One of the chief criticisms lobbed at Doctor Who in the 80s was that it became too insular with certain stories being so stepped in what’s come before that novice fans would have a difficult if not an impossible time not just figuring out what was going on in the story much less enjoying it. As someone who discovered the classic series during this particular era and saw several of the stories in question on their initial U.S. syndication run, I can say this was definitely the case in a couple of cases.
And while I love what Steven Moffat is doing with the modern day series, I’m rapidly becoming concerned the series is on the verge of becoming less welcoming to new or casual fans. There’s a fine line between rewarding fans for being faithful to a series and being too reliant on continuity so that you make your series frustratingly less than accessible to casual or even new fans.
The summer return of the series, “Let’s Kill Hitler” is a prime example. It has a lot of rewards for long time fans as well as few new avenues to explore as series six plays out over the next five weeks. But it was so dense on the mythology of River Song and the entire game Moffat is playing with this season and his tenure as producer that I can see how some could come away from the return of the show scratching their heads and wondering just what all went on.*
* The good news for those fans is that unlike back in my day of first watching, the episode are more accessible to catch-up and get up to speed. Back in the 80’s I was at the mercy of whatever syndicated episodes my local PBS station ran.
In many ways, “Hitler” echoes the beats played by two-part series premiere, it just does them in reverse order. Instead of the Doctor trying to get the attention of Rory, Amy and River, it’s those three companions trying to get his attention**. You can also add in that the Doctor knows when and where he dies and that it’s a fixed point in the time space continuum, but he’s keeping that from Amy, Rory and River. Meanwhile, those three know how he dies and have been keeping that from him.***
* I won’t even bring up the question of just how Rory and Amy got from the space station at the end of “A Good Man Goes to War” to back home, trying to attract the Doctor’s attention.
** Seeing all the lies taking place among everyone made me think I was watching an episode of House with his motto of “Everyone lies.”
Thankfully, the premise of going back in time to kill Hitler is only the focus of the story for the first fifteen or so minutes. Instead of trying to tell a story about time paradoxes or pulling a Bill and Ted, Moffat uses idea of going back in time to remove Hitler as bait for the hook and then opens the story up to being something more.
Give Moffat a lot of credit–this story was packed to the gills with ideas that could have easily been their own episode, if explored a bit more. The concept of aliens who live inside a shape-changing robot and travel through time to make various criminals pay for their crimes is an intriguing one. You also had the plotline of Amy and Rory’s best friend growing up turning out to be their daughter and someone who is programmed to seek out and kill the Doctor. And then we see the regeneration of Mel into River and her first ever meeting with the Doctor.
And while I like how Moffat is clearly playing a long game with River and the on-going storyline, part of me is hoping he’s going to find a way to wrap it up by the end of this series. At some point, the answers aren’t going to be satisfying because the questions have been lingering for so long.
That said, I’ll be disappointed if Amy and Rory are satisfied that they knew Mel growing up and stop looking for Melody. While they know how the story ends and that their daughter turns out OK, I’m not sure emotionally that will be enough. As we see in the TARDIS, the Doctor understands there are implications to traveling with him. And while what had to happen to Donna was tragic, the idea that Amy and Rory have to give up their child’s childhood and formative years to play a role in some bigger cosmic game seems far more tragic and devastating than having to wipe out Donna’s memory and her dying if she ever remembers her time with the Doctor. Hopefully Amy and Rory will have some continued fall-out from this and not just go back into the “hey, let’s have wacky adventures and avoid things” as we saw earlier this year.
Now, I don’t want it to sound like I was completely down on the episode. There was a lot to like about “Hitler.” The biggest asset was the performance by Matt Smith. It’s easy to see him each week as the Doctor and forget, at times, how solid the work he’s doing here really is. But then Moffat steps up and gives him a tour-de-force like the Doctor dying and his body slowly shutting down. Watching physically as the Doctor’s body starts to shut down was marvelous from a physical standpoint. Smith seemed to be made of the same stuff as actor Jim Carey as the Doctor faced one leg shutting down and wrestled with the poison slowly killing him.
In a lot of ways, I’m conflicted about “Hitler.” There were parts of it I really liked, but parts of it were frustrating. I’m really hoping that Moffat will wrap-up his current masterplan by series’ end. It’s not that I don’t like it or haven’t enjoyed it, but I really think I’m ready for the big payoff and then exploring some new, interesting avenue.