I’ve been intrigued by the idea of this film for a while – it’s a risky idea, but then this does seem to be the era for receiving unexpected sequels/prequels to Eighties films that flopped on release, but built up a major cult reputation in the years that follow. It counts for Tron – but John Carpenter’s version of The Thing is a different kettle of fish, a film that isn’t just remembered well out of nostalgic affection but is a genuinely brilliant, savagely nasty piece of horror filmmaking that was simply not released at the right time. It’s still an amazing piece of work – tense, dark and claustrophobic, and what’s really impressive is exactly how well the truly insane creature effects have stood the test of time, simply thanks to the demented imagination of chief make-up effects guy Rob Bottin. Attempting to even equal that, let alone better it, takes a hell of a lot of nerve – and what we’ve ended up with the 2011 incarnation of The Thing is a rather odd example of a prequel that essentially looks to be a loose remake (in the way that most horror sequels were, back in the Eighties) but which does fit into the timeline of the earlier film, essentially showing us what happened at the Norwegian base where the shape-changing alien monstrosity was first uncovered.
Of course, just to make this even weirder, this means that in certain ways, this’ll actually be closer (at least in its opening sections) to the 1950s original The Thing from Another World, which the Carpenter film itself was a remake of. And, just to make things extra-confusing, they’re basically selling it as a remake and calling it The Thing. Considering it’s a story about an alien that turns itself into what it consumes, all this duplication is probably fitting – the trailer is not bad, and certainly makes clear that they’ve at least well-cast the film, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead looking like a good choice for the lead, and Joel Edgerton being the sort of excellent and rugged-looking character actor that John Carpenter would have stuck in a film back in the Eighties. The screenplay is from Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ronald D. Moore, so there’s at least a good chance that this will be a respectful attempt to measure up to the 1982 original. For fans of the Carpenter film, there’s of course the danger that this could end up as a carbon copy – certain shots in the trailer are note-for-note duplicates of shots from the 1982 original – and the real test is going to be the creature effects, which they’ve sensibly kept under wraps in this trailer. At the least, this could be a fun bit of pastiche that’s actually attempting to capture what made the original great (unlike the Assault on Precinct 13 remake, which completely missed the point), and again it’s amazing to see another under-appreciated gem from my childhood getting a multi-million dollar remake/follow-up. However, it’s going to have to have a lot more than funky visuals, and if it’s a missed opportunity I don’t think anyone’s going to be as forgiving as they were with the fun but deeply flawed Tron: Legacy…
Hmmm. That’s my main reaction to the first trailer to John Carter, Disney’s upcoming adaptation of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars (the first in the John Carter of Mars series). It’s not a negative hmmm, but it’s not a completely convinced hmmm either, and that’s mainly because this is a project I’m going to have a hard time being objective on. Burroughs’ pulp SF adventures have been massively influential over the years – they don’t quite have the atmosphere and weird poetry of something like Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, but they’re still a brilliant example of early 20th century high adventure, packed with colour and adventure and one man battling against strange foes. They’re also books that were read to me by my father starting from when I was five years old – we got through almost half the entire series, and so there are chunks of the John Carter saga that are indelibly imprinted on my imagination.
This adaptation has been in the pipeline for decades, and became much more likely with the rise of CG – there was a version with the director of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow attached which never happened (and some might say that’s a good thing), while the most recent director to walk was Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau. However, it’s finally happened under the directorial eye of Andrew Stanton, the helmer of Pixar films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, making his live-action debut on a movie that’s also the first live-action Pixar co-production (alongside Disney and – gulp – Jerry Bruckheimer Productions), which is certainly promising (even if, in a fit of nervousness, they’ve lost the ‘of Mars’ from the trailer). And the teaser is intriguing in a whole number of ways, from the lush design to the opening scene that shows they’re keeping the framing device intact – the classic pulp trope of having the tale of wild adventure be a discovered manuscript bequeathed to or discovered by the author. Of course, for anyone who suffered through X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the fact that they’ve cast Taylor Kitsch (aka Gambit) as John Carter and Lynn Collins (aka Wolverine’s immensely forgettable love interest) as Martian princess Deja Thoris is a little less reassuring. Also, it’s not quite as pulpy or as – frankly – Martian as I expected, with a lot of shots looking a bit too Earth-like for my preference (I mean, I know it was shot on location in various US desert areas, but it’d be nice if it looked a bit more alien), while the fragments of dialogue we get here are a tad clunky out of context. This is a teaser, of course, that’s simply out to set the scene and get the 99.99% of the audience who aren’t seriously into Edgar Rice Burroughs adventures excited. I’m going to be really interested to see exactly what they pull off here – my fingers are crossed, but it’s going to take a little more than this to completely blow me away…
The Low-Down: The third in Michael Bay’s profitable yet reviled series of action figure-inspired blockbusters, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a swaggering, belligerent buffet of summer spectacle that’s as sure to please its core audience as it is to alienate and anger everyone else. Non-believers need not apply.
What’s it About?: With Optimus Prime and the heroic Autobots enshrined as protectors of Earth, human ally Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is having trouble finding a job and adjusting to the demands of a normal life. But trouble is on the way for both parties when Cybertronian technology is found on the Moon: a discovery that leads to the uncovering of a decades-old conspiracy, the return of a legendary Autobot hero, and a full-scale invasion of Earth…
The Story: Michael Bay cannot be stopped.
That’s the thought that occurs when stepping out of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, ostensibly a commercially-driven, wide-appeal action movie, but one which turns out to be a towering $200 million edifice carved in the director’s own image. After all, this was supposed to the movie that saw Bay returning cap in hand after the critical mauling of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that had its coherence torpedoed by the2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, and which the director himself has admitted was “crap”. Pre-release talk for TF3 has been awash with pledges to right the wrongs of that misbegotten mess, to make amends, to learn lessons.
As it turns out, the very last thing that Dark of the Moon can be described as is “contrite”. Simply put, this is exactly the same kind of excess-riddled orgy that’s defined Bay’s career, but blown up to a scale that feels like an act of deliberate defiance. It takes every element you’d expect from a Big Dumb Action Movie and feeds you an unending supply; by turns, Transformers 3 is a sci-fi potboiler, a comic-book movie, a frat-boy comedy, a 1980s kids’ cartoon, a war film, a music video, a car commercial and everything in between. In IMAX 3D. Sensory overload doesn’t begin to cover it.
Bay’s vision is almost admirable in some ways. There’s an insanely single-minded drive throughout this series to deliver the absolute maximum amount of entertainment per second as possible, but Bay simply doesn’t have the word “stop” in his vocabulary; he keeps dropping more and more into the mix, until you’re left with the cinematic equivalent of a Christmas pudding-flavoured gateaux encased in chocolate and coated in Pringles. Money shot follows money shot, comedy sidekicks have their own comedy sidekicks, while the final hour – chronicling a massive-scale Decepticon invasion of Chicago – is essentially one long, mad, escalating action sequence.
Of course, the major issue here is not that the film tries to entertain; it’s the commitment to Michael Bay’s definition of “entertaining”, which can be extremely abrasive to anyone lacking his testosteronal sensibilities. Bay’s Transformers universe is an aggressively masculine wonderland of explosions, brutal violence, lasciviously-filmed cars and women and a juvenile, stereotype-loving approach to comedy, which will clearly rankle with a great many audience members. There’s nothing as show-stoppingly sophomoric as the leg-humping, testicle-endowed robots of Revenge of the Fallen, but there’s still enough of an abundance of effete Germans, Asians named “Deep Wang” and screaming, perma-tanned John Malkoviches to cause pain.
So Dark of the Moon is riddled with easily foreseeable flaws? Well, of course. But honestly? I get the feeling that this is exactly the movie that Michael Bay set out to make. Transformers 2 was the one that got away from him; part 3, on the other hand, is clearly the work of a director at the top of his game – regardless of whether or not that’s a game you’re interested in playing. It’s interesting to compare this to something like, say, the recent Green Lantern – neither movie has been warmly received, but where Lantern was a confused, mumbling, deflated excuse for a film, Dark of the Moon has a strutting, unthinking arrogance and confidence that demands your attention, if not your approval. It believes in its vision and doesn’t much care if you disagree.
It’s a belief that manifests itself, for example, in the casting, which wheels out a procession of big-name stars who are surely here for the paycheque – Malkovich, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Patrick Dempsey – but who nevertheless refuse to phone it in, annihilating the scenery with the same indecent ferocity as Bay himself. It’s also evident in the sheer scale of the action choreography, which renders toppling skyscrapers, shape-shifting freeway chases, vertiginous wingsuit flight sequences and scenes of city-spanning urban destruction with obscene levels of care and expense, all rendered in top-quality 3D.
What underpins this confidence, ultimately, is Bay’s knowledge that he has succeeded delivered a far better film than Revenge of the Fallen, for all that’s worth. Partially, this is due to refinements in his own directorial style – possibly due to the demands of the 3D cameras – that see him slowing down his frenetic editing to deliver sharp, clear and balletic action sequences. But primarily, it’s due to the fact that this film has the advantage of an overall story structure that actually makes sense, delivering the hokey but fun alien conspiracy/invasion tale that Transformers 2 tried and failed to convey. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but the presence of a clear three-act structure – even a ludicrously flabby one – does help to contextualise the robot mayhem, even enabling a couple of reasonably surprising twists. Of course, Bay being Bay, enjoyment of Transformers: Dark of the Moon’s story is dependent on your ability to overlook a number of gaping logic holes, but it’s still streets ahead of Revenge of the Fallen, which featured a plot that wouldn’t stand up to a stiff breeze. It’s also dependent on you not having grown tired of Shia LaBeouf’s fast-talking shouty everyguy schtick, which is often dialed up to unpalatable extremes, although while the new scantily clad, absurdly over-attractive female lead Rosie Huntington-Whitely (replacing terminally outspoken Transformers 1+2 star Megan Fox) won’t be winning any acting awards, she also doesn’t disgrace herself either with a performance that’s nowhere near as horrendous as some of her harsher critics would have you believe.
Still, if there’s one prevailing and crucial failing that’s never really addressed, it’s the limited role played by the Transformers themselves in all of this. Bay made a virtue of keeping them hidden for most of his original 2007 Transformers film, instilling the robots with a sense of awe and wonder; since making that reveal, he’s seemed unsure of what to do with them, and has disappointingly settled on using them as walking setpieces, rather than actual characters. The Transformers canon can be a messy and disparate affair, but there are still plenty of strong personalities among the Autobot and Decepticon rosters that never get a look-in here. Dark of the Moon has the most robot-to-robot interactions of the series, but most ‘bot characters barely qualify as one-dimensional – the notoriously treacherous Decepticon lieutenant Starscream, for example, doesn’t do any backstabbing in the whole trilogy, while the much-hyped antagonist Shockwave is a red herring non-event. Those with the screentime to impose themselves, meanwhile, often fall victim to misuse and misinterpretation, with the emasculated villain Megatron and the overpowered, distressingly violent Optimus Prime counting as the main victims. Worse still, the fact that this is likely to be Bay’s final Transformers has brought out a vicious streak, leading to a procession of cold, cruel and slightly undignified character deaths, which in most cases feel unworthy of their victims. The robots look great, thanks to fantastic design work and some of ILM’s best effects, but gripes are inevitable when a film’s title characters feel like supporting players at best and cannon fodder at worst.
At the end of it all, it’s hard to know how history will regard the trifecta of Bay-helmed Transformers movies; they’ve been blockbuster successes have likely bankrolled the Hasbro toy franchise for the next decade, but one suspects that the tentative mainstream goodwill towards the series created by the 2007 film, before Revenge of the Fallen tarnished the brand, may never return. With its manifold flaws, Dark of the Moon isn’t going to change that, but Bay will no doubt be satisfied to have departed the franchise on strictly his own terms, heading off to pastures new with a trail of box office records, fuming critics and exploded wreckage in his wake. You suspect he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Verdict: Completing its (unambitious) stated mission of bettering Revenge of the Fallen, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a film completely at peace with what it is: a shallow but state-of-the-art action spectacular that dispenses the Michael Bay brand of cheap gratification like sickening candy. Good times are available to those willing to submit; everyone else, stay far away, and save yourself the money on tickets and aspirin.
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Tim Robbins ~ Writers: Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, Michael Goldenberg ~ Director: Martin Campbell
The Low-Down: DC’s latest attempt at a superhero blockbuster, Green Lantern should have been a giddy mix of colourful action and space adventure. Trouble is, nobody seems to have told that to the filmmakers – what we end up with is a deeply mediocre, flatly executed comic-book romp with only a few brief flickers of the lurid saga it should have been.
What’s it About?: Hotshot test-pilot pilot Hal Jordan may be talented, but he’s also an irresponsible risk-taker who ends up derailing a potential big contract for his employers, Ferris Air. But, just as his life seems to be going wrong, an encounter with a dying alien results in him being inducted into the Green Lantern Corps, a group of interstellar policemen who battle against unimaginable forces of evil – one of which is now on its way to Earth…
The Story: Oh dear. Poor DC can’t seem to get a break outside the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movies. They’ve been stuck way behind Marvel for years, and even now that Warners is finally getting their act together with some serious franchise-starting action… it’s still not quite happening. They’ve bet a fair old whack of money on Green Lantern (with an estimated price tag of around $200 million, plus the marketing costs on top of that), and I’m sure they can’t be happy to have the first of 2011’s batch of superhero blockbusters that really does appear to have a “Kick Me” sign attached to its back. The $50 million opening weekend (plus a 69% drop-off in its second week) means it’s a long way from being the ideal franchise opener that DC and Warner Bros obviously wanted – and while it’d be lovely to report that this is all terribly unfair, and that Green Lantern is actually a fun adventure that’s catching a small superhero backlash almost purely by accident… I’d be lying through my teeth if I did.
It doesn’t quite deserve some of the vitriol that’s been thrown at it (and is certainly a long way from being as dreadful as the Fantastic Four movies), while there’s also the fact that not every superhero movie has to be The Dark Knight, meaning that there’s room in the multiplexes for a lighter, more colourful piece of superhero action. However, it’s hard to recall the last time I saw a movie quite so flat – a blockbuster that simply seems to go through the motions, giving us a sketchy version of the Hero’s Journey and a handful of nicely executed effects shots without ever cohering together into a genuinely thrilling ride.
There’s a pervasive sense of ‘that’ll do’ to much of the picture, alongside the feeling that they’re not doing a fantastic job of getting the reported $200 million budget all up onscreen (with the film looking a little creaky outside the big CG setpieces). One of the original comic book’s strengths is the extensive mythology (which has been upgraded a lot in the last few years by main GL writer Geoff Johns), but the film doesn’t approach this with anything approaching the confidence of Thor. Instead, this is a film that’s desperate to be taken seriously but simply slaps chunks of the mythology onscreen in the hope that it’ll wow us, sandwiching them together with lots of dreary expository dialogue (“I believe you have the power to overcome fear!”). There’s precious little sense of us learning about the universe with Hal Jordan or getting more involved with his character that way – instead, the piecemeal screenplay is just a collection of things that happen, leading up to Hal discovering his inner awesomeness (and, as a footnote, that it’s better to be nice than an arrogant asshat).
There’s a whole heap of exciting stories to be told in the Green Lantern universe, but the film seems to be terrified to tell any of them for fear of busting the budget. It doesn’t help that by cranking up audience expectations of the footage depicting the Green Lantern Corps’ home planet of Oa (which has basically been the highlight of the publicity campaign, while the far more integral central relationship between Hal and ex-girlfriend Carol Ferris is barely featured in the trailers at all) the film ended up shooting itself in the foot. Yes, the Oa scenes do feature some spectacular moments and memorable characters (most notably the Geoffrey Rush-voiced Tomar-Re, who’s the highlight of the entire movie), and it is the point where the film does finally hit the right note of lurid SF action – but it’s all over within ten minutes, and the rest of the film feels like a let-down. After the colour and variety of the Green Lantern Corp’s home planet, the last thing we want is to be chucked back onto Earth for lots of scenes of Hal Jordan experiencing Olympian levels of angst and more lumpen villainy from the deeply unimpressive adversary Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who comes over as more of a slightly annoying distraction than an intimidating threat in his own right (while the film’s ‘main’ villain – a floating CGI head with massive cloud tentacles – barely even registers as a convincing threat until virtually the end of the film).
In terms of balancing spectacle, it’s the same problem that the original Michael Bay Transformers movie faced – how to cope with the fact that the budget won’t stretch to setting the entire film on Oa (or with the fact that, thanks to the CGI approach to the costume, every single shot of Reynolds in costume is an effects shot) – and while Bay’s solution was hardly brilliant (filling the film with clumsy racial stereotypes and John Turturro overacting), Green Lantern’s earthbound scenes aren’t exactly much better, frequently feeling like a rather limp and gag-free version of Nineties CG-fest The Mask – or, in one slightly unwise balcony-set scene, Disney’s Aladdin (where it wouldn’t have surprised me if the costumed Hal had immediately taken Carol Ferris for a flight and a rousing chorus of ‘A Whole New World’). The Oa scenes simply crank up the spectacle to a level the rest of the film (bar the climax) can’t hope to match, and it’s hard not to think that maybe (especially in the wake of Avatar, which took audiences to an alien planet for the whole film) leaving Oa for a sequel might have been a wiser move.
Naturally, this won’t stand – Hal has to go to Oa because ‘that’s how it happened in the comics’ – and while fidelity to the source material is usually used as a benchmark of quality for comic book adaptations, Green Lantern is another example to stand alongside Watchmen that sometimes throwing the comic onscreen note-for-note isn’t the best idea. While the film draws massively from the recent run overseen by comics writer Geoff Johns, Green Lantern itself has been around in one form or another since 1940 (with the Hal Jordan iteration of the mythos debuting in 1959), meaning that over the years it’s ended up as a rather odd mish-mash of different concepts from different decades, many of which sit rather weirdly together when thrown into live-action. Most notably, there’s the GL costume’s slightly ludicrous domino mask, which only really works in the scene where the film deliberately mocks it, along with the deeply silly Green Lantern Corps’ poetic oath (Would any modern screenwriter in their right mind attempt to pitch “Yeah! He’s a cop from space… and he also does poetry!”?), and the fact that one of the main characters (who also sports a not-in-any-way-villainous forties moustache and pointy eyebrows) is given the “Honest, there’s no chance of me turning evil” name of Sinestro.
The end result is an occasionally head-scratching pot-pourri of influences, and the film’s solution to this potential problem is to simply throw it all onscreen and hope for the best. While it captures the general pacing and structure of a Geoff Johns comic well (even down to the exposition-heavy opening), all it proves is that the kind of pacing and storytelling that works in superhero comics often falls flat on the big screen. The film’s story simply consists of important character moments without any of the connective tissue that actually makes it feel like a movie. Things seem to just happen, characters are moved around with little to no logic (especially when Hal heroically bursts into a room at one point for absolutely no reason), plot arcs are introduced and then abandoned (such as Hal’s family, who are given a fairly major introduction in the first fifteen minutes and then never seen again), while even the mid-credits Marvel-style ‘teaser’ scene, obviously inserted to whet the appetite for a potential sequel, instead blows the film’s most interesting character arc out of the water and simply seems to happen because, well, that’s what happened in the comics.
Maybe with a different director, the film could have been sharper – after all, Martin Campbell is a really weird choice for a CGI-fest, with his background being in executing practical action on a grand scale in films like Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale. While he does pull off a couple of good-looking sequences, he simply can’t bring the film to life and fails to give it the sense of wonder and involvement it needs. But then, he’s saddled with a weak screenplay full of clunky and uninspired dialogue that any filmmaker probably would have struggled with. The cast largely do their best – after being apparently considered for every single superhero role going, Ryan Reynolds gives a confident lead performance, although he’s much better at the cocky arrogance than the mopey soul-searching, and Peter Sarsgaard makes a serious attempt to do something kooky with his villainous role, even though even he can’t make a low-rent telepath with gigantism into a convincing adversary.
There’s also excellent work from Mark Strong as Sinestro, although Blake Lively is rather flat and wooden as Carol Ferris, while both Angela Bassett and Tim Robbins are reduced to looking slightly embarrassed in extended cameos. Nobody’s exactly dreadful – Green Lantern isn’t interesting enough for that; it aims squarely in the middle of the road, and what we get is a perfunctory superhero origin, with all the character moments marked in triplicate for those not paying attention. There’s the potential for a good film here, but so much is lazily underdeveloped (like the conflict between Hal and Hector Hammond over Carol Ferris, which barely gets mentioned for half the movie before suddenly becoming a vital plot point) that once again, DC has been left in the dust by Marvel.
Ultimately, a live-action Green Lantern seems like a flawed prospect from the get-go – it’s a concept that would play much better in animation (reducing some of the budget problems, and enabling the ‘unlimited imagination’ of the ring constructs to really cut loose), and simply feels constrained by the limits of how much this kind of photo-real CG animation costs. An Incredibles-style CG cartoon could, in theory, be a brilliant idea, and the mix of tones in the GL mythos would play much better if it was slightly stylised, but of course, live-action is what the market demands, and that’s what it gets. Of course, a continuation of the franchise isn’t impossible, and it seems like Green Lantern will eventually turn a profit – but on the current form, it’ll have to do a hell of a lot better on its second movie if it isn’t simply going to be written off as yet another cinematic superhero misfire.
The Verdict: A superhero blockbuster that will leave fans of the comic delighted and everyone else wondering what the hell just happened, Green Lantern is not the death knell of superhero movies, or an absolute celluloid disaster. It’s just a misconceived and poorly executed romp that falls a long way short of equalling any of the decent and entertaining superhero flicks in the last ten years.
6 June, 2011 / saxon / Comments Off on TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E07 – ‘A Good Man Goes to War’
Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Frances Barber ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Peter Hoar ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: The finale to this first chunk of Doctor Who‘s season 6 is exactly the kind of big, broad and expansive adventure that we needed. A Good Man Goes to War may still leave us with plenty of questions and is arguably a little shapeless in places, but it also delivers satisfying adventure, well-timed twists and some truly brilliant dialogue, while finally casting some light on one of Who’s biggest current mysteries…
What’s it About?: Making the Doctor angry is not a good idea. With Amy Pond having been abducted, the Doctor and Rory are battling across time and space, calling in old debts in order to carry out a daring rescue on the asteroid known as Demon’s Run. What they don’t realise, however, is that they’re walking into a trap that’s been waiting for the Doctor for a long time – while it’s also finally time for River Song to reveal who she really is…
The Story:(WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)
Yes, I saw it coming. It helped that I’d seen the idea bandied around as a theory online following the broadcast of Day of the Moon, but it was a concept that fitted all the facts, especially with the very obvious touch of both characters having water-based names (I can remember thinking “Pond? Why on earth is her surname Pond?” back when the companion was first announced. Now, of course, it all makes sense). Once Amy announced that her daughter’s name was Melody, it was pretty much on the wall – but all credit to Moffat for still managing to throw in a couple of moments of doubt, from the Doctor’s abrupt “It’s mine” line (when talking about the crib), to the point where we’re briefly left thinking “Wait a minute – ye gods, they’re not seriously going to have River turning out to be one of the Doctor’s family, are they?”, and all the serious Luke-and-Leia-style wrongness that might mean.
But, they weren’t. After a whole lot of waiting, we finally know that River Song is Amy and Rory’s daughter, and that her part-Time Lord DNA led to her being utilised as a weapon to kill the Doctor (which led eventually to her imprisonment in the Storm Cage facility). And while SF-savvy viewers will have unpicked Moffat’s complex web of plotting, the fact remains that this is still tremendously ambitious storytelling for a Saturday night family-aimed show, and that Doctor Who is still aiming high in terms of demanding storytelling and narrative twistiness.
(It’ll also be interesting to see exactly where the relationship between the Doctor and River goes from here, and what the ultimate resolution for him is (as we already know for her) – one of the quietest bits of characterisation is the nicely played sense of sadness from River Song when she realises the point in time that she’s reached, and that the period of the Doctor not knowing who she is has come to an end (and it also, in retrospect, makes the flirting between them that’s happened up until now a lot more poignant – River has always known exactly where this was going, and that her relationship with the Doctor was going to completely change once her identity was finally out in the open. Things will be different – but exactly how different?)
Naturally, of course, there are already people online moaning that the revelation of River’s identity was all rather predictable (simply because, as I’ve said before, moaning comes rather naturally to some Doctor Who fans), but while A Good Man Goes to War wasn’t perfect, it’s given S6 the injection of adrenaline it needed and ended this ‘pod’ of episodes on a serious high. It’s also possibly the most deliberately referential and continuity-crammed episode we’ve had yet (even managing to beat The Impossible Planet/Day of the Moon), and yet did succeed in getting most of the relevant information across in a way that’s still accessible, lively and fun.
It also leaves the weaker episodes of this run – especially Curse of the Black Spot – looking even weaker by comparison, simply because Moffat at his best is able to fire new concepts at the viewer at a rate that’s almost dizzying. Not only does he take the time-and-galaxy-spanning action of The Pandorica Opens and crank it up even further, but he also throws in a selection of new characters that do that wonderfully Doctor Who storytelling trick of hinting at a scope of adventures far beyond what we’ve seen. Top of that, of course, is the jaw-droppingly improbably yet hugely enjoyable Victorian duo of sword-wielding Silurian Madam Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and her maid Jenny (Catrin Stewart), who turned out to be one of the highlights of the episode. I’m still not sold on the Silurian make-up (less human-looking eyes would make such a difference) and initially thought “What the hell?!?” on Vastra’s first appearence, but was rapidly won over. McIntosh gets to have much more fun here than in last year’s tepid Silurian two-parter, and the banter between them combined with some choice innuendo pack a whole lot of life into the story (while once again showing that despite RTD’s departure, the so-called ‘Gay Agenda’ that a small minority of fans still complain about is alive and well.)
Even the deliberately comedic take on the Sontarans – played even more for laughs than they were in S4’s two parter The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky – managed to grow on me, with Commander Strax’s eventual fate turning out to be surprisingly touching, and Moffat keeps the tone shifting throughout, going from laugh-out-loud funny to emotionally intense. It’s how Doctor Who should always be – funny, fast-paced and deliriously inventive – and once again proves that Moffat is seriously good at delivering the goods when it comes to the big show-stopping episodes.
He also does the sensible thing in keeping it driven by emotion, while also being prepared to pull off some pretty dark moments – from the Doctor’s burst into all-out anger (brilliantly delivered by Matt Smith), to the horribly brilliant revelation that Baby Melody had been switched for a Flesh/Ganger duplicate. The baby disintegrating in Amy’s arms into a puddle of the Flesh is such a fantastically unpleasant image and packs a serious punch, and it’s good to see that Moffat still has a good sense of how far he can push things – that Who shouldn’t be too nasty, but that it also shouldn’t be too safe either.
There’s barely a weak link in the cast, and especially notable was Christina Chong as the mysterious Lorna, giving a really compelling performance despite the fact that you’re barely told anything about her. Both Karen Gillen and Arthur Darvill did great work, giving more nuances and levels to Amy and Rory’s relationship (and making the chemistry-free mess that was their initial relationship last year feel like a very long time ago), but the episode completely belongs to Matt Smith, who takes the Eleventh Doctor to some very dark and angry places and yet still manages to be kookier and more eccentric than ever (especially in the scene where he’s awkwardly discussing with Madam Vastra when Amy and Rory’s daughter “began”).
A Good Man Goes to War romps along at a fast pace and delivers the most enjoyable and genuinely satisfying ‘blockbuster’ episode since last year, along with some impressively mounted Star Wars-esque SF production design – but it still manages to notch up a few problems. A couple of Moffat’s narrative ticks are a little predictable (especially the reveal of the Doctor), and the Headless Monks themselves are initially intimidating yet ultimately end up as slightly unsatisfying villains, with the end action sequence not quite carrying the punch it needed. Frances Barber does a good job with her surprisingly short screen-time as the eye-patch-wearing Madam Kovarian, but I was expecting to learn a lot more about her than we got.
Naturally, this is the mid-season cliffhanger so there was no way Moffat was going to tie off every plot thread, but we’ve now got another set of bad guys whose motivations we don’t entirely understand – and, just to make things even more complicated, they’re bad guys we previously met (presumably in the future) as good guys (or at least guys who didn’t start their conversation in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone by saying “Oh, by the way, sorry about that time we mounted an incredibly complex plan to try and kill you…”).
Using the Clerics from S5’s two-parter is an interesting yet odd choice, and we really need a slightly clearer motivation for this astonishingly big-scale plan (which obviously involved the Silence) than River Song’s end speech where she makes it clear that the Doctor’s impact on the Universe is now coming back to bite him (Does Kovarian have other paymasters than the Clerics? Is there another big bad waiting in the wings?). There’s also the fact that we really need this to tie together with The Impossible Planet’s 2011-set scene of the Doctor’s death (Was the astronaut-suit-clad Melody brought back from 1969 specifically for this reason? How does this fit in with the rest of the story?)
In short, Who has a gigantic number of questions that still need to be answered – but at least, with River Song having finally unburdened her secret, there’s the chance for genuine answers (and hopefully we’ll get them, rather than more questions). A Good Man Goes to War does end up feeling a little shapeless thanks to this lack of meaty explanations for the story’s backdrop, but Moffat’s dialogue, energy and inventiveness means it’s still full-tilt SF entertainment – big, bold, confidant, and not afraid to be just a little insane.
The Verdict: A thoroughly enjoyable mid-season finale that shows Moffat hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to emotionally engaging SF adventure, this is an episode where the minor problems and the flapping plot-threads aren’t enough to spoil the rollicking entertainment. It’s certainly hard to work out what on earth Moffat will have in store for us in the next batch of episodes – all we can do is wait for September, the aftermath of all these revelations, and the hilariously titled next episode “Let’s Kill Hitler”…