Doctor Who: The One With Hitler

by Andy G

Andy G didn't really like Let's Kill Hitler.
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[Warning: spoilers abound]

Let's Kill Hitler was the first Doctor Who episode after the recent summer break. I thought it wasn't very good. I know, shocking news right? An episode of Doctor Who that wasn't very good - such a thing has literally never happened. At least not since The Almost People, way back in May 2011.

But the thing is, this wasn't one of those filler episodes that everyone must have known was inevitably going to be a bit shit even when they were making it. And it wasn't one of those disappointingly overwrought series finales. This was an episode that was self-consciously an Event that was going to be Awesome. It was, after all, by Steven Moffat, he who can do no wrong.

The thing is: I really like Steven Moffat. I think he's done some of the best episodes since the show was revived, and his last series as showrunner was very good indeed. I'm looking forward to the finale of this series. That said, I've never been happy with the idea that it was shit while Russell T. Davies was in charge, and instantly good afterwards. And Let's Kill Hitler rather neatly showcased his various potential shortcomings all in one go.

In this episode, the Doctor and his companions travel back to Nazi Germany. A new companion who has just been introduced turns out to be recurring character River Song, who turns out to now want to kill the Doctor, and then suddenly turns out not to want to kill the Doctor, oh and by the way when Timelords or quasi-Timelords (don't ask) regenerate they can give up their power to cure poison.

From the very get-go, the episode announces that it is going to be a Rollercoaster Ride of Awesomeness. There is a woman! With a gun and a fast car! And she wants them to go back and kill Hitler! And then there's a robot! With people inside! And Hitler! And OMG she's regenerating! And OMG she's a kick-ass heroine who likes guns AND clothes! And OMG it's a complex flashback replaying the events we've just seen from a new angle to show us just how clever the Doctor, River Song and Steven Moffat are!

So what could possibly go wrong? Well, you might be able to guess from the way I've summarised it. The effect is rather like Michael Bay's famous technique of "fucking the frame" - there's simply an overload of showy stuff going on. The viewer is flung from one Awesome moment to another, with frequent abrupt shifts of direction. Amy and Rory's new friend Mel is introduced out of nowhere, and we've barely rattled through a quick character summary before PAM!! she regenerates into River Song. River Song in turn suddenly turns out to be evil!! until, all of a sudden, she isn't!!

The problem isn't just that it's confusing (though it is, even if you've been following the series diligently). It also becomes rather hard to care about what's happening - it's an intellectual exercise trying to figure out what the fuck is going on, and a spectator sport of witnessing one Awesome one-liner and cool moment after another.

The emotional impact is supposed to come from extremely self-referential, fanboy-ish moments. Instead of scenes in which we are made to feel that anything is at stake or that there is any rapport between characters, we get scenes that we're just meant to care about because "OMG! It's the moment when the Doctor and River Song first get close!" or "OMG! He gave her the diary!" In place of Davies' slides into sentimentality, we get scenes where all emotional significance has to be deduced by reference to other episodes. Both are equally lazy writing.

In other places, Moffat tries to shock us into feeling something. We witness the Doctor writhing in agony as he dies from poison, or River Song screaming as she is tortured by a ray-gun. It's frankly just unpleasant to watch - a case of making things "dark" as a lazy substitute for adding depth (I kind of felt the same about the "Doctor always lies" line).

Then there's the rather stale old attitudes lurking beneath all the oh-so-clever wisecracking and trickiness. Of course there's an oh-so-funny off-handed reference to the Holocaust ("I was on my way 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'") because flippant remarks about Nazis are edgy. Edgy like 'Allo 'Allo. And of course the episode makes sure we know how that River Song is a worse criminal than Hitler, because the most appropriate way to demonstrate the Awesome Evilness of a piece of villainy on a semi-serious sci-fi TV show is to compare it to real-world atrocities.

I'm not even going to get started on the sexism, except to say that it seemed egregious enough this episode to bother me even after sitting through five seasons of the Doctor being hero-worshipped by a string of young female companions (check out Tiger Beatdown instead for discussion on this by someone more qualified to comment than me). But I must say I did roll my eyes at the hilarious bit where it turned out Amy always thought Rory was gay. It felt like the kind of thing that might have seemed incredibly funny in a trendy 90s sitcom that has dated badly.

Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say this episode has revised my opinion of Moffat. He's done many, many great episodes, including as showrunner, and come up with many ingenious villains and storytelling devices. It's perhaps just unfortunate that this particular episode brings to the fore all at once so many of the different elements that are problematic or nearly problematic in his other episodes. I hope that for the rest of the series, he will have reined in his worse tendencies so that we can be treated to a conclusion worthy of this season's opener. But for anyone who thinks Moffat is flawless, I would point to this episode as an example of how and where he can go wrong.
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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 00:31 on 2011-08-31
Got to admit, on balance I think I'm much less enthused by this season than the previous one. I mean, I was into the first half of the season when it aired, but the mid-season break's given me a few months of downtime to mull over what's gone before and pick it apart and realise that the first half of the season all felt emotionally hollow in a way that the previous season didn't.

Not least because Moffatt is just trying to be overcomplicated and obtuse for its own sake and I'm convinced there's no way the different plot strands are going to come together sensibly that won't be disappointing, predictable, or both disappointing and predictable.
Orion at 03:34 on 2011-08-31
I think Moffat is great as an episode writer, but I have serious doubts about him as a show runner, because as far as I can tell he has never written an engaging character arc and has no desire to. The first series with Matt Smith had consistently good episodes, and a central plot problem which was interesting enough to cover it up, but even then I was slightly annoyed that there was virtually no character development in the entire season. Rory changes a little, but not only do Amy and the Doctor not really learn anything over the course of the season but as a viewer I felt exactly the same way about them at the beginning as I did at the end.

This season just feels like a subpar rehash of the previous season. Something mysterious is wrong with Amy! The Doctor is approaching a terrible personal tragedy which everyone else knows more about than he does! River Song will appear vaguely sinister, but ultimately save the day! The trouble is that I've seen all this last year, and this time the individual episodes don't sparkle the same way.
Orion at 03:53 on 2011-08-31
On the sexism issue: I too have been vaguely bothered by gender since Moffat took over, and I'm not really sure why. Maybe Moffat is sometimes sexist but no more so than plenty of other entertainment I love and it's not like previous seasons were perfect on race and gender either. I didn't think much of it until I remembered that while I loved Matt Smith immediately, most of my female friends prefer Tennant. When I thought about why that might be I came up with a theory.

I think the trouble with Moffat has less to with gender and more to do with gaze. I would submit that Doctor Who under RTD was generally written for a female gaze. Tennant's Doctor is a little too stylish, a little too scary, and a little too old to invite the a young male viewer to identify with him. You can't really imagine yourself being him, and you can't really understand how he thinks. You're looking at him from the outside and from that angle he's attractive and compelling.

The female companions are the protagonists of RTD stories. In each case the doctor first enters their lives as a problem to be solved or a mystery for them to investigate. We get to see them interacting with their families. Each season the companion has a character arc with a great deal of emotional development, and the finale basically answers the question "What's a girl to do about the Doctor?"

Moffat does the opposite. His Doctor is a little jokey, a little awkward, a little self-conscious, so the geeky male audience can easily imagine being him. In Moffat's season, the Doctor is the protagonist and the companion is the problem. In countless "watching the screens of the TARDIS" scenes, the audeince is invited to join the Doctor in looking at Amy (who happens to be a stripper). The big question of the finale is "What's a Doctor to do about Amy?"

Now obviously there's nothing intrinsically wrong with writing from a male POV character, but I think if you take a show that was about identifying with the woman and looking at the man, and turn it into a show about identifying with a man and looking at a woman... any little sexist missteps you make are going to be a lot more irritating than in a neutral context.
http://alula-auburn.livejournal.com/ at 17:18 on 2011-08-31
I had a lot of moments of cringing during this episode. In part, I'm just massively confused by Rory and Amy's characterization as parents, and I think this whole arc is going to be a big mess without some major rehab. I'm not all that versed in Old!Who, but I'm really having trouble buying that Amy and Rory can put all this aside to go on some more madcap adventures. I think it was ridiculous to make them parents already in the first place (because Moffat has Weird Views on marriage and women--they in no way appeared to me as a couple who were interested in that step at this point, but apparently marriage isn't real without babies), but at least in "A Good Man Goes to War," I felt they showed genuine parental emotions. Not Amy hopping out of the car and expositing mildly that the Doctor has been looking for the baby "all summer," AND not answering his phone. Doctor Incommunicado may be funny for some plots; not for tracking down a stolen child. I guess to me, the whole Melody/River plot has jsut veered too far into tragedy, and I don't understand why Amy and Rory aren't a lot angrier at the Doctor. I've seen it fanwanked as "well, they know she grows up to be River Strong, and now they can't interfere because she might end up as "boring" Melody Williams," but I just do not buy that Amy and Rory would accept that without a murmur, especially after the way Amy acted in "The Impossible Astronaut." Your kid turning out "okay" (except for all the prison and the killing?) doesn't make up for not raising her (oh wait, bailing your friend out of jail is totally like caring for your child.) So right off the bat, I have major structural character issues that I expect are going to poison the whole season.

And the Hitler stuff was just ridiculous. It's not, obviously, that the Doctor can't go to real historical places/meet real people, but using such a massive tragedy just as a "funny" set-up (so Rory can put Hitler in the cupboard) crossed the line into offensive for me, along with River's various glib quotes. And word on the utter inanity of Amy thinking Rory was gay HAR HAR HAR.

That said, I was a little bit intrigued by the idea of time travel cops going back just to punish people who history "missed." I think that could actually be a somewhat interesting way of side-stepping the old butterfly/grandfather paradox/fixed point, and I thought the Doctor laughing it off kind of missed the point. I mean, if Midnight was an innovative psychological portrait (which to me felt like a rehashed Twilight Zone episode at best), playing with the ideas of punishment and justice and what needs those fulfill for the time travelers, that had some potential, to me.
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 19:44 on 2011-08-31
One thing Moffat has said that I liked was that if you build up complicated puzzle, the reveal has to be a complex as the question. So far it's been stuffed with plot points, but shallow on emotions, and I haven't been impressed even though I really want to be.

Putting Hitler and the time-traveling robot Justice League and Mels introduction and history and Melody's regeneration and the Doctor dying and Melody realizing the error of her ways and beginning to become River Song into one episode was absurd.

Especially, since the time-traveling robot Justice League only existed to hand out plot points and provide a completely improbable source of danger. I still do not understand why anyone would agree to go on a ship that had killer robots prowling the halls, ready to kill anyone without a functioning wristband.

I understood that in AGMGTW, Rory and Amy were both probably in shock, but I want to see the fallout of suddenly having an unintended baby you didn't know you were pregnant with and whom you're probably never going to see again, but have met as an adult. I know this is a kid's show, but you don't just walk away from kidnapped-and-pregnant-in-a-box with only deep parental concern for your baby. If Moffat isn't willing to actually examine that, then he never should have used it.
Orion at 19:54 on 2011-08-31
I was actually okay with the killer robot thing. Sure it was ridiculous, but it was consistent. The ship's mission was ridiculous, so why shouldn't its operating procedures be? The crew were evidently thoroughly brainwashed citizens of a horrifying dystopia, considering that their entire purpose in life was to travel through time torturing people, so I can easily imagine that the powers that be in their time line care more about the security of their equipment than the safety of their personnel.

I was also fine with the breakneck pace of the episode until it got maudlin. Out of your list of things crammed into the episode, the only one I think was out of place was River switching teams. It seemed to me like they were deliberately playing up the jokey and ridiculous nature of things to create a "shocking swerve" into drama, which is blatant manipulation but I'm willing to be manipulated. I would have done it as a two-parter. Use the first episode to introduce Mels, Justice League, Hitler, regenerate Mels and poison the doctor, plus maybe throw in another alien invasion or a threat to spacetime. Put them all in deep shit and leave them there at the end of the episode.

Then take an entire second episode for the doctor and river to develop some kind of friendship while working together to save all of reality or defeat the Justice League, so she has some actual motivation to become a white hat.
http://descrime.livejournal.com/ at 22:11 on 2011-08-31
Who is definitely a show that has its fair share of absurd episodes, but this should not have been one of them. And I really don't think they meant it to be. That sketch they showed of wanting the robot to ride up the staircase and jump over the tank showed they really wanted this to be an action episode.

Melody's assassination of the Doctor is a pivotal moment in the series, and I found the robot plot an absolute distraction from what mattered.

IMHO, the floating jellyfish robots were absolutely ridiculous, and by proxy, it made everything else about the bot absurd since everyone treated working next to robots programed to kill them if they took off their watch like it was no big deal. The Doctor points out the premise that using time travel to punish dead people is ridiculous, but no one agrees or disagrees with him, which made their presence more absurd to me. It's just meant narratively as a clever one-liner. We have no insight into why the crew thinks their mission is important or useful.

We don't know anything about these people, even though they're highly advanced and possess time travel capabilities. Where did they come from other than "the future"? The Doctor doesn't seem to recognize them.

The robot people seemed to have a positive record of the Doctor, yet we don't get to see how the crew interprets any of the information they so helpfully spew out. (Do they recognize the Doctor? What do they think of the Silence?) They aren't really characters. All they are is a huge time-wasting spoiler provider for the characters.

The authorities beam them up quickly when they ask for it, stranding their killer robot in the past, which doesn't seem to be a good plan if they were more concerned about their equipment.

I do like Who, I'm just kind of grumpy because I was so disappointed with this episode. -_-
Jamie Johnston at 23:03 on 2011-08-31
I like that 'PAM!!' is a sound-effect. It makes me think of Pam Grier in Jackie Brown.
Andy G at 23:56 on 2011-08-31
I hadn't thought about Amy and Rory being quite so relaxed about whether the Doctor had found Melody. Kind of fits the picture though!
Orion at 21:48 on 2011-09-01
Descrime,

Yeah, I remember being really shocked that the Future Cops regarded the Doctor as a Hero. I thought the theme of this season was that the universe at large hates and fears the Doctor?
I agree with generally everything here. It looks like pointless complications and rapid-fire moments of 'cool' are what's meant to constitute a thrilling story nowadays. All the hype laid on the big revelation of River Song's identity (so she's Amy's and Rory's daughter ... why does that matter at all?) was another cheap trick of that kind.

To me it feels like Doctor Who's been going downhill since the first part of season 6. The moon landing story was very much like this one - not so much Let's Kill Hitler, as Let's Make Something of Major Historical Significance Just a Backdrop to the Terrible Tragicness of the Doctor's Situation.
I rather liked the miniaturised justice squad and the robot antibody-type things too - they seem to be a reimagining of some elements from a Tom Baker story (The Invisible Enemy I think it was) with a novel spin. But even what you might call the sci-fi backbone of the setting was just another Backdrop.

And I so agree about the sexism. Amy's always come across as a very plasticky character to me.
Andy G at 16:23 on 2011-09-07
The moon landing story was very much like this one - not so much Let's Kill Hitler, as Let's Make Something of Major Historical Significance Just a Backdrop to the Terrible Tragicness of the Doctor's Situation.


See also: X-Men First Class.

That said, I do think it's rather different to use the Moon Landing than to use the Holocaust. Which is something Russell T Davies did too in Turn Left.

I really liked the season opener actually, and I stand by that. The Silence were a great villain and it freshened up the story format. But have yet to be convinced the gambit is going to pay off - only time will tell if Let's Kill Hitler was just a wobble or a symptom of more serious decline.
Andy G at 15:56 on 2011-10-03
Doctor Who finale last night. The following comment (from here puts it rather well:

As plans go, ‘we’ll steal the Doctor’s companion’s baby, raise her to be a Doctor-hating killing machine, have her track down the Doctor and poison him but then realise she loves him and save him, then track her down years later, put her in a big spacesuit and force her to kill him against her will’ isn’t exactly up there with the Great Train Robbery.


I would only add
what was the point of making River a Timelord in the first place?


As an episode, I much preferred the finale to Let's Kill Hitler, but I was still very dissatisfied at the end. For all his genuine ingenuity and creative skills, Moffat seems to lack the patience for the basics of storytelling. Of the many unanswered questions, I'm not sure what are supposed to be mysteries that we're still waiting to be resolved, and what are details we're supposed to charitably overlook.
Arthur B at 08:37 on 2011-10-04
Couldn't be arsed to watch second half of this season, just read synopsis of finale.

Yawn. Call me when Doctor Who gets a showrunner who's happy to tell stories about something or someone other than the Doctor.
Jill Heather at 15:11 on 2011-10-04
I am in the rare position of very strongly preferring Davies to Moffat (I also prefer Torchwood to Sherlock). As Moffat's schtick is to do clever plotting, it would work better if his plotting was, in fact, clever. (The Tesselacta -- the robots and miniature people -- was clever.) Having episodes try to get emotional intensity by referring to characters from other showrunners is cheating on two levels.
Robinson L at 00:00 on 2012-01-03
An episode of Doctor Who that wasn't very good - such a thing has literally never happened. At least not since The Almost People, way back in May 2011.

After watching the finale, I count three episodes this season which were actually good. (And four or five more which only sucked part of the time.)

I'm looking forward to the finale of this series.

I wasn't. After that loathsome opening to the season premier and the piece of shit currently under discussion, I was convinced Moffat had completely lost his touch. I was pleasantly surprised, but I'm not forgiving him this one in a hurry.

The viewer is flung from one Awesome moment to another, with frequent abrupt shifts of direction.

And the worst thing about it - well, one of the worst things, for there were many - is that the individual moments were not, by and large, all that Awesome, just overly hyped up.

In place of Davies' slides into sentimentality, we get scenes where all emotional significance has to be deduced by reference to other episodes. Both are equally lazy writing.

What's that French phrase they use so often in the Jeeves books which means essentially "you said it"?

It's frankly just unpleasant to watch - a case of making things "dark" as a lazy substitute for adding depth (I kind of felt the same about the "Doctor always lies" line).

I didn't have a problem with that line in particular, but "'dark' as a lazy substitute for adding depth" is probably the biggest problem I had with this season as a whole - closely followed by "'cleverness' as a lazy substitute for intelligence" when it comes to constructing a plot.

Of course there's an oh-so-funny off-handed reference to the Holocaust ("I was on my way 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'") because flippant remarks about Nazis are edgy.

Yeah, way to approach your subject sensitively. Personally, I'm just wondering what happened to the Communist Social Democrat Jehovah's Witnesses - got lost in traffic?

Orion: I think the trouble with Moffat has less to with gender and more to do with gaze.

It's an interesting hypothesis, and I suppose you may be right. (For myself, I much prefer Tennant's incarnation, and I think I identify with him and Smith about equally - which is to say, not much. I think for me, the Doctor has always been someone to look at, rather than to identify with.)

alula-auburn: I was a little bit intrigued by the idea of time travel cops going back just to punish people who history "missed."

Yeah, interesting concept - as a humanist, I find the idea revolting, but as a sci-fi concept to explore I think it has potential - pity that, as descrime points out, it was almost completely undeveloped. Instead, we got a mess of angsty melodrama.

descrime: Putting Hitler and the time-traveling robot Justice League and Mels introduction and history and Melody's regeneration and the Doctor dying and Melody realizing the error of her ways and beginning to become River Song into one episode was absurd.

There really was no way Moffat could address all these elements satisfyingly. Fortunately, in some cases (Hitler, the Teselecta "Justice Vehicle") he didn't even try.

you don't just walk away from kidnapped-and-pregnant-in-a-box with only deep parental concern for your baby. If Moffat isn't willing to actually examine that, then he never should have used it.

Right on.

Orion: It seemed to me like they were deliberately playing up the jokey and ridiculous nature of things to create a "shocking swerve" into drama, which is blatant manipulation but I'm willing to be manipulated.

So am I, but the "drama" was so over-the-top and ridiculous that I found it even harder to take seriously than the jokey early bits.

descrime: I do like Who, I'm just kind of grumpy because I was so disappointed with this episode. -_-

I hated it with a deep and burning passion (still do), and following the crappy first half of the season, this one seriously had me thinking 'Doctor Who has jumped the shark, hasn't it?' Took me till the season finale to decide otherwise.

Orion: I remember being really shocked that the Future Cops regarded the Doctor as a Hero. I thought the theme of this season was that the universe at large hates and fears the Doctor?

Not to mention that he's probably the biggest perpetrator of genocide in the universe. (Albeit reluctantly, but as we saw in the finale, River Song didn't exactly rush to the recruitment office on the whole "assassinate the Doctor" deal, either.)

Andy: what was the point of making River a Timelord in the first place?

Fecking exactly. My guess is "gimmicky Plot Hook to set up the rest of the season." Boo.

Of the many unanswered questions, I'm not sure what are supposed to be mysteries that we're still waiting to be resolved, and what are details we're supposed to charitably overlook.

Mm good point. I was probably more taken with "The Wedding of River Song," but I'm not sure how much of that is due to relief over the first good Moffat episode all season(not counting the Christmas special).

Arthur: Yawn. Call me when Doctor Who gets a showrunner who's happy to tell stories about something or someone other than the Doctor.

As I said, I really liked the finale, but I do find it slightly off that now Moffat has taken over, it seems like every single major event in the universe revolves directly around the Doctor.
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