Saturday, June 04, 2011

A Good Man Goes To War: Induction, Then Destruction, Who Wants To Die?

'This is the battle of Demon's Run. The Doctor's darkest hour. He will rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further. And I can't be with him till the very end.' 'Why not?' 'Because this is it. This is the day he finds out who I am.' Amy Pond has been kidnapped and The Doctor is are raising an army to rescue her as the BBC's popular long-running family SF drama continues. But as he and Rory The Centurion race across galaxies, calling in long-held debts and solemnly giving out promises, his enemies are laying a carefully prepared trap. In her cell in the Stormcage facility, River Song sadly acknowledges that the time has come, at last – today will mark the Battle of Demon's Run and The Doctor's darkest hour. Both sides will make their sacrifices and River must finally reveal her most closely-guarded secret to The Doctor. 'He is not The Devil. He is not God. He is not a Goblin, or a Phantom, or a Trickster. The Doctor is a living, breathing man. And as I look around this room I know one thing. We're sure as Hell going to fix that!'
On one level - an important one - A Good Man Goes To War is just what you'd expect from a Doctor Who (sort of) series finale in the Twenty First Century; a huge, ballistic, bombastic, overblown spectacular. A big, broad, massive and hard fuck-off space opera of gargantuan proportions. Loud, shouty and tool-stiffeningly violent. A conceit which throws everything (including the kitchen sink and all its plumbing) into the mix; Jack the Ripper and Thunderbirds allusions, Victorian lesbian Silurians, Welsh Sontaran nurses with lactating capabilities, Cybermen, Judoon, rough-tough pirates, a breathtakingly non-PC Stevie Wonder joke, River Song, the 'thin-and-fat-married-Anglican-gay-marines'. The sodding works, in other words. A Good Man Goes To War is an effective summation not just of where Steven Moffat has taken Doctor Who, but where Russell Davies took it before him. To the skies and beyond. To the edge. To places never even dreamed of in the old days where conceits of the kind that this episode deals in would have been considered not just too outré, too ambitious and too expensive but also, probably, too much. Because, even in a show about the bewilderingly massive possibilities of 'going everywhere and doing anything', there have always been limits.

Now, here's a funny thing. In the last week three of my work colleagues - and, I mean three guys whose opinions on many subjects I actually have a bit of respect for - have suggested that Doctor Who has 'jumped the shark.' Or whatever other crass, ball-achingly banal Internet buzzword they've picked up from Christ-knows-where on the off-chance that it makes them sound cool. They're wrong, of course. As wrong as a wrong thing with big-fat-wrong-knobs on it. And they've been told this in no uncertain terms. But, it's not so much them being wrong in their wrongness that needs to be slapped down, hard, with righteous anger and furious vengeance. Anyone's allowed to 'talk crap' every now and then. I do it myself, not infrequently. You might've noticed, dear blog reader. What I find most troubling - most distressing, frankly - about the apparent campaign of whispers which has been out in force over the last few weeks (notably in a few uppity knobcheese scum tabloids) of which these comments are merely a manifestation, is the outrageous idea that an ambitious bit of scripting can to be criticised for being 'too complicated.' Something which dares to be told in a way that isn't suited to the diarrhoea-for-brains 'attention-span-of-seven-seconds' television which is so beloved by those for whom The X-Factor and its scummy ilk is the pinnacle of Saturday night entertainment. That trying to be different is worthy of being spat-upon. That flair is dead, style is dead, enigma is dead, the crushed bones buried beneath an avalanche of the ordinary. Of the 'undemanding.' No. This is not acceptable. Not whilst I've got the breath in my body to call such rank and unpleasant glakery what it, truly, is. Nonsense.
'I have a message and a question ... Where is my wife? Would you like me to repeat the question?' A Good Man Goes To War is a story taking in aspects of faith and sacrifice. It is about surprise and anger. And surprise at the potential for anger. It's all about The Girl, of course, as the majority of this series has been if you knew what you were looking for. Melody Williams is a geography teacher's name, notes Amy. Melody Pond is a superhero. Well, as we discover, that's broadly speaking, true. Except that is not the name she'll be known by when she acquires superheroineness. 'The only water in the forest is the River.' Now it makes sense.

'On this day, in this place, the Doctor will fall.' Big words. Big words for a big occasions. Particularly coming from an army which is, sooner rather than later, defeated by little more than smoke and mirrors and other big words. Simple but chillingly effective words. 'I want children laughing outside your house because they've found Colonel Runaway!' 'Not even an army can get in the way,' is said early in the episode and, to be honest, there was never really any doubt that they would be able to. If The Daleks can't take down The Doctor then what chance to mere big silly men with big silly guns have? Colonel Manton's declaration that 'The Doctor is trying to make fools of us,' needs little in the way of contextualisation. Yeah. He's The Doctor. He does that.
As Dorium Maldovar tells Madam Kovarian: 'If that man is finally collecting on his debts then God help you. And God help his debtors.'

An interesting aspect of A Good Man Goes To War are some ideas which were first pushed in last series two-part Weeping Angels storyline, that of the Christian Space Marines and their uncomfortable marriage of faith and slaughter. Like the Knight's Templar with spaceships, basically. This goes beyond initial 'Shit! It's The Clergy!' stereotypes and moves, rapidly in some deep ethical questions about how others actually perceive The Doctor and his actions in a rapidly changing universe. As The Pandorica Opens postulated, to those whom he crosses The Doctor can seem a terrible, merciless ogre who can, quite simply, drop out of the sky and tear down your world. In that context, lines of dialogue like 'anger is always the shortest distance to a mistake' and 'good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many,' take on an entirely new meaning.
Inevitably, there's carnage aplenty in the episode. And there is much sorrow and regret too. 'They're always brave,' might just be one of my favourite Doctor Who lines ever. Just three words. Three words that kind of sum up nearly fifty years of death and destruction on the show.

'I am armed and really dangerous and ... cross!' A Good Man Goes To War is also a dialogue-lover's dream. 'Do not interact with The Headless Monks without divine permission!' And: 'A crying Roman with a baby. Definitely cool!' And: 'Really, you should call her mummy not ... "Big-Milk-Thing!"' And: 'Oh, dear God! That's the attack prayer!' And: 'You can't just cook yourself a Time Lord.' And: 'Rory, no offence to the others but, you let them all die first, okay?' To which he relies by telling his wife: 'You are so Scottish!'
And, then there's The Doctor's summation of when the baby 'began' for the benefit of a highly suspicious (not to say curious) Madame Vastra. Hilarious and yet deeply moving and otherworldy, the series ambitions in microcosm: 'How would I know? That's all human and private stuff, it just sort of goes on, they don't put up a balloon or anything.' Could the conception have taken place in the TARDIS itself, she asks? 'No, no, it's all running about. Sexy-fish-vampires and blowing up stuff. And Rory wasn't even there at the beginning. And then he was dead. And then he didn't exist. Then he was plastic and I had to reboot the whole universe. Long story. So, technically, the first time they were together on the TARDIS in this reality was on their Wed ... Oh!' There's also the beautiful reversal of Rory's frequent 'I'm a nurse' declarations to the dying Commander Strax. And, of course: 'Amy, it's not his fault.'

Is there anything you're not telling us? Amy asks The Doctor. The opening scenes, thankfully, settles the question of the identity of the child's father once and for all. (Rory, of course, as if it could have been anyone else. Amy's 'your father is the last of his kind' allusion to the baby early on gives way to her proud retelling of the story of The Last Centurion. From a character composed entirely of comic relief in a Wesley Wyndam-Pryce-style to a mythical superhero in just twelve episodes - nice going, Rory Williams!) 'Why would a Time Lord be a weapon?' The Doctor asks. 'Well, they've seen you,' replies Vastra. There are scenes of regret, particularly the one in which tragic uber-fan Lorna Bucket is killed ('I remember everyone!') And then, the first of two major (by which we mean Brigadier-General) revelations. That The Doctor has been fooled for a second time using, essentially, exactly the same trick - a flesh avatar of the child. That's brilliant, properly out of left-field.
'Only you would ignore the instincts of a mother.' Too late, The Doctor begins to realise what he has become. 'Hope, in this endless bitter war.' 'War? Against who?' 'Against you, Doctor!' Something which River's sudden arrival at the climax helps to clarify, quantify and, ultimately, explain.
'Where the Hell have you been? Every time you've asked, I have been there, where were you today?' asks the Doctor when River steps from the shadows. River says that she couldn't have prevented what occurred. 'You could have tried,' spits The Doctor, properly incandescent with rage. 'And so, my love, could you,' she replies. 'You think I wanted this?' shouts The Doctor, gesticulating at the carnage around him. 'I didn't do this, this wasn't me.' But, one suspects, he knows what River's reply will be even before she says it. 'This was exactly you. All of it. You make them so afraid. When you began all those years ago sailing off to see the universe did you ever think you'd become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. "Doctor," the name for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know? But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean?'

'Who are you?' asks The Doctor and River tells him. It's, actually, not - quite - the huge revelation that some might've been expecting. Indeed, if you've been watching the episodes this series closely, particularly Day of the Moon, you might've guessed it already. I'm not really sure it's quite the 'game-changer' that Steven Moffat claimed it would be earlier in the year either. It's certainly a very clever and effectively played little plot device and it sets up the second half of the series - which will kicked off with an episode called, brilliantly, Let's Kill Hitler in about twelve weeks time, or so - nicely. It leaves The Doctor with a mission to complete. 'River, get them home.'
Has Doctor Who lost the plot and become 'too complicated' and 'boring'? 'No, it's not. It's cool.' Never a truer word. 'Jumped the shark,' my effing knob. Is it nearly September yet?

Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day comes now. And, it is somewhat inevitable. Say it again!


Dave Forbes said...

Agree totally. When did 'too clever' ever become an acceptable criticism?

And the inability to follow a complex plot is usually projected onto some vaguely defined 'other': 'Its okay for us fans' say the complainers, 'but what about the 'casual viewer'? What about the 'not-we'? Won't someobody think of the children?!?'

As if the rest of the viewing public were somehow a homogenous mass rather than a larger and far more diverse group of people than fandom itself, with a vast range of likes and dislikes, competences and incompetences.

DaveG said...

I've just got all excited again over Saturday night's show...

Davies did fun finales but Moffat makes them fun and clever AND the plot is actually self-consistent and doesn't rely on Davies' deus-ex-machinas.

Moffat/Smith/Gillan - best combo yet in my eyes

David Thiel said...

For me, it's not some "vaguely defined other," but rather my wife, who, for the first time, volunteered to sit down with me this season to watch "Doctor Who." She's no newbie: she saw enough of the original "Who" to dislike it, and enough of the new show to admit that it was a lot more fun. She knows Time Lords and TARDISes and "bigger on the inside."

But "The Impossible Astronaut" was NOT the time for a casual viewer to start watching. It just wasn't. I've had to explain three years of backstory about River Song and the Silence and the Time Cracks and Rory the Roman to a grown woman who most definitely does not have "diarrhea for brains."

"Jumped the shark?" Of course not. This is "Doctor Who." Change is what it's all about. Eventually we'll get a showrunner who tones down the timey-wimey and attempts once again to tell a coherent story.

jimf said...

Yes, the problem is not that the plot is too complex, and certainly not that the story is too deep or intelligent -- the problem is overreliance on continuity that requires viewers to know three years of backstory. 80s Who was vilified by some for including small amounts of continuity, including writers like Mark Gatiss who are now part of the new Who. This is far worse than that.