“Doctor Who” Review: “A Good Man Goes to War”

Last night’s “Doctor Who” concluded the first half of the show’s sixth series (post-reboot), and it’s time to look at those episodes as a whole. The short conclusion? Too clever by half, but at times quite thrilling despite the ways in which Moffat and Company seem to delight in preventing either its characters or audience from properly orientating itself.

That’s sort of built into the DNA of the show, so it seems a bit unfair to complain about it now. But the reveal last week that “our” Amy Pond was in fact Flesh was both a mindfrak and a bit of a disappointment. I can roll with The Doctor rebooting the universe by flying the Pandorica into an exploding TARDIS – that’s the sort of “spacey wacey” stuff that “Doctor Who” pulls all the time to extricate itself from narrative corners. But to have learned we’ve spent a season (and possibly more) with the “wrong” Amy? That goes beyond the sci-fi into the root of what makes this show so lasting: its characters.

Amy Pond divides the “Who” fan base, to be sure. I’m hardly a “Who” expert, so far be it for me to properly rank her amongst the show’s all-time Companions. (Then again, any such list is subjective anyways, so why bother?) But I like her all the same, and have especially liked the way that she and Rory have been portrayed since the latter turned into The Last Centurion. That 2000 year wait turned the former nurse into one badass, romantic (in the classic sense) hero and an equal partner in the marriage. Could that formely timid man have stared down a legion of Cybermen? Doubtful. So it was for this pair, not The Doctor, that I despaired upon learning their past months had been a lie.

a-good-man-goes-to-war-2.jpgSo much of this season has been focused puzzling on something that we’ve seen (the Astronaut killing The Doctor in the season opener) that we couldn’t possibly think about what we HAVEN’T seen (namely, the moment in which the real Amy was switched out for Flesh Amy). And while that provides a great reveal, it kind of rankles upon further reflection. Yes, the Flesh Amy was for all intents and purposes “our” Amy, so it wasn’t like the “Who” version of a BuffyBot. But nevertheless, since several stories in this first half of Series 6 focused on characters other than Amy, it feels as if the show was biding time to make this mid-season reveal. Occasionally pointing to a sonogram vacillating between her status as pregnant and non-pregnant isn’t continuity so much as checking off a box on a weekly basis.

Maybe if the two-part, ganger-centric story had been stronger, these concerns would melt away. But just as stories involving shapeshifters tend to irk me, these ganger stories irritate as well. If there’s no way to tell the difference between a human and a ganger, then there’s no confidence on anyone’s part about whom we are watching. For an episode or two, such tension is fine. But over the course of a season? Blimey. I assume we’re done with the ganger/Flesh stories for now, with Kovarian have played The Doctor a second time via the Melody Pond switcheroo. But if the back half of Series 6 turns into another set of episodes that use gangers as decoys or gotchas (either in-show or meta-narratively), then I’ll probably turn down my emotional investment in the characters as a result. I’m fine with singular people acting in strange ways. But I need those people to be truly singular for me to truly delve into their stories.

In terms of singular individuals, we now know the true nature of River Song (aka, Melody Pond). From the moment I saw the birth record at the outset of the hour, I should have put the pieces together. Sadly, the trip through space and time while The Doctor recruited his army put it out of sight, out of mind before I could solve this particular puzzle. But that’s all fine: the show had a good reason for her not showing up until well after the Battle of Demon’s Run, in that she couldn’t very well prevent her own kidnapping without ripping a hole in the space-time continuum. For a minute, I thought for sure the show was going to reveal she was his mother: not because it made a lick of sense, but because they staged the reveal over The Doctor’s baby crib. But before I could properly throw up, the show swooped in and clarified her true nature. Still a bit “ew,” but far better than the alterative.

524px-the-doctor-with-river.jpgNow, today’s study question: does this reveal make a lick of sense based on what we’ve seen before? Other than her touching scene with Rory in her futuristic prison at the outset of the hour (which truly plays like someone who hasn’t seen her father in ages), how do past scenes play? Looking back at the America-centric two-parter that kicked off this series, it seems clear that The Doctor (two hundred years in the future from the current one) wanted the whole family there to witness his death. That much makes sense. He wasn’t bringing his closest friends together: The Doctor was reuniting a family that he helped create. In a sense, they are HIS family, as well.

But do any previous River Song episodes indicate that she realizes she’s going on occasional adventures with her parents? Given that so much of her time on the show has been spent interacting with The Doctor, it’s never been clear that she’s had much in the way of a connection with the other two. Then again, I will overtly confess that everything involving River’s timeline in conjunction with The Doctor’s gives me a nosebleed that would make Daniel Faraday cringe. So it’s possible there are little snippets here and there that could make potential sense upon a rewatch. But given her death in the first appearance in the show (Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead), it’s also incredibly likely that her character’s place in the canon was retconned once Moffat took over the show.

That all said, certain plot points certainly make much more sense now. As part Time Lord, River’s skills driving the TARDIS seem about right. And more importantly, Amy Pond’s centrality in the Moffat Era becomes clear once you realize she’s the vessel through which the Doomsday to The Doctor’s Superman will be brought to bear. We’ve just hit the halfway point of Series 6, although it’s fair to say that we’ve really hit the three-quarter’s mark on Series 5. We’re in the midst of a two-year story that details a long con by which forces we’re only starting to identify have used The Doctor’s natural curiosity against him. “The girl who didn’t make sense. How could I resist?” he asked her younger self, moments before being obliterated from existence in last series’ finale. What’s terrifying about this new threat is, like The Master, it’s just as clever as he is without the moral rules keeping said genius in check.

As Alan Sepinwall pointed out in his review of the episode, having The Doctor called out on his violent past isn’t exactly new territory for the show. But it’s still a clever switch to point out how etymology and symbology can change over time. “Doctor” doesn’t just mean healer anymore: it also means “great warrior,” and while he manages to win The Battle of Demon’s Run without any bloodshed, he still ends up losing quite a few friends in the trap that ensues. He inspires people to fight for him, but he inspires as many to fight against him as well. To once again invoke Superman here: there are plenty of tales in comics in which humans grow to resent and fear those more powerful than them, and take it upon themselves to “cure” the world of these superhuman figures. Kavorian as Lex Luthor? Why not?

Ostensibly, the second half of the season will delve into the ramifications of this latest accusation against The Doctor. We know he’ll find Melody, in that, well, there’s River, some years later! We’ll dovetail back to that moment on the beach in Utah, where it seems like young River kills The Doctor. (Even though the “great man” she’s in prison for killing is more likely Rory at this point. But don’t worry: he’s already died like eighteen times on this show already. He can take it.) And we’ll hopefully learn the connect between the cracks, the silence, and the Flesh in a more concrete way, especially related to the ultimate Big Bad behind it all.

In short: I’m anxious for the show to return later this summer. But more than that, I’m anxious to have these characters return to me, fully intact. If the first half of the year was about planting the seeds of distrust, then the second half needs about rebuilding the bonds not just between the makeshift family aboard the TARDIS, but the bonds between the show and its audience one again.

What did you think of “A Good Man Goes to War,” and this series to date as a whole? Sound off below!

2 Comments

  1. Posted June 13, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Two things:

    1. Amy was switched out with her Ganger sometime during/after they visited 1969 America.

    2. Her specific Ganger had some sort of physic (for lack of a better word) link with her actual body, so in that sense, this gagner who we spent so much time with *was* Amy, just in a different body.

    I agree that opening the door to “anybody could be a Ganger” is problematic in a narrative sense, but I’m not sure what happened in this instance constitutes a break in characterization. (Plus, I just found Rory’s stare-down with the Cybermen to be totally bad ass.)

  2. W Daniel
    Posted September 27, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I seriously believe that Amy was switched for flesh upon her first encounter with the Silence in the washroom - The alien did say that she was Amy Pond (he would know) - and it was shortly afterwards that she saw Kavorian peek “in” and say that she was just dreaming … timing seems to be right.

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