At the start of Doctor Who’s new season, I waxed bookish about the ways in which Steven Moffat was screwing with literary and narrative convention and how that was probably a good thing. And while the twists and turns in the timestream since “The Impossible Astronaut” have been more jerky and bumpy than I would have hoped, “A Good Man Goes to War” did deliver a really exciting Doctor Who finale. Though I’m not sure it was an entirely convincing one. While I am among those who loved the big twist (spoilers!) I’m not sure I bought or even fully understood the notion of the Doctor “raising an army.” Many of the characters in the Doctor’s army were brand new, as were nearly all the baddies. Who are all these people and why haven’t we seen them before?
Moffat’s Who episodes have frequently relished in cramming in a lot of science fiction concepts into a single storyline. “Silence in the Library”/ “Forest of the Dead” is probably the best example of this over-stuffing tendency. Not only does the Doctor meet River Song for the first time, but he’s also dealing with a planet-sized library, a computer-program run by a little girl in a virtual reality world, Donna becoming trapped in said world, and Shadow Creatures called the Vashta Nerada which each your flesh and possess your space suits. One could almost argue it was too much, and maybe each of these concepts didn’t get their fair shake. Personally, I love the Library two-parter because of this over-stuffing. But, I’m glad it wasn’t the finale of that particular season.
The most recent finale “A Good Man Goes to War” also has numerous interesting ideas crammed into one episode. Though the notion of the Doctor turning people into weapons has been explored before, the idea that he would go into battle so actively made the whole notion really exciting. The Doctor has been angry before, but not this angry. I guess you have to start stealing babies to piss him off this much. Either way, despite the baddassery of recruiting a space army to go take over Demon’s Run; the members of said army (save for Rory) are characters we don’t really know. We’ve never met this particular Sontaran nurse, nor are we familiar with the situation between the female Silurian and her Victorian human girlfriend. The Blue Con Man didn’t ever strike me as all that memorable or someone who owed the Doctor any favors either. If anything, he might owe River Song something. And while it was nice to see the WWII planes from “Victory of the Daleks” and it was cute to have the pirate family from “Curse of the Black Mark” show up, I had a hard time believing these are the people the Doctor would really choose. More to the point, would he really need this much variety? What did each of these characters really bring to the table, tactically?
The majority of the muscle really seemed to be the hundreds of Silurians teleporting in and maybe the Judoon. So really, all he needed was Rory, and some thugs. When a good man goes to war, apparently he hires a bunch of goons. Further, if he was really going to bring in someone violent that would be happy to fight in his name, why not grab Captain Jack Harkness? The guy literally can’t die, so the Doctor wouldn’t even have to feel bad about putting Jack in danger!
Naturally, we know the real reasons these particular characters were chosen (or created) for the Doctor’s goon squad was because they are referencing more recent episodes. But then again, the Sontaran nurse is out of nowhere. Don’t misunderstand me, the idea of the Sontaran nurse was great and hilarious, but we’d never met him before. Further, the Doctor turning him into a nurse has never been depicted. When the character dies, we feel a little sad, but not as sad as we could because we don’t really know him. In fact, much of the Doctor’s army getting screwed over doesn’t feel particularly poignant because they’re all strangers.
And these are strangers fighting other strangers. Literally none of the antagonist have we encountered before. Yes, we’ve been given glimpse of the woman with the eye patch, and the sort of Catholic Army of the Future was depicted in “Time on Angles”, but these specific people have never been shown before. Who are all these people? And what is their beef with the Doctor, really? In “The Pandorica Opens” the legion of doom gathered there to imprison the Doctor had a specific problem with him: they though he caused the universe to blow up. Also, all of those bad guys were familiar to the the audience. Not so with the Headless Monks.
Why the Headless Monks, and why now? After a great season opener that set up the Silence and made them super, super scary, why not have them show up on Demon’s Run instead of the Headless Monks? I suppose it’s possible the Silence were in this episode and I’ve just forgotten them, but I think that maybe the Doctor would have made some kind of reference to them. Instead we get characters lacking any personality, so much so that they don’t even have heads. I could have gotten onboard with The Headless Monks thing in a different context, but here it felt like a totally different storyline shoved into a big finale.
Steven Moffat is fantastic at futzing with the conventions of writing, and likely has all kinds of specific reasons in his head for holding off on bringing back the Silence. However, being thrown off by non-linear storytelling is one thing, feeling like you’ve missed an episode is something else. We’ve never heard of Demon’s Run before! It’s just some weird thing that’s dropped in the episode. The Blue Guy says the little nursery rhyme about Demon’s Run is “the oldest” saying there is. Well, it would have been nice to at least have one or two references to Demon’s Run in previous episodes. Last season we at least mentioned the Pandorica before we saw it. What the hell is a Demon’s Run? I still don’t know. Who invented that phrase? A Time Lord Mother Goose? I don’t mind going along with the crazy conceits of Doctor Who, but when I’m rewarded for following a show with a finale featuring bunch of people I’ve never seen before, in a place I’ve never heard of, I feel a little ripped off.
Maybe it will all be redeemed and several seasons from now, when I learn the back story of all the great times the Doctor had with the Blue Guy or the Sontaran Nurse or the Headless Monks. Maybe I’ll I look back on this episode fondly, the same way I do with “Silence in the Library.” But somehow I kind of doubt it.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. He really likes Doctor Who. Honest.