Near the beginning of the episode we are given a subtle (but glaringly obvious on rewatch) clue to the end of this episode in it being River Song’s birthday the day Melody Pond was kidnapped. River describes a rather sweet date with the Doctor and jokes with her father about his clothing, but then the episode takes us down a journey where one of the strongest companions of the show, Amy Pond, becomes a victim and there is little she can do as her life spirals out of her control.
This is an exceedingly dark episode in which the Doctor fails. He loses the child of his best friend and she will never be saved. She will be ok, but she will not be rescued. River takes after her mother in her ability to keep fighting, but she will never get to be Melody Pond, Amy Pond’s daughter. Melody Pond will always be an orphan who dies as a child in the streets of New York and Amy Pond will never get to properly raise her daughter.
The fact that it works out in the end and the fact that these characters will be ok is a testament to their strength, but in no way diminishes what happens here. This is the event that leads Amy to murder a woman, shut down, and nearly divorce Rory as she struggles to deal with what happened to her and the event that robs River Song of her childhood and turns her into a trained assassin instead.
Being the best friend of the Doctor is an inherently vulnerable position as he is a man with enemies who want nothing more than to destroy him. Usually, it turns out ok, but this time it doesn’t.
This episode is titled A Good Man Goes to War. Obviously, our expectations and knowledge of the show lead us to assume that the good man is the Doctor, but as the episode progresses, it forces us to question our assumptions.
Rory is the good man who puts on armor and fights a war while the Doctor says, “Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.” with the implication he is not a good man. That is one of my favorite lines as the Doctor shows the complexity in his character with such intensity.
The Doctor is a good man and we as the audience can accept that as a fact (many people even become very uncomfortable with the show even asking us to consider that he might not be), but the doctor questioning his own character is so crucial to understanding who he is and how he feels about the things he’s done.
The Doctor fights for the greater good, but that has so often resulted in total destruction of planets, peoples, and societies. Questioning himself for this destruction shows that he knows he has done bad things and shows how much that impacts his own view of himself.
But for me, this questioning ultimately proves that he is a good man because he can see it. He can see what he’s done wrong even as he works so hard not to think about it. Only a truly good man would let the bad things he’s done impact his feelings of himself so much more than the good things even though they vastly outnumber the bad.
Matt Smith’s take on a darker Doctor is perfectly portrayed. Just as he doesn’t hold back in being as silly as the character wants to be, he doesn’t hold back in being as dark as the character needs to be. When he slips into his dark side, there is no pretense that he’s a nice normal human being. He is a thousand year old Time Lord, a man who comes from a society that is so capable of darkness, and he can show every bit of that while still being a good person at heart.
When River finally returns to the episode, her speech to him is another fantastic moment providing a warning to the Doctor that he is going down a dark path. She hits the Doctor where it hurts as she says something to him he already senses getting worse in himself and fears even more as he has just failed the people who matter most to him and Madam Kovarian has warned him of a war he will fight. That war is on Trenzalore.
Finally, I cannot end a discussion of this episode without talking about the reveal of who River Song is. I love this arc. I really really do. It’s a bit complicated, but once you figure it out, her life falls into place and it just drew me in so completely, but I’ll get to that when I talk about other episodes. I will just add that ending on the reveal of Melody Pond’s identity is one of the great frustrating cliff hangers in this show.