I wasn’t going to write up thoughts on last night’s “Doctor Who,” since others I know have already done so quite ably. But there’s a hurricane/tropical storm bearing down on Boston as I type this. And rather than nash my hands together and wish for Brick Tamland to deliver the weather to me instead of the doom-and-gloom brigade currently doing so, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on “Let’s Kill Hitler”
Here’s the thing: trying to get a sense of where this is all going is pretty much fruitless at this point. So big prognostication will have to wait. Realizing The Silence is a religious order versus a race illuminates the overall struggle this season, but so much of this hour consisted of vague prophecies and ominous, impenetrable conundrums. What’s the oldest question of all, hidden in plain sight? My best guess at this moment is “Who let the dogs out?” Other than that, I have nothing at this moment.
But this hour wasn’t so much about answering questions so much as settling some emotional beats, and it’s here where the hour slightly failed for me. “A Good Man Goes to War” set up a potentially epic journey that nonetheless had a central paradox at its heart: how were we to feel about a manic race to save River Song when we know that she survives her kidnapping by The Silence? Rather than make the back half of this season a weekly journey ever so much closer to locating the child, Stephen Moffat instead skipped not only that search, but also any chance of Amy and Rory actually raising their own child. It’s a curious choice that’s clever (in that they in a way “raised” her in the guise of Mels) but robbed the show of a lot of emotional heft.
Then again, I will confess that nearly every attempt on my part to figure out River Song’s place in the overall story of the show gives me a seriously bloody nose. The timey-wimeyness of the show can produce oodles of great fun, but also offers a lot of chances for slight-of-hand trickery that stands in for emotional payoff. Removing all of River’s regenerations helps explain her death in “The Forest of the Dead,” but her choice in this episode felt more like closing a narrative loop rather than making a character choice.
That Moffat packs his episodes with more story than a typical season of most sci-fi shows is fantastic, but getting that balancing act correct is a tight wire act that he doesn’t always nail. Having a three-season arc of a brainwashed River occasionally stopping by to try and kill The Doctor would have gotten old. But a single episode not only to wrap of the mystery of the missing child, but turn off River’s brainwashing as well? It all felt rushed, almost as if the show didn’t want the burden of what it had established and sloughed it off as quickly as possible. Watching an episode of “Doctor Who” often feels exhilarating in the moment, but can feel a little empty in the aftermath.
At this point, River Song is on the cusp of being a burden to the show. She’s almost at the point of being a figure like Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet,” a figure that bewitches the author to the point of undermining the main purpose of the story. There’s a famous quote about how Shakespeare claimed he had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed the play. Well, technically, River is already dead, but she’ll live on far into the Moffat-led era of “Who.” At this point, his writerly crush on River makes the one that the creators of “Smallville” had on Lana Lang seem downright Puritan. It’s fantastic that Moffat found a character that excites his imagination. But when the energy invested into her backstory supercedes that of the “Doctor Who” narrative as a whole, well, that becomes problematic.
None of this is a slam on Alex Kingston, who clearly relishes the opportunity to play Song and all her iterations. Likewise, Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill have developed such an affinity for their characters that watching them even in subpar episodes is a treat. But the latter three got short shrift in this hour, with Kingston’s Song getting so much of the attention that moments that should have mattered gravely to the other three were simply lost in the narrative noise. Much like the titular Nazi criminal, those three were tossed into the cupboard early on (metaphorically speaking, of course) and left to sit on the wings when they should have been equal players on the stage.
As someone who values continuity as a prime example of how television can do things no other popular arts medium can, it’s odd to be hoping for more stand-alone episodes in the back half of this series. Skipping over Amy and Rory’s chance to raise River is a weird choice, one hopefully made to pay off later rather than be ignored completely. I hope for emotional, not narrative, continuity in the weeks to come, as the Doctor and his companions deal with the fallout from “Let’s Kill Hitler” more effectively than they did in this particular hour. The timey-wimey stuff is fun, but without a beating heart (or two, in the case of The Doctor), it’s empty entertainment. I have faith that heart will return, but it was too faint in last night’s return to truly satisfy.