In direct contrast to its predecessor, ‘The Almost People’ – which was a fairly average episode lifted by a wonderful, astonishing, jaw-dropping ending – ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ is a stunning, iconic celebration of everything that makes Doctor Who so good – and all the things it has the potential to be – let down by an ending so tepid it’s like finishing the best meal you’ve ever had with a glass of lukewarm orange squash.
Doctor Who has always worked very well in comics – it has a heritage in frames almost as rich as its televisual history – and this episode worked in precisely the way a good comic works: a series of wonderful, poetic images laced together by a story that was well-told, easy to follow and laden with the kind of elegantly simple dialogue (both funny, moving and punch-the-air-in-jubilantly-righteous-anger) that has made Steven Moffat the best writer the programme has ever had.
From the very beginning, when Rory stands boldly in front of a massive gang of Cybermen – ‘Don’t give me those blank looks’ – with their fleet exploding to smithereens behind him, everything unfolds perfectly. The Doctor’s army is formed via a series of those tiny, comic book snapshots (a lesbian Silurian polishing off Jack the Ripper and a Sontaran who, like a direct opposite of Rory, is a warrior being a nurse) until we reach Demons Run, a giant synthetic cabbage floating in space where Amy and her baby daughter are imprisoned by the horrible, eye-patch-wearing Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) and an army that exists purely to kill the Doctor.
Then the Doctor turns up disguised as a Headless Monk (a silent order of Emperor Palpatines from Star Wars who, as was fairly obvious, were thus named because of their cranial deficits) along with his army of Silurians, WWII fighter pilots and Hugh Bonneville, banishing all the baddies in a single, bloodless twist of his bowtie. Amy, Rory and baby Melody are all reunited and everything’s lovely. Except of course, it isn’t. Everything at Demons Run was a trick and more, much nastier Headless Monks turn up, killing just about everyone who isn’t crucial to the second half of the series.
Baby Melody – who, as Amy feared, has more than a little ‘time head’ about her – vanishes in a splurge of yoghurt to become what Kovarian wants her to be: a weapon of the same force and magnitude as the Doctor. Matt Smith, in possibly his finest moment as a Time Lord, has never looked so lost and helpless as he sees the death, loss and horror that his greatest victory has turned into. ‘Where the hell were you today?’, he screams at River Song as she arrives… and then, just as it has for the Doctor, everything goes wrong for us as well.
If this is Doctor Who’s finest hour – and until the final five minutes, it was shaping up that way – the show, like its lead character, has never fallen so far so fast. River starts spouting uncharacteristically prosaic dialogue about her relationship with the Doctor and tells Amy that everything’s going to be alright. The Doctor dashes off in the TARDIS to save Melody and River reveals, as had become uncomfortably clear, that River Song and Melody Pond are one and the same person. It’s not a bad ending; it just feels wrong. It’s not like being given a plastic comb for Christmas when you were expecting a Scalextric; it’s like being told on Christmas morning that it’s actually Ash Wednesday. It’s not disappointing or disillusioning; it’s oddly desensitizing, leaving a bewildered sense that this just can’t be it.
And that’s where we find ourselves left until the autumn and a date not only with rescuing a baby River Song but – if we take the title of Episode 8 literally, which of course we shouldn’t do – killing Hitler as well: in a state of slightly numb confusion. If the conclusion to the series pans out like the first forty-five minutes of ‘A Good Man Goes To War’, it’ll be a triumph. If it ends as this did, it’ll be a major disappointment.
(for the first 45 minutes)
(for the ending)
Airs at 6.40pm on Saturday 4th June 2011 on BBC One.