Demons Run When A Good Man Goes to War
3 June 2011
Demons run when a good man goes to war
Night will fall and drown the sun
When a good man goes to war
Friendship dies and true love lies
Night will fall and the dark will rise
When a good man goes to war
Demons run, but count the cost
The battle’s won, but the child is lost
NOTE: If you live in the US and are reading this, you have not yet seen the mid-series cliffhanger with two names – Demons Run and A Good Man Goes to War. As such, please be aware that this review holds nothing but lots of spoilers for you.
Please bookmark this review and read it next Saturday night, leaving comments if you would.
Series 6 has been a roller coaster ride unlike anything we have seen before in Doctor Who. It opened with the Doctor’s death, Amy’s pregnancy, President Nixon’s paranoia and new monsters called the Silence. Apart from Curse of the Black Spot and the Doctor’s Wife, all seven parts of this series have essentially functioned as one large story separated by running, yelling and the incessant pounding of Murray Gold’s string section. Mysteries have dangled from last year’s ‘Crack in Time’ story into this year where even more events have been unexplained such as Amy’s pregnancy, the girl in the astronaut costume who can regenerate and the annoying River Song whose camp insistence that she is important have only made her all the more tiring. With the series cut in two from the usual 13 parts to two sets of episodes, Moffat had to chose a point to not only break up the action but also provide at least some closure on these mysteries and dangling plot threads.
Demon’s Run feels very much like a Davies-era ‘kitchen sink’ finale which I take as weakness on the part of Moffat or the BBC. Either or both may think that viewers need a major blockbuster event in place of a story in order to qualify as a finale or cliffhanger. Of course this is not true as fans have been complaining of too many monsters and explosions being crammed on screen in place of story for at least three years. Nevertheless, from the opening moments of this adventure in which Rory (inexplicably dressed as a Roman Centurion) boards a Cybermen craft just as the Doctor (depicted as a fleeting shadow brandishing his magical sonic screwdriver) explodes their fleet. Perhaps that’s how the BBC Wales production team sees the Doctor, as a romantic pixie-like creature holding a magic wand. Yep, that actually fits.
Meanwhile, the Clerical order last seen in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone have captured Amy Pond and her newborn and are massing a large army to stop the Doctor, the most feared man in all creation. Alongside these sequences on board the asteroid base are jumps back and forth in time and space as numerous characters are recruited by the Doctor in order to pay back a debt. A comical Sontaran nurse (excellently played by Dan Starkey last seen in the Sontaran Stratagem), a Jack the Ripper hunting samurai Silurian living in Victorian London along with her companion Jenny, the blue-skinned Star Wars-reject from last year’s finale, Dorium Maldovar and of course River Song whose convoluted back story is so complex at this point that it’s unclear when in time we are visiting her. After consulting her diary of secret history, she declines Rory’s request to assist in the liberation of Amy Pond and her baby, much to the chagrin of both Rory and the Doctor.
The build-up lasts far too long and includes far too much exposition of established as well as new concepts, such as the Headless Monks with flaming laser swords. There were so many new characters bearing weapons and overly complicated back stories that I felt I was watching the Star Wars prequels. It certainly bore more a resemblance to Revenge of the Sith than Doctor Who. The only saving grace comes from some absolutely sterling performances from the aforementioned Starkey, Neve McIntosh as the Silurian Madame Vastra and of course Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. All of the main cast made the story almost bearable, but the guest cast of warrior clerics was laughable as was the ‘eye patch lady’ played by Frances Barber who apparently thought she was starring in as remake of Peter Pan as Captain Hook.
Demon’s Run is a mess of connect-the-dots story telling, bombastic exposition, fireworks and lots of actors posing for their action figures. It feels like a performance from Disney World rather than a television drama. Throughout the painful ordeal of the story, I wondered where this could all be leading as the music swelled and poetic verse was recited over slow motion combat. The Doctor, a goofy British guy in a jacket, was built up to be the most dangerous man to have ever lived. A massive army complete with deep-space support was assembled to hold him off while an evil woman with an eye patch attempted to steal a defenseless baby from a loving couple.
In previous stories of the classic Doctor Who program, the Doctor has allied himself with an existing resistance or stealthily acted against some invading alien forces to undo their plans. He didn’t proudly stand in their way proclaiming his intentions while they patiently waiting for his dialog to end. I find this approach of building the Doctor into a mythical champion to be laughable and reduces an otherwise sophisticated concept into a cartoon.
The Doctor of the classic Doctor Who program was defined as a hero by his actions rather than by his reputation. His liberation of the inhabitants of Paradise Towers was, in spite of the opposition, not because the monsters backed away in fear. When he encountered the Zygons living in the bottom of Loch Ness, he was not immediately known to them and feared as ‘the oncoming storm.’
The Doctor of the BBC Wales program is brash, proud and dangerous, his mere name instilling fear into the hearts of his enemies. His actions aren’t even necessary as the whisper of his name causes characters to either rally to his side or run in fear.
All that said… Moffat once again uses this approach to his benefit. Demon’s Run is largely a spectacle of aliens and soldiers duking it out in space, something that Moffat no doubt gleefully presented to his son as ideal entertainment (I can see a young boy loving all of this and good on him for making it). Even as an action adventure full of poorly thought-out ideas and padding there are things to like about Demon’s Run such as the nurse Sontaran and the Victorian man-hunter Silurian. Both are silly concepts but executed so well that I found myself liking them.
However, the story gets more complex when the conclusion turns the situation on its head (much like last year’s Pandorica Opens that saw the Doctor apparently defeating his enemies by declaring his presence). After taking control of the asteroid from the gun toting Clerics (Moffat has one weird view of religion… and of the military- why do none of the clerics just follow orders as most soldiers do?), it is revealed that the entire situation was a trap to entice the Doctor into a false sense of security and then pull the rug out from under him.
Well done, Mister Moffat. I almost forgive you for the preceding 30 odd minutes of Star Wars.
The unnamed clerical order of soldiers acting on the orders of the evil eye patch lady Madame Kovarian are at war with the Doctor and have tricked him into this situation in order to nab the baby who has become a Time Lord by her being conceived inside the TARDIS. For all of the exposition in this episode, I could have used some explanations as to why these soldiers hated the Doctor and who Madame Kovarian was, but it’s all left very vague.
Throughout the episode, Amy states that she relies on the Doctor to come to her aid, just as Kovarian’s forces prepare to hold him at bay. After defeating the clerics, the Doctor allows himself a moment of rage that greatly disturbs his Silurian ally (and even himself). He doesn’t just want to win, he wants to shame his enemies, showing shades of the Tenth Doctor’s hubris. In the end, Amy’s faith in the Doctor proves ill placed as he realizes too late they have not won at all an. the life-like material known as the ‘flesh’ was used to pull the wool over his eyes. Once more the Doctor’s belief in himself has been used against him. He is not the most dangerous man alive by a long chalk, he really is just a mad man with a box.
This is a devastating revelation that I think will have far-reaching consequences for the Doctor. Keep in mind that in the Impossible Astronaut, 200 years have passed for the Doctor and he feels that he must pay for his actions. I think that the beginnings of this downward cycle are to be found in the moment when the Doctor is tricked by Madame Kovarian.
While the script is a mess, Matt Smith once again turns in a startlingly impressive performance as the Doctor, reaching levels of anger, warmth and quirkiness that has become synonymous with the Eleventh Doctor. As I was watching the episode I was aware of how poorly constructed this house of cards was, but Smith retained his stature and poise (the sign of any great Doctor in my opinion is how he handles a bad script).
Demon’s Run attempts to be far too many things at once and in the end fails at many of them. With so many characters prancing about, the plot jumps throughout different points in time and space to visit characters that are either new with made-up back stories or references to actual adventures. It’s an over-ambitious mess. As a story about the undoing of the Doctor, I found it impressive… but more than a little annoying.
I could have done without all of the pathos and rousing music over Amy’s plight and Rory’s undying love for her (at least it wasn’t the Doctor’s love for Rose). Additionally, the revelation regarding River and the baby is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. In fact, many fans guessed this ages ago online. I couldn’t see the point in it then and see less point in it now. The character of River Song is so very tired at this point.
To be honest, I’m more interested in Madame Vastra and Jenny, yet we are unlikely to see them again.
From the trailer it was apparent that Demon’s Run was not going to be an episode heavy in plot or character, but even so I was annoyed at the over-reliance on special effects and aliens. Doctor Who is better than this and so is Steven Moffat.
Once Doctor Who was the most imaginative and far-reaching science fiction drama, capable of depicting gripping suspense, high adventure or brilliant comedy. Now it seems that Doctor Who has become little more than a tool to wrap up several plot threads from series to series. The program is an extension of the plot rather than the plot an extension of the program. It’s no longer about where/when the Doctor is headed next, it’s about how it will tie into the over-arching plot involving the time baby or River Song’s identity, or any number of other concept that Moffat finds necessary.
In the end I had a nasty taste in my mouth, and just like the conclusion of many a fairground ride, the sensation that I was going to be sick.
Next time: ‘Let’s Kill Hitler!’