BBCHD - 27 August 2011 - 7.10pm
"I'm getting a sort of banging in my head"
"Yeah, I think that's Hitler in the cupboard"
The opening of Let's Kill Hitler, where Amy and Rory drive their mini across a field to provide a crop circle shout out to the Doctor, is of course yet another reiteration of Moffat's idea of imparting messages to the Doctor that has already seen active duty in Time of the Angels, The Pandorica Opens and The Impossible Astronaut. And usually when they call the Doctor, River tends to go along for the ride.
To hammer home his revelation, Moffat then includes a flashback to young Amelia and Rory's childhood and their emergence into adulthood, now accompanied by this new character, Mels. Mels, who is continually in trouble with authority figures, steals cars and buses and completely accepts who the Doctor is and the whole concept of time travel. As the Doctor quite rightly points out to Mels when she announces herself, "Why don't I know you?" and the audience might be asking the same of this example of the hanging narratives that Moffat likes to tease the viewer with.
It's a particular narrative that avoids one of several elephants in the room in Let's Kill Hitler - when did Melody Pond become black? It momentarily poses some awkward questions about Mels' status as 'other' in opposition to her white parents, the tokenism of ethnic minority casting and characters in mainstream British drama (Nina Toussaint-White lasts all of 15 minutes before she's replaced by Kingston) and that ongoing agenda about a Time Lord's ability to regenerate into whatever colour, gender and size they choose. Moffat's either tentatively paving the way for a female black Doctor after all or just yanking the chains of those who simply can't accept the idea, all the while tittering to himself in a gloomy corner of the studio, drunk on the power of it all.
"You've got a time machine. I've got a gun. What the hell - let's kill Hitler."Mels, another iteration of the confidently psychotic Jane from Coupling and holding the Doctor, Amy and Rory at gunpoint, tells us everything we need to know about the episode as we crash into the opening titles. "You've got a time machine. I've got a gun. What the hell - let's kill Hitler." Clearly, we will not see Mels and the Doctor kill Hitler and the Berlin setting promised by the pre-publicity, where the Hitler baiting still feels really quite uncomfortable as a device to launch a family drama, merely acts as the backdrop to the major events of the story, Mels becoming River Song and saving a Doctor that she's just killed.
I enjoyed the post opening titles flashback sequence to the young Rory and Amelia (they will have to get their money's worth from Caitlin Blackwood because she's starting to outgrow the role of young Amelia) because of its charming reflection of the adult equivalents. A domineering Amelia and a passive Rory fit particularly well with the development of the characters and underscore the concept of Doctor Who as a compass that children will use to map out their own imaginative worlds.
While the two girls seem to be having all the fun, Rory obediently sticks to the unadventurous rules of hide and seek and blind man's bluff. It's funny but it also repeats a lot of the undermining of male figures, of Rory and the Doctor, in contrast to stronger female characters such as Amy and River that Series 5 made such a fuss about, culminating in the adult Amy declaring that Rory is actually just "gay" and just a "friend" when Mels, fully aware of her true relative association to them, springs the idea that he is potential husband material on her. However it does strike a brilliant contrast to the adult Rory who has finally blossomed in Series 6 and gets rather more of the adventurous stuff to do here while Amy, once the apple of Moffat's eye, is substantially reduced to more of a passive figure on the sidelines, quite literally in the form of a robotic duplicate in the final act of the episode.
By the time Mels has stolen and driven a bus through a botanical garden and provocatively suggested to Amy that "maybe I need a Doctor" to her charge that Mels needs to face up to her responsibilities, the screamingly obvious is now leaping off the screen. To give Moffat his due, not only is he violently elbowing the audience in the ribs about Mels true identity at this point but he's also conflating it with Mels' own attempt to alert Amy that Rory, and not the Doctor, is her "Mr Perfect", that she's confirmed to herself they are her parents with "seriously, it's got to be you two" and, in conclusion, that Moffat himself should metatextually "cut to the song, it's getting boring" and prepare the way for Alex Kingston. As if you didn't need any more telling then the line, "Catch you later, Time Boy", should be accompanied by the sound not just of one but of thousands of pennies dropping. The flashback ends with a simply gorgeous dissolve of Mels throwing the toy TARDIS into the air and a complimentary shot of the TARDIS in flight to yank us back to that date with Hitler.
"get your fat one up there"So back to what we could generously call the plot. After an obsessive nod to continuity about the console room's supposed "state of temporal grace" where weapons can't be used (first mentioned in The Hand of Fear and then regularly contradicted ever since and now, according to Moffat, admittedly something of a "clever lie") the TARDIS crash lands in Hitler's study in the Berlin of 1938. A word here about the production design from Michael Pickwoad to say that he's got a very great talent for making money go a long way and for producing rather wonderful, large scale sets for the show. Hitler's study looks magnificent on screen and the studio work dovetails very nicely with the Swansea locations.
Oddly, it starts out as tongue in cheek reflection of the kind of meetings that Moffat must have to endure at BBC Wales as the miniaturised crew, on their pulp SF influenced bridge (something that melds Fantastic Voyage with Star Trek by the looks of it), set about refining their aesthetic choices for the latest of their assassins. "Costume want to know about the suit" and "art department want to talk skin tone" and "we're in a hurry, we're not trying to win an award" are surely tone meeting comments that haunt Moffat in his sleep. The Captain, played by Richard Dillane, spookily reminded me of Ben Miles's Patrick in, you guessed it, Coupling and he certainly matches Patrick's attitude to women when the Captain orders the costume supervisor Harriet to "get your fat one up there" when she requests a check of the sensors. Charming. The fact that she then has to run all the way up to the robot's eyeball to take a look seems rather a silly over-indulgence. But then perhaps it's Moffat taking a cheeky swipe at the rampant bureaucracy and misogyny in the BBC's corridors of power. Later, he attempts to show that even with the power of time travel, the Teselecta haven't really thought about the moral justification for what they do but that's not really unpacked as an idea because he's rather more concerned with the bigger question of revealing who wants the Doctor killed.
"right, putting Hitler in the cupboard"The Teselecta has about as much context as the Berlin setting to be honest, which beautifully recreated as it is, is merely decoration and suggests that the story could have been done any where and at any time. Which is probably something of a relief when the 'character' of Hitler is thumped and bundled into a cupboard and the episode becomes a 50 minute exercise where the expression 'don't mention the war' is initially frustrated by River's brief observation about the world preparing to tear itself apart as she surveys Berlin from the Fuhrer's balcony. Rory's fisticuffs rather simplistically summarise decades of British cultural resentment and is then amusingly compounded with his demand, at gunpoint, of "Shut up, Hitler!" Rory's metatexual line of "right, putting Hitler in the cupboard" also underlines Moffat's recognition that he has to try and banish yet another particularly troublesome elephant in the room.
The trouble is that 'putting Hitler in the cupboard' won't make British cliches about a Germany that no longer exists go away and a later line from River when she's confronted by Nazi troops, "I was off to this gay Gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled when I suddenly thought, 'gosh, the Third Reich's a bit rubbish, I think I'll kill the Fuhrer','' certainly left me wondering how that'll play in Germany. The Teselecta and their justice machines may well be a commentary on war crimes and how we pursue those that commit them but the miniaturising and execution of Nazi party members depicted here is little more that an amusing fantasy with no real meat on its bones to even begin to explore something of the morals involved.
But then that is clearly not the raison d'être of the episode and it is no wonder that Hitler himself gets little air time because, as the depiction of Winston Churchill in Victory of the Daleks demonstrated, the use of such controversial historical figures in Doctor Who is extremely problematic and merely reduces them to nationalistic images that provoke a jingoism that is very remote from the Europe of the 21st Century. So, effectively Hitler and pre-war Berlin are just gimmicks used to entice the audience into the episode and, while their presence are as knowingly ahistorical as the Spielbergian excess of Indiana Jones bagging Hitler's autograph in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) Moffat, by locking Hitler away in the cupboard for the rest of the episode, at least doesn't completely embarrass himself by suggesting the Doctor has turned up to idealistically and single handedly defeat fascism. Mind you, giving the Doctor a line, after inadvertently 'saving' Hitler's life, that "the British are coming" veers horribly close to that concept.
Moffat kindly fills in a couple of blanks about the regenerating child at the end of The Impossible Astronaut but still leaves us with plenty of gaps between the end of that episode, Mels arrival in Leadworth and this regeneration to speculate away on. "You named your daughter after your daughter" is one of the best lines in the episode as a rather stunned Rory and Amy watch as she is transformed into River and another piece of Moffat's grand narrative, one that has primarily been focused on the mystery of this femme fatale character, falls into place. Kingston has a field day and there's that lovely, and highly appropriate reference, in image and dialogue, to The Graduate (1967), its romantic comedy tropes suggesting that the River/Doctor relationship kicks off with her sexual assertiveness as Mrs Robinson meeting his self conscious innocence as Benjamin Braddock.
But River's sexual shenanigans are simply a means to an end and her brainwashing, courtesy of Madame Kovarian we presume, is confirmed by the Teselecta data banks that she is "Melody Pond, the woman who kills the Doctor" and who eventually gets thrown into the Stormcage for her troubles. Director Richard Senior nods way back to The Eleventh Hour when he shows us in flashback, and unbeknownst to us as we witness the regeneration, the Doctor's ability to notice the details and change the outcomes by removing the bullets from the gun River picks up and swapping another weapon for a banana. It's a prelude to Amy's distress at finding her daughter is a trained assassin, a "bespoke psychopath" out to kill the Doctor.
Kingston skilfully delineates between the psychopathic Mels she is here and the River that she will become and her post regeneration preening and choosing of outfits is a neat parallel to all those scenes we've had of the Doctor checking out his new appearance or finding himself a new costume in the TARDIS wardrobe. I love the fact that Moffat decides to hedge off those picky fans, who will no doubt rather crassly point out that Kingston looks younger in her first Doctor Who episodes Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, by suggesting that River can de-age herself and "might take the age down a little, just gradually, to freak people out." A clever way to buy himself some insurance there.
Certainly Kingston and Arthur Darvill get the lion's share of the best lines here. Darvill not only gets to punch Hitler and put him in a cupboard but he also gets to ride a German motorcycle and utter the rather wonderful line, as he wakes up inside the Teselecta version of Amy, "I'm trapped inside a giant robot replica of my wife. I'm really trying not to see this as a metaphor." Much as I admire Kingston, the post-regenerative Mels' fruity banter and off the wall behaviour ultimately feel like Moffat is still writing for the sociopathic Jane from Coupling. When Kingston, as the regenerating Mels, quips about her dress size and then later dashes off to weigh herself, I just thought why not cast Gina Bellman and be done with it because you could honestly have given the lines and the attitude to Moffat and Coupling's female alter-ego. Which is a shame because River, as a character, is worthy of much more than a simple retread of all the self-obsessed, emasculating, paranoid females that litter Moffat's work.
"before I got it all wrong"
And talking of that guilt, wasn't it interesting that when the Doctor lies dying in the TARDIS and seeks succour from a voice interface he's also confronted by a similar guilt and the emotional baggage associated with romantic love, unrequited love and mother love in the form of Rose, Martha and Donna, three women whose lives he was inextricably involved in? His guilt is assuaged by an appeal to the untainted figure of Amelia Pond, the child whose life he will then go on to screw up, her young life tormented by psychiatrists nonplussed at her obsession with an imaginary friend and her adult life scarred by the kidnap of her daughter who then turns out to be a killer. Still, the 'fish fingers and custard' memory of a time before he "screwed" up yet another life and "before I got it all wrong" does seem to give him the strength to carry on and change for a night on the town. Unfortunately, I did find Matt Smith's performance in this scene rather hammy, lacking enough emotional truth to make it convincing. He's far, far better in the later scene where River watches him die as he struggles to get back in the TARDIS and he desperately tries to convince her to save Rory and Amy from the Teselecta. As he struggles, she begins to understand how much he cares. When she does act we also get that reference back to how she "learned from the best" when piloting the TARDIS, and that in rescuing Rory and Amy she has in fact been taught by the TARDIS itself.
There's also something to note here too about his reappearance, in the German restaurant, dressed in top hat and tails. If you were observing closely towards the end of the scene with the voice interface of Amelia Pond, he takes off in the TARDIS. However, we never hear him arrive in the restaurant before he interrupts the Teselecta's attempt to kill River and many fans are now thinking that, even though he was dying, he's nipped off somewhere and returned because as he says "you should always waste time when you don't have any." The outfit is more or less the one he wore to Amy and Rory's wedding in The Big Bang. The final episode of this series is called The Wedding of River Song. I'll leave you to put two and two together as to where he might have been. Besides, how else did he convince River to become River? What did he say to her just as he died? Something that clearly relates to his mysterious departure in the TARDIS and that is then compounded when the Teselecta transforms itself, in front of her, and forces her to confront her self but as a self constructed by Amy, Rory, the Doctor and the Teselecta. It offers River a chance to shape herself based on other people's perception rather than the Kovarian brainwashing, to "find her". That mission to "find her" is also seen much later in the hospital as she recovers from bequeathing her regeneration energy to the dying Doctor and where we see the Doctor give her the blue diary that will one day contain all of her exploits. Like Rory, we also must ask ourselves if the brainwashing has been negated or whether it remains. As River determines to be an archaeologist on the Luna University we're left in some doubt as she claims the reason she's signed up is because she's "looking for a good man."
In the end, we are provided with a little more information about the Silence ("a religious order or movement") and that silence will fall when "the oldest question in the universe" is asked. Apparently it is "hidden in plain sight" but we don't get a confirmation of what it is. Is this going to be as obvious and tedious as its sounds? Sadly this episode ends up a little bit of a mess. While the core story of River's origins is intriguing, the rest of the episode with its Hitler and Berlin backdrop and the justice machines of the Teselecta is quite honestly rather forgettable. Moffat's scripts might be clever and witty and barmy but Let's Kill Hitler is Doctor Who-lite, bearing all the hallmarks of every tried and tested trope that he often marshals to fashion his concept of the series. It ends up as a 'Greatest Hit(ler)s' package instead of the very special episode it was intended to be by showing us the first meeting between the Doctor and his missus to be, Professor/Doctor/Melody/Mels/River Pond Song. This woman has so many nomenclatures these days it is getting hard to keep track of her and I suppose the episode is, at best, a triumphant exploration of her schizophrenic nature. Just forget the rest of the nonsense.
Note: For more on Series 5, including all the expanded reviews from 2010, try my book Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor published by Classic TV Press and also available on Amazon.