Aug 30 2011 5:58pm

Let’s All Joke About Killing Hitler: The Narrative Power of Doctor Who’s Humor

Let’s All Joke About Killing Hitler: The Narrative Power of Doctor Who’s Humor

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?

Let’s All Joke About Killing Hitler: The Narrative Power of Doctor Who’s Humor

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.

Alex Brown
1. AlexBrown
I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought of Woody Allen in a sperm suit during that ep. :)
Ryan Britt
2. ryancbritt
Good deal. I'm also sure Woody would be down with a robot sent to torture Hitler...
Casey Jones
3. Casey Jones
Nicely explored, Mr. Britt.

Though wouldn't 'The Tempest' count as Sci-Fi? It's got a wizard. I suppose it'd be closer to Fantasy, come to think of it. A shame.
Casey Jones
4. Narmitaj
The creators being Brits, it's likely the people-inside-the-head-of-a-person conceit was at least partly inspired by The Numskulls, a bunch of tiny cartoon idiots who control a man (later a boy called Ed Case, geddit) from within in a strip running since 1962 in a series of British comics. See here for a sample strip and here for the wiki on them.

The Head Control cockpit in Doctor Who looked very Starship Enterprise in layout - swivelling commander chair, dual officers lower and in front, lift door behind.
marian moore
5. mariesdaughter
Thank you, thank you. I was wondering where people had lost their appreciation of British humor. This episode had wheels within wheels of time loops, jokes and clever references.
Jason Henninger
6. jasonhenninger
I didn't see this mentioned here or in the other review of the episode, but I thought the gun/banana scene was a lot like Moffat's Curse of the Fatal Death. All that aha! counter-aha! counter-counter-aha!
Casey Jones
7. AlBrown
I wish I had thought of that Woody Allen movie when I saw all the little people in the robot man. Instead, all I could think of was the Eddie Murphy movie with the same premise that I watched recently one day when I was home sick. Bleech!
But the Who episode took the same premise, and used it brilliantly. Great episode!
Casey Jones
8. Raskolnikov
Disagree. Partly with issues in the application of this to Hitler (non engagement with an actual genocidal state! Hilarity!) partly from the notion that self-aware triumphalism is earned as often as the show seems to think. Mostly on the notion that River Song's ongoing tangled arc is wonderful and interesting, IMO it's been quite the opposite. I'd say Doctor Who humor works better when it's making the Doctor a more relatable, goofy figure, not hyping up the extreme super-awesome timey wimey victory of its premise. The moments that come to mind are "The Doctor's Wise" with all the fast-moving, really quotable flirting, and "The Lodger", particularly when Eleven launches into a didactic pacifist schpiel and then cuts himself short realizing the other guy was just talking about soccer. I laughed a lot over the Lodger, "Let's Kill Hitler" I was amused only twice, both in relation to the Amy-Rory flashback. So it goes.
Casey Jones
9. Edward Brennan
I love that with all the build up to "Let's kill Hitler." Hitler in the end is just left in the closet. Forgotten because the plot has moved on and he is no longer necessary for the comedy.
Ryan Britt
10. ryancbritt
@8 Raskolnikov

You have a point. And also, I consider "The Lodger" to be one of the best Doctor Who episodes in general. For exactly the reasons you outline.
Casey Jones
11. Raskolnikov
Yeah, the idea of just having the Doctor hang out with an ordinary guy for an episode and try to be somewhat normal was an excellent one. Sure, there was the faux-TARDIS threat (and the least engaging scenes to me were when it focused on it luring people to their doom, so by the numbers I could have written all that dialog in advance) but to most intents and purposes it was a short wacky-comedy about two unlikely people sharing living space. Personally it's that kind of juxtaposition and grounded connection to people that I find more hilarious and would like to see more of.

And for all that the review tries to read larger narrative power and a major statement into the latest episode, let's not forget that the level of the episode actually playing out depends on a lot less elevated (River Song : Look! I have larger breasts!) If that's our brand of comedy I'd say we're not actually that far from the farting Slitheen as a source of immense laughs.
Andy Leighton
12. andyl
For me, and I guess a lot of people on the British side of the pond, the people in a robot didn't bring up memories of Woody Allen so much as The Numskulls - a comic strip in the Beezer and then Beano.
Ryan Britt
13. ryancbritt
@12 andyl and 4 Narmitaj
I guess I have to check out the Numskulls!

@11 Rasholnikov
I see where you are coming from, though I guess I just find funny paradoxes to be the best kind of joke ever. :-)
Sky Thibedeau
14. SkylarkThibedeau
@Casey Jones. The Tempest has been done as Science Fiction, it's called "Forbidden Planet".
Casey Jones
15. LGEM
River still gets the best line in the whole episode--which I shan't spoil--and it's the throwaway line on the street when she's facing off against the armed Nazi squad.
Casey Jones
16. wandering-dreamer
Hmm, maybe this is why I'm enjoying DW despite the legions of people on the internet decrying every episode as terrible (except for The Doctor's Wife), because I love just uttery strange dramedys. Example, currently I'm watching the anime Mawaru Penguindrum which has some serious moments and a lot of just balls to the walls, how-can-this-show-be-even-MORE-insane moments (for those who know anime, it's being directed by the same guy who did Utena, which was seriously strange at points). I've seen plenty of people in that fandom as well saying they want to get to the "meat" of the story and to tone down all the craziness but I'm loving the craziness just as much as the plot. So I guess I should keep an eye out for more dramedies in the future (and use that word as many times as I can).

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