When the title card came up at the end of "A Good Man Goes to War," Doctor Who's last episode before the summer hiatus, I couldn't help but feel a bit of trepidation at what were no doubt intended to be thrilling words: "Let's Kill Hitler." After all, one of the central theses of everything I've written about Doctor Who over the last 8 years is that the Doctor doesn't kill anybody, no matter how bad they are. Those three words held a Damoclean sword over pretty much everything I have to say about Doctor Who and ethics.
Imagine my relief, then, when those three words are uttered not by the Doctor, but by a hotheaded TARDIS-hijacker who is holding the Doctor at gunpoint. It's Amy and Rory's childhood friend Mels, not our erstwhile explorers themselves, who wants to right the greatest of wrongs with a bit of murder. The Doctor's peaceloving ways appear safe... for the time being.
It's surprising, given the anticipation this episode's title was meant to create and sustain, how quickly Hitler is dropped from the story. After a pretty brief showdown in the Fuhrer's office, he is locked in a cupboard-- literally, in that the Doctor wants to get him out of the way, and figuratively, in that the problem of Hitler has been pushed aside. And Hitler is, indeed, a problem for Doctor Who, as flashbacks through Mels' history emphasize. In her youth, Mels got in trouble in school for declaring that "a major factor in Hitler's rise to power was the fact that the Doctor didn't stop him"-- which got her sent to the principal's office. But in the universe of this show, she's right-- the Doctor didn't stop him. That's a problem that can't be locked in a cupboard as easily as the man himself was in this episode, and I can only hope that this scene wasn't the last word on the matter.
The rest of the episode suggests that this kind of conundrum is very much on the minds of the writers. The main baddie of this episode isn't Hitler himself, but the miniature crew of a robot doppelganger that travels through time pursuing and punishing war criminals-- doing, at first glance, what the Doctor can't, or won't. But we learn that their mission is not to prevent these war criminals from committing their atrocities, but rather simply to punish them at the ends of their lives, to "give them hell." This is a base form of retributive justice that can offer only the coldest of comforts. It's a kind of justice the Doctor has no interest in: it averts no atrocity; it soothes no grief; it simply offers a bureaucrat's sense of balance: this person caused pain, and received pain in return. The Doctor, naturally, wants no part of it.
In contrast to this is the Doctor's own mission in this episode, as he meets River Song at more-or-less the earliest point in her timeline that we have yet seen (not counting infancy, that is, or as-yet-to-be-revealed incarnations, or... oh, never mind). Originally, it seems, she was programmed to kill the Doctor, and that's what she's doing here. Moreover, we discover that, in the grand database of our miniaturized vigilante squad, River is considered the greatest war criminal in history. The Doctor doesn't want to punish her, or even to defeat her-- rather, he wants to remake this cruel, savage River into the hero we know she will become. That is the Doctor's brand of justice: transformation, rather than retribution.
But some facts can't be simply transformed. Hitler is still lurking in that cupboard... How will the Doctor deal with him when he gets out?