We didn't really know what to expect from the midseason finale of Doctor Who, but we definitely didn't expect the Last of the Time Lords to turn out to have something crucial in common with the Caped Crusader.
And yet, there it was. Unveiled as a major theme, even. Doctor Who turns out to have a lot in common with the Batman comics and movies. And just like Bruce Wayne, the Doctor is facing some real confounding darkness. Spoilers ahead...
Just like Batman, it turns out the Doctor has created his own adversaries, by fostering his own dark legend. It's been a major theme in the Bat-comics since the 1980s, the idea that the Batman is such an extreme figure, who inspires so much fear, that maniacs like the Joker cannot help springing up in response. The Dark Knight pushed that idea to its limit, showing in no uncertain terms that Batman's success in crushing the mob had created a void that Heath Ledger's Joker had to fill.
And now we're getting much the same idea on Doctor Who. The Doctor's been pursuing the theory that aliens are a superstitious, cowardly lot for quite some time. You could argue it starts in "Forest of the Dead" when he gives the Vashta Nerada a "believe the hype" speech about himself. (Although prior to that, he also sends Martha out to sing his praises worldwide as a sort of motivational speaker, in "Last of the Time Lords.") The boasting ramps up with the Doctor's speech to the Atraxi in "The Eleventh Hour" and his Stonehenge rap in "The Pandorica Opens."
The man who once gave Mickey a disc to erase all references to him from the Internet now wants everybody to know how tough he is. And part of the Doctor's hype campaign also includes being ruthless and overwhelming, now that he's the last remaining Time Lord and he has to lay down the law on his own.
So in "A Good Man Goes to War," Steven Moffat gives us the final culmination of the Doctor's Batmanification. But instead of creating the Joker, the Doctor's terror campaign has given rise to... River Song? Well, maybe.
In a nutshell, the nasty one-eyed Madame Kovarian turns out to have kidnapped Amy a long time ago, before the start of the season. And she's keeping Amy prisoner on the asteroid called "Demons Run," with the help of Col. Manton's small army, and their new allies, the Headless Monks. Their scans reveal that Amy's baby, Melody Pond, will be a kind of quasi Time Lord as a result of being conceived while the TARDIS was in flight. And they want to turn this Time Lady into a weapon against the Doctor.
Why do Madame Kovarian and her friends hate and fear the Doctor so much? We don't learn any details. She alludes to an endless war against the Time Lord, one which the Doctor is apparently unaware of. And Moffat is very careful to build up the legend of the Doctor throughout the first third of the episode, during which the Doctor himself does not appear. We're reminded of some of the Doctor's great deeds. We're told he inspires huge fear. The gay married Anglican marines say they're not being paid to praise him, but then they go onto praise him at great length. The young soldier Lorna Cannonfodder, who met the Doctor once for five minutes, is full of almost religious awe for him and hints that "Doctor" means "great warrior" on her planet. Dorium Maldovar (whom I kept wanting to call Lord Varys) says that if the Doctor is calling in his debts, then God help Madame K. Col. Manton gives a huge speech about how they're not scared of the Doctor, which only reinforces that they are.
(Oh, and I do know the character's name isn't Lorna Cannonfodder — but it's the best name for her, given her role in the story. She practically gives a speech early on about how she's one day away from retirement.)
In any case, the Doctor believes his own hype, or maybe he's just so pissed that Amy's spent her entire pregnancy as a prisoner, piloting a Ganger avatar. He clinches an easy victory over Madame K and Col. Manton, whom he renames Col. Runaway. And then it turns out that the baby, too, is a Ganger avatar, and Madame K has already spirited baby Melody away. And even though the Doctor went around recruiting a ton of old friends to help him, he neglected to enlist the aid of Admiral Akbar — who could have told him that this is a trap. In the resulting carnage, Lorna Cannonfodder and the hilariously wonderful Commander Strax perish.
It's then that River Song arrives, to deliver the moral of the story: the Doctor's name has come to mean "warrior" on Lorna's planet, because that's who the Doctor is now. He inspires fear instead of healing people. And she hints at a pet theory of Moffat's, that we humans get our word for healer/teacher from the Doctor himself, rather than the other way around. The Doctor has brought this on himself, and maybe it's time he stepped aside and let Harvey Dent be the hero instead. I mean, maybe it's time he mended his ways.
And then River drops her bombshell: She is Amy's baby! Because Lorna stitched the words "Melody Pond" on a protective charm in the language of her people, and somehow this got reversed and retranslated as "River Song." Because, as the TARDIS tried to tell us a few weeks back, the only water in the forest is the river.
So what does this mean for River's increasingly confusing chronology?
Madame Vastra, the flesh-eating Victorian Silurian, says that Madame Kovarian will probably take the baby to Earth, to raise her "in the correct environment." And the Doctor says he already knows where the baby is going, and it's too late. And there are flashbacks to the child in "The Impossible Astronaut"/"Day of the Moon," who appeared human but burst out of her spacesuit and later seemed to regenerate. So we're led to believe, very strongly, that River is that child. If that's true, then River spends several years on Earth in the 1960s, being raised by the Silence and their creepy orphanage-keeper. And then she escapes and regenerates.
(Although why doesn't grown-up River recognize the astronaut suit, or any of this other stuff?)
After that? We still don't know for sure if River is the person in the astronaut suit who shoots Future!Doctor in 2011 by the lake. But it seems like a reasonable assumption, based on what we know right now. Madame K. intends to turn River into a weapon. And River says that she killed a good man, with lots of hints that she's referring to the Doctor. (Although maybe she's talking about Rory, given how often you think someone's talking about the Doctor but they're actually referencing Rory, lately.)
As a result, River ends up in the Stormcage, where she begins a quirky, time-crossed romance with the man she's already killed. (And I bet part of her punishment is that she loses some of her Time Lordy-ness.) Although all of this may turn out to be a huge misdirection.
The part that remains mysterious is: Why did Future!Doctor go to so much trouble to send his past self and his three friends back to 1969? How does witnessing River's childhood help avert her murder of the Doctor? If anything, the fact that the Doctor interacted with Young River in 1960s America means he can't go back and interact with her again, without crossing his own timestream. (Which is why he says it's already too late, presumably.) So why would Future!Doctor want to spoil his own chances at fixing things? Did they learn something that will turn out to be pivotal, which we haven't guessed at yet?
And what's the nature of the alliance between Madame K. and the Silence — since it looks as though she hands the baby over to them? Why didn't we see the Silence in this latest episode? So many questions. (Oh, and Den of Geek points to another couple of open questions: What was the injection that River gave Amy back in "Flesh and Stone"? And why were there Omega symbols in Demon's Run? Could Omega, the greatest and worst of the Time Lords, be the secret villain behind the scenes?)
All in all, this was one of the most brilliant hours of Doctor Who, but it also had a couple of huge, glaring weaknesses — in line with a lot of Moffat's writing for the show since he took over as showrunner. There was total hilarious brilliance alongside some lazy storytelling and character development.
First, the brilliance.
There were so many amazing moments in this episode that it's hard to single out all of them, but surely the opening sequence must be one of the coolest things ever to have been shown on Doctor Who. Rory facing down a whole Cyber-army, not even blinking or turning his head when all of their ships blow up behind him, blew my mind. Absolutely stunning, and studly. And then later, he's all sweet and weepy when he brings Amy their snot baby.
I also loved Strax the Sontaran medic, who's one of the all-time great comic creations on Doctor Who — worthy of Robert Holmes, who created the Sontarans in the first place. (Although would the Sontarans bother with nurses? They can always make more soldiers. But maybe it's a question of the logistics of transporting freshly-cloned soldiers to the front lines, versus patching up the ones who are already there.) Strax's boast about his magnificent quantities of lactic fluid, and his promises to crush his enemies on the field of battle, were also quite nice.
The Headless Monks were also a nice subversion of Moffat's usual "you must look at the bad guy or he has power" rule. In the case of the Headless Monks, it is a "level one heresy" to look upon them — which means if you see under their hoods, you die instantly. Except that right after we're told this, everybody gets a free pass to look under their hoods after all. Revealing... baggie twistoffs. I love the villain whom it's death to look upon, except just this once.
And yay for whoever told Moffat to start queering up Doctor Who again, after a dearth of overt queerness last year. We've already had Canton Everett III, and now we get the gay-married Anglican marines and a lesbian Victorian Silurian who's just eaten Jack the Ripper.
Honestly, when Moffat is writing Doctor Who as a comedy, he is unmatched. If Moffat ever decided to stick to writing comedy with bits of creepy horror in the mix, he would be unstoppable.
Now for the two major problems...
First, there's the whole thing of building up Rory at the expense of Amy. This should not be a zero sum game. Really. That's the definition of a dysfunctional relationship, in fact.
Yes, we're thrilled that Rory is getting his Wesley Wyndam-Pryce on. Badass Rory is, as we already observed, totally badass. But this episode exemplified the recent trend towards Amy being reduced to a bystander, victim, or worse.
In particular, the first Amy scene of the episode is so weirdly written, acted and edited, that I had to rewatch it a few times to see if there was some trick involved. Like, maybe something was edited out of it that will be a huge reveal later? One moment Amy is lecturing her child about how great Rory is (although Moffat can't resist making us think she's talking about the Doctor One More Time), and then they take her child out of her hands. And suddenly, the camera pans away and we hear the most unconvincing, obviously-added-in-ADR, hysterical-mother freakout of all time. And then a moment later, we're back to Amy, looking at her child and seeming perfectly calm again.
Given that the cliffhanger at the end of the previous episode was all about Amy and the horror she was experiencing, it's sort of odd that this episode gives Amy almost no subjectivity whatsoever. She has never seemed less like a real person than she does in "A Good Man Goes To War." She gets one or two moments of life, like when she asks Lorna Cannonfodder for her gun, if Lorna's just going to keep talking. And at the end, she seems convincingly upset when her baby turns into snot. I kind of like her pulling a gun on River, too. But in general? I don't believe Amy's character arc in this episode. She feels more like a cipher than ever before, and part of that is that she's sidelined for so much of the episode, and the only choices are to show her freaking out, or show her being stoic. The episode wisely opts for "stoic," except for that weirdly overdubbed mommy freakout that seems like it was added at the last moment.
And the second problem is more major. It must be said, as a piece of drama, this episode... did not work. Moffat even recognizes that it doesn't work, which is why he gives the Lesbian Silurian one of the clunkiest lines of dialogue ever spoken on television: "My friend, you have never risen higher."
You've probably heard the maxim "Show, don't tell." This goes way beyond that. There is showing. There is telling. And then there is having a character insist loudly on something which clearly isn't true.
(And now I wish I could hire Madam Vastra to follow me around saying things like, "My friend, your hair has never looked more awesome." Or, "My friend, your dancing is really quite coordinated and not at all embarrassing.")
Moffat gives Lesbian Silurian this line because he's oversold the episode's arc, with that huge buildup before we first see the Doctor. In particular, he gives Future!River the speech in which she claims that this will be the Doctor's "darkest hour" and he'll rise so much higher and fall so much deeper. That speech was used in all the trailers, for months, and was released as a promo clip. It's a huge claim to make.
And no, the episode doesn't deliver. We're supposed to think the Doctor is being angrier and more ruthless than he's ever been before — even though, as the Guardian points out, David Tennant "got angrier most weeks." Actually, the Guardian puts it incredibly well:
It's as if the prospect of the Doctor getting angry, rounding up a gang and storming in to rescue his mate was considered so much of a pivotal deal that nobody remembered to pack a story. The problem was, he didn't actually go to war at all. It was an ambush at best, and remarkably for an episode with so many kitchen sinks thrown in, not very much seemed to happen... the Doctor never really gets to show this dark side we've been hearing so much about.
Actually, not only did Tennant get angrier most weeks, but Smith was much more convincingly pissed off in the final moments of "The Beast Below." And the Doctor's "darkest hour" does not, all in all, feel that dark.
Moffat sketches out an arc for us: The Doctor gets so angry he makes a pivotal mistake and loses control over this all-important child, who will one day kill him and be his lover. But then the episode never quite manages to tell that story, because it's too busy being wonderfully amusing and showing us what an awesome character Rory is.