Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Doctor Who, including the most recent, “A Good Man Goes to War.”
I have no words to describe quite how I’m feeling right now. I finished watching the mid-series finale of Doctor Who hours ago, and yet I am still completely under its spell. “A Good Man Goes to War” is, quite simply the most powerful episode of Doctor Who I’ve seen. I sat there for the entire episode not only utterly transfixed but awash with emotion. I nearly burst into tears numerous times, not only because some sad and shocking things happen, but even more so, because the writing is just so perfect, the story so true and epic and overwhelming, the small character moments so right, the sweeping revelations so elegant, I could hardly contain myself. Even now, I’m struggling with exactly what to say in this review. It’s hard to be analytical when one is still literally quivering with emotion, and even further, for all of the questions answered here, even more are raised. So much happened in this episode–the writing is so economical–that it’s difficult to even process all that transpired, and all that was implied. It will be very difficult to give this a proper review until perhaps the actual end of this series.
For now, however, I present a list of thoughts…
1) The phenomenal pre-credits opening sequence is a master class in misdirection, on multiple levels. When the Cyber fleet is under attack, of course our first assumption is that the Doctor is about to be unveiled as the saboteur, but no, it’s Rory! Then he begins to speak to the Cybermen and they think that his only weapon is words. But, nope, the demonstration of his force is the destruction of all the other Cyber ships. This, of course, is paralleled with Amy’s words to her daughter, telling her about the man who will come to rescue them, the girl’s father, a man who has lived for hundreds of years…The Doctor?! No, again, it’s Rory, who is revealed in his centurion outfit at the exact moment that Amy reminds us of his time protecting her in the Pandorica. Brilliant writing.
2) Of course, this superb misdirection also comes to bite the characters in the worst possible way by the end. That moment where the baby sees Madame Kovarian’s face appear is absolutely brutal, as we realize the truth an instant before Amy–that this isn’t her baby, but a flesh replica. Again, they have been fooled, and I can’t remember a more horrifying moment in the new show’s history. Speaking of which, the Doctor’s speech to Captain “Runaway,” warning him about putting his friends in danger, and finally his discovery of the truth about River comprise Smith’s greatest work as the Doctor to date, and that is saying a great deal, as he is always marvelous.
3) The sequence in which Doctor and Rory bounce around history to collect people to help them is absolutely wonderful. I love the Holmesian Silurian who ends Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror, and her human lover, Jenny. I love the Sontaran nurse, and how his nobility in death parallels another brave nurse who would die to protect those he loves–namely, Rory. I love how Captain Avery and his son reappear, as do the World War II fighter pilots from “Victory of the Daleks.” I love that, although he casts a shadow over the entire episode, it takes precisely 19 minutes until the Doctor finally appears on screen.
4) Lorna Bucket is a beautiful character, beautifully portrayed by Christina Chong. It is a testament to the genius of Moffat’s writing that even in such a dense, epic, mindbending puzzlebox of an episode, he is able to make time for the introduction and development of such a lovely person–a young woman who met the Doctor as a child and spent the rest of her life trying to find him again. In an episode that has much grimness, she is a shining beacon of hope that just one person, amongst an army, can make a palpable difference in someone’s life. The fact that both she and the small piece of fabric she weaves for Amy’s baby, as a gesture of kindness, end up being the key to unlocking the long-running River mystery (as well as what ends up giving River her name, more on that later) is simply exquisite writing.
5) Speaking of which, she is a Cleric, a soldier of the same order that first appeared in last series’ Weeping Angels two-parter, in which the head Cleric, Father Octavian, voiced animosity against the Doctor, and was working with River. The pieces are clicking into place.
6) And then there is River, whose identity we finally learn. She is Amy and Rory’s daughter. This brings with it so many implications and questions, it’s difficult to begin processing them. It explains so much. She is at least part Time Lord, if not full Time Lord, having been exposed to the Time Vortex as she was being conceived. So that is why time travel seems to be in her blood, why she is so good at flying the TARDIS (she was even conceived in it!), why she can read Gallifreyan, perhaps why she retained her memory during the universe reboot, and a million other things! It also simultaneously explains why the Doctor would eventually fall in love with her. She is one of his own kind.
And although some might find it squicky that the Doctor would one day be amorous with Amy’s daughter, you have to look at it from a different perspective. For one, if she is a Time Lord, she is quite possibly close-to-immortal as well, so human rules shouldn’t apply. People who live for thousands of years would have a very different concept of time and who would be an appropriate romantic partner. Fans had no problem with the Doctor and Rose being a potential item, even though she was only a fraction of his age. Had Jackie travelled with him in the past, would that have made their love taboo? Because the rest of the Time Lords are gone, any woman the Doctor meets is removed enough in age from him to be his great-great-great-great-great-practically-to-infinity granddaughter. River is no different. Also, remember how the Doctor realized that the universe (or, now that we know more about Sexy, perhaps the TARDIS) kept trying to bring Donna and him together for a reason? My guess is that the same is true of Amy and the Doctor. It was important that they meet (and on his first night as a new man, no less) because their meeting paved the way for the the creation of his greatest love, River Song. She literally would never have been born had Amy and Rory not gotten involved with the Doctor. There is also something rather poetic about the fact that, although Amy ultimately chose Rory, her daughter will choose the Doctor.
By the way, Whovians, is the line about Time Lords having been created as the result of their species’ prolonged exposure to the Time Vortex a new piece of mythology? And does this imply that Time Lords might have once been human? Either way, it is brilliant.
7) Returning to River’s revelation, it does answer things such as who the girl in the astronaut suit is, why the girl’s room in the orphanage contained a photograph of Amy with a baby (my guess is that the picture was deliberately left with River as a child, and that she was told her mother died), how she could regenerate…but it raises other questions. Was River, therefore, indeed the being in the astronaut suit who killed the Doctor? Was he indeed the “good man” she killed, and was that scene on the beach the event in question? If so, what were her motives for doing so? Was it because she had been brainwashed against him by whatever force Madame Kevorian either works for or leads, which allied itself with the Clerics, the Headless Monks, etc. (or are the Clerics the actual heads of this action)? How old was she inside that suit? Did she only come to learn what a good man he was after killing him, thanks to wibbly wobbly timey wimeyness? It also makes me wonder again to what extent the Silence were involved. Were they behind this all? We know that they had a ship that looked like a TARDIS (which first appeared in “The Lodger,” once again demonstrating how amazingly intricate the plotting is), and this episode indicates that the Doctor’s enemies wanted to have a Time Lord at their disposal to use against him. It stands to reason that that might be the reason the Silence wanted to create this ship, a new TARDIS for a new Time Lord. Hmm. Again, are they the ones who blew up the Doctor’s TARDIS?
8) Another instance of pure writerly elegance, of course, is the revelation that although “the only water in the forest is the river” sounds poetic and cryptic (I was thinking “Forest of the Dead,” the forest from “The Time of Angels”/”Flesh and Stone”, etc.) its meaning actually turns out to be straightforward. In the language that Lorna embroidered the name, “Melody Pond,” there is no word for “pond.” The language’s only word for a body of water is “river,” and presumably their only word for “melody” is “song,” and so Lorna had to use those. I also assume that because the fabric didn’t indicate which was the first name and which was the last, people later accidentally flipped the two. Thus: River Song. The connection to “River” and “Pond” that has been teasing us since Amy’s first appearance finally reveals itself.
What is also elegant about this is that the theme of slight mistranslation is also largely how all of this was set in motion in the first place. The Doctor had spent so long traveling the universe, saving people and repairing their lives that the name he chose for himself, “Doctor,” became the word for “healer” and “wise man” across the planets and the ages (I love that). And yet the flip side of the Doctor’s power is that he also becomes known for being someone who could frighten an entire army away just by the mere mention of his name. He is a formidable force, and over the years, because of that, that word takes on a new meaning, “Mighty Warrior.” People of the future come to fear that name, without knowing its true origin. They assume him to be a threat and so go to enormous lengths to protect themselves (which thematically relates to the reasons behind his imprisonment in the Pandorica last series…And perhaps the connection is more than thematic. The races at the end of “The Pandorica Opens” might blame the Doctor for the TARDIS’ explosion because his reputation as a “mighty warrior” is what inspired this enemy to attack the universe in the first place.). At least, that is how it seems at this point in the narrative. Another word that is redefined in this hour (as I mentioned earlier) is of course a sister word to Doctor, namely Nurse. The Sontaran sees the word as demeaning, but proves with his courage, as Rory has proven with his since the beginning, that it is a powerful title, indeed.
9) Speaking of translation, the Doctor speaks baby! How absolutely wonderful and sublime. And also a great touch of humor to lighten the episode. Another great example: River’s birthday date with the Doctor, in the 1800s…with Stevie Wonder. Pure genius.
10) And that scene in which Rory, the baby, and Amy reunite, and then the Doctor enters the room…I can’t even think about it now without being reduced to a quivering mess. In retrospect, it’s even more poignant, as we know that they haven’t saved their baby, after all.
11) When the Doctor said, “I’m so sorry” to Amy, Ten’s oft-repeated line, my heart broke in a million pieces all over again.
12) And with all of this brilliance, what might be the most perfect touch of the entire hour? The wacky juxtaposition of that cliffhanger (Where is the Doctor off to?! RIVER’S IDENTITY REVEALED. AGONY. ECSTACY.) with a title card pronouncing, “The Doctor will return in…’Let’s Kill Hitler!’” The instant jump from epic space opera supreme to the most delightfully goofy episode title in the new series’ memory sums up Doctor Who to a tee. I cannot wait to see where Moffat is going with this.
The same is true for the entire series. More than anything else, what this episode definitively proves is that Moffat’s entire run as head of Doctor Who to date has actually been one complex story, and one which is simultaneously getting twistier even while the puzzle pieces such as the Clerics, River Song, the big blue guy we first saw River get a time travel device from in “The Big Bang”–how interesting that that guy was also there with her when she was a baby–reassert more than ever before that there is a plan here, and it is coming together stunningly. Three months to go until the next installment. What exquisite torture.