[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.