That’s what a good deal of Steven Moffat’s tenure in charge of Doctor Who has been so far – teases and promises; the promise that all this will mean something, primarily, that all of this will make sense in the end. The promise that we’ll finally find out who River Song is (if indeed that’s the question we should be asking), that the importance of being Amy will ultimately be revealed – and the identity of Amy’s baby, too. Oh, and an answer to the vexing question of who it was, exactly, inhabiting that spacesuit at the beginning of The Impossible Astronaut, and of how the Doctor – the real Doctor – can die, and yet the series itself go on.
Ultimately, the promise has been that Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who will finally come out of the shadow of the last five years and mark its place, firmly and thoroughly, in the legacy of the show. And thus A Good Man Goes to War, to make good on some of those promises.
We were not to be disappointed. Like a Chess Master, the Grand Moff Steven has manoeuvred his pieces into such a position that victory is assured, even if we cannot see it yet. With the benefit of wibbly-wobbly (the greatest curse that Moffat has blessed himself with), we know already that the character under the greatest threat survives and even flourishes. The little girl lost becomes the Doctor’s Great Love Affair, her fate sealed as soon as the name Melody appeared on the screen. The Doctor’s excitement is palpable and infectious; he can barely contain himself as he watches his past and future seamlessly coalesce: the impossibility of a human with the ability to regenerate (or a, um, “time head” as Amy so succinctly put it), the fact that River knew his name and gave every indication of being his future lover; suddenly these inconsistencies in his wider understanding of his place in the scheme of things become utterly consistent with it. For who better for the Last of the Time Lords to fall in love with, but the child conceived of its godparent, the TARDIS? It’s been one of the weaker strands of the last series and a half, that Amy, a young woman who gives the impression of being a thoroughly ordinary companion (as magnificent and extraordinary as a thoroughly ordinary companion can be, of course), should turn out to be so important to the Doctor – and by extension, the series and its wider universe. I say one of the weaker strands; in a single sequence of revelation, Moffat turns that notion on its head, too. Now we can see why Amy is so significant. Now we can see how strong Moffat’s plotting has been all along. Like a Chess Master, quietly moving the pieces into position, quietly readying himself to make the killer move. And as surely as that cliffhanger revelation had to come, so did the shivers down the spine, no matter how anticipated.
The episode itself, then.
Something of a curate’s egg, I must confess. Taking Russell T Davies’ notion of the Time Lord Victorious, taking it to its logical conclusion, and wringing every last nuance of irony out of the idea (we took the word “doctor” from the Doctor himself, you know; and later, the word Doctor will come to mean “Warrior”), Moffat grabs the programme by the scruff of its neck and plonks it firmly in Star Wars territory. It’s a move that’s been threatening to happen for a while. The familial surprises on offer here could have come straight from that other great science fantasy series, were it not for the temporally paradoxical spin Moffat has woven into them. But the setting for the episode is like nothing as much as it is the enormous indoor sets from the first of those films. Never one to let a good idea idle, here we have the return of the Monster Alliance (although this time allied to the man they were allied against, previously), and the Doctor’s speech to the spaceships from The Pandorica Opens writ large: this time it ain’t “Come and get me if you think you’re hard enough,” it’s “Come and get behind me because you think I am hard enough.” We spend the first twenty minutes of A Good Man Goes to War hearing all about how the Doctor is the greatest warrior the universe has ever seen, watching as two opposing forces slowly convene to fight the legendary battle of Demons Run (and now we know why there’s no apostrophe in that phrase), and all of this in the complete absence of the Doctor himself. When he does make his appearance, it’s like Tennant asking if we missed him in The Christmas Invasion. Or Martin Sheen finally materialising in the dying moments of The West Wing’s first episode (Stephen Moffat would enjoy that comparison). It’s the series glorifying itself, only in this instance – as so often with Steven Moffat of late – that’s a twist in the tale, as the solving of the trap is the trap itself.
I said A Good Man Goes to War was a curate’s egg, and so it is. After a goodly while building up to a major battle, the thing is done within moments. After the promise of Cybermen (whose appearance is over the moment the titles crash in), Silurians and Sontarans fighting together, and for the Doctor, most of the skirmish happens off-screen. The “War” of the title is itself another of Moffat’s teases, and this self-proclaimed “mid-series finale” is actually a curiously slow and moody affair. Which is not to denigrate it, not one little bit. It’s a sensational trick to pull off, promising the earth and leaving your audience feeling satisfied and blissfully unaware that the promise was not only unfulfilled, but actually yet another trick. This was no Doomsday or Journey’s End – in fact quite the opposite, the promise now is of how Moffat will manoeuvre those pieces once again, this time coming good on all the other teases he’s dangled in front of us. Less the first half of a two-part story, and more a prologue to the rest of the series, A Good Man Goes to War is strangely unsatisfactory in story-telling terms, and yet thoroughly satisfying Doctor Who.
I wonder if Steven Moffat’s mother (or father, even) might have been a nurse, for not only is Rory almost deified as the ordinary man who displays valour and bravery in the face of adversity, but the Sontaran Strax here too is coerced into that profession – and mirrors Rory’s bravery by dying for the cause (no resurrection for the Commander though, alas). It would take more than a nurse to sort out the Headless Monks, though: there’s a gruesome idea given flesh, so to speak. Vastra, the Silurian, is an excellent addition to the long list of friendly “aliens” whom the Doctor has encountered down the years, and I for one would have loved to have seen the character as a regular. And the blue-skinned (and there’s an awful lot of it) Dorium Maldovar is a comic cosmic rogue straight out of any series with the word “Star” in its name you could care to mention; it’s about time Doctor Who once again started making recurring guests of characters like this (Sabolom Glitz, I’m looking at you).
But it’s the Doctor and Amy’s show, and they excel. Amy is as understated and as brilliant as her recent episodes have promised she can be, and Matt Smith is as wonderful as ever, arrogance, doubt and delight enchanting their way across his performance in a giddy dance of Doctorishness. It’s a pleasure to witness actors of this ability given the opportunity to play parts like this.
There have been a lot of promises made over the last eighteen months, and I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve had my doubts about whether Steven Moffat could deliver. But with this first dispatch from the front lines (which is surely where we’re heading now), he’s getting much closer to proving himself. It’s a thrilling (if rather less enervating than expected) glimpse of what’s to come, and now we have to wait three months for the next instalment (can they really call a Doctor Who episode Let’s Kill Hitler?!)... He’s such a tease, that Steven Moffat.