TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E07 – ‘A Good Man Goes to War’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Frances Barber ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Peter Hoar ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Season 6 Matt Smith Steven Moffat A Good Man Goes to War Frances Barber Madam Kovarian

[xrr rating=4/5]

The Low-Down: The finale to this first chunk of Doctor Who‘s season 6 is exactly the kind of big, broad and expansive adventure that we needed. A Good Man Goes to War may still leave us with plenty of questions and is arguably a little shapeless in places, but it also delivers satisfying adventure, well-timed twists and some truly brilliant dialogue, while finally casting some light on one of Who’s biggest current mysteries…

What’s it About?: Making the Doctor angry is not a good idea. With Amy Pond having been abducted, the Doctor and Rory are battling across time and space, calling in old debts in order to carry out a daring rescue on the asteroid known as Demon’s Run. What they don’t realise, however, is that they’re walking into a trap that’s been waiting for the Doctor for a long time – while it’s also finally time for River Song to reveal who she really is…

The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)

Yes, I saw it coming. It helped that I’d seen the idea bandied around as a theory online following the broadcast of Day of the Moon, but it was a concept that fitted all the facts, especially with the very obvious touch of both characters having water-based names (I can remember thinking “Pond? Why on earth is her surname Pond?” back when the companion was first announced. Now, of course, it all makes sense). Once Amy announced that her daughter’s name was Melody, it was pretty much on the wall – but all credit to Moffat for still managing to throw in a couple of moments of doubt, from the Doctor’s abrupt “It’s mine” line (when talking about the crib), to the point where we’re briefly left thinking “Wait a minute – ye gods, they’re not seriously going to have River turning out to be one of the Doctor’s family, are they?”, and all the serious Luke-and-Leia-style wrongness that might mean.

But, they weren’t. After a whole lot of waiting, we finally know that River Song is Amy and Rory’s daughter, and that her part-Time Lord DNA led to her being utilised as a weapon to kill the Doctor (which led eventually to her imprisonment in the Storm Cage facility). And while SF-savvy viewers will have unpicked Moffat’s complex web of plotting, the fact remains that this is still tremendously ambitious storytelling for a Saturday night family-aimed show, and that Doctor Who is still aiming high in terms of demanding storytelling and narrative twistiness.

(It’ll also be interesting to see exactly where the relationship between the Doctor and River goes from here, and what the ultimate resolution for him is (as we already know for her) – one of the quietest bits of characterisation is the nicely played sense of sadness from River Song when she realises the point in time that she’s reached, and that the period of the Doctor not knowing who she is has come to an end (and it also, in retrospect, makes the flirting between them that’s happened up until now a lot more poignant – River has always known exactly where this was going, and that her relationship with the Doctor was going to completely change once her identity was finally out in the open. Things will be different – but exactly how different?)

Naturally, of course, there are already people online moaning that the revelation of River’s identity was all rather predictable (simply because, as I’ve said before, moaning comes rather naturally to some Doctor Who fans), but while A Good Man Goes to War wasn’t perfect, it’s given S6 the injection of adrenaline it needed and ended this ‘pod’ of episodes on a serious high. It’s also possibly the most deliberately referential and continuity-crammed episode we’ve had yet (even managing to beat The Impossible Planet/Day of the Moon), and yet did succeed in getting most of the relevant information across in a way that’s still accessible, lively and fun.

It also leaves the weaker episodes of this run – especially Curse of the Black Spot – looking even weaker by comparison, simply because Moffat at his best is able to fire new concepts at the viewer at a rate that’s almost dizzying. Not only does he take the time-and-galaxy-spanning action of The Pandorica Opens and crank it up even further, but he also throws in a selection of new characters that do that wonderfully Doctor Who storytelling trick of hinting at a scope of adventures far beyond what we’ve seen. Top of that, of course, is the jaw-droppingly improbably yet hugely enjoyable Victorian duo of sword-wielding Silurian Madam Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her maid Jenny (Catrin Stewart), who turned out to be one of the highlights of the episode. I’m still not sold on the Silurian make-up (less human-looking eyes would make such a difference) and initially thought “What the hell?!?” on Vastra’s first appearence, but was rapidly won over. McIntosh gets to have much more fun here than in last year’s tepid Silurian two-parter, and the banter between them combined with some choice innuendo pack a whole lot of life into the story (while once again showing that despite RTD’s departure, the so-called ‘Gay Agenda’ that a small minority of fans still complain about is alive and well.)

Even the deliberately comedic take on the Sontarans – played even more for laughs than they were in S4’s two parter The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky – managed to grow on me, with Commander Strax’s eventual fate turning out to be surprisingly touching, and Moffat keeps the tone shifting throughout, going from laugh-out-loud funny to emotionally intense. It’s how Doctor Who should always be – funny, fast-paced and deliriously inventive – and once again proves that Moffat is seriously good at delivering the goods when it comes to the big show-stopping episodes.

He also does the sensible thing in keeping it driven by emotion, while also being prepared to pull off some pretty dark moments – from the Doctor’s burst into all-out anger (brilliantly delivered by Matt Smith), to the horribly brilliant revelation that Baby Melody had been switched for a Flesh/Ganger duplicate. The baby disintegrating in Amy’s arms into a puddle of the Flesh is such a fantastically unpleasant image and packs a serious punch, and it’s good to see that Moffat still has a good sense of how far he can push things – that Who shouldn’t be too nasty, but that it also shouldn’t be too safe either.

There’s barely a weak link in the cast, and especially notable was Christina Chong as the mysterious Lorna, giving a really compelling performance despite the fact that you’re barely told anything about her. Both Karen Gillen and Arthur Darvill did great work, giving more nuances and levels to Amy and Rory’s relationship (and making the chemistry-free mess that was their initial relationship last year feel like a very long time ago), but the episode completely belongs to Matt Smith, who takes the Eleventh Doctor to some very dark and angry places and yet still manages to be kookier and more eccentric than ever (especially in the scene where he’s awkwardly discussing with Madam Vastra when Amy and Rory’s daughter “began”).

A Good Man Goes to War romps along at a fast pace and delivers the most enjoyable and genuinely satisfying ‘blockbuster’ episode since last year, along with some impressively mounted Star Wars-esque SF production design – but it still manages to notch up a few problems. A couple of Moffat’s narrative ticks are a little predictable (especially the reveal of the Doctor), and the Headless Monks themselves are initially intimidating yet ultimately end up as slightly unsatisfying villains, with the end action sequence not quite carrying the punch it needed. Frances Barber does a good job with her surprisingly short screen-time as the eye-patch-wearing Madam Kovarian, but I was expecting to learn a lot more about her than we got.

Naturally, this is the mid-season cliffhanger so there was no way Moffat was going to tie off every plot thread, but we’ve now got another set of bad guys whose motivations we don’t entirely understand – and, just to make things even more complicated, they’re bad guys we previously met (presumably in the future) as good guys (or at least guys who didn’t start their conversation in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone by saying “Oh, by the way, sorry about that time we mounted an incredibly complex plan to try and kill you…”).

Using the Clerics from S5’s two-parter is an interesting yet odd choice, and we really need a slightly clearer motivation for this astonishingly big-scale plan (which obviously involved the Silence) than River Song’s end speech where she makes it clear that the Doctor’s impact on the Universe is now coming back to bite him (Does Kovarian have other paymasters than the Clerics? Is there another big bad waiting in the wings?). There’s also the fact that we really need this to tie together with The Impossible Planet’s 2011-set scene of the Doctor’s death (Was the astronaut-suit-clad Melody brought back from 1969 specifically for this reason? How does this fit in with the rest of the story?)

In short, Who has a gigantic number of questions that still need to be answered – but at least, with River Song having finally unburdened her secret, there’s the chance for genuine answers (and hopefully we’ll get them, rather than more questions). A Good Man Goes to War does end up feeling a little shapeless thanks to this lack of meaty explanations for the story’s backdrop, but Moffat’s dialogue, energy and inventiveness means it’s still full-tilt SF entertainment – big, bold, confidant, and not afraid to be just a little insane.

The Verdict: A thoroughly enjoyable mid-season finale that shows Moffat hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to emotionally engaging SF adventure, this is an episode where the minor problems and the flapping plot-threads aren’t enough to spoil the rollicking entertainment. It’s certainly hard to work out what on earth Moffat will have in store for us in the next batch of episodes – all we can do is wait for September, the aftermath of all these revelations, and the hilariously titled next episode “Let’s Kill Hitler”…

Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:

S6 E05/E06 – ‘The Rebel Flesh’ / ‘The Almost People’

S6 E04 – ‘The Doctor’s Wife’

S6 E03 – ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’

S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’

S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

5 thoughts on “TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E07 – ‘A Good Man Goes to War’

  1. Strictly speaking, we still don’t know that River killed the Doctor and was sent to Storm Cage for it. It’s a reasonable supposition (Penny and I were discussing exactly this yesterday) but it’s not something the series has explicitly told us.

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    • This is true – as is the fact that the Doctor knows who’s in the spacesuit in The Impossible Astronaut (and we’re not shown who it is). But, considering all the plot chunks we’ve got now, I can’t help feeling that things would have to get insanely convoluted for it *not* to be River, and if it isn’t, why would the Clerics be so concerned in Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone that the Doctor wouldn’t help if he knew who she was and what she’d done? (I don’t think that can be explained away with her identity as Melody Pond). But then, we are only just over halfway through the season – there’s still plenty to go, and I’m hoping the answers are good (and that there aren’t *too* any flapping plot threads this time…

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  2. It’s a good point – but we’ve got to bear in mind too, surely, that River and the Doctor are living their lives in different directions. And that when River shoots at the astronaut in the lake, she clearly *doesn’t* believe she’s the person in that suit. Unless Steven is going to break the structure of his storytelling for that reveal, but I think that’d be too big a cheat for him. (I’m not saying Steven doesn’t cheat sometimes on plot, but never on structure. He loves structure. He’s a structure fiend!)

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    • Hello Rob! Indeed- that’s a very good point. Neither The Impossible Planet or Day of the Moon is played as if River knows what’s going on (from the shooting at the astronaut, to the Doctor and River examining the spacesuit and her not going “You know, this reminds me of something from my childhood…”). I guess it’s possible that as a child she could have been conditioned or used against her will (I’m theorising that the reason she was forced into the spacesuit is that it was the only way to use her as the Doctor-killing weapon) and then have had her memory blocked, but then that does make things even more complicated in certain areas (like does River think she’s in prison for a different reason than she actually is?). I am really enjoying the complexity – I guess the only reason the ongoing ambiguity is worrying me a bit is my experience with the deeply flawed last season of Lost (which I did still enjoy, and didn’t think the ending was the disaster loads of other people thought). There were a couple of very long-running mysteries there that I was looking forward to getting a clear and understandable answer on (most notably, how the whole ‘Jacob’s Cabin’ setup/mystery worked, and why people seemed to think Jacob lived there when it actually seemed to be the prison for the Man in Black), and the series responded by ignoring that completely (and instead adding lots of additional ambiguity!). I’m pretty sure Steven Moffat isn’t going to do that, it just does sometimes feel like the number of questions we’ve got (from last year’s finale onwards) is starting to spiral a bit out of control – River’s identity is of course a big step towards sorting this out, but there’s tons relating to the TARDIS explosion, the Universe reboot, the Silence, and River’s part in that plan (along with who the hell Madam Kavorian actually is) and I’m hoping that the second half does tie a few more of those plot-threads off (while still delivering plenty of lively fun and adventure, of course!).

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  3. Great review – sums up my thoughts too. Especially in regard to how *fun* the whole episode was.

    With all clues leading to it being River in the spacesuit shooting the Doctor, we were throwing around the idea that the Doctor himself (knowing what we know) would do everything he could to make sure it’s not River in the suit come the day. Even to the point of it being himself in the suit who pulls the trigger.

    Just a thought. Especially if he’s feeling bad about his impact on the Universe and wants himself out the picture.

    Anyway, yep – great episode and wrap up for half-series! (and we cheered when ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ came on screen 🙂

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