Sunday, 28 August 2011

DOCTOR WHO: 'LET’S KILL HITLER'

Anyone expecting to see the second part of ‘Downtown Scene’ here, it is showing up soon, honest!


Okay, Hitler...

It’s been a longstanding tradition of ’Doctor Who’ that no Nazis appear, let alone their head honcho. (Note to pedants: Okay they turned up in an old ’TV Action’ strip, but never the actual show.) This was even kept up in the recent ’Victory of the Daleks’ - for all else it got wrong, it carefully showed Nazis only at a distance and in planes, leaving them as no more than their insignia.

Which of course it had to. As the name might suggest, that episode starred Daleks and (as with so many of the Doctor’s foes) Daleks are stand-ins for Nazis. And showing stand-ins or symbols for something alongside the thing itself would be odd, strange, wrenching. It would be like a hardcore porn film suddenly dissolving into waves lapping on the shore. (Disclaimer: Porn films do not do this, insofar as I am aware. I am willing to go and research this if you are willing to wait.)

It’s a slightly less longstanding series tradition that the Doctor doesn’t hang out with big historical figures all that much. He’s always bragging about chucking apples onto Newton’s head and the like, but all that happens conveniently off-screen. They did appear in the early First Doctor days, but it normally led to rather stiff and undynamic stories, like touring a waxwork museum. Besides, the Doctor instinctively sides with – and therefore gravitates to – the little people.

This is a longstanding tradition which the revived show broke in it’s third episode. In Sergeant Wilson’s immortal words, I have not always thought that wise. If ’Victory of the Daleks’ hides it’s Nazis, it has no such qualms about Churchill. You can see the way the figures work differently in the different eras. When, for example, Napoleon shows up in ’Reign of Terror’ he stands there like an irrefutable historical fact, around which everyone else must arrange themselves. Consequently he doesn’t actually do much, he’s more like a statue of Napoleon than a character. But Churchill is the cigar, the hat, the voice. He’s not a character or statue, he’s an impersonation of Churchill. (And his summoning of the Doctor is wrong on... oh, I grumbled about all that already.)

And Hitler here is even more an impersonation of Hitler than Churchill was of Churchill. When he’s called Hitler, it’s not in the way you would call Hitler Hitler. It’s in the way you would call some annoying petty bureaucrat Hitler. I was reminded of Grant Morrison’s comment over his ’New Adventures of Hitler’, that he had always found it hard to tell Hitler from Charlie Chaplin, that they both seemed just clowns to him. (Similarly, ’Cabaret’ is notably referenced more times than any actual war film.)

Perhaps that’s just a symptom of our times. The recent film ’X-Men: First Class’ was in many ways similar. Both use Nazis as a kind of default absolute evil which the characters have to respond to. How far would you be willing to go to see them punished? But taking evil as an absolute is very close to taking it as a given, as a fixture. And I suspect the more we see bad stuff as That Stuff Over There, the easier it grows beneath our feet.


However, the whole thing is then taken up a notch by forgetting all about him. He’s the target for two teams, who both immediately switch to River. In fact, the sole purpose of showing him is to tell us “River’s worse.” (Presumably he’s still where they left him, like that pirate extra in ’Curse of the Hollywood Ripoff’. He must be pretty peeved; one minute he’s annexing the Sudetenland, the next he can’t get out of a cupboard.) The ultimate symbol of evil for our parent’s generation, and we leave his YouTube video unloaded while we end up clicking on something else. “Let’s punish Hitler for his war crimes... wait, what was it we were doing again?”


Despite this shift, the schema remains pretty much the same to ’X-Men.’ The shrunken cops of the Justice Department take on the Magneto role of insisting on implementing punishment, their pursuing, shape-shifting, time-travelling robot a cross between Masquerade and Terminator. The Doctor is (of course) more of a Professor X, who wants above all to see River redeemed.

Hence of course the emphasis on Mels as something between a hyperactive child and a juvenile delinquent, not even knowing she’s really River until the Doctor tells her. Not wrong, just misdirected. Which is of course very classic  ’Who.’ (Though notably avoiding the question of how Hitler should be treated.) Plus the ‘antibodies’ inside the robot underlies their perception of evil as an invading virus, while they of course are not without sin and get attacked themselves. (Things seemed a little fuzzy why they could only use time travel to punish and never prevent. Perhaps you’re better just going with the symbolism, where they’re like angels sent to dispatch post-life judgement.)

Moffat is doubtless a clever and inventive writer. When Mels is first retconned in, you cry clumsy. Then it turned out that River has done all this, retconned herself within the story. So we didn’t see her at the wedding because she hadn’t gone back and seeded herself at Leadworth Infants yet. ’Simpsons’ fans may follow if I say I thought we were being sold a Poochie, but were really getting Roy.

But (and yes, I’ve said this before), does it all have to be so rushed? Is Moffat’s time dial stuck on fast forward? Within two episodes River is born, trained to become a weapon, let loose on her target, regenerates and redeems herself. No wonder she needs a lie down by the end. As there’s little doubt which side she will fall on, everything actually depends on the strength of the emotional pitch. Maybe it would have had more of that, had her fall into evil and rebound out again taken longer than thirty minutes. (“I’m baaaaaad! No wait, better now!”) Similarly, the Justice Department side of the debate is reduced to a mere plot function, something for the Doctor to over-rule. ("I'd ask you who you think you are, but the answer is pretty obvious.")

What would the old show look like if run at this speed? Probably something like this...


For this second half of the season, the same rules apply. Life is short and episodes which are merely more crap TV shall pass without comment here. Time is instead reserved for more interesting episodes, including (for want of a better term) anything ‘interestingly bad.’ If I do talk about the next episode it will be late anyway, as I’ll be up in London seeing Arthur Darvill in ‘Dr Faustus’.

3 comments:

  1. Pretty sure the Numskulls in the robot said they couldn't kill Hitler because it was too early. I assumed they'd return in 1945 and take him from the Bunker. Then, once it was established no-one was going to kill Hitler, he wasn't relevant anymore.

    Works for me.

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  2. But if they can't change history why can they go after River before she's killed the Doctor? (He keeps unhelpfully pointing out he's alive!) And where does that restriction come from anyway, if other time travellers (like you-know-Who) don't have to abide by it?

    Overall, I feel the "evil should be punished" idea should have been given some consideration, not automatically over-ruled the way it was. There's a crew aboard the robot, but they're not personalised in any way.

    Or perhaps the robot should have just been a Terminator-like machine, representing remorseless punishment (or something like that). Amy would have needed another 'fix' then, though.

    Or the people aboard the robot are introduced later. First it seems a remorseless machine, later they pop up and argue convincingly for their case. You know, something to make you stop and think a bit.

    Incidentally, on a private e-mail group the mighty Mike Teague (all-round Who head) pointed out that a Sylvester McCoy episode, 'Silver Nemesis', featured neo-Nazis.

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  3. The more I think about it... the illo I've clipped above, where the Doctor figures out there's little people aboard the robot, that should be the point they're introduced.

    And from there we should learn a bit about them. Maybe they're all volunteers who survived massacres and atrocities caused by dictators or psychopaths. Let them mount at least some kind of semi-convincing argument about how society needs punishment to function. You know, give them some edge!

    As it is, it's fairly pointless introducing them as separate to the robot as they're pretty much extensions of it anyway.

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