A Good Man Goes to War

Story No. 237 Monk with a head
Production Code Series 6, Episode 7
Dates June 4, 2011

With Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill
Written by Steven Moffat Directed by Peter Hoar
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Piers Wenger, Beth Willis.

Synopsis: Amy has been kidnapped, so the Doctor assembles an army to rescue her.


"This wasn't me" by Hugh Sturgess 17/11/15

Curiously, this is chronologically the first Doctor Who story not to have a review on the Ratings Guide. Curious, because this is a key episode in Series 6 and one that has a contentious reputation in fandom. It received a solid audience and a towering AI (88!), and yet it has been condemned as overly dark, a letdown and, worse, a specimen of reactionary gender politics. Equally, it has just as many zealous defenders. We should have a lot of things to say about it.

Series 6 was made under ludicrously disastrous circumstances. The sheer immensity of the job of running Doctor Who and Sherlock while writing six episodes of the former and one of the latter, in the space of a few months, simply swamped Moffat. Even with the mid-season break, his last scripts were so late that pre-production began on Let's Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song without scripts in hand, and what we got on screen is basically his first draft. This is a fascinating piece of production history, but it also oddly mirrors what happens diegetically over the course of the season. Steven Moffat is pushing the series itself to the point of collapse. If The Impossible Astronaut is the Platonic ideal of Moffat-era Who, in which all of his idiosyncrasies, obsessions and conventions are handled perfectly and the result is incredible, A Good Man Goes to War is its dark mirror - in which all Moffat's idiosyncrasies, obsessions and conventions are pushed to grotesque extremes and as a result the story collapses.

There is no way forward from A Good Man Goes to War for Doctor Who as a family show. The Doctor has become a figure of "dark legend", who does not appear for the first fifteen minutes of the episode but who is the centre of almost every conversation. Despite emphasising the size of the universe - "20,000 light years away" - and hopping from Victorian London to the battlefields of the forty-first century - the world seems tiny. Everyone knows who the Doctor is. The Church troops practice seeing through the psychic paper and describe having "encounters" with him, like he's a UFO or a supernatural creature. "He is not the Devil. He is not a god," Colonel Manton assures his troops. Nevertheless, he effortlessly wipes out an entire Cyber-fleet simply to make a point. What kind of series can contain a hero this over-powered? Moreover, does such a hero even remain Doctorish? "Doctor" now means "mighty warrior". In a way, this is the end of the character progression the series has been following since Remembrance of the Daleks. He is not a wanderer of the universe but its architect. He is a cosmic horror, a holy terror, an oncoming storm. Doctor Who as a humanist show about a fundamentally silly man who mostly wants to have fun cannot survive such an interpretation.

It's not just the Doctor's character who has been pushed to collapse. Amy has been kidnapped and had her child snatched from her arms (the cliffhanger to The Almost People, Amy screaming in abject horror, is surely one of the most distressing moments in the series' history). The scope does not exist inside Doctor Who as a primetime family show to tell the true emotional sweep of that story. Does anyone really want to watch a Doctor Who story in which Amy is a traumatised survivor who has lost her baby? I get the feeling that masses of the public would not. The moment Melody dissolves into a pile of white goo and Amy wails in anguish is enough.

The only possibility is to abruptly change tack. Series 6 has been, up until now, a dark, creepy series set almost completely at night, which is structured as a cult-TV story arc and pushes the limit of Doctor Who as suitable fare for primetime television (the scene in Melody's room in Day of the Moon is a good example of this). Even an episode like The Curse of the Black Spot, which is story-wise a bit o' fun with pirates, is set at night and is smothered by it. A Good Man Goes to War might as well be shot in black and white for all the colour palate it has. This was mocked at the time, by Lawrence Miles for example, as mistaking literal darkness for tonal darkness, but in retrospect surely this was deliberate. After the mid-season break, Series 6 is almost uniformly more fun and more colourful. The production almost goes out of its way to make the episodes colourful - the brilliant white of the Two Streams facility in The Girl Who Waited (the two streams themselves signified by bright colours), the colourful products in Closing Time's shopping centre and the gaudy mash-up world of The Wedding of River Song. The first episode after A Good Man takes the grimmest possible premise - Hitler - and turns it, in Moffat's words, into "a regeneration rom-com" that ridicules Hitler when it features him at all. Night Terrors is the only exception, following the Black Spot model and turning a light-weight Gatiss story into pitch-black gothic horror, and that was originally intended to be broadcast before the break (in retrospect, surely the correct decision).

Don't think that Moffat was consciously doing this? The more one looks at his work, the more one must conclude that Moffat is either a microscopically meticulous writer when it comes to structure or a savant. Series 5 took the form of a Russell T Davies season - a present/future/past triptych, the return of an old-series monster in a two-parter, a series-long Easter egg, an arc that returned to the companion's family and home, and a universe-threatening climax featuring lots of monsters - and gradually rewrote it so the series was ultimately firmly Moffat's. If you want to be cheeky, note that Series 5 ends with the universe being blown up and rebooted based on the original as mediated through the mind of Amy, the heart of the Moffat universe - the universe that is destroyed is surely Russell's.

What Moffat does in Series 6 is holistically impeccable even as its execution is sloppy. For existing fans, it announces the complete junking of the RTD model of Doctor Who by inverting the season, putting the two-part finale first. But he is also clearly appealing to new viewers, particularly in America. The Impossible Astronaut sets up the premise with admirable deftness and then runs through every trick in Doctor Who's arsenal but with a twist. It is clearly Doctor Who Does Cult TV. American geeks, who might expect story arcs on the Babylon 5, X-Files and Lost model, are lured in with this premise, which Moffat intends to reject in favour of something superior. From the beginning, it is being subverted, simply because timey-wimey story-telling is corrosive to story arcs (even the term "timey-wimey" was originally introduced to show that Doctor Who does not take itself entirely seriously), but with the mid-season hiatus, the premise collapses wholesale. Essentially, the series is blown up and rebooted.

The first Moffat era ends with A Good Man Goes to War, having reached the limit of its usefulness. The Doctor is a dark fairytale fighting an inscrutable arc from cult TV. Let's Kill Hitler immediately sets up the second Moffat era, an anthological, genre-mixing series with hyper-accelerated pacing and far less interest in the Doctor's interiority. (The third Moffat era, beginning with Deep Breath, dramatically slows its pacing and becomes less dependent on non-linear plotting.)

It's appropriate, then, that A Good Man Goes to War introduces the team that will become the Paternoster gang: Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax. These outrageous characters (who only ever get more outrageous, so that by the time of Deep Breath Vastra can walk around in public without a veil and without comment) are also outrageously fun. The fact that they become the closest the latter-Smith era has to a home ground is a sign of how deliberately crazy Doctor Who has become. And truly, Vastra's tongue, coming so soon (as it were) on the heels of Vastra asking why Jenny puts up with her, is the dirtiest joke in Doctor Who history. I'm sad that scheduling conflicts with Miracle Day meant that Captain Jack could not heed the Doctor's call to war, but if his absence created space for Vastra and Jenny, I guess the trade was worth it. (Though I bet that his reveal was originally saved until the point where, in the televised episode, Captain Avery appears.) Ideally, Jack would have been there alongside Vastra, so we could have had the spectacle of Captain Jack, Vastra and River Song in one episode. A premise that launched a thousand 'ships indeed.

If there are clear similarities between Vastra and Captain Jack (an old and well-informed friend of the Doctor of unconventional sexuality who has a passionate love affair with a loyal retainer), there is also a strange resonance with Rory: a tremendously long-lived male friend of the Doctor who is unambiguously portrayed as a hero. Rory is the interesting character of the Pond-era TARDIS. It's fair to say that Rory was initially depicted as the archetypal "nice guy" - an amiable doofus who rules himself out of contention for romance by dint of his lack of assertiveness, what the pathetic pick-up artist community calls a "beta male" (a scientific inaccuracy to boot). This made for uncomfortable viewing, as though the only male character Moffat allowed in the TARDIS had to be a stuttering bumbler so that he didn't represent a threat to the Doctor as the hero.

But Moffat revolutionises Rory as dramatically as Davies did Mickey. The cold opening is obviously playing with our expectations - Amy describing who we are clearly meant to think is the Doctor as we see an intruder overwhelm a Cyber-ship, only for it to turn out to describe Rory equally well. When Amy tells Melody that the (unnamed) hero will come to rescue them "because this man is your father", we are meant to catch our breaths and think the unthinkable. "He's the last of his kind. He looks young, but he's lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. He has a name, but the people of our world know him better… as the Last Centurion." Rory is now older than the Doctor, and his heroism is not ambiguous in the slightest. Rory gets no lecture about how dressing up as a Roman and threatening people with a sword isn't what he should be doing. Moffat views the Doctor as a wonderful hero ("There will never come a time when we don't need heroes like the Doctor."), but it's obvious that he thinks Rory is the better man. And I think that's very important.

I think Rory is the unsung hero of the Pond era. His defining characteristic is that he is totally unassertive. This makes him seem wimpish, leading some commentators to view him as, apparently, the epitome of male entitlement. A feminist analysis (feminalysis?) of the Series 5 and 6 TARDIS crew described the Doctor and Rory's relationship as "one straight white male trying to get another straight white male laid". The idea that the Doctor is Rory's wingman is comical ("The brand new Mr. Pond"?), and mentioning the actors' race is utterly cringe-inducing. The personal may be political, but this is art criticism by people who don't like art.

The gender debate around the Moffat universe produces more heat than light, partly the result of the rise of an amateur online commentariat devoted to issues of race and gender. I mention the amateurism of the commentary because most of it is not very sophisticated. It is unarguably true that Moffat's characterisation is frequently sitcomish, with a lot of laddish humour that sets on edge the teeth of anyone with an ounce of sensitivity towards the depiction of women on television. Space/Time declares that Amy is a bad driver who only passed her test because she wore a short skirt. In those minisodes, Amy blames herself for their predicament because Rory got distracted by looking through the TARDIS's glass floor up her skirt. One does not have to be a social justice warrior to see a problem here. This kind of laddishness exists throughout the Moffat era, but its concentration in Space/Time suggests that it is a kind of default setting for Moffat when he is writing filler. That isn't an excuse but it does mean that he isn't making some nasty statement about women.

However, one can only write so many words deploring boorish jokes about women being bad drivers (recycled in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, where it is made worse by the Doctor seeming to endorse it). Further analysis frequently becomes what journalist Amanda Hess calls "a game of ideological Mad Libs: start with a broad worldview, pick an example, and add umbrage". Any text can be turned into patriarchal abominations using this method (for example, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is about an entitled, violent statutory rapist belittling and destroying a professional woman's career), so the next step beyond this obvious fact is to discern which texts should be viewed that way. Sometimes, the fervour to fill in the blanks ends up producing a truly unreadable document. This kind of analysis comprehensively fails to engage with the actual gender themes in Moffat-era Who, which any serious feminist writer would take as a starting point (as in a fascinating essay in The American Prospect on the series' depiction of family), instead of grappling with a surfeit of signifiers.

It also totally overlooks Rory's true role in the narrative. Rory fundamentally does not like adventuring in the TARDIS. His dream, we see in Amy's Choice, is living a quiet life with Amy in a dead-end country town. And yet he never attempts to force Amy to accept his ideal life. While Amy is defined by her assertiveness, Rory is constantly retiring.

In other words, he fills the traditionally uxorious role in the narrative, the reluctant adventurer stoically tagging along because her husband is a hunter/explorer/inventor/etc. It can't go without saying that this is an unusual role for a man in television, and it's made more unusual by the repeated emphasis on Rory's traditionally masculine qualities. His wife and child are kidnapped, so of course he races into battle to save them. When the Flesh Melody dissolves, of course Rory hears Amy's wail of anguish over the din of battle. "Where. Is. My. Wife." Rory actually has most of the traditional "masculine" heroic qualities, but recalibrated so instead of a dominant, assertive character he is a faithful, supportive one. Amy and River are much discussed as role models for women, but Rory is cruelly overlooked as a role model for men in a society in which many men feel superfluous or humiliated and so act out in violent or self-destructive ways.

The episode is therefore intensely interesting on a thematic level. However, it also doesn't quite work. The great moral failing on the Doctor's part is that he is the lead character in a series that is ceasing to be Whoish, but what we see is the Doctor being righteously angry at a terrible crime perpetrated against his friend, getting tricked and then being scolded by River. While taking over Demons Run in three minutes and forty-two seconds without a drop of blood spilled (except the soldiers killed in the accidental firefight with the Headless Monks, whoops!) stands up as one of the most impressive of the Doctor's achievements, it doesn't feel like he has fallen "so much further" than he ever has before. River blames him squarely for the kidnapping of Melody and all that stems from it because bad guys are scared of him, which is never a convincing argument. This is the same self-flagellating Doctor we saw in the Davies era. Was the Doctor morally in the wrong to do what he does in this episode? Of course not. So what's the in-narrative message; i.e., the message the Doctor is receiving? The pitfalls of hubris? Of getting angry? The condemnation stands starkly opposed to the ending, in which the Doctor is absolved of all blame and swaggers back to the TARDIS.

This episode needed a brilliant pay-off after the break. While further scenes of Amy wailing in desolate grief over the kidnapping of her baby would be utterly horrible to watch, such a powerful storyline cannot be resolved in a moment of sadness pre-credits and then nothing else for the rest of the season. We should not have to guess the arc of her recovery and her finding a satisfying relationship with her daughter. Alas, thanks to the near-collapse of Doctor Who at the end of 2011, that's exactly what happened. A Good Man Goes to War, despite its faults, is a good story, a powerful story. It collapses the series and reboots it as something closer to its roots. But it's only "part one" of the strangest two-parter ever, and Let's Kill Hitler, for all its strengths, fumbles the catch.

"Klingon Opera" by Thomas Cookson 2/9/17

Johnathan Hili rather eloquently vaunted Season 22 for its nightmarish imagery and sense of reality gone sour, and of venturing into murky, unknown territory where even the Doctor can't be trusted.

The Almost People's shock cliffhanger seemingly returned us to that nightmare territory. The shock of Amy revealed as a ganger, and the Doctor in such a cold, unsafe light, casually committing a cruel act. Of spontaneous unexpected shocks that come unpredictably of the dreaming imagination let loose on itself. A psychologically astute assault on your perception.

That would've been Series 6a's chiller cliffhanger. But then Night Terrors got relocated to Series 6b, allowing a slot to be filled by this new, explosive info-dump finale.

Perhaps above-board concerns that answers and explanations needed giving, otherwise the show would lose ratings, forced Moffat to bring this titanic followup story forward early. From hereon, Series 6 became less than the sum of its parts, degenerating into a blend of farce with moments of undue portentousness. Perhaps the BBC enforced this change to a more frivolous, flippant tone.

Perhaps this started as a two-parter that needed editing down, since relocating Night Terrors allowed only one extra episode. This feels ungrounded, rushed, unsettled, and juggling too many ideas.

So why has Moffat gone this route? Giving us this titanic game-changer, after which nothing could be the same again - until it became apparent the show had to carry on as normal like nothing's changed after all. Well, partly because after The Big Bang's happily-ever-after ending for the Ponds, the only logical next turn was aping Rapunzel, where the fairy-tale couple's baby gets snatched away by a witch and grows up without them.

Amy's narration initially insinuates the Doctor might be Melody's father, because Moffat doesn't understand the difference between smart writing and being smartarsed. For our post-natal Amy, several months have elapsed, suggesting the Doctor's been collecting his army in what would've been real time were this broadcast after the mid-season hiatus.

Were this a two-parter, maybe part one would've been the Doctor gathering allies, and interrogating Cybermen about where Amy's being held. Like The Hobbit, most of it devoted to the team-up and journey, perhaps not reaching Demon's Run until part two.

The Cybermen could've been a non-sequitur incidental threat. Maybe the Doctor traces the Ganger signal as far as Cyberterritory, then must sneak around their ships to access a datastore, whereby a confrontation happens naturally, rather than Rory engaging them immediately and belligerently.

Given Rory's belated addition to the TARDIS, Moffat's started making ludicrous leaps with his development. Having made a married man of Rory, Moffat seemingly thinks you make a bloody Klingon of him next. So Rory becomes an invincible superhero when donning his 'Last Centurion' get-up.

I hated Eccleston snapping at the Controller in Bad Wolf for suggesting Rose's death doesn't matter, when he knows her capacity for human empathy was robbed of her from childhood, as though echoing RTD's despicable vilification of autistic fans. But at least RTD seemed conscious Eccleston was dealing with a machine. Moffat seemingly has us believe the Cybermen's emotionless aspect was always a macho act. That beneath their 'blank looks' they're shitting themselves at the Doctor's explosions.

Once you've made Rory that implausibly badass, it becomes hopelessly out of synch with his timid, human fear reactions afterwards. Like his shaky pistol-whipping of Hitler or nervous attempts to appease a waking Dalek. Frustratingly, this new, improved Rory would be better used if we'd opened on him berating Smith over killing Amy's ganger who shared Amy's soul and memories and was their only link to finding her. Thus the Doctor could provide needed answers about how he knows for sure what he did wasn't murder. Supposedly, Rory's strength is he can challenge the Doctor's actions.

Perhaps a massive galaxy-monitoring Cyberfleet, gathering intelligence was amassing for invasion and needed destroying, but the script doesn't say this. The implication seems that the Doctor's a typical bloke, picking a fight with anyone whilst on the warpath over a woman. This mightn't be Doctor Who's worst scene, but it's possibly the most regressively retrograde.

How Philip Sandifer vilifies Earthshock as reactionary, militaristic, macho trash, yet venerates this, baffles me. It's the Red Dawn of Doctor Who. The culmination of Moffat's conservative, reactionary ethos, which from Prisoner Zero onwards seemed more about persecuting rather than understanding the alien. This always left me somewhat reluctant to fully embrace his era.

Given Series 6 had avoided old recurring monsters, the Cybermen's inclusion seems anomalous. Perhaps Moffat needed some shorthand explanation how the Doctor located Amy's prison, and this seemed the coolest way. But really The Wedding of River Song's Dalek cameo scene would've been better used here. In reusing the Cybermen, Moffat swiftly, completely dismisses them.

It's a fundamental misreading of how the show's universe works. This dangerous universe plagued by invasion forces that the Doctor must struggle to survive and prevail against wherever possible. He shouldn't be able to own them completely within seconds. But this Whoniverse of heavies is now Moffat's plaything, and he's making the Doctor completely its master.

The Doctor's so invincible now, the only possible threat to him requires engineering another Time Lord. Another clue to Moffat's thinking here is he once claimed he never accepted the idea of Gallifrey or that the radical, cool Doctor originated from somewhere so 'dull'. Moffat seems desperately afraid of the Doctor coming across as an old square, and so this story seeks to remedy that.

River represents Moffat's first attempt to rebirth the Time Lords in a 'cooler' image. More wild, wicked, badass and sexual. Hoping this ruthless badass, gun-slinging Nikita love interest for the Doctor will see her cool rub off on him.

Given Series 5's all-change, River's presence provided the one continued emotional hook from Tennant's era. Appearing when the Doctor needed the big guns and prophecies of what's ahead. Her connection with Smith's Doctor hopefully helping convince sceptical viewers he's the same man they loved as Tennant. Silence in the Library's hints that River was the Doctor's future wife were laid on so thick it barely constituted a mystery. But we were still interested to see this relationship blossom.

Unfortunately, Moffat became obsessed with turning this into a red herring and contriving new shocking revelations about her. Moffat will do anything to avoid being predictable. Series 5's River seemed colder, more calloused, and more about one-upmanship over the Doctor than any genuine affection. She embodied Moffat's paranoia of women and obsession with portraying them as femme fatales conspiring against our hero.

Moffat turned River, the one reassuringly familiar character from Tennant's era, into an over-emphasized nefarious mystery and someone we don't know at all. First she's his lover, then his assassin, Amy's daughter, her schoolfriend. Every Series 6 mystery seemed to eventually reveal her face behind it.

Every retcon made it exhaustive trying to regain a grasp on and investment in her. Fans of Tennant (the "man who never would") now couldn't digest the Doctor being romantically involved with someone so amoral and opposed to his principles. Her shooting of Silents in Day of the Moon's climax horrified many (presumably fans think she should've let herself be zapped instead) and inspired fanfiction where an all-powerful being intercedes in the Doctor's travels to arrest River for being the most vile, evil person ever, and snap the Doctor out of his besotted adulation.

Moffat piled so much 'Time Lords turned cool' baggage onto River, with every 'cool' trope possible. Any vulnerability that might've made River's story matter emotionally was ruthlessly excised. Ironically, River's regeneration cycle introduced here might've made her character shifts and excesses manageable, until the next story discards the idea.

This is also Moffat's culmination of River's prophesising a Doctor who'd make armies flee. But there's inherently a problem with pre-determining this story. Tom Baker's greatest moments as the Doctor were ones that naturally evolved from the writing and performance, rather than being overtly calculated, or contrived in advance. Even McCoy wasn't acting or abiding by predetermined details in River's diary. Moffat's telling us in advance this is Smith's greatest moment as the Doctor. There's no way the episode or era can live up to that.

Kaan Vural brilliantly dissected how this episode worked better as a theoretical exercise than a proper piece of dramatic television, pinpointing the problem of the Doctor winning his prize twenty minutes in, thus rendering the story dramatically flatlined. I somewhat disagree. There's clearly meant to be an unspoken ticking bomb in the victorious aftermath, and Moffat wisely has River predict early that the Doctor's set for a fall.

A story about the Doctor's clean-up work and investigation after a victory can be interesting and worthy. We've seen Amy rescued, but there's still dramatic intrigue over why she was ever taken. But this quick victory means Amy's predicament has little chance to hang over this story. No plot or stakes are maintained long enough to mean anything. The potential for this to be something dramatic and climactic are rushed into a sudden waste.

There are reasons this story was easy to like and venerate. It's bold, confident, triumphant, with an infectious sense of Moffat writing for the sheer pleasure of it. It's carried brilliantly by Smith's performance, making an inherently fanwankery, showy statement of the Doctor's dark side really leap off the page and become almost being. The line "good men don't need rules" singly nails the Doctor's morally contrary nature throughout his incarnations (even making sense of Season 21's morally confused characterisation).

But maybe I so welcomed this backlash to Davison/Tennant's pacifistic virtue signalling that I forgave how on the nose it was. How the Doctor's cowardly strategy involves making soldiers panic and blindly shoot each other, which he's remorseless over, because I guess their deaths were their own fault for being armed. The more I reconsider this story, the more I'd happily erase it.

Sandifer championed this as a 'feminist piece', where, after the Doctor's macho ways fail, it's River who gives Amy hope, and he chides Smith over his macho sabre-rattling tactics reaping his bitter sow (something the classic Doctors didn't need telling). But it's a reach, and Sandifer's clearly made an uncompromising deal with himself and us that only this reading's valid. Because apparently anyone wanting Amy to appear realistically, visibly distraught at her baby's abduction must be sadistic misogynists.

Smith then spuriously ditches Amy and Rory to look for the abducted Melody himself, leaving River to explain. It doesn't even have a pay-off or purpose. He returns empty handed months later, they resume their travels and quickly meet their future daughter trying to assassinate Hitler, and somehow become fine with having never raised her. So what's the point? Perhaps Moffat just needed some tenuous cliffhanger here. It'd be better if this really was goodbye to the Ponds until Wedding.

Hugh Sturgess highlighted how New Who's off-world adventures seem slightly less real and dreamed to the companion. Amy's horror at realizing she'd bonded with a ganger when her baby turned to yoghurt might've destroyed her ability to bond with the real Melody, and seen her disassociating herself from all this the moment she returned home.

If Rory's the kind of husband who'll go on the warpath, destroying Cyberfleets over his wife's abduction, yet treats his daughter's abduction as no big deal and resumes his adventures without caring where she is, something's gone wrong.

In regards Smith's rise and fall, he simply starts yo-yoing from hereon. The Bells of Saint John had him don his bow tie and miraculously be an invincible superhero again, but it doesn't convince us with genuine hope after this perpetually unresolved failure.

There are some great crafted scenes that just hold the rushed story together. Despite feeling ungrounded, it has a strong sense of gravity, pulling it toward Demon's Run, and the heart of the mystery. Unfortunately, hindsight demonstrates none of its best goods were ever followed up properly. Consequently, it's just last year's fireworks and doesn't interest me enough to willingly endure its tedious patches anymore.

I'm not enjoying it as much as I'd hoped by Evan Weston 20/12/18

This story and its follow-up, Let's Kill Hitler, are the two most difficult to review in the entire span of the show. They are heavily connected, and I considered reviewing them as a two-parter, but it would be irresponsible to ignore their drastic differences as standalone stories. Thus, they remain separate. But the inner quarrel I had over their classification leads me to the biggest problem surrounding these two - they are clearly part of a serialized arc ("Silence will fall when the Question is asked") more than anything else, and these are the only two episodes in the history of Doctor Who that carry that distinction. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon did a lot of set up, and The Wedding of River Song does a lot of wrapping up, but both of those have their own stories carrying the arc through to the end. A Good Man Goes to War and Let's Kill Hitler are both primarily concerned with telling a longer story, and that's why it's hard to pinpoint exactly what they are.

Unfortunately, whether it's the format of Doctor Who or issues with the stories themselves, this narrative technique just about fails completely. A Good Man Goes to War, in particular, is all over the place and not focused on doing any one thing, which leaves it a sprawling, incoherent mess. It's not unlike The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, but this episode doubles the ambition and thus loses itself pretty early on. The cardinal sin here is how drastically Moffat re-writes his characters in order for them to fit into the arc. No less than two of the three principals receive drastic overhauls, and several characters are introduced just to fill roles in the plot.

The Doctor is acting wildly out of character throughout A Good Man Goes to War, and it's rather painful to watch. Never once do I believe that he would blow up a fleet of Cybermen - effectively committing genocide - "just to make a point," as one of the clerics says. He then "calls in his debts", even though the point of the Doctor is that you don't owe him anything, because he's enjoyed it just as much as you have. We're not ten minutes into the story, and the entire thing is already compromised. This leaves the resulting rescue feeling shallow and a bit obnoxious, especially with all the contrivance that leads up there (we'll get to that). But the Doctor just isn't the Doctor for most of this story, and that's unbelievably frustrating and insulting. If you have to warp the character in order to tell your serialized fantasy, Moffat, figure out something else.

Rory is also dramatically different, which is annoying on a different level. Never before or since has Rory been this overtly aggressive; he's generally written as the most level-headed and calm of the principals, perhaps even worried. Here, he struts around in his Roman costume threatening to kill people. What? He's aided in this by several other characters who are randomly introduced because Moffat couldn't figure out how the story would work otherwise. Thankfully, most of them at least have potential. Vastra doesn't make any sense, and there are questions about her backstory that linger to this day, but at least she and Jenny are good fun. The best is obviously Dan Starkey's Strax, perhaps the best comic relief character Doctor Who has ever done. The flip side, of course, is that A Good Man Goes to War is the last time anybody flinched when a Sontaran appeared on screen. Though it's not like they were all that good to begin with.

Still, these characters (at least in this story) aren't fleshed out beyond what they can do for the script, and that's just lazy writing. The worst of these is Lorna Bucket, the cleric who met the Doctor as a child and joined up just to see him again. Elton Pope much? Besides being completely derivative, Lorna obviously exists just to perform some function for the plot. Once she does this, Moffat has her shot by a Headless Monk. Lovely, Steven, that's real nice of you. Even Dorian, who is generally awesome, is used and discarded by Moffat's merciless script. No one, even the Doctor, exists in this realm beyond their function for the script.

Except Madame Kovarian and her "Silence", which I am now unfortunately forced to discuss. The Silents were really cool bad guys in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, and they were clearly set up to come back, but instead of the scary pink guys, we get eye-patch lady. Which would be fine - Frances Barber is wonderfully evil - except that her plan makes literally no sense. The Silents had several opportunities to kill the Doctor in their debut story, but you can rationalize that they didn't know they needed to until now. Except that Amy was abducted before that story even began, so this plan to prevent the prophecy has been in motion since the start of Series 6 (and perhaps even before; the Silents likely blew up the TARDIS).

Kovarian herself could just shoot the Doctor at any time in A Good Man Goes to War - she's clearly in control of the entire thing - and one of the headless monks standing beside him during his big entrance on stage could have just sliced his head off. There are tons of other opportunities for the Silence to kill the Doctor, and that is their entire stated purpose, but they pass in order to... develop his companions' half-Time Lord baby so that she can kill the Doctor herself? But only at Lake Silencio, Utah, in 2011 while she's in an astronaut suit? I'll quote the Supreme Dalek: EXPLAAAAAAIN!!!

This is all part of the serialized arc, and I really have no use for it. It clearly exists so that we can have a serialized arc, and while I appreciate storytelling experiments, do them right if you're going to do them. The half-assed Silence arc is a waste of the viewer's time, and by the end of A Good Man Goes to War (or at least Let's Kill Hitler) we can pretty much guess exactly how the ending will play out. I blame this story, which is obsessed with its own profundity and narrative importance, more than any other for the failure of this arc. The only thing A Good Man Goes to War does right is the final revelation involving River Song, which wasn't totally unpredictable in hindsight but still got me the first time. The translation on the leaf was admittedly quite awesome.

A Good Man Goes to War also gets the usual Series 6 plaudits that keep it from being as awful as something like Army of Ghosts/Doomsday: the dialogue and production is at least competent, it feels like there's some effort present, and the universe isn't being rewritten to satisfy the showrunner's whims. Murray Gold's score is also particularly good, delivering the import of the proceedings without banging us over the head with them. If only the proceedings were actually important. This is a mess, no doubt about it, one that Moffat seems to recognize and attempts to fix later on in the run. For now, though, this truly is the Eleventh Doctor's darkest hour.


The Moff's Nadir by Jason A. Miller 23/9/20

There's something to be said for storytelling. Good, old-fashioned, storytelling. Good, old-fashioned, point A to point B, storytelling.

You know who "gets" storytelling? Chris Chibnall

[ducks and covers]

Yes, I know I just lost the argument by holding up The Chib as an example of anything positive. But, hear me out. Follow me now. Season 11, Jodie Whittaker's first season as the Doctor, is a demonstration of point A to point B storytelling. Each episode is self-contained, starts with a mystery or emergency and ends with a resolution. Now, not every one of those episodes is been good. Most of the first half of the season was an unmitigated string of clunkers, in fact, only hitting its stride thanks to the back-to-back triumphs of Demons of the Punjab and Kerblam!

So, in the middle of that, it was jarring for me to go back and revisit A Good Man Goes to War. I can appreciate what Moffat was trying to do with the Series 6 "mid-season finale". I just happen to think that he failed on almost every conceivable level.

Good Man is full of individual moments that sing, if you watch them in isolation. Moffat must have felt justifiably proud of each of those moments as he typed them up. Rory tormenting the Cyber Fleet. The Doctor dropping his hood to reveal himself among the Headless Monks. Amy telling her infant daughter about the man who's going to rescue her -- only she's not talking about the Doctor.

However, the whole here is only a fraction as good as the sum of its parts. The episode makes three fatal mistakes, as I see it. One, it gives away River's identity in the opening moments, once you learn that Amy's baby is the near-identically named Melody Pond. I had not sought out any spoilers about this season as it originally aired, but as soon as I saw that that was the baby's name, I had the big reveal guessed within seconds. Moffat holding that reveal back for the episode's cliffhanger meant that my initial reaction was, "Is that all there is?" The reveal was so obvious that I thought, in Moffat's best cerebrum-like-a-spiral-staircase tradition, the true reveal would be that River is not Melody.

The second fatal flaw is River, when declining Rory's request for assistance at Demon's Run, giving him a plot teaser: "This is the Battle of Demon's Run. The Doctor's darkest hour. He'll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further, and I can't be with him till the very end."

Those are lovely words in print. Moffat very likely hit "Enter" after typing that, and said to himself, "Well, those are easy words, but Alex is going to elevate them into something magical." Except that the story lets the words down. We know the Doctor rises higher than ever before -- or so he thinks, based on a false victory he obtains halfway through the episode -- because the script literally tells us that, as Vastra tells the Doctor "You have never risen higher," and then cue Rory's crestfall reaction shot. But.. he doesn't actually fall so much further -- in fact, Moffat years later wrote a separate episode literally called The Doctor Falls, to try and recapture that same vibe. Yes, there is a brief moment towards the end where the Doctor realizes that he's been duped by Madame Kovarian -- but the moment hardly lingers, and then River comes along and makes everything better again by simply explaining the plot to him. So there was no actual fall, let alone a fall "so much further".

The third fatal flaw is something that was inevitable from a storytelling perspective, but is still irksome just the same. Heroes and heroines in sci-fi/action-adventure serials cannot have babies. Plot logic dictates that the baby must rapidly be aged, into a character that can speak and interact (and not flout child-labor laws) in order to fit the narrative. "Angel" played with this notion in its third season, and Moffat does it here. He cruelly snatches Baby Melody away from Amy twice in this episode, and then -- surprise -- 48-year-old Alex Kingston pops up to reveal that she's Baby Melody, all grown up. So Amy and Rory never get to actually raise their child. That's a horrible, horrible thing for a parent, and yet Moffat plays it as a warm-hearted moment of triumph.

Aside from the individually cool bits, and the three episode-killing moments, the rest of the thing is full of frustrating loose ends. Lorna Bucket is given a huge build-up, but then cast aside just so the Doctor can ask "Who was she?" over her corpse. The fat-one and thin-one married couple are also given a huge introduction, then one of them is basically killed via a shocking sight-gag, and the survivor never even learns of his spouse's fate. There's an early montage of blink-and-you-miss-'em returning cameos from earlier episodes that you never cared about (Victory of the Daleks, The Curse of the Black Spot), and we also get Vastra/Jenny and Strax sharing center stage, although, having watched this episode in isolation and out of sequence, I can't remember if this was their debut story or not. River reciting the "Good Man Goes to War" poem over an action-movie montage is, I'm sure, something Moffat believes is the very best thing he's ever written, but the episode had already lost me by that point, so I just didn't care.

And then there's this:

"Doctor. The word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know." -- River

I mean, really? Steven Moffat came up with that gem on a CompuServe forum in 1995. Someone cross-posted it to rec.arts.drwho; you can still find the resulting thread on Usenet archives. (Side note, second comment in that thread after the Moffat repost is 21-year-old me, making a lame joke about the short-lived 1970s US sitcom "Fish".) Moffat said it was a silly idea and he was therefore immensely proud of it. But putting that silly idea on TV is just ludicrous and completely draws attention away from whatever drama is supposed to be contained in that climactic speech. I call that Moff-splaining -- Moffat's habit of throwing in these continuity-breaking asides for no reason, explaining things that never needed explaining.

Point A to Point B storytelling is kind of a lost art these days, with the rise of serialized storytelling, and with the Netflix binge-watch model turning episodes into chapters in a book rather than self-contained stories. Series 6 was about half serial and half stories, but, with the exception of The God Complex, I don't think really either type of episode hit its mark -- and even The God Complex lost ten minutes off its ending to play into the serial concept, by giving us yet another false conclusion to the Amy-and-Rory story. I think the serial episodes, spanning from The Impossible Astronaut through the equally disjointed and irritating The Wedding of River Song, each fail by not really having a central locus. Other TV serials make this work by having each episode, without a self-contained plot of its own, still manage to be engaging (Game of Thrones excelled at this), but Moffat is so busy with sight gags and shocker-jokes ("We're the thin fat gay married Anglican Marines") that he doesn't mask the lack of plot with sizzling dialogue or terrific acting (again, see Game of Thrones).

The Moffat era is over now. It is kind of rewarding to watch some of his episodes after the fact, so that phrases like "a good man" and "silence" have a payoff years later that couldn't have been evident on the original air date. Let's Kill Hitler, an episode that had nothing to do with its title, is much more fun to watch now, as we know that it's River Song's origin story, and it contains a neat visual homage to An Unearthly Child. A Good Man Goes to War, however, has not improved since its original airing, and remains more an illustration of what didn't work about the Moffat era, rather than a celebration of what did.