I wrote previously about the fact that this year I knew how my reviews were going to be sequenced in the magazine. And that was helpful, cos I was aware my piece on A Good Man Goes to War (which I was confident I was going to enjoy) was to be published in the same issue – DWM #436 – as my rather downbeat remarks about The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. One would hopefully counterbalance the other, plus we would end on a positive note. Which, broadly, I think is how it should be.
In addition, I specifically wrote the reviews to be companion pieces, both opening with a similar gambit. Does that add any value? I dunno. Oh and note, I use a list below. Another attempt to break up the big chunks of text.
Here we go again. Another shock reveal in the dying seconds. Oh boy.
But this time, the Oh boy-ing comes with no caveats, no worries. Just gales of laughter at the best name ever for a Doctor Who story.
Let’s Kill Hitler.
It took a moment to swallow that. The sheer incongruity of coupling ‘Let’s’ – with its convivial, sociable connotations – and ‘Kill Hitler’. That’s before we get to the absolute weirdness of seeing the Führer’s name spelt out in the Doctor Who credits font. One wonders at what point they deleted the exclamation mark from that title, because there surely was one.
Following two weeks of doomy plodding about, A Good Man Goes to War unexpectedly sees our show get its joie de vivre back. Unexpectedly, because it all sounds grim on paper. Amy’s plight remains as harrowing as before, while the Doctor and Rory are getting tooled up to do some serious smiting. But then cut to that opening shot of a big asteroid-y space base – with green lasers and everything – and a huge smile cracks open.
I loved every second of this mid-series sign-off, even though it’s as self-regarding an example of Doctor Who as we’ve ever had, with a lot of the episode concerned by examining how the Doctor is perceived. His legend, if you must.
Now, I’m of the opinion that the Doctor is just a traveller, not some self-appointed do-gooder who arrives with a load of PR to het up the baddies. And I’ve always felt those episodes that do paint him as a something mythic actually diminish him. It’s the kind of thing my Doctor would never buy into – all that stupid bravado.
Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the stuff about the “good man” and the “mighty warrior”, and soldiers being schooled in how to spot psychic paper, plus those warning signs: “REMEMBER! 1) It’s not sonic 2) It’s not a screwdriver”. It’s a weirdly well thought-through universe we’re being presented with. Steven Moffat postulating (within the series’ own daffy terms of reference, of course) what would happen if the Doctor existed and how his mere being would shape everything around him.
Our hero doesn’t even show up for the first 19 minutes of this tale. It made me think of Doctor Who in the 1980s – as so much of this year’s run does – and Eric Saward’s early ideas for a Revelation of the Daleks which didn’t feature the Time Lord at all. He felt, rightly I think, that there was a good story in the notion Davros’ empire would fall simply through whispers our hero was on his way.
A similar notion gets played out in A Good Man where, in his absence, the Doctor is ever-present. We see him refracted through the iconography of the show – specifically the TARDIS, which now becomes an eerie kind of calling card – and through the eyes of his new “old” friends. Chums like Sontaran medic Strax, who’s such good fun, he feels as though he’s leapt from the pages of an Alan Moore comic-strip in Doctor Who Weekly. “I can produce magnificent quantities of lactic fluid!” indeed. Please don’t let him really be dead.
Then there’s the wonderful Silurian sleuth Madame Vastra and her resourceful batwoman, Jenny. These two seem to have crossed over from their own spin-off series, currently airing in some alternate reality. The Law-Enforcing Lady Lesbian Lizard of Olde London Town, perhaps. Or Sapphic and Steel (catchphrase: “We’re going to need the swords!”). Whatever, I’m already a massive fan.
When the Doctor does appear, it’s pleasing there’s no grandstanding. No sermon on Stonehenge. Pulling back the hood to reveal he’s smuggled his way in as a monk, the Time Lord is less avenging angel, and more… well, just jolly. It’s so great to see Doctor Who having fun again.
Most satisfying of all, though, is that the traveller himself is clearly uncomfortable when confronted by his own legend – River Song spelling it out: “Did you ever think you’d become this?” The only myth he wants to propagate is the one about a mad man in a box. That’s it.
Oh, and it has to be said, Matt Smith is magnificent in this story, panting and barely controlled when the Doctor exhibits his rage, but still just keeping a lid on the real histrionics. I think his “Oh look I’m angry” speech is Matt’s finest moment yet, topping even his exemplary work in The Doctor’s Wife.
Blimey, there’s just so much going on in this adventure. The scale of it alone is bewildering, as Doctor Who finally catches up with Star Wars. All those space ships and aliens and huge hangars. Plus robed men brandishing lightning-powered swords. It’s a massive, Death Star-sized achievement for director Peter Hoar and the production team.
Everything, in fact, is turned up to 11. We all expected a big reunion of former friends and foes (Mark Gatiss’ vocal cameo as ‘Danny Boy’ is my favourite spurious inclusion), but it happens in the most unexpected ways. The Cybermen toddle in, are thoroughly slapped around, then toddle off again. Hugh Bonneville pops through a door for a single line, and former bit-parters like the old, fat and blue (his words, I’m not being mean) Dorium Maldavar behave as though we’ve been following their adventures for years. Please don’t let him really be dead either.
By contrast, we never get the reckoning we expect with Madame Kovarian. Most of her best scenes are played through monitor screens, meaning she’s a rather static and remote presence. But there’s enough here to whet our appetite for an ensuing encounter in the autumn – which is surely what we’re rocketing towards. Frances Barber, responding to her costume, is fabulously chewy, playing this eye-patch lady as a 1980s über-bitch. In fact, the Madame, as we’ve probably all spotted, is actually Blake’s 7’s Servalan cross-dressing as Blake’s 7’s Travis. We’ll be terribly disappointed if there isn’t some serious power-snogging upon her return.
Hmm. I feel a list coming on, because there’s just too much ground to cover. In no particular order, then…
Ten other ace things about A Good Man Goes to War
- Amy immediately re-established as a protagonist, having being painted as a victim in last week’s cliffhanger.
- “We’re the thin/fat gay married Anglican marines.”
- Lorna Bucket – the companion who wasn’t. She’s even got a companion’s name.
- The pathos of the Doctor not actually remembering her.
- The shocking vindictiveness of the “Colonel Runaway” business.
- The Doctor being forced to speculate about Amy and Rory’s love life.
- “How did you find him?”/“Stringy.”
- The horror of Melody Pond turning into gloop.
- The grandiose assertion we get the word “Doctor” from the man himself.
- River Song reading poetry over an epic battle. So much fun.
It’s this abundance of – well – good stuff that ensures, unlike its predecessor, this is a story that isn’t going to be overshadowed by the magnitude of its revelations.
So, what of the truth about River Song? As in every Moffat script, part of the fun comes in reverse-engineering the way he’s built to this point. Amy Pond naming her daughter ‘Melody’, Lorna presenting her with an embroidered prayer leaf, the cot on board the TARDIS… Pleasingly, we twig it a couple of seconds before mum and dad do, and it’s a lovely, neat and definitive resolution, but one that doesn’t conclude the character’s story. We’re still waiting for closure on that whole business about River killing “the best man I’ve ever known”, as she told us in last year’s Flesh and Stone, remember?
But, that’s it for now. Finito TARDIS, as the first half of this year’s run concludes. I wish it wasn’t stopping, to be honest, because it’s only now the show really feels like it’s back up to the kind of speed it achieved in the opening two-parter. Writing about that story, not so long ago, I mused that it felt “definitively, isomorphically Moffat”. In doing so, I think I stumbled upon the curse of Doctor Who. This year the show just hasn’t felt quite like Doctor Who when it’s been scripted by someone other than Steven. Since Day of the Moon we’ve had Stephen Thompson, Neil Gaiman and Matthew Graham writing, and the results have been variable. Why? The series has a new voice now, which is brilliant but idiosyncratic. Doctor Who has always been feared as the most difficult TV show to write. Perhaps it’s now an impossible one – unless you’re the man inside the Impossible Astronaut’s suit.
But at least we’ve ended with a lot of oomph. The Doctor all excitable, heading off to find Baby Pond and get even with Madame Kovarian. That kind of momentum should see the show come screaming back onto our screens when the nights draw in. Very exciting. And how will it all begin? Oh yes.
Let’s Killer Hitler!