Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Other Problem With "A Good Man Goes To War"

I watched "A Good Man Goes To War" again last week, and it still didn't sit as well with me as some of the other Moffat Who episodes have in the past. I'm aware that some of it is due to the episode's status as a "mid-season cliffhanger"--after all, it literally has to end with the Doctor at least somewhat outmaneuvered by his enemies, and with the bad guys having gained some form of triumph. I'm also aware that some of it is due to the fact that the conflict with said bad guys has to, by its very nature, see-saw wildly over the course of the episode. They must first be built up as a formidable threat so that we legitimately doubt the Doctor can defeat them; then they must be utterly defeated by the Doctor so that he can "rise higher than ever before"; then they have to pull some form of triumph from the jaws of defeat so that he can fall "so much further". (Neither of which is true, but given that it's River describing events there, I'll excuse her as having a certain degree of understandable bias.)

But what bugged me on rewatching it was River's speech to the Doctor at the end. You know, the one about "All this is to some extent your fault because you're so terrifying to those who would oppose you that they've gone to insane lengths to defeat you." Which is not too dissimilar to Davros' "You claim to be a non-violent explorer who doesn't like weapons, but you do seem to have a habit of getting other people to do your dirty work," but I could at least excuse that one away because it was freaking Davros talking, and Davros is such a vicious and amoral little twerp that hearing him chastise the Doctor's ethics was a little like getting a lecture on veganism from Adolf Hitler.

But River is supposed to be a viewpoint character. She's supposed to know more than the Doctor, for Pete's sake, due to the peculiarities of their temporal relationship to each other, and she's laying the blame for Melody's kidnapping at the Doctor's feet. Why? Because apparently he's become so good at fighting evil that bad guys are getting ruthless and desperate and over-the-top in their efforts to stop him. Because he actually frightens the wicked and the cruel the way they frighten everybody else.

Hey, you know what might be an option for them? NOT BEING SO F***ING EVIL. The Doctor doesn't just swoop down on random people off the street and mess up their lives. He went after these people because they were kidnappers who experimented on children, because they were murderers who mutilated their own troops and turned them into horrific mindless killing machines, because they were allied with a race of yes-I-will-say-it monsters whose goal is to destroy the universe and who actually succeeded once. River says these guys are scared of the Doctor? I wanted the Doctor to respond with, "Not scared enough. Because they haven't stopped."

But instead the Doctor changes the subject to realizing that he actually knows who River is (and he's excited by it, not squicked out, which is another thing wrong about the episode) and we're left with a vague sort of impression that maybe River's right. And she's not. The only people who are afraid of the Doctor are the bad guys. And honestly, if you hear that wheezing, groaning sound and worry that this time, he's come for you...then you must have done something pretty bad. People like that deserve a little fear, if only as punishment for all they inflict.

13 comments:

El A said...

I hate to drag out this old saw, but...generally speaking, aren't most of the Doctor's enemies generally convinced of the rightness of their cause? The Cybermen became what they are in order to survive the death of their planet. The Daleks were created by Davros to win a thousand year war they were fighting with the Thals. The Sontarans are genetically designed for War and Conquest. I don't think it's possible for them to be "less evil" in order to avoid the Doctor's wrath and interference in their plans. All their evil actions are built into them, and asking them to be "less evil" would be like asking fish not to live in the water.

That being said, your response for the Doctor is a much better line than what they wrote.

Jonathan Gad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Gad said...

I think that the point of River's speech isn't that Doctor should stop fighting evil so much as it was that he needs to do other good things too.

It's that he's spent so much time fighting monsters...and becoming increasingly violent about it too...that his reputation has shifted, fairly or unfairly, from "that guy who shows up to help you" to "that guy who TARDISes in and blows everything up."

And let's not forget, the Doctor is blowing more shit up than ever before. He nuked an entire Cyberlegion just to make a point. As far as we're shown, those guys weren't doing anything besides watching the rest of the sector. Myabe they did have some nefarious plan that they just hadn't gotten around to yet, but usually the Doctor has more causus belli than "maybe" to kill that many people, Cyber or not.

"I used to have so much mercy," indeed.

What's more, the Doctor himself IS responsible for spreading that reputation. He banks on it, in fact. He uses his rep as the guy who's dangerous to scare off the Vashtu Narada, the Itraxi, and practically EVERYBODY in The Pandorica Opens.

(Yes, yes, I know that last one was a trap and they weren't actually scared. That's not the point. The point is that the Doctor tried the tactic again.)

In short, being the guy everyone's afraid of is becoming more and more a part of his M.O.

But that M.O. has consequences, and one of them is that when people start wondering if the Doctor's going to show up and blow their shit up, either justifiably because they're doing shady shit, or not so much because the only stories they've heard are about the destruction and they haven't heard the bits about maybe the guys who were destroyed deserved it, then you get a reaction like this.

You get, in fact, people deciding that rather than wait until the Doctor shows up when they're not ready for him, they'll put together a plan, seize the initiative, and go after the Doctor first.

Remember the Time Lord Victorious? That's the direction the Doctor was still headed, even after Adelaide Brooks slowed him down a bit. The crusading Doctor, out to right the wrongs of the universe, one blown to shit spaceship at a time.

What River was saying was that he needed to put the brakes on, and maybe do something that wasn't about violence and justice, and do something else that helps the universe but doesn't freak everyone the hell out so much.

Like what, you ask?

I'm not sure, but saving young Melody Pond sounds like a pretty good place to start.

Eric Teall said...

I have to agree with Jonathan. I don't think that the problem lies with the Doctor's "ethics" being called into question here. The problem lies with the fact that he is using fear to beat his enemies, and he is outright destroying things (whole race remnants, sometimes) when he can't scare them away.

In other words, just like Batman (in TDK movie, for example), he's made himself a target. In fact, Moffat's been building to this for years. Tennant's doctor uses the "run away because you're scared of me" line with the Vashta Nerada (sp?). There may be other, earlier examples, but that one sticks out in my head. What kind of reaction does he expect from creatures like the Daleks or Sontarans?

I'm very interested to see where Moffat takes this. I didn't find "AGMGTW" terribly compelling, but I'm interested to find out how Moffat would change the Doctor's MO from what it's been since 2006. How will the Doctor behave differently, how will he win without frightening or antagonizing his enemies?

Finally, John, to address your comment ("People like that deserve a little fear, if only as punishment for all they inflict") and the behavior it generates: I realize this isn't exactly the same thing, but... I'm a high school teacher who has a reputation for being somewhat strict. I'm not Minerva McGonagall, but I like things my way in my class and I don't put up with stuff that gets in my way. I learned several years ago that I could not adequately maintain discipline in my classes through fear and intimidation. They're tools to be used when needed, but my class runs much more smoothly now that I run it in a more amiable, "here's your two choices, which do you pick" sort of way. I can get mad occasionally, but it works because it's a rare thing for me. When I used to yell/threaten/intimidate more frequently, it didn't work at all.

Now, my students aren't Daleks and I'm not the Doctor. But in general, I think Moffat has a point that the Doctor has been more of a Warrior recently than he has been a more general problem-solver, and I'm not sure that "Warrior" is the best, most productive thing he could be, and I don't think that's really how he should want to be perceived.

It's not that the Daleks don't deserve two-fisted justice, it's that it demeans the Doctor to be the one threatening them with it.

Full disclosure: I'm a very recent convert to DW (started with Eccleston) and I haven't done a whole lot of watching of the old stuff ("Hand of Fear" and "Silver Nemesis" are the only old eps I can recall offhand). If there's long-term fan knowledge that strongly affects what's happening here (or how it should be interpreted), I'm anxious to hear it.

John Seavey said...

@Jonathan Gad: The key point about nuking an entire Cyberlegion is that you're nuking an entire Cyberlegion. It's not like he went after a vast assemblage of circus tents and bandages for the veterans of the Crimean War, here; he blew up a vast fleet of honking great warships. Yes, we as fans could attempt to construct a scenario in our heads where those Cybermen were peaceful Cybermen who had built up that fleet for purely defensive purposes, and then blame the Doctor for destroying all those peaceful Cybermen who were only minding their own business...but let's face it, that reading flies in the face of everything we have ever seen about both the Cybermen and the Doctor. They are merciless crusaders out to kill or convert every living thing in the universe; the Doctor stopped them in the course of stopping other bad guys out to destroy the entire universe. It is awfully hard to put shades of gray into that. :)

(Which kind of answers El A's question, as regards the Cybermen and Daleks at least; yes, they don't really have free will, but that doesn't exactly mean much to someone in the gunsights of a Dalek. They're inimical to all non-Dalek life in the universe. That's a condition to be lamented, but the Doctor can't do much about it and yes he has tried.)

And arguably, the Doctor did put the brakes on. That was Season Five, the Doctor putting the brakes on crusading against evil, doing less seeking out enemies to battle and more genteel exploring and happy being with his special friends as they saw the wonders of the universe. And what happened? The Silence framed him for crimes against said universe, then blew it up. Doesn't exactly argue favorably for that approach, does it? :)

The fact is, the Eleventh Doctor has been far less proactive and threatening than his predecessors (Seven was probably the high point of "the Doctor as the thing monsters have nightmares about", and the one Moffat wrote the line about) and the only reason he's being menacing now is in direct response to the kidnapping of his best friend's daughter. These people aren't scared of him on general principles, they are scared at him specifically because they did terrible, terrible things to him and they know sooner or later he'll find out.

John Seavey said...

@Eric Teall: As to "where Moffat's going with this", my theory is that by the end of this season, the Doctor will have put a perception filter into place around the TARDIS so that whatever he does gets forgotten after he leaves. So the Doctor will no longer have a menacing reputation; he won't have a reputation at all.

(My supporting logic: The only things that we've seen remember the Silence are Prisoner Zero ("the Doctor doesn't know?") and the fish-vampires from 'Vampires of Venice' ("the Silence came. We fled.") And, of course, the Silence themselves. What do all those things have in common? Why, perception filters! I think that anything with a perception filter of its own is immune to the Silence's perception filters, and so the Doctor makes himself forgotten so he can remember his foes.)

El A said...

@John Seavy, that would be a really easy thing to add to all the powers of the TARDIS, along with the universal translator, etc. So that people who had traveled with the Doctor wouldn't forget him (screwing up returning characters) but everyone else would. Kind of like what Eccleston's Doctor did to the Internet in "Rose". Perhaps they could make a exception for big bad guys though, since that would ruin moments when a new Doctor meets one of them for the first time. Although maybe it's time for that trope to be retired as well.

Chris said...

But the Doctor does use the "here's your two choices, which do you pick" method. He always tries to give the bad guys a chance to stop what they're doing, often to the point of offering to help them in any way he can, so long as they stop killing people or whatever bit of evil they're up to. It's only after they tell him to piss off that he blows them up or whatever. True, he also has a temper, which sometimes leads him to overdo it a little, especially if the bad guy is particularly evil, but he always tries to talk it out first.

Eric Teall said...

@Chris: I think you're hitting one of the big limitations of my analogy. Offering a "choice" when one of the options is annihilation isn't much of a choice--it's a threat. (I don't often threaten my students with annihilation unless it's Thursday.)

Ultimately, the Doctor has been relying on fear as a weapon for too long, and the response that he's getting under Moffat is to be expected. (Insert Alfred's speech from TDK here.) Until he can figure out a way to stop the bad guys without making himself the focal point of their anger, he's going to keep creating problems for himself.

I used to study Aikido, and I recently read a story about Aikido that had this quote in it: “Aikido,” my teacher had said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.” (Sorry to go off on an Aikido tangent, but I thought this quote expressed some of the message I've been getting from the show.)

Is he a healer or a fighter? That's the question being asked. (Whether or not we like the question is a different story...)

John Seavey said...

He's both, and he always has been. The episode actually encapsulates the point perfectly; it is filled with "monsters" (Sontarans, Silurians) who have decided that they can be more than monsters. And because they did, he helped them. He is fearsome to those who deserve fear, but he is not indiscriminately fearsome. The army of the Silence (and they are of the Silence, whether they know it or not) are afraid of him because they are evil people doing evil things.

And even then, the "fearsome warrior" that River chastised didn't kill a single person. Nobody got so much as a scratch. Not exactly a moral indictment, is it?

Eric Teall said...

John, I'm confused about what you're trying to argue here. On a gut emotional level, I completely agree with what I think you're saying: Those who are evil and do evil deserve wrath. We should not feel sorry for the fact that they are afraid of righteous retribution.

At the same time, the Doctor's attempts to dominate so much of the universe through time and space can be expected to produce no other reactions than those that he currently faces. It's not about what the Daleks "deserve" but whether it is constructive for the Doctor himself to be constantly waving his power and success (and concurrent threats) in their eyestalks.

Would you argue that it IS constructive for him to behave as he has? Should he be expecting different results than he's getting?

Because I don't see River's argument as being anything other than "You mean well, but your current course of action is causing these Doctor-centric problems." Am I missing something from your argument?

Jonathan Gad said...

Ultimately, going around scaring people does just that...it scares people. And when humans in particular get scared of something, we don't usually look inward and see what about our behavior we can change to keep the scary thing from coming after us.

No, when humans get scared of something, we try to kill it.

And that's what has happened here. Madame Kovarion and the people she represents are afraid of the Doctor, and they've decided that the way to handle that fear is to take him out once and for all.

And that is what River is trying to tell the Doctor. For all that Doctor loves and protects humanity, it often seems that he doesn't really understand us.

Take his surprise at Amy's sudden attraction to him in "Flesh and Stone." Or his shock when Prime Minister Harriet Jones used Torchwood to blow away the Sycorax. A lot of the time, the Doctor just doesn't get humans.

River does. Time Head or not, she knows that humans react to fear with violence, and that the way the Doctor's been using fear as a weapon made the sort of attack on him that we see culminate in "A Good Man" inevitable.

She's telling him, in short, that maybe being terrifying ins't the best way to go about things. because that way leads to scared people with guns trying to kill you and and your friends BECAUSE you're terrifying them.

(As a side note, having re-watched "A Good Man Goes to War" again recently, it seemed fairly obvious to me from the way the Doctor reacted to River's revelation on the cot that she's the mother of at least one of his kids. Am I the only one who got that impression?)

Jukebox said...

My point is that River's not really correcting him, she's just carping. Saying, "Hey, if you scare the crap out of the bad guys, they're going to react by fighting harder," while true, is not of much use because it doesn't really suggest an alternate plan of action. Does anyone really think that reaching out with the hand of friendship is going to be met in kind by the Silence? Their exact words: "You should kill us all on sight."

Yes, people who are scared will react with anger. But so will people who are angry. :)