For the midseason finale of DOCTOR WHO, show-runner Steven Moffat returned to the idea of the Doctor as larger-than-life symbol; an icon known throughout the universe – for better or worse. In Moffat’s mind, the Time Lord is more than just a Gallifreyan who goes around meddling in the business of others; he stands for Something. To fans of the show here on Earth, the Doctor is the ultimate hero, but out there, in the universe at large, he is force of nature open to interpretation. The Daleks call him “Ka Faraq Gatri,” the Draconians refer to him as “Karshtakavaar,” and many other races know him simply as “the Oncoming Storm.” This is one of those stories that could tip balance of his memory.
In last season’s big two-part finale, “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang,” we saw the Doctor branded a goblin and trickster by his enemies – everyone from the Daleks to the Cybermen to the Sontarans and Zygons. Moffat hits that theme again in this story, as Col. Manton’s speech echoes the talk of the Time Lord as a malevolent figure. Meanwhile, the mysterious River Song is concerned with the Doctor’s legacy as a Force for Good. She suggests that the concept of a “doctor” as a wise man and a healer comes from the Time Lord; but “doctor” also means “great warrior” to some cultures. She was concerned that his legend has the potential to go either way – and he is right now at the crossroads, the tipping point where his legacy will be determined. He is already a hobgoblin to the would-be conquerors of the universe – the question is, can he still be a savior to the downtrodden masses, or will he be seduced by his own power and influence?
The story began with Anglican Marines and Headless Monks mustering in a secret base on Demon’s Run as Amy (Karen Gillan) named her daughter Melody, and promised that her father, the Last Centurion, was coming to rescue them from the clutches of Madame Kovarian (Frances Barber) a.k.a. Eye Patch Lady. At that moment, Rory (Arthur Darvill) and the Doctor (Matt Smith) were 20,000 light years away, invading (and destroying) the 12th Cyber Legion to get information on Amy’s whereabouts. Cleric Lorna Bucket (Christina Chong) made Amy a “prayer leaf” with her baby’s name on it, and told Amy she met the Doctor as a child. “Just make sure you’re on the right side when he gets here,” Amy warned. Elsewhere, the Doctor gathered his “army,” including the katana-wielding Silurian Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her sidekick Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Sontaran nurse Cmdr. Strax (Dan Starkey). Rory tried to recruit River (Alex Kingston), but she refused, noting that this will be the Battle of Demons Run, the Doctor’s darkest hour. “This is the day he finds out who I am,” she said, meaningfully. Elsewhere, Kovarian and Col. Manton (Danny Sapani) were warned by Doriam (Damian Kell) that the Doctor was raising an army, and “Demons run when a good man goes to war.” After the villains left, the Doctor recruited Doriam.
Manton made a speech to rally his troops against the Doctor – who revealed that he was masquerading as one of the monks while his sword maidens stormed the control room. “Amelia Pond, get your coat!” he shouted as the lights went out. With the monks and Church confused, a force of Silurians and Judoon teleported in, while “Danny Boy” and the Spitfires in Space took out the communications array. Her secret base taken without loss of life, Kovarian remained confident that her trap would capture the catch the Doctor. But Rory captured Kovarian and reclaimed his daughter. The Doctor offered Amy an old cradle for Melody – and dodged her questions about whether he’d ever had children. The Doctor noted that while Amy was physically imprisoned on Demon’s Run, her “soul” was in the TARDIS, in a Flesh avatar, receiving a control signal – probably since before the adventure in America.
Doriam discovered that the baddies had been scanning Melody, and determined that she has human DNA – but also Time Lord DNA! The Doctor noted that Gallifreyans became Time Lords through prolonged exposure to the vortex (as through the Untempered Schism). Vastra wondered if that process would be accelerated if a child was conceived aboard the TARDIS, while in the vortex. As the Doctor wondered if such a child could be used as a weapon, Kovarian appeared on a viewscreen and said the baby represents “hope” in the “endless war” against the Doctor. Then the monks attacked. As a battle raged in the hanger, Kovarian again appeared to Amy as a face behind sliding panel. “Wakey, wakey,” she commanded – and Melody dissolved into formless Flesh.
The Doctor realized that Melody had been taken to Earth to be raised, “and it’s already too late.” On cue, River arrived, asking, “Well, then soldier, how goes the day?” The Time Lord was furious at her, but she accused him of failing to stop all this. He has the potential to become the sort of menace that pushes people to extremes to combat him – even to stealing a baby to create a weapon. When she revealed her true identity to the Doctor, he was positively ecstatic and made silly kissy noises. Reenergized, the Doctor abruptly took off in the TARDIS alone; leaving River to explain to Amy and Rory that she is their child.
Okay, this was an entertaining episode – but was it the “game-changer” that Moffat had been promising? I think not. River being baby Pond is a fun reveal, but the Doctor’s relationship to Amy will only change in the sense that Amy will eventually be his mother-in-law. I think we were all expecting something bigger here. Yes, we got a major piece of the puzzle – but not the answer to the question that has been bedeviling Whovians since waaaay back in 2008: Is River Song the Doctor’s wife? Well… at this point, we still don’t know. Moffat has taking his time with this character, giving fandom more than enough time to chew over (and regurgitate and chew again) the clues and spin every possible theory, from “River is his wife” to “River as his mother.” But River turning out to be Amy’s daughter was a somewhat disappointing reveal in that nobody even knew Amy was pregnant until very recently, so the question of River’s parentage was never really even an issue. Can it be, that when he created the character for “Silence in the Library”/“Forest of the Dead,” Moffat said to himself, “River is the daughter of two future companions, and I’ll reveal that face one day”? Sounds pretty hard to swallow, yes, but not entirely beyond the realm of possibility. Moffat’s script could not help teasing the fans – hopefully for the last time – with more (and larger) hints that River was/will be the Doctor’s wife. All that tittering and giggling between the Time Lord and River made it clear to me, at least, that there is a hook-up in the Doctor’s future. But, of course, Moffat still left himself plenty of wiggle room (so to speak). And the cagey show-runner also reopened an old (old!) can of worms when the Doctor denied having children. Was Susan truly the Doctor’s granddaughter in a genetic sense, or was that just part of their cover? Way to upset the apple cart, Moff!
But back to this tale… One basic problem I have with this story is its very premise: Why does the Doctor think he needs an army to rescue Amy? When the Ninth Doctor set out to rescue Rose from the Dalek invasion fleet in “The Parting of the Ways,” he had nothing more than bravado and Jack Harkness on his side. But then again, those were just Daleks, and the Doctor always beats Daleks (the pepperpots’ pyrrhic win in last year’s “Victory of the Daleks” notwithstanding). I’m going to assume the Time Lord wasn’t personally frightened of Kovarian; he was just taking into account the number of Church Marines and Headless Monks, and figured he needed a couple of extra hands to help set up distractions. (Then again, the Doctor himself is the most extraordinary diversion there could be.)
On the plus side, it was a wonderful touch, having the Doctor recall Amy’s nonsense line about a baby conceived inside the TARDIS having a “time head”! (BTW, does the Doctor really speak Baby? That would imply that newborns speak a coherent language, which I doubt. Where do they learn it? Wouldn’t the TARDIS translate?) Seems that was some clever foreshadowing after all. The reveal of River Song’s name was also cute, but while having the child’s name transform on the prayer leaf was a nice, delicate moment, the timing of the translation was a bit too convenient. Presumably the TARDIS had been “working” on the translation since it arrived on Demon’s Run, but only finished on cue from River?
And can we talk about Lorna Bucket for just a moment? From the moment she appeared I was thinking, “Oh, hello, new companion who will follow Amy and Rory!” (Admit it: You were thinking it, too…) But it was not to be. How sweet was the Doctor to pretend that he remembered the girl from the Gamma Forests? “I remember everyone,” he assured her. “We ran – you and me.” I’ll bet he says that to all the girls! Moffat has an amazing capacity for creating very human one-off characters that are easy to love. I still get wistful when I think about Sally Sparrow from “Blink.”
That tender moment points out how great an actor Smith is, and how he gets more confident with every story. He is wonderful at mixing the Doctor’s alien perspective with true boyish giddiness – like the moment he realized who River truly is. Or, in contrast, consider the moment he confronted Kovarian and observed, “Look, I’m angry; that’s new.” Smith played the moment as if the Doctor was almost embarrassed by his rage – it was a really complicated bit of acting for a complex moment in an important scene.
Something else I think is important: It would be nice if Moffat would clear up exactly which Cyber fleet the Doctor and Rory infiltrated – were those cyborgs the Cybus Industries constructs, or the Mondasians from “our” universe? (I’m holding out for the “real” Cybermen, the ones from “The Tenth Planet,” since they lacked the trademark Cybus “C” on their chest plates.) Speaking of returning menaces, it was interesting to see the Church again, even if they were more antagonistic (and with a “Papal Mainframe” in charge). Extra points to Moffat for paying off on the throwaway line about the Headless Monks back in “The Time of Angels.” And for making them literally (gruesomely) headless! The Doctor showed a particularly cruel streak when he insisted that Manton be branded “Colonel Run-away” forever. Three cheers for the Judoon, not seen since the Davies era. The Judoon are a favorite of mine, but they didn’t get to speak! ( “Fo no to ro jo cro mo!”)
Finally, Moffat channeled a little James Bond tradition by using the closing credits to promise, “The Doctor will be back in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler.’” That is certainly an evocative title; I know I’ll be watching in the fall…