It’s been a Doctor Who-intensive week, with one thing and another; and one cannot live by Doctor Who alone. So this review is posted somewhat later than I would have ideally liked.
Thin Ice has been widely praised and deservedly so. I enjoyed the episode’s treatment of Regency London, more black than it was in the movies and yes, perhaps more black than it would have appeared to many of those in London on 4 February 1814. This story, though, was set by the Thames, where London was at its most diverse and a large proportion of Britain’s trade came, often to be re-exported. The Frost Fair allowed the sons and daughters of Empire, the children of unions of no or doubtful legality or those made across social class and colour in the colonies and trading posts, to emerge from their protracted schooling or clerkships, their domestic service or their soldiering, or even, now and again, their unexpected but substantial wealth, and mingle with those from around the world who were just off ship, and perhaps not feel so odd and tolerated by an ambivalent society. It’s entirely likely that Bill would recognize this feeling and share it, and we see the crowd through her eyes. The companion has been explicitly identified before as the series narrator – Doomsday was the last story Rose would ever tell, and BBC America viewers in 2010 saw an introductory narration from Amy at the start of each episode which framed Doctor Who as her story – the young woman whose childhood imaginary friend turns up the night before her wedding and takes her away from everything.
Bill is a step away from the Amy model, back towards Rose – the ‘mystery’ she holds for the Doctor isn’t that she embodies a fantastical problem to be solved, but that her reactions are human and early-twentysomething and the Doctor is non-human and two thousand years old (at least). Thin Ice as we see it is Bill’s adventure – her experience, her casting, and it is right that we should see the story that way. However, there’s more to this ‘diverse’ London than boosting Bill. The London of 1814 was a few decades beyond Ignatius Sancho keeping his shop in Westminster, and of Olaudah Equiano campaigning for the rights of enslaved Africans; Dido Belle had been dead ten years, but Joseph Emidy was alive and was a celebrated musician, and Britain was eighteen years away from the election of its first known non-white MP, John Stewart. Bill’s reality needs to be our reality because it’s the memory Britain had to be prodded to remember after more than a century of it being painted out.
Pearl Mackie has a marvellous expressive face, and feet which can show off the most daintily laced boots. These are the slightest representations of her range. Her disgust at the Doctor’s apparent lack of concern for Smiler’s fate makes us feel the conflicts – how can we put our trust in the Doctor when he seems to show such little concern for human life? We are also unable to judge the Doctor ourselves because Bill is our narrator; for me, the Doctor’s calculations as he moved across the ice were based around saving the boy and the screwdriver, but circumstances meant that the screwdriver had to be saved if nothing else was. Bill as yet knows little about it nor understand what it means to the Doctor. The viewer is caught between choices made by the director, camera operator, editor, performers and writer among others and they have to make their decisions about their own impressions of a scene as it plays out before them. I thought that there was a lot of room for a more compassionate reading of Peter Capaldi’s performance than many found, but the emphasis in editing was on Bill’s interpretation of events.
Capaldi’s Doctor, though, remains much more approachable than in previous series, but without losing his edge. In reading from Struwwelpeter to the children, he’s refusing to conform to twenty-first century ideas of responsible guardianship while at the same time showing his appreciation of children’s attraction to the gruesome. He’s reading Hoffman thirty years before publication, which suits the Doctor’s philosophy of not worrying too much about the consequences of intervention in the human past. The scene nevertheless might point towards the Doctor’s irresponsibility at breaking his oath by travelling in space and time away from twenty-first century Earth. He thrives on crisis, and wants to promote it.
The realisation of the frozen Thames was striking, with enough shadow of Canaletto’s riverside views from sixty or seventy years before in them to convince me, while depicting an altogether more rumbustious river scene than he did. The design of the handbills and posters was believable too, resembling real survivors or images seen on early photographs from twenty or thirty years later, though a street nameplate seen looked distressingly modern and digital. Costuming was astute with the Doctor and Bill firmly in the middle or upper middle of a society otherwise seen at its extremes.
For an episode about a trapped marine creature and a frozen river, it’s not perhaps surprising that the episode felt it needed more buoyancy. I’d have enquired about the colour grading too. We need more warmth against the cold on a Saturday night. It’s a pity we couldn’t have seen more of the river serpent or of Lord Sutcliffe, the monsters below and above the water. Sutcliffe was credibly petty, his vision hobbled by greed, but we saw less of him than we might have done. His villainy was based in the cruelty of his time, but there was room for the viewer to have seen more of his schemes and how they might have played out in practice. I’m sure the residents of Fairford – a Gloucestershire village associated with one of the major political families of the period, the Hills, marquesses of Downshire, and latterly with a forthcoming open-minded literary festival – are happy that Sutcliffe is not wanted in the Fairford Club.
Thin Ice, though, was a very good Doctor Who story indeed, not only for its muscular liberalism as the Doctor referenced Captain America number one’s cover in a scene recorded several months before someone punched American ultra right-wing leader Richard Spencer, but also for its sense of design and its vivid sketching of a historical place and time through costume, setting and modelwork as well as through dialogue and performance. The Doctor doesn’t overthrow the established order in this story, but in endowing the children, though Perry, with the Sutcliffe inheritance, he does shift it a little towards the society we hope we know or would like to see, an optimistic note in troubled times.
I’ve written this story up for Doctor Who Reviews, the Doctor Who News site’s reviews section. The review was based on an advance viewing copy. I didn’t find
room for the line of continuity between Invasion of the Dinosaurs, The Beast Below and Robot of Sherwood (compilations of images and sound on a screen depicting unpalatable depictions of the truth) and might read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon tonight, as Frank Cottrell Boyce has Tweeted that it was an influence – but I’m not displeased with this review, nor with the story.
I’ve reviewed The Return of Doctor Mysterio as the additional reviewer for the Doctor Who News Page, and you can find the review here. Look at Matt Hills’s lead review for the site too – it makes lots of excellent points, including recognising the breakthrough in Bill’s line about using the toilet on the TARDIS.
The schools in Sheffield were very different.
Certainly – and this school in the displaced location of Shoreditch-on-Taff is very different from anywhere else. Coal Hill has been translated from its late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century redbrick incarnation in the Moffatverse into the gleaming antiseptic of an early twenty-first century academy, creaming off its brightest and the best while under the pressure to improve its results in science. The greenish hue of the walls suggests somewhere which needs to be wiped clean. There’s a lot of gore at Coal Hill Academy – people explode, Shadow Kin ooze across walls, members of staff are skinned alive and consumed. It’s not just the walls which are wiped clean, but memories too; the only way for students and staff to function is to block out the body count. At Coal Hill, we are told by a certain passing Time Lord, time has worn thin, and various unpleasant visitors are being drawn to its as to a beacon in space-time.
So far, so Sunnydale, and so Torchwood too. However, Class is its own entity. It has no Buffy nor a Captain Jack figure to act as the leader of action and centre of mystery. Greg Austin’s Charlie is carefully positioned to be neither surrogate-Doctor nor quasi-Buffy; he’s neither knowledgeable enough nor sufficiently open to fill either role. The other youthful leads are flawed too: Sophie Hopkins’s isolated, fragile-seeming but steely April knows she is seen as ‘nice’, her mother thinks she is ‘kind’, and she thinks she needs to be overtly ambitious. The mismatch between her and decorating (organising?) the Prom is evident to all – as she lets slip, it’s going to look great on her university application. One of the highlights of the first episode was April’s visualization of the home planet of Charlie and Miss Quill – this imagined kind and well-ordered world showed Charlie’s people dressed in old-style Coal Hill School uniforms, both a symbol of reassuring certainty for April but also a suggestion that, like school, this society was full of arbitrary self-justifying cruelties and that Miss Quill’s description of Rodea injustice and her resentment at her own ‘slavery’ is well-grounded.
Writer Patrick Ness and director Ed Bazalgette enjoy combining trauma with gags without diminishing the tragedy. The playing and filming of the murder of the cleaner in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo, complete with synchronized cigarette-falling, teases the idea that Ram will get covered in blood every single episode, but this isn’t South Park and Ram isn’t wearing an orange cagoule. A dominant theme in Class is dealing with grief – Ram (a braggartish and vulnerable performance by turns from Fady Elsayed) sees his girlfriend murdered and is only allowed to say that she has ‘disappeared’, at the same time as he mourns the death of his own confident social- and sporting-player self; Tanya’s father is dead; all of Charlie’s and Miss Quill’s people have been slaughtered. April’s mother, who has adjusted to a life beyond a point when she was expected to have died, directs us to the need to adjust in a world of dislocation. Finding meaning in a world of change is the message of Class from the theme song onwards – Coal Hill’s autumn prom is recognised in the script as something transposed from and trying to imitate American custom, April wondering aloud what ‘prom’ actually means as she prepares decorations for the hall. These are teenagers searching for identity in an environment with no deep-fixed cultural anchors and which deliberately deprioritizes kindness.
Thematically, Class involves, but there are problems with exposition. I wasn’t quite sure, though could infer, why Miss Quill’s gun seems to have killed Kevin and (it’s implied) almost killed April. Likewise, in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo I wasn’t quite sure who or what was doing the cleaning up after the flaying so quickly and easily. Presumably the dragons were very good at rapidly absorbing almost all a victim’s blood. The moral of the episode was laid on with too heavy a trowel too, with dialogue heavy in self-realization from Ram, though in part redeemed by canny juxtaposition with April playing the violin and ignoring the phone call from her absent, not-yet-discussed father.
After only two episodes, and aimed at a teleliterate audience, Class is playing with expectations. Mention of the governors by Mr Armitage and then in a different context by Miss Quill reminded me of the introduction of the Mayor through dialogue in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and poor Mr Armitage has gone the way of Buffy‘s original school principal in an even shorter space of time. There are worlds beyond Coal Hill Academy yet to explore – how great a role will the Cabinet of Souls play in the ongoing narrative? What is Mateusz’s fate – included in the Doctor’s injunction but ‘grounded’ by his religious and presumably homophobic father, is he to be the Suzi Costello or Jesse of the series, and his inevitable disposal is merely delayed?
Doctor Who fans, of course, were propitiated by the appearance of legendary costume designer June Hudson as a glamorous elderly woman in a shop complaining about the behaviour of her husband on the stairs… (I knew I should know who she was, but had to question the cast list…) and by the materialisation of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor during For Tonight We Must Die. Capaldi gave a less abrasive Doctor here than he has done so far in his own series, more at home with contemporary references (this is I think the first time the Doctor has shown he is aware of IKEA – does the sonic screwdriver dispense with the need for Allen keys?) and warmer towards other people without needing to hide behind dark glasses. This might augur well for the 2017 series of Doctor Who for those of us who appreciate Capaldi as an actor but think his version of the Doctor has been either too much of a Malcolm Tucker in the TARDIS (series 8) or archly working out his mid-life or new life crisis (series 9).
Class, though, is its own entity – and the third episode promises to develop the already self-possessed presence of Vivian Oparah’s Tanya as something gets its tentacles into the material and remembered worlds. For the moment, though, Class shows promise but still needs to find a stronger sense of its own place in the displaced world of streaming television.
Face the Raven had become over the last few weeks perhaps the most anticipated story of the season. A step-change in publicity had suggested that we were going to see an apparently freestanding episode cleverly turn itself into a crucial transition point for the series. A mystery of the week tale became a grand narrative of power and trust.
Face the Raven had faults, but its faults were overwhelmingly those of the season as a whole and not peculiar to the episode. The build-up to Clara’s death tends to have been through symbols told outside the narrative – the Abbey Road photoshoot, for example – rather than through storytelling itself. There hasn’t been enough consistent development for Clara’s recklessness nor her implied death wish. Her erratic and unstable regard for the Doctor oscillates between concern and respect and a determination to show her independence, whether by not returning his calls or by hatching plans of which she knows he would disapprove and which place both of them in danger. The series has been uncertain about how far it should present its lead characters as unlikeable. I winced at first at the device of having the Doctor and Clara enter from the end of an adventure perhaps more exciting than the one we saw last week (I’ve never felt so isolated among fellow Doctor Who devotees than I have been as a defender of Sleep No More, even as a fan of Love & Monsters) and at the return of the Doctor’s emotional response cards (I didn’t enjoy this conceit when it first appeared in Under the Lake, though there are many with whom it resonates strongly). A Doctor who is further removed from human existence than any we have seen before and a companion intent on following him are not easy people to spend time with. I don’t especially enjoy a Doctor engaged by a baby but unable to refer to it as anything but ‘the new human’, as if babyhood is a concept from which he has to protect himself. Likewise, by itself Clara’s joy at being suspended over London isn’t endearing, and we’ve not quite seen enough of Clara’s character development to justify it.
Yet my mistake here might be to regard Clara as the audience’s touchstone. It’s a role Clara herself has rejected, as if she could reach out from the fiction and deny writers and performer the chance to present her as an approachable identification figure, and that’s a mark of how well she has been drawn over the past few years. Nevertheless, throughout this episode there’s a doubt that developments regarding Clara, Ashildr and the Doctor’s arc have been adequately served by preceding episodes. For example, the confession dial is produced eight episodes after it was last a plot point. Additionally, the grafting in of Rigsy is an appropriate and creative reuse of the character, but his reintroduction doesn’t quite fit with where the character was left – and particularly left by Clara – towards the end of Flatline. It’s not the first time in twenty-first century Doctor Who that a viewer might be left with the sense that a twenty-two episode storyline has been forced into a much shorter structure, with resulting narrative loss and disjuncture.
There was much, much else to like about Face the Raven, however. Doctor Who has been a regular visitor to the present day since its return but this was the first episode for some years which displayed the sort of broad contemporary cultural literacy which was usual in Russell T Davies’s day. Internet folklore and urban anomie drawn on by Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling among others joined to comment upon the experience of moving to a city both futuristic and ancient at once whose geography is difficult to explain in the modern commercial language of urban development. The self-governing refugee camp, inventing its own rules and culture while it is hidden in plain sight by itself and the authorities of its host society, is a long-established political reality in many parts of the world. The ‘Trap Street’ in execution was perhaps too much like the prestigious buildings of the inns of court on one of the kinds of hidden street which does surprise when one comes across it in London, but the co-option of the architectural imagery we see is familiar shorthand for the deliberately hidden; Diagon Alley, as practically everyone recognises, transported to the needs of Doctor Who’s Cardiff-London, and maintaining Doctor Who’s connection with the symbols of modern folklore. The contrast was also necessary with Doctor Who’s continued use of the tower block as everyday residence, a 2005 co-option of the topology of the 1960s welfare state which gave birth to Doctor Who, and with the brief glimpse of Rigsy’s life a welcome nod here to social realism.
I really wish the locations could have been in London rather than Cardiff. The failure of the cityscape over which Clara dangles to match that which she, Rigsy and the Doctor explore on foot is noticeable in the absence of tall buildings especially; the ‘Great British Library’ another of those institutions which don’t exist in the real world when an amount of verisimilitude would have complemented the storytelling. Compromises are the product of necessity. It was something of a relief to enter the enclosed world of the Trap Street itself, controlled by lighting and grading and the studio.
Sarah Dollard’s writing ably sketched in a sense of fragile urban community. Her frightened, embittered, generous, loving aliens had a reality about them which a lesser hand could not have delivered. There were questions in the execution of the street which I didn’t think were resolved – if the lurkworms’ telepathic field made people see what they expected to see, did everyone in the street see each other as human, for example? This wasn’t made clear, but if so it can be justified as a rough peacekeeping measure. The logic behind the use of the quantum shade was more transparent, and was presumably based on Ashildr’s authority as mayor; she can provide the raven with a series of souls, where those who pass the chronolock on only have power over one person, and the final recipient – Clara in this case – is powerless because by agreement they have renounced authority. Dramatically, it’s brutally contractual but is a believable arrangement for the fractious society over which Ashildr rules.
A lot of the enjoyment in Face the Raven emerges from the performances. One wouldn’t know from the dialogue how pleased at first the Doctor is to see Ashildr again, but there’s warmth on Peter Capaldi’s face despite the gravity of the situation and Ashildr’s part in it. It’s necessary to re-establish Ashildr as a protegee with similarities to the Doctor – she asserts that she has adopted ‘Mayor’ as a title to live up to, as she understands the Doctor uses his – but there’s a coldness to Maisie Williams’s performance which confirms that this is someone more concerned about self-control than the Doctor, whose progress along ‘the slow road’ leaves her in a weak position, who has things to hide. As for the Doctor’s other protegee, Clara, she has a lot to hide too, even from herself; it’s Clara as much as Jenna who deploys Sarah Michelle Gellar-like shrugs to triangulate herself between the Doctor and Ashildr, needlessly asserting independence and instead seeming petulant and revealing her desperation.
The last several minutes of the story are dedicated to Clara’s death. The emphasis is on the present rather than the past, as it needs to be; there’s no catalogue of past incidents, just the first mention of Danny Pink by name this series, and several reminders of the legacy of the Time War. This has definitely been a season commissioned in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary, much as season 22 was of the twentieth, and while the references to the Doctor having been a warrior and indeed to the Doctor no longer being present are borne a little too heavily, they are preferable to the unco-ordinated calls to the past which littered the 1985 series. These serve a character point; the reason the Doctor is as angry and unapproachable as he often seems to be is that he has been painfully reminded of the warrior he can be. If the eleventh Doctor was the man who forgets, the twelfth Doctor is the whole man, the man who remembers. There’s a moment where Capaldi’s blink is synchronised with the sound of the beat of the raven’s wings, as the message that death can’t be cheated altogether is sinking in and with it the inevitability of Clara’s fate. The Doctor is a raven of a sort too.
The revelations surrounding Clara’s death are played out on the best-designed set in the episode. There are echoes of Ashildr’s Viking origins in the beams and the wood-carving, juxtaposed with the metallic puzzle-box which steals the Doctor’s key and binds the teleport bracelet to him, and the Metropolis-like art deco associations of the stasis capsule. Behind the capsule are panels reminiscent of the 2013 and 2014 versions of the TARDIS interior, and where the cross-beams in the Viking set might have been decorated with serpent heads here there are cogs and wheels reminiscent of the current title sequence and more remotely of the design of the Doctor’s presidential rooms in The Invasion of Time. Everything, the set seems to be saying, leads here; and it suggests that an old use of the third person plural in the series might be in play here.
The decision to play Clara’s death effectively as a silent film with a soundtrack was surely the right one. I don’t doubt Jenna Coleman’s ability to provide a piercing, rattling death-scream, but the way Clara’s acceptance of her fate and request of the powers that shape Doctor Who to ‘Let me be brave’ is followed by haunting Puccini-esque music and a very deliberate, attention-grabbing selection of images told a more layered story. The glimpse of Rump hearing Clara’s scream and realising what his explanation of the chronolock and the death sentence had led to, and the decision (or so it seems to me) for the actual moment of Clara’s death to take place off-camera, with Jenna’s eye-movements before the exhalation of the quantum shade suggesting consciousness, and during not, was brutal; we can follow the Doctor in his journey to wherever the teleport bracelet – time ring? – takes him, but not Clara. We leave her just before she leaves us.
Face the Raven is an inspiring Doctor Who debut for Sarah Dollard, whose understanding of character shines through. She finds and develops new purpose for Rigsy, who has much more to live for now than he did in Flatline but whose tag scene (so to speak) shows that he remains true, to borrow a phrase, to all his beliefs. As outlined above, there’s an agitational contemporaneity in the episode of which Sydney Newman might have been proud, though he’d probably have demanded more. The script deals with the emotional maturing of Clara Oswald well and it’s a pity its subject has been patchily served by those episodes which went before it. There isn’t always a point in every Doctor-companion relationship where they stop running – the Doctor/Rose relationship is built around the denial of an end point, even after Rose leaves the main narrative – but this was a more satisfying conclusion than many. Anything else has to be a coda to the main story. The Doctor is left by Clara with more self-knowledge and the strength to acknowledge this. Ashildr, meanwhile, is struggling with her inadequacies; like Clara, she has overreached herself but lacks as yet the courage to admit her mistakes. Face the Raven ends with a sense that characters have progressed several places which Doctor Who doesn’t get to convey as much as it perhaps should; it’s for this as much as its clear depiction of place and thematic convictions that I’ll remember Face the Raven.
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!
The circumstances in which a reviewer writes a review are assumed to be invisible, but on this occasion they are not. Last night’s context included pressure placed on myself to finish a review before I went to bed, having started later than usual; seeing the episode in a group of people mostly a generation younger than myself and my being sensitive to that fact. That particular environment, too, has wave upon wave of past associations, not necessarily bad and very many good, but which remind me of the transience of the present moment and how much it can depend on earlier situations. So my tendency to read episodes in the context of past Doctor Who was magnified. Having said this, new Doctor Who doesn’t live in a vacuum and audiences can be expected to judge it against the way they remember old Doctor Who – although not exclusively. There ought to be enough to surprise, and Doctor Who is always of its present moment. Looking at the split in opinion which has emerged overnight, there seems to be a divide between those who remember the episode being tense and frightening and provokingly disturbing, and those who were too distracted by past associations. Of the group with which I viewed the episode, positive assessments seemed overwhelmingly in the majority, too.
I introduced my review on Facebook as ‘Tired thoughts on tonight’s Doctor Who’. I was aware that they were disconnected but posted them anyway. I neglected some of the more interesting things about the episode or underdeveloped them. As I’m down for the Doctor Who News Page review of the next two episodes, I thought I needed to revisit last night and reassure myself and others that I did actually enjoy the episode.
I was led back to an old and possibly misleading question: who narrates Doctor Who? It could be easy to interpret The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar as a tale narrated by Clara with interjections by Missy, the Doctor’s dialogue with Davros being how someone who knows the Doctor well might have imagined it transpired based on what the Doctor told her. The introductory lecture by the Doctor establishes that this episode, whoever narrated Under the Lake, is ‘told’ by the Doctor: he is the narrative’s engineer, whether in reverse or forward motion. I spotted neither the Magpie Electronics logo on the guitar amp nor the clockwork squirrel on first viewing, and had to have the latter pointed out. Given that the Doctor ends up frustrating a plan to turn as many people as possible into transmitters, the metaphor of the radio being made into as harmless and as cherishable as a clockwork (red) squirrel is a reminder that the programme still has its soul.
It was easy to focus on the loss of O’Donnell. The programme has its cake and eats it; killing the military ex-intelligence officer who could offer insight into and to the Doctor and who is also a youthful woman who combines a professional manner with engaging exuberance. We are meant to be frustrated by her death, which closes doors for the audience as it does within the narrative for Bennett. She’s also been presented as a capable person and her value to the plot as a potential level head grows once Clara relays the news that the Doctor has a ghost. She presents herself as a manager, who can’t be left behind and delegated to while Bennett and the Doctor have adventures. Her death isn’t the result of recklessness, but of necessary decision-making – if they split up there is a chance one of them at least will escape the Fisher King – and bad luck. She is a companion here, making decisions comparable to Clara’s in the 2119 setting. O’Donnell’s death doesn’t have the casualness of Osgood’s; it is made to matter by all concerned: the Fisher King, Bennett, the Doctor and of course O’Donnell herself, whose dying words are her own message to the future.
The deserted town is as eerie a setting as the base; it’s light, but in the desaturated palette this season seems to like, it’s a twilight settlement like a dream detached from reality, an unsettlement if one prefers. It’s full of dolls, broken and otherwise, which in the viewer’s imagination might spring to unlife and complicate this story further. The only inert figure this happens to is the Fisher King. The Arthurian parallels are being untangled by others and it’s very possible that a more nuanced parallel was lost at an earlier draft; or perhaps the undeveloped symbolism of a wounded king in a waste land is enough. In any case he fails to be a Fisher King proper; because he is tricked into thinking his hooks and his bait are useless the knights he hopes will rescue him will never come, and instead he becomes food for fish, absorbed into the ecosystem he intended to conquer. He’s the second name this series with an association with Arthurian and especially Grail myth, the Doctor’s twelfth-century warrior friend and Dalek agent from The Magician’s Apprentice being Bors, who in the series prologue seemed to want to heal the Doctor of his sorrow. Louise Dennis has suggested that the Doctor might turn out to be more a fisher king in this season than the Fisher King of this story; but what is his wound, and who can heal it? It would certainly compliment the Fisher King’s accusation that the Doctor is a man lost in time who is less potent than he pretends. It’s possible that the TARDIS was unhappy at the start of the story because the Doctor was already present in the sarcophagus; or is there something else to be revealed?
In drawing attention to the reverse engineering of storylines, the episode acknowledges the convenience of Cass, whose deafness is required by the plot. Perhaps she is also a Fisher King, but she isn’t obviously seeking a cure for her wound. (If this is a lack of love, then her Perceval is Bennett for pointing out Lunn’s feelings for her.) She is presented as differently abled rather than disabled; in one of the tensest scenes in the episode, conscious that a ghost is following her, she measures the vibrations from the floor and correctly judges the moment to dive away from the falling axe and run through Moran’s ghost – an understated but effective visual reversing the established one of the ghosts walking through doors, walls and windows – and back to Clara without the need to revisit the encounter for her benefit. Cass is heroic and behaves ethically; she’s sensitive to the manipulation of others but knows that Clara is right to send Lunn off to his possible doom. Sophie Stone plays her with a contained and furious authority.
The middle period of the episode leaves the viewer pondering how the story is going to end; time is running out and the ghosts are in control of the base. It had been implied that Lunn had never looked at the inscription inside the space hearse, but it’s confirmed in this episode; but his invulnerability is also a vulnerability because it’s so fragile. There is every expectation that the ghosts might kill him anyway in another reverse. Instead he’s used as bait by the ghosts, the weaponisation of one’s bravery and compassion for another’s purpose being one of the themes of this episode. The Fisher King and the ghosts strip and invert the aims of the individuals they subvert; Clara and the Doctor co-ordinate for the common cause, however uncompromisingly.
There was much underplaying to enjoy too: Morven Christie and Arsher Ali maintained character perfectly with little dialogue in the earlier 1980 scenes, and while a lot of attention has been given to Peter Seafinowicz and Corey Taylor as the vocal talents behind the Fisher King, his movements were provided by Neil Fingleton, whose heavy, measured tread and gestures convey both the King’s confidence in a looming triumph, and his cold, immoving fury at the simplicity of the Doctor’s victory.
I was still underwhelmed by the episode somehow, even while paying tribute to its enduring claustrophobia, its commanding visual sense – the juxtaposition of Peter Capaldi pith a mural of Lenin lingers in the memory, suggesting the confrontation between two men of yesterday that was then imminent, competing over rival tomorrows, fighting a proxy war in another place like NATO and Lenin’s successors. (Arguably Lenin is also a wounded monarch, in his mausoleum, urging his followers to resurrect him through their political deeds.) Could it have enjoyed itself more, as I and others have asked? It’s difficult, because to keep going Doctor Who needs to keep testing itself. Sometimes it needs to attempt unabashed bleakness, only to pull out its recurring themes at the end to confirm that it is still Doctor Who. This did so. Perhaps it was the choice of a cold and flat palette and the absence of spectacle in the camerawork which did it, though the verisimilitude in the fracturing of the dam, and the matter-of-fact way the onrush of water propels the Fisher King past the camera was itself visually remarkable, determinedly quiet in and about its accomplishment.
So, what did I mean when I said that I found the glowing eyepieces of the Mire warriors (presumably) a visual callback to the Captain in The Pirate Planet? Just that. Inevitably having watched Doctor Who for years I make associations between present and past and am aware that those involved in the current production can do too. Criticism of the creative decisions made wasn’t intended; it’s just that Doctor Who can never appear as fresh as it might want to be when viewed in a certain mood. I followed my review with a link to the old TV Comic Annual comic strip Woden’s Warriors to acknowledge the limits to these comparisons. As for The Pirate Planet, I’ve always defended it (see letter right). Contempt doesn’t follow from familiarity, otherwise we would all hate each other. Before the Flood might age well in the context of the unfolding series; it’s still strong but somehow pulled the punches it might have made.
Before and during this episode I wondered whether this could be regarded as Toby Whithouse’s audition piece for showrunner. It’s not necessarily representative of what Whithouse’s series would look like; the series couldn’t (and can’t) sustain this grim, fatalistic tone for ever. It does offer a critique, if not a break, from Moffat’s timeywimeyism; where previous ‘paradoxes’ have been unpickable and open to interpretation as stories about evidence, this isn’t – the ‘first cause’ beginning the cycle isn’t clear. The episode is presented as the illustration to the parable of the Bootstrap Paradox as illustrated by the guitar-playing Doctor; but if Beethoven was ever there in the first place – and the Doctor says he’s met him – who (unintentionally) erased him? There’s an underlying message perhaps about the Doctor’s clumsiness; as the Fisher King says, he is ‘lost in time’ and not as powerful as he might think; but as the Doctor replies, even a ghastly future (but what has he got against cats?) is better than no future at all.
I was also led towards the ‘audition piece’ idea by the presence of two temporary companions, Bennett and O’Donnell, aboard the TARDIS. O’Donnell offered a potential alternative take on the fan-as-character, hinting at a more structured and detached knowledge of the Doctor’s adventures than Osgood; rather than being a comedic performance O’Donnell seems more naturalistic, a managed professional person with suppressed childlike buoyancy to help build a bridge to the audience. It’s difficult to tell whether this is just decisions made relating to performance and O’Donnell ends up quickly suffering a similar fate to Osgood. I wasn’t sure why the appearance of the ghosts was tied to the Doctor’s timeline; shouldn’t O’Donnell always have been present among the ghosts, or present as soon as she left 2119 in the TARDIS? Bennett inherited the role of critic which Clara, too much the Doctor’s prize pupil, no longer has. Like him, I’m not sure that O’Donnell’s death was necessary.
The episode went over familiar ground to genre fans too. This is the first episode of the new series which I’ve watched in fannish company, and beforehand it was pointed out to me that the Doctor had to be in the sarcophagus, which he was. A similar method of ‘travel’, without the benefit of suspended animation, was taken by Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood‘s Exit Wounds. I’d forgotten until reminded by comments on Facebook of Tim Powers’s work; the avatars and life-extending trickery of The Anubis Gates, and the Fisher King of his Las Vegas mythology where a dam is a stage and a symbol.
Another point which wasn’t mine but which is worth mentioning is that the music cues depended on ‘the Twelfth Doctor’s theme’ like no other this season. It’s certainly appropriate for an episode which was more Doctor-centred than usual, but is there more to it? Still, Clara’s development was addressed and she was shown to be forced by circumstances to reflect on her time with the Doctor; angry with him for seemingly losing himself to her, but later counselling Bennett for his loss, drawing on her experience with Danny, who was left unmentioned, more than with the Doctor.
I found this episode clever and well-written but underwhelming. There’s a brutality to the methods of the Doctor and Clara now which isn’t hidden by the joie de vivre of the Tennant and Smith Doctors. Rose Tyler thought that the Doctor showed her a better life; Clara, that he showed her to do what was necessary. I’m not certain that the programme really knows how to use all the elements it deploys right now. Sometimes one misses the wit and pace of Doctor Who when it was the cornerstone of BBC One’s Saturday nights in spring. Still, next week, despite its visual callback to The Pirate Planet‘s Captain, promises more energy, Vikings enjoying being Vikings and Maisie Williams giving a much-heralded performance.
Oh, my place on a certain rota is coming up… See you next week from Another Place.