Note: Contains spoilers for this episode and previous episodes of Doctor Who.
No one is more excited than I am to be returning to Doctor Who after a hiatus of nearly three months, and I think we can all be forgiven if the occasion feels like a major event. However, I do think it is helpful to remember that "Let's Kill Hitler" is not the premiere of a new season: this is, in fact, the eighth episode of Series 6, occupying the same position in the overall story that "The Hungry Earth" occupied in Series 5. We just had a bit of an intermission.
You may not need that reminder, but I do: I find it helps me keep "Let's Kill Hitler" in perspective. In a sense, I think splitting the season into two parts did it a bit of a disservice, and unfairly altered my expectations. Doctor Who re-invents itself so often, and so thoroughly, that we're trained by now to expect the show to head off in a whole new direction each season. As a result, I found myself forgetting that "Let's Kill Hitler" was simply Episode 8 of Season 6, and rebelling a bit against it for continuing so stubbornly in the same vein as Episodes 1–7, without resolving much of anything.
For example, I love the River Song character, and I have been consistently amazed at how clever and satisfying the revelations about her have been. But after her true identity was revealed in "A Good Man Goes to War”—which did feel very much like a season finale—I was expecting (and ready) to take a break from her for a while. And so, when a little red Corvette came screaming towards the TARDIS in the cold open, I assumed (as I was no doubt intended to) that it would be River Song, but I was hoping that it wouldn't be, and relieved when it wasn't. Ah, I thought. Something new—someone new—to start our new adventure.
True, this was a character we'd never seen before: Mels (Nina Toussaint-White), the previously-unmentioned oldest and dearest friend of Amy and Rory. It was a bit Cousin Oliver, but I was willing to accept the awkward retconning for the sake of some new blood and a fresh direction. A few cute flashbacks gave us some history on this rebellious friend, and showed us that she might be the only person in Leadworth more obsessed with the Doctor than young Amelia Pond (Caitlan Blackwood) was. I was willing to accept Mels as another girl-who-waited, and as a more reckless and irresponsible (and probably temporary) addition to the TARDIS crew.
So yes, I was fooled. Despite my being certain that River Song would step out of that car, and despite the character's name being Mels, and despite her being a smug, arrogant, rather lawless woman who flirts shamelessly with the Doctor and is handy with a firearm, I never saw it coming. I raise my proverbial fez to Stephen Moffat, who not only suckered me completely but did it so cleverly that I can't even resent him for it. Like Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there was actually a reason we'd never heard of Mels before: she didn't exist before. Time can be re-written, and prior to the events of "A Good Man Goes to War," she literally wasn't part of Amy and Rory's continuity. Her regeneration into Melody Pond must stand as one of the best, most surprising moments of Mr. Moffat's reign on Doctor Who.
But this was also the moment that I remembered—with a little regret—that this isn't a new season after all: this is just the latest verse in The Season-Long Song of Melody Pond. "You named your daughter after your daughter," the Doctor points out, in yet another example of Moffat's fondness for looping cause to effect and back to cause again. (There are more to come in the episode: it is the Doctor who gives Melody the catchphrase "spoilers," and—on a larger scale—the Doctor who inspires Melody to become, in name and essence, River Song. He literally and figuratively gives her the blank book on which she will write the life we already know her to have lived.)
This is all delightful, and very clever, but it's more than a little exhausting, and I'm not even close to convinced that all the temporal Möbius strips are necessary. For example, forget how Melody ended up as Mels—did she have fake parents?—but the question of why she spent at least ten years growing up alongside her real parents goes unanswered. I can think of reasons—she wanted to get to know them, or it's the only way she could think of to find the Doctor—but we're not provided any here, which suggests that the real reason is simply so Moffat could pull off the too-clever-by-half reveal. (Are these timey-wimey temporal loops just an elaborate metaphor for the writing process? Does Moffat think of what he wants to happen, and then come up with a reason it could?)
And I must admit I am growing less enamored with what I am now calling Moffat's First Law, expressed in the Doctor Who Confidential for Episode 7: "You have to have an answer that's as complicated as the question." Moffat seems to believe that good storytelling requires mysteries to spawn, hydra-like: for every question answered, two more unanswered questions must take its place. By definition, this means he's creating new mysteries faster than he can answer them, and—though there are already plenty hanging in the air—we're given several more here. We learn that the Silence, for example, is not a species but a religious order, tied to something new called the Academy of the Question. “They believe silence will fall when the question is asked…the first question, the oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight.” Right, so there's another item for our Narrative MacGuffin Scavenger Hunt, along with the mystery of what the Doctor whispers to Melody, and why the Doctor turns up in a tuxedo. (We can speculate that he skipped forward to some formal event, perhaps even the one mentioned—I won't mention it here—in the title of this season's upcoming finale.)
I know there has been some backlash in the fan community against these multi-season story arcs, and I'm not among the haters: I don't really object to Moffat doing something new with this nearly 50-year-old format, and for the most part I've enjoyed the labyrinthine turns of the ongoing plots. (Though it's worth noting that, contrary to Moffat's Law, it's not necessary to always have unanswered questions: for most of those fifty years we've happily followed the Doctor from one adventure to the next, without the writers having to dangle enigmatic carrots in front of us.)
I am saying that providing satisfying stories while delaying gratification is a tricky line to walk, and, in this episode, the balance seemed off to me. Throughout Season 5, and the first half of Season 6, the over-arcing storylines were woven into the stand-alone stories flawlessly, for the most part. For example, the Ganger two-parter turned out to be integral to the season as a whole, but it also comprised a full story in its own right, well-structured and satisfactorily resolved. "Let's Kill Hitler," on the other hand, is the first episode where I feel like the story arc really gets in the way of the story.
I don't object to the misdirect of the Hitler plot: Hitler is a pretty weighty subject for Doctor Who to deal with effectively, and punching him in the mouth and stuffing him in the closet seems like a wise approach. But the B-plot (or was this the A-plot?) of the Tesselecta throws away a lot of good concepts for what plays like an afterthought. When have we ever met a crew of such undefined characters? (They don't even have names—at least, not ones that register.) And when has the Doctor ever shown so little interest in resolving a major threat to the timeline? (Granted, he has his hands full with the dying and all, but that doesn't change the fact that the Tesselecta crew are not defeated, or taught a lesson, or shown the error of their ways: they're just driven off.) I give Moffat credit for trying to manage an external sci-fi threat at the same time he's dealing with his core-four drama, but I don't think it completely worked here: the result was that both storylines—the Tesselecta threat, and Melody's redemption—seemed rushed and unsatisfying.
And it's a shame, because there are some promising thematic echoes in the Tesselecta storyline. While this has, on the surface, been the season of River Song, there has been another current running throughout this and the last series of Doctor Who: namely, Moffat's gradual move towards a humbler, less bouncy Time Lord than the universally infamous, nearly godlike hero Moffat inherited. I discussed this a bit in my review of "A Good Man Goes to War”—which tackled the topic head-on—and here we see the theme picked up again. The Tesselecta travels through time dealing out justice and giving bad people Hell. Its methods may be different from the Doctor's, but the parallels are unmistakable: it's not so different from how the Doctor's enemies see him, as a "nameless, terrible thing" that might one day "drop out of the sky and tear down your world." (“I’d ask you who you think you are, but I think the answer is pretty obvious," the Doctor says, implying that the Tesselecta crew have set themselves up as gods. "So who do you think I am?”)
On a more personal level, we're also reminded this episode of the sometimes terrible consequences of the Doctor's actions, in the lovely scene in which the Doctor is confronted with the faces of his past companions, all of whom provoke in him feelings of guilt. "There must be someone left in the universe I haven't screwed up yet," he says.
And this leads me to what is not a criticism—not yet, at least—but an expression of hope: this season needs to deal emotionally with what the Doctor has done to Amy and Rory. I think that's one of the places Moffat is leading us, but in this episode the emotional impact on their lives is insufficiently dealt with. So crowded is this episode that we never really get a moment where Amy and Rory process the fact that Melody Pond/River Song is their daughter: she calls them "mum" and "dad," but there is no emotional weight to the relationship on either side. Nor—apart from a few moments of stunned staring—do we see the parents grapple with the revelation that they've effectively lost both their best friend and their daughter. The episode ends with them leaving Melody to find her own way, with barely a protest from either of them.
Only in the online "prequel" to this episode do we see any sign of the real emotional ramifications of this timey-wimey plot-line:
That brief scene deals better with the logical impact of this story than anything in the official episodes, and we need more of it. Because Amy is right: it doesn't matter that they unknowingly "raised" Melody as their mischievous childhood friend Mels, and it doesn't matter that they know she'll turn out to be the fabulous River Song. Right now, all signs point to the fact that they are going to completely miss the actual experience of raising their child. I don't have children, but even I know that a trouble-making best friend and an action-hero acquaintance are no substitute for a baby. Unless this series ends with some kind of reset button—in which Melody Pond is returned to infancy and placed back in her mother's arms—the loss to Amy and Rory is going to be infinitely traumatic, permanently scarring, and totally unforgivable.
As I said when I began, I'm trying to remember that this is the middle of our season, and not a new beginning: it is unfair to expect either the plot arcs or the emotional arcs to be resolved. But, however good this episode was—and it was—I find myself keeping my fingers crossed that Moffat can pull off the stunningly ambitious challenges he's set for himself, as he adds new questions to old and raises the emotional stakes higher and higher.
Loose Observations, Random Speculations, and Favorite Bits:
- Because I was feeling slightly cranky this week, I gave short shrift to the episode as a whole, which really was quite good. For the record, let me say that I enjoyed it thoroughly: it moved at breakneck speed, packed a great many clever images and lines into a short period, and gave Matt Smith and Alex Kingston ample opportunities to show off their remarkable talents.
- Rory, too, continues to impress, and Arthur Darvill gets many of the best lines this week. "Shut up, Hitler!" is just a once-in-a-lifetime bit of dialogue, but I also like his delivery when Amy asks him if he can ride a motorbike: "I expect so. It's that sort of day."
- Though funny, there is—for me, at least—something a little too flippant about River's "gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled" line. Genocide is a riot, right?
- "I might take the age down, gradually, just to freak people out." A funny acknowledgment that Alex Kingston is older here than she was during River's "last" appearance in "Forest of the Dead."
- My favorite line of the episode, and one that sums up the Doctor's eternal optimism, comes when the voice-interface-Amelia tells him he'll be dead in 32 minutes: "You see, there you go again, basically skipping thirty-one whole minutes when I'm absolutely fine."
- "The Silence is not a species; it is a religious order or movement." With all the attention the so-called "gay agenda" gets, I'm surprised that the "secular agenda" doesn't generate more controversy: one of these days I want to explore whether there's an anti-religion theme running throughout Doctor Who.
- I have to admit, I don't know what to make of the "fish fingers and custard" line. It's a nice call back to Amy's line in "The Impossible Astronaut," when the Doctor asks her to swear to him on "something that matters." And I read it here as a reminder that Melody Pond—freshly regenerated, like he was—is still just forming, and that her identity is not completely formed yet. But is there more to it than that? Is this another mystery we'll come back to?
- Will everyone in the future have such crappy AI systems? From nanobots to clockwork crew members, from medical holograms to floating metal jellyfish, automated systems seem like a very bad idea.
- Next week looks like a welcome return to a stand-alone story, and it looks like a good one. (I said the same thing before "The Curse of the Black Spot," but I remain—like the Doctor—eternally optimistic.)
Next: "Night Terrors"