...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Day 3891: DOCTOR WHO: Springtime for Hitler


Okay, it's Doctor Woo not Torchhoot so we're going to try to keep UP TO DATE.

But… we've been a BIT busy… writing the 50th Anniversary Special: "The All The Doctors".

Last weekend, Daddy Alex recruited the Villainous Valeyard and here's me auditioning a cast of itty-bitty heroes.

Now, all I need is for someone to buy me a Lego SUPER STAR DESTROYER for that big scene at the end…

Meanwhile, Daddy Richard can get on with doing reviews…

If I can put it like this – and without pejorative – Russell writes soap opera while Moffat writes opera.

I'm returning to the idea that Russell Davies writes "emotion" and Steven Moffat writes "plot". This week I'm thinking that actually they are both very emotional writers, but that Russell concentrates on the very small and human whereas Moffat writes on a grander, heightened, more bombastic scale.

Opera is a medium where it is routine, even conventional, to skip through time and space, conceding months of plot development to the conceit that all the big events happen in the moments that our cast are gathered on stage.

And that's how Moffat writes.

And it's a medium where the actual words that are said are less important than the cadences that are used and the patterns that they make. The rhyming is often cleverer than the meaning.

And that's how Moffat writes.

And in this specific instance, it’s Wagner.

(The Nazi uniforms kind of give it away.)

Seriously, this is a story of gods and mortals and supermen and tiny people and monsters that lurk in shadows, where the fate of worlds turns on a love story between a Valkyrie and a Time Lord. Where emotions leap from hate to love in the twinkling of a love potion or a brainwashing. Frankly, we're out of Hitler's league.

What a terrific entrance for Alex Kingston. Very much capturing the post-regenerative craziness of the Doctor (and his usual urge to check out his new appearance and try on new clothes). And if you think Moffat isn't "quoting" past regeneration stories, then rewatch the scene that "quotes" the high-speed "following the Doctor thinking" from "The Eleventh Hour" (and also "Sherlock").

We'd avoided spoilers so we were kind of blindsided by "Mels" in that we both kind of spotted it and kind of didn't: Alex tells me he was on the brink of saying "can Moffat only write one female character" when sarky gun girl suddenly regenerated into River and he went "oh"; I believe I actually did supply a "Hello Sweetie" as the corvette pulled up in front of the TARDIS, scattering Doctor, Amy and Rory before it. But then so did everyone: we were meant to say, "Oh, it's River," then be put off guard by the shock reveal that, oh, it’s not. And then oh, it is, again!

I didn't find Nina Toussaint-White's Melody as irritating as some people seem to have, mainly because she's got all of about two lines and a flashback montage before Hitler shoots the black woman and summons up the psychotic white lady. If I may channel Rory for a moment, I'm trying not to see this as a metaphor.

I'd be more interested in knowing if Amy and Rory's pasts have been rewritten by their daughter inserting herself into their timeline. Because we've never even heard of this best friend before – and Moffat is often, but not always, quite careful about setting up Chekov's timey-wimey. And Mels herself uses the "time can be rewritten" line.

It's not exactly inconsistent, but the past that we see of Amelia and Mels doesn't entirely gel with the lonely Amelia that we saw in "The Eleventh Hour" either. But then that past has already been rewritten once when the Doctor sealed the crack in Amelia's wall and so her parents and everyone she ever knew were not erased from time.

More inconsistent seemed Amelia's attitude to young Rory, given her later assertion that "my life was so boring until you fell out of the sky". Did she mean it was boring until she found a patsy to casually and half-heartedly torment? And how are we supposed to fit the Amy who thinks Rory is perfect but gay, with the Amy of "The Eleventh Hour" who is denying that he's her boyfriend?

(But then that would be like complaining that Melody/River gleefully references "The Graduate" with her "hello Benjamin" but later in her life – in "The Impossible Astronaut" – hates it when the Doctor refers to her as "Codename Mrs Robinson".)

What was sort of unusual for Moffat was just how many answers were supplied. Most of the episode was in fact exposition, completely filling in Melody Pond's story for us. Almost completely, anyway. We know that there aren't any other regenerations between the little girl in the spacesuit and Mels and the familiar River Song.

There's a bit of a puzzle about how toddler Mels got from 1969 to the 1990s to start growing up with Amy and Rory – either a time jump is involved or, also plausible from this episode, Time Lords (or at least River) can chose to age (or even age backwards), meaning she stayed a toddler until time caught her up with her parents-to-be.

Also, it's not completely impossible that the girl in the spacesuit is a later regeneration rather than just baby Melody ten years later. That is, baby Melody could have grown up controlled by the Silence, gotten shot or otherwise killed and then regenerated who knows how many times before arriving at the spacesuit of "The Impossible Astronaut". But let's keep things simple for the moment and assume there are only the three Melodies.

We also know that she's used up all her remaining regenerations to resurrect the Doctor. In part, that may be to suggest that there's really really no chance of a post-Library River getting up again. But I suspect that it's also to rule out River giving up another regeneration again to save the Doctor from his death on the beach; it's a get out of jail card that's been played and cannot be played again.

(Let's just not get hung up on the mechanics of how Melody can poison the Doctor via his lips with something that she's wearing on her lips to which there is no antidote and not end up dead too. Put it on her lips, fine – and she has time when she nips off to examine her… jodhpurs – but she has to have an antidote in her system. At the very least she ought to find it difficult to talk with the whole of the inside of her mouth sprayed with some kind of non-permeable plastic barrier!)

In some ways the oddest thing, in an episode that was revelling in throwing odd things at us, was the way that Moffat just tossed away the mystery of who gets murdered by River. He's been teasing us with it since "The Time of Angels" but here it's delivered almost "as you know, Bob," style, as though it's exposition we're supposed to know already. It's almost as though Moffat's just given up on the mystery with an "oh, you guessed".

I suppose that it's still possible to confound us, for it not to be Melody in that Impossible Spacesuit at Lake Silencio (Lake Silencio, are you kidding? "Why, Jo, Silencio is Italian for 'Bad Wolf Bay' of course…"). Moffat will almost certainly add some of his "but it's more complicated than that" to the mix. Personally, I'm not sure that there's enough happening in the rest of this series to account for two hundred years of the Doctor's life, so in all likelihood, he's going to turn up on that beach early and bugger up whatever it is that his two hundred years older self is/was/will to have been trying to achieve.

Ah, the joys of trans-temporal tenses – and I've not got to Douglas Adams yet.

Of course, the other clue that Moffat might be offering us is that the Justice Department people identify the TARDIS with Melody Pond. As though the two go together in their databanks. Which suggests that at some point – and you know, possibly post Lake Silencio – River gets to go off in the TARDIS and have her own adventures in time and space. Simon suggests that Moffat has been mutating the series into "The River Song Show"; could he be even closer to the mark than he guesses?

But anyway, what are we to make of the time-travelling, shape-shifting robot full of cross people?

"Is it a Type 103 TARDIS, you've got there?" as the Doctor very nearly said. "No! You're actually all miniaturised inside; I'll have to make a Slitheen joke instead!"

It seems to me slightly borderline whether Steven Moffat simply has so many ideas that he can't help throwing them in or that he uses an endless stream of ingenuity to cover up that he doesn't want to have to develop any of them. They travel through time to punish bad people is a one line pitch not a story. Who are these people? Where do they come from? Why are they doing this? How are they doing this? Should they be doing this? What, in fact, are the consequences of them doing this?

(The nearest we get to consequences here is the scene with the TARDIS voice interface – has he been trying to get her to talk to him again? – where we get some acknowledgement that the Doctor feels guilty for "screwing up" the lives of Rose, Martha, Donna and Amy.)

In a story that is called "Let's Kill Hitler", the possibility that they've buggered up their own history by nabbing the Fuhrer in 1938, before that little matter of the Second World War, isn't even touched upon. Still less the ethical considerations of their actions (short of a little bit of Doctorly scorn).

And that's a shame, because there was definitely the possibility there of showing Melody the rights and wrongs, and the dangers, of messing with the timeline rather than just whispering something to her that leads her to hear the choirs of angels and turn to the light side.

The design of the Tessellector robot was nice – both the effect when it tessellated its form and the submarine-like interior – more of a sketch rather than a genuine set, admittedly, but the darkened lighting and neons made it seem like the Deep Space Nine equivalent of the Star Trek spaceship from the last Christmas special.

Hitler's office too, was rather grand which may have made it slightly more disappointing to see the Nazi restraint salon where most of the climax of the episode takes place.

Oh look, it's the Manchester Suite. Again.

In Douglas Adams, every world in the galaxy has a drink called something sounding like Gin and Tonic. In Babylon 5, every race has a dish that tastes almost exactly like Swedish meatballs. Clearly, in Doctor Who, every civilisation anywhere in time will construct something almost exactly like the Temple of Peace in Cardiff.

And speaking of Douglas Adams, of course we have the Silence as a religious movement rather than a race just like Lawrence Miles' description of "the Enemy" in the Book of the War. Although that pretty much belies everything that was going on in "The Impossible Astronaut"/"The Day of the Moon". Was Joy right and they really are all wearing Star Trek masks? Are they like an intergalactic "Scream" convention where everyone has come as Ghostface? Oh all right, and they're something to do with the ultimate question, presumably to life the universe and everything, the answer to which may or may not be 42.

Douglas' theory was that should anyone ever fully understand what the universe was for – later put explicitly as having both the ultimate question and the ultimate answer (i.e.42) – then it will immediately be destroyed and replaced with something even more confusing. And that this may already have happened. Which indeed it did in "The Big Bang".

However, in context, the question is almost certainly "Doctor Who?"

The Doctor says it himself in this episode. Just after he's drezzzzed for the occasion.

(Again, I'm serious. Remember: "River, you know my name. There's only one time I would tell you that; there's only one time I could" from "Silence in the Library.")

So, what we have in the end is an episode that gives us a lot of the answers but mostly they're answers that we've pretty much guessed already, so it wraps it up in a crazy romp that is half Terminator half Numbskulls and gets Alex Kingston to turn it up to eleven to cover any gaps. And then teases us with a tiny little bit about the other questions that the plot arc has left dangling while we clear up just who River really is and what she's going to do with that lead piping in the ballroom.

Rob Shearman – yes, he wrote "Dalek", and to be fair has a reputation for using fiction in conversation – has described his own writing as "just trying to get to the next gag", and there's a sense that Moffat may indeed be doing the same thing, stringing clever idea after clever idea as he goes. The problem is not that the gags may not work along the way – there's always another one along in a minute – but that in the end you really need to come to a punchline.

"Let's Kill Hitler" covered itself very well, but it was really much more about explaining the joke.

Next Time…Mark Gatiss hiding in a child's cupboard. It's not going to get more scary than that is it. Unless he starts doing that "acting" thing he does. We're not going to see what little boys are made of, but the Doctor will be making a house call on some "Night Terrors".



Jennie Rigg said...

Who says there aren't lots of regenerations between the 1969 one and turning into Mels? Clearly the regenerating into a toddler happens by choice at the right point for her to be the right age to become Amy's best friend; just because it happened in New York doesn't mean it's the one we witnessed.

And the teselector thing is addressed in the dialogue of the episode - they say (paraphrase) oh shit we've arrived at the wrong time for Hitler, but never mind, there's Melody Pond.

Tat said...

This simply will not do. Just to pick a simple example, you do not give all your remaining regenerations to save a man you've killed with lipstick AND SNOG HIM WHILE YOU DO IT. The amount of time it would have taken for a reasonably competent editor to point out this and other script idiocies is about as long as the bloated pre-credit sequence. A story has to function as a story and only then worry about the clever-clever details of which jacket the protagonist's wearing when.
And as the date of the lakeside shooting by Delenn is Good Friday, we can assume that the Doctor will be fit and well three days later with no explanation.

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Auntie Jennie,

>"Who says there aren't lots of regenerations between the 1969 one and turning into Mels?"

Well, clearly that's possible… but that's getting into the same logic that says "she's lying about being Melody Pond… she's really Melanie Bush/Mel Gibson/the Rani etc"

Melody has no reason to lie about this to her parents and nothing particularly to gain by it as the information is essentially meaningless to them because Amy and Rory haven't seen the regeneration coda to "The Day of the Moon".

In fact it's a bizarrely clunky thing to say unless you're making a continuity point. So clearly this is the writer speaking directly to the audience to enable us to connect up the dots of Melody/Mels/River's life.

So ultimately the Mister Moffster is saying that there aren't lots of regenerations between 1989 and becoming Mels.

Now, it's not beyond Mr Steven to lie to the audience, but this would not be a "clever lie", because there is no reason to include the line if you want there to be more regenerations.

Oh and it depends on your definition of "lots" but by count she has at most nine, and you can make a case for not more than eight: twelve to start with (yes she does, the TARDIS modelled her Time Lords DNA on the Doctor's) less the two that we see and at least one given up to save the Doc. Arguably she gave up more than one since that's the sense of the scene afterwards.

Millennium Dome said...

>"And the teselector thing is addressed in the dialogue of the episode"

No, the fact of them getting the date wrong is addressed, but the much more important consequences are completely ignored. They do not learn from their error; in fact they go on to make exactly the same mistake again: they "send Melody to hell" before she has killed the Doctor. Which we are given to understand will punch a sizeable whole in the universe.

These people are extremely powerful, extremely dangerous and extremely stupid. And the episode treats them as a joke rather than a threat to causality at least as big as the exploding TARDIS that got a whole series of gravitas last year.

Is that a clever joke or a writer who's just not thinking?

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Tat,

>"A story has to function as a story and only then worry about the clever-clever details of which jacket the protagonist's wearing when."

Oh be careful! You're in danger of giving the game away!

It is my concern that the Grand Moff is sacrificing story for spectacle. The assumption that people watching the show do not expect it to make sense but want to see some memorable imagery is a dangerous and flawed one: sooner or later people will tire of the bread and circuses approach. And I do think that the advent of digital technology that allows you to show almost anything you want to has undermined the show's USP, that the stories had to be smart and clever because the effects could not be.

Jon Blum (and he's usually a stalwart defender of everything the show does) suggested that it would have been more interesting to have Mels regenerate into River, kill the Doctor… and just escape, rather than cramming the "instant redemption" into the same episode. Then you have the interesting (to a certain value of interesting) set up that when River next appears you won’t know if she's future-girlfriend River or psycho-Melody River. We could have had more Mels (if people could have stood that) and more consequences of the Tessellector cocking up Hitler and the timeline going screwy.

And, as you say, we could have used time to develop psycho-Melody River's fascination with this Doctor that she's supposed to kill but who keeps not dying, and who seem to know everything about her… and who is this "River Song" he keeps on about.

Nick Campbell said...

You make a good point about the Tesselecta. Maybe they’re next season’s big story – the line, ‘Time can be rewritten – remember Kennedy?’ suggesting another trip to the US for the production team. But it’s increasingly hard to care, especially when the Doctor doesn’t. How this work, this ‘well, my life and causality hang in the balance but let’s go off and get involved in a few standalone stories and see if anything pops up in the course of events’? This, ‘my daughter’s been abducted and brainwashed and grown up without me, but now she’s turned up again let’s leave her alone in hospital in the far future...’

I think there are so many ingredients in the River Song story to make it the most amazing Doctor Who story. It’s just a shame they’ve been simmering so long they’ve turned to mush. There is zero emotion to any of this storyline, despite everybody being somebody’s lover, daughter, mother, fated victim. I think that might be the aspect of opera that Moffatt misses – or endlessly defers, whichever you like.

I enjoyed it. I can enjoy Resurrection of the Daleks, in which nobody meets anybody and the Doctor waves a handgun around. I can be diverted, I can be suited by a good guest artist or nifty bit of diversion. But mainly I enjoyed Let’s Kill Hitler for something finally happening, less gnomic pronouncement, and the end of this over-cooked story being at last in sight.

Also, some people might describe those ‘ingredients’ as Benny Summerfield, Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart and Iris Wildthyme, but I suppose there’s nothing new under the sun...

Rankersbo said...

While I don't think there are lots of incarnations before Mels, it's not nailed down that Mels is the second Melody, or even the girl in the alley is the 1st Melody.

It's as subjective to assume that Mels is no 2 and River No 3 at this stage as it is to speculate that there were other incarnations.

I do agree that it seemed odd that the Tesselator pulled out of punishing Hitler because it was too early in his timestream, but went after Melody who is also well before the end of her timestream.

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Nick,

I can't just write "overcooked mush" as a review – no one would think I'm witty and erudite.

But you're right.

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Rankersbo

>" While I don't think there are lots of incarnations before Mels, it's not nailed down that Mels is the second Melody, or even the girl in the alley is the 1st Melody."

That's fair enough.

I would say that the evidence points to girl in spacesuit probably regenerating into Mels and we know Mels regenerates into River, so I think of them as the n'th, n+1'th and n+2'th Melody, but as you say the possibility of earlier regenerations is not addressed.

(Indeed, you could say that the little girl in New York saying "I'm dying but I know how to fix that" [or similar] was suggestive that that was not her first regeneration. And perhaps the whole business with the spacesuit points to a failed regeneration induced by the Silence.)

Tat said...

>"A story has to function as a story and only then worry about the clever-clever details of which jacket the protagonist's wearing when."

Oh be careful! You're in danger of giving the game away!

I hope not. I've kept myself in relative purdah about this demi-season (even skipping the Radio Times list of episode titles) but based on what Oor Moffie does, what I'd do and what the differences are I can see that this is being waved in front of us as a Huge Clue, much as the way Amy and Rory keep magically winding up back at Leadworth waiting for the Doctor to get in touch. Moffat is basically a farceur, contorting motivation and coincidence to make the mechanisms run smoothly. Watch 'Chalk' for the processes laid bare. He's also a nerd - which is why he makes such a show of berating us - and thinks that a series has to be bibled and planned from Page One (see what i did there?). If you read Michael Chabon's essay on Conan Doyle you can see why this approach is crippling 'Sherlock' as well as 'Doctor Who'.
Personally, I'd rather his plots were as bonkers and improvised as opera. Even though River Dance keeps impersonating 'Tosca' there is none of the heightened emotion (Auden said opera was a version of life comprising only the moments when you think 'I feel like singing'). And comparing this series to opera risks unflattering comments about la Kingston's matronly girth...

Rankersbo said...

(Indeed, you could say that the little girl in New York saying "I'm dying but I know how to fix that" [or similar] was suggestive that that was not her first regeneration. And perhaps the whole business with the spacesuit points to a failed regeneration induced by the Silence.)

Yes, that was what I thought. I suspect we'll never know unless there's a joke or a plotline to be had from it.