The hunt is on for Amy as the Doctor and Rory call in old favours and make strange alliances to find the woman they love. But why is River so reluctant to help? And what does Madam Kovarian want with Melody, Amy's newborn baby?
What's good about it?
So here we are, the last episode for this half of the year and one question hangs in the air: does it deliver? The answer is a resounding 'yes'. This episode kicks off with a fantastic pre-title sequence that sets an epic tone for the next 50 minutes. Amy's touching monologue to her baby about its father is a clever bit of misdirection that leads us to think she might be talking about the Doctor, but no, it's Rory. A centurion once more, Mr Pond takes on a fleet of Cybermen to discover the whereabouts of his wife and casually destroys most of them just to let them know exactly who they are dealing with.
We are then introduced to Kovarian's army through the eyes of the ordinary soldiers that serve in it - a clever move by writer Steven Moffatt that adds a human touch to what could be a bunch of faceless extras. The 'thin fat gay Anglican marines' are rather funny, but Lorna makes the greater impression. She has met the Doctor before and only joined the army in the hope that she would see him again. This off-screen adventure demonstrates the impact the Doctor has on the people he meets and the unforeseen consequences of his travels which will come back to haunt him by the end of this episode.
For a man that abhors violence, the Doctor is pretty adept at conscripting an army with short notice! Yet out of all the colourful characters he calls on for help there is one significant exception - River. Alex Kingston's performance in the scenes where she refuses to go with Rory and aid the Doctor is beautifully judged - River wants to help but knows that she can't because she's already lived this moment in her life and doesn't arrive until the fight is over. Kingston has really nailed this character and switches from light frivolity to aching sadness effortlessly making River an intriguing - and soon to be partially unmasked - woman of mystery.
Having called in favours from across the Galaxy, the Doctor and Rory take the fight to Demon's Run where they disarm Kovarian's forces with deceptive ease. This early victory is a clear sign to the audience that all is not as it seems to be and exposes a character flaw in our hero: when the Doctor loses his temper he screws things up. Amy warned him of this earlier this year and again he is tartly reminded by Madam Vastra (the wonderful Neve McIntosh) that 'anger is always the shortest distance to a mistake'. But while busy fronting up to Kovarian and her army, what has he missed?
From this point the disparate plot threads of this series start to pull together. Amy's concerns that her baby could have a 'time-head' appear to have been founded when Melody is revealed to be human, but with a little bit of Time Lord thrown in. So Melody would appear to be the little girl in the space-suit from The Impossible Astronaut who then starts regenerating in the closing scene of Day of the Moon. As Vastra points out, this child could be a very powerful weapon and it's only then that our heroes begin to wonder why Kovarian gave in so easily. The answer to this of course is that they have all walked into a trap which is then sprung with relish by Kovarian - a role Frances Barber handles with a perfect balance of menace and camp archness.
As the massively creepy Headless Monks begin their attack, another shock awaits Amy and the audience. The baby she is trying to protect is not real, but a flesh avatar. Watching it turn to goo was truly disturbing and kudos to Karen Gillan for conveying Amy's sheer disbelief and horror at apparently losing her child. Things take a decidedly dark turn as it appears that Kovarian has won. Melody has been taken and although the Monks have been defeated, the lovely Lorna and quirky Commander Strax lie dead. The sense of crushing defeat could be total at this point but Moffatt has one wild card to play before this half of the series is over.
That's right; River makes her promised appearance delivering a warning to the Doctor and ray of hope for Amy and Rory. River essentially laying the blame for all that has happened at the Doctor's door is pretty shocking but entirely justified: our hero may see himself as a harmless traveller but many others see him as a fearsome warrior that needs to be defeated. Other writers would resist the temptation to challenge the actions of their lead character, but Moffatt tackles this head on adding shade and depth to the Doctor and the life he has chosen.
It's at this point we finally learn who River really is: Amy and Rory's daughter. This has been hinted at on various forums across the internet for a while now and something which I initially dismissed, but all things considered it makes perfect sense. Who else would have such a complicated relationship with time than the daughter of two travellers in the fourth dimension? This revelation spurs the Doctor into action, gives comfort to Amy and Rory with the knowledge their daughter will live and provides an excellent premise for autumn's adventures: the quest for Melody Pond!
What's bad about it?
I thoroughly enjoyed this episode, so just one or two things of note this week. Firstly, I thought Rory was the Lone Centurion in last year's final episode, not the Last Centurion? And describing him as the last of his kind, is that really accurate? Hmm, methinks Moffatt has been taking a little too much artistic license here.
Also, I'm beginning to worry about the Doctor's life insurance payments because with the amount of galactic armies being raised against him year on year they must be bloody enormous! I was relieved that Kovarian's army turned out to be a clever distraction for the Doctor because I was starting to feel that this was the same scenario our friends faced last year, so a word of advice to the executive producers: give the 'combined forces of the Universe vs the Doctor' a rest for a while, eh guys?
And finally, the amount of unanswered questions left hanging over the series arc may be an irritant to some members of the viewing public. I personally felt just enough was given away to leave the audience clamouring for more come the autumn, but I worry some may not have felt so satisfied with the amount of explanations given. Only time will tell and ultimately I have faith in the production team not to let us down... Listening you lot?
Since its return in 2005, vast space fleets zipping about the universe have become much more common in Doctor Who but that’s not to say we haven't seen this before. The cyber ships first seen in Patrick Troughton's 1968 story The Invasion make a welcome appearance this week and there are strong thematic references to the space-opera of Jon Pertwee's 1973 tale Frontier in Space. This story is particularly relevant as it has a cliff-hanger ending that follows into a new story, although in that case the audience had to wait a single week not several months!
On a more personal level, the identity of a baby having a profound effect on the Doctor's companion has happened only once before in the series. In Sylvester McCoy's 1989 story, The Curse of Fenric, the seventh Doctor and his friend Ace arrive at an army base in 1943 where evil forces are gathering to challenge the Time Lord to one final game of chess. While there, Ace befriends a young woman with a baby that she becomes very attached to; only to discover that the child is her estranged mother ... Like A Good Man Goes To War, this emotionally charged story calls on the inner strength of the Doctor's young friend at a time when she needs it most.
The bottom line
A rip-roaring episode that provides much needed answers, new mysteries and a thrilling climax to series so far. Director Peter Hoar takes Steven Moffatt's script and pays homage to cinematic classic The Empire Strikes Back by delivering a piece of television with a vast sense of scale but a deeply human story of loss and separation at its heart. Top marks to all concerned. Now if you'll excuse me, I feel the need to go and watch all seven episodes again immediately. Possibly on a loop. Well something has to fill the gap till autumn and the astonishingly titled, Let's Kill Hitler!