Let’s Kill Hitler (Doctor Who series 6, episode 8)

[A revised and improved version of this essay appears in my book The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.]

Oh, I have been looking forward to this for so long …  The title alone had me salivating: the juxtaposition of the causal “Let’s” with the history-changing “Kill Hitler” is pure Who, capturing in three words the programme’s unique blend of the light-hearted and the profound.  Only Doctor Who can switch between the two so constantly, seamlessly and effortlessly.

In a conventional novel — Jane Austen’s justly revered classic Pride and Prejudice [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk], say — events follow one another in chronological order.  Causes precede effects.  Elizabeth rejects Collins; both subsequently and consequently, he proposes to Charlotte instead.  Lydia elopes with Wickham; both subsequently and consequently, Darcy goes off to find them in London.  This makes for a comfortable reading experience, and is quite understandably the most common approach taken in fiction.  Many, probably most, great works of literature work this way.

More modern novels often make extensive use of flashbacks.  For example Fred Pohl’s Gateway [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk], also a classic in its way, tells the story of the protagonist’s psychoanalysis interspersed with flashback accounts of the events on the Gateway space station that resulted in his being in the state that requires the analysis.  The backstory unfolds in parallel through the flashback exposition and the present discussion.  Here we see some effects before their causes, but within each of the two threads, chronology and strict causality is followed.  It’s a structure that lends a level of richness not available to traditional novels because interleaving of the past and present strands allow us to watch a past event happening more or less simultaneously as we see the developing psychological effects of that event in the present.

Then there are more adventurous structures like that of Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento.  Here almost the whole story is told backwards, in segments of maybe five minutes, each taking place earlier than the one before.  To make things even more confusing, the lead character is unable to form long-term memories, so in any given segment he can’t remember what is going to have happened in the subsequent (for us) segments.  As the film progresses, we discover not what happens, but why what we have already seen happen, happened in the way it did, what led to it.  It works, and it’s rather brilliant, but it’s hard to imagine this approach being adopted more widely — it feels more like a gimmick than a natural alternative approach to storytelling, and the Philadelphia Weekly’s summary of the film as “an ice-cold feat of intellectual gamesmanship” seems reasonable.

[Also, the lead character looks so much like Dennis Bergkamp that I kept expecting him to sneakily elbow a defender in the throat before casually scoring a goal of such astonishing technical quality that one can only laugh.]

And there there is Series 6 of Doctor Who.

It’s hardly a secret that I loved Series 5, the first with Steven Moffat at the helm.  It played with the concept of the story arc in a way that the previous four series under Russell T. Davies never did, dropping bits of the overarching story in here and there in a way that constantly changed the game and kept us guessing.  Although I enjoyed all the Bad Wolf sightings back in the day, all of that seems terribly amateurish and half-hearted in retrospect: the RTD series feel like what they were: anthologies.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.  Back in the day, Who Classic spent nearly all of its time quite free of anything that we would now recognise as an arc, the only real exceptions being the very loosely coupled Key To Time compilation and universally derided Trial of a Time Lord.  (Has there ever been a lamer story title than The Mysterious Planet?)  All the great stories of Classic Who were standalones, from Tomb of the Cybermen through Spearhead From Space to Genesis of the Daleks.  And that was fine: one the great strengths of Doctor Who has always been its freedom to leap from story to story, sci-fi or historical, Earthbound or extraterrestrial.  And yet, things have changed.  We can’t really ignore the fact that we now live in a world where we discovered only over an extended period why Buffy suddenly had a sister that we’d never seen before, where it took us 22 episodes to figure out who killed Lily Kane, and where we only really understood what had been done to River Tam after the end of the one series of Firefly.

[Side-note: I really must write properly about Firefly some time.  Until then, the short version is: utterly brilliant.]

So here we are in a post-Buffy, post-Veronica, post-Firefly world where audiences have been trained to work harder, to think through what they’re watching, to weigh possibilities over weeks or months, to try to outguess the series creators.  The game has been upped since the old days of Tom Baker and his tin dog, and although series 1-4 of New Who were in many respects outstanding, there is also a real sense in which they are rather quaint and old-fashioned, paying only lip-service to the notion of a plot arc and really being 97% Alien Invasion Of The Week.

Series 5 of New Who changed that, bringing everyone’s favourite 48-year-old sci-fi TV series right into the 21st century.  And it’s increasingly apparent that series 6 is seeing the 21st century’s stake and raising it.  This is arc with extra arc on top.  And it’s playing out at dizzying speed in apparently random order.  It’s hard.  Moffat expects us to work.  He expects us to think.  And he trusts us to do it.  At a time when TV is mostly dumbing down just as fast as it can, isn’t that refreshing?

It’s almost become a truism this series to say that concept is piled relentlessly on concept, and that was true yet again in LKH, with the Fuehrer himself complemented by shape-changing assassin robots, shape-changing assassin people and The Doctor on the very brink of death yet again.  I love the way that Hitler himself was almost thrown away.  “Shut up, Hitler”, says Rory, in one of the most perfectly deadpan lines you’ll ever see.  Into a cupboard he goes — thereafter to be ignored as the story goes spinning off in a completely different direction.  I like to imagine him sitting in the cupboard still, waiting for the world to recommence turning around him; but it doesn’t.  Not this world.  It turns around the Doctor, and Amy and Rory, and River.

Does it all work?  Somehow, yes: it makes at least enough sense to let sheer momentum carry it along.  Plus there were some actual answers thrown into the mix: about time, you might say, after the masses of questions thrown up by the early episodes of Series 6.  (I’ll summarise some of these near the end, after a spoiler warning.)

But the overwhelming sense, for me at least, is that Moffat is doing two things.  He’s playing a game with us — a complex, cryptic one where we don’t know all the rules; and in some sense he’s treating us as equals.  What I mean is that even in the best of the RTD episodes I had a sense that he was holding back, that he wanted to make sure that he kept it simple enough for us, that he didn’t trust us to follow if he suddenly went flying off at right angles to reality.  Whereas under Moffat, I feel that anything could happen, and he’s constantly challenging us to keep up.  It’s unsettling, but in the best sense.

Which is why I loved Let’s Kill Hitler, and all the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey that was involved in the story of Amy and Rory, Amy’s best friend, her daughter, the reason that River in Silence in the Library knew the Doctor’s true name, and the various deaths.  Yes, it needed a little bit of Sit Down And Think after the episode ended to get it all straight, but that is part of the appeal for me.  I can see why it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but those who love it will really love it.

And then you have those who don’t.  Jim Shelley, writing in the downmarket tabloid The Daily Mirror was much less impressed — “Personally, I was perfectly happy when Doctor Who was a series about The Doctor, a foxy female sidekick and her ­gormless mate fighting creatures from space.”  But I can’t go worrying about that.  If Jim Shelley lacks the mental agility to follow the Grand Moff’s elaborately improvised dance through a maze of twisty little tunnels, some of them all alike and others all different, then that’s his lookout.  Me?  I’ll be dancing along as closely behind as I can manage.

Of course, that’s not to say that it was perfect.  While Karen Gillan, Arthur Davill and most of all Matt Smith continue to give utterly believeable performances, the character of River Song is, as usual, undermined by the horribly mannered performance of Alex Kingston, and I can’t help wondering how much better yet Who might be had someone else been cast in the increasingly crucial role of River.  Actually that Jim Shelley review says it just right: “Whereas the rest of the cast play their parts perfectly ­naturally […] you can see Kingston acting.”  Worse, she seems to think she’s in pantomime.

That’s a shame.  But it’s not enough to seriously spoil the overall effect.  (And her stilted delivery paid off in a big way when I hear the Doctor’s response to her question “Who’s River Song?”  A wonderful moment.)

Anyway — time to review what we now know.

WARNING — Spoilers follow!

— We know now that the little girl in the spacesuit from The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon really is — as we suspected — Melody Pond/River Song, who is in turn Amy’s daughter.  (We know because she spoke about the last time she regenerated in New York as a child — a scene that we’ve already seen).

— We know that the newly introduced and irritatingly River-like character “Mels” actually is River, so that Amy’s best friend as she was growing up was in fact her own daughter.  (And so Amy named her daughter after her daughter.  Sweet.)

— We know that River is considered a criminal by, well, we don’t know who, but the people piloting the shape-shifting robot.  And that the reason for this is that she killed the Doctor.

— We know that the Doctor’s death by the lake in Utah in April 2011 is known to the shape-shifting robot pilots, and that it is one of those Fixed Points In Time And Space.

We are being invited to believe that the person in the spacesuit who killed the Doctor back in April was River, but actually we don’t know that.  We know that River was imprisoned because she killed “the best man she ever knew”, but we don’t know that that was the Doctor (I still have a sneaking suspicion that it might be Rory); and even if it was the Doctor, we don’t know that it was by the lake in Utah.  And if it was by the lake in Utah, we don’t know whether it was Girl River, who we later saw in the suit, or Adult River.  Again, we were invited to assume the former, but the latter would make more sense — otherwise the adult River who we saw in LKH would not still have felt a need to kill the Doctor, having already done so earlier in her life (though later in his).

Back when The Impossible Astronaut aired, Allyn Gibson wrote that “There was no resolution, though as the first part of a two-parter that’s largely to be expected.”  But it’s increasingly apparent that he was wrong: TIA was actually the first part of the thirteen-parter.  It all ties together.  But can it make sense?  Can the Moff pull it off?

That’s what’s so great here: YES!  Yes, he can!  We’ve seen it done before, in the small in Blink, over the slightly longer spans of the two-parter The Empty Child, which made more sense than any other Who story I can remember, and over the yet longer span of series 5.  (The moment in The Big Bang when we discover that the Doctor’s jacket in Flesh and Stone was not just a continuity error still sends shivers up and down my spine when I think about it.)  Bottom line, I trust Moffat to make it fly.

Don’t let me down, Steven!

And finally

A reminder that you can follow me on Twitter, if you wish, at https://twitter.com/#!/SauropodMike — mostly just links to new articles at this blog and Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, but occasional other comments.

28 responses to “Let’s Kill Hitler (Doctor Who series 6, episode 8)

  1. Spaceman Spiff

    Well, I’ve enjoyed this seasons’ series thoroughly, but having been on a road trip until last night, I will only be viewing “LKH” tonight. Expectations are high… :-)

  2. Spaceman Spiff

    P.S. The plural subjective of “seasons'” was deliberate.

  3. Spaceman Spiff

    Ok. I just now started watching it. The Mel character just appeared in the stolen Corvette. Brilliant line – “You’ve got a time machine. I’ve got a gun. What the hell, let’s kill Hitler!”…

  4. Spaceman Spiff

    Next great line – “Not now dad! I’m focusing on a dress size!”. ROFLMAO!

  5. Spaceman Spiff

    In sum, I agree that this “series” looks to be very good!

  6. Blast! I’m swept away, standing on a raft of unsteady footing; not really sure where its going, but what I’ve just seen. need to think it over a bit when it slows down.

    Wish we coudl have the next few episodes in one big hit, Right Now. I need some answers! Great job Moff!

    (But also, having twins in a few weeks .. I just know I’m going to vanish, and come back to watch series 6 in a year. That’ll be hanging too long :)

  7. Ok, so I just finished watching it. It was cool. I liked it. Oddly, my favorite thing was actually the bit where Mels, having “shot the TARDIS” is getting on the Doctor’s case about “I thought you said we were in a state of temporal grace.” I love that because it references the very old series where the 4th Doctor did make that claim to Eldrad.

    Really, for me the thing that I love the most about watching an episode in a show that’s been going on for as long as I’ve been alive is that they can do call-backs to lines from 15-20 years ago. It’s awesome.

    And I like that nickname for Moffat–Grand Moff as in Grand Moff Tarkin. Also, your River Tam–Lol Catz thing is really good.

    I don’t know how well this series of DW is going to turn out, and I ildon’t think any of us really can know until after it’s all over. But then that’s just my personal philosophical bias in favor of doubt kicking in. <wink>

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  8. Great review as always, but I was wondering when the Doctor told River her name? What makes you think that’s what he is whispering?

  9. I wasted the entire morning pondering the many lives of River Song, and have come up with a timeline (of sorts) here:

    http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/08/many-lives-of-river-song-or-thinking.html

  10. Wow, what a great episode. Great review two.

    The setup and execution of this episode, from the title dropping from “A Good Man Goes to War” to the appearance of Mels, to Hitler in a closet, and even the Starship impersonator was fantastic.

    Moffat is a master storyteller. The way things intertwine. The way things sort out. Amazing.

    It kind of bugs me that River used “all” her regenerations to save the doctor, but then we know that she ends up locked in the library in this incarnation anyway so it doesn’t really matter.

    I did not see the Mels switch coming, brilliantly done.

    While clearing a lot up, this episode still leaves the scene at the lake up in the air. That scene, which very effectively, is hanging over the entire season waiting for resolution. In light of this episode, I have to revise my explanation of Impossible astronaut. But now I’m beginning to think the whole thing is a frame up.

    I had said that I though young River was in the spacesuit, but that can’t be as she’d have known she’d already killed the doctor and wouldn’t have had to kill him in this episode. So, then, if the Astronaut isn’t younger River, it must be older river. But that doesn’t make any sense as I think we’ve now established in this episode that River doesn’t really want the Doctor dead. In fact I do not think we’ll see her try and kill him again until we get her other perspective of the scene at the lake. And I think whats going to happen at the lake is that River is going to frame herself (with the Doctor’s help) for his murder. Which means that when she says she killed the best man she ever knew, she’ll know its a lie, but it’ll be a lie that allows her to convince the Church folks that the Doctor was good and not bad (since their opinion seems to change over time). And it will allow our Doctor to survive.

    I also loved the fact that this was, from River’s perspective, their first kiss. That lends more to the comments that have been going on all along, and indicated that the Grand Moff has this all planned out.

    The rest of the season’s gonna be a heck of a ride!!

  11. This is another one we’re kind of chalk-and-cheese on! I found it a mix of things I didn’t like and good ideas which were too rushed to actually work. (Though admittedly I’d have trouble finding where one ends and another begins.)

    http://lucidfrenzy.blogspot.com/2011/08/doctor-who-lets-kill-hitler.html

    Most of the pro comments seem to be on how it advances the through-line. Which is fine, but surely there had to be some kind of stand-alone episode as well!

  12. Steve asked:

    Great review as always, but I was wondering when the Doctor told River her name? What makes you think that’s what he is whispering?

    Oh, well I suppose it wasn’t spelled out, but what else might the message have been? We know that he is going to have told her his real name, because River whispered that name back to him on her first appearance, in Silence in the Library. So I assumed this was that.

  13. Added to which this is the point at which River gets named. (Though the Doctor uses it because he knows it from later, in yet another time paradox.) And taking on her name becomes associated with rejecting her training as an assassin.

    So that’s certainly what I inferred…

  14. I’m not sure if some of the things that happened were glaring plot errors, or just because I’m not keeping up, or because it will, in the end, eventually all make sense.

  15. I watched this episode the day it aired. 10 seconds after the credits had finished, I thought to myself, “This was the most fun I’ve had watching Doctor Who since ‘The Big Bang'”. It’s hard to have fun watching a TV show. I can enjoy it, sure, but the word “fun” is a word that I don’t really associate with TV. But Moffat pulled it off. And brilliantly too. I’d post a proper mini-review of the episode, but my download of “Night Terrors” (I missed it on Saturday) is about to finish. But I will post this:

    I was speaking with friends about the show earlier today. We’re talking about the series so far; some love it (appreciate might be the better word) for having such a different series-arc structure than before, others don’t. But we all agree, Matt Smith is doing a great job. But they think I take it one step too far. I say “ever since the Christmas special, I think Matt Smith is probably the best Doctor since Baker, and even then I think Smith is better in many aspects” They didn’t stand for this. They go “No, Tennant was better. He pulled off the emotional scenes much better, looks hotter etc”. I crossed the line. I went “I’ll be honest, I think Smith’s more subtle approach to these moments are much more convincing than Tennant ever did”. Ooh, bad mistake saying that.
    They don’t listen to this of course. I can’t really argue with them about it any further though, because it makes me look like an absolute weirdo ranting on about a TV show which most in my Academy look upon as a “silly kids show”.

    I’ll listen to other people’s opinions, no problem. But this is a rare case in which I think my view is actually right. Smith is that good.*

    This is why I’m loving the show again. Tennant never really had such a good hit/miss ratio by every new episode that came out. Smith, however, nails it every time(save for, arguably, The Eleventh Hour). Let’s Kill Hitler has, I think, backed up my view once again.

    *The Doctor’s goodbye to Idris was the first time I shed a tear (a small tear, but a genuine one nonetheless) watching the show since the Ten’s farewell to Rose. But the latter was MEANT to make the viewers cry because of the story, no matter how good the acting was (though it certainly was a contributing factor). In the former, it was all down to Smith.

  16. Well IMHO, generally I think it’s like this: You see Eccleston playing the Doctor and you’re like, “oh wow, he’s good. Lots of well played emotion.” Then you see Tennet playing the Doctor and you’re like “oh, but he’s much more The Doctor than Eccleston”. And then you see Matt Smith and it’s like: “oh look. There’s THE DOCTOR. He’s not `playing’ the Doctor–he just is The Doctor.”

    I don’t think the comparing game is truly fair. (Even though I just did it. ;-) ) Each actor is different. More importantly, each team is different. As awesome as Matt Smith is, and while he deserves lots of credit, I don’t believe he’d be able to pull of “Doctor-ness” without the superb writing and directing the show currently enjoys.


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  17. I agree that comparing different Doctors is usually an unfruitful activity, and that many people become permanently bonded with the first Doctor they loved. (Hence all the Pertwee-preferrers in their late 40s, the Tom-lovers in their early 40s, etc.)

    But I’ve been impressed that all three New Doctors have overcome my own prejudices to become, in turn, my favourite. Doctor Chris was the first who ever seemed to be a real person rather than a character that someone was acting. (Sorry, Old Who fans, but I’ve watched a lot of Old episodes since the reboot, and the acting is uniformly weak, often laughable.) Tennant’s debut was a tour de force and for a while he surpassed Eccleston in my affections; unfortunately his long run in the role was not kind to him, and exposed his limited palette: he ended up as a caricature of himself, but remains in my top four.

    But even against that competition, Smith has been a revelation to me. For the first time, I really believe that the Doctor might do anything. His sudden gear-changes feel like the outcome of very complex thought processes rather than arbitrary grasps at comedy. He conveys so much through subtlety. Imagine the scene in The Hungry Earth where he talks one-on-one with the Silurian warrior Alaya, if it had been done by late-era Tennant. It wouldn’t have had a tenth of the weight that Smith brought to it.

  18. Pingback: Night Terrors (Doctor Who series 6, episode 9) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  19. In the light of last night’s episode . . . can they save Baby Amy without undoing the whole Mels / River Song timeline? (And I presume that won’t be wrapped up this series, as the dilemma would be too similar to last night).

  20. Regarding what the Doctor whispered in Melody/River’s ear, let’s remember that at that point Melody doesn’t yet know that she *is* River.

    The Doctor: Find her. Find River Song and tell her something from me.

    Melody Pond: Tell her what?

    [The Doctor whispers]

    Melody Pond: Well, I’m sure she knows.

    Especially given Melody’s reaction, what else could he have told her other than that he loves River Song?

    A minute afterwards Melody “finds” River, by finding out that she herself is River. She is visibly shaken — and does what she can to bring the Doctor back to life.

  21. Michael Schuerig: I watched the episode again the other night, and I agree with you.

    I think the Doctor simply told Mels/almost-River that he loves River Song and maybe also that he would trust her with his life.

    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  22. Also, I don’t think the Doctor at this point in his timeline, needs to tell River his true name anymore. She is no ordinary human, but part Time Lord plus archaeologist, so presumably she can read Gallifreyan.

    River has seen the Doctor’s cot and there was Gallifreyan writing on it. That could have been anything, of course, but if parents on Gallifrey are anything like those on Earth, it is rather likely that the child’s name is among the writing.

  23. I’m pretty sure that back in Silence in the Library, the Doctor trusted River because he said that he would only have told his name to someone he trusted. That wouldn’t really work if it was possible to read it.

  24. Oops! That’s a very good point.

    So maybe the Doctor does tell River his name explicitly and maybe we even get to see this. However, even though the last episode for this series is titled “The Wedding of River Song”, I’m doubtful that that is the occasion when she learns his name. For one thing, does anyone believe that at the end of the episode River is married to the Doctor? He may not even be the groom.

    Besides, in the Whoniverse, weddings are prone to mishaps. Witness the failed attempts by Donna (first time around) and Sarah Jane. Gwen Cooper’s wedding had some complications, too.

    So, seeing that my “clever” solution with the cot doesn’t work, I presume that Moffat has something more clever in store.

  25. Pingback: The Wedding of River Song (Doctor Who series 6, episode 13) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  26. I think you’re making a mistake here. You’re assuming that if somebody doesn’t like Moffat’s writing, it’s because they don’t understand it, because they’re not quite intelligent enough, etc. That’s patronizing and wrong. You sound like you’re on an ego trip in this article, about how you’re superior in your understanding to some of the rest of the audience.

    I am perfectly intelligent enough and capable enough to understand Moffat’s stories. I assume the majority of the audience are, too, including children (perhaps especially children).

    I just think they’re often paced badly, told badly and unnecessarily complicated and sometimes even annoying.

    You can say all this “I understand Moffat’s work and it’s not my fault if the audience are too stupid” rubbish, as you have in this article, but that is just that – rubbish. It’s not about whether or not the audience understand, it’s about whether or not they enjoy it. I preferred “Doctor Who” when it was more simple. Not because I’m some sort of stupid buffoon who can’t make heads or tail of anything in the new series, as you try to make out, but because I simply don’t like it, and sometimes I don’t even think it’s written all that well. I’m just concerned that this family show may be suffering from overly-convoluted ongoing plots.

  27. Well, that is certainly a perspective. I certainly know some clever people (e.g. Andrew Hickey) who love old Doctor Who but hate the new series.

  28. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 2 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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