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Doctor Who: Let’s Kill Hitler (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Let’s Kill Hitler originally aired in 2011.

You’ve got a time machine, I’ve got a gun. What the hell. Let’s kill Hitler.

– Mels drops a title

Well, Steven Moffat made it quite clear from the outset that he was going to play with the structure of his second season as executive producer. The show was split and broadcast in two blocks, straddling the summer. It opened with a rather epic two-part adventure that seemed to show us the end of the Doctor’s journey. Let’s Kill Hitler is positioned in a very strange way. It is simultaneously the light and quirky opening episode of the season’s second block, and also the hour devoted to resolving a lot of the lingering questions overshadowing the arc-driven sixth season of the revived Doctor Who.

It is, in short, a mess. It’s a confident and occasionally brilliant mess, but a mess nonetheless.

Crashing the Nazi Party…

Let’s Kill Hitler feels like an attempt to cram the genie back into the bottle so Doctor Who can get back to business as usual. Or, you know, unusual. A Good Man Goes to War saw the show upping the ante. Most of the first half of the season was actually one big story leading to the cliffhanger that held the audience in suspense over the summer. Everything was connected; everything tied together. Even the pirates came back. And now, after all that bubbling away in the background, it was all coming to the fore.

Whatever audiences were expecting in the wake of A Good Man Goes to War, it wasn’t Let’s Kill Hitler. If A Good Man Goes to War worked hard to open as many mysteries as it could and cast as many balls as possible into the air, Let’s Kill Hitler works frantically to close off all those story threads and tidy away any lingering questions that might be left dangling in front of the audience.

He’s going to be Fuhr-ious…

The result is rather less satisfying than A Good Man Goes to War, although Moffat does his best to mitigate this by playing Let’s Kill Hitler more as a sex farce than an epic cosmic adventure. If A Good Man Goes to War borrowed heavily from the iconography of George Lucas’ Star Wars, with laser swords and landing shuttles and anonymous fascist armies, Let’s Kill Hitler is very much in the style of Indiana Jones, right down to using a stolen motorbike to evade Nazis.

Relationship comedy has been pretty close to the core of Moffat’s Doctor Who all along. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that Moffat’s breakout hit was really Coupling, a sit-com so successful that it spun its own dire American imitation. After all, Day of the Moon and A Good Man Goes to War both get considerable dramatic mileage out of the whole “female lead seems to be talking about one male character, but is actually talking about another” schtick.

A gas old time…

Let’s Kill Hitler takes this idea and pushes it to the most absurd degree imaginable, playing the first encounter between the Doctor and River Song as sit-com romance gone horrible askew. It’s not so much an assassination as a disastrous flirtation. When the Doctor is first poisoned, he clutches at his heart. “It was never going to be a gun for you, Doctor,” River explains. “The man of peace who understands every kind of warfare, except, perhaps, the cruellest.”

As such, the conflict between River and the Doctor is presented as a rather skewed battle of the sexes. “Ah, well, she’s been brainwashed,” the Doctor exclaims. “It all makes sense to her. Plus, she is a woman.” Aware that he has just handed the vocal “Moffat is sexist” contingent a bludgeon to use against him, Moffat has the Doctor quickly catches himself, “Oh, shut up. I’m dying.”

There’s no party like a…

There’s an argument to be made that Moffat’s Doctor Who is very much about the Doctor trying to figure out how people work in the most fundamental sort of manner, and his weird flirtation with River is perhaps the most obvious demonstration of this. The Eleventh Doctor can face the end of the universe or an alien armada without flinching, but one sexually-empowered middle-aged woman has him terrified.

Let’s Kill Hitler is very much played as a bit of broad comedy. Indeed, it allows Moffat to bring one of his delightfully extended gags from The Curse of Fatal Death into continuity – the constant manoeuvring between the Doctor and River Song as they attempt to out-scheme one another can’t help but evoke a snappier and more visually-impressive variation of the battle of the planning between Rowan Atkinson’s Master and Jonathan Pryce’s Master. “I know you know.”

To top it all off…

(It also gives us a nice banana gag, which feels like another solid connection between River and Captain Jack. I can’t help but wonder if Moffat had some similar reveal in mind for the disgraced Temporal Agent. After all, Moffat created the character with a hole in his history that was never properly filled. And then there’s the rake of other similarities between River Song and Jack, which are too tangential to really delve into here. Still, it’s interesting to note.)

So we get some nice gags like Rory’s improvised “heil!” and the decision to lock Hitler in the cupboard and forget about him. (“Shut up Hitler!”) The anti-bodies are a delightfully gnaff villain, executed in an impressively low key manner – they look like refugees from Graham Williams’ version of Doctor Who. They aren’t the best-developed monsters in the history of the franchise, but they don’t have to be. They are a quirky comedy antagonist. (“You will experience a tingling sensation and then death.”)

Give 'em Mels...

Give ’em Mels…

Of course, all of this is dancing around the fact that fact that Moffat is very clearly pulling a fast one here. Putting the emphasis of Let’s Kill Hitler on comedy and ensuring that it moves at a mile a minute is all intended to distract the audience from what Moffat is actually doing with the episode. He’s wrapping up most of the story threads that we first saw in The Impossible Astronaut and which built up to A Good Man Goes to War. He’s sticking a pin in them, so he can come back to them later.

This is rather disappointing on two main levels. The most obvious is the problems that it creates with the episode itself. In order to write everything into the story, Moffat has to gloss over any number of plot holes and logical problems. Did Melodi remain a child from the seventies through to the eighties before she started ageing in synch with Amy? Where did Melodi stay when she wasn’t at school or at Amy’s house? Why is everybody so accepting of all this crazy stuff?

Far a-field...

Far a-field…

Pitching Let’s Kill Hitler as a comedy episode is a very smart way of side-stepping these problems. Rory repeatedly draws attention to how absurd the entire plot is. “It’s that sort of day,” he observes when Amy asks if he can suddenly ride a motorbike. This is a very shrewd move from Moffat, and it does a lot to deflect a lot of the logical problems that flow from the episode’s basic premise.

Moffat’s script is charmingly candid about this, and is at least willing to admit to the fact that he’s cheating in order to tidy everything away in time. When Mels suddenly shows up, the episode points out how strange this is. Why didn’t the Doctor ever meet Mels before, if she’s so important to Amy and Rory? Isn’t that just a tad convenient that this character is introduced right now? The Doctor seems to think so. “I’m their best mate,” Mels insists. “Then why don’t I know you?” the Doctor asks.

Brighten up...

Brighten up…

At the same time, while Let’s Kill Hitler is a comedy episode, it’s dealing with themes that are most definitely not comedic. River was taken from her mother and turned into a weapon tasked with assassinating the Doctor. He innocence was lost. Her parents will never get to spend the quality time with her that they had desired, and she will carry all that with her for the rest of her life. River is a testament to the Doctor’s failure, and how he let down his two closest friends when they needed him most.

The episode touches on these ideas, with the TARDIS scrolling through the images of past companions while looking for a face to comfort the Doctor in his final minutes. It offers a picture of himself. “Give me someone I like.” It offers Rose Tyler. “Oh, thanks. Give me guilt.” Martha Jones. “Also guilt.” Donna. “More guilt.” There are moments of insight and honesty here, but the comedic tone of the episode feels like a bit of a cynical ploy to keep the audience from asking any number of logical questions.

This... is bananas...

This… is bananas…

It’s worth noting that these aren’t necessarily plot-related questions. Moffat is quite happy to brush past plot points in order to get the plot where he needs it to go. Look at the suddenly appearing angel or the whole “the Doctor can’t ever go back for them” logic in The Angels Take Manhattan. These are necessary narrative leaps that Moffat never gets too concerned about explaining in any real depth. Because the answer would be boring techno-babble.

However, the comedic tone of Let’s Kill Hitler means that the character work gets the short shrift. So the Doctor is just going to give up on trying to find Amy’s baby now? They’ll consign her to a childhood of abuse and brainwashing and then carry on about their lives because it all got dealt with in a silly episode where they locked Hitler in the cupboard? It’s a very smart move from Moffat, but it also feels a little bit like a cynical cheat.

There's no earthly way of knowing...

There’s no earthly way of knowing…

This is the second level on which Let’s Kill Hitler fails to really work. It seems to exist to tidy away these big issues so the rest of the season can be devoted to its own concerns. The Doctor knows about his death at Lake Silencio, now. Amy and Rory know that River is their daughter, now. Let’s Kill Hitler even gives us some spurious logical bout how everything resolved itself. “It all worked out in the end, didn’t it?” River offers. “You got to raise me after all.” Except, you know, “bailing your best friend out of jail” doesn’t quite cover the full extent of what “parenting is.”

So the rest of the season just goes about its business. River is pretty far from the Ponds’ minds at key junctures like The Girl Who Waited or The God Complex. You’d think that losing a child would help the plot of Night Terrors resonate with the couple, but the show never bothers to make that connection. The Doctor’s impending death is a background element of Closing Time, but it’s never really important until we get to the series finalé.

Time (Lord) out?

Time (Lord) out?

Which is, perhaps, the biggest problem with the ambitious story arc for the show’s sixth season. If Moffat wanted to tell that sort of serialised long-form story, then he needed to commit to it. A Good Man Goes to War commits to these big ideas, and is the stronger for it. Let’s Kill Hitler seems like it’s just trying to clear away the leftover debris so the characters can go back to the way things used to be. This would seem to be exact opposite point of the climax of A Good Man Goes to War – there is no going back to the way things used to be, until this mess gets sorted.

If A Good Man Goes to War was the perfect example of Moffat’s strengths as a writer, then Let’s Kill Hitler demonstrates his flaws. None of the character interactions feel real. Oh, they are funny and witty and well-observed, but Amy and Rory never really react to their situation in a manner that feels organic or particularly grounded. While Davies could never plot as tightly as Moffat, he would have managed a wonderful gut punch as part of this story arc, a massive emotional pay-off that feels sadly lacking from the arc as a whole and Let’s Kill Hitler in particular.

Trail of a Time Lady?

Trail of a Time Lady?

This is a shame, as there’s a lot here to like. While Moffat can’t seem to give Amy and Rory the necessary character beats, he does great work with the Doctor. In particular, Let’s Kill Hitler clearly marks the Doctor’s character arc for the rest of the season. “Come on, there must be someone left in the universe I haven’t screwed up yet,” he urges the TARDIS, before it presents him with an image of young Amelia Pond.

Given everything that’s gone wrong so far, his decision to forgive River Song and his subsequent decision to help Amy and Rory settle down represent considerable character growth. The Doctor’s decision to distance himself from the Ponds for their own safety shows a welcome maturity, even if he ultimately can’t hold to that path. There’s a sense that the Doctor is beginning to recognise a pattern in his relationships.

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

The episode also manages to provide a fairly effective response to “the Hitler dilemma” alluded to in the title. After all, most fans must have wondered – at one point or another – why the Doctor didn’t stop Hitler. Well, unless they’ve read Timewyrm: Exodus. The question of whether anybody with time travel would immediately kill Hitler is a a moral and philosophical dilemma that goes hand-in-hand with the concept of time travel.

Moffat has a fairly convincing answer. And, in typical Moffat fashion, it’s an answer that leans heavily on the fourth wall. The reason that nobody has travelled back in time to kill Hitler is because time travel doesn’t actually exist. The reason the Doctor doesn’t travel back in time to kill Hitler is because there’s nothing to be gained. It’s a moot point. All the people Hitler killed would still be dead in the real world, and it would turn Doctor Who into a show about revenge and retribution.

The Reich stuff...

The Reich stuff…

After all, Doctor Who can be about absolutely anything. It can even be a sex farce in Germany in 1938. Why waste time on a moot point? “You got yourselves time travel, so you decided to punish dead people?” the Doctor asks incredulously. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a very clever answer to the Hitler paradox, one that relies on the fact that Doctor Who is a television show. After all, the logical real-world response would be “we also save millions of lives.” But, given this is a television show, that’s a rather ineffective point.

Indeed, Moffat himself seems be having a great deal of fun with the more literal-minded fans. Much like his first published Doctor Who short story, Continuity Errors, tried to account for Doctor Who continuity errors by writing them off as the Doctor changing history, Let’s Kill Hitler playfully pokes the fourth wall in accounting for various inconsistencies. Given the tone of the episode, Let’s Kill Hitler seems like the perfect place for Moffat to explicitly state these.

Kiss of death...

Kiss of death…

“I might take the age down a little, just gradually, to freak people out,” River remarks to herself at one point. She could just as easily be talking for Moffat to the audience about the Doctor’s notoriously fluctuating age. At another point, Mels discovers the infamously inconsistent “no weapons inside the TARDIS” rule was really just a bluff all along. “You said guns didn’t work in this place!” she yells. “You said we’re in a state of temporal grace!” The Doctor responds, “That was a clever lie, you idiot! Anyone could tell that was a clever lie.” It turns out that “the Doctor lies” is also a nice way to account for continuity errors.

Let’s Kill Hitler doesn’t quite gel as it needs to, despite a wealth of great ideas. It seems like Moffat lost a bit of a nerve in his ambitious season-long arc, which probably wasn’t helped by the decision to split the season block in two.

Check out our reviews of the current season of Doctor Who:

7 Responses

  1. This has been driving me crazy. Somehow between the Pandorica Opens and the Big Bang, AMY GOT IN THE PANDORICA instead of the doctor. HOW? Was this the Amy robot? They have NEVER ANSWERED THIS.

    • In fairness, they did. Rory had just shot Amy when the Doctor appeared to give him the Sonic Screwdriver to open the Pandorica from the outside. He does that, takes the Doctor out. Amy is dying, but – since the Pandorica is designed to keep it’s guest alive – the Doctor decides to put Amy in instead, so it can keep her alive. So when little Amy opens it… there’s big Amy.

      Now, if Rory hadn’t got the screwdriver, the Doctor never could have gotten out to go back in time and give him the screwdriver, but I think causality was a little wonky with the universe collapsing.

  2. So Darren,
    two questions for you…
    1. How do you know that your answer for who shot the Doctor is incorrect?
    2. My girlfriend and I were trying to work this out, when did Amy get kidnapped by the Silence and replaced with the ganger? Was it between The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon? Before then?

    • 01.) In fairness, I guess I don’t know for sure, but I’d be surprised if it panned out.

      02.) I think that she was swapped out during the events of Day of the Moon. It makes the most sense as she definitely was pregnant at the start of the episode and had Schrodinger’s pregnancy by the end. I think this episode pretty much confirmed the link between the Silence and the alliance at Devil’s Run, so it makes sense that they tried to pull a fast one when Amy was kidnapped. In fact, when I first saw the episode, I was originally thinking that Amy might simply have been held longer than she thought and had given birth while in captivity (since she forgets every time she sees a member of the Silence, but that wouldn’t have explained the is/is not pregnancy thing).

  3. Great post!

    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

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