Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A Good Man Goes To War

"Good men don't need rules."

This is a challenging review to write for me because I have some deeply conflicted opinions on A Good Man Goes To War. It used to be a solid 9/10 and in my top 20 episodes, but now it’s fallen somewhat in my regard and there’s several things I both love and can’t stand about it. Often at the same time. 

I’ll start positive and say that - while I think the split series format brought its issues – as the climax of the first half of Series 6 it’s a runaway success. On the surface, a roaring and spectacular story, with all the scale and emotional intensity one might expect of a proper finale. On an arc level, it’s representative of some of the biggest game changers: The reveal of River Song’s identity, and The Doctor’s realisation of the monster the universe is beginning to recognise him as. And it managed to integrate both into the context of series 6; capitalising well on the running themes of the Pond’s faith in the Doctor and their relationship as his companions, and tapping into the vein of abstract and psychological horror of losing a child (again with visions to continue in 6b). This story had a lot relying on it and, while I now think it lacks heart, I don’t think it fails catastrophically on any meaningful fronts.

Calling in old debts, revelling in the hero-worship, power, and fear his name carries, and blowing up fleets to make a point; largely unseen, Eleven feels more like a villain wrapping his tentacles around the Silence for the first half of the story. And when he does show up, he’s childishly pretending to be an airplane then viciously tears down Colonel Run-Away. Madame Kovarian gets off her evil gloating, but only once she’s far away. She’s visibly terrified of Eleven and it’s not hard to see why. I have mixed feelings about The Doctor’s portrayal here. On the one hand, it does feel like a natural progression from the growing mythos which grew in (and plagued) Ten’s era, and Eleven’s increasingly manipulating and arrogant character – especially in the face of his best friend’s kidnap. But on the other hand… It’s done with all the subtlety of an anvil. Both his behaviour and River's speech decrying it feel forced and scripted to extents they start to lose their sense of reality and effect.

With that said, even if it’s lacking nuance, Eleven’s behaviour here does prompt the viewer to ask questions about how much of his childish whimsy is an act for the people around him. And River’s harsh words calling him out for the terror he inspires initiates his gradual withdrawal we see in 6b and 7a. The more reflective and self-aware side to Eleven is probably my favourite, so I appreciate what this episode does in order to set that up.

While I also appreciate the arcs this episode sets up for Amy and Rory – their waning faith (and in Rory’s case seeming disdain at times) in The Doctor and regrowth as a family starts here with the warped and horrific loss of Melody – I find the unwavering faith they show in him in this episode a bit confusing. Even in 6a, team TARDIS has been keeping secrets from one another and there’s been an atmosphere of mistrust and I don’t buy how easily Rory buys into The Doctor’s sword-waving plans, or how adamant Amy is that The Doctor is coming to save her. It’s a small niggle and I do like the way their faith is explored in the episode, but it feels like their character’s arcs were temporarily reset in order to make the reveals and dynamic changes more impactful and I kind of think of that as cheating.

"Please tell us something, this is our baby!" Amy and Rory desperately plead.
"I slept in a cot." The Doctor helpfully replies.
There are some very interesting character dynamics brought up in A Good Man Goes To War, but where it goes wrong is choosing to squander them. Four years later and we still don’t have much insight into why Madame Kovarian contrives this intricate and bloody nasty plot to kill The Doctor. It is frustrating to see the arguable centrepiece of the Silence arc headed by an ultimately throwaway villain, particularly given what ample opportunity there was to flesh Kovarian’s motivations even as late as Time Of The Doctor. Now you can argue that her function is that of a mouthpiece of the universe than a true character – and I’d agree – but I don’t think that’s the best way to have gone about things in the long run, and I still think it damages the strength of the episode.

The characters are also squandered by the medium of classic Moffat trolling and general annoying quirks. We have an annoying pre-titles sequence where he tries to troll us into thinking Amy’s baby is The Doctor for no reason. We have annoying “fat-thin gay Anglican marines” padding out the run time for no reason. While they get fleshed out later, Strax and Vastra being introduced as “old friends” makes it difficult to care about either of them. What even are those ridiculous Headless Monks and where do they fit in with the church we see in other stories? There’s so many new elements pencilled in here and not only does it fail to cohere in this story, it also damages the near non-existent wider setting of the Moffat-era Whoniverse.

Madame Vastra has, to be fair, gone on to be one of my faves.
"Good evening. I'm a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife."

This episode is also full of mirrors. Rory and Strax: The nurse who became a warrior, and the warrior who became a nurse. Amy and Lorna, the girls who waited. But as interesting and obviously intentional as this is, I can’t for the life of me figure out what the point of it is. Again, this is an issue of being an episode stuffed with new content: We don’t get to explore some potentially interesting parallels as much as we should. 

The nearest the episode gets is that, by inviting such parallels, we can read deeper into the meaning of The Doctor commenting “They’re always brave.” Upon Lorna’s death: Hinting at his companion’s bravery of facing not raising their child and the realisation that he’s bringing harm to them.

I’m sorry this has been a very confused and jumbled meta/review but I think it frankly speaks a lot as to what a confused and jumbled story the episode is. It’s hard to focus on elements which work and which don’t because the episode itself lacks focus, which in itself is a fairly big problem. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a good episode, but I can’t really get it to work for me any more.