Sunday, 28 August 2011

Let's Leave Hitler Alone


I confess to having problems marshaling my thoughts on the return of Doctor Who.  Briefly, I think the constant twists and turns concerning River Song are becoming far too complex for anyone who can even be remotely considered a casual viewer (The Other Half and I have watched and discussed every episode, and even we have a few blank spots, not helped by the gap between season halves), and whilst I don't like the idea of underestimating children, I'm wondering whether this level of chronological permutation might be overwhelming their nascent logic circuits. 

Even if I'd watched each episode enough to have total recall, though, I'd still be nervous about how well a series plot can possibly have been planned out when it relies on Amy and Rory's bestest-ever and yet never-before-mentioned friend.  That's just not good writing, especially when we're now at three "That's actually River!" revelations in two episodes.

(Plus: why exactly wasn't Mels at the wedding?  She's been waiting all these years for the Doctor to show up so she can murder him, and it doesn't occur to her that Amy's wedding might be a good opportunity? Or did she not bother because she thought she'd already done it as a child in a spacesuit?)

That's all going to be percolating in the back in my head for a while.  Right now, it's the whole Hitler angle that's dominating my thoughts.

The quite hilariously over-the-top / embittered Lawrence Miles once pointed out (quite fairly) that the difference between the "historical" stories of the '60s and those of the 21st Century - aside from the fact that the former tended to involve no sci-fi elements beyond the TARDIS itself - was that the original series tended to present interesting takes on historical figures without accompanying commentry, whereas the current incarnation presents broad sketches for our heroes to constantly insist are worthy of unquestioned idolisation.

This was true of pretty much every historical character (other than Queens of England, interestingly, which makes it pretty tough not to make a Welsh Queen joke at this point) throughout the RTD years (which is when Miles made his observation) and has carried over into Moffat's run.  Admittedly, Van Gogh at least got to give some idea of the problems of clinical depression to the children watching at home, but the conclusion to When Giant Invisible Chickens Attack But We're Still Supposed To Think This Is Senstively Portrayed was still very much of the "Let us all celebrate how fucking awesome this guy was."  Mark Gatiss' "Victory of the Daleks" was even worse in this respect, in terms of taking a deeply morally ambiguous character (albeit one who quite probably saved the UK from German invasion) and transforming him into some kind of indomitable bastion of will and personality, keeping Britain together exclusively through his booze-soaked defiance.  The guy ordered the fire-bombing of Dresden, for God's sake, is it really likely the Doctor would want to be so chummy his propensity for forgiving the Brigadier's methods notwithstanding?

(I was also ready to kick the TV screen in when the Doctor got all pally with Richard Nixon, but that's probably a comment on me rather than Moffat).

Basically, then, this show has form for taking one of its most promising story templates, and screwing it up.  And whilst doing something interesting with one of history's heroes (or just VIPs) is a different problem to tackling one of history's great villains, the show's previous form had me distinctly worried about an episode in which Adolf Hitler might make an appearance.

This might just be my wishy-washy liberalism talking, but I think you need to be careful when you decide to insert Hitler into a story.  There's simply too much historical and emotional baggage that you have to bring with him (or worse, that you try to wash over).  This is even more true when you want people to be laughing, or at least happily enjoying, what they're seeing.  It's most certainly not the case that I think the combination of Hitler and entertainment is impossible - Mel Brook's proved that with The Producers, and whilst That Scene in Inglourious Basterds ended up working against the rest of the film, I had no problem with the idea in a more general context - but the fact that it can be done is not proof that it can be done very often, or without risking a great deal.

In this case, I found it slightly difficult watching.  Right from the start, the inability to choose between English and German accents - minor a point though that is - gave the impression that not much thought had gone into including the Third Reich beyond "Fuck it, we'll bung Hitler in".  This was rather reinforced by the fact that the Doctor and company actually save Hitler's life, and this overwhelmingly weighty moral quandary - did Hitler deserve to die in 1938? What effects on the time-line would killing him create? - is dealt with with at most two lines of comic dialogue.

All of this, I confess, is probably just a matter of personal taste.  I think, actually, my problem lies in the idea that Rory and Amy could encounter Hitler and treat it like any other rollicking adventure through time. If nothing else, it makes it harder to feel their pain over their missing baby, if six months later they can bundling Hitler into a cupboard with nothing more than a exaggerated expression of confusion.

Anyway, like I say, your mileage may vary on all of this.  The most obviously problematic part to all of this, though, the point at which I stopped feeling vaguely uncomfortable and got actively annoyed, were the comments of the Tesselator's crew upon seeing River Song, essentially "If we're looking for war criminals, we've got the greatest one of all time right here: the woman who kills the Doctor."

No. That's just a bridge too fucking far.  It's one thing to bolt Hitler into a story in order to re-write 1938 Berlin as a somewhat violent farce.  It's another one to have people from the future imply that murdering the Doctor makes River Song a worse criminal than Adolf Hitler.  People - including me - have been complaining for a while about the Doctor being portrayed more and more frequently as some kind of avenging deity, the personification of justice and forgiveness, but that's actually nowhere near as bad as saying "This character I am writing is so important that killing him would be worse than whatever Hitler got up to".

It rather drives home Miles' point from a few years ago: the show doesn't see history as a mystery to explore or "another country" to understand, but as a shiny toy to piss around with.  There's nothing automatically wrong with that, of course, but if you have decided to approach history as though you were a sugar-addled child, you should have enough sense to stay away from fireworks and poison bottles.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I take your point on the comparative crimes issue.

My big problem with this whole Melody/River plot is that although the news of their impending parenthood was very late notice and very brief, there is simply no way that Amy and Rory (particularly the former under the cricumstances) could not be massively emotionally traumatised right now.

My intiial reaction to it was to assume that Moffat has no kids himself but then I remembered the last season of Coupling and confirmed on wikipedia that he does ... and so should know that that's too much suspension of disbelief required from parents.

Or maybe he's a really bad dad...!

SpaceSquid said...

This, of course, is a more general problem with the new series as a whole, it lurches from MASSIVE EMOTIONAL DAMAGE to jolly larks across space and time without a pause for breath. Moffat manages to structure tonal changes a lot better than RTD did, as regards scens or individual episodes, but the overall problem very much remains as regards the structure of each season.