TV Zone - (Issue 370)

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount

This month in TV Zone I’m going to break my own cardinal rule; you know, it’s the one I was banging on about in my very first column in the first issue of the newly revived ‘Starburst’. I’m going to spend some time contemplating one episode of one particular series, even though my own personal (and preferred) remit is to provide a broader overview of an entire series or some first impressions of the first batch of instalments in a longer ongoing narrative. This month though, I’m going to ponder ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, the first episode of the second half of this year’s series of ‘Doctor Who’, despite the fact the episode’s done and dusted by the time you read this column, its pros and cons debated and dissected in spectacular detail in forums and blogs all over the world, and there’ll have been another couple of episodes aired since its broadcast. But I’m intending to focus not so much on what was on screen but on what the episode might actually mean for ‘Doctor Who’ long-term because I’m of the opinion that ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ could turn out to be one of the most important episodes of the series since its resurrection in 2005 - for all sorts of reasons.

For the record then, let me note that ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ was a big, brash, manic piece of TV, breath-taking in its audacity and masterly in the way it wrong-footed its audience by throwing them constantly off their guard so that they could never be quite sure what they were watching and where it was going. Funny, spectacular, clever, moving…the episode was all of these things and more. But was it good ‘Doctor Who‘? Ah, now that’s the really interesting bit…

Since series six kicked off with Steven Moffat’s mind-bending two-parter ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and ‘Day of the Moon’, popular opinion appears to have been that ‘Doctor Who’ is getting a bit big for its boots, its story-telling is becoming more and more complicated to the extent that a large proportion of the public can no longer follow what’s going on and, apparently, are just watching because of all the pretty colours and Karen Gillan’s legs. The truth is actually somewhere in the middle of all this brow-furrowing; yes, Moffat’s made the show more intricate and multi-layered than it was under his predecessor Russell T Davies, who wasn’t above the odd story arc but generally tended to keep his narrative throughlines linear and straight-forward. Moffat, it’s become evident, whilst not a writer bursting with original ideas for the series (evidenced by the fact he keeps regurgitating the same ones in various forms - automated mechanisms which are inadvertently harming the people they are supposed to be protecting, intergalactic ‘Police’ hunting down criminals to name but two) is clearly  obsessed with playing with the concept of time travel which, curiously enough, has never really been fully exploited by the series in the past. Now, using the character of River Song (Alex Kingston), originally created for a one-shot appearance in a David Tennant two-parter in 2008, Moffat’s been able to give full expression to his predilection for what only the most irritating might call “wobbly wobbly timey wimey” storylines as he intricately creates River’s back story and threads it into the ongoing saga of the Doctor, Amy and Rory. As well as all this Moffat’s tossed into the mix the mystery of the Doctor’s apparent ‘death’ in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, a destiny he seems unable to escape and which he’s now become aware of. Unfortunately for Moffat, as the show’s ‘head writer’, it’s become his responsibility to put all this together and it’s Moffat himself who writes the scripts that tease out the clues and, in the case of the last couple of broadcast episodes (at the time of writing) reveal the answers. Moffat’s solutions are now completely wrapped up in time paradoxes - River Song is a future version of Amy and Rory’s just-born and just-kidnapped baby, programmed (by who??) to become the Doctor’s killer in her own timeline and who also, confusingly, has the Time Lord ability of regeneration due to the fact that she was conceived in a Time Machine and is therefore a “child of the TARDIS”. Add to this the fact that ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ introduces us to Mels, a lifelong friend of Amy and Rory’s who turns out to be a pre-River Song version of River Song who has travelled back in time, ingratiated herself with Amy and Rory, knowing that one day they’ll be travelling with the Doctor and that she’ll be able to fulfil the task she's been programmed to carry out; the inevitable consequence of trying to tie all this together in some fashion which will satisfy the show’s huge audience (and not just the more intense fan crowd) has meant that Moffat’s long since been unable to just write a good old-fashioned ‘Doctor Who’ story, a story with monsters, corridors, lots of running about and just things people can understand in general. Moffat’s threaded the series with some baffling mysteries and has found it necessary to make the answers to the mysteries just as baffling as the mysteries themselves. It’s clever stuff - ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is sharp and intelligent (if over-reliant on clumsy and often awkwardly crowbarred-in one-liners just for the sake of it) but it’s not really completely satisfying if you just want a cheap ‘Doctor Who’ thrill.

Despite all its bang and flash, its zippy and energised direction (I especially adored the scene where Mels tosses aside Amy’s Police Box cuddly toy and we mix effortlessly to the real Police Box hurtling and tumbling through the sky) and its cheeky misdirection (Hitler is quickly sidelined from the story, bundled into a cupboard) the story, such as it is, isn’t about Hitler, it’s not about Berlin 1938, it’s not about Nazism. Most of the action takes place in two large rooms - Hitler’s study where River Song appears for the ‘first’ time and the Berlin restaurant where the Doctor dies (again) and River makes the ultimate sacrifice. And this, ultimately,  is the real story here - everything else is just set dressing. And this is why I’m suggesting that this wasn’t really a ‘Doctor Who’ story at all because it was ultimately all about the Doctor and River and Amy and Rory, albeit with a shape-changing robot thrown in for good measure. And I’m not completely convinced that stories as lead-character heavy as ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ are really the way forward for ‘Doctor Who’, which, despite the massive strides the series has taken in character development and making the Doctor and his chums a bit more four-square and believable than they were back in the old days, is really about “an adventure in Space and Time” rather than an adventure through Steven Moffat’s devious imagination. I’m not advocating for a moment that the show drifts back to the straightforward run-around romp days of the 1960s and the 1970s - time and TV have moved on. But Moffat’s vision of ‘Doctor Who’ is in danger of disappearing up its own dimensionally-transcendental backside if he insists on obsessing with his lead characters and their inter-relationships rather than putting them in exciting and perilous situations.

‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is, I sincerely hope, about as far as Moffat is going to go in wilfully confusing his audience with head-scratching solutions to questions which were in themselves a bit of a puzzle. The pictures are still pretty, of course - the TARDIS crashing through the wall of Hitler’s study is straight out of Russell T Davies’ Bumper Book Of Cool Things I Wanted To See The TARDIS Do When I Was A Kid - but they’re never enough when the story becomes too self-reverential or, in the case of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, just too damned clever for its own good. As an episode it’s a tough one to dislike because it just fizzes with energy, but it’s an easy one to become irritated by as the dialogue becomes unrealistic and over-reliant on snappy gags and the story itself becomes more and more obscure and its solutions more and more arcane.

‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ could turn out to be a pivotal show for the series; it’s certainly a potential turning point. ‘Doctor Who’ can, if Moffat allows it, turn back to telling great, exciting adventure stories again or it can become more and more insular and self-obsessed, trying to impress its audience with its cleverness whilst actually baffling them and turning them away from a show they once really enjoyed. To be fair, the omens are promising. Moffat has already indicated that the next series will see a return to the more traditional ‘standalone’ episode and certainly the next three or four episodes from this new run - you’ll have seen at least two of them by now - seem to be concentrating more on story and plot than the big character revelations we’ve seen in the last couple of episodes.  Episode twelve, which sees the return both of James Corden’s character from season five and some classic adversaries looks, from clips I’ve seen, like an absolute return to form. But there are still mysteries to be solved in the season finale as the Doctor faces his fate on a beach in Utah and that confrontation with ‘the Impossible Astronaut’. And that, let’s hope, will be that. Moffat’s had his fun, he’s scrambled our brains and provided hours of fun for the forums, but it really is time to reign it back in and let ‘Doctor Who’ get back to doing what it does best the way it does it best. Let's get the Doctor and his friends back into the TARDIS, let's get them adventuring again, unencumbered by plot threads seeded two years ago and characters visiting themelves from the future and delivering mysterious messages and doomy portents of things to come. In short, it's time for 'Doctor Who' to tell proper stories again. Over to you,  Mr Moffat...

Coming:  Torchwood:Miracle Day - the TV Zone verdict...Lost Girl...The Fades...more Doctor Who...

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0 #5 Paul Mount 2011-09-15 18:54
Thanks J!! I'll admit it was out of necessity this month as the schedules were a bit bare until some of the new shows start arriving (and I was keen not to do a straight review of LKH because you'd already done it so well and wanted to look at it from a slightly different angle); I was going to do a 'story so far' on Torchwood but decided to leave it until next month when i can cover the whole series properly. I'm planning to stick to two longish overviews per month from now on where possible.
0 #4 J. R. Southall 2011-09-15 18:21
Great article, by the way! (And nice to see you concentrating on the one thing for a change. But don't do it every month, I'll be out of a job!)
0 #3 Paul Mount 2011-09-15 17:21
I've no real problem with the series being all about the regulars but I'm not sure the regulars we have now are really interesting or four-square enough to merit all that attention. Rory and Amy have no "lives" outside the TARDIS at all - we see little or nothing of them at home, as we did with Russell T Davies's characters - and I do think you need that sort of realistic anchor these days to really get your audience to care about characters who spend so much time doing incredible things in incredible places. But as you say, I think we just have to relax and try to enjoy the episodes on an individual basis without worrying too much about Moffat's obsessions;cert ainly 'Night Terrors' and 'Girl Who Were Waited' were marked improvements, if still missing the colour and vitality of the best of Davies's episodes.
0 #2 J. R. Southall 2011-09-15 16:34
You know, I think that is going to be the defining motif of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who though: it's all about the regulars. This is something that dogged 1980s Who to an extent, but Moffat is taking it to the very limit. The Eleventh Hour was very definitely the start of a trend that has continued ever since, and I don't think that a return to non-arc-led stories next year will change it. It's just what Steven Moffat does, and a quick glance at the vast majority of his previous career will show that it was probably wrong to expect anything else. He even said it himself this week: if you didn't want a series about complicated relationships between the regular characters, then why would you employ the creator of Coupling, Chalk, Joking Apart and Press Gang? It's just what he does. I had some severe problems with it last year; now, I've just accepted it and am enjoying the series for what I know will be recognised as Steven Moffat's particular version of Doctor Who.
0 #1 Sean Baldwin 2011-09-15 16:12
Excellent article, I really couldn't agree more. This episode started brilliantly but soon disappeared up its own temporal wormhole. And what's with all the recurrent deaths? When the major talking point of a series is whether it's become too hard to follow or not, then we know it's time to get firmly back on track.

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Other articles in TV Zone - By veteran Paul Mount

TV Zone - (Issue 373) 14 December 2011

TV Zone - (Issue 372) 14 November 2011

TV Zone - (Issue 371) 14 October 2011

TV Zone - (Issue 369) 14 August 2011

TV Zone - (Issue 368) 14 July 2011

TV Zone - (Issue 367) 14 June 2011

TV Zone - (issue 366) 04 May 2011

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