Monday 29 August 2011

Let's Kill Hitler

It was inevitable that it would happen eventually. Every time-travel show eventually tackles the idea of going back in time and killing Hitler. In fact, I’m kind of surprised it took this long for Doctor Who to do it. Oh, there have been a few episodes here and there that have taken place during World War II, but none of them actually involved Nazis. At least one novel (Timewyrm: Exodus) has had Hitler in it. However, the television show has stayed clear of the man himself until now with the mid-series première episode, “Let’s Kill Hitler”. Alas, his presence here is rather superfluous. SPOILERS FOLLOW.

Don’t get me wrong. The episode is actually a lot of fun. There are some great laughs, and it had my full attention throughout right to the end. However, while it can be fun to make fun of Hitler and Nazis (and Rory punching Hitler is pure gold!), I can’t help but feel that the show has once again missed an opportunity to deal with a historical period and character in a mature manner. This has been an ongoing flaw in the last two series. We’ve had the jolly Santa Claus version of Winston Churchill, the utterly characterless Richard Nixon, and stereotypical so-gold-obsessed-that-I’ll-make-stupid-life-threatening-decisions-pirate Henry Avery (and really, if they’re going to use a historical figure as obscure as Avery, the least they could do is justify his inclusion as a real character rather than someone who could just be replaced with any stock pirate from any pirate movie ever made). Now we get buffoonish Hitler. The only historical character who has really been done well in the last two years was Vincent Van Gogh in last year’s “Vincent and the Doctor”.

The presence of Hitler and the World War II Germany setting in “Let’s Kill Hitler” is rather pointless as it ultimately has nothing to do with the story being told. The story itself is about Melody Pond/River Song, as we are finally shown her early years. Incredibly, we are actually expected to believe that River is a worse criminal than Hitler. Why? Because she kills the Doctor. Now, the Doctor is a very important person in the universe, and one can certainly argue that his death makes River indirectly responsible for the deaths of people the Doctor might have otherwise saved. However, that involves getting into the fuzzy details of what might have happened and utterly makes light of the massive numbers of people killed by Hitler and numerous other war criminals throughout history. Yet River is the greatest criminal in the history of the universe? Really?

The other problem with “Let’s Kill Hitler” is River Song’s backstory. The episode opens with a fun and exciting introduction of a character called Mels, someone apparently known to Amy and Rory. Indeed, a little too known to Amy and Rory to be fully believable. Mels is apparently Amy’s best friend from childhood, someone she grew up with and who has been a major part of Amy’s and Rory’s lives. Yet we, the audience, have never seen her before. Not only have we never seen her before; she’s never even been mentioned. She wasn’t even at their wedding. When the Doctor asks her about this, the only answer we get is, “I don’t do weddings.” (As an aside, the Doctor has one of the best lines in the episode at this point: “I danced with everyone at the wedding. The women were all brilliant. The men were a bit shy.”) This really comes across as a lame attempt to insert a character who has only just been made up, and was not part of the plan from the very beginning (but see below for the possibility of changed history). We then learn that Mels is, in fact, River Song. She just hasn’t adopted that name yet. We learn that she is the young girl who regenerated at the end of “Day of the Moon” earlier this series, and before the episode is over, she regenerates into the River Song we know. I’m beginning to think that Steven Moffat is creating River’s history as he goes along, rather than actually planning it in advance. In general, Moffat is very good at complex plots (often to the expense of believable character development, unfortunately), but I’ve been feeling for some time now that he’s overreached himself and the super complex metaplot is getting out of control.

Alas, the problem with River’s backstory as Mels really comes down to the problem with Amy. I really like Rory, but Amy has firmly cemented herself as my least-favourite companion since the show’s return in 2005, and one of my least-favourite companions in the entire 48-year history of the programme. After one and a half series with her, I still don’t feel like I know who she is. She is inconsistent, she hasn’t grown as an individual (despite numerous statements by cast and crew about how much growing up Amy is supposedly doing this year), and I don’t believe for one moment that she actually cares for Rory no matter how many times she has talked about a wonderful man that sounds like the Doctor but turns out to be Rory (and I’m not even going to get into how she’s behaving for someone who has lost her baby). We have learned very little about her life, we have never encountered anybody from her past (other than Rory) more than once, and every time we see her home town, it appears to be somewhere completely different. Admittedly, knowing so little about her past means that it’s not much of a stretch that there was a best friend named Mels. However, wouldn’t it have been so much more exciting if we had seen Mels before only to find out now that she was Amy’s daughter? Or at least to have mentioned her? In the latter case, she could have been that mysterious individual in Amy’s life that Amy keeps talking about but we never quite get to meet. It could be established that she’s rushing about and getting herself in trouble. Then we could believe that she doesn’t “do weddings” and that, lo and behold, she’s River Song.

There is a possibility that we have never heard of Mels before because this is supposed to be a situation where history has changed. She actually wasn’t part of Amy’s and Rory’s lives until the change. This reminds me of when Buffy’s sister first shows up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This could be an attempt to do something similar. However, in the case of Buffy, we already knew about Buffy’s family. We could see that this was weird and clearly a mystery to be explained. We didn’t need a line from the Doctor saying, “Why haven’t I seen you before?” But in Amy’s case, we don’t know enough about her to know that this is weird.

All my ranting about the episode’s (and last two seasons’) problems aside, there actually is a lot to enjoy in this episode. As I said above, there are some very funny moments and lines (“I’m putting Hitler in the cupboard”). The performances are great. Matt Smith continues to show just why he is perfect for this incarnation of the Doctor, perfectly combining moments of utter naïveté with pure Doctorish brilliance. Alex Kingston clearly has a ball playing up young River Song, and I love the line that explains how the ageing actress can play a reverse ageing River: “I might take the age down a little, just gradually, to freak people out.” The ultra-polite death-dealing machines are also quite fun (although the logic behind designing a security system where the only way to bring someone on board without killing them is to teleport them into a random area of the ship and then hope a crew member with a special bracelet gets to them before the deadly robots kill them leaves a lot to be desired).

Overall, the episode is fun and despite its flaws, does manage to be my second favourite of this series so far (after “The Doctor’s Wife”, which was utterly magnificent). However, I find it necessary to shut my brain off in order to enjoy it to its fullest, and I really wish I didn’t have to do that with Doctor Who.


  1. Well - and this is my opinion - contrary to popular culture, Hitler is not the most villainous and blood-thirsty despot. The number of jews killed due to Nazi regime is less than the killings in other dictatorships - compared both as a total and as a fraction of possibilities. Hitler does have the big bonus of leading the losing side of World War 2; at the time it was a really big deal and as such his actions gain a certain gravitas that remove objectivity from context. There are plenty of examples of atrocities done by the Americans, other European nations, Russians, Chinese, Japanese at the same time as the Nazi oens.

    That aside, of course, Hitler is a dictator with some terrible actions to his name. I'm not being apologetic or absolutionist about it.

    What's the point? Well, from your review, River is the worst criminal ever for killing the Doctor. Given the way time works in that particular fictional universe - that is not necessarily a bad estimate. The question is whether it should pale in comparison to a monster like Hitler.

    Oh, well here the wheels come off - there are many people still alive that feel very strongly about all things Hitler. We're being told, with quite vivid certainty, just how bad Hitler and the Nazis were. In fact, they were the worst thing to have happened. Ever.

    I contend that from an objective stand-point this is absurd. It is a collective truth derived from general consensus. General consensus works well for democracy, but not so much for the actual truth. (If you look up the numbers, you'll find that "small time" villains, like Hussein, have a bigger death toll and crueler history.)

    In the fictional universe of the Doctor, where human civilization itself could be attributed to the Doctor, somebody who ends the Doctor could very well be defined as the worst criminal ever.

  2. Sorry I've taken so long to respond to this comment. I don't deny that there have been criminals who have killed more people than Hitler. My point isn't that Hitler should necessarily be considered the worst criminal ever; it's that I do think he's worse than River. I think calling River the worst criminal ever because she killed one man (albeit one very important man) makes light of the victims of numerous war criminals (and I do make a point in the review of saying "numerous war criminals"), and that's just human war criminals. If we go beyond Earth, we find far worse out there. The Daleks have destroyed countless worlds. Davros tried to destroy the entire universe (except for himself and the Daleks). I think that counts as worse than River. :)

    It should also be noted that while the Doctor has saved humanity many times, I don't think human civilization is attributable to him. He's dealt with external threats a lot, but generally stays out of internal ones. (This is even brought up in the episode as one of the reasons Mels wants to kill him: He's never done anything to stop atrocities, such as World War II, throughout history.)