Sunday, June 05, 2011

Extraordinary League

Before I get stuck into a review of Saturday’s Doctor Who episode, let me just get something out of my system:

I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!

It’s tough to be entirely objective when buoyed up by the satisfaction of having been right all along, but on the other hand it’s one helluva neat trick to deliver an episode that gives the answer you expect while also magically avoiding the trap of predictability. The Grand Moff is quite the conjurer.

A Good Man Goes To War was everything it needed to be and more. I was concerned that the mid-season break might damage the show, with too large a chunk of the audience losing interest during the summer interval. Autumn may prove me wrong, but now I’m pretty confident that anyone who watched it will be back for more. Hopefully along with a lot of others who just heard about how bloody good it was.

It was big, bold, gutsy, brave and tugged at the heart-strings. This is the first episode in ages I’ve rewatched the following morning and I shed genuine tears. In amongst the genuine out-loud laughter and woo-hoos of delight. My main grumble is that we should have had two episodes of this, instead of the dreary Flesh runaround of the preceding couple of weeks. Plainly, the Flesh plays a significant part in this season’s arc, but there was more life and excitement and suspense and emotion in any randomly selected five minutes of this than there was in the entire Almost story.

The opening scene was enough to confirm for me the identity of Amy’s daughter – the name Melody Pond on the side of the crib – so it kicked off with a little Yay! From me from the get-go. The destruction of the 12th Cyberfleet was a bit of unnecessary grandstanding and further undermined a Who monster reduced to a bit of a joke by too many rubbish stories... *but* it served to underline a key point which comes up later *and* finally gave us a Rory full of authority and maturity, one we could believe had stood guard over his beloved Amy for millennia. “Don’t give me those blank looks.” Brilliant. And then the punch: “Shall I repeat the question?” to a backdrop of a fleet breaking apart in fireballs.

Grabbed my attention.

Then we’re treated to a look-in on Demon’s Run and its residents: the creepy order of Headless Monks and the Anglican army (previously seen as good guys in Time Of Angels) - both of which have an irresistably (Robert) Holmesian flavour – and some elaborate, extensive trap laid for the Doctor by Mrs Eyepatch. Amy’s declaration to her captors is highly-charged and the subtle introduction of Lorna, watching on as Amy’s baby is taken is superbly done. I will say the gay Anglican couple were amusing, if not great in the acting department – but the horror of the fat one’s conversion is expertly dished up – without the need to show us anything but an empty – waiting – box.

Then we’re off on a whirlwind tour of time and space as the Doctor and Rory recruit their Magnificent Several for their own battle beyond the stars. And they’re a fantastically colourful collection of characters too. Sword-wielding Victorian lesbian Silurian and her maid sidekick (Tipping The Scales, anyone?); Sontaran nurse (I can just picture him in Casualty); and wheeler-dealer Dorium (“What do you need me for? I’m old. I’m fat. I’m blue!”). Storming little scenes that deftly paint the characters and backgrounds (and doubtless spawn several thousand works of fan fiction, but these scenes are honestly all we need!) And, of course, Rory the Roman turning up to enlist River.

Oh my god, I loved that scene. River: “Turn it off. I’m breaking in, not out.” The whole thing is beautifully laced with emotion and razor-wit, both of which cut deep. Is Rory the ‘Good Man’ that River kills? I ask this because although we have seen the Impossible Astronaut shoot the Doctor, I’m not sure we can be sure the young River was in the suit at the time or indeed how or by whom she would be arrested for the crime. I foresee a certain future ahead and how this all might play out, but I’m reserving speculation for the moment – partly because of the spoiler potential, I suppose, but mainly I think because I doubt the chances of my being right twice. ;-)

Anyway, what’s true of that scene holds true for most of the rest of the episode. Moffat writes rollercoasters that spiral around themselves and take you on topsy-turvy heart-wrenching rides in the best possible way. The triumphalism of the Doctor’s battle on Demon’s Run is very RTD-like, but it has the advantage of occurring early on and we know it’s all just been too easy and that there is a bitter downfall to come. We’d know it even without River’s prophesy.

Where a two-parter might have enhanced that would be in elaborating on that battle, making it a little less obviously too easy. What we get is something of a shorthand version and the bad guys’ trap might have seemed a touch cleverer – and we would have gotten to see the Extraordinary League in action some more. As it is, within the time allotted, it works – even if I did fully expect the Doctor to be revealed under one of those Monk hoods and when he says, “Surprise!”, I wasn’t really. But I still enjoyed it all the same and the story had further surprises to come.

The Anglicans chanting “We’re not fools” went on a bit too long for my tastes. That’s an incidental though and the magic carries on around it, culminating in the Doctor’s 3 mins 42 seconds victory (NB not without bloodshed as the Sapphic Silurian – thanks, iCowboy! – later claims) and is not even sullied by the pirate captain and the space spitfires turning up to remind us of two of the poorer stories in the last couple of years. The great truth is that there’s almost too much fantastic stuff going on *after the battle is over* to properly cover in the space of this review.

You know me, I never like to harp on too long. But I have to cite just a few of the special moments.

The Doctor’s anger and his breaking of Colonel Runaway. That’s the vengeance of a Good Man. Amy’s tearful reunion with Rory and her baby – and the Doctor joining them and speaking baby. The Doctor and the Silurian discussing when the baby ‘began’. The Monks and their attack prayer. River's voice-over 'Demon's Run, When A Good Man Goes To War...' recital while everything is coming undone. Dorium’s wasteful death. The Magnificent Several’s heroic stand. The ‘fool you twice with the same trick’ flesh-baby. Hands up, I did not see that coming. I feel like I should have done, but hats off to Moffat. And Amy’s reaction. I get a chill now just thinking about it, the way she screams out Rory’s name.

The Sontaran’s death and his connection with Rory: “Rory, I’m a nurse.” Lorna’s death and the Doctor’s lie: “Who was she?” “I don’t know but she was very brave.” “They always are.”

The cot. Not only a wonderfully quirky example of Gallifreyan meets Gipetto carpentry, but it raises so many fascinating questions. Some of which Amy and Rory put to the Doctor, of course: “Have you ever had children?” To which there’s clear evasion going on and surely the Doctor’s lying when he tells them the cot is his. Thank goodness he’s not a suspect in LA Noire, because I’d never have been able to read the lie. Later, River is asking him if he’s forgotten how to read and there’s a close-up of the Gallifreyan script. So it’s her cot. Sure it could have been his as well at some point in the distant past, but I don’t mind admitting I have trouble getting my head entirely around the River-Doctor timeline. Moffat cooks a mean pasta dish but I can’t wait for him to properly untangle all the spaghetti.

River’s arrival on the scene is, in any case, the crowning moment. The speech she gives the Doctor is a rude awakening for him, a home truth. It happens to echo something I’ve wondered for a while now and harkens back to that scene with the destruction of the cyberfleet: has the Doctor become too powerful? The man who can turn armies around at the mention of his name. And, as River puts it, if he carries on this way, what will his name become? What will he become?

It’s inspired, to explore the consequences of that. I wonder if it will lead to a sort of reining in of the Doctor, something of a return to his older ways where he wasn’t quite so in command all the time. At the same time, it’s difficult to see how he could take a step back from what he is now, without some kind of regeneration or otherwise cataclysmic trauma. (And who knows, with the teaser shot that followed this week’s episode, that could well be what’s coming...!)

That is ultimately part of the beauty of what Moffat has left us with. This has all the spectacle and grandeur and epicness of a season finale, with all the advantage of also feeling like part one of a however-many-parter. The ending strikes a kind of Empire Strikes Back note, with the Doctor heading off to recover Amy’s daughter while the others remain behind with, er, Amy’s daughter.

On the subject of which revelation (I knew it!), it just bears out how superbly it’s been played all along. I sensed a bond between Amy and River, a similarity even – to an extent they’ve been played like female Doctors and that has to have contributed to the chemistry that’s evident whenever we’ve seen the Amy-River-Doctor team in action. (That and you get the sense the actors have a whale of a time.) And I totally buy it, as long as River never actually calls Amy ‘mum’. That would just look/sound really odd. Temporal shenanigans will do that, I guess.

There are questions. Umpty-gazillion, I’m sure. For one, exactly who is it that the Doctor has scared so much that they’ve gone to these lengths? The Daleks? The Silence? Silent Daleks? Whoever or whatever, the season has a real villain, a real enemy at its core - no matter how long we have to wait before we see them. But what Moffat pulls off with this halfway finale is to ice this cake with a major major answer and sprinkle all those other questions on top like hundreds and thousands. And as if that wasn’t enough to make us sit up and eagerly await Doctor Who’s return in the autumn, they then promise that he’ll be back in an episode entitled:

Let’s Kill Hitler.

That alone was worth a laugh out loud and a huge round of applause.




iCowboy said...

Strangely although it had a bit of the same kitchen sink to plotting we had in last season's climax this was much more satisfying. I guess it was because this time we got a chance to learn why various races were in alliance (this time with the Doctor), so even though each alien got no more than a couple of minutes of introduction you actually knew just enough to actually give a damn.

And yes I do want to see a spin-off where a Silurian lovely eats various Victorian horrors amidst the London fog and the ping and creak of whalebone...

I was expecting the Cybermen to feature much more (even if I find their current art deco look a bit - well crap) and my first thought when their fleet went up in smoke was 'what a waste!' but then thinking about it - a Doctor who can do that to one of the hardest races in the Universe is worthy of fear. Although I still can't work out how Rory escaped - even after giving a line worthy of any Hollywood action star (he really should have been wearing a dirty vest for the full Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Lundgren/Willis/Gonzo look)

The headless monks are another seriously creepy idea from Mr. Moffatt who is clearly in need of major therapy - although not before he's finished giving us the sort of horrors he's been serving up as of late.

For those of us who find it hard to choose between Amy and River it was a hell of an episode. Nope - still can't decide, but let's hope this shuts those people up who inexplicably don't think Karen Gillen is anything other than fantastically wonderfully watchable - my campaign for BBC Pond (All Amy, All Day) continues.

I just hope George Lucas wasn't watching because a lot of the look and feel of that episode was Star Wars - and good - very few bits of SF have the solidity of the SW universe where you get the impression someone has been obsessing over every tiny detail.

BTW. Madame Vastra's horseman was called Parker - surely a shout out to Thunderbirds?

Oh and my favourite line has to be 'point a gun at me if it helps you relax,' only the Doctor could possibly pull that off, and until now only Tom Baker could have got away with it. But I suspect Matt Smith is in danger of toppling the scarf wearer as the definitive Doctor.

'Let's Kill Hitler' - a brilliant silly laugh after a hard fought episode. And I cannot wait.

iCowboy said...

Oops - forgot one bit I really liked...

The Sontaran realising as he dies that there's nothing glorious about dying. Almost an aside in the pace of things, but a nice change from the dramatic norm that there is such as thing as a heroic death which makes it all right.