[I’m going to go ahead and assume that, if you’re reading this, you’ve seen “When a Good Man Goes to War.” Meaning 1) I’m not going to bother with a summary, and 2) consider yourself spoiler-warned.]
Well, that sure was something. The last episode of Doctor Who before the mid-season break feels almost like a finale, answering as it does the biggest mystery of the last three years—who the heck River Song is.* It was great to see a greatest-hits type roundup of some of the neater minor characters, aliens, and neato costumes of the last few seasons, too. But most interesting to me was this exchange between the Doctor and mysterious-eyepatch-villain-lady Madame Kovarian:
Mme KOVARIAN: “Good men have too many rules.”
THE DOCTOR: “Good men don’t need rules… Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.”
Moral implications within moral implications there: first, the concept of an innate moral imperative; the idea of an obtainable absolute good—and then, the revelation that the Doctor does not necessarily have that moral imperative, and that he has not obtained that absolute good.
Step back, then, and take a look at the army the Doctor has assembled to face down the military-church hybrid on Demons Run. (Yep, it’s the same cleric-military from “The Time of Angels”—more on that later.) The Doctor has assembled some old friends, from the space pirates of “Curse of the Black Spot” to the Spitfire pilots of “Victory of the Daleks" to Dorium, the blue-skinned fence. There were a couple characters we haven’t seen before, too: Madame Vastra, a sword-wielding Silurian from Victorian England, and Strax, a Sontaran warrior serving as a nurse as penance for an unknown offence.
The Doctor has worked with warriors before—heck, he spent years as a member of UNIT, which was basically the alien-fighting branch of the British Armed Forces. But his willingness to team up with Vastra—who we first see moments after she’s eaten someone (sure, it was Jack the Ripper, but still) and who kills one of the Church’s soldiers on Demons Run—poses an interesting moral conundrum. The Doctor has always shown an unwillingness to kill, or to participate in killing, no matter the purpose. For him, the ends have never justified the means. In “Genesis of the Daleks,” he had the opportunity to destroy the first batch of Dalek mutants, thereby stopping the Daleks from ever being created and saving every life they would otherwise have taken—but he couldn’t bring himself to kill. The 9th and 10th Doctor were fairly dark, as incarnations go, but that darkness was internal—it meant lots of brooding, not lots of violence. The 11th Doctor, for all his surface happy-go-luckiness, is a much more dangerous Doctor by far. In the opening story of this season, he essentially instructs the entire human race to murder the Silence—not to imprison them, or drive them away, but to kill them. And he does so by implanting a message in the film footage of the moon landing—writing violence into an image of peace and human achievement. And when the title card announcing the next episode states “Let’s Kill Hitler”—well, one beigins to think that perhaps this Doctor might not have hesitated to kill that first batch of Daleks.
And it is in this context that we learn that the Doctor does not consider himself a “good man”—that he has had to make rules for himself to keep him from crossing certain moral lines. Furthermore, we learn that the Doctor’s actions have begun to affect galactic culture: the word “Doctor,” in some languages, no longer means “healer,” but rather “fierce warrior.”** He is affecting the very language with which reality is described and stories are told. (This, I think, is the reason for the future military using ecclesiastical titles: the meaning of words, in this part of the future, can no longer be trusted.) And when is the last time we saw a great assembly of alien warriors including the Judoon and the Sontarans? …When all of the “bad guy” aliens teamed up to imprison the Doctor in the Pandorica. And that episode, too, played with the Doctor's moral position, depicting him as a mythological monster, "a nameless, terrible thing soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies, the most feared being in all the cosmos." I may be reading too much into things—I do tend to pay extraordinarily close attention to the Doctor’s ethical decisions—but I think the Steven Moffat wants us to see the Doctor sliding away from his past morality and into murkier territory. Hmmm… Is the Valeyard on the horizon?
*I don’t think it’s bragging to say I had pretty much guessed it—but more specifically, I knew there had to be something going on with water names!
**Makes you wonder about Dr. River Song's honorific...