What would provoke the Doctor enough for him to mobilise an army? That’s the question this episode answers as we see the Doctor mounting an armed assault upon the people who’ve stolen Amy and her baby. It’s an epic, barnstorming culmination of certain arc threads that have built up over the first half of Series 6, manifesting as something like a mid-series “finale” in its scale and drama, but still leaving an intolerable cliffhanger to be resolved when the series “returns” in Let’s Kill Hitler. In truth, this episode was a bit of a mess, trying to do an awful lot in 45 minutes, with a distinct dearth of actual plot as substance was crowded out by arc resolution and show-stopping action sequences. However, the essence of this episode was the arc stuff—which was as gratifying as it was jaw-dropping—as well as the numerous character moments that interspersed the action. It’s a great one to watch, but, of course, watched best in its proper chronological place in Series 6.
After the torturous cliffhanger that The Almost People left us with, we’re naturally ravenous to discover who had taken Amy and who the eyepatch woman was. We’re presented with scenes of a fully-blown army mobilising themselves against the Doctor. And Cybermen. I wasn’t sure what the Cybermen were there for, actually. They could have made that more clear. But these scenes of these heavily-armed and -manned adversaries of the Doctor making preparations to do battle against him really conveyed a sense of there being some greater, momentous plot at work here—of which not even the Doctor seems to be aware. Those who’ve seen The Time of the Doctor would know what this is all leading up to, of course, but viewing this for the first time would be baffling. Especially given Madame Kovarian’s pronouncement about “this endless, bitter war… against you, Doctor.” What war? What could possibly drive an army, that isn’t comprised of Daleks or Cybermen, to take up arms against the Doctor? And why on Earth would they want to turn Amy’s baby into a weapon? This episode offers no answers to those questions… they are to be left hanging, some of them for a very long time. But the payoff is great, if confusing. I promise.
This episode displays another interesting, rarely seen, side of the Doctor. “A Good Man Goes to War” is exactly what it says: what would make the Doctor, the supreme pacifist, amass an army and go to war? We have an answer: committing such an outrage against him as attacking the people he loves to get to him. The “Colonel Runaway” scene shows the terrible vengefulness that animated the Doctor over this enormity. And the Doctor’s spittle-flecked anger in that scene is genuinely frightening. He’s a foreboding presence when he chillingly pronounces, “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.” Matt’s Doctor is usually so cuddly and frivolous that it’s always a shock seeing real, cold fury in his eyes. And Matt does anger really well. One of the reasons Matt’s unpredictable, mercurial, inscrutable Doctor is my favourite. More generally, the episode also successfully conveys a sense of the almost mythological enigma that the Doctor has become through his travels, so much so that his very name strikes fear into armies. Lorna Bucket described him as a “dark legend”, leaving Amy befuddled, but little does she know of the twelve lifetimes he’s spent (not unjustifiably) acquiring a reputation, such that his name has all but passed into myth and legend. I think sometimes we get so familiar with the Doctor, especially Matt Smith’s and David Tennant’s more extroverted Doctors, that we forget that this is how the rest of the universe would see him.
All the cinematic action was interspersed by a number of wonderful character scenes. Lorna Bucket recounting the time she met the Doctor to Amy. Amy and Rory sharing a happy moment over their recovered child. The Doctor realising in astonishment who River Song was. River revealing to Amy and Rory who she was… and, God, that cliffhanger was amazing. Jaw-dropping. I remember exactly where I was, what I was eating (pizza), where my jaw was, and how I felt when I first watched that moment. The effect of that revelation has dulled with time, and now that I know who River Song is, but I still recall vividly what it was like watching it when it was broadcast. I thought Amy superbly written, and acted by Karen Gillan, in this episode. She was a woman under great emotional strain, but holding out strong nevertheless, which was portrayed brilliantly by Gillan. It was painful to watch Amy (in a good way) in profound emotional trauma after she’d realised she’d been tricked and her baby had been stolen from her at the end of the episode. This episode added layers to Amy’s character; the wise-cracking, sarcastic, vivacious Scots girl was nowhere to be seen here, although Amy did bravely force a smile through the pain and trauma she was experiencing.