...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Day 3807: DOCTOR WHO: A Good Man Goes to Star Wars


Yay, fifty minutes of quality Doctor Woo, a season finale with historical dressings up and the threat of decapitation (eek!).

Yes, we're VERY happy that they are going to re-animate the missing episodes of "The Reign of Terror".

Meanwhile, in the Reign of Moffat… the Sith monks, with their cowled robes and red laser-swords, have allied themselves to the stormtroopers to prepare their ultimate weapon, but a small band of rebels have landed on the artificial moon that is their secret base… Hang on, isn't that "Star Wars"?

Meanwhile, River Snog finally reveals ("spoilers!") her handle's "water music".


Here's Daddy Richard with a review of "A Good Man Goes to War"…

The thing about "Star Wars" is that it gets to magnificent by by-passing all areas of rational thought. The imagery, the iconography, is so powerful and just so "right", that it makes you feel the story even if it makes no actual sense. The use of archetypes was so good that it made it look like Joseph Campbell was on to something, thus spawning an entire industry of dire attempts to trudge through "the hero's journey". Of course, the truth is the other way around. "The hero's story" is rubbish, but dress it up in a thousand jackboots coming to attention on the Death Star docking bay and it seems like the stuff the universe is made of.

In this sense, "A Good Man Goes to War" is far more like "Star Wars" than the superficial similarities of stormtroopers versus rebels. Though a thousand Clerics coming to attention on the Demon's Run docking bay was rather cool.

Essentially, this is a very simple story. Only two things really happen: the Doctor captures the evil villains' base; the evil villains pull a "fooled you" on him.

The first twenty minutes is a series of sketches to set this up: in fact it is almost Doctor Who written as sketch show. With a huge cast of characters to introduce – and often kill off – it reduced almost all of them to a quick checklist of traits. Or, as the Master might have said: you're ticking all the demographic boxes. Moffat even hangs a lantern on it with: "We're the thin, fat, gay, married, Anglican marines. Why would we need names as well?"

Well why indeed when you can be a Victorian lesbian Silurian, or a lactating Sontaran. Or a brave but on-the-wrong-side colonel or a good-hearted but naïve soldier-girl. Or a great big dominatrix villain lady.

But look, let's be fair, this was miles better in its use of either Silurians or Sontarans than any new series episode has been so far. Of course, Moffat's just taking our expectations of those species and turning it on its head… and then having them act as though he hasn't, the essence of farce, hence most of Strax's lines being really funny. Kudos as well to Neve McIntosh and Dan Starkey for making the most of the characters as written, but my point is that Moffat's writing of these – and all the other – one-shot characters is so good that they feel rounded and three-dee even though we're given almost no time to get to know them. And by introducing "old friends" who we – the audience – have never met before, he does the old Robert Holmes trick of setting this story into a much larger narrative (off).

(And I've got to drop this in somewhere: the Battle of Zaruthstra in 4037… it's close enough to 4000 A.D. that I want to believe that the humans' enemies are the Master Plan-era Daleks.)

As with Lucas' epic, Moffat uses familiar archetypes (or in Doctor Who terms familiar monsters, though the shorthand for character is the same) to give us a quick handle on who these characters are. And being as it's television in the twenty-first century now, he also plays mash-up: so we get the Silurian who is also a Victorian detective. Or the Arthur Daley entrepreneur who's also a computer hacker who's also a blue alien. Or the Sontaran warrior who is also a Rory analogue.

And the "gang of misfits" itself is an archetype (or movie cliché if you prefer) owing to the Magnificent Seven or Kurosawa's Seven Samurai – and of course "Star Wars" owes a bigger debt to Kurosawa for his "Hidden Fortress" than it does to Joseph Campbell.

There was an actual "seven": Rory, the Last Centurion; Madam Vastra, the Silurian Lesbian Victorian; Jenny, her companion; Commander Strax, the Sontaran Nurse; Dorium Maldovar, old fat and blue; and the Doctor. That's six. River Song herself was supposed to be number seven, but she wouldn't come. But Lorna Bucket then takes her place. Oh, and Captain Avery. Bother. And "Danny Boy" and his spitfires… I'll come in again…

The use of visual effects is actually quite sparing – in fact, a lot of the episode appears very economical, particularly for something that does "epic", most of it being filmed in, basically, one big aircraft hanger, and a couple of redressed sets, and the Cybermen still haven't had their promised redesign (Cybus logo removal aside) – but the effects are used in a very George Lucas way: to establish the locations. Think how many scenes in Star Wars open with a sweeping panorama of Tatooine or Bespin or Kamino or Coruscant. Now remember how scenes open in "A Good Man Goes to War". So when you cut to the sets, you're already in that "head space" of Victorian London or Maldavorium or villains' asteroid base.

(The only time they don't do that, is the reveal of the Cyberfleet in the pre-credits mini-adventure. But that's because the Cyberfleet itself – confirming that those were Invasion-style Cyber warships in "The Pandorica Opens" – is the money shot there, cheekily tossed away behind the action.)

All of which is to say that this was a glorious way to spend fifty minutes of telly-watching.

But was there anything beyond the visual and visceral thrills?

Well, unlike "Star Wars", and rather more like "Return of the Jedi" – the brave bit in the middle before we get to the teddy bears – this was interested in questioning whether our hero was actually being heroic.

As has happened before, Doctor Who suffers from "prophecy fatigue". Think "this is the day I died" (she doesn't) or "the most faithful companion will die" (she doesn't). This time we get "the Doctor has never risen higher, and he will fall so much further".

Well, if you take that at the diagetic level… of course the Doctor's risen higher: he's seen off armies before, toppled dictators,conquered planets. Hell, in his seventh incarnation he took down gods; beating up the Clerics is no biggie.

If the galaxy had been at war, if the Church had been at war with everyone, and the Doctor's actions at Demon's Run had ended that… morale shattered by being ordered to run away, defeated by just seven, the Church armies across the galaxy surrender and for the first time in who knows how long there is peace… yes, that would have qualified as "never risen higher".

But just capturing an asteroid. What happened to fighting on the front line at the fall of Arcadia?

However, to go all metatextual for a moment, as a statement about how Doctor Who the television series is doing… this series has never risen higher. Moffat has consolidated Russell's triumph, and Doctor Who now commands a respect within the BBC and a worldwide audience that it really hasn't ever done before.

And here is an episode that has the chutzpah to revel in that and then the courage to pull the rug out and ask: haven't you changed everything about what it means to be "Doctor Who"? When was this series about exploring wonders ever about star wars? River almost puts it in words when she talks about the Doctor first leaving Gallifrey to explore.

His fall: it's been coming for a long, long time.

Moffat's favourite era is the Davison era, as Russell's was Twerpee, and it's easy to see the origin of this in "Resurrection of the Daleks". When Tegan leaves him in the wake of death and destruction, the Doctor, abashed, tells himself: "it seems I must change my ways". But he never does.

So this is where Torchwood should have ended up; this is proving Davros; this is the next step up from the Pandorica Alliance. Now, even the humans fear him. He has stared into the abyss for so long and it has stared right back into him.

I said this Doctor was full of anger. He's been angry before, spontaneous, reactive anger that flares up and burns out. But this is way beyond that, this is beyond fury, this is wrath: the unstoppable, howling gale that makes plans for revenge and carries them through and still is not satisfied but must humiliate the defeated enemy. No longer the oncoming storm, but the winter of time, that withers and lays waste.

That is how far he's fallen.

There were, I think, two serious misjudgements.

The first was to have all the Silurian extras materialise on Demon's Run. Specifically that they were Silurians. They should have been Judoon troopers. The Doctor, with just his magnificent seven samurai, has effectively beaten the Clerics' army already: he's disarmed them, or rather tricked them into disarming themselves; the troops materialising is just to stop them picking up the guns again. I'd have been happier for the Church army to be handed over to the police to deal with.

The second misjudgement was for River herself to tell the Doctor who she was. He should have discovered it from finding Lorna's prayer leaf in the abandoned cot. If she just tells him herself, why not tell him before now? But knowing that he discovers it, and that he discovers it only as a result of these events, events crucial to her own history, that would be reason to keep mum about, er, her mum. I've not a problem with her materialising at the end and acting as Mrs Basil Exposition, but she should have been there to explain to Amy and Rory (and us!) rather than to the Doctor.

So River materialises after the battle and we have an exchange like this:

The Doctor: River Song. I know who you are.

River: Yes you do.

The Doctor: I can fix this.

River: Yes, you can.

The Doctor: yes I can! Amy, everything's going to be all right, I promise; Rory, look after your girls; River… you can explain later!

And he leaves at that point.

Essentially, I cannot see what forces River's hand here, what means that she has to do the reveal at this point. As written, River turns up and explains everything because… it's the mid-season cliff-hanger and Moffat promised us some answers.

Although there's a kind of charm to her turning to the audience and saying "well, sweeties, this is what's really going on…", and Alex Kingston delivers the scene enormously well, it does slightly undermine the drama, and the concept of the Doctor as intelligent investigator of stuff, that she can randomly show up and do that.

Russell regularly used to pull rabbits out of hats and would get called out for it, but this is even more in the tradition of Greek theatre with the resolution and the explanations coming from the dues ex machina.

So let's talk about god for a bit.

This was a hugely anti-religion piece.

Last year, in "The Time of Angels", the Clerics were treated with a modicum of respect, even if they all got killed off. But this year, they're out-and-out bad. It seems hard to imagine that this is the same faction as noble, doomed Bishop Octavian.

(Equally, it's hard to see why he doesn't seem to have heard of these events: you'd have thought that the guy who defeated an entire legion of your army would stick in the mind, even a generation later; surely Octavian would know the legend of "Colonel Run-Away".)

The Headless Monks were the most grotesque things I think I've ever seen in Doctor Who.

The tied-off neck, so reminiscent of the place where Waitrose remove the business end of the Christmas turkey for those of us too squeamish to do the job ourselves, was like an evil second navel where they've been "born again". Sick and revolting. Of course, they're the exact opposite of the current era's Cybermen: the Cybermen are nothing but a brain stuck in a metal suit; the Monks chuck the brain away and keep the rest. The message: true faith means throwing your brain away. Nice.

And the fate of "the fat one" indicated that – again like the Cybermen – they don't ask nicely before doing it to you.

How exactly do the Monks work, anyway? As decapitated bodies, they're just corpses. Obviously this is Moffat era dark fairy tale stuff. But practically, they must have some sort of machinery animating the headless flesh. The obvious finger of suspicion has to point at the "papal mainframe", which suggests that they're just meat-puppets under the control of another mad computer.

Of course, as another metaphor for the fact the Doctor himself has "lost his head", they were gorily literal.

There's also the suggestion that the monks are part of the wider "endless bitter war" against the Doctor: they've been specifically designed to be "Doctor-proof". Should we infer they are an earlier attempt at creating a weapon against him? That would make it appropriate that the continuation of that programme – the creating of Melody Pond – takes place in their home.

Who, though, is conducting this "war"?

Madam Kovarian, the Eye Patch Lady: she's come as Space Commander Travis, but she's playing Servalan. Who is she working for?

The answer we all jump to, obvious by their absence, are the Silence. Obvious because we know that baby Melody is going to end up with them eventually, and because we haven't yet finished joining the dots from "Day of the Moon" to "The Big Bang". Why blow up the TARDIS? Why blow up the Universe!

Frustrating as it might seem, it is extremely clever writing to make an episode that is so simple seem so complicated, and one that seems to answer all the questions leave so much hanging.

By not having the Silence appear in "A Good Man Goes to War", it obscures the larger Silence plot arc, while seeming to completely explain the whole of the River/baby Melody/child in the spacesuit arc. The fact that River's arc is now a subset of the Silence story does not interfere with the sense of completeness to the episode. We are left with a satisfying feeling of "ah, that's how it all works", even if we'd already guessed it, and even though we actually don't know so very much more.

If we know the answers now, why is River in Stormcage? Who is the "good man" she's supposed to have killed?

I still say that it's got to be the Doctor; I feel that the hints pointing to Rory are a red herring.I feel or I hope.

Moffat has developed this slight tick of repeatedly trying to fool us that he means the Doctor when he really means Rory. The trick in "Day of the Moon" where she is waiting to see "your stupid face" and we're fooled into thinking she means the Doctor (mostly by the "fell out of the sky" line, which, since she was childhood friends with Rory, is a bit of a cheat) is repeated here in Amy's extended narration to baby Melody that "he" would be coming to save them (yes, let's just stumble guiltily past the whole "robbing Amy of any agency at all this week", shall we) that – surprise – turns out to mean Rory not the Doctor.

So, although we infer that the title "A Good Man Goes to War" refers to the Doctor, could it be another fool? Rory, after all, does get done up in his Centurion clobber, dressed for war. And the Doctor specifically denies that he's "a good man": Madam Kovarian has no fear of the anger of a good man because they have too many rules; the Doctor says good men don't need rules, but that he himself has many (and so by inference is not good).

But Rory's been killed so many times already that even the series is making it a joke, and we know that the Doctor has a date with destiny and the Impossible Astronaut. It really would turn out to be a disappointment if it wasn't him.

"Prophecy fatigue", my dear, "prophecy fatigue".

Of course we do know that Moffat is making this up as he goes, winging it mostly. "The Pandorica Opens" hinges on River not recognising Rory (and therefore not knowing that he cannot be a Roman Centurion) i.e. not recognising her own dad. But the opening scene here, where she refuses to join the quest for Amy and baby, and the scene in the Silence' tunnels both suggest that she does know exactly who he is (possibly because Moffat told Alex Kingston between seasons.)And both can be reinterpreted in the light of knowing she is talking to her dad.

The revelation of the Doctor's own cot, and proof he was once a baby, has been greeted by many as "proof" that the New Adventures in general, "Lungbarrow" in particular, and most specifically the concept of Time Lords being born from "Looms" rather than biologically are "not canon".

I'm not sure how they reconcile that with the Doctor's rather extreme reaction to the notion of Amy and Rory "doing the deed":

"Ewww, but that's all squishy and human."

So, not the way Time Lords do it?

Well, we do see how a Time Lord baby comes into the world here too (and let's just slope past the whole messianic/created by the midichlorians /Rosemary's Baby cliché too, shall we).

"I didn't want this," says the Doctor. But he did. The one thing he wanted more than life, or time or the universe. The thing he wanted so much that he would have forgiven the Master to get it. He wanted the Time Lords back.

And so the TARDIS made him one.

River's appearance at the end on "A Good Man Goes to War" is to offer the Doctor a chance of redemption.

This is a whole new universe, and the Doctor can be first of the Time Lords.

So, "A Good Man Goes to War" goes some way to redeeming the Moffat era. Both by providing some actual solid answers to resolve some of the hanging plot threads and by having the Grand Moff's Mary Sue, River Song, stand up and, essentially addressing her writer, demand: "look, look at what you have done to the character of the Doctor!"

Stephen Moffat is a genius. That's not to discount the possibility that he's an evil genius, of course.

Next Time…When River Song is supposed to have killed "a good man, a hero to millions", I don't suppose anyone thought that that might have been "from a certain point of view"?

The logical – read boring – assumption is that the Doctor is going to involve himself in Operation Valkyrie somehow, but suppose instead that he's going to – typical Moffat – skip to having rescued child River and is going to give her an object lesson in "you can't rewrite history, not one line. Oops!"

It is the biggest question in Doctor Who, well, biggest philosophical question anyway: if it's okay to defeat the Daleks on Skaro why can't he defeat the Nazis on Earth. Well, why not find out. "Let's Kill Hitler" and see what happens!



Gareth Aubrey said...

Excellent as ever. Two thoughts occur to me;

1) Did River see the Flesh in action? (I seem to recall she managed to avoid that, which would keep the "she thinks she killed the Doctor when she was little but it was actually Flesh" scenario available, though to be honest I prefer your object lesson version...)

2) On the "Lungbarrow" issue, I thought the implication was that back in the distant past, the Gallifreyans invented time travel, then started getting down to it in the machines and the Vortex affected the genetics, producing Time Lords.

Presumably they were seen as superior and somehow it was arranged that all children were born that way, but you ended up with a race of essentially immortal people that stagnated until the Doctor went off exploring. With no real need to procreate, might such a society end up a bit embarrassed about the whole thing?

(Of course, this theory does come up against the Doctor's claim in Remembrance that he was there for the original time travel experiments, but then again, that itself is contradicted by the idea that the Master, with his childhood friend beside him, stared into an already-invented Vortex...)

JohnM said...

I didn't understand the Doctor's hand-ringing action and animated teenage response to River's disclosure to him at the end??