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Posts Tagged ‘A Good Man Goes To War’

Although I have issues with Rusty Davies’ storytelling style myself, I do think the guy drew and continues to draw a good deal of unwarranted stick. That said, one criticism of his time on Doctor Who that stands up to scrutiny better than the rest is that, try as he and the others might, at least one slightly duff (or at least underwhelming) episode slipped into the middle of every season he oversaw. I’m thinking of The Long Game, The Idiot’s Lantern, 42 and The Doctor’s Daughter, to be particular, surely none of which you’d choose as an example of the show at its best.

The decision to run the series as two demi-seasons this year appears to have banished any sign of this affliction, which did seem to linger a little in the form of Vampires in Venice (which was still arguably stronger than any of the previously mentioned quartet). A Good Man Goes To War almost completely restored my faith in Moffat, no mean feat considering how much I’ve been grumbling about Day of the Moon recently. The orchestration of the plot, the characterisation, the dialogue and the emotions were all masterfully done. I usually avoid spoilers hereabouts, thinking mainly of friends abroad who are still waiting for the episodes, and – broadly speaking – will do the same here, even though it prevents me from talking about the episode in any detail or even giving the names of the guest-stars who impressed me the most.

The internet is already ablaze with speculation as to what all the revelations of the episode actually mean and what’s going to happen next. I’m involved in a couple of ridiculously detailed discussions on this topic already – fandom as a cohesive social force, it’s marvellous. (If the internet genuinely counts as a social medium, anyway.)

However, one element of the story chimed with me particularly strongly, which may be why I like it so much, and this I will talk about in a little more detail than the rest, so, caveat lector and all. Prefatory to this, however, I am going to talk about the place of Doctor Who in my life for a bit.

I have been a proper card-carrying fan of the series for over thirty years now; looking back, nothing has ever really come close to its place in my affections. (Case in point: the complete Avengers arrived on 39 DVDs a couple of weeks ago, which is a programme I enjoy very much, but if it came to the crunch and I was banished to a desert island I’d take a handful of great Doctor Who stories with me in preference to the entire canon of Steed and co.) Some people have even accused me of treating the show like a religion.

Well, if that means I derive my values and beliefs from it, they may not be too far from the truth, although I would say that I love the programme so much because it reflects my beliefs, not that I believe what I do because it’s what my favourite TV show happens to support. (The question then of course becomes where I did actually derive my beliefs from – but then the same could be asked of any one of us.) I believe in tolerance, and the importance of facing life with a sense of humour, of accepting that simple answers are seldom to be trusted. Above all I believe that reason and rationality and simply asking questions are the best way to secure a happier world for everyone. This is my credo; I believe it would be the Doctor’s, too, were he properly real.

The blatant atheism of the Christopher Eccleston series in particular drew some attention but it seems to me that A Good Man Goes To War was every bit as robust in its criticism of religion. (This came as a surprise after the positive depiction of the Church in Flesh and Stone last year, but still.) The villains of this story are utterly opposed to everything the Doctor stands for – they dismiss him contemptuously as ‘the man who talks, the man who reasons’. The worst thing they can imagine is the commission of heresy – the thinking of forbidden thoughts.

And what does Moffat use as the main monsters in this story? The Headless Monks, creatures who have decapitated themselves so as not to be troubled by any unnecessary activity above the neck. It’s a terrific, though rather powerful and ghoulish image, but it also works on another level: the monster-as-metaphor, in this case one for religious fundamentalism of any stripe.

I have friends and family members who watch Doctor Who and are also people of faith and I’m curious to see what they make of this aspect of the story. The bad guys are, rather specifically, members of a Christian denomination, so it can’t be dismissed as a general comment on a made-up faith. I recall the Archbishop of Canterbury’s response to Philip Pullman’s great anti-religious fantasy His Dark Materials: ‘if this book was about our faith,’ he said, paraphrastically, ‘I would of course denounce it. But I don’t recognise my beliefs here, so I don’t have a problem.’

I wasn’t sure about that at the time and I’m not sure responses from believers to the Headless Monks along the lines of ‘it’s absurd to think we’re anything like that’ completely stand up either. I’ve never encountered a faith that was based on reason rather than the acceptance of authority; indeed, you might define faith as being inherently irrational as a concept. In the words of Martin Luther, reason is the enemy of faith. The Headless Monks are, of course, an exaggerated depiction of faith, but not a wholly rootless one.

And this leads me into one of the more interesting aspects of the episode: that the Doctor is presented as the author of his own misfortunes, his adventures and achievements over the centuries having somehow impelled the forces of unreasoning dogma to unite against him to such awful effect. If he hadn’t taken all those stands and righted all those wrongs, the story suggests, none of this would ever have happened.

Well, perhaps so, but the whole point about taking a stand is that you do it no matter what the cost is to yourself or even those around you. The whole point of having beliefs is that you have to live by them. I think there are Headless Monks in our own society, not just in the area of religion but in politics and culture too, and as we lack a real Doctor to fight them we have to do the best we can ourselves. I don’t always do as much as I probably could, but I do a little, I hope. The Doctor has no reason to feel remorse for fighting for his beliefs, no more than any of the rest of us: but, to me, the mere fact he even pauses to question himself shows that he is – as ever – on the side of right, and that his war is a just war.

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