My roommate, who is a season and half behind on contemporary Doctor Who, asked me to describe what happened in the latest episode “Let’s Kill Hitler” without giving too much away. He’s not a big sci-fi person, and has just gotten into the show via his girlfriend. I paused and thought about mentioning some of the major plot reveals or nifty SF concepts. Instead I responded with this: “It was really funny. I laughed a lot.” He smiled and said, “That’s great” and walked away, satisfied he had something to look forward to when he caught up with the show.
But the gags on Doctor Who are more than just cheap punch lines about time travel. They’re well conceived comedic conceits that explain the story. And I’m convinced this funny business is largely why the show works at all.
Spoilers for “Let’s Kill Hitler” ahead.
According to Merriam-Webster one definition of a comedy is “a ludicrous or farcical event or series of events” while the Collins English Dictionary offers “a play in which the main characters and motive triumph over adversity.” The latest mid-season Doctor Who opener, “Let’s Kill Hitler” fits both of these definitions. A story in which three characters time travel to a point in history in which Hitler is being hunted by a shape-shifting robot piloted by miniature people from the future is already pretty ludicrous. Having a fourth character actually be the daughter of two the characters and the future lover of one of the other characters — BUT IN DISGUISE — is also about as farcical as it comes. (Having characters disguising their true identities from other characters seems very Twelfth Night to me!)
From the first shot of this episode with Rory and Amy making a crop circle to summon the Doctor, to the reveal that Amy and Rory named their daughter “after their daughter” to the outlandish idea of the Doctor having a sonic cane to go with his top hat and tails, you might forget that you’re watching a show that maybe has made you cry with despair in the past. Isn’t this a contradiction? Why does any of this work?
Mostly because it’s not only ludicrous and farcical, but also because it depicts a triumph or attempted triumph over adversity. As, I’ve mentioned before, despite all of its supposed darkness, Doctor Who is pathologically upbeat. Here in “Let’s Kill Hitler” not only do we get to see Rory shove Hilter in the closet, but we also witness the personality transformation of a brainwashed murderous Melody Pond, into the basically good-hearted River Song we’ve known from the future. And though there is a dramatic turn when River gives the dying Doctor some of her regeneration energy, the whole thing works because it’s a paradox. The Doctor is turning River into the person she wants him to be because he’s met the person she ends up being. This is funny and sad because paradoxes are paradoxically both funny and dramatic at the same time. According to Dictionary.com, a synonym of the word “drama” is the word “comedy”; a relationship apparent in almost every single Doctor Who paradox.
Most time travel jokes rest on some kind of quasi-logical looping back mechanism in which cause and effect get rendered a little confusing. The “you named your daughter after your daughter” joke being the best example in this episode. But it’s also kind of sweet and even dramatic that Amy and Rory’s daughter was also their delinquent best friend at some point. The irony of befriending your parents when they were close to your age is such a powerful and humorous paradox that the most popular time travel narrative of all time, Back to the Future, utilizes it at its core. Sure, not all time travel narratives on Doctor Who or elsewhere are treated as pseudo-comedies, but a good portion of comedic science fiction premises involve time travel. And that’s because paradoxes are funny.
Most good jokes work because a small perspective shift has been made in the brain about how to perceive reality. In this way, the appreciation of humor and science fiction are closely related insofar as they rely upon imagination. In “Let’s Kill Hitler” not only do we have to accept the premise of the assassin robot with little people inside of it, but also the “joke” becomes escalated when the robot changes shape to look like Amy. So then we’ve got Amy inside of Amy talking to the Doctor about a future version of her daughter who is trying to kill him, but can also paradoxically be the only one to save him.
Having people inside of a person controlling their various functions was done with slapstick perfection in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. However, in that version the little people inside of the body were treated more as magical realism metaphor and little punchlines in and of themselves. In “Let’s Kill Hitler” the people inside people conceit could be described more as deadpan humor rather than silly humor. Rory deduces they’ve been the victim of a miniaturization ray because “there was a ray and we were miniaturized.” This joke is set up even better by his quip that he’s not trying to “see this as a metaphor.” It’s not a metaphor, because it’s literally happening, but because it is a metaphor for something in Rory’s head, the situation is also funny! And only in science fiction could a joke like this ever be told.
Doctor Who isn’t exclusively a laugh riot, but its initial conceit is pretty goofy. “Let’s Kill Hitler” reminds us of some of the Douglas Adams sensibilities the show possessed during it’s golden age, but also what people like Davies and Moffat took from that. There’s also something tragically Kurt Vonnegut about the story of River Song that is rendered here with comedy but with a bittersweet aftertaste. In a previous essay I pointed out that people identify and root for the characters on Doctor Who because they seem to be more ordinary than characters on other SF shows. But we also like them because they’re funny. Funny in ways we could never be, because they’re doing ludicrous and farcical things while careening towards a hopeful triumph over adversity.
Makes you wonder if Shakespeare would be jealous of science fiction.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. The version of him seen out in the daylight is a robot simulacrum remote controlled by the real Ryan who is having lunch around the corner.