is she able to regenerate?  Why was the Doctor killed?  By whom?  Is he only Mostly Dead?  And what are The Silents up to?  Come to that, who was responsible for the universe exploding at the end of Series 5?

Many questions.  There is an element of frustration, to be sure, in not knowing exactly what’s going on.  But at the same time, it’s exhilarating — like a roller-coaster, or skiing down a black run that you’re not really good enough for, the sense of not being fully in control, or even fully understanding what is happening, has its own magic.

I’m on board.

P.S.  “Rory wasn’t even there at the beginning. And then he was dead, then he didn’t exist, then he was plastic, then I had to reboot the universe – long story.”  Best. Line. Ever.


15 responses to “A Good Man Goes to War (Doctor Who series 6, episode 7)

  1. A Good Man Goes to War just serves to show that Rory truly is the most awesome companion yet. On top of waiting for 2000 years for Amy to wake up, he, with nothing but The Doctor’s screwdriver, and likely no clue how to change the setting, so one setting, managed to fight his way to the bridge of a Cyberman warship alone, and deliver an ultimatum to them, while The Doctor was busy in the other ship.

  2. Not a companion per se, but a recurrent uncompanion as it were and one of my favorite characters .. Donna’s grandfather; that old codger sitting up stargazing, was so likable. (I _really_ disliked Donna .. not sure how anyone could’ve preferred her as a companion to any other. I liked Martha and Rose and even Mickey…)

    The character we all wanted to be a companion (but so wisely is not) .. Lady Christina de Souza. Yum.

  3. It’s very late here and I’m tired so I’ll be brief (mostly).
    I liked this episode a lot. Generally, I felt it “worked”. My main concern is that the fabled “fall” River spoke of for so long has already occurred. I also have a bad feeling the Doctor’s death will either be a Flesh Doctor or else it’ll be “fixed” in the same way the Doctor got out of the Pandorica last season, i.e.: “seen from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint as a big blob of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”. Although perhaps we can forgive Moffat for re-using that trick just one more time because the phrase it’s named for is so awesome! (The Doctor really was my hero growing up, and as a result, I have a real respect for that goofy turn of technical phrase.)

    Mike: My main comment is to try to answer your warrior question: There may be more revealed later, but it seems to me the show’s been building to this for… well for a very long time now. Remember the 1st Doctor? He couldn’t even get the TARDIS to return to the same location ever again. Move through the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th. Each of them did their thing–saving planets and all that, but with only a few rare exceptions, they never gave you the impression that you were looking at someone who could routinely outwit gods or end a prime minister’s career with “just six words”.

    it was actually the 7th Doctor of the old series where the big change started to happen. (But not in his initial season.) In an effort to recapture the sense of mystery about the Doctor that had been slowly sapped away over the years, they went around re-mythologizing the Doctor. In the process we wound up with a Timelord who would turn out again and again to be in possession of a lot more information than he would ever reveal. A Timelord who would make reference to “that chess game in Lady Peinforte’s study” (Lady Peinforte and her study being in the adventure Sliver Nemesis) several adventures later whilst battling some sort of ancient Evil of the Universe (that adventure being The Curse of Fenric). And we were given to understand that, that meant that waaay back in Sliver Nemesis, the Doctor was mentally locking horns with the Curse of Fenric. (timey-wimey–also total retcon, but it worked! :-) )

    Then the show went off the air. When it came back with the 9th Doctor, over time we learn the Doctor fought in the Time War. And through the 10th Doctor, we learn that the Doctor is now powerful enough to–yeah–sometimes frighten gods. I mean the Doctor that stood on the rock at Stonehenge and shouted at all those alien races, “I! Am! Talk-ing!” and actually command attention that way is a lot different from the one way back at the beginning that just wanted to be left alone.

    So–way I see it this Doctor-as-warrior thing has been building for a long time. And maybe the real fall will simply be that the Doctor will see what he’s become.

    I mean, yeah it’s cool to stand on that rock and shout down all those aliens, but you cannot do both that and be a humble, non-violent philosopher type. It just doesn’t work. That’ll be the Doctor’s fall.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  4. WG: Nice summary. I agree the “fall” is most likely The Doctor realizing that he’s managed to drift a little ways off from “Do No Harm” over the many many years he’s been tending to the universe’s ills.

    Incidently, from whence does your sig derive? It reminds me of a sleep-deprived night back in college. “Assume a spherical chicken.” “Assume a spherical, oscillating cow, which we shall designate by mu.” “mu. uuum. muuu. uuum. muuu. uuum.”

  5. It was pretty uncharacteristic for the Doc to go destroying Cyuberfleets ‘just to get their attention’; it was cool actionhero stuff, but it wasn’t really the way the Doc operates. A humble old man with his granddaughter, doting intelligent scientist with bessy the car, Tom Bakers bumbling clever shaker .. they all are strictly non violence, non threatening, but trying to slip in and just do the right thing. Not destroy fleets for the sake of information.

    So I’m with WG .. the recent doc is great fun and we all love him or we’d not be commenting here .. but it does seem they’ve “show boated” more. I mean, I don’t think they did this to make a point, I think it weas just a new direction for the doc from RtD, and Moffat wants to play with the idea that its not just a direction, that it is in fact a personality change in the recent regenerations; where Doc#2 went for pratt-falls, Doc #10 and #11 are pretty dangerous.Started back where.. in Colin Bakers time?

    More important than ‘whats changed’ is .. ‘what will Moffat do?’ .. for the big fall is what.. going to make Doc Matt humble? The cast are all around fantastic and can pull off whatever is thrown at them I’m sure, but what will be in it for the Doc? Humbilificatiojn, or some story bumf and business as usual?


  6. Mike,

    Thanks for finally getting to this post! Excellent review!

    The main reason I wanted you to post this review so badly, is so I could say.

    Called it!!

    Speaking with regards to the calling it part of River being Amy and Rory’s child, the scene when she tells Rory (Dad) that its her birthday is just incredible.

    I’ve always liked River more than you seem to and response and feeling for both Rory and River in that scene is pitch perfect.

    I think what Moffat is going to do here is give us a happy ending. I think that Amy and Rory and River will all leave the Tardis to live a happy family life and that will change River to the point that she doesn’t kill the Doctor. That may cause continuity issues with her elsewhere, but she’s a timelady and will know that appearances will need to be kept up so she can say she “killed the best man she ever knew” even though she knows she was stopped. I could handle that resolution for this.

  7. The River-Rory scene actually made me worry. River sounded really excited, as though she hadn’t seen Rory for a while. Judging by the clothes her appearance at the end of AGMGTW was set after the events of Day of the Moon (thus it doesn’t contradict her comment about backwards timelines with the Doctor, but it still holds that she wouldn’t know about the resolution to the Silence plot arc at this point in her own timeline) so I’m really hoping the River-Rory scene at the beginning won’t turn out to be the first time she’s ever seen her daddy.

  8. The girl in the spacesuit was young River, right? At some point, I think the Silents had her for a while. Remember, the baby’s currently missing and needing to be found. Sure the Doctor will succeed, but what if the young baby River (who was caused to be conceived for a specific purpose by the Silents I think) has already accomplished her task (assuming their is one) by that time? Hey if I sound confusing, it’s only because I am confused. :-)

    I have this notion that the Silents somehow had a hand in causing young baby River to be born–or if not that, then the Silents saw a great opportunity to further their own ends by capturing the baby and putting her in a spacesuit. So then it would be young River that shot the Doctor. (Yes, there’s the question as to why grown up River didn’t appear to know what was going to happen when she witnessed the event, but there are various ways to explain that away and only one of those explanations is that it wasn’t really young River in the spacesuit.)

    So young River shoots the Doctor. Still not quite sure why, and I’m not totally sure how the Doctor survives that, but I’m still bettin’ he’s all Flesh.

    And somewhere in all that, there’s still time for young River to grow up with Amy and Rory, btw–being a timelady means she’ll have lives to spare there.

    And whether that’s how it goes or not–what a very well chosen name River has! For the course of her life is very like a winding, weird river. And her life, if told, could be woven into a song all beautiful and sad at the same time I am sure.

    Bevan about my signature:
    It’s something I started saying many years ago. Sometimes, nonsense can be the best defense against sadness. In the years since I created it, things like South Park and Harry Potter have been created. So now I put it this way: A dementor approaches. I shout the spell and my patronus springs forth: not one, but MANY big furry South Park-style cows. They all trot up to the dementor forming a half-circle around it blocking its path. The cows proceed to “MOOO” and then EXPLODE (decompress) for no adequately explored reason.

    I bet the dementor didn’t that one comin’.

    That’s what my sig means. ;-)

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  9. Wyrdestgeek,

    I think River did know what was happening at the lake, it just took a while to register from the different point of view.

    After firing on the astronaut and missing she says, “of course.” I rewound this a dozen times to be sure. The full context of that sentence is “of course I missed or I wouldn’t be here.”

  10. @Jason,

    I think killing your best friend/husband/lover would be something that would stick in your memory for quite a while. I’m sure she would’ve recognised it from the beginning.
    Oh and “Of course” could have been taken in many contexts (even though I seemed to have missed that line). Seeing as how we’ve grown accustomed to the formula of the show it could mean “Of course I missed him. Of course he got away. Of course the astronaut that caused a massive plot twist to occur gets away so easily so we can spend a series (or two) chasing him.”
    But hey, I could be wrong and you could by all means be right. But we’ve yet to find out.

  11. I still think they need to bring Doctor Chris in for a minute, just to really make it timey wimey. After the Doc gets shot and they go to the restaurant with the numbers, and Doc Chris walks by. Or, Doc Chris is in the space suit and shoots the Flesh current-Doc.

    (Sorry, pager went off 63 times last night, so I’m hazy :)

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