I don’t know about you, but most of my days are pretty busy. And on the busiest, I run from thing to thing, from appointment to appointment, from location to location and it’s kind of exhilarating. That’s great – but on some days, I can’t escape the lingering sensation, that while getting a lot of things done, I haven’t actually devoted enough time or thought to any of them, and so none get done particularly well. And at the end of the day, there’s a sense of having just gotten away with it, once again.
Let’s Kill Hitler, with its breakneck pace, and its flitting from location to location, reminds me of that sensation. There’s even a phrase to go with it – a quote about the Doctor from Journey’s End, which we can adjust to fit. This is the story which keeps running, never looking back, because it dare not.
Here’s an initial example: in this episode’s early scenes, showrunner Steven Moffat shows us companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), frantically resorting to writing messages in fields of crops using a Mini, in order to summon the Doctor (Matt Smith). Then he introduces a new character – the best friend the Ponds have always had but never mentioned and who didn’t show up to their wedding. This is the awkwardly named Mels (Nina Toussaint-White), so called to not hint too broadly that she’s an earlier incarnation of Melody Pond, AKA River Song. (And presumably also because to call her “Mel” would have been to recall another perky, curly haired companion from the show’s distant past.)
Moffat’s a plotline contortionist but this is one of his less deft moves, retroactively forcing River Song into the Ponds’ backstory. His hammering of this idea into place facilitates the pleasingly ironic notion that the baby the Ponds have been longing to see has been with them all of their lives, but it doesn’t sit easily. Nor do the (thankfully few) flashback scenes where we see the adult actors made up to be ersatz teenagers.
But that’s fine, because before you’ve had time to process all that we’ve moved on, and a rapid TARDIS trip deposits us in Berlin 1938 and to meet the great dictator himself. Keep running! Don’t look back.
We should pause for a moment to consider Doctor Who’s depiction of Hitler (Albert Welling), a historical figure the show has always shied away from, perhaps for fear of trivialising the horrors of the Nazi regime or just never finding a comfortable fit for them within the show’s family entertainment remit.
Moffat makes a couple of shrewd decisions to make Hitler Who friendly. Firstly, he sets this story before the outbreak of war and thus before Hitler’s worst crimes had been committed. Secondly, he takes the Mel Brooks path, and makes fun of Hitler, before locking him in a cupboard for comic effect and removing him from the plot. Again, it doesn’t bear too much thinking about and once again the story moves rapidly on, so that we don’t have to engage with Hitler on anything more than a frivolous level.
There’s no time to linger on the notion in this episode, but Moffat doesn’t seem to shake the worries about the implications of Hitler existing in the same universe as the Doctor. He gives a line to not-quite-a-teenager Mels which gives voice to his concerns: “A significant factor in Hitler’s rise to power was the fact that the Doctor didn’t stop him”. And later, in Kill the Moon, the Doctor points out to Clara that he’s never killed Hitler. It’s an extension of one of humanity’s nagging worries about religion; instead of wondering why God allows bad things to happen, Moffat is wondering why the Doctor allows them to happen. We never get a satisfactory answer of course, because there is no satisfactory answer, only the usual flim flam about timelines and history being set and so on. But don’t dally, we need to keep moving.
Next up is Mels’ reveal about her parentage to her parents and her regeneration into River (Alex Kingston). This is another thread in a plot strand which has been hanging around this season, about River’s identity and where she comes from. It’s not entirely clear how River moves from a baby on Demon’s Run, to a little girl in 1960s America, to another little girl in Ledworth but there’s no time to draw that particular flow chart. Instead, we discover that River has been trained to be the Doctor’s bespoke assassin. She does for him with a Judas kiss, complete with poisonous lipstick, and then jumps out of a window, joking about dress sizes and hair does. Because, y’know, she’s a girl. Never mind, keep going.
While all this going on, we meet the crew of the Teselecta, a “time travelling shape shifting robot operated by miniaturised cross people,” as the Doctor puts it. They travel about intercepting history’s great unpunished villains in the moments before death and torture them, which is cheery. But they lose interest in Hitler when they find River Song, which leads to all other sorts of questions – River’s a bigger villain than Hitler? How, exactly? Who exactly is the Doctor married to here?
This story shows us two transformations of River Song – the first external, the second internal. Fatally injured, the Doctor has only his words left. He convinces River to be a better person, and within the space of a few short scenes, it’s quite the turnaround – from galactic supervillain worse than Hitler, to someone who’s prepared to give up the rest of her regenerative power to save the man she’s spent her whole life preparing to kill. Like everything else in Let’s Kill Hitler, it happens fast – a few choice phrases, an unsettling encounter with the TARDIS, a quick word with Mum and she’s convinced. There’s a fascinating story here – troubled by a vision of her future self, River buys into the Doctor’s story, to move from enemy to ally and eventually to lover… but such is the story’s pace we have to just accept it and move on. But we’re used to that by now.
Let’s Kill Hitler’s less of a Doctor Who story than it is an episode in the ongoing saga of the Doctor, River and the Ponds. By which I mean, Doctor Who’s standard format of the Doctor finding a problem, fighting to find a solution and eventually saving the day is suppressed in favour of drip feeding some answers to this year’s narrative arcs of “who is River Song” and “how does the Doctor avoid his forthcoming death”. I suppose the alternative would be that the Teselecta plot is pushed to the fore, perhaps with the Doctor being forced into the uncomfortable position of having to protect Hitler from his shapechanging torturer in order to protect the timelines. Or summat.
Instead, this is an episode absolutely enmeshed in its own mythology. Its own season arc has become the story, not just the intriguing background colour of Doctor Who as we know it. But Let’s Kill Hitler tells us to be fast, be foxy and be funny and you’ll just about get away with it.
LINK TO Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel: Both feature the Doctor in formal wear.
NEXT TIME: Prepare the Timelash, you microcephalic apostate!
Isn’t it strongly suggested that the “only* crime River is imprisoned for is killing the Doctor. So the society the Teselecta’s from thinks that’s worse than all Hitler’s atrocities? Hmm.
Yes. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least. And later, in The Husbands of River Song, it’s implied that she’s a mass murderer. It’s jarring.
And it’s clear, from the lengths he goes to stop the Doctor from simply regenerating to save him from being poisoned, that Moffat hasn’t yet worked out that this is his final ‘natural’ incarnation. Not surprisingly as he hasn’t invented the War Doctor yet, but in hindsight it plays oddly.
Ironic that a story which retcons the Ponds’ story, later has to be retconned itself!