“Let’s Kill Hitler”
August 27th, 2011
When Steven Moffat threw that title at the end of “A Good Man Goes to War,” I was imagining something…different.
In my mind, it sounded like a right rollicking caper, a piece of historical science fiction and a transition piece from the tight serialization of the first half of the series into something a bit less serialized in the second half.
Technically, “Let’s Kill Hitler” does serve that latter function, but only after an hour that locks Hitler in a cupboard and moves on with the rest of its business without much concern over the historical setting. While the episode has some interesting ideas, it’s one of those episodes that is so preoccupied with ongoing storylines that it never manages to feel satisfying as a piece of fiction. Its broad strokes are meaningful, and ultimately successful, but the episode itself felt like a delivery system more than a story in and of itself.
I remain a believer in the value of River Song as a character, and as a poetic device, but I think that her time as a narrative preoccupation has been somewhat more awkward. The idea of River continues to hold a great deal of weight, and seeing her transition from murdering psychopath brainwashed to kill the Doctor by the cult of the Silence – who believe in the power of the answer to the simplest question in the universe (or something therein) – to a woman who sacrifices her own immortality based on a vague understanding of who she might be in the future certainly resonates given what we know about the character.
It is only fitting that a love moving in two separate directions would begin with both parties struggling to reconcile their knowledge gap, and the timey-wimeyness of the storytelling remains a nice bit of playfulness. The idea that Rory and Amy named their daughter after their own daughter, or that the Doctor was the one who gave River her TARDIS journal and introduced her to the idea of “Spoilers” when those things were but a mystery to the Doctor not so long ago, brings a smile to my face and reminds me of how ingenious the character has been since her introduction. The fact that she sacrifices her ability to regenerate suddenly makes her sacrifice in “Forest of the Dead” that much more tragic, as that is in many ways her second time sacrificing her life for the man she loves (even if she didn’t love him when she did it the first time).
And yet, while the poetry of River Song remains uncompromised by this “flashback” of sorts to the origins of the Alex Kingston version of the character and her relationship with the Doctor, its impact on “Let’s Kill Hitler” seemed to be limited to particular scenes and particular ideas. That scene of the Doctor consistently proving himself one step ahead of River is a great piece of writing, and it’s fun in a way that one would expect. There’s something very manic about this version of River, and Kingston has a lot of fun bringing it to life in scenes where River is rampaging her way through 1938 Germany. It’s all nicely disarmed by the emotional conclusion, the Doctor’s words and foreknowledge slowly breaking down her “programming,” and we can view that particular storyline as a success.
However, it didn’t really do much for the remainder of the episode. The Hitler stuff seemed forced, funny for a moment but ultimately lacking much in the way of purpose or meaning. Rory locking Hitler in a cupboard is fun, maybe, but it only emphasized how much the Hitler angle was a purposeful bait-and-switch without much substance. The same sort of goes for the Justice Department’s time-travel robot spaceships, an interesting idea that felt as though it lacked imagination (the antibodies were particularly silly) and was designed to serve as an exposition machine (informing the Doctor about his Utah-death we saw back in the series six premiere, informing us about the cult-like status of the Silence, informing Melody that she’s really River Song) as opposed to a meaningful piece of information. With so much time spent on River and the Doctor, these elements of the episode ended up being arbitrary, chosen as window dressing rather than being weaved into the fabric of the story being told.
Granted, Moffat is successful at moving between the story elements with relative ease, successfully using Hitler and then the Justice Department to fuel the developments with River. However, the problem is that the Justice Department just beams away, and Hitler gets left behind in the closet without so much as a farewell. The show always leaves behind elements of its episodic storylines, so this may seem like an odd criticism, but it felt like they were being discarded instead of being moved past. It’s why River’s storyline has been problematic for the show’s narrative development, as it has introduced expectations of recurring story elements that become the sole takeaway next to disposable ideas that serve that week’s particular purpose.
“Let’s Kill Hitler” didn’t really do anything to damage the show’s momentum, and on some level it brings a welcome end to the point where the tale of River Song is the sole driving force behind the narrative: with Amy’s kidnapping having been solved, and with River now starting her own adventure and (presumably) returning to the role of recurring figure, there’s a “business as usual” vibe to the preview for next week that I’m honestly sort of excited about. It’s likely (well, more than likely given the title of the series finale) that River will return, but I think the show will operate better with River as potential rather than preoccupation.
I don’t know if I’m willing to say that the show became too serialized this year, especially since the serialization last year was just as prominent. What I will say, though, is that the series five serialization was part of introducing Amy Pond into the series, and establishing and building a back story of her relationship with the Doctor (and with Rory, of course). In series six, the serialization wasn’t as natural, to the point where parts of tonight’s episode felt like they were complicated for the sake of being complicated, as though the idea of incredibly complex storytelling is becoming the point of the serialization instead of the poetry that is at the heart of River’s story.
I’m hopeful that the back half of the season can find more purpose in its episodic storytelling and rely less on the overarching arc (which, in particular, damaged the Flesh two-parter in the first half), and “Let’s Kill Hitler” feels like it sets us up to solve this problem even if parts of it get swallowed by the problem itself.
- There was something sort of obnoxious about “Mels” and that whole flashback back story, which is why I was glad that we learned it was Melody so that we could have a better sense of its purpose. I mean, I liked seeing the moment Amy first realized Rory was in love with her instead of being gay, but something about the tone seemed weird.
- I’m still sort of struggling with how it is that River of the future knew the origin of the River Song name when the Doctor himself was the one who gave it to her (as opposed to the whole “Melody morphing into Song, and Pond into River” situation we learned about in the finale. In fact, River’s timeline from Demon’s Run to Berlin is a whole mess for me: I get that she was the little girl in New York, but how “old” is she at this point? She said it took her a long time to find Amy and Rory, but I…I should really give up trying to suss it all out, shouldn’t I? The show will tell us what it wants to tell us, and force us to live in the gaps.
- Some fine effects work on the whole transforming robots situation, all told.