jblum (jblum) wrote,

Let's Rewrite Hitler! Or, Series 6 Re-Revisited

Okay, after a tangential discussion on Gallifrey Base, I've had people ask me to pull together my thoughts about how I would have liked to see the last half of Doctor Who's series 6 play out. Back in the day I wrote a couple of reviews talking about how Let's Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song unfolded, what left me unsatisfied, and some of what I wish I'd seen instead. But I figure it might be good to reconstruct all this in the form of one coherent essay...

The thing I find fascinating about Steven Moffat's last two scripts for series 6 is the sheer Trial of a Time Lord-liness of them. It's a mindbogglingly ambitious story, and these episodes have the most hypercomplex briefs -- this is a four-dimensional arc where the events need to make sense in at least four different orders at once (in the order the Doctor experiences them, River experiences them, Amy and Rory experience them, and the audience sees them). And Moffat was trying to plot and write these last two episodes in the middle of production of an ongoing season, when his previous scripts had already taken longer than planned to get right. I have nothing but sympathy for the man -- if I'd tried, my brain would have dribbled out my ears!

But given an extra four years of hindsight, I do think he missed a number of tricks. Key problems that I saw:

* Mels in Let's Kill Hitler, besides being written as a charmless brat, seems pretty obviously kludged into the storyline so far -- her complete lack of mention in any previous episode makes her sudden crucial importance to Amy and Rory seem implausible. Not only does this blatantly tip the writer's hand to her real identity, you can hear the plot creaking to accommodate the writer's urge to let Amy and Rory raise their child somehow (to the point of trying to convince us that "bailing one of your mates out of a cell at the police station" equals "guiding their development as a parent").

* The explanations about the Silence, their role as a religious order, and what they've done to River, are delivered in a monotone info-dump by a comparatively disinterested third party in Let's Kill Hitler. This is the sort of material which should be personal -- revelations wrested by the Doctor from Kovarian and the Silents themselves. But they aren't even in the episode!

* Madame Kovarian is a cipher. You've got an acclaimed actress doing a straight Gina Hardfaced-Bitch performance and snarling "Doc-torrr", and it never goes beyond that. No nuance, no complexity. We never get her to demonstrate, or express emotionally, why she's so committed to this "endless, bitter war" against the Doctor. And we don't get a single scene between her and young Melody -- when that's the stuff that nightmares should be made of. That's the heart of the story, particularly where Amy and Rory are involved... This is the evil mother who steals your child away and raises her to fear and hate the ones you love. But we never see her doing that!

* Structurally the episodes feel lopsided: most of the revelations and twists are crammed into the first one. Let's Kill Hitler has to reunite Amy and Rory with Melody, andintroduce the idea of River growing up as a programmed psychotic killer, and redeem her from that state, and establish that she's still going to kill the Doctor, and start explaining who the Silents are and why they want the Doctor dead, and introduce the Teselecta which will allow the Doctor to escape from the whole season... all while telling a story which seems at first to be a completely non-arc-related fun romp in Nazi Germany. No wonder it gave Steven such a headache!

* On the other hand, the second story becomes almost an exercise in vamping till ready. The Wedding of River Song kicks off with the events which we were painted as the climax of the season already having happened, tells them in flashback, and then spends nearly half an hour getting back to that point so they can happen again. If this were an RTD-era two-parter, the first encounter by the lake would be the end of part one, and the consequences would be part two. Now, I hate projecting motives and thought processes onto an author... but I can't shake the feeling that this is the result of Steven Moffat having lived with the story for so long that he's gotten bored with it, and decided to make it more complicated to keep it interesting.

* Take these last two points together... and it really does feel like on the character side, the storyline suffers from premature resolution. The climactic event it's setting up is, the Doctor wants to die and River wants to kill him. How's that for a dramatic situation? But in fact, after episode eight, River doesn't want to kill him... and then it turns out he doesn't actually want to die either, and everything we'd seen him go through in episode 13 was a fake. Way to undercut your own premise!

Let's Kill Hitler

So that's the first key thought I have about how to improve the latter half of the season: don't change River's mind in Let's Kill Hitler. Let that story end with her Silent programming still in place. Make the finale be about what changes her mind about the Doctor -- at the same time it's about what changes the Doctor's mind, from being tired of life to embracing it anew.

Now, this totally torpedoes the climax to Hitler that we got. But there's more than enough other material to mine in that first episode even without those elements: fundamentally, given where Good Man left off, at its heart that next episode needs to be about Amy and Rory getting their child back.

And not in a clever-clever oh-she-was-Mels-all-along way. The biggest problem with the Mels idea is that it's so far removed from anything a real person could ever go through in real life -- no one can grasp what "my daughter was kidnapped but regenerated into a different kid who was my childhood best friend" would actually feel like. (That, and thinking that Amy and Rory would be happy with their daughter turning out to be a gun-wielding delinquent car thief.) When the only emotional reaction Rory can manage to these revelations is a generally nonplussed look and a line about what a weird day this is... Steven Moffat's not just pulling punches because he doesn't want to get into the darkness and trauma inherent in what little Melody went through; he's pulling that punch because there's no way it could ever actually land in our gut. We're alienated from empathizing with Amy and Rory, by the sheer mad complexity of what we're asked to observe.

Steven has been known to reject the criticism of being "too clever" -- well, this is an example of why that can actually be a problem. It's all in the head and not in the heart.

(As an aside, though -- on the head side of things, I do like the way the episode plays around with the themes of "Let's Kill Hitler"... the old thought experiment about killing Hitler before he commits his atrocities is exactly what young River and the Silents want to do to the Doctor, by killing him before he asks the Question. And that's also what the Teselecta crew want to do to young River by punishing her in advance. That is genuine cleverness, and smartness, and insight. So if there's a way to keep that theme, even while straightening out the plot kinks, it's worth it.)

Getting From B To A

So: we need a more emotionally straightforward way of resolving the Melody situation, which still doesn't break the show. Because we can't actually saddle Amy and Rory with raising a child in the TARDIS for the second half of the series run (not least because most of it has been shot already).

But before we get there... how's this for an alternate, Mels-less way of kicking off the episode?

We begin with Amy and Rory trying to summon the Doctor to Leadworth... only to have him arrive, not in the TARDIS, but on foot. He's actually been on Earth for a while, you see, quite a while. Since about 1970. When he found Melody right after she regenerated in an alleyway in New York (as seen in Day of the Moon).

And, erm, Melody stole the TARDIS.

We go from a flashback of the Doctor trying to rescue Melody, to her nobbling him somehow and dumping him out, possibly with some variation on the "let's kill Hitler" line about what she's going to do next. The TARDIS is in the hands of a tearaway genius child who's bonded to it, rampaging through history. That's your hook going into the title sequence.

Anyway. Now that the Doctor's caught up with the correct Amy and Rory, though, they can track her. He has a plan type thing. But he needs them to summon River, to give them a lift. He uses her vortex manipulator to track the TARDIS to a conspicuously damaged bit of time, and zap them all there... to the Reichstag, where everything's going down at once. The TARDIS crashes in under its learner driver, followed by the Doctor, Amy, Rory, and older River in hot pursuit.

But the Silents are already there...

Of course the Silents are there. Fundamentally, one of the weirdest things about the Let's Kill Hitler we got, is that it's trying to tell a story about Kovarian and the Silents abducting young Melody in which neither Kovarian nor the Silents nor young Melody ever appear. Seriously, Steven, you threw away the chance for one of those great movie-poster images you're looking for -- Hitler with a pair of Silents standing behind him. (And then for whatever plot reasons, the Doctor puts in a phone call to a cameo from Ian MacNiece's Churchill -- and we see Silents standing behind him as well...)

The Spine

Once we're into the body of the episode, in between the inevitable running-about and face-offs against Kovarian and the Silents (and trying to keep grownup River out of the way of her younger self, and indeed away from Kovarian and the Silents), there'd also be room for some material which confronts Amy and Rory with the real questions of trying to parent a child: in this case the young, wild Melody/River who's already a law unto herself. How do they handle it? Do they have any idea what they're letting themselves in for? Basically, you'd have Amy and Rory realising that they are so out of their depth.

In fact, here's a thought for an interesting beat: have Kovarian be absolutely ruthless and vicious to the adults around her... but genuinely kind to Melody. Children are the future, after all... and this child will save the universe from centuries of war. She's disciplining Melody, she can get her to behave, but she's not a monster to her. Let the Silents do her dirty work - but she's raising Melody well.

That way, you could get into the deep horror of Amy thinking is she actually a better mother than me?

There's also a neat scenario that's worth exploring: Amy and Rory know the grownup Melody/River, and know that if they change anything in her past they might lose her. There's a proper dilemma there... they have the right to raise their kid the way they intend to, while River as an adult does have the right to be the person she is. I'd love to have seen this scene play out. (Perhaps taking a page from "Father's Day". River: "If you do this, you'll rewrite my entire life." Rory: "I'm your dad... It's my job to change your life.") There's a whole story to be told there about what it actually means to raise a child, and be responsible for shaping another human being over *years* of their life, and then the tensions involved in letting go of them once they're ready to be on their own... the sort of down-and-dirty parenting matters they dealt with in Night Terrors and Closing Time, but with higher stakes because these are our people, not guest characters.

And the thing is, the question of what you do when you know how a child is going to grow up is the let's-kill-Hitler scenario that the rest of the episode is riffing off of. I'd want that conflict to be put front and center.

How Do We Get Out Of It?

Anyway. The dramatic climax of the episode would have to be little Melody finally choosing Amy and Rory over Kovarian, and the Doctor cleverly getting them out of there. But how do we get around the problem that leaving Amy and Rory to raise Melody would completely break the format of the show?

Picture this. On (older) River's advice, they travel back to the alleyway where the Doctor found her... and hug Melody and tell her to go down to the other end of the alley. Which she does... and an older, wiser Amy and Rory are waiting for her there. They've waited until they've grown up enough to do a good job as parents, and now here they are for her. Now they're going to take her home.

(And funnily enough? This would still work with the eventual fate of Amy and Rory in The Angels Take Manhattan, even though I had the basic idea long before that!)

Meanwhile, in the TARDIS, the Doctor is having a final conversation / confrontation with Kovarian and her Silents, probably over the viewscreen. This is where we establish that young Melody is still conditioned enough that one day she will go to Lake Silencio and lie in wait for the Doctor. (Perhaps River will grow up rebelling against her parents, with the opposite opinion of the Doctor from them.) And more than that... the Doctor will welcome it. They know he will be so old, so tired, so weighed down by the future he knows is to come, that he will be ready to die.

How do they know this? ...Because the creatures who implant post-hypnotic suggestions are the ones telling it to him now.

Oh, he'll fight it, maybe for centuries. But that little seed of despair, brought of knowing what will come, has been planted now. And eventually he'll know that it really is better this way, to walk knowingly to Lake Silencio, than for him to bring about the next war.
And the Doctor turns away from the screen as Amy and Rory walk in... and apparently forgets all about it.


The Wedding of River Song

The Beginning of the End

So if we go into Wedding with the idea that River has been rescued but not deprogrammed, and that the finale has to show her journey from killing the Doctor to loving him... where do we go from there?

Ideally we'd like the River who's driving the plot not to be a straight-up psycho as in Hitler, but someone whose motivations seem to make sense on the surface... whether or not she's been conditioned behind the scenes to believe this way, she can make her behavior seem to make sense -- the way all the Silents' victims in the opening two-parter did. Ideally she should be someone who genuinely believes the Doctor should die for the greater good -- someone who would actually choose to step into the Apollo suit and kill him.

How do we do this? We can make it work with the scenario we see at the end of Closing Time: Grown-up River is an archaeologist tracing the Doctor's path through time, who hasn't actually met the Doctor since her childhood. And she finds out about Trenzalore, and the war to come. And that's enough to horrify her into thinking the Doctor needs to die to prevent it.

Picture how the teaser scene at the end of Closing Time could play out: Kovarian and the Silents come for her... but instead of just manhandling her into the suit, Kovarian offers her an eye-drive. Tells her that if she puts it on, she'll know the truth about the Doctor, and why he must be silenced. River struggles with herself for a moment... then puts it on... and understands. "...I see." And she knows what she has to do to prevent it: she climbs into the suit.

As for the episode itself... The idea of all-of-time-happening-at-once is a neat one, but the fact that it comes about through River not killing the Doctor does feel like a case of hang-on-I've-got-a-better-idea. Like I said above, I get the sense that Moffat has lived with the idea so long that he's gotten bored with it, and feels the need to add a twist to keep it "interesting". When to me at least, there's actually far more interestingness in letting us experience the emotional impact of the scene we've been building up to.

So why not lose the twist? The chaos doesn't happen because River stops it happening, it's because she does it. Instead of all-of-time breaking down because River's tried to change a fixed point in time... this is just what a fixed point in time is. A hiden moment where the entirety of history is woven through the present. By killing the Doctor here, River ensures that the two of them are sucked into this endless moment -- as the future tries to rewrite itself around their absence.

(A thought: perhaps the point of the spacesuit is that it's meant to allow River to survive in this timeless environment. Hmm.)

So what we get is the scene playing out as we're led to expect: River, reluctantly but for the greater good, facing the Doctor and forcing herself to pull the trigger; the Doctor, old and tired, telling her that she is forgiven for it because he's ready to let go. And then they still can't, because time has gone haywire. That's enough of a twist. They're both stuck in this purgatory -- River trying to finish the job, while the Doctor realises that Kovarian's plan has gone wrong, Time itself is broken, and the unravelling is going to spread to the whole of the universe unless he saves it one last time.

The Middle of the End

Beyond that point, the middle-game of the story could be similar, or could be wildly different. If it were down to me, I'd also lose all the random business with the Teselecta, Mark Gatiss as a space Viking, and Dorium turning up for exposition -- again, the explanations of what the Silence want and why are much more effective if they come from River, to the Doctor. Still trying to avoid spoilers, of course, as she alludes to the war in the future and the Question which must never be asked.

But the most basic change to the flow of the story should be that the Doctor doesn't have a plan when he goes to Lake Silencio. He genuinely is ready to die... and only through the course of this adventure does he get his groove back. His realization that he has something to live for should in the present tense, as a result of him and River going from adversaries to allies and achieving amazing heroics together... after a couple of centuries of isolating himself after The God Complex, we should see him really connecting again.

To me, this is key to giving the series a satisfying emotional throughline. I want to be with the Doctor as he realizes he's got huge things to live for. I don't want that turnaround to happen literally in a few moments when he's popped out of shot for a second. I don't want the times when I was with him through his weary speech in Closing Time and his long march to his final fate, to be swept away that casually. I don't want the moments when thought I was with him, as he reaffirmed to everyone that it was time for him to go, to be nothing but a bit of play-acting. I want an emotional release, not just a "Ha, fooled you!"

And I'd love the story to sell the idea of the Doctor and River as a proper marriage, a partnership of personal understanding against the slings and arrows of the universe -- rather than just a series of sexy head-games they're playing with each other.

I mean honestly, if you want to be all heteronormative and tell a year-long story about marriage and parenthood, at least make a better case for it! Convince me that this couple after Wedding isn't "just dating" (as Steven once said about an Amy-and-Rory-style married couple without kids), but that this really is a deep-rooted partnership. To that end: don't just make the solution to the whole "death of the Doctor" mystery be a clever ploy the Doctor prepared earlier; it has to be something they come up with together, which relies on them trusting each other with their life.

In fact, it's just hit me right now, as I'm writing this. Thematically, the original solution to Hitler -- River giving all her other lives to restore the Doctor to this one, with her -- should be the solution to the entire season.

Because that's more like the kind of marriage I know. Forsaking all others, and all the other possible lives you could have, for this one. He's willing to give up his life for her sake, and she reciprocates.

The End of the End

So to set up this resolution... Somewhere in the midgame, we'd need a moment where River sacrifices her life for the Doctor -- possibly standing up to the Silents to try to save him. The point of her ultimate turnaround. It's the equivalent of the regeneration from Let's Kill Hitler -- after which she can literally use her own life energy as a weapon to combat the Silents.

(Of course she manages to keep her own face after the regeneration. She wouldn't have it any other way, would she?)

And then, the actual ending... Let's say we keep the idea that once River and the Doctor touch, the equilibrium will be broken and the Doctor will die for real. We know they have something in mind, but we don't know what it is... and the Doctor is clear that he doesn't want to die, but he will do it if he has to to save the universe. We have the wedding, the farewell kiss... and we're back to the moment at the lakeside where the Doctor dies.

But why does River in the spacesuit go back under the lake?

Because she's waiting.

Much later, after everyone's gone, after the Doctor's body has been burnt and the Silence have turned their back on her... she resurfaces. And we see her stand at the edge of the lake... and let rip with all of her remaining regeneration energy.

It hits the lake. Gathers his scattered ashes. Binds them together, draws them to the shore. And to finish the resurrection? She places on his finger... a wedding ring.
Which of course we've introduced somewhere in the middle of the story, as containing a tiny little bit of his Time Lord essence. That's what allows him to be reconstituted. Think Last of the Time Lords/End of Time. Hell, you want to get mythological? Think Isis and Osiris -- River literally gathers his pieces back together and resurrects him with her own life force. Leaving her with one life and him with... well, who knows?

Now that's one hell of a wedding night, isn't it?

And the content of the final scene, which in the version we got is played out between the Doctor and Dorium, is here played out between the Doctor and River in the aftermath (/afterglow) as he returns her to her adopted time to serve her sentence... it's clear that they cooked this up between them while they were in the broken timeline, to convince Kovarian and the Silents that he is really most sincerely dead. He's now going to disappear into the shadows for a bit. And the final beat, instead of coming from Dorium, is now a flashback to Kovarian telling River what the question is which the Doctor must never answer... "Doctor who?"

So. Does that give series 6 more of a satisfying shape? It's got a few advantages: easing the overcrowding on Hitler, moving the emotional turning-points to the finale and putting them center-stage, putting the Doctor/River partnership explicitly at center stage, and bypassing the need for a Teselecta revelation by delaying their plan until later (meaning that he didn't plan it all along until after the fact.)

And it gives each episode a single clear dramatic focus. In short, Hitler should be River choosing her proper parents over Kovarian and her programming; Wedding should be her choosing life with the Doctor, and he with her.
Tags: doctor who
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