Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Back To The Fuhrer

Ah, that old time travel dilemma: whether or not you would kill Hitler, given the chance. It’s a wonder that Doctor Who hasn’t explored this previously. Then you watch the brilliantly titled Let’s Kill Hitler and realise that it still hasn’t. (Except, of course, where it really kind of did in Genesis Of The Daleks.) But it doesn’t entirely matter, because although there is a small measure of disappointment to discover that the eponymous dictator spends most of the episode locked in a cupboard, the whole affair is every bit as spectacularly madcap and entertaining as the title promised.

There’s an old Pertwee episode where the Doctor claims to have met Hitler and glibly describes him as a ‘bounder’. Which trivialises the man’s more monstrous deeds a tad. And it’s a similar sort of deal here, played for comedy rather like Indiana Jones' detour to Berlin in The Last Crusade which culminates in the acquiring of Hitler’s autograph. But that tone is well and truly telegraphed and the more serious emotional/moral core of the story centres around the Let’s Kill The Doctor thread as, lest we forget, young River Song (nee Melody Pond) was abducted by agents of The Silence and reprogrammed as a weapon to be used against the Doctor.

Alex Kingston is on top form here, playing River with a twist. And by twist, I don’t mean that Mels turns out to be Melody/River. I mean, thank gawd she regenerated into Alex Kingston because the young actress who appears at the beginning isn’t very good, but her grandstanding arrival in the flash sports car cutting across the excellent crop calligraphy is so River as to be unmistakable. The pointing of a gun at the Doctor is a surprise and the subsequent line – “I have a gun. You have a time machine. Let’s kill Hitler” – nothing short of immortal.

It’s a sure sign that we’re in for a ride with all of Moffat’s characteristic chutzpah, wit and joyful inventiveness. The notion of a shape-changing robot driven from the inside by a miniaturised crew is bold and daft (and reminiscent of a chapter from Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Too Afraid To Ask) and works a treat in context of the story’s irresistible tone. It’s a shame the tissue-compressed crew are so po-faced and dull and their mission raises the most interesting moral question to my mind.

The Doctor scorns the idea of using time travel to mete out punishments on history’s war criminals, fair enough. It would seem a bit of a waste of such a miraculous technology. But the crew’s moral high ground is rendered even more shaky by the fact that they (apparently) don’t execute said war criminals (preferring instead to keep them alive in their own personal hell), while it’s perfectly acceptable to condemn culpable subordinates (such as the officer whose shape their robot assumes) to death at the hands (or tentacles) of the jellyfish-like antibodies. But I guess it’s fair to say that deeper questions are not part of this story’s turf.

Indeed, when it does slip into something more serious, it tends to over-egg the pudding somewhat. There’s some serious over-labouring for the hard-of-understanding on the point that Mels is Melody is River Song and I didn’t think the situation needed quite so much spelling out, but in contrast to the manic goings on for most of the episode, scenes involving the Doctor’s slowly dying – like the one in the TARDIS with Amelia Voice Interface seem to drag on a tiny bit too long. It’s funny and touching, but it would have been just as funny and touching – perhaps even more so – with a few iterations of “I’m not Amelia Pond” trimmed. Still the idea of fish fingers and custard giving the Doctor a second wind – so to speak – is inspired. And the scene does feature the best modern past companions cameos ever – Rose, Martha *and* Donna – and none of them speak! Yay!

Additionally as programmed assassinesses go, River’s change of heart is, I’m afraid to say, utterly unconvincing. The basis for that turnaround strikes as flimsy at best and the master-weaver that is the Grand Moff could have come up with something better, I’m sure.

This is much more about the magic laugh out loud moments – Rory punching Hitler, River making the Nazi uniform look good and riding off on a motorcycle, a pair of Schmeissers on her back, to go ‘shopping’ for a new outfit, her own manic Doctorish post-regeneration seizure (“I have to go and weigh”), the Doctor dressing up as Fred Astaire for his impending death – complete with sonic cane. Etc etc. Chock full of sharp lines, as you’d expect, and – for Doctor Who anyway – a reasonably tidy resolution. Which also happens to fill in most of the remaining blanks about River. Actually a few too many, for my liking, because I feel like her tale has essentially been told. River comes full circle and is there anything to add? I fear the most we can expect in future will be in the form of The Untold Adventures Of River Song from Big Finish Productions.

There’s still the mystery of The Silence to maintain our interest through the rest of the series. And this new question of the Oldest Question, the asking of which will mean the end of everything. Or something. Whatever the implications it seemed a bit stupid of the Doctor to ask the Amybot what the Question was. Hidden in plain sight, sure, but probably not just residing on the future equivalent of Ask Jeeves. If I was in the mood to quibble, I’d also be sceptical about the whole “Time can be re-written except for the Doctor’s death by Lake Silencio, which is absolutely set and unalterable” issue. It smacks a little of time can be re-written except for the bits Steven Moffat wrote. It’s a too-blatant message that this is ultimately an arc instalment rather than a story in its own right and there’s precious little of any actual substance.

But this is one Nazi parade I’m not inclined to rain on. Ultimately it’s an episode that’s not quite everything it could have been (and falls short in comparison to A Good Man Goes To War), but I think it was almost everything it promised in the title. The implicit statement of intent is that this will be fun. And it is, no less and little more. Viewed as pure larks, it works. Laugh a minute plus that one nicely pitched counterpoint to the Hitler comedy: where in response to Adolph’s gratitude for saving his life, Matt Smith delivers the perfect response. “Believe me, it was purely by accident.”

Next week’s episode looks terrifying, so I will take temporary comfort in the fact that there’s a spare Riverbot left back in 1938. That or the Doctor took her on board the TARDIS. I wonder if he does next day delivery.

(Credit to iCowboy for this post's title!)