What a mess - an incoherent stream of set-pieces, some brilliant, some not. A lot like Journey's End.
I should probably mention that I liked Journey's End. I didn't like this one quite as much, but like that one, I have to admit that the highlights were fantastic. So let me rephrase that opener: what a wonderful, glorious, magnificent mess. A failure, yes, but a fantastic failure.
Matt Smith's performance was extraordinary, even by his standards.
Smith is a huge Patrick Troughton fan, and a lot of his Doctorliness is very Second Doctorly. The bowtie is the most obvious one, but he also does many of the more subtle Troughton tricks with his presence and deliver. But here, there's a bit about halfway through when he does an eerily accurate impersonation of Patrick Troughton's grin. That I never expected, but the way he says "When?" to the Silurian is a much more surprising impression. Maybe it's just me, but I swear the way he said it was pure Colin Baker. I half expected him to repeat it twice more. But I especially loved that incredibly dark, threatening look he gives to River near the end when he's finally sick of her yanking his chain about who she is and what's happening.
Rory's setup doesn't make much sense. The idea is good - the Doctor has him dress like a Centurian, flying through time and space being all kinds of awesome, making whatever remains of the "Last Centurian" legends from the Pandorica Universe spread into a legend nearly as great as the Doctor himself. However, that incredibly complex, insane idea is presented in about half a sentence, then forgotten. It needed a lot more buildup and payoff.
... but, to be honest, that doesn't matter much, because Rory's awesomeness is finally, totally unleashed. And it's absolutely fantastic.
As you'd expect from Moffat, there were many great lines of dialogue, but this was probably my favorite:
AMY: I am armed, and very dangerous, and very cross.
RORY: Yeah, like I don’t know that.
However, most of the other highlights were moments and scenes jammed together with no cohesion or thought. It didn't feel like a two-parter crammed into one; it was more like an already tight, packed three-parter hacked to pieces and stitched together at random. It would be like taking "The War Games" and cutting down to 45 minutes: all the epic ideas and terrific villains would just barely make their own appearances, and when the Time Lords show up at the end for the first time, it would be less brain-exploding and more of an anticlimax.
And that's very much how this felt: great, epic ideas with no room to develop or even fully appear. The Headless Monks were fantastic, but only got a few minutes of showtime and were never satisfyingly fleshed out. The opening, with the Doctor and Rory vs. the Cybermen, was cool as a vague snippet, but would have been amazing in full. As it was, it just felt kinda tacked on at the beginning.
And the samurai sword-wielding Victorian Silurian chick (complete with Victorian companion totally cool and nonchalant with her whole Silurianness) especially needed more screentime. Maybe a whole episode. Or season. Or her own spinoff show. Seriously, she was an ingenious idea, and a blast to watch, but felt somehow incomplete, and had to cram stuff like always calling the Doctor "Old friend" so we knew she was good, but doesn't really work because it's just so rushed.
And lots of stuff that didn't work at all. The Space Spitfires appearing? I love the Space Spitfires, one of the only good things about the last 2/3 of Victory, but what the hell were they doing here? That entire extended piece where the monks and clerics face off, then don't face off, then are ambushed, was a great idea in theory, but fell totally flat. The timing of everything was just completely off. And while I liked seeing the pirates again, just giving them 5 seconds of screentime feels like a waste.
Finally, of course, there's the twist, conveyed in some beautifully acted dialogue, but it's not so much that it was bad as it didn't really fit the build-up. I mean, the build-up suggested that the second River showed up, everything went totally to hell because of her dark secret; she was always so tearful and fearful and, above all, always apologizing for it. She says here she can't even show up until then end.
Then it turned out it was just a pretty simple little twist that made the Doctor happy and giddy and running off to his next adventure. It just doesn't fit. Granted, we're still waiting to see who River killed to get in jail, but still. Again, though, with all this carefully spread through three episodes, it might have actually worked. As it was, though, everything was totally off-balance.
It's not that the twist was bad. Obvious, yes, but still a good addition to River's character. It just doesn't fit everything leading up to it.
But it's the very purpose of the story that really flops. I've been questioning how I felt about A Good Man for months, and only after seeing Let's Kill Hitler does its central problem stand out. Let's Kill Hitler, as I argued, is about the Doctor winning not because of his bravery or cleverness, but simply because of his goodness. And for all Let's Kill Hitler's flaws - and it shares most of them with this one - it succeeds beautifully at its central thrust. And with that working, all the other parts that do work - the dialogue, the visuals, the imagination - carry it through some pretty substantial rough patches.
But part of that purpose is to contrast what A Good Man is supposed to show: the Doctor's dark side turning against him. As they say numerous times, the Doctor will rise further than ever before, than fall further than ever before. Which, given how many times he has saved literally the entire universe and his destruction of his own entire species, are pretty big orders to fill. What he accomplishes in A Good Man is... well, to be honest, it's so incoherently plotted that it's difficult to say what exactly he accomplishes, but he does defeat an entire army without firing a shot - and an army set out specifically to kill him, to boot. When Awesome Silurian tells him, "You have never risen higher," it doesn't quite ring true, but still, it's a pretty impressive accomplishment he's only pulled off about once every other season since 1970.
It turns out that "Doctor" means warrior to one particular planet. And everything comes crashing down; the villains undo everything the Doctor accomplished except saving Amy, and pull the flesh trick on him a second time in a sensational moment. Pulling the same trick on the Doctor twice is pretty impressive.
But River finally shows up, and tells the Doctor that this is all his fault. That all the fear he creates, all the power he weilds, forces people to go to the most desperate and insane measures to stop him.
... which doesn't make sense. Turning the Doctor's dark side on him is a great concept, but that's not how it works. At all. It's his fault that the villainous and greedy do desperate things to allow them to continue their villainy and greed?
And we haven't seen much of the Doctor's darkness. Flashes, yes, but none of the man who once decided he could destroy entire worlds, none of the man who exterminated his own species, none of the man who tried to rule time itself. And the consequences certainly don't match that. The Doctor's dark side in A Good Man essentially boils down to laying out a really cold verbal smackdown to one of the bad guys.
It's not something you really could do justice to in 45 minutes. 90 minutes would be really, really tight, but might just barely do the trick. But it doesn't work here. For all its flaws, Let's Kill Hitler masterfully tells of the Doctor's goodness and its impact. For all its qualities, A Good Man Goes to War fails to tell of the Doctor's darkness and its consequences.
For all that, I can't say A Good Man Goes to War didn't keep me on the edge of my seat, that it wasn't funny, and thrilling, and endlessly imaginative. It was all of those things and more. I can't say Moffat screwed up completely, but this is far from his finest hour, and maybe my least favorite of all the episodes he's written. It succeeds at entertainment while failing to actually tell the story it wants to tell. My brain tells me it's a mess. My heart tells me it means well. My gut tells me it was fun. And all I get from this argument is an upset stomache.
* * ½
- Random gay couple? Interspecies lesbians? What is this, Torchwood? Coupling? Coupliwood?
- Again, though, I should reiterate that the Silurian should get her own spin-off show. She was just way too cool.
- Moffat's response to the various nitpicks about plot holes and such? "Err... look, KITTENS!!!" I officially forgive Moffat for every mistake ever made and ever will make. (I'm sure he was losing a lot of sleep over that.)
- Karen Gillan is a truly beautiful woman, and few episodes have showcased that quite as beautifully as this one.