Doctor Who and the One Woman the Doctor Can't Screw Up

Tonight's Doctor Who episode brought back an idea that Russell T. Davies used to play with a lot: the Doctor inevitably ruins his companions. In Davies' version, it was that the Doctor winds up turning them into weapons against ultimate evil. For Moffat, it's perhaps more complicated.

In any case, "Let's Kill Hitler" includes the suggestion that the Doctor has never traveled with a woman he didn't wind up feeling guilty about, because he always messes his companions up. Except that he's already met one woman whom he can never screw up, no matter how hard he tries.

Spoilers...

So there's that scene where the Doctor is prone on the floor of the TARDIS, and he asks for a visual interface. And we, of course, think it's going to be Idris, from "The Doctor's Wife." Instead, it's the Doctor himself - but the Doctor hates himself, so he asks for a different face. He winds up gazing at a few of his former companions, and reflecting on how he screwed them up and feels guilty about it. The only one he can stand to see is Amelia Pond, the little girl, "before I got it all wrong."

But we've already met a woman that the Doctor absolutely cannot screw up - River Song, who's already been screwed up beyond all measure by Madame Kovarian and the Silence. "Let's Kill Hitler" suggests, tantalizingly, that the Doctor may be able to do with River the opposite of what he's done with all of his companions - he may be able to bring her back from being screwed up, and turn her back into a real person. (A process we've already seen the end result of.)

Doctor Who and the One Woman the Doctor Can't Screw Up

So here's what we now know about River Song and her increasingly complicated backstory. She's born on Demons Run, then whisked back to 1960s America to be raised by the Silence, including a stint in the world's creepiest orphanage. She's brainwashed and conditioned to assassinate the Doctor, and generally horribly abused. Then she escapes, after being shot at by her own mother, and winds up regenerating into Mels. She somehow makes her way to England and meets up with her parents, whom she appears the same age as. (Did she regenerate a second time after the 1960s? Or just age slowly?) She spends probably at least a decade pretending to be the juvenile delinquent friend of Rory and Amy, including a long period after they've already traveled with the Doctor. When she meets him, she shoots his TARDIS (possibly disabling his ability to regenerate?) and then murders him with poisoned lipstick, before having second thoughts and saving his life.

(Oh, and now we know why River Song can't regenerate in "Forest of the Dead." So she not only gives her life for the Doctor, she gives all her lives for him.)

Between the creepy orphanage, the horrible astronaut survival suit and the probably nasty assassin conditioning, River has perhaps the most nightmarish upbringing you can imagine. But at least she gets to have slumber parties with her mum and dad, in lieu of any actual parenting. I'm not sure it's that much of a consolation prize - and even though she's supposedly been their best friend for years, young Melody never seems that much interested in her parents, even when they're about to be killed. She only saves them after the Doctor begs her to.

Doctor Who and the One Woman the Doctor Can't Screw Up

So turning the Manchurian Candidate-ized Melody into the smart, vivacious River Song is going to be a major undertaking, and it's obvious we've only seen the first small step in that direction. (Even if we didn't already know that River finally does carry out her programming and kill the Doctor by the lake.) The Doctor seems to get through to her a bit, with his continuing concern for Amy and Rory's safety even when he's near death, and then giving her a message for River Song. And then Amy shows her the "River Song" whom the Doctor cares so much about. And the Doctor gives her a blank diary, which we know will eventually be filled with spoilers. Plus she makes a bit of a connection with the TARDIS itself, which gives her flying lessons.

The main thought that "Let's Kill Hitler" left me with was: Steven Moffat's Doctor Who tenure is going to live or die, depending on how much you love River Song. It's clearer than ever that she's the centerpiece of his vision of Who. Sure, he's created lots of other great stuff, including the Weeping Angels and the Silence, and Amy and Rory — but they all seem to come back to River Song, one way or another. And Amy and Rory are at least partly important because they're River's parents. So this is a good time to stop and look at how we feel about River Song.

River's always going to be a divisive figure, no matter what - she's a hot older woman, who's portrayed as slinky and seductive, and she's set up as a love interest for a Doctor who appears much younger. It's sort of a space-time-cougar thing.

For me personally, I had been increasingly a fan of River, thanks to Alex Kingston's brilliant performance and a huge number of awesome "oh no she didn't" moments. And the pathos she shared with Rory once or twice in the opening two-parter.

Doctor Who and the One Woman the Doctor Can't Screw Up

But I have to admit... after "Let's Kill Hitler," I'm... a bit less of a River fan than I was. Part of it was that Mels, River's previous incarnation, is obnoxious as hell. Seriously, she gives off this weird bratty vibe that I found really hard to deal with, like a 1990s "chick with attitude." And her whole "getting in trouble at school for going on about the Doctor" thing kind of annoyed me too - especially in retrospect, when you realize she's nattering about the man she's programmed to murder. And she shoots the TARDIS! (I did like her stealing a bus, though.) River's smugness, the quality that most people complain about with her, seems even more annoying in Mels and Young River.

But also, the shift from a River who knows more than everybody else to a River who's the only one who knows nothing seemed to sap the character of a lot of energy. She still has power, in that she's able to kill the Doctor, but she knows nothing. Young River is just as pleased with herself as Older River, but from a position of ignorance. If that makes any sense.

Doctor Who and the One Woman the Doctor Can't Screw Up

And then there's the coda, in which we learn that River became an archeologist for one reason only: To "find a good man." Ummm, eww? So not only are River's birth and death based around the Doctor, but now we find out the only reason she chose her career was so she could get closer to him. River is basically a sort of stalker, and the only reason why the Doctor is so into her, is because she's already successfully stalked him in her future and his past. (And then there's the "and she's a woman" line, which I'm convinced Moffat only threw in to see if he could give some feminists an apoplexy.)

For all that, I still mostly love River, and I'm still excited to see how exactly she goes from Bespoke Psychopath to Sweet Confidante. I'm guessing by the end of the season, we'll have gotten to see River's POV on the events at the lake (which older River appeared not to remember) and we'll finally see the Doctor and River's relationship take shape. And I can't wait.

Doctor Who and the One Woman the Doctor Can't Screw Up

Overall, "Let's Kill Hitler" was a fun romp, a good deal lighter than "A Good Man Goes to War" had been. The Doctor's approach to time travel gets contrasted with that of the Tesselector, a shapeshifting robot full of miniaturized humans (a la Meet Dave) who go around punishing history's greatest criminals. The Doctor's basically good-natured approach, of trying to make things better wherever he goes, is contrasted with this weirdly vindictive mission. The Tesselector doesn't even try to change history for the better, because they punish people at the end of their recorded timestream, when all the bad deeds have already happened. They're in 1938 Berlin to punish Hitler, except that it's too early in Hitler's timestream, and then they spot a greater war criminal: River Song herself.

Rory punching Hitler was just as magnificent as we'd all hoped, and then Rory telling Hitler to shut up and putting Hitler in the closet was kind of perfect. The little Amy-Rory flashbacks were super-cute, like Rory pathetically playing hide-and-seek and blind-man's-bluff while Amy ignored him. And we found out that Amy thought Rory was gay for years, because he never paid attention to any other girls. (Aww.) The look on Rory's face when Amy asks him to name one girl he's paid attention to is priceless – and then Rory runs away.

(Let's hope next week, we get a brief moment of Amy and Rory dealing with the fact that, after the Doctor promised their daughter would be safe, it turned out she was instead trapped in an evil orphanage and brainwashed by monsters for Rassilon only knows how long, before becoming their hopelessly screwed up crazy childhood friend and then a murderous psychopath. It would be nice to see just a snippet of a brief conversation about that... Of course, the Doctor swore on his life, which is already forfeit.)

Doctor Who and the One Woman the Doctor Can't Screw Up

There were a lot of perfect, hilarious little moments in this one. Like the Doctor saying he danced with everyone at Amy and Rory's wedding, and the men were a bit shy. And the Doctor saying "fault on both sides" about his time machine colliding with Hitler's office. Oh and: "I'm getting a sort of banging in my head." "I think that's Hitler in the cupboard." Also a great line: "I was on my way to this gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled, and then I thought, 'Gosh, the Third Reich's a bit rubbish.'" Also, the Doctor's rules are wonderful, especially "Never knowingly be serious." And "Never run when you're scared."

Oh, and might the reference to Kennedy and history having been changed just be a sly reference to the Doctor Who book, Who Killed Kennedy? Maybe?

And we learned a bit more about the Silence - who aren't a species, but a religion who have declared a bit of a Holy War against the Doctor. They're obsessed with the first question, which is hidden in plain view but nobody knows what it is. This adds a pretty fascinating new dimension to our mouthless brainwashing monsters - except that I'm hoping this won't turn into a "religions are dumb" or "religious people do crazy shit for no reason" riff down the line. I'd still quite like to see the Silence turn out to have an actual plan.

All in all, fun stuff. What did you think?