Monday, 28 July 2014
A Good Man Goes To War written by Steven Moffatt and directed by Peter Boar
This story in a nutshell: It's all in the title…
Nutty Professor: What has happened to the Doctor? I don’t know if it is the result of television shows like Buffy, Alias and Heroes but when the show hit our screens again after a prolonged absence there seemed to be a constant need to assert that the Doctor was the greatest hero of all time. I remember bemoaning in several reviews that Russell T. Davies (who like Moffat is an absolute gem of a writer at his best) had diverted from the story for a complete Doctor love-in – the ‘I’m the Doctor and I’m going to save everybody on the Titanic!’ in Voyage of the Damned was one butt clenching example and Victorian London applauding him whilst he cruised over the City in a hot air balloon in The Next Doctor was another. That was why the end of The Waters of Mars was so effective, it was almost a reaction to all this praise that even the Doctor thought that time and space could bend to his design. It felt like a natural reaction to all that hero worship. When Moffat came along I thought maybe all that would change and the Doctor could go back to being his old self; a clever, witty wonderful hero who showed us how wonderful he was through his actions without having the script have to point to us and say how fantastic he was every five minutes. In many ways it has gotten even worse. The scene atop the Pandorica where he starts screaming at an entire menagerie of enemies really gets my teeth grinding because since when has he become such a man to be feared that a fleet of warships would be afraid to take on? If I was in one of those ships I would have listened to him railing for a couple of seconds, gotten bored and blown him to smithereens with my most powerful weapon, just like the Daleks did with Solomon in Evolution of the Daleks. Series six has taken the bold step to frame the entire season with a running arc concerning the Doctor’s death. Cue more hero worship and adoration and with A Good Man Comes To War it reaches its absolute zenith – suddenly the whole universe and his dog not only knows knows who the Doctor but suddenly (and for no readily explained reason) they are all scared of him. This is not my kind of hero at all… Joe Ford would like to add that there are so many things about Christopher Eccleston’s, David Tennant’s and Matt Smith’s characterisation of the Doctor that he does like but this is one large aspect that really gets his goat. Look at that, I'm so miffed I'm even talking about myself in the third person like the Blue Box Boy. Apparently 30 seconds of the Doctor are all that ever happened to the Gamma Forests. Really? Nowhere can be that irrelevant that 30 seconds of a man in tweed running is the most exciting thing that ever occurred (mind you, I do live in Eastbourne). It's just more nonsensical idolization of the Doctor. When has the Doctor ever needed to raise an army to get himself out of a thorny situation (UNIT doesn’t count as it was rather thrust upon him and he never enjoyed the military approach)? This is the man who twirled his way through an army of Cybermen to bring the Nemesis statue to life. The man who prevented the whole universe from being wiped out by the Master. Surely he can waltz into Demons Run, nab Amy and Melody and get out again without needing to calling in all manner of dodgy old debts. The very idea of the Doctor calling in debts means that he expects the people he saves to owe him something and that opens up even bigger can of worms. I remember a time when a good deed was its own reward. They say that an image can conjure a thousand words…well the image of the Doctor silhouetted over Dorian in a threatening manner is just about the nadir of A Good Man Goes To War's perversion to the Doctor. He's such a scrawny runt anyway...there was no way this was going to come off. Come on guys this just isn’t the Doctor Who I know and love. I don’t want his arrival to be an ominous threat… A Dark Legend? Zzzzzz… At least Moffat comments on what the Doctor has become, River asking him that when he went sailing off into the universe all those years ago if he ever thought he would become this. But it feels like he has characterized him that way just so she can criticize him like everybody else does these days. There are few moments littered about that compensate however. I did love the Doctor admitting that he was angry and that was a new feeling and he didn’t know what would happen as a result. His unrestrained anger at River turning up to the party late also felt very right. But nothing can top his hilarious, naughty (the awesome kissy kissy noises) and absolutely joyful reaction finding out who River really is. Smith gives me goosebumps in that scene as the Doctor is privileged to know who she is a few minutes before we are let in on the secret. I'm in a bit of a quandary with the characterisation of the eleventh Doctor - I reprimand Moffat when he turns him into the dark avenger (I'm not sure if Smith has the acting chops to pull it off either, he doesn't do anger especially convincingly) but I also disapprove when he goes the other way and turns him into Willy Wonka (The Doctor, the Widow & the Wardrobe). The trouble with Moffat's approach is that there is no subtlety in either. A little of either approach would be fine but he takes them both to such extremes.
Scots Tart: Amy is the only person who seems to realise that the Doctor isn’t famous. Good on her. This is the first time we get to spend with ‘our Amy’ this year and it appears she hasn’t lost any of the fire in her belly, asking to borrow Lorna’s gun so she can shoot herself if she keeps talking. To give Amy the hope of having her baby back and then to snatch that away at the last minute is just about the cruellest thing Moffat could have done and this is an emotional highpoint for the character. I have never empathised with her more.
Loyal Roman: I literally have tuck my head between my legs to prevent myself from screaming with frustration at the truly, truly dreadful sequence with Rory dressed up as a Roman and confronting the Cybermen. Firstly Rory isn’t some kind of action hero, that has been well established and giving him lines that would make Sylvester Stallone blush makes him look more ineffective than ever. Sticking him in that Roman costume really makes it look as if he is some kind of Marvel superhero. Apparently it was the Doctor’s idea and Rory knows he looks ridiculous…so why wear it? It's just to provide a moment for the pre-titles sequence...and not a very good one at that. This scene also completely belittles the Cybermen (why should A Good Man Goes To War be any different, that started around Revenge of the Cybermen?) and makes a complete embarrassment out of them. For the sake of spectacle Moffat has made Rory look like an absolute spack. Nice one.
The best moment in this entire episode (the cliffhanger aside) is when the Doctor, Rory and Amy are reunited. All the tricks and effects and smart lines are dropped and it is moment of genuine emotion that makes me well up every time I watch it. Rory trying to look cool but crying as he brings back his baby to his wife and ordering the Doctor into the room to enjoy the moment with them is just lovely. This is the kind of characterisation that Davies imbued every script under his reign with but nowadays we only get scant glimpses of.
The Missus: I wonder how far in advance Alex Kingston gets to read the scripts because it appears that her whole performance as River has adjusted in the episode where we discover Amy and Rory are her parents. Listen to how she says ‘hello Rory…’ with whispered excitement, she has never treated him with that kind of reverence before.
Sparkling Dialogue: SPOILERS...
‘I’m Melody. I’m your daughter.’
The Good: With its functional design, dirty, steaming ambience and focus on all things military there is a real Battlestar Galactica feel to the early scenes. Madame Vestra is quite an exciting new character, a Silurian hunter patrolling the streets of Victorian London. There is much about her history with the Doctor that we don’t know and I would welcome a story that reveals how they first met. I'd fancy that she teamed up with Jago & Litefoot on the odd occasion. A Sontaran nurse is another intriguing idea and a very funny one at that. Strax turns out to be the most likeable Sontaran we have ever met and it is a shame that he is dispatched because he could have made an amusing recurring character. Little did I know at the time that this would lead to the complete annihilation of the Sontaran image but that does take away from the fact that the character works here. There is a shot of the TARDIS being showered by mud in the battle of Zaruthstra that needs to be turned into a poster – it’s a bold, glorious image. Madam Kovarian has a great look and Frances Barber seems to relish the chance to play a leather clad villainess. It’s a shame her character came to nothing by the end of the season but she makes for a pretty memorable baddie in this episode. The Monks attacking at the climax with their sizzling electric swords (and some great music by Murray Gold) is the most exciting part of the episode. The Melody avatar turning to milky goo and Amy’s hysterical reaction is so well done it puts the rest of the episode to shame – there is something so primal in all of us about the horror of losing a child and pulling that trick off with this kind of grotesque imagery ensures it is a really disturbing sequence.
The Bad: There are a number of editing problems in an episode this choppy but the most obvious example in in the first scene, it doesn't quite know where to end. ‘We’re the thin fat gay married Anglican Marines…why would we need names as well?’ – have I become an old grump in my old age because I didn't find this line amusing in the slightest. I don’t understand why they establish the Thin One and the Fat One as a gay couple only to murder the latter and for it to have no emotional consequences (the former doesn’t even find out). In a script as packed as this it is just sensationalist time wasting. Pleasing the masses (my mum loved it, however). How does River know this is the day the Doctor finds out who she is? Why on Earth don’t those soldiers just shoot the Doctor when they have the chance? It makes his victory at Demons Run seem even more inconsequential because they are all so bloody stupid. Snapping the lights off and causing the Monks and the soldiers to turn on each might have seemed like a good idea in theory but surely that would lead needless deaths? Surely the Doctor would never settle for a needlessly bloodthirsty solution. Besides these scenes are directed without much care, lacking tension and featuring the universes most hysterical General screaming his head off the episode descends into a frenzied farce for a few minutes. Vestra’s lesbian maidservant is a bizarre prospect. What is up with Jenny's cod accent? What the hell – Danny Boy from Victory of the Daleks and Captain Avery from The Curse of the Black Spot? I thought that kid couldn’t leave the ship or he would die? Moffat has absolutely lost the plot! Why would you take upon yourself to remind the audience of two of your biggest failures? If Amy’s flesh avatar was pretty much our normal Amy in all senses and she experienced everything the avatar did what was the point of it other than to provide a good cliffhanger? You can’t knock us for six with the brave revelation that the Amy with have been travelling with so far in series six isn’t our Amy and then follow that up by saying actually she was Amy. Its packaging something as a shock that isn’t a shock, pretending to be brave storytelling when actually you haven’t the balls to see it through. Having your cake and eating it. I still don’t see the point of building up Lorna Bucket as some proto companion character, she really isn’t very interesting and her death scene fails to provoke a response because they push too hard for it to mean something. With the human plus Time Lord DNA were they really trying to convince us that this was a union between the Doctor and Amy? Even for just a few moments it is remarkably unsavoury idea. Doctor Who is aiming at the wrong audience to pull off a good beheading henceforth Dorium’s death shies away from being bloody and the direction shies away from what is going on (it really isn't very clear what is happening).
‘This is the battle of Demons Run. The Doctor’s darkest hour. He’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further…’ You really can’t go around using that kind of dialogue you know. For one thing it clearly isn’t the Doctor’s darkest hour – he’s faced far trickier situations than this. ‘Everybody lives!’ the Doctor exclaimed in The Doctor Dances so we know that managing to walk away from a situation with everybody intact isn’t a one off so how precisely does he ‘rise higher than ever before’? And losing one baby is hardly the greatest of crimes when he has clearly been hoodwinked. It's just superficial tension building bilge that promises far more than it can deliver.
Result: A noisy, empty, expensive spectacular, A Good Man Goes To War is the TV equivalent of a Doctor Who movie and proves to be as fast paced and shallow as I would expect a big screen bonanza to be. Or at least it did until Moffat pulled off The Day of the Doctor which managed to outclass this effort by managing to put equal weight on plot and characterisation and balancing the complexities of both. In comparison A Good Man Goes to War is all sound and fury, signifying not a great deal. A few moments of choking emotion aside the content of this episode is mostly spectacle and bluster, an average piece of storytelling pretending to be something more epic by constantly telling us that it is. Like The Almost People, this is the second episode in a row that has been lacking but ends on a cliffhanging high that leaves you with the illusion that it is much better than it really is. In that respect Moffat is the ultimate magician. It is reasonably good telly, sensational and glossy but it's not the sort of Doctor Who that I want to be watching for all the reasons stated above. My score is mostly for the terrific production values, some quirky new characters and that phenomenal final scene which ranks up there as one of the best revelatory moments the show has ever given us. But then what do I know, my mum loved it: 5/10