This is from DWM #439, and is probably one of the least effusive reviews of Let’s Kill Hitler that’s out there. Should that matter? It’s tempting to make something of it, certainly. To use it to trumpet the magazine’s independence and freedom to criticise. But then I guess that can lead you up a dark alley, becoming overly negative in your writing simply to deflect any accusation of toadying. That would be stupid. So, hopefully, I haven’t ever done that. And I always end each piece on a positive note.
But, yes, LKH didn’t thrill me as much as what was to follow. (See? Positive note.)
Doctor Who is Reich back atcha! It’s puttin’ on the Blitz! It’s… Actually Let’s Kill Hitler is nothing like that.
From that excitable rat-a-tat-tat title, your reviewer expected all guns blazing as the series returned from – and it still feels weirdly American to say this – its mid-season break. I was primed for a little Gott in Himmel!, something akin to an old copy of Warlord comic. Instead, pals, we got The Beezer.
This, upon reflection, is a good thing. The Doctor earnestly tangling with the dark forces of fascism would serve neither the character nor the subject. This isn’t a Virgin New Adventures novel. This is Saturday night. Better, then, to poke fun at Der Führer.
That, of course, being for the five minutes or so he was actually in it.
Because, despite the title being invoked by Mels in a pleasingly “Whoever she was, I must have scared The Living Daylights out of her” fashion, the titular tyrant was barely present in this story. Once he’d been bundled into a cupboard by Rory, the little chap with the hair flick – and indeed the whole of Nazi Germany – became a near irrelevance. Just a backdrop glimpsed through a window.
Delivering something other than our expectations is becoming a bit of a theme for this year’s series. But perhaps we should have – ahem – expected that. Because: Rule 1) The Doctor lies. The TARDIS’ state of temporal grace, which defuses weaponry? “A clever lie,” as the Time Lord confesses. But there’s also a rule 1a). Doctor Who, the show, lies. And a 1b)! Steven Moffat lies. “I lie repeatedly and continually,” he confessed to press and fans following the episode’s premiere at London’s British Film Institute. “I find it by far the easiest way to communicate.”
And so Let’s Kill Hitler turned out, ultimately, to be a giant fib. Because in actuality, this was an episode in which four Doctor Who characters got busy sorting through Doctor Who plot points. Lord knows what my mum made of it, as bits of admin from long deceased tales like Forest of the Dead (that thing River whispered in the Doctor’s ear) and The Time of Angels (her ability to pilot the TARDIS) were tidied up. Actually, dear old Mum probably had a ball. Because whatever else Let’s Kill Hitler was – and wasn’t – it was lots of fun.
Something I’ve especially enjoyed about this incarnation of Doctor Who is that it really chases after concepts and stories that are uniquely Doctor Who. The giant angry eyeball that was the Atraxi, Spitfires in space, an alien life support mechanism in the shapely shape of siren, a baby that turns into blancmange – you wouldn’t see that in Waterloo Road. Or even Star Trek. Ditto an adventure in which the Numskulls decide to hunt down war criminals. What other programme would you bring you such a gloriously daft conceit?
And they really are the Numskulls, by the way, who first appeared in the aforementioned and now defunct British funny paper The Beezer sometime around 1962. The bit when Harriet rushes up to the Eye Dept to take a peep outside? Pure Numskullery. I should really check the adventure again to see if the crew ever refer to any of the forms the Teselecta adopts as “Our Man”, the given Num-de-plume in the comics for the host body.
Mind you, the Numskulls never had anyone quite like the brilliantly laidback Captain Carter, who memorably tells Harriet, “Get your fat one up there,” as she heads aloft, and commands the bridge with a cup of tea at his right hand – his name written across the mug. Carter’s obstinate normalcy just heightens the madness. And talking of madness, how about those Antibodies whose default setting is to kill whomever doesn’t possess a security pass? Including the crew. For those of you who’ve ever arrived at work only to realise you’ve left your swipe card at home… bit of a shock.
It would be perverse, however, for us to linger on the peculiarities of life on board the Teselecta. Because this is really the story of River Song – who she is and how she came to be. Beginning to get a feel, now, for the shape of Moffat’s storytelling, it perhaps wasn’t such a huge surprise Mels was revealed as the character’s prior incarnation. The script, it seemed, couldn’t quite bear to contain the revelation, having her demand that Amy and Rory “cut to the Song” early in the episode. What was truly striking, however, was the chance to see a different interpretation of this child of the TARDIS.
Forgive me, Nina Toussaint-White. Your playing of Mels was enthusiastic and full of life and vigour… but it did underscore how much charisma Alex Kingston brings to that role. Or, in short: wasn’t Mels terrifically annoying? Without that winning Kingston sparkle and naughtiness, she just felt like the kind of liberty-taking toxic best friend you eventually realise you’ve gotta ditch. In this form, the character’s a streak of selfish mayhem, clocking up bothersome incident after bothersome incident. Too much hassle. That bullet with her name on couldn’t come quick enough.
This non-linear realisation of River has proved a gift for Ms Kingston. Here we see the character back at the beginning, taking baby-steps, pouting and performing her own variant of that standard post-regenerative hair do inspection. Throughout all this, Alex gives us a squealing, giggly and (even more) reckless River than we’ve ever seen.
Not for long though.
She all-but literally grows in stature during her brilliant tit-for-tat confrontation with the Doctor. It’s here bluff turns to double, then triple, then quadruple bluff. It’s the duo’s first dance, one in which she-who-will-be River proves she can go toe-to-toe without raising a sweat. Further moments of becoming follow, and they’re fascinating, if at times a little too much of a tidying-up operation. I loved River’s “Spoilers, what spoilers?” question, plus the scene near the episode’s end when the Doctor all but retreads his memorable lament for Romana in 1981’s Warriors’ Gate. River won’t merely be “absolutely fine”. No, as he says, “She will be amazing,” at which point he leaves her a TARDIS-themed journal beside her hospital bed. Lovely. However, the coda on top of all that, in which we witness her enrolling for an archaeology course, felt a little too much of the neophyte Indiana Jones picking up his fedora, his whip and that scar on his chin. We don’t always need to see everything.
Of course, alongside the elucidation of Professor Song’s formative years, this story also gave us glimpses of Amy and Rory’s early days together. Hmm. The latter day Rory has increasingly become an empowered protagonist within the show, and that’s good. He socks Nazis in this adventure like he’s a veritable Lord Peter Flint. And yet, I still felt angry by the portrayal of him as a child, continually left to hang by Amy. He deserves better than that, surely? One can’t quite help but feel that if it had been his back garden the TARDIS had crashed into all those years ago, the order of business for the Doctor would have been to help his new young friend with the pageboy haircut to escape the influence of his red-headed tormentor. I dunno. That stuff just didn’t feel right to me. I really don’t like the Amy we witnessed in those scenes…
Let’s Kill Hitler, as I’ve intimated above, is an episode very much concerned with Doctor Who talking to itself. It’s telling that the action barely ventures outdoors, and instead we had introspective scenes in which the Doctor calls up visions of former travelling companions and reflects on how they make him feel. Namely, “Guilt… More guilt!” Like the stories that preceded it, before the summer holidays, it’s taken as a given that at this point viewers of the series are wholly invested in it. It’s only we who can appreciate this joining of dots between disparate plot points. Penny in the air. Penny drops. For us.
It was great at that BFI screening. Sorry that sounds like a boast, cos I was there. Hopefully you were too. But it was. There were laughs and there were gasps as revelation piled upon joke upon revelation. Although, I’ll be honest, I don’t think I enjoyed the story quite as much as the rest of the room. I was leaning back, just a little bit, beginning to feel that with plot points being rolled out and then rolled back again (time can be rewritten), it was tough to truly involve myself in the narrative. You think it’s one thing, and then it’s another. As a result, I admired this story just a little bit more than I enjoyed it.
“Of I course I lie,” reasoned Mr Moffat on that evening. “We’re trying to keep surprises. We’re trying to trick people, in a nice way.”
Those tricks really are nice. You can’t deny it. The gasps proved it. There is no other show on TV right now that has the sheer audacity of this, and that counts for a lot. Let’s face it, the series has opened its new run with a marquee title like Let’s Kill Hitler, and then barely touched upon the premise. That’s bold. If the popular myth about the so-called Great Dictator is true, he’s singularly deficient in something Doctor Who, right now, has got in abundance.