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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Who’s your daddy?

At the risk of turning this into a Doctor Who-specific web site, the BBC series is begging for more comment.

This year the powers that be are doing something interesting schedule-wise. What is generally considered the sixth series (season, for us Yanks)—and it’s hard to be sure because of the inconsistent manner in which episodes show up from year to year—began as usual on Easter weekend, but instead of running straight through 13 episodes in 13 weeks, the BBC this time around has inserted a three-month-or-so break between the 7th and 8th eps. On reflection, this is pretty good idea—at least from the network’s point of view. It draws the series out longer, helping to keep up interest. And it allows the creative people to produce not one but two big finales, which are inevitably the most exciting and anticipated episodes. It also gives the good Doctor a first-run presence in the autumn when presumably more people are watching telly anyway, as opposed to the summer. And this year it provides a lead-in to something bittersweet: the final three stories (presumably six half-hour episodes) of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Further planned episodes were canceled after the untimely death of the star, Elisabeth Sladen. Apparently, there will be no attempt to carry on with the remaining (quite young) cast members, but at least we get to see the eps that were already in the can. Will they attempt to provide finality in the last episode, perhaps with a voiceover or by adding an extra scene? A final appearance by the Doctor (the current one or maybe, somehow, even one or both of the two surviving actors who played the Doctor opposite her) would certainly be welcome but may be impractical. In any event, we shall see.

But back to the current Doctor Who series. It is not my intention to spoil the latest episode for anybody, but since it will not play in the U.S. for a couple more days, it is my duty to warn readers that, despite my best (but ultimately pointless) efforts to be circumspect, what follows must be classified as spoilage. If you haven’t seen “A Good Man Goes to War,” then do yourself a favor and come back here after you have.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way… If you have seen “AGMGtW,” then you know that it is what is called in episodic TV a “game changer.” Okay, allow me another diversion. As someone who cares about the language, I’m not sure I’m okay with the term “game changer” to describe a television episode that shakes up the way characters relate to each other or the general direction of the ongoing story arc. For one thing, the term gets thrown around way too much, especially during sweeps season. (I prefer a term more like story-arc-critical or “advances the story arc.”) It seems to be a way of hyping an episode and making viewers feel like this is one they really shouldn’t miss. As far as I can tell, the phrase comes from the sports world, where it signals a play or happenstance that shifts the momentum in a game from one side to the other. Later, as so often happens, it seems to have migrated to politics, where it has a comparable sense in relation to competing political campaigns. This has no comparable equivalent in series television—unless you perceive the plot of a TV show as some sort of competition.

Having said that, however, “A Good Man Goes to War” is indeed a game changer, in the way that the phrase is usually meant. This is because our understanding of what has been going on in Doctor Who, going all the way back to the fourth series episode “Silence in the Library,” has been altered, probably forever. This has to do with two major events that were included in the episode. One is that the Doctor’s companion Amy Pond has indeed become a mother. (That had been teased since Easter, but we couldn’t really be sure it wasn’t a red herring of some sort.) The other is that we now know who the mysterious River Song is. It wasn’t a complete surprise in the sense that no one had included the right answer in the regularly listed possibilities, but there was a shameless amount of teasing right up to the final moment, including Dr. Song seeing and recognizing the cot that the Doctor had had as a baby. There was also a shameful amount of teasing about who exactly was the father of Amy’s baby. But now that we know the main puzzle piece to River’s story, we can go back and take another look at everything she has done up until now.

The main question in my mind is: did show-runner Steve Moffat have this all planned out since 2008, when he introduced the River Song character, or did he work it out as he went along? It turns out that Moffat has a capacity to plan things out far in advance. Chatterers on Usenet were clucking this week about an old post that had been left by Moffat in 1995, suggesting that if “we take ‘The Doctor’ to be the Doctor’s name – even if it is in the form of a title no doubt meaning something deep and Gallifreyan – perhaps our earthly use of the word ‘doctor’ meaning healer or wise man is direct result of the Doctor’s multiple interventions in our history as a healer and wise man.” Bear in mind that Moffat posted that idea five years after the end of the original long-running series and a year before the 1996 one-off TV movie starring Paul McGann. That would be a full ten years before Doctor Who was rebooted in the form we know now. At the time Moffat was a 33-year-old writer on a TV series called Joking Apart and presumably had no professional connection with Doctor Who. And yet, sixteen years after he posted that conceit of his, he included it in “A Good Man Goes to War.” Now that is consistency. Incidentally, Moffat’s creative talents will also be on view later this year on the big screen, as he is one of the screenwriters on Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

But back to River Song. At the time of her first appearance, it seemed as though it could be a one-off: a character who would have a relationship with the Doctor in some hypothetical future, which we might someday see or perhaps not. But when Moffat took over as show-runner, he soon brought River back and established the conceit that, from her point of view, her encounters with the Doctor were happening in directly reverse chronological order from what the Doctor and we were perceiving. Talk about a continuity headache for a team of writers. What seems clear is that Moffat knew exactly what he was doing from the beginning of the fifth series, in which Matt Smith and Karen Gillan took over the lead roles. And at each step of the way, he played on our expectations. We knew from the very first Matt Smith episode that Amy Pond had a wedding planned, but we expected the wedding not to happen. After all, she was meant to travel the cosmos with the Doctor. How could she do that if she was married? Our suspicions seemed confirmed when her fiancé Rory fell through a crack in time and had his entire existence, past and present, wiped out. But Amy and Rory did get end up getting married. Similarly, we were sure that the idea of Amy getting pregnant was going to turn out not to be as it seemed because, after all, it is one thing to drag a husband along on interstellar adventures, but a newborn?

The very idea of River Song posed a similar problem. It was well established, after nearly half a century, that the Doctor is (how to put this?) a functional asexual. Despite the fact that he always finds one or more companions, usually but not exclusively female, to travel with, he has not really shown any interest in any of them beyond friendship. That sort of changed with Rose Tyler when the series was rebooted in 2005. Rose clearly fell in love with the Doctor, and he seemed to reciprocate those feelings—up to a point. He could never go quite as far as using the L word or stealing a kiss. But he did leave her in a parallel universe with his non-Time Lord clone, presumably to be the life partner that he himself could never be.

So the strongly suggested notion that River Song was a future romantic partner, or perhaps even spouse, seemed like it could be a bridge too far for the conventions we have come to know and accept for Doctor Who. But what if she was a Time Lord (Time Lady?) as well? That changes things since, presumably, the key reason the Doctor cannot or does not get romantically involved with his companions is that their lifespans are a mere fraction of his. Now that we know that she is a Time Lord, or at least some sort of quasi-Time Lord, their putative relationship actually makes some sort of sense. It also provides a solution to another knotty problem. Given that their timelines are reversed, it has made sense that the actor who plays River is noticeably older than that of the actor playing the Doctor. (Alex Kingston is eight years older than David Tennant and 19 years older than Matt Smith.) But, as time goes on, if this relationship is to be pursued on air, this would increasingly become a problem. But if she’s a Time Lord-ish person, problem solved. She can regenerate (un-regenerate?) and be played by a younger actor.

In series involving time travel, it is not uncommon to see a character go back in time and meet his or her own parents around the time he or she was born. Indeed, both Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures have had such episodes. What Steven Moffat has done now is to tell that story in a longer, drawn-out way and from the point of view of the parents—instead of from the point of view of the grown-up child. It is an amazing bit of creative sleight-of-hand to lead us down that path without us really seeing it coming. But now that he has got us this far, can he keep the narrative going without writing himself into a corner? And keep the stories compelling? And will he be able to get out of the potential narrative quandary without having to resort to rebooting the whole universe (again)?

In any event, Moffat has accomplished one miracle. It had seemed impossible that any companion to the Doctor would ever be as significant as Rose Tyler. But it seems safe to say that Amy Pond may well be.

-S.L., 9 June 2011

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