One of the reasons I was asked to join the Mindless Ones last month is that we’re expanding our range of topics somewhat. We’re still going to concentrate on comics, of course, but we’re going to be venturing into other waters – expect the occasional post about TV, films or video games. And one of the things we’re going to do is a weekly look at Doctor Who.

Yes, it’s going to be a week after the broadcast. But it’s a programme about time travel, after all. More to the point, there’s a good reason for the delay – Moffat-era Doctor Who, more than any other era of the programme, takes time to sink in. Often what appeared at first glance to be a hugely impressive rip-roaring adventure will, on a rewatch, prove very problematic. Sometimes, less often, the reverse will be true, and an initially unimpressive story will reveal hidden depths.
The Doctor, flanked by Amy and Rory, stands in front of a swastika flag

I have a very strange relationship with Moffat-era Doctor Who. While Russel Davies’ period running the show was simple for me to dismiss – if you’re not going to bother with a coherent plot, or a moral centre for the show, and you make your lead actor do a terrible gurning mockney Kenneth Williams impersonation all the time, then there’s no point paying attention.

Moffat, on the other hand, can actually write, and Let’s Kill Hitler has more of both the good and bad points of his tenure so far than any other story.

Moffat is very, very good at plot, and at stringing together effective set-pieces. In this story we move from creating a crop circle to a kidnapping to a shape-changing robot to an encounter with Hitler to a shock reveal about one character’s identity in the first few minutes of the show, and yet unlike Davies’ stories, it all holds together. People have comprehensible motivations, and act on them. Everything follows neatly from everything before. The plot works, and it works even though the number of ideas in it really demands a whole series to itself.

And Smith is revelatory as the Doctor. The Eleventh Doctor has been very badly characterised on the writing side of the show, to the extent that I sometimes wonder if Lawrence Miles is right about Moffat. The Sixth Doctor has rather unfairly been described as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person is like’. The Eleventh Doctor, with his casual massacres but intense focus on individuals, could easily be described as an unpleasant person’s idea of what a nice person is like. However, unlike Miles, I’m willing to accept that this is just an occasional failure in Moffat’s writing ability (mostly because, coming from sitcom, he can’t resist going for a good line even if it destroys the character) rather than a permanent failure in his moral compass.

But Smith has managed to hold this characterisation together and still make it convincing as a portrayal of a hero. Just look at the scene where he meets Hitler, the micro-changes to his expression from puzzlement to horror to anger to triumph. Smith’s Doctor will probably never be considered one of the great Doctors, but he’s easily one of the two or three best actors to play the role, up there with Peter Davison (another great actor cast too young and let down by weak scripts) and Patrick Troughton.

Even the single biggest criticism I’ve seen made of the episode, that it introduces a hitherto-unseen closest friend of Amy and Rory who just happens to have huge importance to the overall story, is something I can forgive, because I strongly suspect Moffat will provide an explanation for this further down the road. Moffat is normally so good at placing Chekov’s gun that there simply has to be a reason he didn’t place this one earlier.

So on to the bad.

Firstly, the character of River Song (and that name, to a Beach Boys fan like myself, will always irritate, conjuring up as it does other, rather better, associations) is a strong female character. Unfortunately, she is one in the Kate Beaton sense.

Melody Pond with a gun

A lot of people have been saying they were surprised by the big reveal that Mels is River Song, because they found Mels irritating. But River Song herself, for all that we’re meant to find her charming, sexy, funny and so on (and we do, to an extent, thanks largely to Alex Kingston’s performance), is a gun-obsessed, violent, criminally reckless narcissist, just like Mels. Hearing the line “I’m a psychopath, I’m not rude” was a huge relief for me, at least, because it showed that Moffat is at least aware of this. But that psychopathy is not limited to this episode, but has been there in every appearance of the character I’ve seen.

River Song with two guns

Song’s characterisation seems to be symptomatic of a deeper misogyny in Moffat’s writing (as opposed, one presumes, to the man himself, who appears to be a perfectly nice man). Not only do we have the Doctor ‘explaining’ her behaviour with ‘she’s a woman’, but later she gives up her lives for the male lead of the show and, as Strange Complex points out, makes her whole career choice not out of intellectual engagement with the subject but simply as a way to track down the Doctor again.

However, the reaction of the Numskull Wiesenthals to her was still a little harsh. These are people going through time and space hunting down the worst war criminals of history, they’re in a room with Adolf Hitler, and they decide instead to go after River Song. Now, admittedly, her habit of saying “Spoilers, sweetie” is irritating, but I do think they need to sort their priorities out.

Of course, they also reveal in an aside what everyone had already guessed four months ago, that Song was the person who killed the Doctor in the first episode, but still, to actually say that one murder is worse than Hitler’s is to utterly trivialise several of the most appaling events in the whole of human history, and events that are within living memory, at that.

And it’s not as if the story needed Hitler, except as a way to have a big tease at the end of the first half of the series. The story, rather surprisingly, doesn’t deal at all with the consequences of trying to interfere with history – there’s no “Have I the right?” or “You cannot change history, not one line” here, they just push Hitler into a cupboard and leave him there, because they’re bored with that now and want to get on with the rest of the story. I can understand the reasoning behind treating Hitler in this way, if you need to have Hitler in the story at all, but the story wouldn’t have lost anything without him, and the removal of that element would have given the rest of the story room to breathe.

And finally there’s the fact that the Doctor gets killed again – for the third time in the last ten episodes. Between this, Rory’s repeated deaths (I think he’s died at least five times, but I stopped counting) and Amy’s death (I think she’s only died the once, so she’s due another any time now), new Who is making 90s X-Men seem like a very model of restraint. Everyone knows that the only characters who seemingly die and then come back again (without regenerating) are Davros and the Master.

At this point, the show is no longer dealing with suspension of disbelief, or with actions that even have the possibility of consequences, or with believable characters. Rather what Moffat is doing is somewhere between Duck Amuck and a game of chess, using the cartoony violence to reveal to us some aspects of his overall plan (a plan which we can’t be sure even exists in his head, rather than being improvised), with the characters being his pawns. He seems, for the most part, to be playing fair with the audience – other than the magic wand ‘sonic screwdriver’ he uses very few unfair solutions, so it can be a fun intellectual exercise to try and work things out before the reveal.

But increasingly, these stories are about nothing other than themselves, and there’s a very real danger that the lack of consequences for anything will not only eventually drive away the audience, but break the character for further writers. One of the strengths of ‘classic’ Doctor Who was that characters could, and did, die at quite an alarming rate, and even the Doctor himself was not invulnerable – regeneration might not quite be death, but the character Sylvester McCoy played was very different from Colin Baker was very different from Peter Davison, so in some sense that version of the Doctor did ‘die’ permanently. This refusal to actually let death mean anything may, in the end, be the death of the show.

21 Responses to “Doctor Who Season 6B: Let’s Kill Hitler”

  1. Yes, I Do Still Write… « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] In fact I’ve written a look at last week’s Doctor Who for the Mindless Ones. Rate this: Share this:StumbleUponDiggEmailPrintRedditFacebookTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  2. Anonymous Says:

    It’s a shame that a great many of this season’s episodes are so self-important and dull. The first two showed such promise.
    A script by the Grand Moff used to be a quality guarantee. At this point I’d almost prefer ignoring the mistakes of a decisively bad showrunner to wading through these hit-or-miss seasons. At least then I’d know when not to watch.
    Do you suppose someone else could be calling the shots, somehow? Is there a great deal of editorial interference? Or has the strain of plotting out long-term story arcs broken our boy’s ability to write a compelling story?
    Who knows.

  3. Wesley Says:

    Like you, I have issues with the Davies era of the show (not the least of which is that David Tennant never felt like the Doctor to me). It’s a bit odd, then, that I kept watching through the Davies/Tennant years, and only now is my interest starting to flag. I think you identify the biggest problem when you observe that Doctor Who is now primarily about itself. (This episode being a perfect, and particularly morally dubious, example: it raises difficult questions and then strolls right past them, whistling.) The Moffatt era’s main concerns are Amy and Rory’s convoluted family situation, and something carried over from Davies: the Doctor’s status as a galactic celebrity-superhero.

    I often suspect that last part has something to do with the fact that the series has for years now been written mostly by people who’ve been fans since childhood. There’s an assumption that the Doctor is the most wonderful and special individual in the universe, and that no one (including the audience) needs to be shown how great he is–it’s something they already know, as though the Doctor is their childhood hero, too. There’s a strange recurring pattern in Moffatt’s stories of women becoming obsessed with the Doctor after very brief meetings, which only makes sense if you assume that, like Moffatt, they’ve caught a 25-minute episode and become fans.

    I’m less impressed than you with Moffatt’s plotting, mostly because I don’t always find his characters’ motivations comprehensible. (Why does the Doctor want Rory to dress up as a gladiator to invade Demons Run? Why can’t Amy come up with a way to contact the Doctor that doesn’t involve crop damage?) In particular, I’m finding Amy increasingly opaque. (I recently watched “The Ark” and “The Gunfighters” after the DVDs were released in quick succession, and I realized that Amy sort of reminds me of the first Doctor’s companion Dodo, in that the character who appears on screen is much weirder than the one the scriptwriters probably thought they were writing.)

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Interesting take, Andrew. You know, I think, that I am much more enthusiastic about Moffat-era Who than you are, but your criticisms are not groundless.

    That said, I could pick on a couple of specifics …

    I don’t think the robot assassin pilots did say that River was a worse war criminal than Hitler: as I recall, they aborted the kill-Hitler mission before River turned up, on realising that they were too early in the timestream, and then latched onto River as a substitute target.

    And I don’t see any mysogeny in one character sacrificing her life for another. It’s a classic theme in literature, whether woman sacrificing for a woman, vice versa, or man for man/woman for woman. A sacrifice is a noble thing, and miring it in gender politics seems like an ignoble response.

    In the same vein, River’s choice of an archeology career as a means to find the Doctor is perfectly of a piece with Captain Jack’s choosing to hang around Cardiff for a century waiting for the Doctor to crop up again. It’s apparent that the post-2005 Doctor inspires this kind of loyalty in lots of people, both male and female. (Whether the character merits this is another question, but credible or not it’s an equal-opportunity obsession).

    What bothers me most is the sense that actions may be evading their consequences. I have repeatedly whined about this characteristic in Torchwood but generally considered Who much better on that score. If that’s being eroded, it’s a very bad trend. But I am fairly hopeful that Moffat will tie it all together and that no-one will have got away with anything by the end of the series.


    Do not read this if you’ve not yet seen Seasons 5 and 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    One of the great sequences in Buffy was when her mother died of natural causes mid-way through Season 5, and there was nothing to be done about it. I’ve never seen a TV or film death so final. And when Buffy herself returned from death at the start of Season 6, it was made clear that this achieved only at a very great cost — how great became fully towards the end of that season.

    The question is whether Doctor Who can and will walk that path. Moffat has deliberately written himself into a very solid dead-end with the Doctor’s death at the start of the season — yes, it’s really him, no it’s not a clone or Flesh, no he can’t regenerate, even the body has been destroyed. To cut off so many escape routes, so deliberately, tells us that something more than With One Bound Jack Was Free is in the air. What will it be? I don’t know. Will it make sense? I trust Moffat that it will. But will it have consequences? I really hope so.

  5. Tex Fatalo Says:

    An excellent post. My biggest problem is that Amy and Rory’s only child is getting tortured and conditioned to eventually become a murderer and then spend her life having a fling and threesomes with the Doctor(s) and locked in The Storm Cage and Amy and Rory seem not particularly bothered. I dont have children myself, but I am led to believe you develop some kind of affection for the mewling little organ sacks. Doctor Who is becoming increasingly difficult to defend in the pub, and most of my converts are dropping like flys. Moffat era still beat davies era in my game of Doctor Who Top Trumps though. That said, I dont hold out much hope for the rest of this series, nor the future if you believe the ditherings on “Feeding Drool” who suggest Mark Gattiss as a soon to be show runner (it is utter speculation). Last weeks episode was awful and made little sense, once again only Matt Smiths excelent acting chops navigated the pathetic dialouge and boring premise succesfully.

  6. Zom Says:

    My biggest problem is that Amy and Rory’s only child is getting tortured and conditioned to eventually become a murderer and then spend her life having a fling and threesomes with the Doctor(s) and locked in The Storm Cage and Amy and Rory seem not particularly bothered.

    Glad to see that’s bothering someone else. As the owner of a mewling organ sack, I’m sorta awestruck by how much A&R don’t appear to give a shit.

  7. Carey Says:

    “But increasingly, these stories are about nothing other than themselves”

    While I agree that Moffat’s stories are obsessed with metafiction and exploring the mechanics of storytelling itself, I have to ask why this is seen as a bad thing? While I am not saying he is as good a writer as them (although neither am I saying he is worse), does this make the works of Dennis Potter, Borges or Grant Morrison equally dismissible as intellectual exercises? The thing that provides the all important emotional connection for me in Moffat’s stories to alleviate the coldness metafiction can bring, is the exploration of parenthood and neglected children. From the identity of The Empty Child; to The Girl In The Fireplace’s role from birth as the perfect courtesan; to a dying girl encoded into the biggest computer ever designed missing only one thing, friends; to Amelia Pond and her absent parents, and a life made worse, not better, by her imaginary childhood friend; to her daughter who has become so embedded in the very text of their lives that they cannot rescue her from an abusive childhood at the hands of that imaginary friend’s enemies, all these things give a heart to Moffat’s stories.

    I sometimes feel that Moffat’s intricate plotting seems to obscure so much else in Moffat’s writing and it very much reminds me of Grant Morrison’s writing: loads of ideas, a fascination with the art of storytelling, but an emotional core that makes the viewer/reader care. After all, didn’t death mean so much in Morrison’s world that Buddy Baker’s family were brought back by magic?

    Finally, for those saying Amy and Rory seem not to be bothered by their daughter’s fate: as well as what I wrote above it has to also be said that the story has yet to come to an end.

  8. Zom Says:

    This is true

  9. Marc Says:

    “There’s an assumption that the Doctor is the most wonderful and special individual in the universe, and that no one (including the audience) needs to be shown how great he is–it’s something they already know, as though the Doctor is their childhood hero, too.”

    Every word of this is true, yet it also overlooks another element that makes the Davies/Moffat Dr. Who so frustrating. They never show us how great the Doctor is, but they are more than happy to tell us at every available opportunity. The same for their other pet characters like Mary Sue Melody Sue River Song.

    The same for everything in this series, actually. Why try to make your audience feel an emotional reaction when it’s so much easier just to tell them how to feel?

    Dr. Who is far from alone in this, of course; it seems to be a common feature in a lot of geek culture, which wants to strive for the emotional heft and thematic depth of Real Art but so frequently doesn’t want to do the work required to earn them. Dictating your audience’s reactions in bullet-pointed dialogue is the easy way out.

    Funny that a subculture which prides itself on its intellect tends to have so little respect for its audience’s ability to follow a story. And that its audience doesn’t seem to mind.

  10. Tex Fatalo Says:

    Yes I suppose Moffat can have his cake and eat it. Not sure I buy it though.

  11. Zig Zag Zig Says:

    “Every word of this is true, yet it also overlooks another element that makes the Davies/Moffat Dr. Who so frustrating. They never show us how great the Doctor is, but they are more than happy to tell us at every available opportunity.”

    I agree. This has been a major problem since the the very beginning of Moffat’s run. I’m thinking specifically of the second last episode of his first season, but I’m sure that are many other prominent examples.

  12. Jason Says:

    “Every word of this is true, yet it also overlooks another element that makes the Davies/Moffat Dr. Who so frustrating. They never show us how great the Doctor is…”

    No? That whole saving-the-world/universe every week doesn’t do it for you, eh?

    “Doctor Who is becoming increasingly difficult to defend in the pub…”

    So stop going to the pub.

  13. Zig Zag Zig Says:

    Perhaps the problem then is that the Doctor’s greatness is mentioned so often? In Davies’ run, the Doctor’s reputation was brought up (‘the oncoming storm’) but only rarely and within appropriate contexts. In Moffat’s run the doctor’s supposed greatness comes up every second episode. Sometimes with the Doctor shouting it out to the heavens! And usually, it seems, only as fan service.

  14. Marc Says:

    Yeah, that makes sense–if you no longer enjoy a show and can’t defend it to your friends, you should cut off contact with your friends and keep the show.

    This is 2011′s ideal consumer of geek culture.

  15. Zom Says:

    Also, saving the universe every week is kinda samey and boring and seriously undermines the whole idea of stakes.

    Mark, I think the fella was joking.

  16. Rev'd '76 Says:

    What’s turned me off most, weirdly, is how Moff’s making the same mistake that the majority of my shows have been making: devoting one whole ep. to knocking up a member of the cast & squatting the sprat out before the end credits.

    I say weirdly b/c I don’t have children of my own, nor do I ever want any. Yet, for whatever reason, I feel the way my favorite trash SF teevee has treated– & continues to treat –maternity stinks.

    LOST’s pre-titlecard shoehorning in of Desmond & Penny’s babe, Charlie. FRINGE’s Fauxlivia having a mad-sci child in the time it takes to microwave a stop’n'shop burrito. And now, the casual, purely plot-motivated impregnation of Amy.

    I realize gestation eats up the hours, but if BREAKING BAD can keep Skyler with child for nearly two seasons & manage storylines based around any- and everything other than her obvious pregnancy… even going so far as to develop her character outwith her status as babymaker (there’s misogyny, and then there’s Misogyny) …then surely the head writer on a time-travel show could swing something that doesn’t reek of impatience and/or lack of faith in an above-audience’s attention span.

    While Moff’s mistake might be among the least crude of the above cited, it’s just as offensive. Add to that, that the brat’s going to grow up to spend two seasons & change pissing in my face with needlessly enigmatic one-liners & crap evasions to straightforward questions and I’m less inclined than ever to soldier on.

  17. Rev'd '76 Says:

    errata: “….surely the head writer on a time-travel show could swing something that doesn’t reek of impatience and/or lack of faith in an above-average audience’s attention span.”

  18. Jason Says:

    “Also, saving the universe every week is kinda samey and boring and seriously undermines the whole idea of stakes.”

    Sure, and I suspect part of the reason a lot of people are bored with the show isn’t due to a decline in the quality of the scripts or whatever but a simple case of diminishing returns. The Doctor wins, he’s already won. Perhaps we’re getting a bit too old for this.

    Within the context of the Doc Who universe however… There are vast evil empires then one day they’re not there anymore because the Doctor showed up. There are cosmic police-forces who are always eight steps behind him, there are orders of time-travellers – the Captain Jack lot, this new “Give ‘em Hell” bunch” – any thousand of whom the Doctor can regularly outthink, outrun… Sure you’d get a bit of a reputation.

  19. Zom Says:

    You would, but it’s hard for me as viewer to *feel* its truth, if that makes any sense

  20. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Doctor Who Season 6B: Night Terrors Says:

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