14 September 2011

The Zero Room #10- Springtime for Hitler

"You've had all summer. Have you found Melody yet?" As Amy says in the opening moments of Doctor Who series 6.5, the summer's gone comparatively quickly, and the Doctor's back on our screens. Steven Moffat answered some long-standing questions in the beguiling Let's Kill Hitler, Mark Gatiss plays it RTD in the council-estate chiller Night Terrors, and Tom Macrae spins a surprisingly touching tale in The Girl Who Waited.

Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episodes yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.

Let's Kill Hitler proves to be something of a smokescreen. There's a Title Drop in the opening teaser, delivered by a childhood friend of Amy and Rory called Mels. Amy named their daughter after her, and she ingratiates her way into the TARDIS at gunpoint before directing the Doctor back to Berlin in 1938. Then she's shot by the Fuhrer, causing her to regenerate into River Song, and all hell breaks loose. Out of necessity, the series' return hits the ground running so hard that we're already up to the regeneration just 12 minutes into the episode.

And so for all of those wondering over the summer how Hitler would be involved, it may be disappointing that he's a relatively minor part of the episode, and the setting of Nazi Germany is largely incidental. It's a nice bit of subterfuge on Steven Moffat's part, because he really gets into the meat of the ongoing relationship between the four regulars with this opener. And come on, the Doctor has been facing off against Hitler and the Nazis for years, in the form of the Daleks. I can't honestly imagine that any sustained dialogue between the Doctor and Hitler would be hugely different from any of his confrontations with Davros.

The Nazi element does provide an in for the episode's extraterrestrial element- the Teselecta, a spaceship in the shape of a life-size human replica, staffed by tiny people who mete out justice to history's greatest war criminals. It's a bit of a leap for us to believe that they forget Hitler when they see River Song, who we're meant to believe is even worse. Moffat doesn't dwell on this, instead giving Alex Kingston a ton of fun material as a distinctly more naughty version of a pre-Doctor River, conditioned by the shady clerics from the previous episode to do their dirty work.

Although it's still tied up with River, it's a hell of a lot more fun than The Impossible Astronaut, and the increasingly complex arcing storyline doesn't get in the way of an episode that brings the series back for its second half with a bang. From the comical and dismissive treatment of Hitler to the use of Kingston as a foxy Nazi-baiting psychopath, Moffat's Doctor Who is back with a bang. It might not have all the answers fans were hoping for, but it's very enjoyable, and it sets the series up nicely for a few much-needed standalone episodes in the following weeks.

At first glance, Mark Gatiss' latest script for the series, Night Terrors, is simply a redux of 2006's unfairly maligned Tenth Doctor outing, Fear Her. Although I think that episode comes in for some unnecessary flak, I'd also join in with those referring to Night Terrors as "Fear Her done right". It's set on a council estate, and centres around an Ordinary Family. 8-year-old George is afraid of pretty much everything, and when the Doctor receives a psychic distress call, he's determined to find out what it is in George's cupboard that frightens him so much.

This episode has its detractors, and that's a sad fact about most of Gatiss' contributions to the series. It's fair to say that he didn't stick the landing on the premise of "Churchill and Daleks", or with "the Coronation of the Queen and a TV monster", but still, his scripts are usually bursting with witty dialogue and neat moments. This one is no exception, and as well as fitting comfortably within the sensibilities of former showrunner Russell T. Davies, it's one of those stories you could imagine them making if the series had been recommissioned in 1990.

The final serial of the classic run of Doctor Who was set on a council estate after all, and so, most unexpectedly, it's Sylvester McCoy who Matt Smith seems to channel in certain scenes here. Somehow he hasn't seemed quite as uncomfortable with children in his previous stories as he does in this one, and there are certain tics in his performance here that remind me of the squat Scot Seventh Doctor. In a good way. He has some great scenes with Danny Mays too, even if this would seem to rule out Mays as a candidate to be the next Master. Just picture it for a moment or two.

It's anathema to some fans, when an episode resolves itself in such an arcane and sentimental fashion, but here's an episode where it made sense with the story. Night Terrors isn't a perfect episode of Doctor Who, but an archetypal example of what the series is in the 21st century. It pulls off some creepy moments with aplomb, and roots all of its horror value in the suburban, keeping it kid-friendly (or unfriendly, as the case may be). There's no dark streak to Doctor Who, because it should, to retain its legendary scare value, be dark. It's the streak of light that makes all the difference, something that Gatiss clearly understands.

There was a scene in The Doctor's Wife, earlier this series, in which Amy lost track of Rory inside the TARDIS, and discovered him as a feeble and hateful old man who had waited years and years for her to find him. In The Girl Who Waited, the roles might be reversed, but this is where that promising scene comes to fruition. Before she even got to go anywhere with the Doctor, Amy Pond waited 14 years for him to come back for her, and when she's separated from the TARDIS at the Twostreams medical facility, she has an even longer wait.

Having not been too involved in the previous weeks' episodes, The Girl Who Waited is very much a story for the Doctor's companions, and yet they're always reliably played by Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. It's more Gillan's moment to shine than Darvill's, but that's not to undercut how easily he's been stealing scenes from under his co-stars all series. Gillan has the dual role of present Amy, and an Amy who's 36 years older, in a complicated and timey-wimey twist that, for once, is contained in a standalone episode.

It's also a standalone episode that breaks Matt Smith's uninterrupted run of 23 episodes without a "Doctor-lite" episode. The format has previously given us acclaimed episodes like Blink and Turn Left, and it's used to great effect here too. Gillan is on stunning form, and her older rendition is a million miles away from those seen in certain blockbuster movies this last summer. She carries the grudge and the disappointment that burns in this alternative Amy incredibly well, and Darvill eagerly matches her, beat for beat. Ultimately, the actual setting is incidental to the drama and the characters, and it makes for a compelling showcase of the companions' capabilities.

The Doctor is more present here than in previous Doctor-lite outings though, and the consequences of his actions here will surely come back to haunt him. This episode might even be Smith's Waters of Mars moment, even if we've all guessed by now that he's going to survive his apparent death from episode 1, come the series finale. Either way, The Girl Who Waited is one of the standout episodes in a series that has been very consistently good so far. It has moving performances from Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, and it really fleshes out the Doctor's companions in a way that fulfills the premise of married life in the TARDIS.
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We'll return to The Zero Room in a couple of weeks, with reviews of the remaining episodes in the series. Until then, why not share your comments below?

The next episode of Doctor Who, The God Complex, airs on BBC One and BBC HD at 7.10 on Saturday.

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