[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!
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