You have to feel a bit for Steven Moffat, who has tied his own episodes in to the series’ story arc so thoroughly he no longer gets the chance to let his hair down (such as he has any) and just have a bit of fun with a standalone Doctor Who adventure. Just imagine how much more fun Let’s Kill Hitler would have been if it hadn’t had to default to the River Song storyline halfway through.
As it stands, Let’s Kill Hitler is probably the most fun anybody’s had with Doctor Who since its return in 2005.
Which is not to say it’s not an extremely problematic episode.
For a start, there’s River Song herself. It’s impossible now not to conclude that Moffat’s making up her story as he goes along. So many contradictions come to light with each new development, it’s all the writer can do to stem the tide. Fortunately for us, Moffat has on this occasion made a virtue of the problem, by thrusting the evidence so firmly in our faces, it’s all we can do not to laugh along with the sheer audacity of it.
If Let’s Kill Hitler has any fault at all, then, it’s that it never really ignites as a story in its own right, so much as it is merely an instalment in the greater scheme of the series. The robot doubles plot might have been enough for Russell T Davies to have made hay with back in the day (it’s not a million miles away from the territory that New Earth once covered), but here it isn’t really explored enough to engage on its own terms, and singularly fails to come to a conclusion – the elements it introduces are inveigled into the River Song plot instead.
It’s almost impossible to believe that Amy and Rory Pond (they’re ‘the Ponds’ now) have spent an entire summer waiting upon news of their daughter’s fate and haven’t been climbing the walls with worry the whole time. Having said that, if you’re going to write the character arc that Moffat evidently has in mind, it’s necessary to tone down the reality of their reaction in order not to drive the fiction down a self-defeating back alley. Doctor Who would be a very poorly series with Amy and Rory incapacitated by anxiety; having said that, the fact that they know their daughter grows up to be River Song is not really a proper excuse Mr Moffat.
Papering over the plotlines has become something of an art form with Steven Moffat, of course, but not as much as his ability to manoeuvre the story elements into place so effectively you can barely even see him doing it. If the pre-titles sequences of his recent stories (especially in the cases of The Time of Angels and The Pandorica Opens) have been superb examples of Moffat practising television magic, then the opening half hour of Let’s Kill Hitler is probably the conceit’s best illustration yet. The story barely pauses for breath, and every new idea and character’s introduction (or re-introduction) delights and surprises in both inevitability and execution. The first half of the episode stands as one of the most efficient and engaging pieces of television seen in many a year. Incredibly funny, too, often audaciously so.
That Steven Moffat then turns Let’s Kill Hitler so easily on its head, flipping effortlessly into something far more dramatic and profound in its second half, is another (and seldom stated) weapon in his armoury. We’ve seen it happen with this writer so many times before – at its most obvious in the climax to The Empty Child two-parter – but here it’s more smoothly done, and at once both more and less of a surprise (we don’t realise it’s happened until the episode is all but over). This is the programme at its most mesmerising and magical, and who cares if it doesn’t really add up: Doctor Who isn’t supposed to make sense so much as it is designed to enchant and entertain. Let’s Kill Hitler achieves both of these things with skill and aplomb.
Although this is almost certainly Matt Smith’s best instalment yet as the Doctor, it’s Alex Kingston for whom Let’s Kill Hitler is the big showpiece episode. The first act (which features some great comedy from Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan, as well as a finely-judged turn from Albert Welling as Adolf and a rousing and revelatory – in any sense of the word – performance by Nina Toussaint-White) is really little more than a build-up to River Song’s appearance, and once she materialises, Kingston runs the acting gamut and has some incredible fun with it too. If the sequence where she gives up her future regenerations to save the Doctor (yep, that’s another regular dead again – although by now this all-too-familiar trope of Moffat’s is starting to feel like the kind of theme that comments upon itself as it develops, and behaves like a precursor to what’s to come at the end of the series) might feel a little pat and too simple a solution, then the hospital scene that follows it sells the drama perfectly. Kudos to Kingston as well, for showing how gracefully ladies might approach a certain age; she looks better without all the make-up and trappings of glamour than she does all dolled up.
Let’s Kill Hitler might have squandered a premise that could have led it into the arena of the profound and the philosophical, and it might not be Doctor Who at its behind-the-sofa scarifying best. But it does contain all the verve and exuberance of a lively Party Hits album, magpie-thieving ideas and images from any number of sources – a pinch of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade here, a soupcon of Fantastic Voyage there – and blending them together in that unmistakeable Saturday night fashion. Mark Gatiss might have been aiming for the feel of a Bank Holiday war movie with Victory of the Daleks; Steven Moffat effortlessly pulls it off with far less flamboyance here.
I’ll be glad if Moffat’s vow to “throw the lever the other way” on the intrusiveness of the story arcs next year is true (you wouldn’t want this kind of guessing game infiltrating the show every series), but in A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler (not quite a two-parter then, eh) he’s double-punched us with a pair of stories, each with completely its own identity (however borrowed from Hollywood they might be...), and yet that together have moved the story of the Doctor and of Doctor Who lurching forwards into new territories, in a way that feels both appropriate to the past and at the same time, completely fresh. If Doctor Who was like this all the time, it would be like trying to subsist on a diet of nothing more than sticky sweets. But as a once-in-a-while treat, Let’s Kill Hitler is an extravagance there can be no greater pleasure than to indulge in.