Review by Mark Bousquet
“A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR” – Series 6, Episode 7, Story 218a – Written by Steven Moffat; Directed by Peter Hoar – The Eleventh Doctor and Rory raise a … well, it’s not an army as much as it is a collection of costumes, but together they all go storm Demon’s Run in order to save Amy and her baby. And they do. Sort of. And then River shows up and finally tells us her real identity, and it turns out we would have all known this a long time ago except for a silly translation error. Because River Song Is Gamma Forest For Arpeggio Ocean.
A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR is a pretty good Russell T Davies episode of DOCTOR WHO. Of course, Davies didn’t write A GOOD MAN, but Steven Moffat has proven he’s learned the lessons of his predecessor and delivered a solid episode keyed by two emotional high points that far over come whatever weaknesses lie in the rest of the episode.
Because this is the Steven Moffat version of a Russell T Davies story, most of the running and shouting is replaced by standing around and giving dramatic speeches.
An episode like A GOOD MAN is the hardest kind of episode to write in serialized television because it promises a Big Answer. Unlike the fabulously brilliant PANDORICA OPENS/BIG BANG two-parter that ended Series 5, A GOOD MAN isn’t just offering up an ending, but an answer to question or questions that fandom has been speculating on for a good long while.
They’re hard episodes to write because people have become committed to their own ideas or fallen in love with someone else’s theory (or fallen in hate or fear with a particular possible resolution) and so a lot of people want to be proven right or want to have their fears proven wrong. Inevitably, Big Answer episodes will hinge on that revelation. Take the LOST finale, which had the double-barreled hurdle of needing both be The End as well as provide the Big Answer. Whatever the episode did or didn’t do, a lot of people were rightly angry at the show for giving us Religion as the Big Answer and weren’t particularly inclined to give the story some slack based on the joy of that episode’s narrative structure or acting.
Here, we’ve got the River Song Big Answer. Or, rather, we’ve got a River Song Big Answer because there are still some others out there lying around. Since Moffat first introduced River back in the Tenth Doctor adventure, SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY/FOREST OF THE DEAD, the question of who she is has been the topic of speculation.
Well, now we know. River Song is actually Melody Pond, the daughter of Amy and Rory Williams, and blessed or enhanced with Time Lord DNA.
It works perfectly fine for me and I give Moffat credit for seeing this idea through, when it would have been easier (or more like him) to come up with some left field swerve. He was trying to bait you to walk down that path with the introduction of Lorna Bucket. Director Peter Hoar’s camera kept finding her before she became important, and she made a gift for Amy and Melody in the form of a prayer hanky (or whatever she called it, which was definitely not “prayer hanky”) that she embroidered Melody’s name on. Lorna is from the Gamma Forest, where she met the Doctor as a child, and then she joined the clerics to meet him again, even if the clerics are fighting the Doctor. Lorna gives Amy this prayer leaf which will eventually reveal River’s identity.
See, because Amy named her baby, “Melody Pond” and, as we learned in THE DOCTOR’S WIFE, the “only water in the forest is the river,” which means the Gamma Foresters don’t have a word for “Pond,” so that word gets translated as “River” by the TARDIS’ translation matrix. Apparently, “Melody” gets translated as “Song” because “the only music in the forest is a song” and it’s “River Song” instead of “Song River” because “the only naming convention in the forest is last name first.”
We clear on that? Good. Moving on …
Whether I liked the revelation or not (and again, I’m cool with it), Moffat deploys it beautifully in the episode. At the start of the episode we have a really fantastic sequence where the Doctor is showing up in the TARDIS to call in favors in order to build his “army” to rescue Amy and her baby. Rory shows up at Stormgate to collect River, but she refuses to go.
“Why?” Rory asks.
“Because today is the day the Doctor finds out who I really am.”
Now that’s a set-up. The episode then happens (we’ll get to part of it in a minute) and when River reappears it’s when the Doctor is allegedly at his “lowest.” There’s a whole bit about how “the Doctor will climb higher than ever and then fall blah blah blah.” It’s silly and not needed and comes off like a musical act playing the same song twice. (Paul Simon apparently used to do that with “You Can Call Me Al.” It’s sad. Write some more upbeat songs and you won’t have to play that one twice.) The second time around with the song (or whole “here’s what that mysterious line means” bit), you’re like, “Yeah. Hooray? Anyone else want me to get them a Coke?”
The Doctor is furious with River when she shows up: people are dead and Amy’s baby has been revealed as being a Flesh Baby (great, more Eye Patch Lady to come …) and, even worse, Amy doesn’t want the Doctor to hug her because … because the episode needed a momentary blip of heightened emotion, I guess. Anyway, River shows up doing her River thing, but it’s muted and accusatory this time around.
She tells the Doctor how he’s become this feared man throughout the galaxy who can “turn around an army with the mention of his name” and that who knows what he’ll become if he keeps going as he’s been going. I have a couple things on this.
The first is that Moffat drags up the whole Russell T Davies bit about the Doctor being super dangerous and being a weapon. Moffat’s been using his own version of this since SILENCE/FOREST when he tells the Vashta Nerada to “look me up” in all of the books in the library. I like that we’ve got this enemy of the Doctor building an army to stop him and I like that we know so little about them but when you start playing the Doctor As Weapon and Doctor’s Friends Are Dying Because Of This Cards, then you get dangerously close to Davies’ maudlin melodrama. (Murray Gold even brings back some of Ten’s music to get this point across, I believe.)
The Doctor gets cross with her and asks River to reveal her identity to him. River tells him, “I am” and puts his hand onto his baby crib that he’s brought out of the TARDIS to give to Amy and Rory for Melody. It’s a really, really well done scene between Matt Smith and Alex Kingston and Kingston really gets across River’s pain and fear and then happiness at finally having this secret revealed. She never says, “I’m Melody” to the Doctor because she doesn’t have to. The news confuses the Doctor as he tries to reconcile his relationship with River in the context of her being Amy’s baby, but then inspires him to go after Baby Melody.
River is then left to spell her identity out plainly to Amy and Rory and Kingston plays that revelation so wonderfully, with just the right hint of girlish nervousness despite her being older than Amy and Rory, that I really believed she was their daughter.
Now, lots of questions get raised with this whole revelation and I don’t want to delve too deeply into them now (the continuity stuff makes my head hurt at 3:30 in the morning), but the big one that seems to have gone begging to be asked in A GOOD MAN is this – if the Eye Patch Lady and the clerics stole Melody away to turn her into a weapon to stop the Doctor, why does everyone act like that threat is somehow neutralized? Their goal is to stop the Doctor and when River arrives in this very episode she tells the Doctor he’s got to stop walking the path he’s on or “who knows what you’ll become.” Seems like she’s still their weapon.
The other big emotional scene is the reunion of Amy, Rory, and Melody, and Amy does another one of her teary speeches about how much she loves Rory. Not that I want her to stop telling Rory she loves him, but it always comes off as her reaffirming for us that she loves Rory and not the Doctor. The story keeps trying to raise the Amy/Doctor romance when it brings up Melody’s Human + Time Lord DNA. Let it go.
(And, yeah, I’m totally not going to get into the whole DNA debate/speculation tonight. Melody’s got Human + Time Lord DNA. Which explains the little girl regenerating in DAY OF THE MOON. Works for me. Anything else on this point you’ll have to discuss on your own in the comments. I’m tired.)
The opening sequence is the second best part of the episode (after the River revelation), and it sees the Doctor and Rory infiltrating the Cybermen’s Cyber Fleet. The sequence is intercut with the Eye Patch Lady taking Melody away from Amy, and Amy telling Melody about Rory, and it ends with Rory the Roman walking onto the command center of the head Cybership and announcing, “I’ve got a statement and a question. The statement is from the Doctor and the question is from me: Where is my wife?” Rory then walks across the room to stand in front of a window to outer space, telling the Cybermen that he knows they listen to everything that happens in this section of the galaxy.
“What is the Doctor’s message?” the Cyber Leader asks, and then outside the window we see the entire Cyber fleet blow up.
Rory to Cyber Leader: “Would you like me to repeat the question?”
A great, great scene and certainly one of Arthur Darvill’s best moments. He has a really endearing ability to speak tough and show vulnerability all at once.
The problem with this opening scene is that it makes the Doctor’s army seem a bit weak by comparison. I’d have loved to see the Doctor have to compromise his own beliefs and convince the Cybermen to fight for him against the clerics instead of the Doctor going around and grabbing a bunch of people we haven’t ever seen before. There’s a Silurian female living in 19th century London and a Sontaran male forced to serve as a nurse and it really does come off as, “Hey, we’ve got a Silurian and Sontaran costume ready to be used!” instead of needing these people specifically. Captain Avery the Pirate from CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT and “Danny Boy” from VICTORY OF THE DALEKS show up for a brief scene, but I would rather have seen these characters and Canton Edward Delaware III get the parts the Silurian, Sontaran, and fat, blue guy get here.
That said, the Silurian and Sontaran are interesting characters, especially the Silurian and her serving girl assistant. I definitely want to see more of them.
All told, A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR is a pretty good episode, though one heavy with speeches and declarations. Everybody, it seems, gets to make a speech, and most of them are about the Doctor’s bad-ass-ness. A GOOD MAN isn’t a particularly clever episode (we are certainly seeing the difference in Moffat’s writing as showrunner as he employs a more roller coasterish, emotion-driven approach) but it does offer a satisfying conclusion to the “Who is River Song?” question, and that goes a long way to leaving us on a high note as we wait for the rest of Series 6 to start up this fall.
Originally Published June 5, 2011