Saturday, 4 June 2011

You Don't Know What's Coming: Doctor Who mid-season finale review


TELEVISION REVIEW

DOCTOR WHO: 'A Good Man Goes To War'

The last episode before Doctor Who breaks for the summer will only air next week in the US, so as with last week, I'll give a spoiler-free summary of my thoughts above the jump, then go into more detail below.

Needless to say, 'A Good Man Goes To War' was a hell of a lot of fun. Not without its nitpicks for sure, but it seems churlish to complain when there was so much to enjoy. It's important to remember that this is a mid-season finale, so don't expect answers to all your questions. In fact, the ones that do get answered don't amount to a great deal in terms of where the season arc is going, but do clear up some of the more pressing background issues. We finally learn the identity of River Song and get a better idea of why the eyepatch lady (who is named) and her goons went after Amy's baby. The much-mooted cliffhanger didn't turn out to be much - the big reason to look forward to the first episode of the autumn half-season is its name, which is brilliant beyond words - but there was more than enough material to keep fans' tongues wagging over summer. It also featured the series' first funny gay joke, a bit of a landmark in itself.

So, spoilers, as River Song would say. Or should that be Melody Pond? If I'm going to be a stick-in-the-mud, I could say that her identity was fairly predictable from the moment we saw the name Amy had given her daughter - the idea that there could be two different people with terms for water and a musical composition in their name was an alarm bell from the first moment. It's also difficult to work out whether the revelation changes anything, or if it just satisfies some longstanding curiosity.

I would be interested to go back to last season's 'The Time Of Angels' and see the first time we're aware of River meeting Amy. No particularly strong reactions spring to mind, but given how circuitous the River temporal saga already is, perhaps we'll see a meeting prior to that moment between the two characters? Am I also right in thinking that the River who transmatted in at the episode's climax is a younger than the one Rory met in the Stormcage prison? When all this is over, here's hoping that someone at the BBC scribbles out a diagram clarifying who's who and when.

We also now know that the reason Amy's daughter, Melody (so-called here to distinguish her from the adult River), was kidnapped was for the sole purpose of stopping the Doctor. Moffat said that he planned to draw on the idea that the Doctor has been developing a reputation for himself throughout his centuries of travel (or millennia or more, from the perspective of the people he has encountered) for the episode, and his reputation being one of fear rather than celebration was a neat twist. Given how he has only ever saved humanity, it did seem a tad strange that they should be the one race making up the entire army waiting to fight him, but I'm assuming/hoping this will be covered later on.

More questions abound about what eyepatch lady (Kovarian) and her army's plan is. When the Doctor made his appearance on the Demon's Run asteroid ship and her men didn't fire on sight, should that be taken as an indication that they want him alive for something, or are just suffering from Dalek syndrome where no-one remembers to kill the Doctor immediately, no matter how much they claim to hate him? We also know that Kovarian has escaped with baby Melody with the aim of turning her into a weapon, but if we give Moffat the benefit of the doubt and assume its purpose is something other than to defeat the Doctor, then what?

The problem for viewers (and reviewers, natch) and advantage for the series' writers is that, especially with this only being a mid-season finale, it's almost impossible to distinguish between what might have been a mistake or lazy writing, and what is planned set-up for the future. There were plenty of people writing off the Doctor's departure and quick reappearance in 'Flesh and Stone' last year as a continuity error, especially since he ran off without a coat and turned up a second later wearing one, but it turned out to be a nifty double-bluff from Moffat.


So when we learn that Melody - and consequently River - is half Time Lord apparently only due to having been conceived whilst travelling through time, are we going to get more on that flimsy explanation? (For one thing, I had always assumed that the TARDIS interior operated as a dimension outside time). When we're told that Amy was probably taken shortly before America, is that the Doctor making a crucially mistaken assumption, or Moffat just getting an unimportant detail out of the way? All I can really say is that those quick answers were a little annoying in the context of everything we know so far, but I may well be looking back in a few months' time and lauding Moffat for his timey-wimey ingenuity.

Regardless of those quibbles, what's important is that 'A Good Man Goes To War' made a very entertaining forty-five minutes of television. It wasn't as touching or meaningful as the season's high point 'The Doctor's Wife', and all that 'Doctor rises higher than ever' stuff amounted to little more than filler material for the middle act - I assume his major fall is still to come, because losing baby Melody doesn't seem any worse than losing her mum first time around - but it delivered plenty of good lines and old monsters returning to the fray, this time as allies. We got Cybermen (a cameo appearance, but perhaps tellingly not featuring the chest plates indicating origins from the parallel universe where Rose is living out her chavvy days gettin' it on with second-Tennant), Silurians and a Sontaran, plus headless electro-sword wielding monks. It was big and silly, just as a Who finale should be.

Even though this is only an episode breaking up two halves of the season, it was nevertheless a relief that the plot revolved around something other than the destruction of earth, the universe, reality or time, for a change. The stakes feel more personal when the characters we've been following for the season and a half have a personal stake in them, unlike the large but empty spectacle of finales gone by. I loved the episode's introduction, where Amy told Melody all about the man who would never let her down, referring then to 'Last Centurion' Rory, but later in life coming to mean the Doctor ("Every time you have asked, I've been there," he rages at River when she appears following the climactic fight) and the fact that, even should River's identity come to mean nothing else, getting the baby back is now a personal mission for everyone involved. Arguably we now also know that Melody will be safe, given River's appearance, but I wouldn't be surprised if Moffat whips out that old 'time can be rewritten' adage he has proven so fond of.

Before drawing my Who coverage to a close until the autumn (and 'Let's Kill Hitler'!), a final tribute to the extraordinary talents of Matt Smith, whose performances this season have been spectacular. Last season, while his instantly iconic portrayal of the Doctor rightfully drew plaudits in kicking any lingering memories of Ten to the curb, he didn't have many big emotional cues to hit. The first seven episodes of his sophomore year, on the other hand, have asked him to juggle every emotion imaginable, often several at once. 

He's consistently answered those demands whilst staying firmly the same Doctor he was last year, just one coming up against ever more taxing challenges. His heartbreak at losing the TARDIS-possessed Idris in 'Doctor's Wife' and sheer joy, in the wake of total despair, at discovering River's identity tonight, were the moments which really stood out for me. (In the latter instance, he also had to cover for Alex Kingston getting the tone of her performance completely wrong, which she has done a couple of times in her appearances with Eleven). Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill also deserve credit for bringing some very strong work to the table, sometimes hampered by less than inspired writing, but in a mostly unexceptional half-season (again, this episode and 'Doctor's Wife' were the only standouts in my opinion), it's Smith who has made every  new Saturday seem so very far away, and now the series' return in autumn even moreso. I trust him: he's the Doctor.

BEST MOMENT: Matt Smith's nervous giggle at finally discovering River's identity was wonderfully geeky. But then again, 'Let's Kill Hitler'. THAT'S an episode title.

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1 comment:

Silent Hunter said...

"Let's Kill Hitler" is the most out-of-left-field title I've ever encountered. It's going to get a lot of interest just by the title...

A great episode with some wonderful dialogue, just like any Moffat episode.