|In this image, Clara is not cleverly disguised as a light, but|
rather as a restoration field.
It’s June 4th, 2011. Pitbull and several other people are at number one with “Give Me Everything,” with Rihanna, Snoop Dogg, LMFAO, and Bruno Mars also charting. In news, the Arab Spring rolls on through its increasingly grim summer as civil war breaks out in Libya and grows progressively closer in Syria, with NATO forces helping out in Libya. Congressman Anthony Weiner finds himself embroiled in exactly the sort of scandal you should avoid with that surname. And World IPv6 day takes place. Rock on.
Meanwhile, on television, it’s Doctor Who’s first midseason finale. As we said, in his last season finale, Moffat took the structure of narrative collapse to its breaking point. Instead of averting the collapse, he let it happen in its entirety: the Doctor was locked in an inescapable prison, the TARDIS exploded, Amy was dead, and the universe ended. And then he built up a new story in its place. With A Good Man Goes to War, he fully realizes this approach, creating the definitive narrative technique of his tenure – what I will call narrative substitution.
Where narrative collapse is based on threatening the basic functioning of a narrative structure so that further storytelling becomes impossible and then averting the collapse and reaffirming the structure, narrative substitution works by initially appearing to tell one type of story, and then rejecting that story, typically on ethical or ideological grounds, generally by revealing that the story was in fact an entirely different type of story all along. In hindsight The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang is an example of narrative substitution where the first narrative is rejected via an unaverted narrative collapse. But with A Good Man Goes to War we get a much more straightforward and pure example of narrative substitution – in many ways, in fact, the definitive one.
This is, in one sense, the big problem with it. In reality, A Good Man Goes to War is a savagely, furiously angry story. It indulges audience expectations for nearly its entire length before not only frustrating them, but damning them. Moffat will use the structure of narrative substitution again, but he will never again do it with quite this gusto. His future narrative substitutions are textual games that assume an audience who is on the lookout for the substitution and carefully watching the shells as they are cycled about the table. But this one is a trap – one that baldly tries to lure the audience into a specific misreading of the story just to turn around and punish them for doing so. It is angry and cynical in a way that not even Robert Holmes ever quite managed. Holmes could be masterfully petulant, yes, but when he wrote a story out of spite it was always a case of following the brief perfectly so as to expose the stupidity of it, audience be damned. But this is a story about satisfying supposed audience expectations, giving people exactly what they say they want, only to rip it away and condemn them for wanting it.
It is, in other words, not a story that should have gotten an AI of 88. Not because it isn’t good – it is, for my money, one of Moffat’s finest hours. But it is not populist. It is the one time in the whole of the Moffat era that he offers something that is truly abrasive and difficult. This is his Love and Monsters, only where that story was a well-meaning story that simply proved a bit too strange for people, this one is actually designed to be polarizing. And instead, cruelly, everybody loved it, completely missing the point. In most cases the claim that the Moffat era is too confusing is, in fact, easily refuted by the millions of people who clearly enjoy and understand it. But here we have a story that appears too smart for its audience.
It was, of course, always a risk. A Good Man Goes to War advertises itself as little more than a massively popular cliche. The hero who will “rise higher than ever before and then fall so much further,” the dark, final, apocalyptic conflict, ominous poetry, all that jazz. And, of course, at it’s heart, one of the most enduring cliches in popular culture: the hero driven to do vast and terrible things because someone has hurt his woman.
The body of criticism over this trope is vast. At its core, this is a trope about sexual violence. It is always male heroes defending or avenging terrible things that have happened to women. Often it is explicitly rape and murder, but other times, as in A Good Man Goes to War, it is a more symbolic sort of sexual violence. But there is, in the end, no mistaking what this story is. Amy’s bodily autonomy has been egregiously violated, and in a way that is consciously and adamantly sexual. Any hints of ambiguity here, and I cannot see where any such hints would come from in the first place, are surely thoroughly shattered by the time Amy’s baby is taken a second time, exploding into an all too suggestive milky whiteness.
No, let’s not allow the mild sanitizing required to make the story child-appropriate is anything other than what it is. This is a story in which Amy is raped, and the Doctor does terrible things to avenge her. It is an old story in his regard – the man defending a woman’s honor. It is obvious to point out, but this is necessarily a story about the objectification of women. The woman in the story is simply a prop – an object to be abused by the villain, and acted on behalf of by the hero. She has no agency. In many stories of this ilk she’s not even alive for much of the story, serving only as a beautiful thing whose destruction serves as motivation for the hero’s tale. She is in every sense the hero’s woman – a piece of property.
Instead the story is about men, and the angst of men. Their pain when their women are defiled, and the awful, cruel things that are their duty. 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. These are old stories, harkening to an understanding of heroism and nobility as essentially hereditary traits. They are stories of kings and princesses. They hail from a vision of the world as something that can be owned and ruled, and of one that says that certain types of people deserve to do just that. Men, of course. Specifically white ones. They are not the entire western tradition of narrative, of course, but they are a substantial part of it. These stories run through our entire culture, appearing in our very oldest books. They are fairy tales, and myths, and legends.
They are loathsome, vile things.
And yet they are popular. Insidiously so. And everything about A Good Man Goes to War suggests that this is exactly the sort of story that Moffat means to tell – a vast and terrifying epic culminating in a major revelation regarding Moffat’s mythos: the true identity of River Song. The story is structured around anticipation – it’s telling that the Doctor doesn’t even appear until nineteen minutes into the episode. His triumphant arrival is withheld precisely to amp the audience up. Similarly, the story continually threatens to be something altogether bigger and more troubling – on three separate occasions it deliberately sets up the possibility that the Doctor, not Rory, is Melody’s father. This would be the most epic outcome – the one that most fits with the blood-soaked aesthetic that the story is playing at. But it’s an unrealizable threat – one that is flirted with by the story’s structure, but that is self-consciously ridiculous – indeed, it would constitute a narrative collapse. And yet the story is aware that there is a tacit desire for it to be exactly that. It does not threaten a narrative collapse so much as it seduces the audience towards one, playing on a destructive desire for a massive, violent epic – for the most gun story ever devised, to return to the old gun/frock dualism of the wilderness years.
And yet throughout all of it there are hints of the story’s true nature. The Doctor’s great moment of anger consists of renaming Colonel Manton as Colonel Run Away. But this is nothing more than a schoolchild’s insult, right down to the choice of wording. It is petty, even bullying and mean, but it is not the cruelty of a warrior. It is the cruelty of the giddy child who plays airplanes as the Spitfires attack the asteroid base. The Doctor does not belong in this sort of story, and that is obvious throughout.
And so it is telling that when the story finally does kill a female character just to provide angst and motivation to the Doctor, the message is not “become a warrior” at all. Indeed, it is the opposite motivation – Lorna’s death serves as the point where the Doctor as a figure of war finally breaks down entirely. And, crucially, it breaks down not because of her death (Dorium and Strax are, after all, already dead by this point) but because of the cruel misunderstanding involved in her character: the belief that the Doctor is a warrior, and that this sort of story is where he belongs.
There is, as with much of the Moffat era, a lot of repetition within this story. The question of what the Doctor’s name means is, of course, a major theme, but it’s also worth noting that Lorna’s primary memory of the Doctor – running – is also a key phrase from River’s debut back in the library. Forest of the Dead, in fact, was originally to be titled River’s Run, and one of River’s last lines is, of course, “You and me, time and space. You watch us run.” And now, of course, the one thing the Doctor can think of to reminisce over with Lorna, who he doesn’t even remember, is running: “Hey, we ran, you and me. Didn’t we run, Lorna?” We ought, given that, stop and realize exactly who the demon of Demon’s Run is, and what that name means. And, of course, there are the larger, quieter mythic elements. Ever since The Pandorica Opens there’s been a hint of the Arthurian to this story line, and sure enough, River’s greeting to the Doctor in the end mirrors Morgaine’s greeting to the Brigadier in Battlefield, reinforcing that theme one more time.
But if River’s appearance five minutes from the end serves as the moment in which this narrative of war is rejected, we must also ask exactly why, and in what way. She frames the rejection, first and foremost in terms of its betrayal of the initial premise of the series. And fair enough – her point lands solidly. It is, in fact, nearly impossible to imagine Hartnell’s Doctor doing anything like this. Terrance Dicks wrote an entire book lampooning the absurdity of doing it with Davison’s Doctor. Even in the New Adventures era, where the dark and manipulative nature of the Doctor was foregrounded, nothing like this happened – the Doctor raising an army and explicitly choosing to fight a war. When he finally does, in the Time War, the event is defined by the impossibility of depicting it. Both Eccleston and Tennant’s Doctors die because of how impossible and wrong it is to turn them into this character.
This much, of course, is obvious. Even the fiercest and most adamant critics of the Moffat era recognize this resolution. But it is also a terribly milquetoast resolution. All that is rejected is the blood and thunder of war. It is still a story about men avenging their women, just one that suggests that maybe they should be a little nicer about it.
Except that it’s not. Before River even brings up the question of who the Doctor is and what all this war is about, after all, she addresses Amy. “ I know you’re not all right. But hold tight,” she says, “because you’re going to be.” It is the first time in the episode, in fact, that anyone meaningfully tries to comfort Amy. The Doctor tries, for a moment, but all he offers is that he’s sorry – he says nothing to her that isn’t ultimately still about himself. It’s only River that finally acknowledges the very basic fact that Amy is now, by any reasonable standard, a rape survivor, and that this fact means that there are real and genuine wounds for her.
And then, of course, the revelation of River’s identity. It takes place over Melody’s cradle, which is, of course, the Doctor’s. The camera lies to us, initially – stressing the point by focusing on the writing on the side, which is presumably the Doctor’s name, then cutting to Amy as she stares at the cot, trying to figure out what’s going on, giving the impression that the revelation of River’s identity in some way concerns the Doctor’s name. The trick, of course, is that it does.
If we are to do a Doctor Who story about the companion getting raped – and by this point in the narrative that ship has sailed – we must ask what it is we want the Doctor to do. It is not, clearly, to burn everything in his path in a furious attack on her abusers. It is not to salt the earth and to take awful vengeance upon the evildoers. But what, then, is it? This is not an incidental question, after all. As obscene as the typical cultural narrative that treats rape as primarily an occasion for men to angst and take vengeance is, this does not erase rape as a thing that happens in our world. It is perfectly reasonable to ask our stories to engage with that fact. So what, then, do we want a Doctor Who story about rape to be?
If the Doctor’s name means anything, it is that in a story about a woman who is raped he will be the figure who helps her to heal. If there is to be a Doctor Who story about rape then that story has to be one that is about the victim. It has to be one about her agency and her identity. One in which she is not an object, and more to the point one that rejects the entire ideology that would treat her as one. A Doctor Who story about rape isn’t about vengeance, but reparation. And that, of course, is what River offers. Amy is not all right, but she will be. The horrible things that have happened to her cannot be undone. Not with a magic wand, and not with an army. But she can heal. She can have her daughter, and love her.
That is the message of A Good Man Goes to War. Not that the Doctor should not go to war, but rather that, in the face of the ugly and horrible cultural narrative of sexual violence, the Doctor’s place is as an entirely different sort of hero. And so the entire narrative of the epic season finale is looked at and rejected in favor of a story about a woman who suffers a trauma that the luckiest of us are unable to imagine, and that the rest of us can never forget, and who survives, and heals, and gets better.
It may be the single most important story that Moffat has ever written. For all that it is overlooked and misunderstood as being, in essence, the exact story it is critical of, it is the Moffat story that has the most potential to do real and material good in the world. It takes up a horribly real issue, and tells a story about it that is not told often enough, but that is the single most important story that can be told to survivors. And I genuinely believe that. I have zero doubt whatsoever that there are survivors of rape and assault who look at this storyline and draw strength from it. I genuinely believe that Moffat, with A Good Man Goes to War, has written a story that has reached out and actually, properly helped people heal and grieve and move on and live.
This is not the best Doctor Who story ever made. But it is, I think, the one that most embodies what the program is for: looking at the stories we tell, and turning their base and leaden nature into radiant gold.