Contains some oblique spoilers, sweetie.
And so the first half of this year’s “double mini-series” season 6 of Doctor Who has come to an end, allowing us time to pause and reflect about the season overall. But before that – what about the final episode?
I skipped over reviewing the last episode, “The Almost People”, as it was the second half of a story about which I felt I’d already said pretty much everything I wanted to in my previous “The Rebel Flesh” review: the two-parter finished solidly and just as the first part would have had you expect. A very safe pair of hands and an enjoyable story overall.
And then came that final cliffhanger in the Tardis with not-Amy. Certainly didn’t see that one coming, and yet doesn’t it make sense about the Doctor’s whole insistence on trying to prove to her that The Flesh avatars are not monsters and are real people too. He was trying to prepare her for what was to come.
That shock ending led directly into “A Good Man Goes To War”, and we’re expecting greatness of epic proportions. For the first 20 minutes it royally delivers: the scale of the Doctor’s preparations of assembling an army and tracking down Amy are truly astonishing, with the Tardis and Rory (the Lone Centurion) acting in the Doctor’s place and the man himself appearing only briefly in (unconvincing) silhouette as befits a legend and a myth.
By this point we’re prepared for something absolutely sensational: the Doctor’s (uncharacteristically) casual destruction of a entire Cyber battle fleet to make a rhetorical point leads us to believe that this is the Time Lord Victorious pushed over the edge, driven to darker deeds by an incomparable fury. Except that neither the Doctor nor head writer Steven Moffat are ever that obvious or predictable. Instead, when the Doctor finally does pop up, he looks very much as normal and he outwits the army arrayed against him with typical light-hearted cunning (brilliantly plotted). The battle is defused, and while there is a subsequent trap to be sprung by Madame Kovarian this proves to be an even lower-key plot beat with just half a dozen or so on either side, and the action essentially taking place off-screen. (Judging how stodgy the pirate battle antics ended up looking in “The Curse of the Black Spot”, it may be just as well.)
It’s Moffat’s greatest strength that he confounds and defies our every expectation; but it can also be his greatest weakness. Having promised us that “the Doctor will climb higher than ever before”, the way the episode unfurls simply doesn’t deliver on this promise. The structure of the episode is oddly inverted, starting with epic and sweeping but then getting smaller and smaller until finally it comes down to a rather talky final scene between the regulars. It leaves an oddly awkward, unfulfilled feeling to it: having opened a Christmas present in huge extravagant wrappings, the end result is the perfectly fine but still rather-expected Doctor Who annual.
How you feel about the climax depends on how big a shock the final reveal about River Song’s true identity is. I confess, I’ve thought that she is who she turned out to be ever since episode 1 of this season, when she and Rory were investigating underground and had a rather interesting conversation that only has genuine emotional resonance if River Song is one particular person. The line of dialogue in “The Doctor’s Wife” that ‘the only water in the forest is the river’ sealed it for me, so this week’s reveal was not in the end a big surprise, although Moffat certainly played around in the episode with a few red herrings to make it pleasingly in doubt until the very final moments.
A small genius of Moffat’s writing is that despite having finally revealed River Song’s true identity, it turns out that the answer gives rise to far more questions than the answer ever addressed – the perfect sort of plotting. Instead of being an end to River’s story, if anything it just throws up even more avenues that need exploring which are far more interesting. How exactly does River’s story now intersect with the Impossible Astronaut, the little girl regenerating, and River’s own ultimate fate seen back in “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”? What’s this going to mean to Rory and Amy? Where has the Doctor gone after learning this piece of information – how does it give him the location of the baby? Will the baby be lost to them for years, stuck in a Silents-infested orphanage for years to come? What’s with the astronaut suit, anyway? And why doesn’t River know?
Overall, the episode was extremely well done and great fun – just not the episode to end all episodes that we’d been led to hope for. It felt like a reprise of “The Pandorica Opens” in that it’s all a trap to snare the Doctor and features alliances of various old foes; the difference being is that here the Doctor builds his own alliance to fight back. In the end, this felt more like Russell T Davies’ era of the show (in particular his biggest shows, “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”) than anything Moffat himself has previously done: only that instead of gathering together a feel-good line-up of his old friends, allies and companions to help him as RTD gave us, here the Doctor seeks out more unlikely line-up of Silurians, Judoon and Sontarans who owe him.
And what delights there were in that alliance. For all the praise Moffat gets for his intricate plotting, it’s easy to forget that his real strength is in giving us the most brilliant characters the show has ever seen: not just Amy, but Rory who has developed into one of the true stars of the show; then there’s River Song, without whom it’s almost impossible to think of modern Doctor Who, such a fabulous and vibrant part of the team she’s become. And let’s not forget that Moffat also gave us Captain Jack Harkness, the first character to sustain a successful Doctor Who spin-off series of his own.
This week, add to this line up the brilliant characters of Madame Vastra and her companion Jenny: is there any fan out there not dying to see a Victorian Era-set spin off featuring these two? Such a shame that blue-marketeer Dorium and Commander/Nurse Strax are also not available for future stories: Robert Holmes must be beaming down from on high with delight that someone has finally grasped his Sontaran creations and made them into richly textured, fully-rounded and even humorous personalities without betraying the underlying principle of the cloned warrior race. Even the odd minor character of Lorna Bucket with her memory of 30 seconds running through a forest with the Doctor (who doesn’t know her) feels like someone with far more tale left to tell. Even if she is dead for now.
In the end, the episode is less of a season climax and a major cliffhanger than the episode that preceded it: instead it feels more like the end of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back – everything has been thrown up in the air, the pieces are in play, and suddenly it all looks less like a happy fairytale than it did, and more like a dark and dangerous time. And like that brilliant film it leaves us sitting on the edge of our seats counting down the hours to part two of series six in the Autumn.
Just as long as Moffat doesn’t try and add any sodding Ewoks to the Silurian/Judoon/Sontaran alliance, we should be in for a treat as the story continues to unfold.