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.

8 Responses to “A Good Man Goes To War”
  1. JauntyJohn says:

    SUCH a love/hate with this episode — well, not “hate” but still…
    First half, splendid, exciting, almost a fist-pumping-in-the-air thing (I watch alone, so no one could witness me pumping my fist in the air during Doctor Who, and thus I have plausible deniability when accused).
    And when Amy was talking to baby Melody about “who was coming” and she was describing Rory, not the Doctor… that really warmed me. I loved that. (Though was I alone in having a flash that Rory was going to ask the Doctor to, I don’t know, “make him plastic” again or something, so he could be more bad ass? Just me then? Ok.)
    GREAT supporting ensemble. The best oral sex joke of the century — two centuries! And deft writing in that you really had a sense that these were people the Doctor knew, that they had relationships with him — they were more than just past story elements. (Though I was sad to see the fat queen in the caftan get killed. Why do all stories everywhere kill the fat queen in a caftan? Surely with the sweeping changes in society as a whole there is a place for caftans now, yes?)
    But then… dire warnings about the Doctor falling farther than he’d ever fallen — made it sound like genocide, and it was not. I kept waiting for something more terrible on the Doctor’s part and it was just a “My God! I’ve been badly tricked!”
    As it played out over many eps we were set up to see River as a romantic element for the Doctor, and while there might have been some assumptions on our part, there was definitely a coquettishness (take THAT auto-spell-checker) to River’s by-play with the Doctor. So there’s a low-grade awww with the Huh? at this revelation. And you’re very right, Dorian — it suddenly makes the Universe much smaller again.
    Moffatt used Time Travel as a story element superbly in the last season, so I have faith… but the Big Reveal left me warm… not cold, but not hot either.
    Still and all, great fun, and an episode I’ll re-watch (as opposed to, say the pirate one).

  2. I’m not sure if River did know what was going on in the first two episodes. I think that’s a whole big bucket of timey-wimey.

  3. matthew says:

    The more I think about this episode, the less I like it. A common criticism among fandom is that the Doctor didn’t really fall that far, did he? He was tricked and something obvious like the baby being switched should not have been missed. Both the Fifth and the Seventh would have planned for that eventuality. So all that talk about how far the Doctor’s going to fall, and all that happened is he kicked some ass and then got tricked. Plus, the reveal about River Song’s identity, while painfully obvious, is like you say Dorian, uninteresting. It changes nothing about the character, really. I thought the cliffhanger was supposed to be an epic game-changer, rather than a flimsy reveal that took the entire cast way too long to sort out while the audience screamed at the TV for them to figure it out. I suppose my greatest complaint with this episode is Moffat’s tendency to try and Millar-hype everything. I understand he likes to tease, but I think he teased far more than what was in store. Of course, we’re only at the halfway point, so perhaps there’s still some craziness to be seen.

    As usual, astute and reasoned criticism, Dorian. Thanks

  4. Brian McDonald says:

    I watch Doctor Who with a somewhat uncritical eye, so I’m willing to overlook a lot of what people rightfully see as weaknesses. I wasn’t overwhelmed by this episode as a whole though. River’s big reveal wasn’t really a surprise, and as was mentioned, it wasn’t much of a fall as falls go. It’s not like he got caught sending pictures of his junk to Davros or something.

    Still, I did love Vastra and Jenny (and yes, they should get their own show) and the Sontaran nurse. The “Col. Runaway” scene was really sinister. And if you can find a better cold open than Rory’s meeting with the Cybermen, you tell me, because I’m going to watch the hell out of that show.

  5. Flidget says:

    I really enjoyed the episode at the time of watching but since then my overwhelming reaction is “wow they really ran out of budget again, didn’t they?”. The battle wasn’t epic enough to live up to the hype, the Doctor barely fell at all.

    That said, indeed, OMG SQUEE MADAME VASTRA AND JENNY!!11!! I’m keeping an eye on what toys are coming out, I would dearly love figures of the ladies plus Agent Delaware.

  6. I really doubt “the fall” has even begun yet. I think that’s all next episode.

  7. JdR says:

    My big worry with this episode was the hints of the ’80’s, which saw the show disappear up its own fundament and off the screens, by which I mean too much fanboy pleasing and celebration of its own continuity and history, and not enough clear storytelling. Look back at the Eccleston series – most of this series had ‘done in ones’ which explained themselves and made you come back to enjoy the concept of the show, with the details as the topping. But once creators give too much attention to the fun details, it starts to fall over.

  8. matthew says:

    I guess that’s the big tension with long running series: keeping new fans happy and keeping old fans happy. Many fans who have put in time in the series (whether it be Who or Star Trek or X-Men) want pay-offs – that their investment was just that, an investment. But the risk there is having the series turn into an ourobouros, which is exactly what happened with the X-Men from the Eighties onwards. Try picking up an issue – I guarantee you’ll be lost if you haven’t been reading for five years. There’s a careful balance to reach, and I think Davies’ third and fourth series kind of hit it. There were lots of continuity-fun bits like Sarah Jane Smith or Davros, but a new Who viewer never felt lost. Moffat’s second series, at the halfway point, is on hte verge of collapsing over how intricate he thinks he can make it. I don’t think Moffat’s series suffers from too much fanservice.

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