5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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WHEN A GOOD MAN GOES TO WAR/LET’S KILL HITLER
Were you a Lost fan? We were. Although we found it a bit slow to get underway, once it had got up a head of steam we were glued to it. Yes, the long-drawn-out clues and teases and arcs were maddening, but never so much so that we got bored or annoyed waiting for a resolution. We thought it was pretty much an object lesson in how to handle arcs.
Arcs are without doubt a Good Thing. Let’s face it, series that neatly return to zero every forty-five minutes never develop much complexity. You need the extra space an arc gives, over a season or longer, to develop themes, characters and plots into something that has a bit of heft to it.
This doesn’t mean, however, that arcs are easy to handle. It’s a fine line to walk when you tease an audience: you have to pay out enough clues to keep people interested, while still springing surprises of sufficient jaw-droppingness to make the audience feel the time they’ve invested has been worthwhile.
Season Six of Doctor Who has been Arc Central. Halfway through, we get a partial resolution. So has Steven Moffat got it right so far? In a word: bits. In two words: small bits. He’s done some things right, but unfortunately he’s also made some pretty fundamental errors.
If you want to make your arc rock and roll, here are some things you gotta do. You have to build it around a premise so cunning that no amount of fevered speculation on the part of the audience during the buildup will come anywhere close to solving it. On the other hand, you also have to make it seem so logical and natural, when all is revealed, that the pieces fall into place with an almost audible thunk. Hints that look like one thing but are actually another come in handy here.
You also have to spin out your revelations: while you can’t give away too much at once, if you leave the audience in the dark for too long without any crumbs being dropped they’ll get all huffy.
There are also things you should avoid at all costs. Don’t drop hints that actually do give away the eventual solution. Don’t build up your big reveal way more than it deserves so that when it does arrive the audience’s expectations deflate like a beach ball landing on a sea urchin. Also, don’t provide resolutions that make no sense, because your audience will throw things. And while you’re busy with one bit of your arc, don’t drop the ball on the rest of the story.
How many of these has Steven Moffat got right so far? Um…
So what’s the Big Surprise in When A Good Man Goes To War? We’ll tell you in a minute. Literally, that is: about one minute in, we see a close-up of the label on the baby’s cot saying “Melody Pond”.
There are a lot of things wrong with this. The first is that horrible flumping sensation you get when you realise that yes, they really are going to go down the most obvious road possible. Ever since Amy and her watery surname turned up, River being related to her has been on the cards. They even trailed a thumping great hint in front of us in Day Of The Moon, when River says to Rory that her old man doesn’t like it when she’s violent: although this was agreeably ambivalent due to the two meanings of “my old man” (big tick for that), the name thing was not. And to cap it off with “Melody” leaves no room for doubt whatsoever. Which is a shame when you’re actually supposed to be unspooling the “secret” over forty-eight minutes.
Second is the problem that it’s about River and her parentage at all. What is it about River Song? She’s always had a ton of screen time and a lot of emphasis: more, on the surface, than she actually deserves, considering that Doctor Who is supposed to be about the Doctor (hint: the clue’s in the title). This is a character that Steven Moffat loves, loves, loves. Why? Our best guess is that while the Doctor is, even though each one is different, a character with certain parameters already set, River is all of Moffat’s very own. But the rest of us will never find her as fascinating as he does, because it’s not about her. What we’re mostly interested in with regard to her is who she is in relation to the Doctor.
So telling us who her parents are is actually not all that interesting. Not, at least, in the way it’s done. Yes, the way it works in with Amy’s Schrodinger pregnancy’s intriguing, but that’s because that’s about Amy. The effect on Rory and Amy as parents is also big news, but again, it’s because of them, not River. And if we’d explored those things more, especially the change in the relationship between Rory/Amy and River, the reveal might have worked better.
But that’s not how it’s presented. In fact, Rory and Amy’s reactions are pretty much skimmed over, not just here but in the following episode too. It’s as if they’re not all that important in the whole thing. Instead, the big revelation at the end that she’s actually a Pondlet is made much less to them than to the Doctor.
This is mystifying. Why is he the one that’s supposed to care more than any of them? Why is this day, the day she tells him who her parents are, her “darkest day”, when “the Doctor finds out who I really am”? It’s not as if he takes the news badly or anything. In fact, while the rest of us are sitting there totally squicked out by the idea, he’s just giggling. Wouldn’t other things, like, say, the later revelation that she’s been brought up to kill him, be a wee bit darker than this?
And third? Although it’s presented as this giant bombshell, it’s not really what we want to know. OK, River is Amy’s daughter: that explains a few things, but not what we’ve always wondered about her: who is she to the Doctor? We’re not saying Moffat should have told us this: that’s obviously still to come. But it does make the unveiling a bit of a fizzler.
Meanwhile, of course, there’s a lot of other stuff going on in this episode. The Clerics have switched sides and are after the Doctor’s blood. Because, apparently, he’s a bad, bad man. In response, the Doctor has been rocketing round the universe calling in markers so that he can stop them in their tracks. When he does, River turns up and castigates him. For being a bad, bad man.
Stop. What’s wrong with this picture?
Well, for a start, does any of this sound like the Doctor? Can you picture him saying to anyone “I’ve helped you and now I want payback”? Never. Gonna. Happen. And as for River’s self-righteous speech, the irony is slaying us. River is saying the Doctor’s too violent? River? Put the gun down, sweetie, we can’t hear you over the hail of bullets.
And you know what? We’re sick to death of being told about how evil the Doctor is. It’s not that we refuse to believe he’s anything other than saintly no matter what the evidence. It’s that there isn’t any evidence. So we’re not going to believe you unless you actually show us. Because this is the Doctor, and you bet we’re going to take some convincing. Until then, stow the handwringing.
Much worse than this, though, is the way the whole thing is spectacularly mismanaged. And again, it’s the arc that’s to blame. Not wanting to give away all his secrets now, Moffat presents us with the Clerics and Headless Monks opposed to the Doctor without offering word one of why. Yes, this succeeds at protecting the arc. The price, however, is that everything going on just glances off the viewer like a pingpong ball off a Dalek. Without the viewer understanding the motivations or the stakes, none of it actually matters. What a waste.
And waste is the order of the day. The ballyhooed trailing of the Cybermen sputters out when it transpires that they’re just an amuse-bouche. Rory promises to be awesome and is a bit, then just….fades away. It’s sad about one of the laboriously introduced gay guys getting guillotined, but why bring them in at all if they’re just going to vanish?
The Doctor’s allies are pretty much thrown away as well. The setup promises a lot, but once they’re all assembled, virtually all the action happens offscreen. Skipping merrily from introduction to death scenes kind of leaves most of the story out and makes it hard to care much about those dying in the Doctor’s name. Particularly when the thing that leads to their deaths, the forcefield surrounding the TARDIS, is airily waved away by the sonic screwdriver a few minutes later.
And there is, of course, the compulsory dollop of stupidity. The Clerics and Monks are there to kill the Doctor. He’s right there, but nobody makes the slightest move to shoot him. That’s. Really. Dumb.
So is there anything to like? Sure, although it tends to be lines and moments rather than anything big. The Headless Monks’ necks tied off like balloons (snigger!). The delightfully unslushy “Can I borrow your gun? Because I’ve got a feeling you’re gonna keep talking.” The thrilling moment when the Doctor bellows “Amelia Pond! Get your coat”. The delivery of “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many”. The beautiful mobile over the baby’s cot. “They don’t put up a balloon or anything”.
It’s not like it’s boring. The characters are good. Stuff happens. But when the fundamental underpinnings are wrong, it’s never gonna fly.
And on we go to the second half. If you saw When A Good Man Goes to War three months previously, you probably don’t notice the gears grinding quite so much, but when you saw it three minutes ago…. The full-on grief and angst at the loss of Melody at the end of the previous episode is here contained to a single question from Amy about whether the Doctor’s found Melody. Jarring isn’t the word.
And any residual nubbin of emotion is speedily run over by Mels. Yes, “Mels”. Really, Mr Moffat? Really? Yes, the darker skintone tries to lead you away from the obvious, but in the end, obvious is what it is. We might forgive this more if it weren’t so unlikely. Amelia’s only seen the Doctor for one night, and is therefore necessarily a little short of facts Doctor-wise: doesn’t she wonder why her friend, who’s had zero actual Doctor exposure, is so full of opinions about the Doctor not putting everything right that’s gone wrong since the dawn of time?
We also might forgive it if Mels weren’t so thuddingly unlikeable. Grating, smug, selfish: how come Amy and Rory are even her friends? Let alone naming their daughter after her.
And speaking of Mels blaming the Doctor for everything: this, it seems, is the motivation for the Clerics and Monks that we didn’t get in the last episode. So the Doctor’s bad, bad manniness is because he doesn’t spend all day zipping round the universe ironing out the rough spots in history. Well, sorry, but even a yoghurt could spot the flaws in that. The time-space continuum would have more holes in it than a packet of Polos. We do hate a stupid adversary.
Oh, well. Back we go to 1938 and the Teselecta. Here, things really look up: what a fantastic, fantastic idea. We love the tessellation effect, and the controlling-the-agent-of-justice thing is deeply themey to boot. We also love the little details, like Harriet looking out the eye, the jellyfish-shaped antibodies and the captain casually sipping coffee as he issues the cleanup order. A total delight.
Then we get the privilege of watching Matt Smith juggling a gun before depositing it in the fruit bowl, followed by Rory punching Hitler and locking him in a cupboard. Here, what seemed like a missed opportunity in the previous episode, major adversary the Cybermen casually flung in and flung away, works perfectly. Instead of being the focus of the episode, it’s the last we see of Hitler, and the way the TARDIS crew react to him is pitch-perfect. We can’t think of a way a difficult situation could have been better handled.
And wham, Mels regenerates in a shower of infodump. Not only is she Amy and Rory’s daughter, she’s the little girl we saw wandering in a New York alley. Oh, yeah, and she’s a Time Lord, sort of.
We’re not sure about the scene that follows the regeneration. On the one hand, it’s funny: we particularly love the Doctor’s delivery of “Spoilers”, which makes up for all the obnoxious ones from River previously, and Rory’s reaction. On the other hand, playing it for laughs, both here and later, skates over what Rory and Amy, as parents whose baby was taken away and who are now grappling with the fact that they’ll never see her - as a baby - again, seems just a touch dodgy. We think Mels’s assurance that they raised her (raised her? Hardly) is supposed to be the sticking plaster on this wound, but come on. Are they really suggesting it’s all OK because of that? They lost their baby! It’s like this whole human tragedy is going on and Moffat doesn’t even notice it. You could say going down that route would be too much for a family programme, but if that’s the case, why introduce it at all?
And then River’s fingered as “the woman who kills the Doctor”. Probably meant to be a bombshell, but ho hum. Realistically, who else was she likely to off that we were going to care about? Yes, Rory’s a possible candidate, but even when we know he’s her Dad that doesn’t have all that much zing. Not for a seasons-spanning arc. And it’s not going to be the Cyberleader, Charles Dickens or the Face Of Boe, is it? Keeping your list of suspects pretty much down to one does tend to leach out the tension somewhat.
On we go, with some clever Mr And Mrs, um, Smith-style feints and reversals, and then River reveals she’s a psychopath. Deep sigh. She is not a psychopath, and we wish Moffat had at least looked the term up on Wikipedia before he started throwing it around. She kisses the Doctor and we all said “Poison lipstick!” at the same time. (The Judas tree? Seriously?) Shame the Doctor doesn’t watch the same movies we do. Then River throws herself out the window. The last time she did this she had a TARDIS to catch her, so God knows how she survives this time, because it’s a long way down. Passing trampoline?
Then we had a little nap through the series of pointless companion cameos and the Doctor thrashing round on the floor until being heartwarmingly revived by fish fingers and custard, because what’s the point when we know he doesn’t die here? Meanwhile, River goes on the weirdest shopping expedition ever (why didn’t she just hold up a shop?), managing to miraculously find a full-length mirror in a restaurant to admire her booty (see what we did there?).
And stuff happens blah blah blah, we feel very sorry for Matt Smith having to die on some very pointy-looking marble stairs, and then River, having been conditioned for years for one purpose, suddenly dumps all that and changes her mind. Yeah. Not buying it. Especially not buying it when changing her mind means not just deciding she was wrong to try and kill him, but giving up all her future regenerations. Steven Moffat hasn’t done nearly enough work to make this stick; in fact, we’re hard pressed to see that he’s done any at all. Unless the unremarkable sight of the Doctor still caring about people he loves even when he’s dying is meant to be enough. It isn’t. Nor is telling us that Mels is a bit in love with the Doctor, which makes zero sense. If you’re conditioned to think of someone as a monster, you’re unlikely to view them as a romantic prospect. Try swapping in someone else to this scenario: to use an amazingly topical example, suppose it was Hitler she’d been brought up to kill. Does it seem likely she’d be in love with Hitler? Exactly. And don’t forget, she’s spent years as Amy’s friend with Amy constantly rattling on about how great the Doctor is and that didn’t seem to sway her in the least.
None of this is Alex Kingston’s fault: she sells this stuff like it’s going out of style, but even that’s not enough when you think about it for even a second. Oh, and can we just point out that when she kisses him as she passes on the regeneration energy, it looks like she’s still wearing the poison lipstick she killed him with the first time?
There’s still room for another big reveal: the Doctor gave River her diary. Well, whoop-de-do. It’s got TARDIS bumps on it: who else could it possibly have been?
Like the first episode, the emphasis here is in all the wrong places. Too little examination of the whole stolen-baby thing on Amy and Rory, too little discussion of River’s early life. More of the latter might have helped contextualise her decision to sacrifice her regenerations a bit better.
It’s got lots of good stuff in it; probably more than in the previous episode. But just as in the previous episode, many of the fundamentals are dead wrong. That is most definitely a problem.
So where to from here? One of us is convinced the entire season is Amy’s hallucination, stemming from her incarceration in the Pandorica. She admits, however, that this theory mostly stems from her hatred of the idea that Amy has remembered back the entire universe. We have a few slightly less loony theories, but…spoilers. Let’s wait and see.
MORAL: It takes a village to raise a child.
DOES MY GLUTEUS LOOK MAXIMUS IN THIS?
What’s Rory’s costume about, anyway? The explanation given is:
“The Doctor’s idea.”
“Ah yes, the rules of engagement. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
The rules of engagement? Huh?
We like the Parker/milady reference with the Silurian.
If the monks stop at the neck, what’s holding up their hoods?
Love that moment where the hatch closes like a guillotine just after the Monks say “make a donation”.
“DOOR LOCKING OVERIDE”? Whoops.
TALKIN’ ‘BOUT MY REGENERATION
So this is at least River’s fourth incarnation (Melody the baby is the first, and we know about Mels plus one more, the toddler, who can’t be Mels as her skin colour is wrong). Are we ever going to find out what happened to the others?
ON SECOND THOUGHTS, WE’D RATHER NOT KNOW
We’ve never been fans of the way Amy treats Rory, and finding out here she’s been doing it ever since they were kids doesn’t make it any better. What’s more, it’s a first cousin to the way River often behaves towards the Doctor. What is it with Steven Moffat and women treating men with disdain?
FOOL ME TWICE, DON’T GET FOOLED AGAIN
We can’t say we agree, on the evidence presented, that the Doctor has never fallen so far. Doctor = warrior or not, we still think wasting your entire species probably caps pretty much anything. On the other hand, it’s undoubtedly not his finest hour, especially where Melody’s concerned. Conned twice, in the same way, by the same woman? Ouch. And isn’t Amy a little too forgiving of this? It’s her child we’re talking about, after all.
So what’s the relationship between the Clerics and Madame Kovarian/the Silence? Presumably they’re related in some way, or they wouldn’t have got together at Demon’s Run to set a trap for the Doctor. But if the Silence are involved, why are they keen to snatch Melody as well? Doesn’t show too much faith in their trap, does it?
So that’s River’s name on the cot? Why didn’t the Doctor notice it when he was getting it out? It’s hardly inconspicuous. And when was she in the TARDIS in a cot anyway?
How come instead of insisting on accompanying the Doctor as he looks for Melody, as anyone would do and Amy, especially, is stubborn enough to insist on, she just goes home? Overdue library book?
CHILDREN OF THE CORN PART I
Amy and Rory flying round the wheatfield in a Mini looks great, but actually, what’s their hurry? Doing something just because it looks cool without bothering to find a justification for it is lazy writing. If they spent a bit less time jamming film and TV homages in, they might have more leisure to make sure everything makes sense.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN PART II
As Amy and Rory drive round the wheatfield, you can see that the wheat is only mildly squished under the wheels and springs up once the chassis has passed over. Yet when they stop, the wheat is trampled right down in classic crop circle stylee.
SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER
“You’ve had all summer”? Obviously, that makes no sense when it involves a time traveller. Amy’s not exactly a beginner at this: why would she make such an elementary mistake?
A NAZI SURPRISE
OK, so this killing Hitler thing, right? The most venerable of all time travel questions? So Mel says it, then they get in the TARDIS, which goes wildly out of control, and they still end up in Hitler's office. What? Whose idea was that? The Doctor's? Why would he? Surely it's the last thing he'd do, and also, he looks as surprised as anyone when Hitler turns up. Mel's/Mel's abductors? How would they be able to steer the TARDIS into taking them there? The TARDIS's? What for? If it's where they needed to be, well, let's not take that too prescriptively, yes? Otherwise Doctor Who is morphing into Quantum Leap. (Thanks to Greg Chadwick for pointing all this out.)
So the Teselecta crew grab people near the end of their timelines, right? So why do they try to get River now?
DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE
Concentrating on a dress size? Have to weigh myself? Thanks for the terrific role model for the little girls watching. Then they cap it off with the Doctor’s remark about River’s changing her mind: “Plus, she’s a woman”. What is this, the 1970s?
CAN YOU REWIND THAT? I DIDN’T QUITE CATCH THE DIALOGUE
The Nazi guy in the street who gives the order to shoot River is smokin’ hot. Cast him in a major role immediately, please.
We love the Doctor’s killer dialogue about his leg power naps. Not to mention his dressing, so very snappily, for death. What happened, however, between the fish fingers and custard and the Doctor emerging in tails? We suspect we may yet find out.