I blame me. I genuinely didn’t ‘get’ the Doctor’s speech at the end of this story. And I still don’t. I’ve had another look, and it continues to feel over-written and stagy. Yet I don’t doubt its power, because I’ve since seen so many people demonstrating how moving they found it, which is truly delightful. But… it leaves me cold. Perhaps I am cold.
This review is from DWM #493.
Last year, real life intersected with Doctor Who in the most horrific way when it became clear, just days before transmission, a comedic scene depicting the beheading of Ben Miller’s (android) Sheriff of Nottingham should be edited out of Robot of Sherwood. Who could have known it was to have a resonance with events occurring that week in the Middle East?
This year, the series heads purposefully into that territory, with a two-parter written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat that refracts international terrorism through a Doctor Who lens. And The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion isn’t subtle about it. The references come readily, the tale using a vocabulary familiar to anyone who watches the evening news. Characters talk of “radicalisation” and “training camps”, while the visuals feature drone missile footage and the sight of a westerner reading out a prepared statement on camera, flanked by her captors.
This is a bold course. The two-part thriller manages to excite – as it should, as it always should – bringing us a story in which fronds are titivated in the middle of a discourse about the difficulties of integration, and locations shift from New Mexico, to Turmezistan before resolving in a Junior school in Dulwich. It’s a strange old mix by any standard, and I’m sure it will have provoked a range of responses. Maybe those closer to the true politics will have found it a little crass, but for me the production gets away with it.
Although, it does beg a huge question, which it never comes close to answering. Let’s have that now.
Okay, what we know about Zygons is that they can physically mimic human beings. When 20 million of them arrive, taking on the guise of 20 million of us, what then happens to those original people? Are they still around and unaware of their doppelgangers? Or, worse, podded away somewhere under London? Perhaps there are a limited number of human templates divided up between the reptilians, meaning there are multiple versions of each. Whatever, it’s a huge logistical matter that could potentially slow up a firecracker of a tale – superbly drilled by director Daniel Nettheim. So, perhaps, Harness and Moffat are right to sweep the paperwork off the table.
Time to get into those themes, then, and one of the most useful contributions the story makes in its parallels with (let’s not be coy) Isis and Islamophobia is the depiction of the Zygon race as one, like humanity, which is not steered by a singular ideological urge. Instead it contains a multiplicity of philosophies. “The rest of the Zygons, the vast majority, they want to live in peace,” we’re told. Terrorism is the action of a minority, and doesn’t represent anything greater than that. Etoine, the poor chap ‘outed’ by Bonnie in the second episode, is a powerful example. He’s caught up in an argument, which is not of his making. “I’m not on anyone’s side!” he declares, cornered by the Doctor and Osgood, his face bubbling gruesomely like the skin on a fearsome rice pudding. “This is my home!”
An additional echo perhaps reverberating on set when this story went in front of the cameras was the growing tidal wave of reports and op-eds on the European refugee crisis. As arguments began to broil about the opening of our borders, actress Gretchen Egolf (playing Norlander, the policewoman Kate Stewart encounters in New Mexico) is given a line that perfectly inverts that concern: “The Brits came two years ago. We didn’t want ’em, they just turned up.” Seemingly paranoiac, she then goes on to report: “They turned into monsters and came for us.”
I don’t think Doctor Who has featured such overtly political fare since Russell T Davies’ “massive weapons of destruction” line in 2005’s World War Three. But then comes another coruscating remark, this time from the Doctor directed to the Zygons, which gets to the very seam of most anti-immigration rhetoric: “You can’t have the United Kingdom. There are already people living there. They’ll think you’re going to pinch their benefits.”
The shape-shifting aliens – a word given enhanced meaning in this adventure – are the perfect conduit for a tale that explores what’s ours and what’s theirs. These migrants from the planet Zygos have been among us for two years, ‘stealing’ our jobs and homes. But what pressure on them to integrate? Should the onus be on the newcomers to completely assume our way of life? That seems to be the sort of peace the Doctor has negotiated – a life for this other race, but not as Zygons. From that perspective, one can understand a little of the younger brood’s objections. But on the plus side, it does allow us that wonderfully awkward scene of the Time Lord stalking Jessica and Claudette through a playground in Brockwell Park, as he attempts to enter into a parley with the High Command.
Bundled up alongside all this is yet another opportunity for Doctor Who to have fun with one of its modern day obsessions – lookalikes. It’s become a story point that’s shown up almost as often as the Daleks of late. With that being the Zygon’s very raison d’être, you can’t begrudge it this time, particularly not when it results in one of this year’s best baddies. If we were ever to take Jenna Coleman’s performance as Clara for granted, seeing her reinterpret that character as the duplicate Bonnie is a sparkling way to refresh our appreciation. In short, she’s brilliant. When the switcheroo has been revealed, Coleman then lets the villain (an overly reductive term, but let’s go with it) come through, her body language changing to become more fluid and imperious. It’s subtle, though, not I-am-a-baddie acting, only thrown into relief at the story’s end when her dual personas have scenes together. Talk about shape-changing – Coleman’s whole face seems to alter as we switch between the two characters. Even now, as you’re reading this, someone out there is fan-fic-ing the bejesus out of the Bonnie and Clara double-act.
And then there’s Osgood. Osgood lives! No-one stays dead anymore – that’s a complaint I’ve heard from time to time about the current incarnation of the show. Who could truly have a problem with her return, though? There’s absolutely no cheat involved; smart money was always on the possibility of a Zygon duplicate, and that’s what we have. Moreover, and this is the really clever bit, Osgood’s life actually honours the character’s death. Time is spent conveying the notion she grieved for her ‘sister’ and that the loss has had a palpable effect. Her demise really meant something. In addition, isn’t it uplifting that the show’s gentlest, happiest personality should become not just a bona fide hero – meaning she gets a go on the “same old, same old” line – but also the perfect personification of integration? I hope her genus remains forever undefined (even though it prompts more agonising from the Doctor about a hybrid – next week: Cometh the Lexus). Osgood is Osgood.
Less emblematic, and thus less successful, is the story’s overt debate about peace. Like Peter Harness’ Kill The Moon, it comes down to a discussion on whether or not to press the button. But this isn’t a quandary worked out between ‘regular’ people. We’ve already talked of Bonnie, but in Kate Stewart we have an odd creation, a fusion – a hybrid! – who is now trying to be too much. Where once she was the antidote to military brutishness, now it seems she’s considered more useful to the show with a bit of the old Brig stuffed in there. It results in the “five rounds rapid” quip, which is a total misfire, delivered in the context of an eyeball-to-eyeball murder. I’m not sure what Kate is supposed to be, really, other than something the Doctor has had to neutralize on 15 prior occasions… which does also indicate how fundamentally unsustainable his peace treaty actually is, but never mind.
But the biggest difference about this year’s deliberation is, this time around, the Doctor doesn’t absent himself. Instead, he leads it. At times it turns into speechifying, Peter Capaldi having to strut and fret to get this stuff out. Suddenly having to communicate angst, then humour (playing a segment like Hughie Green, that’s one for the teenagers), then bombast, then remorse, it moves between these phases far too quickly, although the bon mots are lovely on their terms. “The only way anyone can live in peace is if they’re prepared to forgive.” Thankfully, at this point, no one chipped in with a gag about letting Zygons be bygones. Or: “How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?” Cumulatively, it’s all too much; you can sense the writing straining to offer the actor a scene that will become a bravura turn. Plus, there’s an unhelpful element of ‘my war was bigger than yours’ in a lot of his discourse. It makes those of us so inclined to think that Tom Baker’s “You’ve got to come out on to the balcony sometimes and wave a tentacle,” was a far more adroit demolition of the invasion paradigm.
Nonetheless, I now wholeheartedly love this incarnation of the Doctor. Well, I say that, I could do with less guitar. Where I had been resistant to his unkind streak, it’s now been sequenced down so that it seems more like a vulnerability on his part. And in the way Jenna Coleman’s performance was given a new context by Bonnie, for me, the flashback to The Day of the Doctor at the very beginning of the story threw helpful new light on Peter Capaldi’s turn. There were his former selves, messing about, yacking away in a greedy rat-a-tat fashion and it made me truly appreciate how different his incarnation has become. A Doctor at his own tempo, far more joined-up and composed. With nothing to prove. Rebel Time Lord, from the tip of his toes, to his sonic sunglasses, via those question-mark underpants.
Terrorism, pants, body-doubles, peace in our time, Dulwich. Only in Doctor Who.