Doctor Who, Eleven For Eleven: Let’s Kill Hitler

“More guilt! Come on, there must be someone left in the universe I haven’t screwed up yet!”

Interesting, mostly fun, a little bit disappointing but a lot surprising: that’s how I’d describe “Let’s Kill Hitler,” the mid-season premiere of DOCTOR WHO’s thirty-second proper season-slash-series. After a cute opening that introduces an obnoxious new character who seems strangely familiar, the TARDIS crew winds up going along with the plan outlined in the title, only to get things a bit wrong and get sidetracked by some very classic-WHO-on-a-good-budget sci-fi stuff that’s wandering around World War II-era Berlin, as well as the resolution of some of the lingering business from the spring. That’s one thing I didn’t really expect: some closure. As always, spoilers follow.

1. And it’s back to World War II for DOCTOR WHO. What is this, the third time (fourth if you count the prison break in “The Impossible Astronaut,” and by that token you might throw in Churchill’s brief guest appearance in “The Pandorica Opens” to make five) in seven years? The classic series only did it the once (the Seventh Doctor story “The Curse of Fenric”), though it did become a favorite setting for tie-in novel writers. I suppose it would have been too fresh in the viewers’ minds in the early years of the show, but still, I’m hoping Hitler’s brief guest shot puts a stake in it for the foreseeable future. And yet after the explosive arrival of the TARDIS in Hitler’s office, it winds up simply becoming a backdrop for the continuing soap operatics of our four leads, plus the special guest antagonist. Because the real substance of the episode is all about the characters and their relationships with one another, what do we get from the setting? A provocative name, some stylishly drab period backgrounds (I especially like the Nazi supper club that Melody crashes), and good costume design. Oh, and Rory punching Hitler. That’s an important one. In fact …

2. Rory gets some really good bits in this one. The salute followed by the sucker punch, and then the line about being able to ride a motorbike — “I expect so. It’s that sort of day.” — is another standout. The flashback to him, Amy, and Mels in Amy’s bedroom is also great, a charmingly awkward sequence that leads me to my next point …

3. The first clue to Mels’s identity is the attitude. It’s a very familiar confident, reckless swagger. I was afraid during the pre-credits sequence that Moffat was, in fact, just repeating himself, as he is wont to do. It does seem a bit of a cheat to shoehorn in a new best friend character — the Doctor even seems to call Mels on it by bringing up her absence at the wedding. It’s a very “season premiere” thing to do. The flashbacks mitigate the problem somewhat, as does the fact that the Doctor (and we, by extension) always does have a very limited window into his companions’ lives. They get to know his world quite well, but he doesn’t really bother with theirs. But it all winds up moot when she regenerates to reveal Alex Kingston playing a remarkably even younger not-quite-River Song. How DOES she manage to do that? The quip she makes about aging backwards isn’t even necessary; through sheer force of acting she seems so very much younger than she was in her first appearance in series four. I was actually surprised, though, that Moffat went with cutting straight from Mels to the River Song we know; it’s a decision that suggests to me that Moffat knows it’s time to start wrapping things up. He removes the possibility of other actresses playing Melody/River from the table by going straight to Alex Kingston and then burning out the character’s regenerative ability with the RTD-esque annoying ending. More on that annoyance later. But speaking of annoyances …

4. Causality loops abound. Amy and Rory’s relationship being given a shove by Mels’s intervention, Melody being named after herself, all of River’s annoying little memes being thrown back at her younger self by the Doctor (“Spoilers!”), and the name River Song being artlessly revealed to Melody despite the clever little origin River explained in “A Good Man Goes To War.” That’s the problem with time loops; origins get lost in the shuffle.

5. The reason I picked the Doctor’s moment of self-flagellation for this episode’s quote at top is because that was one of my favorite sequences in the episode. It’s more of the self-loathing we saw in “Amy’s Choice” last year: first, he sees himself and asks the computer for someone he actually likes. Then he looks at these good people he called to greatness — Rose, Martha, Donna, and even little Amelia — and all he can think in what could have been the last half hour of his life is how he screwed their lives up. Funny how someone who rides the rails of all time and space looks back at the ripples he’s made in the fabric of history and can see only regrets. I suppose after the dressing down River gave him in “A Good Man Goes to War” that’s just where his head’s at.

6. I haven’t even brought up the antagonists yet, a group of miniaturized time travelers wandering around in a shape-shifting robot (shades of Kamelion!) who basically find terrible people at the end of their lives and torture them. They were planning on marking Hitler off their list when they spot the TARDIS and assume that Melody Pond, the woman who killed the Doctor, is nearby — and lo and behold, she is! They decide she’s a far more worthy target, a far greater criminal than Hitler. (MELODY POND: WORSE THAN HITLER.) I have to admit, while the set design for the interior of the robot is great, as is the design of the “antibodies” (to my eyes they look like a cross between the Sentinels from THE MATRIX and the Imperial Probe Droid from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), all I could think of when I realized what we had here was the ill-received Eddie Murphy comedy MEET DAVE. It doesn’t make any sense for all these people to be miniaturized and skulking around in a shape-shifting robot — there has GOT to be an easier way to do this — but it’s a fun, wild idea that just sounds very DOCTOR WHO. It’s one of the most winning ideas the story has, and it grants the story some of its truly great, tense moments.

7. Now, let me get this straight: the miniaturized time travelers know her as Melody Pond, and they know she kills the Doctor in Utah in 2011, and they’re planning on getting her for this now … so if Alex Kingston’s Melody is trying to kill him now, fails, and goes so far as to save him when she sees the error of her ways, she isn’t the one who kills him on the beach in Utah, is she? It’s clearly what the smug people in the robot think, but it can’t be unless the Silence brainwash her again and, for whatever reason, stick River back in the space suit. For some reason I want to say that it’s the Doctor in the space suit. Not basing that on anything but the fact that the whole thing has to be some sort of trick, the Doctor’s way of ending his “story” and going into a sort of hiding where he can’t rely on his crazy-huge rep to get him out of trouble.

8. I did like how River being a “child of the TARDIS,” learning the controls from the TARDIS itself while the Doctor is dying, tracks with her quip about the Doctor being out when she was taught how to steer it back in “The Time of Angels.” Mind you, it doesn’t hang together with her remark earlier this season that the Doctor taught the controls to her, but then the fact that the Doctor and Amy hand her the name River Song doesn’t track with the immediately previous episode, so Moffat doesn’t seem too concerned about consistency here. At least when she mentioned the Doctor teaching her the controls earlier this season you could go, “Oh, she just wanted to bruise the Doctor’s ego in ‘The Time of Angels.’ There’s no good reason for her to have brought up the Doctor teaching her the TARDIS controls in the season opening two-parter the way she did, though, if he in fact didn’t.

9. On the one hand, I sort of liked the quip about the State of Temporal Grace, a thoroughly debunked concept introduced during the Fourth Doctor’s era. The idea was that due to this State, no weapons could be fired inside the TARDIS. Then during the Fifth and Sixth Doctor’s eras Cybermen found their way into the TARDIS and started firing weapons. So much for the State of Temporal Grace. However, the quip is very much of a kind with a remark the Doctor made about isomorphic controls in “A Christmas Carol,” claiming there’s no such thing due to the fact that the Fourth Doctor claimed the TARDIS controls were isomorphic back in “Pyramids of Mars” and, as time went on, you had plenty of people who weren’t the Doctor controlling the TARDIS — like, say, Adric — thus proving it to be a bluff. It’s Moffat joking about the history of the show in a familiar way. His bag of tricks is starting to run dry.

10. So he reaches into the RTD-era bag of tricks and does something silly with the Time Lord ability to regenerate. First the Tenth Doctor regrew his hand while his body still had regeneration energy flowing through it. Then it was Jenny, the Doctor’s Daughter, regenerating without turning into another person. Then it was the Doctor focusing the regeneration energy into his severed hand, thus preventing himself from regenerating while causing it to generate a whole new half-human Tenth Doctor. (I feel like I’m missing something, but maybe I’m blocking out something even dumber than the above.) Now you’ve got River Song shunting all her remaining ability to regenerate into the Doctor, saving him from death. I thought we were past this kind of rule-bending Deus Ex Machina-flavored nonsense. I should have known better when there was no known cure for, what was it, the poison of the Judas Tree. The only way out would have to be something irritatingly stupid, like the power of Words and Belief turning the Doctor into Jesus-Superman with Vague Energy Powers. I’m sure the solution was a godsend to Moffat, who found a way out of two fixes — River having the ability to regenerate when he already killed her off and the fact that, likewise, he’d already killed the Doctor later on in his own timeline so he couldn’t die here — with one dumb idea.

11. Is this the third or the fourth time Steven Moffat has killed the Eleventh Doctor? I want to say either the Doctor dying on the stairs in “The Big Bang” counts or the Doctor “ceasing to exist” beyond the crack in Amelia’s wall in the same episode counts. One or the other, maybe both. It sure gives Matt Smith some meaty material to chew into, but again, it’s starting to get tiresome. I can’t believe we’re only halfway into this team’s second season and it feels like we’re starting to get to “Voyage of the Damned” levels of self-import and smugness. There’s definitely parts of this I liked, and as Tennant sometimes did during the RTD era, Matt Smith ALWAYS makes the show worth watching, but the sense that we’re just watching the same elements in different configurations over and over again is starting to set in. It’s like the Patrick Troughton era. Troughton’s era is brilliant whenever Troughton is on the screen, but when he’s not it becomes abundantly clear that the writers are just following the same “base under siege” template over, and over, and over again. Troughton was brilliant as the Doctor, but he was hamstrung by paint-by-numbers stories. Likewise, Matt Smith is brilliant as the Doctor, but he’s starting to be let down by the tedious tics of the story editor and executive producer. Maybe nothing could have lived up to that bold title, and maybe I’m just feeling let down after so much anticipation. We’ll see how the rest of the season goes. I just hope I’m not feeling the same way in the wake of thirteen. That would just be depressing.