Doctor Who: A Good Man Goes to War

Media Timehead Doctor Who The Oncoming Storm River Song

Well. That was certainly an intense hour of television.

Absurdly Huge Spoilers Ahead!

Let me jump right to the end, and then backtrack. River Song is the Timehead, who, it turns out, was originally named Melody Pond. As I mentioned on Friday, this is mildly disappointing because it was the most obvious solution given the current evidence. But while the reveal was a bit predictable, it was delivered well. Melody’s name is dropped into the story in the first few seconds of the episode, but her identity as River is not confirmed until the very end, which creates a lovely tension in which the viewer spends the entire episode actively engaging with the story, trying to work out whether River and Melody are the same person, or whether this is a misdirection. As an example of that engagement, when River said her name was written on the cradle, I was, for one brief moment, convinced that River was Susan (the Doctor’s Granddaughter, see An Unearthly Child). This came from speculating about who the cradle was originally made for, of course.

And that brings me to one of the unanswered questions this episode left us with - where DID that cradle come from? If it has Melody Pond written on it in Gallifreyan, and simultaneously is very old, where did it come from? My assumption is that it really is the Doctor’s (or Susan’s? or one of Susan’s parent’s?) cradle, with Melody’s name written on it recently (as in, immediately prior to that scene) by the Doctor, eager to play godfather. That seems like the most likely explanation, although it isn’t explicitly spelled out in the narrative.

Of course, the Melody/River reveal is only a small part of the story; the Battle of Demon’s Run comprises the majority of the episode. And it was epically delivered. By that I mean that this story makes a conscious effort to be epic. Look at the scenes of the Doctor building an army; he is clearly preparing for something big, and the various reactions to his call to arms make it obvious that something big is about to happen. This is the Doctor in his Oncoming Storm aspect, terrible and mighty and unstoppable. And the 11th Doctor doesn’t even consciously realize that he is doing this; all he knows is that he is angry, and is doing what he must to save someone he loves.

Another way the episode builds an epic feeling is by focusing on monologues; every recurring character gets at least one powerful dramatic monologue. The Doctor always gets to monologue, of course, but here, Rory, River, and Amy all get chances to shine. Amy’s monologue in the pre-credit sequence is especially interesting, because it employs the same fake-out we saw in Day of the Moon. And the subsequent scene with Rory and the Cybermen is one of the most impressive moments Arthur Darvill has had so far. These monologues give the impression that the characters are talking directly to the viewer rather than to any character in particular; this lends an epic, larger-than-life feeling to the narrative.

And at the center of it, the story being told is still an intensely personal story. Rory and the Doctor are turning the universe upside down, and storming this fortress with all of their allies, to save one girl and her child. To save the people they love. This is Doctor Who doing what it does best - making the personal epic.

There are some less epic personal moments as well - in the characters of Fat One, Thin One, and Lorna. Unfortunately, these are overshadowed by the epic sweep of the story, and they come across as weak points in an otherwise fantastic story. The characters simply don’t get enough screen time to make us care about them deeply.

Something this episode highlights - and I hinted at it before - is a major difference between the 10th and 11th Doctors. Ten knew he was a dangerous, potentially frightening force. The fact that death follows him was something Ten was keenly aware of. Eleven seems genuinely surprised that people would be afraid of him, and what he stands for. When he learns that people are waging a war against him, he is devastated. The Pandorica was different - even when he thought all of his enemies were arrayed against him, that made sense - these were all people whom he had given a chance, and then destroyed when he felt he had no further choice. But here, he is confronted with people who simply fear him, and have organized to destroy him. It takes him a few minutes to process this information, but after he does, he seems to be his old self again. He seems to have resolved his inner turmoil about being so hated by people for reasons unknown to him.

And most importantly, he has a plan.

Edit (2012.07.25): I recently rewatched this episode, and the scene with the cradle that confused so many of us is actually pretty clear on a second watch. The Doctor looks down at the inside of the cradle, and River’s line about the writing on the cradle being in Gallifreyan pretty clearly implies “that’s not the writing what I’m talking about”. But it confused enough people that something about that delivery must be off, although I can’t spot the something anymore.