Before this split season began, showrunner Steven Moffat promised that the first half would end with a “game-changing” cliffhanger—and, for me at least, “A Good Man Goes to War” delivers on that promise, even though it’s not so much a cliffhanger as a turning point. Rather than some artificial bit of jeopardy interrupting the story, the episode ends with one particular skirmish in what looks to be a much longer battle resolved, while the final revelation means that the relationships between our four central characters—the Doctor (Matt Smith), Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill), and the enigmatic River Song (Alex Kingston) can never be the same again.
I’ve seen some grumbling on various internet forums about the major twist being too easily guessed—indeed, for some viewers, just the sight of the name “Melody Pond” on the crib holding Amy’s newborn daughter was enough to give away the ending. However, Doctor Who, more than any other sci-fi show I can think of (except perhaps a sci-fi/sitcom hybrid like Red Dwarf) is meant for the general audience, rather than fans who will spend months obsessing over every possible scenario and probing every line of dialogue for hidden clues. In the case of this episode, I certainly endeavoured to stay as spoiler-free as possible and not try to work out where it was going in advance—and ended up finding the revelation of River Song’s true identity very satisfying.
After the recap of last week’s cliffhanger, with the Doctor dissolving the Flesh avatar of Amy in the TARDIS even as the real Amy was going into labor, we cut to the asteroid base of Demon’s Run, controlled by the sinister Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber)—the woman glimpsed briefly in previous episodes, where she was credited only as “Eye Patch Lady.” It’s a few weeks later, and Kovarian has arrived to take Amy’s baby away for some nefarious reason of her own. Karen Gillan’s performance in this scene—in fact, throughout the whole episode—is impeccable. She has been given a much wider range of material to perform this year compared to last season, and has certainly been equal to it. In this episode she perfectly captures the love of a mother for her new baby. I could have done without the fake-out in her opening speech, which tries to make the audience think, for a few seconds, that the Doctor is Melody’s father—but that’s a problem with the writing rather than the performance; the script is being too cute, trying (as with “Day of the Moon”) to revisit the Doctor/Amy/Rory triangle which has long since been resolved.
The first third of the episode establishes an epic scale as it skips through a whole series of places and times, gathering up the allies the Doctor has selected to help him on Demon’s Run, as well as introducing his antagonists on the asteroid. He is kept off screen for this whole section, but is constantly referred to, and we get a vivid indication of just how famous he is, and how many favors he can call in, after all his years of traveling around the universe. As one of those selected tells Kovarian: “If that man is finally collecting on his debts, God help you. And God help his debtors…”
The way all these characters are introduced in their own settings, one after the other, is reminiscent of “The Stolen Earth” back in the Russell T Davies era. But whereas that story was bringing together the Doctor’s past companions and friends that we were very familiar with, almost all the characters here have never been seen before. Moffat uses a variety of tactics to efficiently make a connection to them for the audience. For example, Rory’s initial information gathering that provides him with Amy’s location takes place on a Cybermen spaceship—the famous monsters immediately providing a ’hook’ for the scene. It also gives Rory a big action-hero moment to lead into the opening titles, as the Last Centurion single-handedly infiltrates the ship using the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, and confronts the Cybermen with a message from the Doctor, “and a question from me: where - is - my - wife?” The Cybermen demand to know the Doctor’s message—and his level of anger at what has happened to Amy is demonstrated as all the other Cyber-ships in the fleet explode. (“Would you like me to repeat the question?”)
On Demon’s Run we find a force of the soldier clerics introduced in last year’s “The Time of Angels”, preparing to defend the asteroid against the great warrior—the Doctor—they are expecting to attack them at any moment. One of them, the rather oddly named Lorna Bucket (Christina Chong), who’s from somewhere called the Gamma Forests, finds herself bonding with Amy over the fact that they both had a brief encounter with the Doctor when they were children. Lorna joined the clerics in the hope of meeting him again, and she gives Amy a “prayer leaf”—a piece of cloth into which she has stitched Melody’s name in the language of her people.
Also on Demon’s Run are the Headless Monks, this story’s macabre Moffat creation in the tradition of the Nodes or the skeletons in spacesuits from “Silence in the Library.” They were also mentioned in “The Time of Angels,” in a throwaway reference by the Doctor. When we finally see them here, they certainly live up to their name: when one of them has its hood lowered, only a crudely tied-off, bloody neck stump is visible. As Colonel Manton (Danny Sapani), the leader of the clerics, observes: “These guys never can be persuaded… they never can be afraid.” I can’t pretend to find them among the most fearsome of Doctor Who monsters—a headless body shuffling towards you is always going to look rather ridiculous—but they definitely are memorably bizarre.
Moffat’s inventiveness continues as we jump to London 1888, where a Victorian lady investigator returns home in her carriage (with a lovely in-joke for Thunderbirds fans in passing: “Thank you Parker, I won’t be needing you again tonight”), having solved the mystery of Jack the Ripper. Inside, she is revealed to be a Silurian, Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), as her maid Jenny (Catrin Stewart) shows her the police box which has appeared in the drawing room—the signal that an old debt is about to be repaid. These two are so vividly drawn and played that they almost deserve their own spinoff series (“How did you find him?” “Stringy, but tasty all the same. I shan’t be needing dinner”). And I have to compliment Moffat’s cunning in later sneaking in the tongue joke that suggests they’re a lot closer than mistress and maid—an innuendo that will sail straight over the heads of the child audience while providing amusement for the adults.
Even funnier, though, is Commander Strax (Dan Starkey), the Sontaran nurse who gets picked up from “The Battle of Zaruthstra, 4037 A.D.” The Sontarans have always worked best in Doctor Who when their pompous militarism is exaggerated for comic effect, but the idea of the Doctor forcing one of them to act as a nurse as a penance (for what reason, we don’t know) is just brilliant. Just about every line he has in the episode is hilarious (“Captain Harcourt, I hope someday to meet you in the glory of battle, where I shall crush the life from your worthless human form. Try and get some rest”). But more seriously, both Strax and Vastra provide examples of the Doctor changing belligerent creatures for the better—Vastra later fills us in on her backstory, of how she was part of a Silurian colony that was destroyed by Underground tunnel diggers, and how the Doctor saved her from a pointless attempt at revenging herself upon them. The fact that both of these have been previously established as clone races enables the same actors that played them before to be brought back, cleverly providing the necessary connection for the audience (and also, no doubt, saving on the prosthetics budget).
Finally, there’s Dorium Maldovar, the hefty blue-skinned merchant who was seen briefly last year in “The Pandorica Opens.” He is well acquainted with the Headless Monks, and also with the Doctor; he warns Madame Kovarian of what is coming for her, and of the old saying that lies behind the name of her base (“Demons run, when a good man goes to war”). Simon Fisher-Becker does a great job as this dodgy dealer whose sniggering at Kovarian turns to shock when he hears the TARDIS arriving to collect him (“I’m old! I’m fat! I’m blue! You can’t need me!”).
There’s only one person invited to join the Doctor who refuses the call. River Song is confronted by Rory as she is happily returning to her Stormcage cell after a birthday outing with the Doctor in 1814. To his baffled anger, she says she can’t go with him:
River: “This is the Battle of Demon’s Run. The Doctor’s darkest hour—he’ll rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further. And I can’t be with him, until the very end.”
Rory: “Why not?”
River: “Because this is it. This is the day he finds out who I am.”
Despite this episode being absolutely pivotal for River, she has only two scenes in it—this one, and the final scene—and Alex Kingston hits both of them out of the park. Watched again with knowledge of the true relationship between River and Rory, this scene shows a touching vulnerability in the normally super-confident River, unable to stop herself from gushing to her father about her birthday party like a little girl. In the same way, additional resonance is now given to the scene between them near the end of “The Impossible Astronaut” when River confided in Rory her fears about how a day would come when the Doctor’s knowledge of her would have dwindled to nothing.
The epic scale of this episode is not only provided by the wide-ranging cast of characters, but also by the production design, which seems to be deliberately going for a Star Wars feel—the giant hangar where most of the action on the asteroid takes place is reminiscent of the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, and the Headless Monks with their lightsaber-like swords and ability to throw bolts of lightning also recall the work of George Lucas. However, bearing in mind the relative budgets of a British TV series and a Hollywood movie, it’s not surprising that when the Doctor finally makes his appearance—at 19 minutes into the episode, possibly a record—the Battle of Demon’s Run quickly becomes a psychological one.
As Colonel Manton is giving his big speech about the Headless Monks to the clerics, the Doctor reveals himself, throwing off his disguise as one of the Monks. The lights go out (thanks to Vastra and Jenny), the Doctor runs off, and a couple of spooked clerics start taking pot-shots at the Monks. When the Monks retaliate, it looks for a moment like the whole enemy force will fall apart, but Manton slowly restores order by deliberately disarming his weapon and inducing his troops to do the same. Whereupon the Doctor’s real plan is revealed, as Silurians and Judoon teleport in and surround the now helpless clerics. The battle is won with barely a shot fired, apart from an unexpected contribution from the space-going Spitfires from “Victory of the Daleks” (again, a budget-conscious recycling of last year’s CGI).
Manton is ordered to tell his troops to withdraw, but the Doctor wants something more humiliating. Manton is to order his people to run away—in those exact words, so that he will become laughed at as ’Colonel Runaway’ for ever more. Matt Smith is excellent at showing how the Doctor’s unusual vindictiveness surprises even himself:
The Doctor: “Look, I’m angry. That’s new. I’m really not sure what’s going to happen now.”
Meanwhile, Madame Kovarian has been captured by Rory—with the help of Captain Avery and his son from “The Curse of the Black Spot” in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo—as she tries to take the baby with her off the asteroid. She is brought face to face with the Doctor, in a contest of willpower.
Kovarian: “The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules.”
The Doctor: “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”
Kovarian seems to give in, almost to the Doctor’s surprise, and orders Manton to obey the order. However, earlier she had been overheard by Lorna boasting (in that way that evil villains so often do) that “the Doctor must think he’s winning, right until the trap closes,” so it’s left nicely unclear exactly who really has the upper hand at the moment. Unfortunately, there’s a hole in the storytelling here, as Kovarian reappears later having somehow gotten away from Demon’s Run. We have to assume that the Doctor let her go without questioning her about her plot (which seems unlikely), or else she managed to escape her captors without us seeing it; either way, it’s an odd slip-up in the writing or direction.
A high point of the episode is the reunion of Amy and Rory, as Rory brings Melody back to her. Not only is it a moment of happiness for the characters, but the scene is beautifully acted by both Gillan and Darvill. Then the Doctor gets into the act, as he joins them to exchange banter and—to their astonishment—interpret the gurglings of little Melody (“I speak Baby”). After all the preceding tension and darkness, a playful scene like this (“It’s all right, she’s still all yours—and really you should call her Mummy, not Big Milk Thing”) is a wonderful moment of relaxation. It’s only brought to an end when Vastra excitedly rushes in to tell the Doctor the clerics are leaving peacefully, and they have won without a fight. “My friend, you have never risen higher,” she says—causing Rory to recall River’s ominous words. The Doctor goes off to investigate the station’s records after bringing out from the TARDIS a very old cot for Melody—“It’s mine…my cot. I slept in there.”
Now the story starts moving forward again, as Vastra and Dorium discover why Kovarian wanted the baby in the first place. To the Doctor’s amazement, the station’s scans of Melody indicate that her human DNA has partially become that of a Time Lord. In a hilariously awkward discussion, Vastra prods him into the realization that the baby was conceived on Amy and Rory’s wedding night, when the TARDIS was in flight—hence her enhanced physiology, even being able to regenerate (as we saw earlier in the season—by now it’s obvious that Melody and the girl in the spacesuit in the opening story are one and the same). There’s an even more important consideration, however:
The Doctor: “Why even do it? Even if you could get your hands on a brand new Time Lord, what for?”
Vastra: “A weapon?”
The Doctor: “Why would a Time Lord be a weapon?”
Vastra: “Well, they’ve seen you!”
Another excellent piece of acting from Matt Smith, as the Doctor is brought up sharply against the idea that he has raised this enemy up against himself without knowing it, simply by being who he is. Kovarian interrupts his musing, and tells him that the child is “hope. Hope in this endless, bitter war…against you, Doctor.” She gloats that she has fooled him twice with the same trick, sending him running back to where his allies (joined by Lorna) are under attack from the Headless Monks.
Although this battle is very small-scale compared to the earlier one, it sustains the episode’s epic scope thanks to the choice of director Peter Hoar to depict it in montage form, with surging music and an evocative voiceover from River Song. There are casualties: the cowardly Dorium foolishly tries to talk to the Monks, and is beheaded for his pains, and both Lorna and Strax are fatally wounded (“I’ve often dreamed of dying in combat…I’m not enjoying it as much as I’d hoped”). But the most horrific moment of the episode—a brilliant twist, that certainly took me by surprise—comes as Melody is revealed to be a Flesh avatar, and dissolves into a puddle of goo in Amy’s arms. The completeness of the Doctor’s defeat is driven home as Amy flinches away from him as he tries to approach her.
The tragedy of Lorna is completed as she dies after finally getting to see the Doctor again as she always wanted—while he can only pretend to remember her, since it seems he hasn’t even been to the Gamma Forests yet. It’s arguable whether the Doctor has yet fallen as low as River’s prophecy earlier would suggest, but the despair is palpable as he realizes it’s too late now to stop Kovarian’s plan. Certainly, when River picks this moment to finally make her appearance, the Doctor vents his frustrated fury at her (“Where the hell have you been? Every time you’ve asked I have been there. Where the hell were you today?”). In response, River calmly sets out the central thought behind the episode, in a long speech which Alex Kingston delivers perfectly:
The Doctor: “You think I wanted this? I didn’t do this… this wasn’t me!”
River: “This was exactly you. All this, all of it. You make them so afraid… When you began all those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever this you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. ’Doctor’—the word 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? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word ’doctor’ means mighty warrior. How far you’ve come… And now they’ve taken a child, the child of your best friends. And they’re going to turn her into a weapon, just to bring you down. And all this, my love, in fear of you.”
It’s amusing to note that the concept of the word ’Doctor’ being spread through the universe by our hero’s actions is a long-held idea of Moffat, dating back to a post to Usenet he made in 1995! As for the idea that the Doctor has become simply too famous for his own (or anyone else’s) good, that’s a thoroughly logical development, given the way the Doctor has been built up into a god-like figure over the course of the last six years. As Lorna said earlier: “He meets a lot of people. Some of them… remember.” It makes a lot of sense that some powerful entity or race would try to find a way to pre-emptively take him down, out of self-defence. The whole multi-layered plot over the last year-and-a-half, with the Silence, the exploding TARDIS, and now the kidnapping of proto-Time Lord Melody Pond, has seemingly been constructed for that purpose. I’m very pleased that Moffat has taken this approach—I certainly enjoyed the whole “Oncoming Storm/Lonely God” period of Doctor Who overseen by Russell T Davies, but it’s not sustainable in the long run, and returning the Doctor to relative obscurity will allow other types of stories to be told in the future.
For the moment, an angry Doctor is left facing River Song, and he finally demands to know who she is, in a tone of voice that will brook no further obfuscation. This final, crucial moment is beautifully directed and acted, as River gently points his hand inside the cot and says, “Can’t you read?” Because the actual revelation is held back from the audience as long as possible, it’s up to Murray Gold’s gorgeous music to chart the way the Doctor’s anger melts into delighted wonder. Almost giddy, he rushes off in the TARDIS, emphatically promising Amy and Rory that he will find Melody. In a marvellous directorial touch, the shot of Amy and Rory watching the TARDIS leaving is the same composition as that at the end of “The Eleventh Hour”, when the Doctor accidentally left Amy waiting for another two years before she saw him again.
But now, Amy is not willing to just wait. She certainly speaks for the audience at this point when she picks up a gun, aims it at River and demands answers. River simply hands her Lorna’s prayer leaf, containing her child’s name in the language of the Gamma Forests, and tells her to wait until the TARDIS translation matrix kicks in. In the Forests, they don’t have a word for Pond—the final piece clicks into place as Idris’s mysterious words from “The Doctor’s Wife” reveal their meaning: “The only water in the forest is the river.”
River: “It’s me… I’m Melody. I’m your daughter.”
As always with the first episode of a two-part story, a full verdict is not really possible until the whole story is available—in this case, not until September, when the hilariously-titled “Let’s Kill Hitler” will kick off the second half of the season. I would have preferred a little more forward motion on some of the many questions still outstanding—for instance, we still need to find out how the Silence fit into the scheme of things (and what the “Silence will fall” phrase actually means). How are they related to Kovarian’s plans? Also, given that the Doctor doesn’t seem to think of himself as a “good man” at the moment, is River’s “good man” she is in prison for killing her own father, particularly since she seems to be there by her own choice? Will Amy and Rory end up getting their daughter back, or is River Song’s early life as Melody Pond already fixed in time and immutable? I’m already looking forward to finding out.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: The recently released “Planet of the Spiders,” starring Jon Pertwee and Elisabeth Sladen. Like this episode, it’s a story where the Doctor’s past actions come back to haunt him in unexpected ways, and leads to a fundamental turning point in the series…
Steven Cooper is a software developer and long-time Doctor Who fan, living in Melbourne, Australia.