Since I’m reviewing, and slowly reviling, Torchwood – and since I’m thoroughly enjoying the televisual musings that I’m afforded by this soapbox called Parallelevision – I thought it best to tackle the back half of the new series of Doctor Who. I’ll be doing the first two episodes back to back and then will keep up with each episode as it premieres. In the first half of the season we got the (SPOILERS, sweetie) joy of watching River Song ‘fess up to being Amy and Rory’s daughter, the baby River’s kidnap, the revelation of the Doctor’s impending death, and the introduction of the Silence. Would the second half opener slow things down a gear? Does Hitler shit on the Pope?
You do wonder if he had a plan. I mean, of course he had a plan. Stephen Moffatt, showrunner extraordinaire of Doctor Who since last season, always has a plan. But still, when “A Good Man Goes To War” ended in the Spring and the credits rolled right into “The Doctor shall return in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler'” – you did wonder if he just did it for the reaction.
Because it’s so gaga, first of all. As a title, it both disobeys Who’s “noun of the noun” naming structure, and also… well, it’s Hitler. HITLER. A touchy subject for a children’s show at the best of times, but for one that addresses time travel and fixing past mistakes? How the hell do you do that?
The short answer is, of course, you don’t. You use Hitler as a powerful diversion while you slowly set up a fantastically hidden reveal, and in doing so pump out one of the most purely entertaining and transcendent episodes that Who has ever seen. This was Moffatt firing on all cylinders, and it was dirty and complex and funny and so very, very right.
From opening on Rory and Amy luring the Doctor to a cornfield after his Summer of baby Melody hunting (I love how a series so focused on time travel felt the need to acknowledge that we’d all spent the Summer away), things were looking up. We then found ourselves almost run over by Rory and Amy’s heretofore unseen best friend Mels, who pointed a gun at the Doctor and got him on the road to the aforementioned Hitler assassination.
I will admit that the moment Rory and Amy called her “Mels” I spotted the conceit, similar to how I saw the Melody/River name game coming in “A Good Man Goes To War” (I just like wordplay a lot) – but I know most people didn’t. And this is a testament to how well-crowded Moffatt’s script for this ep was – there was simply so much humour and action to divert your attention from the plot point at its core: Mels regenerating into River.
And somehow the plates kept spinning. This was River, but not was we knew her – this was a new River, and one built to kill the Doctor. And she might have succeeded were it not for the intervention of a sort of time travel justice league who had skipped back to punish Hitler for crimes against humanity. That River herself was the bigger fish to fry was a nicely bold-faced acknowledged of what fans have been saying for over a year – River was jailed for the murder of the Doctor. Whether this is true or not is an entirely separate matter, but it made the crew of the Tessaract (a humanoid shape-shifting robot with a miniaturised complement of soldiers) central to the episode.
Because buried underneath this whole Nazi-stripping joke-cracking banana-wielding adventure was a theme that has been running through River’s plot from day one – the idea of redemption. That even if we know how awful she was, or how awful she becomes, or even if we know she kills the Doctor – it doesn’t mean we get to punish her. Because we are who we are right now, and not the sum of our future or even our past actions. It’s a democratic approach to justice that Who has been breathing for decades.
And for those who worry that the events of Silence Of The Library become diluted by further development of this story, I would say “SCOFF!” – River’s death was a sacrifice, and the more we see of what she gave up, and the more we see why she felt the need for such redemption, the more powerful that moment becomes.
By episode’s end River had been somewhat cured of her desire to kill the Doctor, after seeing his magnificently well-acted descent towards death, still trying to do the right thing all the while. She also gave up her remaining regenerations to save him (though how many she had actually been through at that point remains up for discussion), and as we saw at episode’s end she finally enrolled in archeology. Because how else do you find a time-travelling “good man” but by infusing yourself with history?
There are very many things to say about “Let’s Kill Hitler”. The pacing, the fantastic performances by all the leads, the brilliantly active way Rory and Amy engaged with the story, the sheer inventiveness of it all – but really this episode belonged to Alex Kingston. I read recently a reviewer who worried that River Song was merely a Mary Sue, a wish-fulfillment prop who knew better than every other character, and one who would be unbearable were it not for Kingston’s heavy lifting.
And while I would agree that Kingston is doing some very, very heavy lifting here, it’s not because the character of River is poor; it is because she is complex. Our four leads are currently the most complex characters that Doctor Who has ever portrayed, and while it is undoubtedly a more adult show because of this it remains a powerful educational tool for young viewers. It tells them that there are no easy answers, and often you will be at odds with and deceptive to the people you love – but there are also good men and good women in this world, and there is joy where there is pain and redemption where there is transgression.
And while in years to come those who call Matt Smith “my Doctor” may most clearly remember hiding behind their couch at the newest monster, I’ve no doubt that Who’s true legacy will be the boundless optimistic belief that people can be their best in spite of everything the universe throws at them.
So for that alone, I tap my hat to thee, Mr. Moffatt.
– “I’m going to wear LOTS of jodhpurs.” I don’t know what this means, but I know it’s filthy.
– I loved those disrobed Nazis running down the steps.
– What happened to Hitler?!
– The jellyfish antibodies seemed a bridge too far for the design department, but some nifty direction kept them from seeming too hokey.
– “I was just on my way to this gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled…”
– Thoroughly enjoyed Rory “heil”-ing the Tessaract into submission.
– Tessaract is an interesting choice of name for the alien justice machine, and surely one ripe for conjecture from Who conspirators. More info here.
– So The Silence are not a species but a religious order. Presumably the same ones who were running the show in “A Good Man…”?
– Just too much quotable dialogue. I swear.
– Making Mels black. A very simple but effective way to put people off the scent.
– Fantastic to see Karen Gillan’s little cousin back as a young Amelia Pond. And heart-wrenching to see the Doctor’s desperate interaction with her image in the TARDIS.
– “Is there anyone in the universe I haven’t completely screwed up?” Once again, Moffatt nails who the Doctor truly is.