TV Let’s Kill Hitler or and I'll doubtless be the fluftiest person to make this joke or use it as a headline “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About River Song* but were afraid to ask” had a lot to live up to, years worth of speculation and jokes and mythology and questions, oh so many questions to be answered. Actually, it would have been classic Steven Moffat to leave us all waiting for another six episode or even years before revealing any of this but with the revelation (or “revelation” depending on your level of smugness) at the close of A Good Man Goes To War (or Love & Death) it was entirely unlikely that this episode would actually be about killing Hitler. Well not in actually. Metaphorically perhaps …
What it was about, apart from you know the plot and everything else which we’ll talk about in the next paragraph, was Moffat demonstrating why Doctor Who is the greatest drama show on British television right now. There is nothing like it. Even when it fails, or at least loses its way a bit, and I glance wearily at my review of Curse of the Black Spot as I type this (or at least my memory of writing it) it’s still like nothing else on television. It’s sci-fi, it’s fantasy, it’s (in this case) historical dramedy, it’s a romance, it’s a philosophical meditation on the nature of being and that ignores the fact that most comedy series would kill to be as funny as this. And it’s published on a Saturday night for a family audience. Magnificent.
The intricacy with which River’s story has been set up and executed has been extraordinary. As we know from various sources, Moffat was scripting The Forest of the Dead at the same time as putting his version of the series but just imagine the deviousness of having her die at the close of that story then revealing she’s a timelord and then explaining why she couldn't then regenerate later and as I suspect knowing that we’d all sit around offering our intricate explanations of same. That Amy and Rory have known her far longer than their first meeting, that she’s been with them all their lives albeit in a different frame apparently knowingly stimulating the former’s memory of the mad man in a box and the latter’s libido.
Like some of the great children’s writers Moffat understands that kids aren’t stupid, they only turn out stupid if their brains aren’t stimulated and one of the hallmarks of his version is that he doesn’t just want them shouting Exterminate! in school yards, but also huddled together unknowingly going over quantum mechanics, falsidical and veridical paradoxes (and whatever other illustrative terms I could hoover up from the wikipedia because I not with the science) as they try to rationalise and untangle the lives of River Song and the Doctor. At a time when, if Eric Schmidt’s correct, art and science are being separated in school teaching (which isn’t anything new, it’s the reason I’m not with the science), Doctor Who is atomically slamming them back together again.
It’s also astonishingly rich, as I’ve said before burning through story and ideas that would have sustained whole seasons, indeed whole runs of other shows. Just as in A Good Man Goes To War we were introduced to characters we were desperate to see for longer than these forty-five minutes, Mels, the unearthly child, introduced in a sequence apparently styled on the work of Waris Hussein and Wes Anderson ('Lil Rory!), went far too quickly. Nina Toussaint-White burns brightly in this tiny role, succeeding in being totally alien to us but utterly familiar, Moffat’s writing too allowing us one of those rare moments when we’re allowed to be ahead of the characters, so as to create the sense of anticipation in the upcoming "revelation". Plus I could really relate to Rory in these flashbacks. Various reasons.
Alex Kingston’s performance as the still cooking Melody is nothing short of magnificent, River already running through her but polluted by her programming, capturing the fiery brilliance of the post regenerative fervour, of everything being different but the same and wanting to know what her new body is capable of, all the while in a battle of ways with the other Time Lord in the room. Then, slowly, the Doctor’s presence cleanses her soul, as the person we know from our earlier encounter washes across Kingston face, the potential darkness still bubbling underneath but the ultimate expression of the his capacity to make people better themselves, in this case so she can’t disappoint him when they next meet.
Which isn’t to say you can’t criticise this genesis of the character. When the last episode aired, I was introduced to the concept of “fridging” in drama, of a character’s pregnancy as plot device. Amy did have her baby snatched from her and although she unknowingly still watched her child grow and mature, she has still suffered the kind of loss most women couldn’t get over. There are plenty of ways of rationalising the psychology of that within this format and indeed, in the moment when the Doctor begged his emergency system for comfort he acknowledges that he’s broken Amy, just as he has Rose, Martha and Donna (and wasn’t that great?). Perhaps cutting her off from the normal flow of maternal emotions. I don’t have an answer.
It is interesting that in that moment as the Doctor lay on the floor Moffat chose to recall that guilt and it's a mark of Matt's performance at this point that he was able to play this emotional holdover from before he was born (almost). In the past few days BBC America have published a clip of the actor answer the question of whether he considers how the actors who'll come after him will play the role and it's interesting that presumably none of the actors have, as he says, they've all gone with the spirit of whatever's been put in front of them, even Eccleston who apparently didn't even know who he would be regenerating in too. But it's worth saying that you couldn't imagine any of the previous actors playing the slapstick tragedy of the Eleventh Doctor in his top-hatted final moments, knowing that his only hope is to convince Melody to make a supreme sacrifice.
All of this against the backdrop of 1938 Germany, with the ironic justice of Cardiff’s Temple of Peace being employed as the Reich Chancellery and backdrop for the epicentre of the story (a venue so familiar it's rapidly becoming the nu-Who equivalent of a quarry, albeit with the Portland stone at the end of its manufacturing process rather than the start). Amazingly, Moffat and co manage to keep this visit light, more Indiana Jones or Allo Allo than Downfall (for want of another touchstone), though it’s impossible not to pull out the new cliché when it comes to talking about Who that it looks like a feature film because it does, Richard Senior in directing his first whole episode taking full visual advantage of the large spaces on offer.
The closeting of the Fuhrer is a brilliant bait and switch and let’s face it he deserves nothing more (certainly not playing the Doctor, Mr Davies) which hasn’t stopped him from bestriding the spin-off fiction becoming a key player in the Seventh Doctor and Ace’s fight against the Timewyrm early in the New Adventures, with the Sixth Doctor becoming embroiled in the circumstances of his real death not to mention all the messing about with the timelines in a Big Finish series. Albert Welling didn’t have to do too much behind the moustache but his timing on seeing the TARDIS was impeccable. How long did he spend in the cupboard? Did it just serve to increase his anger making Silver Nemesis too all the more inevitable?
Then there’s the manic genius of the Teselecta, whose anagrammatic name has to be a reference to the car scene in the aforepunned one of the Woody Allen’s early funny ones (“I'm not getting shot out of that thing. What if he's masturbating? I'm liable to end up on the ceiling”). True, the clearer reference is Meet Dave, a film I’m still yet to brave because of the post-Norbit presence of Eddie Murphy with its human shaped space machine but the idea that Moffat could be going anywhere near that gives me the wiggins. So I’ll prefer to assume that he had Burt Reynolds preparing an erection in his head. Oh dear. Now I have a completely different image in my head. Now you do too. Sorry about that.
Um, where was I up to? Where are we up to? With the source of River just about mapped out, we still don’t know precisely who the Silence are, other than that they’re not just the skull men in suits, but a larger collective. We now know that someone will ask a question and that “silence will fall” and that the question is a mystery that will require deep thought, though hopefully not that Deep Thought otherwise it’s a good job the Doctor has a time machine ("How long?"). We know that the Doctor has downloaded the Testicle’s records and knows when he’s going to die, but he's keeping his knowledge from his travelling companions and thanks to the Radio Times we know the title of the final episode of the series. I can’t wait to get there.