I think this has been one my favorite episode of this season of Doctor Who so far. There are moments, numerous ones, that really stand as stellar examples of what makes this show appealing and of Steven Moffat’s strengths as a writer and show-runner.
There are also lots of moments that emphasize how frustrating much of this season has been.
Most of the best elements are in the first half. Commander Strax, Sontaran nurse, is introduced in a scene that is incredibly funny and moves the plot forward while enriching the background of one of the show’s alien races tremendously. It’s clever, self-referential writing that actually fits tonally with the show and doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. The same goes for the introduction of Madame Vastra, lesbian Silurian, a character who hits so many buttons that it’s hard to see her as anything other than a calculated move to make certain segments of Who-fandom hit pause on the DVR and run, “squeee”ing all the way, to the internet to talk about how awesome the character is. But Moffat still manages to make the character charming and endearing and slot her into the story in a way that she actually works, and works well, in the context of the episode. (Moffat also uses her to get in an oral sex joke even more blatant than the one in “Love and Monsters” which, oddly, seems to have elicited no outraged “harrumphs” from online fans, indicating that either fans are getting less uptight about such matters or that IOKIYSM.)
The rest of the first half of the episode shows us the Doctor infiltrating the base of his enemy, outsmarting them and humiliating them and saving the day with the help of his friends and companions. It’s rousing, it’s on target, it’s funny, and it’s the show we’ve all tuned into to see. It’s not until after the day is won that things start to fall apart. Partly this is because Moffat has made a very deliberate choice to show the Doctor “falling,” to show him failing to save the day in as spectacular a fashion as possible. It’s an understandable choice, given how the season storyline has developed, but coming in at the half-way point of the mid-season finale makes for just more viewer frustration as yet more plot threads are left unresolved.
“Unresolved” could be the theme for the episode. As much as Moffat likes to emphasize the “timey-wimey” nature of the show, it’s hard to feel emotionally invested in a conflict when, after seven episodes, the antagonist is still a blank slate. We know that, at some point in the future, the militarized Anglican church, with the assistance of Madam Kavorian (aka Eyepatch Lady), kidnap Amy to use her daughter as a weapon against the Doctor. We don’t know why. The Doctor doesn’t know why. In fact, the last time we saw any hint of these storylines was in the last season, when the church was more than willing to work with the Doctor and seemed to view River Song as the real threat.
As for River Song, while I still generally like the character and her portrayal, I’m not sure what to make of the big revelation about her here. On the one hand, it’s something of a non-revelation, as her parentage is just about the least interesting thing about her in the context of the show, and really only serves to make the universe of the show that much smaller (later in the year we find out that Amy’s great-aunt Barbara was a school-teacher!). On the other, it’s the kind of revelation that means that either the implications weren’t completely thought out or that information is once again being held from the audience for no good reason, as it means that River knew exactly what was going on in the first two episodes of the season.
In any case, this episode gave us a joke that must have had the “gay agenda!” crowd in apoplectic fits, so it was worth it on that score.