Saturday, 27 August 2011

Just Haven't Found You Yet: Doctor Who review


Doctor Who: 'Let's Kill Hitler'

The second half of the new Who's sixth season kicked off to a suitably bombastic start, with showrunner Steven Moffat having the time of his life throwing ideas at the screen and hoping his boundless enthusiasm would translate to entertainment value on-screen. It did, as 'Let's Kill Hitler' was a pacy and often very enjoyable ride, free of the overcomplicated foreshadowing which bogged down his Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon two-parter. 

As much fun as it was, though, it never threatened to break into the pantheon of Who greats for much the same reason: lack of focus. The spectacular title, for one, turned out to be a red herring, quickly disposed of in order to tell the story Moffat was really interested in: discovering what had happened to Melody Pond following the the cliffhanger which ended the mid-season finale back in June. On both counts, 'Hitler' didn't make the most of the potentially thrilling scenarios it set up, but as an assembly of delightfully silly Doctor Who-related sketches, it got the season going again with no shortage of pace. Spoilers follow the jump, sweeties.
I have the episode playing again the background as I type this, and that description of the episode as a set of sketches is the only way to accurately convey quite how many ideas Moffat crammed into the episode without connecting most of them together in any particularly meaningful way. It starts with Amy and Rory taking notes from the Song-book to contact The Doctor, who has been gone for the summer looking for Melody; then there's the 'new' best friend, Mels, followed by a flashback throughout her and Amy's shared lives; immediately after the credits sequence, we're given an attempt on Adolf Hitler's life by a miniaturised brigade of temporal policemen, delivering justice to history's worst warlords from inside a shape-shifting robot with mechanical jellyfish as its primary security measure, whose plans are thwarted by an out of control TARDIS. So, yeah. It's good to have Who back.

Apart from giving the episode its inspired title and Rory the opportunity to punch the F├╝hrer, there's wasn't any reason the episode had to be set in '30s Berlin, unless Moffat just wanted to get an historical episode out of the way. (It doesn't sound like any others are on the way until next season). Hitler's appearance was no more serious than the title implied, which seemed both a misfire dramatically - you'd think putting two people with such diametrically opposed ideologies as Hitler and The Doctor in the same room could result in something more engaging than the former being stuffed in a cupboard and forgotten about - and historically, leaving a slightly sour aftertaste that one of the most evil men who has ever lived was essentially made comic relief. 

Don't get me wrong, I love me some Hitler comedy, but this was a bit too pithy for its own good. 'Springtime For Hitler' in The Producers works because it took the whole, terrible reality and turned it into a grandstanding farce. Moffat didn't use Hitler as a character at all, preferring to build his gags around the premise that anything would be hilarious so long as it was happening to this person with the same name and moustache as the dictator. Like Heil Honey, I'm Home, it was funny at first but quickly became tiresome once clear there was no point backing up the concept of the joke - although at least Heil Honey had the gloriously camp performances and 'I'm a very, very bad Hitler!' line to keep it alive for a while. Well, one episode before understandable cancellation.

What passed for a story here revolved around the return of Melody Pond and her transformation into River Song. As with Adolf and his hurried cupboarding, having River's first (chronological) appearance placed in such a throwaway situation didn't do justice to an event which has been such a long time in coming, even if that anticipation meant the moment when Mels regenerated - and seriously, did anyone NOT see that coming? I can't work out if Moffat genuinely thought he was springing a surprise or not, but everything from her name to River-esque introduction and 'I'm not the marrying type' lines were screaming the truth as loudly as could be - carried plenty of emotional weight regardless.

Much as Alex Kingston's performances as River have previously verged on the smugly irritating, her portrayal of the young River captured both the rebellious energy of her previous incarnation with the spirit of who she would later become, making for her best and most exciting performance to date. The idea of River having been born to hunt down and destroy the Doctor threw an exciting twist into their usual relationship, giving a bite to the back-and-forth banter that produced the episode's most endearingly bonkers scene, where each was continuously anticipating and accounting for the other's actions. Despite his experience on Coupling, comedy has never been Moffat's strongest suit - again, see all the Hitler gags - but River drawing a banana was an absurd enough end point of an increasingly silly sequence to get a big laugh, logic be damned. A shame that 'evil River' won't be a continuing threat throughout the rest of the season though - given her importance to the Doctor and his companions, she would have made a fascinating villain.

Everything involving the robot and its miniaturised pilots survived on the same ridiculous nature, even though its only real role in the plot was to deliver exposition - for both present and future - and serve as a plot device enabling certain situations. The poisoned Doctor story had no such luck, trying to draw emotional beats from a situation that, as Amy and Rory both knew, was never going to end badly - Moffat has made far too much of a habit of 'killing' his leads for it to be taken seriously by now.

Although Caitlin Blackwood is always a joy as the young Amelia, bringing back the 'fish fingers and custard' line was forced in the extreme - as was the glimpse of previous companions - and River's big sacrifice at the end wasn't needed, as it had already been established in the Tennant episode 'Forest Of The Dead' that the manner in which the character dies would have burned out any future regenerations anyway. It might have had greater impact as the ending to a more tightly-plotted episode, culminating in a more deserved emotional climax, but after a series of brainlessly fun skits, its contrivances were too obvious. The foreshadowing of the 'oldest question in plain sight' similarly suffered for the throwaway nature of everything surrounding it.

Don't get me wrong, though: it's easy to complain about what could have been and pick apart the failings, but 'Let's Kill Hitler' in the end delivered more or less exactly what would be asked for from an episode of Who, namely a manic and funny charge through the kinds of ideas which no other programme would dare consider, dressed in science-fictiony clothing. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are a wonderful comic pairing and charming together as an on-screen couple, while Matt Smith is effortlessly accomplished enough to sell drama and comedy in the same scene, often the same gesture, as when it became clear, after emerging from the TARDIS in top and tails, that the Doctor hadn't recovered from his poisoning at all: the dead leg and line delivery were silly in the broadest sense, but Smith kept the character's desperation front and centre. Chances are, you'll be reading a lot of praise for him over the coming weeks.

Not a perfect start, then, but certainly an energetic and amusing one. For all his indulgence, Moffat has the ability to tie up his ideas in the kind of vaguely relevant and satisfying ways which Russell T. Davies continues to struggle with, as anyone watching the latest season of Torchwood will know - I'll probably do a write-up on that once its run is over. The fun factor was clearly forefront in Moffat's mind while writing this episode, a step-up from the overcomplication and excessive table-setting which weighed down his episodes in the previous half of this season.

The historic value of the setting deserved more focus than it received, but if that would have meant losing some of the episode's energy and entertainment value, the correct choice was probably made. Though the title didn't mean much in the end, the episode was as boisterously delightful as anything called 'Let's Kill Hitler' promised - and you'll find no argument from me against that.




Tom said...

Despite the lack of real plot, I thought this was a really good episode. There were loads of nods to other aspects of the show and the series. Evil River was fantastic, but why didn't Mels just shoot the Doctor in the field?

Xander Markham said...

To be honest, Tom, I don't think a lot of this episode bears up to scrutiny (re: Mels in the field). I was left wondering what they did with the shape-shifting robot at the end. Still, as you said, can't complain too much about an episode that much fun.

Thanks for the comment!