Sunday, June 12, 2011

Doctor Who - Season 6, Episode 7: "A Good Man Goes To War"

"Demons run when a good man goes to war." - Proverb

Often, in interviews, actors playing villains will say that "bad guys" don't know that they're bad. They have reasons and motivations that, in their minds, justify and rationalize whatever "bad" things they may do. Outside of old superhero comics and other genre fiction, the distinction between the good and bad guys is scarcely black-and-white.

Doctor Who is a show that usually plays this both ways. Some bad guys (read: the Daleks) are just evil, while others simply have selfish, short-sighted, or otherwise antisocial motivations. Sometimes, as in the just-completed two-parter "The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People," it's not at all clear who is good and who is evil, if anyone can really be called either. But we can always count on the Doctor and his broad-minded, humanistic ways to be a beacon of goodness, however murky the depths may seem.

Or can we?

In "A Good Man Goes to War," Steven Moffat prompts us to question the Doctor's methods for the second time since taking the reins from Russell T. Davies. Last season's penultimate episode, "The Pandorica Opens," featured a pact between all of the Doctor's enemies, who come together to lock him into a perfect prison tailor-made for him, the universe's most dangerous being. In "A Good Man," it is his friends—the sword-wielding Silurian vigilante Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and the ever-mysterious River Song (Alex Kingston)—who help to open the Doctor's eyes to his dark side. But more on that in a minute.

The episode picks up shortly after last week's cliffhanger, with a captive Amy Pond having only recently given birth to a daughter on an asteroid base called "Demon's Run." Under the watchful eye of the Eyepatch Lady, now identified as Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber), Amy tells the baby about the brave, wonderful man who will be coming to find her. "That man is your father," she says, once again making us think she's referring to the Doctor until she identifies the man in question as the Last Centurion himself, Rory. Yes, it's a gimmick, but I'm sure it gave you pause for a second or two.

And from whom do Amy and baby Melody need rescuing? It seems Madame Kovarian is in league with the Church (the militant faith-based organization previously seen in Season 5's "The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone"). The Church, meanwhile, have affiliated themselves with the Headless Monks, an order who believe faith comes from the heart, and doubt from the brain. So if you want absolute faith and no trace of doubt, well, why not cut your head off just to be safe? To combat this alliance, the Doctor travels across space and time, calling due a number of favors owed to him by various beings in order to assemble a team up to the task.

Now, the first twenty or so minutes of this episode are quite busy, but in a good way (unlike the breathlessness of the first and second episodes this season). Heck, an entire Cyberman-controlled space station gets blown up before the episode's credits even roll. Then we're zoomed through time as the TARDIS visits Vastra and her servant/lover Jenny (Catrin Stewart) in Victorian London, then summons a chastened Sontaran nurse, Commander Strax (Dan Starkey), as he tends humans in the year 4037. The fast-paced set-up even features a few nods to Star Wars and a spacier vibe than we've seen on Who in a while.

The strange thing is that, until I rewatched the episode, I hardly noticed the change of pace that happens once the Doctor's plan "succeeds." The opening does such a good job grabbing our attention, and the plan is so skillfully and stylishly achieved, we're fully invested by the time things slow down on Demon's Run (credit here should be given to Moffat and to episode director Peter Hoar). And you know what? I'm glad they did slow things down, or else the pace might have steamrolled over the emotional payoffs scattered throughout the latter part of the episode.

Shortly after the Doctor and his ragtag band of Silurians, WWII fighter pilots, and pirates have won the day, rescuing Amy and Melody while sending the clerics and Madame Kovarian on their way with nary a shot fired, we learn a bit (but not much) about why this has all been done: Melody, having been conceived on the TARDIS while in flight, has Time Lord qualities to her DNA—neatly tying up the loose end of the mysterious regenerating child from the season's opening two parter—and Kovarian wished to use her as a weapon in her long war against the Doctor. And here is where the Doctor begins to wonder about his heroism: "Why would a Time Lord be a weapon?" he asks, and Vastra replies, "Well, they've seen you." Matt Smith does a great job demonstrating the first cracks in the Doctor's façade with his perplexed, slow-burning response, "Me?!"

And it only gets worse from there; their swift victory was a Pyrrhic one. The Headless Monks have trapped the Doctor's allies, the baby in Amy's arms is a ganger, and Kovarian still has the REAL Melody Pond.

When the fighting is over and the mission's failure has come to light, River Song arrives just in time to chastise the Doctor for his fear-inspiring ways: "Doctor: The word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forest, the word 'Doctor' means 'mighty warrior.' How far you've come." The same fear that led his enemies to imprison him within the Pandorica has now led other foes to kidnap an innocent child and attempt to twist her into a weapon. Has he really been as heroic as he'd like to think? Standing amongst all of his dead or dying allies, he certainly doesn't seem so noble.

This idea continues a theme found throughout Moffat's tenure as showrunner: the power of stories. To Amy, the Doctor will always be her imaginary friend made real. But to others, his reputation has different connotations. Lorna Bucket, a young cleric who attempts to help the Doctor, has joined the Church solely for a chance at meeting the Doctor, who she previously encountered as a child and calls a great warrior. She takes that impression with her to an early grave. Other Church members call the Doctor a "dark legend," and their commander Colonel Manton attempts to disabuse the troops of their reverence, reiterating that the Doctor "is not the Devil. He is not a God. He is not a goblin, a phantom, or a trickster. The Doctor is a living, breathing man." So while we know the pro-Doctor side of the story, it's important to remember that, as River suggests, his legacy will linger in the places he's been. His reputation matters more, in some ways, than the things he does; it had better be a good one.

That said, River's arrival also yields cause for hope. Earlier, Lorna Bucket gave Amy a prayer leaf, embroidered in her native Gamma Forest tongue with Melody Pond's name. But, as River tells a stunned Amy and Rory, the name isn't a direct translation, because "the only water in the Forest is the River" (echoing Idris's last words to Rory). The TARDIS's translation matrix takes care of the rest: River Song IS Melody Pond. Was this reveal telegraphed? I for one suspected this connection (or something like it) since last season, and knew for sure as soon as Melody's name was revealed, but I still think the way the information finally comes to light was well-handled and even touching. The news seems to cheer the Doctor up to no end, not least because he knows Melody will survive the current ordeal—though there does seem to be more to his happiness.

But we haven't yet gotten to the bottom of this River, so to speak. Is she the spacesuit-clad figure we saw killing the Doctor in "The Impossible Astronaut," making the Doctor the "good man" whose murder led to River's ongoing incarceration? Hard to say for sure. I think that might be just a bit too tidy for the convoluted season-long arc Moffat has cooked up here. The pained look on River's face earlier in the episode, when Rory comes to the Stormcage to recruit her for the battle of Demon's Run, has me wondering if perhaps the fan chatter has it right and River has been living all along with the knowledge that she kills her own father. Time, I suppose, will tell.

So that's where we close out this half-season of Doctor Who. "A Good Man Goes to War" is a pretty good episode, probably one of the better ones so far this season. It answered a few questions, raised a few others, yet (unlike some cliffhangers) hit all the right beats to feel satisfying and self-contained. There are still quite a few mysteries left to be solved. Who is Madame Kovarian? How are the Silence, previously seen building the spacesuit-cum-iron lung-cum-jail that housed the young Melody Pond, related to Kovarian's activities? Who is responsible for the fateful invitations that called our friends to witness the Doctor's death? And is he really dead, or could there be something else at play now that he knows his future? Will he mend his fear-inspiring ways before it's too late? I assume we'll get most of these answers when the show returns from its summer break this September. I hope I can still cover it for you then!

Notes and Quotes:

  • How great was the Doctor's angry speech to Colonel Manton? "Those words: Run away. I want you to be famous for those exact words. I want people to call you Colonel Run Away. I want children laughing outside your door because they've found the house of 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."
  • Did anyone else detect a hint of the Lawrence of Arabia theme in the score early on? I'm not sure if that was an intentional reference or not.
  • I was quite pleased to see a friendly Sontaran. Something about their Colonel Blimp-esque demeanor always makes me laugh, and there's little funnier than hearing Strax cheerfully tell a wounded child: "You'll be up and about in no time. And perhaps one day you and I shall meet on the field of battle, and I will destroy you for the glory of the Sontaran empire!"
  • Ditto his other skills: "I have gene-spliced myself for all nursing duties. I can produce magnificent quantities of lactic fluid!"
  • I'm glad the Doctor explained a bit about why he let Flesh-Amy travel with him for so long: he feared her captors were listening, and didn't want to act until he knew how to cut the signal.
  • That said, I don't know how he knew Amy was a Ganger but missed that baby Melody was, too. He even sniffed her! Was it just the vacillating pregnancy scan that tipped him off with Amy?
  • I thought the Doctor's little speech in denial of Rory and Amy's having conceived in-flight was a subtle, tongue-in-cheek reference to the "Oh my God, you killed Rory!" complaints: "And Rory wasn't even here in the beginning. Then he was dead. Then he didn't exist. Then he was plastic. Then I had to reboot the whole universe! Long story..."
  • As funny as "the thin, fat, gay, married Anglican Marines" were, I'm not entirely sure I get the purpose of the Fat One being "converted." It's never paid out, at least not in this episode. Was it just to set up the menace of the Headless Monks? Doesn't their being, you know, headless sort of cover that?

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