Note: The following review contains spoilers for all aired episodes of Doctor Who, including the most recent, “Let’s Kill Hitler.”
There are so, so many reasons that “Let’s Kill Hitler” is one of the most dazzlingly, jawdroppingly ingenious episodes of Doctor Who perhaps ever, but they can all be boiled down to a single description: it is batshit insane, and I mean that in the most gloriously positive way imaginable. Steven Moffat has played around with time and temporal paradoxes to a degree that no previous Doctor Who showrunner has accomplished, in this series more than any other, but all of the wibbly wobbly timey wimey twists and turns that have been burbling about in Moffat’s Who since before he even took up the mantle were all apparently just preparing us for the revelations of this hour. As I’d expected, despite the title, Hitler himself is but a cameo in this delightfully mindbending installment, his greatest significance being metaphorical–to wit, the old philosophical question of whether one should kill Hitler if one had a time machine, the pro side being that it would prevent the deaths of millions of people and one of the greatest evils history has ever known, the con side being that one would have no clue just what butterfly effect consequences might arise from making an alteration of that magnitude. Oh, and he was also there so Rory could punch him in the face. We now live in a world in which Rory Pond has punched Adolf Hitler in the face and stuffed him in a closet, and what a beautiful place it is.
“Let’s Kill Hitler” has so much about it to love, I’m not even sure where to begin. Perhaps with the revelation that, although Amy and Rory seemed to have lost their daughter and will thus miss out on raising her, they actually had raised her already. Their best childhood friend, Mels, one of the few people who had believed little Amelia about the Doctor and who was so won over by the fantasy that she wanted to marry him, was Melody Pond. Amy had, in fact, named her daughter Melody after her daughter, Melody–this mischievous girl who Amy and Rory had been attempting to provide guidance and support to throughout their lives. She had believed Amy’s stories of the Doctor because she knew from childhood that she was one day going to kill him. As Mels, however, she never realized the irony that when she told people she would marry him, that might come to pass in the future, as well.
We still don’t have all of the answers about River, of course. We don’t know when she takes up the name, River, for example. We don’t know how long she remained with Madame Kevorian before being sent to the orphanage. Did they raise her for years, brainwashing her to kill the Doctor, and did she then regenerate as a younger child in the orphanage (and what happened in the successive years between regenerating at the end of “Day of the Moon” and appearing in Amy and Rory’s lives?), or did they simply implant her with some sort of sleeper technology or otherwise plant that suggestion as a child before sending her there, or was that brainwashing going on while she was at the orphanage? After all, it was overrun by Silence. Speaking of which, we now have the interesting confirmations that the Silence are a religious order (which connects them to the religious orders we met in last series’ Weeping Angels two-parter and in “A Good Man Goes to War”) and that they are responsible for all that has happened, which makes it seem likely that (a) there were Silence we did not see in the last episode, and (b) the Amy/Ganger switch occurred when the Silence captured her in “Day of the Moon.”
We also learned quite a few other things. For example, we now know why River has always looked the same whenever we’ve seen her, which is a really brilliant explanation not only because it allows Alex Kingston to always be the River that the Doctor knew with no need for ever casting younger actresses as younger versions of River and subsequently explains why she hasn’t regenerated again, but even more so because it brings the story of the Doctor and River beautifully full circle. We now know the story of how the Doctor and River met. Their relationship is bookended by her giving her life for him. The first time they meet, she sacrifices her ability to regenerate in order to save the life that she stole from him, and the last time, she sacrifices herself to save his life again. One has to wonder if the second time (or the first, from our perspective) was out of atonement for what she did to him.
There are two things, however, that make this even more interesting. The first is that the Doctor convinces her to save his life by whispering something in her ear, just as River convinced the Doctor she was trustworthy in “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” by whispering something in his ear, and I am going to assume that the whispers are identical: the Doctor’s true name. My first reaction regarding what the question the Silence are trying to answer might be is that it is likely the question after which this entire show is named, “Doctor Who?” which would be such a perfectly Moffatian solution. The Silence want to know who the Doctor is. If so, his real name would be the answer, so the fact that he confides it in her might be why she realizes she should be helping him, because an enemy (as she was always told he was) wouldn’t reveal this secret so willingly.
Secondly, this entire scenario removes any potential ickiness that might have arisen if the Doctor and River truly did always meet each other on a backwards track. Some fans were concerned that Moffat had been implying earlier that when River first met the Doctor, she was this inexperienced, young thing who was taken in by the Doctor, who had already experienced their entire relationship, which might have given the whole thing an uncomfortable power imbalance. Now, we know definitively that River was not a naive, little flower on their first meeting. She was an assassin who knew who he was and had been planning for her entire life to kill him, which makes the fact that this will eventually become a romance even more fascinating.
Besides these revelations, this episode is so wonderful because it manages to provide some answers without being too expositional while simultaneously being action-packed and bouncily inventive, and also providing every one of the main actors and characters with fantastic material, which can be extremely difficult to do. Some people worried that the extreme intricacies of the plotting this series would either ultimately rob the characters of their agency or mean that their actions were being dictated by the plot, not the other way around, but this episode reconfirms that after the necessary set-up that was prominent in much of the first half of the series, the Doctor, Amy, Rory, and River (and not the timey wimey plot) are still the true stars of the show.
Every single one gets a chance to be awesome in this episode. Matt Smith gives yet another heartbreaking performance as the Doctor is dying (seeing all of his recent companions is a beautiful touch, and just like Tennant before him, Smith is fantastic as ever at selling that he was the same man who traveled with them), Karen Gillan is superb in all of the various permutations of Amy in this episode–modern day Amy, teenager Amy, robot Amy–and even more excitingly, Amy gets to solve the Tesselecta problem and demonstrate how enormously intelligent and badass she is, Arthur Darvill sells the hell out of Rory as usual and gets to, again, punch Hitler in the face and show extreme bravery (and be extremely moving as teenager Rory–I love how Amy assumed Rory was gay because he never expressed interest in girls, not ever putting two and two together that she was the girl he pined for), and Alex Kingston plays River’s conflict at the end of the episode gorgeously and is a scream as newly regenerated River. Does it surprise anyone how similar she is to Eleven upon his regeneration? I would also like to submit “I was on my way to this gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled when I suddenly thought, “Gosh, the Third Reich’s a bit rubbish, I think I’ll kill the Fuhrer,’” as Steven Moffat’s new greatest line of dialogue ever. Also, what a lovely surprise it is to see little Caitlin Blackwood back as Amelia and just as wonderful as ever, particularly in her scene as the TARDIS’ voice interface, in which she is effortlessly hilarious.
The Tesselecta itself is also just such a brilliantly whacked-out concept–a team of time traveling justice seekers who shrink themselves in order to operate a human-body-sized robot that can transform its appearance to look like any person, for the express purpose of punishing history’s worst offenders. It’s also particularly interesting that they aren’t looking to change history on a wide scale. They simply want to dole out a worse, more painful death to the bad guys than that which history itself brought them. Does that make them ethically better or worse than they might otherwise be? On the one hand, they aren’t messing up the flow of history, as most of these people would have died regardless (or been imprisoned and thus out of commission), but on the other hand, since they aren’t changing any events, whatever satisfaction they get from punishing these people seems to be merely petty. On the other other hand, it isn’t even necessarily a traditional death sentence for all, because, again, many of these people were doomed to die. They even refrain from killing Hitler because they arrived too early in his time stream. They alter their plans to punishing River, because it seems that she has killed the Doctor ahead of schedule (as they say, time can be rewritten) and therefore has completed her evil act. The question remains whether the River in the astronaut suit in Utah is this River or the young girl.
All in all, a simply enormous episode of Doctor Who that manages to convey a great deal of surprising information while also managing to be as funny, emotional, light-footed, and fast-paced as ever, as befitting an episode with such a beautifully deranged title. If the next five episodes are at least as great at this one, series 6 will finish most remarkably, indeed.