Any article written about Let’s Kill Hitler is always going to end up not being about Hitler, as the episode has very little to do with him, so let’s at least give that part of the episode a passing mention before we get to the main thrust of the story. Having researched the holocaust in some detail, my first thought when watching this episode originally was to find the use of Hitler as an excuse for a throwaway bit of comedy distasteful. He never seems like any kind of credible threat, and neither do the Nazis for that matter. Somebody went to the trouble of replicating Hitler’s office in detail, and then he gets punched and shoved in a cupboard, irrelevant to the rest of the episode. But perhaps Mel Brooks’s argument for this kind of thing is worth considering. The following quote is taken from an interview with him in Salon, from 2012:
After all the people that he was responsible for killing and after utterly destroying half the world, I just thought the only weapon I’ve really got is comedy. And if I can make this guy ludicrous, if I can make you laugh at him, then it’s a victory of sorts. You can’t get on a soapbox with these orators, because they’re very good at convincing the masses that they’re right. But if you can make them look ridiculous, you can win over the people.
So we’ll leave that there, as a matter of perspective and opinion, and just acknowledge that it is one of those occasions where Doctor Who is playing on the edges of good taste.
The episode does a lot of important things. It has to be a season premiere, with the split season format, it has to introduce the new concept of the Teselecta which will have significance later in the season (giving the episode a flavour of Meet Dave meets Indiana Jones), and most importantly of all it has to deal with the fallout from A Good Man Goes to War.
The very best scene in dealing with that fallout is not actually in the episode. Unfortunately it is completely essential to watch the prequel, and that’s not a good thing, but without the prequel we follow the events of Amy and Rory losing their baby with an episode where they have a jolly good romp of an adventure. Here’s what Amy says in the prequel:
You said you’d find my baby. You said you’d find Melody. Have you found her? Because you promised. I know she’s gonna be ok. I know she’ll grow up to be River but that’s not the point. It’s…I don’t want to miss all those years you know? I…I can’t stand it, I can’t. Please Doctor, please…
This is vitally important because it says what everyone is thinking: learning that her child is going to grow up fine makes up for not being there for her childhood to the tune of about 1%. The other 99% should be crushing grief and desperation. The absence of that scene within the episode itself is a big problem, but then again it doesn’t really fit within the context of a fun, action-packed season opener, and here is where the split season format collapses into a mess.
Anyone who was not enough of a fan to go looking for the prequel (i.e. well over 9/10ths of the viewers) had a very different experience, and one that is inconceivably ridiculous. I acknowledge that this is simply anecdotal evidence, but just about everyone I know who has had children hated this episode, because it is so utterly opposite to every maternal or paternal instinct. The half-season opener, which should have been a jumping-on point, also became a jumping-off point.
The thing is, within the context of a Doctor Who story, it works reasonably well to put a sticking plaster over the problem by retconning Amy and Rory’s past so they get to experience River’s childhood in a timey wimey sort of way. All that stable time loop stuff is brilliant, with the headache-inducing paradox of a daughter going back in time to become friends with her parents and then giving them a nudge in the right direction to get together, thus making her whole existence possible. And then we have Melody Pond as River’s birth name because she was named after… herself.
It’s all very clever, and Steven Moffat also recognises the importance of River’s loss in all this and shows that she also has to go through a healing process. The key to that process is moving past what her captors did to her and conquering her brainwashing. So Moffat is too good a writer to allow this to end up as a total train wreck, despite the near impossibility of assembling the pieces he needed to assemble within the context of a split-season relaunch. But the one problem he had no solution to is that of a mother who is kidnapped while pregnant and has her baby taken away from her… and then goes back to her life with her husband and best friend for six months while somebody else tries to find the baby and makes no contact with her during that time. Then, when he comes back, they just go off on an adventure. I wouldn’t say that Doctor Who should be devoid of the big moments of drama that reflect on real life issues, but if they cannot be dealt with in a realistic way without traumatising the children, then maybe some things really are best left alone. A baby being stolen from a mother is probably one of those. RP
The view from across the pond:
After an unwanted break following A Good Man Goes to War, season 6 returned with Let’s Kill Hitler. Babylon 5 writer J. Michael Straczynski once said that after a heavy episode, it was good to give the viewer a rest to recover. The problem is that we’ve just come off a several month long break and don’t need another. What we need is the show to come back full force and pick up the pieces. This is meant to be a sequel to the previous story, after all, but it has no sense of actually picking up from where it left off. We left off with Amy’s infant child both melted in her arms and kidnapped. (Only in Doctor Who would this make sense!) River has told Amy and Rory that she is their daughter; the same one that was kidnapped, so Amy now sees her child in adult form and probably has lots of questions for her. The Doctor just went off in a hurry to find the baby, telling River to return everyone to their proper place in time, but after a summer off, he’s got nothing! So Let’s Kill Hitler starts off with… a car driving recklessly through a cornfield just to spell out the word “Doctor” and it just goes downhill from there.
There’s so much wrong with this episode, it is hard to really enjoy it. The title is Let’s Kill Hitler, but that titular character gets 5 minutes or less of screen time and is then forgotten completely. Then there’s the this sudden retcon of Amy and Rory’s best friend. When Rose was with the Doctor, she would periodically mention “my mate, Shareen”. If this girl was so intrinsic to Rory and Amy, why have we never heard of her before like Rose would speak about her friend? Suddenly she’s a part of their everyday life and then what, just vanishes? (Moreover, why did Amy wait so long to introduce her because wow: Nina Toussaint-White! I’d have words with Amy but now she died before I knew to have a chat with her about it… Timey Wimey!)
Moffat proves that he is not a lore-abiding citizen with his writing time and again. (No, that was not a mistype!) River kisses and poisons the Doctor with a lipstick that will prevent regeneration. But we’ve established that the Doctor could not regenerate again anyway, because he’s in his final incarnation. Oh, wait, no that was not established yet. Moffat’s master plan was not in place yet but that’s unfortunate because he created this backstory that needed to be refined first.
And the aforementioned lipstick… how does that come about, exactly?
Clerk: “Can I help you?”
Mels: “Yes, I need some lipstick.”
Clerk: “Well, we have a nice selection here. Some that “go on and stay on”, …”
Mels: “Well I need it to be laced with poison.”
Clerk: “Oh that’s fine, we have a nice selection of lipsticks with cyanide, arsenic, iocane powder…”
Mels: “Do you have any that can stop a Time Lord from regenerating?”
Clerk: “Oh, yes, but for that you will need the iocane powder mixed with a dose of writers block!”
Mels: “Writers Block? What does that do?”
Clerk: “It allows the writer to say whatever he wants to get out of a sticky situation. Works every time!”
So think this through: this “long, unending war” with the Doctor that Madame Kovarian claims to have been going on could have been ended with… a kiss! The body count could have gone from hundreds of thousands to… 1. The entire battle of Demon’s Run, the cultivation of a child as a weapon, the years of preparation, and all Kovarian had to do was stop off at Ulta and buy the right lipstick? Yes, a single kiss is all it would have taken. Not to mention, we know the Doctor doesn’t die here: Amy and Rory have already been told that his death on the beach is inevitable and they saw that first hand. It’s a fixed point in time, so why even write this whole scene if it doesn’t even succeed as a red herring?
Then our “unloreful” lead writer pulls another stunt: River can “kiss and make it better” giving up all of her regenerations to save the Doctor. Why would she have to do that? Why not just say she only has a few regenerations available since she was a fluke anyway, or why say that at all. When the Doctor and River meet in the library, River burns up and is vaporized. My guess is even regenerating doesn’t help that. This is Time Lord science; you don’t grow back from vaporization like Jack Harkness did in Children of Earth because he was something totally different. So River could have been in her 2nd life and died, end of story. We spent a major part of the season proving that dying during regeneration is actually fatal, so why did we go through the whole giving up all the regenerations fiasco? While we know regenerations can be transferred (Mawdryn Undead, for instance), there’s an entire process around it! There’s no indication it can be transferred by a kiss! It’s not like insurance that can be transferred, and even that takes more than a kiss! There’s paperwork, forms… computers!
As if that’s not enough, there’s the new alien race the “Please select a new body”, aka the Teselecta. I do like the sound of the name, but since Select A is part of the name, it’s not surprising that you can select who you want to look like. The problem is that these guys give Moffat another “get out of jail free” card. (Moffat clearly has that monopoly deck rigged; he gets these cards all the time!) The Teselecta, while advanced, are still machines! Surely this would have been detected when Canton says “That most certainly is the Doctor. And he is most certainly dead.” I’ll be coming back to this eventually.
Last of all “Rule 1: The Doctor Lies”. I’ve said it before and I stand behind it: that is the single dumbest thing Moffat ever came up with. Since when is it a good idea that a child’s hero should lie? Not just that, we draw extra special attention to it. It’s not just that it happens and he is remorseful about it; it’s actually the #1 rule. The Doctor lies. Isn’t that about the worst message you can tell a kid? The child watching the show is given carte blanch to lie because “well, mom, the Doctor lies”! It’s the wrong message and clear indication that Moffat had lost who he was writing for! And he clearly got confused with Sherlock, his other property that he was working on concurrently, since he gives us Sherlock-esque scenes of the Doctors observation skill and his disarming a gun while River tries to kill him! (Great scene, wrong series!)
The fact is, it’s a lousy sequel but it’s a fun episode if the viewer doesn’t try to think too much. It’s not the worst of the series but it is chock full of oversights. It leaves much to be desired. It has some fantastic scenes to offset some of the oversights, like River’s burst of regeneration energy or Rory actually punching history’s most notorious maniac, but it’s not enough to raise the episode to what we needed for a season restart. No kiss was going to make this one any better… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Night Terrors
Red Dwarf made some cleverly comedic use of Hitler, first with Timeslides where Lister boasts that Hitler’s only got one testicle, then with Meltdown where a wax-droid of Hitler is gunned down in the climax, and then Cured where Hitler is somehow restored and cured of all of his evil. Maybe it can work for Red Dwarf’s brilliance. For Dr. Who it can be mixed. After all there was Nero for the First Doctor and then President Nixon for the 11th. So maybe this was a point when the boldest moves with infamous villains in our real history could be as flexible in Dr. Who as the heroes.
In the classic Star Trek, we saw the Jack The Ripper revealed as a fear-feeding energy vampire in the Enterprise computer, being resisted by a sedative that makes the crew frivolously happy. Then we saw Kirk brawl it out with several great men in human history, including Da Vinci, all in the form of Mr. Flint over an android woman. In Sanctuary, we saw Jack The Ripper revealed to personally involved with Dr. Helen Magnus. So let’s face it. Dr. Who’s brilliance still succeeds by keeping up with other SF legacies.
I’m not saying there was no actual harm done by making the use of Hitler that this episode did. It was openly more enjoyable for the Melody/River resolution and the moral debate of the Teselecta which prompts what may be Smith’s most timeless quote: “I’d ask you who you think you are but I think the answer is pretty obvious”, which is probably what I would want to say as the Doctor. We are reminded by Whoniversal morality once again that the greatest danger we face in battling evil, which the Doctor should understand all too personally well, is unleashing the evil in ourselves. In SF we address this constantly with Dr. Who, Star Trek and Star Wars. For death-penalty dramas like Dead Man Walking, The Chamber and The Green Mile, it’s certainly closer to home. So with Let’s Kill Hitler, keeping Hitler’s involvement to such a science-fantasy minimum was wise. But it quite seriously reminds us of how careful Dr. Who needs to be both on-and-off-screen.
Thanks for your own very wise reviews on this one.
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Those are actually some of the low points of Red Dwarf for me, particularly the most recent example which I thought was very silly. Red Dwarf is normally better than that, but it seems doing comedy with Hitler is generally best left alone.
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Like Let’s Kill Hitler, those Red Dwarfs were at least wise enough, except for Cured, to keep Hitler’s SF or comedic involvement to a minimum. The Tomorrow People was reasonably serious when its own SF portrait of Hitler in Hitler’s Last Secret was making him ET in origin. It earned dramatic and moral realism when John must rescue Mike from neo-Nazis preparing for Hitler’s return. Cinematic SF took it most seriously at the time via the subject matter of human cloning for The Boys Of Brazil and the dilemma for the child Hitler clones to potentially diverge from the original Hitler’s nature. In The Twilight Zone we saw Hitler’s beyond-the-grave survival in He’s Alive and in another TZ which was more comedic, we saw a man being granted wishes (or so I remember) get shocked out of his wits as one of his wish is misinterpreted into making him actually become Hitler.
For science-fiction drama, Hitler depictions can delicately enough work. But for science-fantasy or science-comedy, the overwhelming risks speak for themselves. I for one can settle for quotes like the Doctor in The Daemons comparing the Master to Hitler and Genghis Khan, or plenty of quotes about Hitler and all real-history villains like him in Star Trek. This is all the understanding we need as to how realistically evil Hitler was. Let’s Kill Hitler and even Red Dwarf’s Hitler depictions could earn adequate points for that. But I’m looking forward to more real-history heroes to be portrayed in Dr. Who which will supposedly include Rosa Parks for Series 11. That will undoubtedly be one for Jodie’s Doctor to make a great impression as one heroic woman of power meeting another.
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