Matthew Kilburn analyses the Doctor Who episodes `A Good Man Goes to War` and `Let’s Kill Hitler`
‘A Good Man Goes to War’ and ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ are not a two-part story, within whatever strictures now exist in the conventions of Doctor Who writing. They do, however, share themes and symbols which are not only common in Steven Moffat’s writing but have particular meanings in these two episodes. The effect is to suggest the trajectory of the season arc towards ‘The Wedding of River Song’.
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SPOILERS IF YOU GO ANY FURTHER.....
Doctor Who has been claimed as peculiarly `televisual` in the sense that it has always been aware of its use of storytelling conventions developed on the small screen: video effects, music and design conventions maintained between episodes and even across years, the intimacy of a videographic style dependent on portrait shots, for example. In both these episodes crucial events are mediated through monitor screens, real or figurative. The space faring clerics on Demon’s Run are surrounded by screens instilling them with briefings on the Doctor. Later, Madame Kovarian’s confrontation with the Doctor takes place over monitors. Amy watches the Doctor’s unmasking and the subsequent skirmish between clerics and Headless Monks from a window, which, as a rectangle of light in a dark atrium, resembles a cinema screen; but it’s also similar to a modern media centre in a sports stadium. Amy is at once the object of a rescue attempt and also a spectator and commentator on the action; though in her latter role she is less a cipher for passive audience identification, than someone holding on to her potential for independent action in the face of overwhelming force. Amy has become the subject of her own programme – both in terms of her being treated as a battery animal and as another image visible to the armed forces in Demon’s Run. Her window is a fourth wall through which she is compelled to watch. It’s first breached by Lorna Bucket, an interactive viewer redirecting the story with her prayer leaf, and then by Rory, who takes Amy and (apparently) Melody to the other, ‘dark’ side of the screen. The Flesh avatar of Melody dies when Madame Kovarian wakes up the real Melody, appearing to the Flesh Melody as if she was a television projection on a wall.
The Doctor’s error in this context is to have mistaken mastery of the mechanics for control of the technology. Amy was rescued, metaphorically, by taking off the back of the television and lifting her out; but this is Madame Kovarian’s studio. A section of the episode which has been about two worlds on two screens, one on each side of Amy’s window, turns out to be controlled from a third, out of reach of the principals. This subverts an interactive model of authorship – a ‘reality television’ one – with a top-down one, where the participants are dependent upon instructions from the gallery. The appearance of River Song to reveal that she is Melody Pond is analogous to a floor manager coming down to give actors on the studio floor instructions, appropriate given that Madame Kovarian appears to be the director of this arc, and the Doctor has inadvertently become a character in her production. The interactive viewer, Lorna, is killed, and the hero she thinks she knows does not recognise her except as a type.
‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ continues the theme, as it is the story of a time-travelling production crew self-righteously engaged in location reshoots of other people’s work. Their monitor screens look like film cels, complete with perforated edges. History becomes a text where one can make one’s opinions of the villains known to them, leaving them alive but chastised if not necessarily chastened. There is an intriguing and indicting link back to ‘The Waters of Mars’ here, as the (ironically miniaturised) crew of the Teselecta (Tesselactor?) dispose of the ‘little people’ while leaving the leading players alive, having spent a few minutes subjecting them to the Teselecta’s simulation of Hell. The whole enterprise seems inspired by an image of the BBC as a cottage industry suffering from the strain of punching above its weight. The robot is not as smooth as its Hollywood inspirations from the Terminator franchise, creaking and grinding as it moves, while the Teselecta itself is understaffed where the shape-changing technology, the miniaturisation ray and the antibodies are the exceptions to an otherwise low-tech rule. Eventually the crew abandon ship, sabotaged by Amy (a privileged member of the audience allowed to look behind the curtain and expose the crew’s moral code); the parallels with the BBC, at once scaling down its traditional production centre in London in favour of new centres in the ‘nations and regions’ and engaging in more and more international co-productions, are tempting.
The disappearance of the Teselecta crew as the result of Amy’s action asserts her claim to be the narrator of Doctor Who, displacing the crude moralistic plotting of the Justice Department. The Doctor perhaps acknowledges this when he remarks that she has a ‘schedule for everything’, though it’s likely this line has a relevance to the season arc which has yet to be fully understood. We experience the Doctor’s life as Amy views it; it’s only her assumption that he has taken ‘all summer’ to look for Melody, though Amy’s summer is relative only to her and to the first-run viewer. The trajectory of the Doctor’s narrative this season is not precisely known. The significance of viewpoints and experience as a process of creation and record through which an individual takes responsibility in these two episodes is underlined by the Doctor’s gift of the diary to River, from which she will display quasi-authorial foreknowledge of the Doctor’s life. Its TARDIS shape acknowledges Melody-River’s discovery that she is the ‘child of the TARDIS’ and the effect this must have on her conditioning.
You do realise he’s a man, don’t you, ma’am?
The TARDIS diary is already established as a sign of River’s personal obsession with the Doctor, one hitherto presented as enigmatically romantic and increasingly possessive. It now becomes the result of conditioning from infancy: Melody Pond has been trained to be obsessed with the Doctor, or at least with ensuring his death. The diary is of course produced in ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, River (surprised and clearly emotionally affected by the sight of Rory) uses the diary to establish that Rory has come to ask her to join the battle of Demon’s Run, of which she knows, though her adult visit to Demon’s Run at the end of the episode appears to follow Rory’s attempt to persuade her to come with him and the Doctor.
Contrasting ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ with ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, the former shows a River who is able to adopt the moral high ground, pointing out to the Doctor that his methods have inspired a dark legend for which he must take responsibility. This is a River who has cultivated distance from the childhood influences on her life. In contrast the Melody of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is irresponsible, relishing in the label psychopath as if it excuses everything, and playfully enjoying the chaos and fear she inspires. River’s penchant for calling the Doctor ‘My love’ at emotive junctures here becomes sardonic and mocking. The newly regenerated River incarnation of Melody boasts that for her love is a weapon; but those conversations in the flashback ‘A Long Time Ago in Leadworth’ show that she has been brought up well by her unwitting parents after all.
It’s been observed and complained of Steven Moffat that he has an obsession with what the Doctor would no doubt call ‘bad girls’ – dominant and free-spirited women who challenge the fragile self-images of men in authority, but who are nonetheless defined by their relationship to a male protagonist. The Doctor even explains Melody-River’s apparent wish to marry and kill him at once with ‘She’s a woman’, which matches the Doctor’s long-established tendency for flippancy in serious situations, but which disturbingly aligns the Doctor with laddish prejudice. Melody-River’s obsession with weight, clothes and figure arguably plays into a somewhat adolescent male baffled contempt towards female obsession with self-presentation while undermining the headstrong independence and intelligence already established as characteristics of both River and (more selfishly and briefly) of Mels. It’s likely that Melody-River’s immediately post-regeneration exaggerated scattiness and apparent obsession with her sexual attractiveness is intended as a distraction from her plan to assassinate the Doctor, but her femininity becomes bound up with a series of actions which while divorced from Nazi ideology, suggests that she believes, like Cabaret’s Nazis, ‘Tomorrow belongs to me.
River Song is one variant of the type, and Madame Vastra and Jenny are another, vaguely reminiscent of the lesbian couple Miranda and Min in Jekyll. Madame Vastra’s accommodation with Victorian London was enabled by the Doctor’s intervention. The repartee between Vastra and Jenny on the bridge of Demon’s Run is tantalisingly salacious, with Jenny expressing disgust at Vastra’s admiration for a man. Of course, the joke is that Vastra is first established as literally a man-eater, having dined on Jack the Ripper. The tongue joke is reassurance that Moffat is a self-aware writer; the audience is left both with a series of stereotypes with which to label Vastra and Jenny but also a sketch of a genuine and complex relationship. This is perhaps why the characters received such an enthusiastic reception: Doctor Who’s fanbase has always included a large number of people who feel that they are outsiders in mainstream culture, even today when Doctor Who is at its most popular. Vastra and Jenny work because they combine elements of pastiche – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, if written by Sarah Waters – with distinguishing characterization and a depiction of women as action-adventure warrior-strategist-philosophers rather than objects to be rescued.
‘A Good Man Goes to War’ and ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ are more reflective on male gender roles. The Sontarans are already established as an all-male race, perpetuated by cloning, devoted to the pursuit of warfare (culturally a masculine prerogative). Juxtaposing this history with Commander Strax’s introduction on the field of battle, seemingly as a Sontaran warrior, but then to be revealed as a nurse, subverts expectations wonderfully. His career is a mirror of Rory’s; Rory wears the uniform of a centurion and his confidence in this military role is uncertain. Strax presents his nursing role as an extension of Sontaran military efficiency. Sontarans can even lactate thanks to their gene-splicing technology; a female, nurturing biological attribute is rendered male and martial. Strax is self-conscious and presents his nursing activities as a penance. This account is undermined by his death scene, which suggests that his debt to the Doctor is that the Doctor helped him find a way to follow his real vocation. Rory is thereby chided for having thought his nursing profession inferior to being a doctor (or the Doctor) or warfare. Rory is helped to come to terms with his competing personal histories – his Leadworth background and the Roman soldier history devised for his Auton form – as well as his pre-existing anxieties. The Rory of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is much more confident in fulfilling the ‘running and punching’ role of the Ian Chesterton/Harry Sullivan male companion model while continuing to deploy his nursing expertise: he also continues to shadow the healer-educator: warrior dichotomy being explored in the Doctor.
The Melody-River of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ is more problematic, both within the episode and in the wider history of the character. Her independence comes close to flightiness; her psychosis a hysteria which is eventually calmed by the consummation of her relationship with the Doctor, not through killing him but by sharing physical intimacy with him by including him in her ongoing regeneration, at the cost of extensions to her own lifespan. There are echoes of the folk song ‘The Two Magicians’, the blacksmith male chasing the self-willed maiden, both taking various forms until the ‘lusty smith’ successfully has intercourse with her and she is tamed. The Doctor appears to disarm Melody-River as a weapon and remove her magical powers at once. As Lady Summerisle comments, it’s difficult not to see her as becoming less ‘awesome’ by ‘giving up all of her remaining incarnations for the sake of a man’. This is balanced by the gift of the blank diary, the book in which River will write the Doctor’s life. Additionally, the Doctor’s line by River’s hospital bed, ‘No, she won’t. She will be amazing’ as he lays the diary down, is reminiscent of the Doctor’s assessment of Romana’s prospects at the end of Warriors’ Gate: ‘All right? She’ll be superb’, the point where the Doctor recognises that Romana has graduated from his tutelage and is his equal. Even so, River is still the Doctor’s ‘satellite’ in Unfolding Text terminology – appropriate that she attends the Luna University – and while there are twists in River’s story yet to come, it’s understandable that several commentators have found her diminished by this episode.
Epic and war
The BBC 1 England continuity announcer introduced ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ as ‘epic’. Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who had already displayed a tendency towards opening in media res, and Doctor Who has been telling stories where its protagonists face a series of challenges in wildly differentiated locations since at least `The Keys of Marinus`. The difference ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ has with such predecessors is that much of the detail is impressed upon the viewer very quickly. The Doctor assembles the leading figures in his army from individuals whom we’ve never seen him meet before, though Dorium is already known to the viewer from ‘The Pandorica Opens’, and two familiar alien species provide Vastra and Strax. The insertion of Captain Avery and son into the action and the credulity-stretching intervention of Danny Boy and the modified Spitfires both offer points of comparison which the newcomers would not otherwise have. Vastra and Jenny, Strax, and Dorium all have backgrounds which draw from genres the viewer is expected to know – fog-drenched fiction of Victorian transgressions, war stories (depicted as a pseudo-Napoleonic Sharpe with photon beams and the ‘futuristic’ twist that the resourceful officer’s wife on the battlefield character is in fact the president) and gangland drama. Their tales are as open an invitation to the fan fiction writer as an ancient bard would offer his listeners, themselves including other storytellers who would develop new stories about incidental characters. Doctor Who embraces the heroic with humour and juxtapositions of elements which make the new characters immediately memorable; the result provides the most effective world-building Steven Moffat has offered since he took over Doctor Who, all through the power of rapid impressions.
Classical epic, I am told, often requires an invocation to a muse; the demigoddess addressed in the opening of ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ is Melody, foreshadowing the revelations about her part-Time Lord nature and significance later in the episode. Amy identifies Rory as ‘the Lone Centurion’, a heroic epithet providing both unity with the preceding season and mythologizing him as nameless, like the Doctor. Rory’s mission is clearly defined; the Doctor’s less so. As the Doctor tells Madame Kovarian, good men don’t need rules, and Rory doesn’t because he is a hero of pure intent. The Doctor’s outlook is more complex and the full motivation behind his continued involvement in the lives of Amy and Rory remains undisclosed.
During ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, the Doctor finds that he is considered a combatant in a war which he seems not to have known was happening. By ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, this has changed. He is wearing a military coat and there are hints that improvisational tactics have given way to strategy. Amy’s (and the audience’s) summer could have been any duration of time for the Doctor – two centuries, perhaps (though I have my doubts about that). We don’t know what the Doctor was doing when he went travelling without Amy and Rory before ‘The Impossible Astronaut’. The Doctor’s demeanour during the online prequel to ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ suggests that while he was honest about knowing where he would find Melody, he didn’t explain that the circumstances would not be those Amy and Rory hoped for. As the Doctor says in ‘Day of the Moon’ (to River), ‘I have the strangest feeling [the little girl] is going to find us.’ So she does.
Throughout the season, the audience has been led to wonder how much foreknowledge of events the Doctor has. The Doctor who is shot by the eponymous impossible astronaut in Utah is filled with expectations of death; but his earlier self (wearing the same outfit) shows signs that he is more aware of the course of events than he tells Amy and Rory. River, too, has foreknowledge which guides her decisions; her help to the Doctor in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and ‘Day of the Moon’ is qualified by her need to protect her own timeline.
In ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, the dying Doctor gives Melody-River a message which is inaudible to the viewer. This is an obvious echo of the words River whispered in the Doctor’s ear in ‘Silence in the Library’ (a title which has retroactively gained meaning) and which set the Doctor on the path which led him to believe River will be his future lover. The contrast between this expected relationship and the awkwardness with which the Doctor receives River’s kiss at the end of ‘Day of the Moon’ suggests that the whispers are part of a double bluff by which both the Doctor and River set each other along their trajectories, misleading and enlightening each other as they go, with (given the relationship itself existing as a paradox) the distinction between each never being clear. The doubt as to whether they ever have been or will be lovers is now stronger than ever. Indeed, given that River is ‘the child of the TARDIS’, identified in the title of episode four as ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, the Doctor is surely at the least River’s stepfather.
The Teselecta crew identify Melody Pond as a ‘war criminal’ greater than Hitler. I originally defended the use of Nazi Germany as a way of lending scale to Melody-River’s criminality, but others found it difficult to believe Steven Moffat would do something so thoughtlessly facile. The crimes of Hitler and his regime are alluded to indirectly, when Melody-River declares to the soldiers that she was on her way to a gay gypsy barmizvah, but there’s a certain awkwardness to it. Hitler’s Berlin is Melody-River’s town of opportunity, but she holds Nazi ideology to mockery. Instead, it appears to be the blend of luxury and militarism culture to which she is attracted which accords somewhat with the River we have seen before. Her despatch of the soldiers with bullets expelled from her regenerating body is the most disturbing sequence in the episode, because of the coldness of the laugh Alex Kingston gives her. This isn’t just self-preservation, but enjoying what we have no reason to think is not killing.
The criterion which place Melody and Hitler in the same league table of war criminals, though, is that of the Teselecta crew rather than Steven Moffat. They are incompetent time travellers, assuming the power of punishment without justification other than ‘responsibility’, and then not being able to arrive in the right time zone. The audience is never told who they work for. This makes them thin as a threat, in contrast to Madame Kovarian whose background was mysterious but whose power and resources are evident. While the contrast with the efficient war machine of ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ was surely intended, the Teselecta and its crew ultimately appear too ineffective, and their security system difficult to believe in; the pace isn’t quick enough for us not to notice.
‘A Good Man Goes to War’ and ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ seem to have been conceived as two sides of the same coin. Madame Kovarian’s party intend to intervene in history, to eliminate the greatest threat to their beliefs, the Doctor; they seem to have been manipulating humanity for centuries. The actions of the Doctor, Rory and their allies range across time and space before being concentrated at one focal point, where most of the action takes place, behind the enemy’s lines; but the Doctor is unwittingly a character in a play within a play, written by someone else. ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ identifies the enemy as the Silence, but they seem to be absent from events apart from Melody-River. We go from a tale of massed armies to a confrontation of individuals. The people who intervene in history are not threats but comic relief.
Steven Moffat once described Doctor Who as drama for a light entertainment slot. Both ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ and ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ are most successful from that perspective. Both work tremendously well as a series of sketches. The uniformity of the Cybermen helps turn them into the straight men of a viciously explosive visual gag. The effect, ultimately, is tragic – the joke is on the Doctor, and especially on Amy and Rory. The Doctor’s allies are all presented as absurd in their own situations, before they can become heroic.
In ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, Mels’s arrival in the cornfield is a well-executed self-contained reintroduction to the Doctor’s lifestyle which forces the pace and helps the episode establish a momentum which it maintains for about the first twenty-five minutes. The Leadworth flashback was a bewildering change of pace, but it was fun to see the characters at earlier stages in their lives and see how Mels brings Amy and Rory together. The Doctor’s confrontation with Hitler – ‘That’s right, Adolf. The British are coming!’ – recalls Colin Welland’s infamous declaration at the Oscars in 1982 but also plays with audience perceptions of the Doctor’s Britishness, toying with the idea the Doctor is a character in a war comic; the action-adventure scenario which ensues climaxes not in a shoot-out or an explosion, but with a disempowered Hitler being bundled in a cupboard. It would be impossible for Hitler to be the buffoon of Addie and Hermy and its kind, and he does not speak in the theatrical-German accented English of ‘Allo ‘Allo! but he is a ‘lousy shot’, fatally injuring Mels in the process, and his powers of oratory are distinctly absent. The post-regenerative Melody-River is a broad but finely-tuned performance by Alex Kingston, picking up on Nina Toussaint-White’s mannerisms and adding a touch of adolescent brusqueness echoing her time on Grange Hill as well as an aggressive seductiveness of which Mrs Robinson could only dream. As recently pointed out by David Adams on the Facebook page for the fanzine FANWNAK, the whole River arc is seeded with jokes based on The Graduate, even down to the religious order which has formed her.
Unfortunately ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, while presenting some devastating set-pieces, frustratingly lacks both plausibility and resolution. The antibodies on the Teselecta are blackly comic but they don’t complement the flat and boring crew well. Melody-River’s gunpoint conversion of the restaurant into a free clothes emporium is both funny and frightening, but she, the Teselecta and the Doctor have the place to themselves for too long – not even a single nervous Nazi comes in to disturb them.
Most disturbingly, after the careful writing of the false rescue of Melody in ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ and the concentrated depiction of anger and loss by Karen Gillan, ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ doesn’t present a satisfying sequel. Amy and Rory appear unrealistically reconciled to losing their daughter. As Amy said in the online prequel, even though they know she grows up to be River, Amy and Rory want to bring her up, and Mels’s ‘You got to raise me after all’ is surely a slap in the face to her parents. The psychiatric drugs are good in the TARDIS. This being said, the possibility that by the end of the series Amy and Rory will have their baby back must still be an open one.
The late restructuring of the series was probably a factor in toning down this element in the arc. The absence of any mention of Melody, the emphasis on ‘having adventures’ and the line ‘in the flesh’ at the end of ‘Night Terrors’ all seemed to speak to the episode’s original intended place as episode four. Any mention of flesh or Flesh from the Doctor would surely have been insensitive and led to Amy and Rory storming off.
‘A Good Man Goes to War’ is the superior episode of the two, with ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ much more uneven. A consideration of the consequences of intervening in history is set up, but its resolution is so quiet as for many viewers to have lost the thread amidst the sound and fury of Melody Pond discovering her River-self. As the first Doctor might have gone on to say, you cannot change history, but it can change you. How far River has been reshaped by the events of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ will presumably be disclosed at her wedding.