|In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as a duplicate of|
Amy Pond’s infant daughter made out of synthetic flesh that
is sentient and has an identity but that is going to be callously
murdered in Amy’s arms just to hammer home the horrific
abuse that she has suffered and that the Doctor fails to understand
until River shows him how he has been blind.
It’s August 27th, 2011. Wretch 32 is at number one with “Don’t Go,” with Emelie Sand, Maroon 5, and Christina Perri also charting. In news since a good man went to war, the President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, fled to Saudi Arabia to receive medical treatment for injuries sustained during an attack by protesters upon the Presidential Palace. The Arab Spring also progressively heated up into the Syrian Civil War, and South Sudan becames a country. In tremendously symbolic news, the Space Shuttle program ended with STS-135, commanded by Christopher Ferguson. Anders Breivik did unimaginably terrible things. And Muammar Gaddafi’s government effectively falls in Libya the week this story airs.
While on television, Doctor Who is back after its summer break with the provocatively titled Let’s Kill Hitler. It is, unfortunately, here that we must abandon any pretense that Doctor Who under Steven Moffat can be said to consistently work. By any measure, this is clearly where it goes off the rails. The reasons for this are, on the whole, complex. First and foremost, the series seems to have turned into a production nightmare at this point. Moffat, as has been well documented at this point, simply turned out not to be as fast a writer as Russell T Davies was, and found overseeing fourteen episodes of Doctor Who and three double-length episodes of Sherlock while writing six of the Doctor Whos and a Sherlock (or two) to be more than he could manage while actually ever seeing his children or breathing. It’s an understandable problem – the schedule Davies maintained was inhuman, as The Writer’s Tale amply demonstrates, and the solution come to after the botched production of this season – slowing down and not trying to maintain quite as mad a production schedule for Moffat’s two hit shows – was a sound one.
And so Let’s Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song were the last two episodes shot for Season Six, and even still the scripts were appallingly late – to the point where they had to start preproduction without scripts in hand. What was shot were in effect Moffat’s first drafts. This introduces a degree of sloppiness to proceedings – a word that is a problematic bedfellow for Moffat’s puzzle box complexity. Last season Moffat made an entire reveal out of a fake production gaffe. This season, even if there are no howling continuity errors, there’s a constant sense that Moffat is making it up as he goes along.
This is exacerbated by the basic twist implicit in Let’s Kill Hitler. There is a basic grammar to a season of Doctor Who that had, by this point, been well-established. Season Five pushes against that grammar, but it does so from the inside. Season Six, however, detonates that grammar completely in favor of the split season – an approach we already saw proudly displayed when the first half opened with what is by any reasonable measure a season finale, and then end with what is also, by any reasonable measure, a season finale. So it was, paradoxically, thoroughly unexpected when the second half of Season Six opened with a story that is structured exactly how you’d expect a season premiere of Doctor Who to be if you, like the entirety of the United Kingdom, had been watching it since 2005, namely a fairly silly romp.
This is exacerbated by the fact that Moffat, by this point, is playing a hugely high stakes game. This is the resolution to the averted rape-revenge plot of A Good Man Goes to War. The transition from that to a comic tone is one that calls for considerable subtlety, to say the least, such that “let’s do a romantic comedy” is, on the face of it, dangerous. So this is all terribly poorly served by the feeling that Let’s Kill Hitler was a rush job. It’s painfully bad timing – in many ways the worst possible moment for Moffat to lose the plot. But this is not a new problem. One can find many instances of “when bad executions happen to good stories” across the history of Doctor Who. Let us then engage in the usual archeology and attempt to imagine a version of Let’s Kill Hitler that had the balance right.
Let’s first acknowledge the single biggest problem with the A Good Man Goes to War/Let’s Kill Hitler transition, which is immediate plot-based rationale for getting around Amy’s trauma. A Good Man Goes to War ends with the Doctor setting out to address that trauma and repair it. Then, in Let’s Kill Hitler, we are told that he has repaired it. The result is a storyline in which Amy spends very little time actually visibly traumatized by the awful things that have happened to her, to the point where accusations that Moffat is depicting her as not suffering from any trauma. This is troublesome. For one thing, it’s simply not true. Amy is clearly traumatized in A Good Man Goes to War. There’s not a ton of screentime devoted to it, and it’s overshadowed by the Melody/River reveal, but it’s there.
For another, though, there’s a real can of worms here. The entire point of this plot, as we saw last episode, is to subvert the standard rape-revenge plot. Which means, in part, eschewing the trauma porn that makes up so much of that narrative. Fetishizing the adversity and pain that Amy overcomes is still a deeply flawed narrative, and beyond that, one that’s at best questionably appropriate for children. All of which said, this is a good time to talk about the prequel shorts that were released online for several of the episodes this season. The bulk of them are, truth be told, inessential at best and are basically coextensive with trailers. But the prequel for Let’s Kill Hitler is absolutely vital – a slow pan around a seemingly empty TARDIS as Amy leaves an upset message begging to know if the Doctor found Melody and pleading, “I know she’s going to be OK, I know she’ll grow up to be River, but that’s not the point. I don’t want to miss all those years,” before finally revealing the Doctor, standing and listening to the message, haggard and crying. It is in many ways a terribly important scene – one that probably ought not have been relegated to “prequel” status and thus missed by people watching on Netflix and the like. True, there’s no obvious place in the episode to put the scene, but equally, it’s such an important scene in terms of Amy’s emotional arc.
It also helpfully sets up what the story intends to use as the ground on which Amy’s healing is negotiated – the issue of missing her daughter’s childhood. This is what is supposed to be solved via the Mels reveal – that Amy had actually already had all of those moments without knowing it. There are, of course, objections to be had here, up to and including whether the introduction of Mels actually works within the episode, although it’s clear from the way in which the Mels regeneration is played as a comedic beat that it’s meant to be as out of left field as it comes off. (Not to digress too far in this direction, as it ultimately comes down to the crassest sort of reviewing, but I would speculate that the underlying logic of having Mels come out of nowhere is meant to be that time is being rewritten and that it’s not actually until after Demon’s Run that Mels existed in Amy and Rory’s past. This is, however, certainly one of the points where the episode’s lack of precision is in practice a problem.) On the whole, this is a reasonable splitting of the difference, at least in theory. For a show that is increasingly about rewriting time and non-linear storytelling, a flagrant retcon is a perfectly valid act of healing, and more to the point, a sensible one that extends out of what the show is. This is exactly how Doctor Who in particular would be expected to answer the challenge posed by A Good Man Goes to War.
And so what happens is that the story shifts to be something subtly different. What at first appeared to be a story about Amy’s healing instead becomes one about River’s healing, given that we now recognize what happened to her (including all the way back in The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon) as a violation in exactly the same way that Amy’s ordeal was, and that it is thus necessary to heal that damage as well. And that damage proves altogether more immediate, since it consists of Melody being a psychotic killer determined to murder the Doctor and then cause random destruction throughout Germany.
It is at this point that we should turn to an oft-stated and completely wrong assertion about River Song, which is that she is a character defined entirely in terms of the Doctor. It’s easy to see how one could get this impression, especially given the muddiness of Let’s Kill Hitler, which does after all conclude with River becoming an archeologist for the sole purpose of finding the Doctor, thus seemingly defining her entire life in terms of him, but let’s look closer, shall we? For one thing, there’s a basic note of caution to sound here, which is that we are after all talking about a show called Doctor Who, which means that essentially everything is defined in terms of the Doctor. Some amount of that is inevitable. Indeed, it’s a puzzling artifact of the peculiar reception of the Moffat era that nobody ever complains about how Martha’s entire career as a doctor is marginalized in favor of her crush on the Doctor, or about how Donna or, hell, Sarah Jane are defined entirely in terms of the Doctor.
But what is missed by focusing entirely on River’s career choice (and it is worth pointing out the larger systems of oppression involved in the way in which treating “River is defined entirely in terms of the Doctor” and “River’s career is motivated entirely by the Doctor” as equivalent statements, thus equating people with the labor they do in a way with profound and disturbing ideological implications) is that this is a story about how Melody Pond becomes River Song. Which is a process that comes in two steps, neither of which are instigated by the Doctor.
The second of these steps comes when Amy orders the Tesselecta to show River who River is. This is fitting and appropriate – a moment where Amy acts as a mother and, in doing so, both finishes her task of raising River and provides the healing necessary to undo the scars that Madame Kovarian has inflicted. It’s a strong moment that brings a nice symmetry to proceedings given the scene in A Good Man Goes to War in which River provides the same healing for Amy. It’s also notable that Amy, in her child form, serves a crucial function in rescuing the Doctor as the TARDIS voice interface finally concedes the point and declines to be just a voice interface, but instead breaks the fundamental rule set out a few stories earlier and talks to the Doctor, invoking fish fingers and custard to motivate him to try to save people.
This brings us to the first of the steps – the one that effects the most dramatic shift in character for River. Once Amy has successfully shut down the Tesselecta torture ray thing, the Doctor begs River to save her parents, which is, on the whole, a reasonable thing to do, and it’s not a huge shock that she actually does so – a mild softening, perhaps. No, the real change is once the TARDIS materializes inside the Tesselecta and Amy and Rory see River operating it, at which point she says, “I seem to be able to fly her. She showed me how. She taught me. The Doctor says I’m the child of the Tardis. What does he mean?” From this point on, River is a fundamentally different character.
It is worth observing that all of these crucial interactions are ones between women (the TARDIS being very specifically gendered post-Doctor’s Wife). Specifically, they are both maternal interactions – Amy and the TARDIS both step in to heal their child. But the interaction between River and the TARDIS is a stranger thing, especially given that both River and the TARDIS have previously been shown to be extremely libidinous figures. It would be going just a bit too far to suggest that this interaction is sexual, but equally, it’s visibly for femslash what David Tennant and John Simm are for traditional slash. Certainly there is a profound interest in the notion of female spaces here, and in their importance. Everything important that happens in this episode is a product of female spaces, with the male characters repeatedly and pointedly pushed to the margins. Ultimately the best that can be said of the Doctor in this context is that he’s “worth it,” leaving the TARDIS to do the actual work.
This is a powerful statement, especially coming off of the averted rape-revenge story that precedes it. And in many ways this explains the odd turn towards romantic comedy. Because the response to sexualized trauma proposed here is, in effect, joy. And, more to the point, a joy utterly disconnected from the systems of power in which sexualized trauma exists. All joy, pleasure, and healing within this story exists within the spaces of motherhood, of sisterhood, and, if only by trailing implication, in a sapphic space in which masculinity is utterly unnecessary. Look at how Rory is pushed out of Amelia and Mels’s space early in the episode, to the point of it being actually and troublingly bullying in spots, although the story seems to intend that to be light humor. Or, for that matter, Amelia’s wonderfully telling declaration that she “counts as a boy,” a statement that renders actual men delightfully irrelevant.
It is, of course, imperfect, and not just in its haphazard execution, but in its basic conception. As much as this story tries to establish the primacy of female spaces, it is still stuck doing so within the context of a story called Doctor Who. This is a classic case of the carnivalesque – a temporary upending of the normal social conventions that is permissible precisely because it is eventually going to be brought to an end and normal service will be restored. This is an incremental step at best, when what is really needed is the aggressive demolition of the “male lead/female supporting character” model that Doctor Who inherited from The Avengers in 1971 and has stubbornly refused to let go of for any real length of time since.
But equally, it’s a step, and brings us closer to some ineffable still unearned triumph than we’ve ever been before. It’s heartbreakingly frustrating that it comes in such a muddled story. But even here, when the ball is dropped, the underlying alchemy is evident.