Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Albert Welling, Nina Toussaint-White ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Richard Senior ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: You certainly can’t accuse Doctor Who of not coming back with a bang. ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is many things – fast-paced, imaginative, deeply nutty and at times very funny. The only thing it isn’t, though, is satisfying, and this latest batch of episodes looks set to continue being highly divisive…
What’s it About?: Months have gone by, but the Doctor still hasn’t succeeded in tracking down the missing Melody Pond, who’ll eventually grow up to become enigmatic archeologist River Song. Then, however, an encounter with one of Amy and Rory’s friends results in an unexpected trip to 1938 Berlin, and a confrontation with Adolf Hitler that’ll reveal some exceptionally bizarre truths…
The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)
As the credits rolled on ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, I experienced a very unfamiliar feeling. I’d felt it before, quite a few times during Russell T. Davies’s run on Doctor Who, and I’ve already felt it often during Steven Moffat’s ambitious but far from perfect run on Who so far… but this was the first time I’d felt it following one of Moffat’s own episodes: actual, genuine, no-holds-barred disappointment.
Yes, despite the largely positive reception the episode seemed to get online (including some absolutely gushing reviews from people like SFX), I found myself scratching my head and actually realising “Oh dear, I don’t think I enjoyed that…” At first, I wasn’t even certain why – it’s not as if ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ doesn’t feature a ton of fun and enjoyable elements, or that it isn’t also crammed to bursting with some genuinely excellent dialogue. There are daring concepts, imaginative touches, and at least one storytelling gambit which (despite earlier reservations) did impress the hell out of me. And yet, by the end of it I was perplexed, baffled, and ever-so-slightly vexxed, which certainly wasn’t the reaction I was looking for.
I suspect this is partly because, in going for his most deliberately comic episode ever, Moffat’s actually crafted the closest he’s ever managed to a genuine RTD crowd-pleasing episode – with all the flaws and annoyances that come with that concept. This is very much a “Look at all the STUFF!” episode that’s absolutely determined to batter the audience down with how entertaining it’s going to be, but also suffers from some wild tonal changes, occasionally clunky dialogue (especially from River Song) and a general feeling that we’re watching lots of fascinating ideas thrown together in a heap rather than an actual story. Moffat’s storytelling often revolves around finding interesting and unusual ways of wrong-footing the viewer and subverting expectations, but ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is so busy subverting expectations that it never seems to actually stand still long enough to engage as a story. Instead, of being a story, it’s a romp – a chance for the regulars to run around 1938 Berlin shouting at each other, without any real sense of progress or threat (except from the Teselector Antibodies – and, oh dear oh dear, whoever decided to do mechanical jellyfish tentacles should feel very apologetic, as the ‘menacing light-fitting’ attack was some of the least-impressive practical effects I’ve seen on New Who).
Of course, some of this is simply the weight of expectation, as well as the weight of the ongoing story. Moffat has said that the River Song storyline is going to get wrapped up this season (although how conclusively it does this is something we’ll have to see), and this is a very good thing, as the big arc this season has only been intermittently succesful. Many people have waved the ‘Too complicated for kids’ flag, which is nonsense – I have nothing against complicated, but I do have issues with unsatisfying, and that’s what Who is in danger of turning into. The overreaching arc since The Impossible Astronaut (and, in part, since The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang) has gotten insanely twisty and complex – comparisons have been made with Lost, but what Doctor Who is actually in danger of turning into is the modern version of Battlestar Galactica, at least in terms of the central overarching ‘mystery’. In the same way that the Cylon’s ‘plan’ and the general approach of what in the Galactica universe passes for ‘God’ ended up feeling like a loose excuse to string together a series of unconnected and improvised plot concepts, the current Who arc is so determinedly abstract that we’re eight episodes into this season and we can still only barely explain anything of what’s happening – and so much of what has happened can seemingly be summed up by simply saying “Well… Because! That’s why!”
‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ doesn’t function at all as a self-contained story – it’s part of a sprawling arc, but the arc itself is failing to be satisfying for the simple reason that we don’t know what’s going on. We do know that the Doctor is destined to die at the hands of the Impossible Astronaut, and that River is actually Amy’s daughter, and that she was created and programmed in order to be a weapon for killing the Doctor. We don’t know why any of this is happening (and, most frustratingly, nobody onscreen is actually asking). We don’t know why anyone would go to these kinds of insane lengths (like apparently detonating the entire universe in order to contrive the creation of a new Time Lord child) in order to create a plan with so many variables, and yet which currently seems to come down to “Get a psychopath with poison lipstick to kiss the Doctor”. Considering how many people he’s already kissed in New Who, it makes you wonder why they bothered going so complicated…
(Quick theory time: There is a possibility that the events of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ happen because Melody/Mells escaped from the Silence with some of her mental programming still intact – she’s trying to kill the Doctor in this episode without realising that (as I suspect) she’s already done it, back when she was a child in the Astronaut suit. It’s the best explanation I can think of to solve certain problems – although it doesn’t explain what the Astronaut’s doing in 2011, or why River knows why she’s locked in the Storm Cage facility for and yet doesn’t seem to remember the events surrounding the Impossible Astronaut. (It’s possible she’s lying in that episode, of course, but it’s one hell of a cop-out). I am really hoping it doesn’t turn out to be yet another temporal loop-style “Oh, it happened that way because the Doctor knew the future and so made sure it would look that way” in the same way that River Song only becomes River Song because she’s told about herself. And yet, it wouldn’t completely surprise me…)
There’s a difference between mystery and obfuscation, and after a while the deliberate holding back of details (and the twisting complicatedness of the details we are given) starts feeling like being complex simply for it’s own sake. Like with last year’s finale, it’s the spectacle of concepts, rather than visuals – it’s IDEA! IDEA! IDEA! but the arc isn’t supporting it, and is tremendously difficult to relate to. Amy and Rory’s story arc should be taking them to some very dark places, but Moffat seems to want to throw difficult ideas in (like Melody’s abduction) and then just gloss over the consequences – most especially, in the case of Mells.
If there’s one aspect of this episode that fully displays the weird disconnect between sheer narrative ballsiness and dissastisfaction I experienced, it’s the character of Mells. On one hand, it’s a daring bit of writing, and the reveal of the regeneration (and her identity) did at least seem to justify the way she’d been crowbarred into the overarching story in a not-especially convincing way. But, for a writer whose main talent has been structure and forward planning, the way Moffatt has done this is downright bizarre – after all, there would have been plenty of opportunities to set Mells up as a character earlier, or at least vaguely mention her beforehand, instead of simply going “Oh yes, there’s this character we never mentioned before who’s one of our best childhood friends and who was constantly obsessing about the Doctor equal to (or even bigger than) Amy, and OH CRAP she’s got a gun!” It’s so ridiculously quick that it’s very difficult to swallow (and certainly doesn’t feel like good storytelling) – and it’s one of the elements where I honestly feel that ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ would have worked much better as a two-parter. If we’d had at least an episode to get to know Mells, she wouldn’t have felt quite so much like a comedy sexed-up bad girl thrown in for no other reason to get the plot moving in a very contrived way – as it is, we’ve barely registered her before she’s shot in the gut and then Alex Kingston is unwisely allowed to go rather over-the-top as the newly-born River Song.
(As a complete aside – I actually spent the entirety of ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ utterly convinced that Lorna Bucket, the mysterious ‘Amy Pond that wasn’t’ girl, was going to turn out to be River Song – that she’d die in the end, and regenerate. I was so convinced that I was genuinely nonplussed when it turned out she wasn’t, and I’m left suspecting that this actually would have been much better (and more satisfying) than the revelation we ultimately got).
On top of this, there’s the head-spinning logistics of it all – how did Mells/Melody get from late Sixties New York to Mid/late Nineties Leadworth? Why did she feel the need to hang out with her parents in secret while growing up? I presume Mells had parents – who the hell were they? How accurate are her memories? (And how did she know about Amy and Rory in the first place, considering she’s been abducted as a baby?) Is it all part of the plan, so that she can basically be a ‘sleeper agent’ and wait for the Doctor to turn up? Why didn’t she just kiss the Doctor immediately, rather than pulling an incredibly contrived “Hey, let’s use your time machine as a getaway” plan? How on earth did the TARDIS end up in Berlin 1938, when I would have imagined the Doctor’s response to a female gun-wielding psycho saying “I want to kill Hitler” would be to get her as far away from the Third Reich as possible? And exactly how many sexy-crazy alpha female bad girls is a sleepy village like Leadworth supposed to produce?
And, at the heart of all of this, there’s Hitler. There’s a certain admirable cheekiness to giving him only three minutes of screen time before throwing him in the cupboard, and yet it’s also uncomfortable because it is glossing over and trivialising a massive, massive subject (and using fascism as a backdrop for a light comedy romp and some “Gosh, isn’t it sexy to dress up in Nazi uniform” play from Alex Kingston). Also, the whole title of the episode ends up feeling like a serious con. Throwing the ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ title in at the end of the previous run of episodes set expectations, and the resulting episode doesn’t satisfy any of them – especially since instead of a Hitler-centric adventure, we get something altogether looser, flabbier and less interesting. It’s feeling dangerously like Moffat came up with the title, and then had to leap through all kind of narrative hoops to even vaguely justify it (and attach it to where he wanted the River Song story to go next), while the device of yet again having the Doctor on the verge of death (leading to several sequences that felt like photocopies of scenes from last year’s finale) led to not much more than Matt Smith howling and crawling on the floor like a hermit crab. And at the end, we’re left with exactly the same status quo as before (the Doctor and companions keeping secrets from each other – except this time there’s NO REASON for them to be doing this), and no real sense that we’re barrelling towards a significant ending. Season 5’s arc was occasionally clumsy, but at least felt like it slowly built towards a climax – Season 6, so far, is feeling like a wild collection of imaginative stuff that doesn’t hang together, and which – I’m sad to say – I suspect ain’t going to get anything resembling a satisfying conclusion.
I’d really like it to. I’d love to know who the ‘Silence will Fall’ voice from ‘The Pandorica Opens’ was. I’d like to know why the whole ‘blow up the TARDIS’ plot happened, and who’s responsible. I’d like to know what the Doctor did to annoy the Silence so much, or why their grey-faced servitors (words cannot sum up how frustrating it is to discover that – oh- they’re not called the Silence after all) went to such lengths to control human history just so they could get their hands on a space-suit. I would, in short, like it all to add up to a conclusion that draws a line under this whole section of the show. I just don’t have much faith that I’m actually going to get one.
Please, Steven Moffat. Prove me wrong.
The Verdict: An episode that ping-pongs wildly between inventive and sloppy, ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ has many high moments, but it’s also unfortunately ended up as my least favourite Moffat-written Doctor Who episode so far. My hopes were relatively high for this batch of episodes – they’re not so high anymore. But I’m at least hoping that a return to darker and scarier material, with the upcoming Mark Gatiss-written episode ‘Night Terrors’, might see the series get its storytelling mojo back…
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