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Calling in with notes on the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who (and I might add more later as well as tidying up the formatting). I did, and significant amendments and additions are identified in this colour.
Bill is a wonderful addition to the Doctor Who universe. If she’s a mystery to be solved, she’s a human one rather than a science-fictional or mythical one, a woman whose educational opportunities have been limited and who longs for more and better. There’s still a mystery girl but the Doctor and Bill seek to explain her together. The romance between Bill and Heather is tentative and shown in fragments of Bill’s viewpoint; Heather is elusive, distant and committed at once, and in make-up, some costume and performance reminiscent of some media representations of the late Diana, princess of Wales. Both in her human and watery forms Heather reminds us that love affairs demand transformation; Bill sees the university as somewhere she can broaden her knowledge and become the person she wants to be, but for Heather it’s a trap, and she feels that she should be somewhere else.
For Bill and the genre-savvy viewer, the star in Heather’s eye is an indication that she’s predestined to be the ‘space engine oil”s pilot; some have complained that the question isn’t addressed fully, but for this episode to resolve itself it would be damaging to do so, because whether the star is a mark of alien intervention or just a misleadingly exotic defect in the iris is irrelevant. Bill is left at the end wondering whether she made the right decision in turning down Heather-pilot’s invitation to join with her, and this shapes her rejection of the Doctor’s attempt to wipe her memory and her persuading the Doctor to let her join him in the TARDIS. Bill departs having preserved for now her identity, which both Heathers required she give up. One wonders if this is a theme and whether it relates to the decision awaiting the Doctor before this year is out.
For the first half of the episode the Doctor’s story and Bill’s intersect at intervals across months. The Doctor, from Bill’s point of view, is a fixed point on earth as she is. Yet to an audience with prior knowledge, this isn’t so; there are adventures which only intersect with the episode at odd moments, such as the presumably necessary introduction to the Vault, and the arresting realisation that the Doctor is responsible for presumably all those pictures of Bill’s mother. In Moffat’s Who there are numerous gaps where the Doctor has activities the viewer doesn’t share, potentially far removed from his televised adventures. We don’t know how much time the Doctor spent with Bill’s mother, but the photographs suggest he got to know Bill’s mother very well. It upsets the symmetry of the episode and the relationship outlined therein, but could Bill even be a second generation travelling companion, or perhaps, from the Doctor’s point of view, first of two taken in reverse chronological order? Given the insistence of the programme’s publicity – its metanarrative, I suppose – that the Doctor walks in death, there is an implicit question (though marginal to this episode) over whether he was involved in some way in Bill’s mother’s death, or has become so in becoming involved in her life as part of his wish to be generous to Bill. For that matter, given that the Doctor is at St Luke’s University, and St Luke is (so the official site tells us) the patron saint of doctors (albeit of medicine; see the inset illustration) perhaps the Doctor has been there much longer than fifty or seventy years, and the institution has formed around him.
So much of this episode feels like a love-letter to the storytelling possibilities in television and recalled more articulately the occasional comparisons made between the TARDIS and the television set or studio in the first two series. The Doctor’s lectures are both physics and poetry, and ideally both are united in television drama. He talks to students about the movies and as he does so we pull out from the image and see this and other scenes (from this and other productions?) as series of stills. Credit to Steven Moffat, Lawrence Gough and their colleagues for carrying off the effect. There are ostentatious tricks with speed and and angles which demand our attention – books and sonic screwdrivers, perhaps, are symbols of trust and of the Doctor. Time And Relative Dimension In Space, the Doctor says, is life; drama helps us negotiate existence.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor seems very much at ease this year, carrying his position in the universe more lightly, while being both more penetrating in his perception, more authoritative but also more approachable. Pearl Mackie is a tremendous asset to the series as Bill; likewise approachable, humanly everyday and level in her emotional responses, generous and transcending the potential prison of her background. There are obvious echoes of Rose in the character’s context and the way the episode presents her, but this also draws attention to the differences. Bill seems more independent of social conditioning that did Rose, but perhaps having no parents and a semi-detached foster mother (which I felt at least were presented as issues in a way Bill’s sexuality was not) have forced her to find her own direction. Moira is realised as world-weary by Jennifer Hennessy; the joyful young mother of kittens of Gridlock is sidelined by Jackie Tyler’s more fatalistic and meaner counterpart, a concession perhaps to our more pessimistic age.
Updated 2130, 16 April 2017
The Avengers (ABC Television, 1961-1969, starring Patrick Macnee and many others, and nothing to do with Marvel Comics) and Doctor Who had significant overlap of personnel over the years. At one of my other blogs, The St James’s Evening Post, I review three episodes from the final (1968-1969) season, starring Macnee as John Steed and Linda Thorson as Tara King. Namechecked in direct relation to the episodes concerned (The Rotters, The Interrogators and The Morning After) are Terry Nation, The Dalek Invasion of Earth and Invasion of the Dinosaurs, as well as actors with Doctor Who experience including Jerome Willis, Peter Barkworth, Patrick Newell and Brian Blessed.
Last week saw the publication of issue 500 of Doctor Who Magazine, marked by a celebratory event on Saturday 28 May attended by several past and present contributors. I’ve been a reader of Doctor Who Magazine for most of my life, and have more recently contributed to its sister publication The Essential Doctor Who. I came on board with issue 2 of Doctor Who Weekly, cover dated 18 October 1979. ‘Marvel Comics presents Doctor Who Weekly‘ was an intriguing collaboration. I was familiar with Marvel through its UK reprint range as well as occasionally glimpsing US originals distributed in UK newsagents. As a devoted fan of the series and reader of the Target novelisations the idea of a weekly publication aimed at my age group – I was eight, nearly nine, at the time – it seemed a development which I couldn’t miss.
I was a week late as I hadn’t had the extra 2p to pay the cover price of issue 1 and so supersede the 10p TV Comic. I’d remained loyal to Polystyle’s slowly ailing anthology title – a slender sixteen pages by spring 1979 – out of what I suppose was even at the age of eight a scholarly interest in its progress, even though its Doctor Who comic strip had finished in May 1979. Indeed, as I later learned, some of the oddities I’d encountered in Doctor Who‘s last year in TV Comic were explained by the stories being reprints of first, briefly, Patrick Troughton and then Jon Pertwee stories. Such cost-cutting would never affect Doctor Who Weekly in the same way, where reprints would appear but never as the main title strip narrating the Doctor’s adventures. I was intrigued by the Marvel Classic Comics reprints in the centre pages, retitled Tales from the TARDIS and introduced by an intense portrait of Tom Baker, but clearly reminiscent of American film and television in their realisation of the British novels they retold. The back-up strips were imaginative applications of science-fiction comic values to the monsters of Doctor Who, often allowing them an emotional quality absent from many of their television appearances. The main comic strip itself, written for the first four eight-part stories (excluding the midway two-part filler Timeslip) by Pat Mills and John Wagner and drawn by Dave Gibbons, shifted the Doctor Who paradigm, worldbuilding with a breadth the television series could rarely attempt and a flair guaranteed to win fans of cinematic storytelling and children with aspirations to intellectualism alike. I can still remember the shock of seeing Latin (and I didn’t go to a school which taught it, but recognised it from reading about royal history and coins) appearing in a speech bubble in a Doctor Who comic.
The highlights, though, were the text features. I was at first apprehensive of Doctor Who non-fiction which didn’t come from the comfortingly authoritative pen of Terrance Dicks, whose Doctor Who Monster Book I’d read some years before. It was soon clear from the articles on the Doctor’s alien adversaries, largely written by Gordon Blows, that they substantially shared my childhood assumptions about how the fiction of Doctor Who worked. I was however wary of the occasional reaches beyond what I’d read in the novelisations or remembered from television. Gordon Blows’s imagining the Doctor anguishing over whether he should eliminate the Krynoids in issue 12 is lodged in my memory as something that didn’t convince. Perhaps this was because I couldn’t find the sentiment in the novelisation Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom.
Most influential on me, of course, were Jeremy Bentham’s articles telling the story of Doctor Who from the beginning. On the autumn and winter Thursday evenings at the end of 1979 and the start of 1980, I was transported to the mid-1960s and devoured tales of the Aztecs and the Sensorites, of the imprisonment of Barbara and Susan in the Conciergerie and the Doctor’s rout of the Dalek invasion of Earth. I respected too Jeremy’s brief ‘Comment’ boxes which sought to put each Hartnell-era story in historical context. These also alerted me to the existence of fan disputes: The Romans for example, was cited as a counter-example to arguments that comedy had only entered into Doctor Who in Tom Baker’s era. Sometimes Gordon and Jeremy collaborated, for example on the tw0-part ‘Inside the TARDIS’ feature, which one week featured Gordon’s interpretation of the capabilities of the TARDIS and another Jeremy’s.
After a little while the text features moved on from accounts of monsters, with a chart placing for the top twenty Doctor Who villains being followed by a history of UNIT. While UNIT were no longer part of the series they were familiar to viewers a little older than I was and to anyone who had read novelisations of early 1970s stories. The article used some licence in tracing UNIT’s roots to The War Machines, though the extrapolation seemed reasonable at the time. The second part of the history concluded with a promise that Doctor Who Weekly readers would soon be able to become UNIT members! This seemed an offer of doubtful merit, I thought at the time.
The launch of the UNIT club (which I didn’t join immediately) turned out to be part of a repositioning of the comic which took place over a few weeks either side of issue 26, promoted as the ‘1st great new look issue!’ Dez Skinn had left Marvel UK and as a result Paul Neary had become editor with effect from issue 23. Like Dez Skinn, he was deeply versed in the world of comics as a fan and a professional, but drew different commercial lessons from his experience. Cover designs changed, Skinn’s philosophy of frantic straplines framing a strong central image being overturned in favour of competing pictures, whether of posters or Movellans or shots of Tom Baker as the Doctor, before comic strip artwork covers became the norm for seven weeks from issue 30.
I didn’t like these changes. The prose style of the retellings of William Hartnell stories changed from The Time Meddler, with dialogue exchanges appearing which included details which led me to doubt their authenticity. The first Doctor referring to Gallifrey was an obvious error to someone who knew that neither the Time Lords nor their planet had been introduced by then. After Galaxy Four the synopses disappeared, to be replaced from issue 26 by new illustrated text stories featuring the current (fourth) Doctor which failed to capture the characters of the television series or of the adjacent comic strip, where scripts were still in the hands (just) of Mills and Wagner. They had now introduced their own companion character, Sharon, a black schoolgirl from industrial working-class probably northern England, whose retention in the TARDIS at the end of Doctor Who and the Star Beast had surprised me as I didn’t particularly expect to find child characters in Doctor Who, still less those who didn’t speak BBC drama serials English and made jokes about mortgages, and I am fairly sure that I regarded her as usurping Romana’s rightful place by the Doctor’s side.
The work of Mills, Wagner and Gibbons aside, Doctor Who Weekly seemed to have lost its self-respect, and I think it was only about then that I went back and cut out the pin-ups from earlier issues. If Doctor Who Weekly didn’t respect its own integrity, why should I? Ironically there was little from the relaunched title which I wanted on my wall. Worse was to come. The Marvel Classics reprints were replaced from issue 30 by hideously dated and often condescendingly written time travel comic stories from the Marvel archive. From issue 33 more and more pages were devoted to a comic strip of mysterious origins, The Dalek Tapes, whose pictures and script, in an old-fashioned but recognisably British style, had to be discerned through incredibly heavy greyscale or, later, were reproduced at a contrast level which led black lines to almost disappear from the page with consequences for legibility. I didn’t know where the strips came from, though would have realised if I had known that the Daleks had enjoyed the back page of TV Century 21 for two years, though I already knew that comic had existed and been dominated by Gerry Anderson characters. Within Doctor Who Weekly, The Dalek Tapes seemed at the time to be chiefly another blight on the title’s previously consistent production and content quality, though the better the reproduction the better I regarded the story – perhaps this is why so many of my generation of readers seem to have fond memories of the tale of Zeg and his attempt to dethrone the Emperor Dalek, as it’s one of the most successfully printed of these tales intended for colour photogravure rather than monochrome litho on low-grade paper.
Gradually as the 30s wore on things began to recover. Jeremy Bentham seemed to have been banished to the new mock-news and factual snippets page, Gallifrey Guardian, and Gordon Blows was no longer required. However, Gallifrey Guardian started to carry occasional news stories about the forthcoming eighteenth season or new Target books and would occasionally hint at older fan circles beyond the weekly’s readership. Eventually in issue 40 the retellings of old stories returned, and it was more than a sufficient apology for their absence for the resumption of the synopses to be advertised on the cover, but no longer as a chronological progression through the Hartnell years. Regular allusions were made in the latter weekly pages to the Randomiser which during season 17 helped the Doctor evade the Black Guardian and this justified the mix of material. This allowed a theme of the ‘new look’ issues, photo-features on recently transmitted season 17 stories, to be extended back to the Key to Time season, or for the UNIT page (I’d eventually signed up to the UNIT club so as not to miss out on this aspect of the weekly) to spin off multi-page ‘special reports’ such as the article on The Green Death in issue 43, which also restored some of the historical contextualisation previously dropped. The prose style largely returned to that seen in the earlier weekly issues. The back-up comic strips Black Legacy and Business as Usual (starring the Cybermen and the Autons respectively) had a pleasingly grim character and I am sure I realised that the Moore who wrote these was probably not Steve Moore, who had from issue 35 taken over the main comic strip from Mills and Wagner.
Then, following issue 43, it was over. I remember digesting the news from the contents page editorial – apparently written and signed by the Doctor as an extension of the earlier ‘Letter from the Doctor’ feature – that ‘as of next week Dr Who Weekly will become a monthly comic – bigger and better than ever before!’ while walking round Waudby’s supermarket and contemplating the purple grapes which seemed identical in shade to the background colour on that final weekly issue. A letter from the editor on the letters page – Who Cares! – reinforced the message. Doctor Who Weekly thereafter turned into Doctor Who Monthly, which for its first issue came across even at the time as a hastily-assembled compilation of material already commissioned for Doctor Who Weekly. At least one unused weekly cliffhanger in the main comic strip, Dragon’s Claw, could be picked out. The longer reprinted comic strips from the 1950s and 1960s were happily removed and stopped from crowding out both the text features and the new comic stories which more closely reflected the tastes of 1980. Quite quickly, though, Doctor Who Monthly began to find an editorial direction which solidified after issue 50 and the adoption of a house style closer to Marvel’s science fiction and fantasy film magazine Starburst than to its mostly juvenile US reprint comic titles. In hindsight, moving to a less frequent publishing schedule just before a new series of Doctor Who started was an odd move, but Marvel had lost their way with the title and the move to a monthly schedule identified a sustainable forward path which probably calmed financial planners characterised by later writers as unnerved by the rollercoaster of fluctuating weekly sales. At the time, the new format certainly flattered the serious-minded child, such as myself.
Doctor Who Monthly first appeared in my local newsagent a week after the advertised publication date, and until 1984 it would often turn up in my region four and even six weeks late. It made up for its erratic distribution by building a closer relationship with John Nathan-Turner’s production office and making more information about the series available than ever before. Its presence and its dialogue with readers and programme-makers transformed Doctor Who from a well-loved television programme to a fully-fledged pop-folk-cultural activity, even if readers and programme makers weren’t quite ready for what that might mean. These, however, are other stories.
Doctor Who at Christmas is increasingly a difficult beast to shepherd into a pen. The two most recent series have felt more like
mainstream mid-evening BBC drama rather than the ‘drama for a light entertainment slot’ of 2005. Consequently the Christmas episodes feel increasingly like a drastic change in tone. Even the grading seems to be different, with the colour palette seeming brighter, returning to the blue with flashes of other primary colours of the Matt Smith era Christmas specials.
The highlight was the typically vigorous performances of both Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston, of course; but de
spite a good start I failed to be held by these alone in the way I hoped, despite some strong moments of repartee. There was too much emphasis on a denial of sparkle between the Doctor and River, rather than on its existence. Likewise the business with the robot and its switching heads seemed underplayed and undramatic and lacked sufficient sleight of hand to convince; nor were the decapitated characters depicted with sufficient sympathy to make me feel for their plight. There were so many still backgrounds or illustrations which I thought would have been animated a few years ago too.
Perhaps I’ll revisit it and find it more enjoyable another time. I don’t like being negative about the series, and am glad to see from some early reactions that that it did engage and entertain several others.
My sister thought this was all very moving and it reminded her of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its preoccupation with death and how characters learn to relate to it. The roots of modern Doctor Who are still showing.
As for what I thought, I had previews access for the Doctor Who News Page and lots of time on my hands, so my reaction – principally a rather long commentary based on my not-quite-second-by-second viewing notes – appear there. We didn’t see the ‘Next Time’ trailer or the freestanding trailer which appeared immediately afterwards, though; the change in tone and an embrace of the larger-than-life will be of some use in repairing relations with a section of the audience which seems to have been alienated by the last two seasons despite their high quality. A pity that it appears we will have to wait longer than usual for the episode after that, but we await confirmation.
Doctor Who just undertook one of its sudden, jarring lurches into resolving a series arc that many won’t have realised was there, and undertook it as an almost one-hander single play placed between two episodes that perhaps didn’t strictly need it, an interior dialogue which shows off Peter Capaldi as a humane, incisive performer as no previous Doctor Who story has done. It takes diamond to cut diamond. This Doctor, seemingly so callous and indifferent for most of his first year, is of course by no means immune to despair and while it’s an invidious and even meaningless comparison, I can’t imagine Matt Smith handling the moment where the Doctor realises that he’s just one in a series of reconstituted Doctors who will make his imperceptible mark on the wall in room 12 in quite as affecting a way as Capaldi.
The evidence that this was a prison tailored for the Doctor was evident almost from the start, though it took me as long as the Doctor to realise what the skulls actually were and why the stars weren’t where the Doctor thought they should be. The postponement of the solution to the puzzle was often frustrating, perhaps because even with the CGI castle it was difficult to get a sense of scale… and I did wonder why the Doctor didn’t try attacking the Veil with the spade, though perhaps that would have opened up too many avenues of horror even for a Doctor Who which hovers on the watershed. The threat from the Veil was left undefined and it was right to leave it uncertain until the Doctor was at the diamond wall that its touch was lethal – after so much emphasis on theatre, on making the Doctor feel afraid, it was horrific that it did deal out death after all, just allowing the Doctor enough time to return in agonised defeat to the first square of the game with no conscious advantage.
Murray Gold is unfairly maligned as a composer; his score was suitably eclectic for this story, reminding me of the use of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in John Boorman’s film Zardoz and its intimations of mortality. I see from other reviews the episode made nods to the subject matter of recent films and games. The idea of a cycle of life repeating itself until it can be broken out from is an old one, though, the matter of religious truth before it was the stuff of fiction. Doctor Who commentator J.R. Southall has observed that where Russell T Davies used the trappings of religious faith, Steven Moffat draws on the substance. Here at least Moffat draws on Dantean notions of hell with the Doctor needing to move from circle to circle to receive his prize; in contrast to Sartre, Hell isn’t the presence of other people but of missing one in particular.
There were a few visual references to earlier episodes. At one point the Veil loomed over the Doctor much as the Fisher King had in Before the Flood. The watery setting was also a reminder of that story. The castle gallery recalled something of the interiors seen in The Woman Who Lived. The Veil turns out to have clockwork elements, looking back to Deep Breath and Steven Moffat’s first journey upon the Slow Road, The Girl in the Fireplace. The clockwork castle itself expanded upon the motif seen in Ashildr’s house in Face the Raven and through the current title sequence to The Invasion of Time. Where other older Doctor Who stories are concerned, the Doctor Who SFX account on Twitter has noticed the visual parallels with Warrior’s Gate and its monochrome stills of Powis Castle; but the revelation that the Doctor’s prison is within his own confession dial, a miniaturised self-renewing environment, reminded me of Carnival of Monsters – a more avowedly grim realisation of Vorg’s already obscene miniscope. This is a story to which the Doctor Who industry has returned to in the arena show Doctor Who: The Monsters Are Coming! in 2010, so Steven Moffat has form.
This episode was also definitely part of the Moffat oeuvre: journeys billions of years in the making, management of one’s own thoughts so intense that one can be cut off from time, the classroom and its attributes as both revealing of the self and as the home of narrative; intangible childhood traumas brought into the material world; and deaths which though deaths shall have no dominion. Finally, a reappropriation of dialogue from his own earlier episodes and a suggestion that nineteen years on the TV Movie will be vindicated – is the Doctor half-human on his mother’s side after all, or is Ashildr the promised hybrid? Or both of them?
Heaven Sent achieved its ends. The languidity was part of the experience – the boredom and frustration of what seems like eternity, but which is just a very, very long time. Even the terror of the Veil becomes a tedium to manage; it’s what makes its final purpose so horrific. It’s an exercise in watching the Doctor’s self-discipline and his resourcefulness with almost no tools and no allies to hand except his own knowledge and intellect. The control which Capaldi gives the Doctor as he steps out onto the soil of Gallifrey is memorable for many reasons; it’s a powerful counterpoint to the audience’s own relief. Escape, the Doctor knows, is not possible without changing fabric and structure, and he sets off it seems to do just that.
I’m somewhat Whoed out after an enjoyable day at the Doctor Who Festival at ExCeL in east London, but still imagine the pressure to produce an early review, so offer that I was very impressed by Sleep No More. The performances of many of the guest cast were uneven and difficult to believe in, I found; but this is Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman’s show and it remained so, Capaldi channelling his actor’s professional intensity into the Doctor’s driven, directed curiosity and his concern for human good even when humanity has forgotten what that good is. Given Capaldi’s past statements might be read as suggesting his reservations about the commercialisation of Doctor Who, it’s not surprising to see him convey so well the Doctor’s digust at a human society where productivity, competition and profit have entirely overtaken the common good. Mark Gatiss has been an outspoken critic of attacks on the BBC and it’s not surprising to see him take on the cult of the financial transaction as the index of human relationships here; perhaps, without soiidarity and without the acknowledgement that we need time to distinguish our essential selves from our careers, our greed and desire for advantage, we might as well be no more than dead cells and mucus.
The realisation left a little to be desired; the sets were as stark and functional as one would expect, and the Morpheus pods a little more bright and exotic, as if representing a process which is sold to people with dancing and singing and sentiment dating from America in the 1950s, remembered (however selectively) as an age of optimism and prosperity. However, as has been the case for much of this season and the one before, lighting and grading conspired to lend a general greyness to proceedings when one needed the contrast between dark and what light there was.
I’d seen a Sandman emerge from behind the sofa shared by Mark Gatiss and Kate Walshe of Millennium FX on the Festival stage earlier; it was alarming then, and their appearances here were photographed to effect. Like the Silence, they draw on Munch’s Scream, but represent a further iteration of Hell on Earth; our fears, suppressed, now take life from our cast-offs and in this new form digest us. I had suspected the twist regarding Rasmussen would occur in some form and part of the tension came from wondering when he would take on sandy form.
I’m not familiar with the evolution of the found footage genre in cinema since the days of The Blair Witch Project, which is now an alarming distance away; no doubt if I was I’d have had slightly different expectations of this episode. The story, we assume for the future of humanity, continues successfully on Triton; the Doctor, Clara and Nagata persuade or subvert the authorities and destroy the Morpheus machines and remove or overwrite the signal which triggers the Sandman-creating process. Nevertheless the horror is supernatural and potentially able to replicate itself; and according to this interview with Mark Gatiss at Blogtor Who, the Doctor has lost this round and there will be a rematch. The disintegration of Rasmussen will surely linger in children’s memories.
Lastly it was good to see Jenna Coleman playing Clara for an entire episode and not being overwritten or marginalised; while her curiosity compromised her – though the incorporation of an assertive and inquisitive companion into a ‘system’ reminded me of Sarah Jane Smith’s cryogenic preservation in The Ark in Space – she took charge and in two symbolic instances, naming the Sandmen and in opening the TARDIS door (and there was, I note, presumably sand in the keyhole with time-travelling aspirations) asserted her right to be considered a magician herself, not just the apprentice. Festival-goers were warned by Steven Moffat that what is coming for Clara is tragic and life-ruining. As we enter the gateway to the finale, tonight’s heroic dash to the TARDIS might be a last hurrah.
We didn’t need the Z-67, then. (‘Zee’ sixty-seven. Another small sign that this is an international series for a global market.) It was all long gone. The threat, or the temptation, of destruction was enough. The Zygons were never going to be turned inside out at a physical level, but they and human beings have to have their perceptions inverted again and again and again. The solution to the Zygon rising isn’t a happy one. People from both human and Zygon species are killed. It’s difficult to see Bonnie’s instruction to stand down having the effect on her fellow Zygon rebels which the script seems at first glance to suggest. I’d initially thought that the reference to this being the sixteenth time the Doctor has gone through the Osgood box version of Deal or No Deal was that there had been fifteen previous separate Zygon risings, but Andrew Ellard on Twitter has pointed out that this is the more problematic interpretation and the idea that this is the sixteenth version involving these participants makes more sense. Until reading this I’d thought that the point was that the ceasefire has broken down before and will break down again. It’s a striking, perhaps worrying, utilitarian line for Doctor Who to take: the Doctor will keep coming back to minimise the number of deaths and damage to self-knowledge in the hope of saving as many as possible; but changing the mind of just one, in the right place, might be enough, or the most that can be hoped for. It’s a compromise and compromises are messy; but there is a future visible where the difference between human and Zygon is no longer of importance, something perhaps difficult even for the Doctor to grasp. Assimilation is mutual and subtle even if the Zygons have been smuggled in and disguised by an organisation operating beyond the state and outside democratic control.
Social media, with the exception of a few people with reservations and perhaps deliberate contrarians, emerged from their pods in force to cheer The Zygon Inversion. Peter Capaldi’s speech in particular was loved. This was a little overlong, but was still a bravura delivery of a clever relation of the Zygon peace to the Time War (of which the Zygons, lest we forget, were victims), the bleak efficacy of mutually assured destruction scenarios, and a reminder of the place which Clara Oswald has in the Doctor’s cosmology. I don’t know how Capaldi’s drawing quite specifically on Hughie Green’s delivery and catchphrase when in his game show host persona played with those who don’t remember Green; did it work as generically as presumably hoped?
This wasn’t entirely brilliant. I found some of the journey of the Doctor and Osgood a little flat; the Union Jack parachute was an odd touch, a sideswipe at an outdated model of James Bond, perhaps, a sign that someone somewhere has anxieties about the Doctor’s mode of heroism, or perhaps to underline how awkward this ‘president of Earth’ nonsense sits with the Doctor’s traditionally less bombastic way of doing business. Who, I wondered, was flying the UNIT plane, and did they escape? They had time…[EDIT – looking at the Doctor-Osgood exchanges again, she does some nice deconstruction and remembered analysis of the Doctor’s behaviour and methodology – ‘You’re talking nonsense to distract me from being really scared’ – and is ahead of him at times because she’s got the emotional distance and focus to help him along. She’s too accomplished and too much of the fan-scholar to be a long-term companion, though, and this story gives her a firm and distinguished place in the series’ mythology.]
Amidst the failure, for me, of the Doctor-Osgood conversation to spark – despite the Doctor’s becoming, during it, a smiling figure more at peace with his existence – was the grisly and emotionally pained depiction of the Zygon forced to ‘normalise’ and go into hiding, unable to fully maintain a human shape, in the grocer’s. The make-up on Nicholas Asbury as Etoine was suggestive of a plague victim, with swollen glands and sores, as well as a reminder of the imagery of ulceration and bodies turned inside out, of overgrown malformed embryos, upon which the Zygon design draws. Both suggest the ambiguity of human beings’ (or at least western, Atlantic Anglophone culture’s) tendency to look for the unlike and unfamiliar, grouping difference with disease; Etoine’s suicide, arising from mistrust of the Doctor and Osgood but also a rejection of what Bonnie insisted he must become, was overwhelmingly sad but also helped turn around an episode which I wasn’t greatly committed to until then.
This two-parter has again sidelined the complicated Clara as a character while maintaining her as a symbol. Portraying the dual Clara/Bonnie felt a little like a graduation piece for Jenna Coleman, but it can be said that she passed. Clara’s dreamscape might have seemed like an old Steven Moffat trope, but it was used to illustrate how interwoven Zygon and human were and emphasise Clara’s strength of character beyond the ‘control freak’ label bandied about with freedom by Missy. Bonnie as angry adolescent motivated by an ideal of a society which would emerge from victory without any clear idea of the process by which that ideal would be built and maintained is a topical figure, recognisable to anyone who has seen a Boko Haram video. Taking Clara’s form and her memories, it’s stated, compromises her from the beginning, but also suggests that the Zygons are not otherable, but are part of us. Like Clara, she’s controlling and manipulative, but far more ruthless and far less able to see the consequences of her actions. There has been some concern expressed that Bonnie was able to escape with her crimes unpunished; but the point was surely that she is a transformed person, without and within. Kate leaves with her memory wiped because she still pressed the button [EDIT: No, she didn’t! Why did I think that?] (and Doctor Who needs her to go forward with science in her brain and gun in her hand – five rounds rapid, again). Bonnie does not because she understands and carries the burden of her crimes. Becoming a new Osgood is an extreme form of self-sentenced community service.
At the end of the day, though, it’s Capaldi’s confident handling of the Doctor as teacher-hero which lingers in the memory. He’s been around two thousand years but he’s not a messiah, just someone managing his own messiah complex by doing the best he can, and not blind to the unpleasantness which transpires along the way as a result. He can’t condemn Kate as she kills her way through the Zygons in self-defence; and she knows it. While I found the ‘Doctor Disco’ business tiresome, that’s a response the episode expects; this isn’t so much a man in mid-life crisis as a man suffering from second regeneration cycle or unexpected fourteenth life trauma, and sublimating his concern about his place in events.
[EDIT: One further note is that the Doctor is making a habit of making people like himself. Clara has been portrayed as a second Doctor with her own adventures and companions. Ashildr/Me is someone he changes into an immortal and then groups with him as ‘people like us’. Now Bonnie is praised for thinking ‘like me’. Messiah and very naughty boy at once, the Doctor recruits through words and touch, but his truth is not in charge of the consequences.]
Random thoughts rather than anything structured:
There’s a theme emerging from the middle part of this season: the eclipse of Clara Oswald. Jenna Coleman has had some great scenes this year, and when I first wrote here that Clara had been sidelined it absolutely wasn’t true. Perhaps it’s that Clara is no longer an ingénue, but an experienced time traveller who gains her own companions but who more often than not ‘runs’ plotlines not directly associated with the Doctor. Consequently she felt set aside from the main action for Before the Flood, was overshadowed for some of The Girl Who Died once she’d helped establish Ashildr, and was almost entirely absent from The Woman Who Lived. Both Clara and Jenna Coleman remain central to this series, but in The Zygon Invasion Clara’s absence becomes a problem, first for the Doctor when Clara doesn’t pick up the phone, and then for the audience as they realise that the grammar of this episode, with its narrative jump cuts, has provided ample opportunity for Clara to be replaced by a Zygon. For most of the episode the character fulfilling Clara’s role, though slightly more clipped, more arrogant and with a disregard for life, behaves much as the viewers might expect the Doctor-like Clara seen emerging in Before the Flood and The Girl Who Died to behave Is the audience is meant to think that Clara’s life is growing away from the Doctor’s, earlier indications to the contrary?
The Zygon Invasion is an episode which shows off its roots. The pre-credits sequence at first seems calculated less to introduce viewers to concepts and characters they might not have known, and instead play with the form of the flashback and the expectations of viewers with strong memories of The Day of the Doctor. While it might make fans of a certain vintage who consider themselves media-savvy wince, given that story’s popularity and reception it seems a reasonable gamble to have taken. The Doctor is introduced playing ‘Amazing Grace’, another performance of which (with bagpipes) accompanies a scene of alien pods being unloaded in the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It might also remind fans of Grace Holloway, the woman who brought to an end the life of the seventh Doctor but was nevertheless saved by the eighth; perhaps there will be story elements here which will make the Doctor wish he could turn back time. While it’s probably just a case of enjoying a good relationship with the Ministry of Defence and knowing that a flexible location is available, the use of Sennybridge Training Area for the Zygon-occupied village in Turmezistan, with its reminder of the town of Christmas and the Doctor’s regeneration into his present form might be point towards the Doctor’s own identity crisis (as the eponym of hybrid forms – ‘Doctor Disco’ and ‘Doctor Funkenstein’) and the greater ones both exhibited and suffered by the Zygons. The blonde junior school girls who turn out to be the Zygon high command have something of the Midwich Cuckoos about them too.
The awkwardness of ‘Turmezistan’ reminds me that while the episode was entertaining and polished it was built upon rough allegorizing. Perhaps to achieve anything in a time of shrill confrontationalism and entrenched positions, a politics of which group might be sacrificed for the interest of the many, taking familiar phrases from news coverage of contemporary conflicts and placing them in the context of Doctor-versus-monsters. The Zygon Invasion picks up one of the challenges left by The Woman Who Lived; what happens to the situations from which the Doctor runs away. Here, the Doctor is visibly trying to stop one of his earlier fixes unravelling. We are placed as close as we can be to the Doctor attempting to sort out a real world issue, but the parallels can’t be exact. Nevertheless, painting the Zygons as the ‘Brits’ who occupy a town in New Mexico, or (though not specifically identified as British) in Turmezistan, offers a multitude of comparisons, both with the British state and its antagonists as well as non-combatants, and more thought, for good or ill, seems to have gone into this aspect of the script than the weapons of mass destruction jokes thrown into Aliens of London by Russell T Davies at his most auteurish.
There’s perhaps a cynicism underlying current Doctor Who, too, or at least a lack of the starry-eyed idealism of golden ages which I disliked ten years ago. Long-term viewers with encyclopedic knowledge of the series must be expected to think that the UNIT scientist who developed a biological weapon to use against the Zygons at Porton Down was Harry Sullivan. While fans have understandably been outraged at the idea that one of the Doctor’s companions could enable genocide, it’s not as if the Doctor has entirely avoided this himself (the Master’s observation at the Doctor’s elimination of the Sea Devils in the novelisation of The Sea Devils points this out) and allowing Harry both to do his job and potentially feel a need for revenge on the Zygons who kidnapped him and stole his form in order to harm his friends is an acceptable character development. We can’t exclude the possibility that he turned himself and his invention in to the Doctor, either…
The Zygon Invasion kept its pace going and maintained tension, largely by implanting theatre within theatre. Bonnie’s luring of Jac with what turned out to be a similar but elaborated strategy to that which she had used earlier to ensnare Clara, and the question of whether the police officer in Truth or Consequences or Kate would turn out to be the Zygon – for drama demanded that one of them had to be – spread seeds of doubt and expectations (not met, yet at least) of double bluff. My main regret at the realisation is that the story can’t quite be told on the scale it demands – almost everywhere is deserted, though the great set piece Zygon underground base saw a suitably large number of Zygons face a mob of UNIT troops, though we didn’t see them actually fight. The largely off-screen Zygon transformation scenes also drew attention to the care with which the effects budget now has to be spent. I have, at least, no clue as to how the Doctor will escape what seems to be certain death, unless he, Osgood and their blood-orange chum (and sorry, script, Zygons aren’t to my mind ‘blobby’ as ‘suckery’, and compared to their 1975 predecessors there aren’t quite enough suckers or ulcers or whatever the technical term is on their bodies) are actually on another plane altogether. I’m not greatly keen on this president-of-the-world stuff, even if its repetition probably means it is going somewhere within the twelfth Doctor’s arc. So, I like this episode but with reservations!
I was again on previews duty this week for the Doctor Who News Page’s reviews site, so my review of The Woman Who Lived can be found there. I’ve enjoyed the exchanges since. For example,on Twitter, Kat W has pointed out that this episode reinforced Steven Moffat’s emphasis on an adult’s reconciliation with their childhood self as the most important part of identity, citing particularly The Eleventh Hour and the Doctor’s rejoinder to Amy’s insistence that she has ‘grown up’, ‘I’ll soon fix that’. They add that Ashildr’s regally bright red and gold dress not only flatters Leandro as an analogy with Charles II, but also presages her own restoration, to centrality of identity. On LiveJournal, philmophlegm has related Ashildr to Neil Gaiman’s Hob Gadling in the Sandman series, and the tavern setting reinforces that. Daniel Saunders has brought up the witch-hunting sequence, coding Ashildr/Me as dangerous to the peasants or admirable to the audience, a standard-bearer for viewer-friendly modernity. Elsewhere, Harry Ward has pointed out that the house was the same as that used in The Unicorn and the Wasp, and we seem to have been expected to notice. I’ve not gone through many other reviews, but liked Patrick Mulkern’s elaborate and evocative reaction for Radio Times.
As I’ve said elsewhere, on a second viewing I realised that dialogue placed the episode in 1651, and that I could have placed more emphasis on the lightness of touch with serious issues and the precision-cutting with which the lines Ashildr and the Doctor exchanged examined their actions; Leandro’s face seemed more flexible than I thought on first impressions too.