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A Good Man Goes to War
Submitted by Geoffrey Dow on Fri, 2011-06-17 10:00
Spread the word!
Trial of the show-runners
It's the story, not the outline
Despite the existence of masterpieces like the Alice books, there remains a strong prejudice against any entertainment meant for children; add such labels as science fiction or fantasy and there can be little wonder that even those lucky enough to grow up to take over a childhood favourite like Doctor Who often suffer from a powerful urge to dress it up in more "sophisticated" clothing.
Take Russell T Davies, whose first two series were remarkably true to the spirit of the classic program. Nevertheless, he followed that up by making Doctor Who more "adult", bringing to it more overt and intense violence and by switching the focus from the Doctor's companions to the Doctor himself.
And so, in Davies' third series, the Doctor — that "amazing man" — became a "lonely god" and the fragile silliness inherent in the program's premises — the effortless travel through time and space, the life of adventure in which brains and a screw-driver conquer armies, and the miracle of physical regeneration — began to crumble beneath the weight of arm-chair psychology and a desperation to Be Meaningful.
When that sort of revisionism works, as it did with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, the results can be stunning, but they are seldom remotely suitable for children, nor do they encourage sequels (as Miller himself recognized; his own follow-up made central the satire that had been a sort of chorus in the original) a corporate franchise requires.
More often, we suffer variations on what we have had from Doctor Who since Davies' third series. Weak stories framed by grand concepts, histrionics in place of character development, and frantic promises that each edition will be even louder and more monumental than the last. (Never mind that fans and critics alike prefer those episodes in which story takes precedence over concept, as with "The Doctor's Wife" this series or "Vincent and the Doctor" last year.)
The Doctor is a physical and psychological impossibility. If we accept the premise of the ever-regenerating, 900 year-old Time Lord (and we do!), to ask us to take him as only a man — one whom we can understand as we might old man Johnson up the street — is to ask too much. The key thing about 900 year-old aliens who travel anywhere in time and space is that we cannot understand them. (In truth, most of us don't really understand old man Johnson, either.)
So, when Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat take on that task (one which would have pushed the imagination even of Shakespeare to its limit), the result is (almost always) pretentious or silly, or both.
And thus we get television that is neither good children's fiction nor good adult drama, but only a mess that must loudly keep telling us how important everything is. Which brings us to the 50 minutes of frankly awful story-telling that is "A Good Man Goes to War", which displays everything that is wrong with Steven Moffat's Doctor Who save the moral idiocy that so blighted "A Christmas Carol" and "Day of the Moon").
Over-ripe with portentous dialogue, with frenetic calls to action that never occurs and exposition, exposition, exposition, nothing much actually happens in "A Good Man Goes to War"; and what does happen, doesn't make sense.
A bit of a synopsis is in order. (I've struggled to keep this manageable; for the full 1,300 word version, complete with snark (but not with pictures or much in the way of formatting, click here), or visit Livejournal's Eviltigerlily for a more concise and probably funnier summary.
During the first fifteen minutes, Amy conducts a monologue to her baby in full view of Eye-Patch Lady and her heavily-armed minions; Rory (somehow) destroys a Cyberman base on behalf of the Doctor; we learn Eye-Patch Lady controls a base (Demon's Run) guarded by a large contingent of soldiers whose mission is to battle the Doctor, and that the Doctor, in turn, is raising an army of his own.
(It's worth noting that Moffat continues to counter the perception that his Who is anti-gay, both well and badly. On the positive side is the introduction of the intriguing Victorian human/Silurian lesbian couple; on the negative, the gay marines who don't need names. "We're the thin, fat, gay married Anglican marines. Why would we need names as well?" The joke might be funny in 2011, but in the context of the story it makes no sense, which is a recurring problem.
(On the subject of bad jokes, River tells of being serenaded by Stevie Wonder under London Bridge in 1814. "But you must never tell him!" she admonishes Rory. Why? Because ... Stevie Wonder is blind, of course! Ha ha ha.
(One more example of the terrible writing that blights this episode. After River Song makes fun of blind people, Rory tells her, "I've come from the Doctor too." "Yes," says River, "but at a different point in time." Because we (and Rory) have no doubt forgotten that time travel is one of the Doctor's major party tricks. Thanks River! And thanks, Steven.)
Speaking of terrible writing, back at Demon's Run, the Serious Colonel rallies his troops. "The Doctor is a living, breathing man. And ... we're sure as hell going to fix that!" But not with much discipline, as the Knitting Marine has skipped out on the rally and somehow got past Amy's guards to bring her a "prayer leaf". The women bond, since they have both met the Doctor.
At the rally, there is a Big Reveal. The Headless Monks (didn't I mention the Headless Monks? Well, no loss; they don't actually matter to speak of) are ... headless! But wait! One of them is really the Doctor in disguise!
Music swells, lights go out and, though the Serious Colonel shouts "Nooooo!" the Doctor and his friends are soon in command. Even the Silurian lesbian thinks he's hot. "My friend, you have never risen higher."
Baby back in Amy's arms, enemies captured by Judoon and Silurian soldiers, there are hugs all around, and even one (count it, one!) funny joke (that would be the Sontaran nurse's "magnificent quantities of lactic fluid"). Then more exposition, and the Doctor finally wonders, Why do they want Amy's baby, anyway? The Silurian (through some inexplicable Lesbian Silurian Intuition, presumably) wonders if the baby is really human. And guess what? The baby has Time Lord genes!
35 minutes into the 50-minute episode, the Sontaran and the Knitting Marine realize there might be someone else on the base. "The Headless Monks ... don't register as life-forms." Yes, the Judoon really are that dumb; but the plot requires somebody to mess up, so it might as well be the Judoon.
Speaking of dumb, more or less while a Silurian redshirt is dispatched by the returning Monks, Eye-Patch Lady makes a video-call to gloat — and to explain her plans. The baby in Amy's arms is actually a Flesh avatar!
While the Doctor runs to Amy and dissolves the Flesh baby, the Monks attack and River Song narrates a bad poem in voice-over, for that subtle touch.
The battle over, the Doctor returns to the dramatically pointless field. We share a moment with the dying Knitting Marine, and the survivors wander around emoting, even the Doctor, who asks the Silurian if she doesn't sometimes wish he gave up more often.
Then River Song drops in for the Grand Reveal: River is Amy's baby! Doctor is energized, rushes to TARDIS, tells River to get everyone home and ... th-th-th-that's all, folks!
Baffling episode is baffling.
Bad writing is bad writing.
Disappointed fan is grumpy critic.
A good writer goes to pot
As I think the over-long synopsis above goes to show, there is no there there in "A Good Man Goes to War". No narrative flow, no tension, no story.
The action is static when it doesn't occur off-stage and the jokes aren't funny. The emotional scenes leave the viewer cold because they are so obviously manipulative; I didn't believe in Amy's maternal agonies and a week after watching the Knitting Marine die for a third time I don't remember her name any more than the Doctor did — compare that to Ida Scott and Mrs. Muir, both of whose names and characters remain with me to this day!
"A Good Man Goes To War", is less a story than it is a demented 50 minute promo, referencing stories yesterday and stories tomorrow, but never telling a story today.
In his desperate desire to wow us with his double-series arc about the Doctor, Moffat has forgotten the cardinal rule of serialized fiction: by all means keep the big picture in mind, but make sure the chapters be entertaining in and of themselves! An especially popular writer or a corporate franchise with a large and loyal fan-base can get away with a few confusing or unsatisfying (or even downright bad) instalments, but the goodwill will only last so long.
'Jam to-morrow and jam yesterday — but never jam to-day'
So why has this program been going from wrong to wronger since the end of 2006? And how is it that the man who wrote episodes as nearly sublime as "The Doctor Dances" has been responsible for 21 episodes of a program of which arguably only two have been memorable?
As I said at the outset, the problem began not with Moffat but with his predecessor's decision that the Doctor be the emotional core of the program's stories, rather than the catalyst for them.
What did Davies initially do right? Let's take a look at his first two series, which I'll refer to collectively as Rose.
The key to Rose was Rose herself. The Doctor was a mysterious and charismatic figure — both Eccleston and Tennant hinted at tragic depths behind the character's peripatetic existence — but the story belonged to Rose Tyler. (When it strayed, as with the Moffat-penned "The Girl In the Fireplace", the Doctor was portrayed not as a mystery, but, for example, as a 900 year-old horn-dog with the emotional integrity of an immature teenage boy.)
Though evident during those first two years, Davies' weaknesses as a story-teller — his disregard for internatl logic, his urge to humanize the inhuman Doctor, his love of melodrama — were kept largely in check by the correct choice he made at the outset. The story was a classic bildungsroman, but one that Davies managed to dress up in a fresh suit of clothes and to deliver with an honest emotional wallop — twice.
Over two years we had the pleasure of seeing Rose Tyler grow from bored teenager into the hero of "The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit" diptych. (It's worth noting that Rose took command not because Acting Captain Cross Flame was incompetent or evil, but because he was simply out of his depths; Rose was used to the impossible and he was not. She had learned from the Doctor that it is not specific knowledge that saves the day, but imaginative intelligence, the ability to learn. Rose's leadership made full in-story sense.)
Davies cast that wise choice by the wayside in Series Three, making the Doctor himself the star of the program, rather than the companion. Davies was determined to humanize the alien, or rather, to psychologize him. Leaving behind the successful use of hints and suggestion that allowed the viewers to envision our own Doctor, Davies instead forced on us a supra-human neurotic who ended up as less than either god or man, rather than more.
A bildungsroman about a young girl is one thing; the coming-of-age story of a superman is something else entirely, a project nearly impossible, the failure of which can only turn the subject into a cartoonish caricature. No matter his undeniable qualities, this wasn't a story Russell T Davies had the chops to successfully tell.
The third and fourth series of Davies' Doctor Who were uneven in their parts, and ludicrous and dishonestly manipulative at their climaxes, respectively. The widely-derided 'Tinker Bell' solution to Series Three was laughable — or would have been, had Davies not subjected us to so much graphic violence and brutality to ensure we understood the High Stakes involved. Thus Martha Jones' heroics had the second-banana impact that characterized Freema Agyeman's entire run as the Doctor's companion.
(Yes, the story in outline seems to place Martha in a central role but, Martha's unrequited infatuation aside, from episode to episode the Doctor's companion in Davies' Series Three could have been anybody, no matter how many Martha fans may wish it were otherwise.)
Davies' fourth series restored the balance somewhat, though the strength of Catherine Tate's performance may have had as much to do with it as the scripts themselves. Regardless, Davies was still fascinated with the Lonely God motif (artist identification much?) and he milked shamelessly.
Nor did he hesitate to undermine the tragedy he had made of Rose's fate at the end of Series Three, by bringing her back for one more (repetitive) go-round. I admit, I too thrilled to the sight of the fully-manned TARDIS console and shed a tear at Rose's (second) exile, the blatantly manipulative finale left me feeling a little used once I'd had the time to think it over. Only the 'death' of Donna Noble, the shallow woman whose depths had been revealed through proximity to the Doctor, was genuinely moving, but that would be horribly undermined by the Farewell Tour of the Lonely God that was to come.
Of those specials, "The Next Doctor" and "The Planet of the Dead" were passable entertainments, pleasant but unremarkable. "The Waters of Mars" was truly powerful, so much so it was possible to believe that Davies would manage against all odds to make good on his decision to make the Doctor's inner life his theme, even while plausibly handing off to Steven Moffat a Doctor changed, but still the infinitely maleable itinerant adventurer and cosmic vagabond lurching from one adventure to the next.
We all know how it turned out. Davies' finale was not profound or moving, but ludicrous. A cliched battle of Good vs. Evil, with the Master literally leaping tall buildings and hurling energy bolts from his palms like a comic book super-villain. Following the pointless sacrifice of Wilf, intended to wring more tears from his audience, Davies indulged nearly every one of his weaknesses as a story-teller, sublimating his pomposity, sentimentality and enormous self-regard into the Doctor's half-hour farewell tour of former companions.
All of which led me to write, "Dear god, may the coming of Steven Moffat not be delayed another second!"
Be careful what you wish for, someone smarter than I once said, you just might get it.
After 21 episodes, it is now clear that Steven Moffat has absorbed many of Davies' worst habits, added a few of his own and shed all of his good instincts.
Living in reverse like some writerly River Song, the man who did so much right in his first outing — who among us can remember, "Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once, everybody lives!" without a thrill? — no longer seems able to even structure a story. "A Good Man Goes to War" is just another promissory note in what has become a very long chain of references to the past and teasers for a future that never arrives.
Fan-fiction aside, what we have now, and mostly have had since Rose's first exile to another universe, are attempts to marry a children's adventure fantasy with the psychological novel, resulting in a concoction that delivers neither the fun of the former nor the insight of the latter.
Thus the viewer is left with the option of foregoing secondary belief in favour of puzzle-solving, or of taking the post-modern path of doing the writer's job for him.
In Doctor Who according to Steven Moffat, fannish in-jokes replace contextual humour and matters of world-building, plot and character are only conveniences for the Next Big, Cool Concept.
Bow ties, Mr. Moffat, are only cool if you don't need to tell us that they are. And the Doctor is the Doctor only when he remains beyond (if not necessarily above) our easy comprehension.