Doctor Who Review: The Zygon Inversion

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You just want cruelty to beget cruelty. You’re not superior to the people who were cruel to you, you’re just a whole bunch of new, cruel people, being cruel to some other people, who’ll end up being cruel to you.

So, then. There’s an elephant in the room, here – one thing that must be addressed, above all else; the most obvious starting place, I think, but a starting place I’m going to eschew. Because I want to talk about all of the episode, and recognise the strengths of it all – otherwise this would be thousands of words about a very specific segment. (I’m sure you all know the segment to which I refer!)

The episode starts quite well – I’m not typically fond of dream sequences, but this was an excellent example of how they can be used effectively. I thought it was rather clever how they managed to subvert expectations with the cliffhanger – appearing to show the initial get out clause, before making it relevant once again, and pushing our answer further away from us. It was, in fact, a rather wonderful example of Harness (and Moffat, for once) being able to have their cake and eat it.

It continues on quite well too; the dream sequence is where we see most of Clara for this episode, arguably sidelined, but still given some interesting and substantial character moments. Very effective examination of her on display here, in fact; there’s the initial smugness to Clara, where she feels entirely in control – and the backpedalling when she realises she isn’t, and has to search for the upper hand again. It’s a very nuanced scene, and remarkably well portrayed by Jenna Coleman; this is the sort of examination of Clara’s character development, transforming into a more Doctor like figure, that I’m so fond of. ‘Tis a very compelling character arc for a companion, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the culmination of it.

Speaking of Jenna Coleman’s acting, she did a really fantastic job of playing Bonnie. I think it’s the mark of a great actor when they can play a dual role within a single story (like Mat Baynton in You, Me and the Apocalypse) and still make them feel meaningfully distinct – it was very easy to forget that Jenna Coleman was playing Bonnie here, as opposed to another actress entirely (albeit admittedly a similar looking one). She did an excellent job of completely altering all her mannerisms, even her voice and elocution, to create an entirely new character; Doctor Who is really genuinely very lucky to have Jenna Coleman onboard, and it’ll be a huge loss to the program when she eventually departs.

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Much of the rest of the episode was of similar levels of quality; Ingrid Oliver as Osgood, playing the de facto companion of this episode, was as charming as ever, and it remained very entertaining to see her interactions with the Doctor. Kate Stewart too came out of this episode well, and it was nice to hear her say the old “Five rounds rapid” quote. (What can I say, I’m a nerd.)

Also! Something that’ll likely fall through the cracks when people are discussing this episode, given that many of its main strengths lie elsewhere, but it was a genuinely very funny episode. Lots of excellent jokes, that were really quite hilarious; I always love any sort of irreverent fan humour, like the question mark underwear, or “Totally and Radically Driving in Space”, and even little things like “Doctor John Disco” or “Basil”. It’s good to have that sort of thing – where’s the fun if you take it too seriously? Excellent approach to take, I think. The funniest joke, though, was “I’m old enough to be your messiah”. That takes the award for “best one liner in Doctor Who history”, I’d argue. Honestly, it was brilliant.

The writing, obviously, was excellent. Not just in that scene, which I’ll get to shortly, but just throughout, really. One crucial moment was when the Doctor and Osgood met the Zygon in the shop – one of the most important scenes in the episode, in fact, because that’s where some of the most important aspects of the episode’s message about immigration comes through. The Zygon insists that he isn’t on any side, and all he wanted to do was simply live, question just what exactly was wrong with that, and why no one would let him simply live there. It was excellently done – not subtle in any way, of course, but frankly there’s no need to be subtle at times like this.

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And now we’ve reached this bit. A ten minute monologue from Peter Capaldi which is, frankly, certainly going to be seen as the standout moment from this series, if not the defining moment of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure. Because it is just that bloody good.

I don’t understand? Are you kidding? Me? Of course I understand. I mean, do you call this a war? This funny little thing? This is not a war!

I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you could ever imagine. And when I close my eyes I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count! 

And do you know what you do with all that pain? 

Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight till it burns your hand, and you say this. No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch! 

I’m quoting, simply because I don’t have a video to embed (as soon as it’s up on YouTube, I’ll be going into more depths in terms of analysis), but that honestly robs it of much of its impact. Sure, it’s well written, but the strengths of this scene comes from Peter Capaldi’s acting. And frankly, that’s not even all of it – the first half of the scene, where he talks about how much blood is spilled before negotiations can begin, is similarly masterful.

Capaldi is absolutely phenomenal in his role; there’s a huge level of nuance to his every mannerism and expression, and he absolutely conveys the emotion of the scene 100%. (You can see how much they trust him as an actor – and rightfully so! – because this scene is entirely quiet. There’s no score or backing music; every response and emotion engendered in the audience comes entirely from Capaldi’s performance.)

Truly, he’s amazing; it’s difficult to properly analyse this scene without a video accompaniment, because otherwise I’m reduced to simply describing rather than demonstrating, and repeating the same limited pool of superlatives over and over again.

I think what stood out most, actually, was that the Doctor got angry here. Capaldi has always measured the anger, keeping it very much something limited to individual occasions, and it means it’s all the more effective when he does play it up. Seeing the Doctor yelling and being so confrontational, practically shouting them into submission, really emphasising the importance of peace over war, and referring back to his past traumas – honestly, it’s BAFTA worthy. Capaldi deserves all the awards for this episode, truly and absolutely.

This episode was honestly everything I could have hoped for and more; it’s the best of the series, hands down. 10/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Zygon Invasion

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Any race is capable of the best and the worst. Every race is peaceful and warlike; good, and evil. My race is no exception – and neither is mine.

I was quite trepident about this episode, actually. Anxious, really, about the quality of it. On the one hand, it sounded like a brilliant concept – Doctor Who engaging with contemporary issues and current politics, in a globe-spanning story. Yes, thank you very much, I’ll take two, that’d be lovely.

And yet, on the other hand, it was being written by Peter Harness. The last time he wrote an episode, it ended up being… well, unintentional pro-life propaganda. It was not an episode I was particularly impressed by – and also one I’d had high hopes for going into.

So, you know, I think you can see why I was a bit worried about this one – a potentially excellent concept, but a writer that I didn’t really trust to see it through, based on his past record.

But, as it happens, this episode was… pretty good, actually.

I mean, it’s absolutely difficult to judge based on what we’ve got – of all the episodes thus far, this has been the one that most needs its second part to form a cohesive whole narrative. As enjoyable as this episode was, it’s very dependent on the resolution for it to work, I reckon.

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What we got, in the end, is a story about Zygon ISIS, with a few shades of immigration politics thrown in as well. And, like I said, it’s still unfinished, but from what we’ve had so far, I’ve actually been really impressed. It’s been handled quite sensitively, I think, and there’s little to object to, in terms of questionable implications (a la Kill the Moon).

I was quite pleased to see Doctor Who engaging with contemporary politics like this, actually; it’s a really compelling plotline, with a lot of potential to it. And I think for the most part they did a pretty good job of it – or at least, they did a good job of setting up further potential for tonight’s episode. The reference to radicalisation, and the clear establishment of a generational gap (making it very clear that not all Zygons are part of this splinter group) all worked very well.

Having said that! They’ve got to be very careful with how they resolve this tonight, given that they’ve set up their parallels. If all the Zygons have to leave the planet or some such, then it’d seem like the episode was coming down with an anti-immigration stance – for example. I mean, I’m not expecting them to, but that’s an example of how all this could still go wrong.

The scale of the episode really worked in its favour in this instance – the globe-spanning story gave it a rather brilliant cutting-edge feel, which, alongside the references to contemporary issues, made the episode feel really relevant. There’s a brilliant sort of energy to episodes like this, that are set so firmly in the present day, with such recognisable elements to them.

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I also thought the way they handled the Osgood situation worked quite well; it was obvious to everyone, I think, that we were going to have a Zygon based explanation, but they managed to make it a bit more complicated than what people had expected – and not just complicated, but relevant to the story too, which was nice. Ingrid Oliver is still a wonderful actress, and Osgood remains a very charming character.

In fact, all of the supporting cast did a good job – our usual UNIT staff (very sad when Jac died), as well as the new characters introduced this episode. The scene between the soldier and Zygon who was ostensibly his mother was very impressive too; it was quite tense, as a result of the way it was written, and also how it was scored (great job Murray Gold!). Also worth noting, actually, that there were quite a number of women in this episode – 11 of the 16 named parts in The Zygon Invasion were women, I believe, and it’s great when Doctor Who does commit to things like that.

Admittedly, not all of the episode was brilliant; I’ve already spoken about the sense of incompletion to the episode, obviously, but I think that’ll be sorted by this evening (fifteen minutes to go!). I wasn’t hugely impressed by the subplot with Clara as a Zygon, either – it felt somewhat poorly handled. Jenna Coleman gave a brilliant performance, as ever, portraying Clara just ever so slightly off, in a way that doesn’t feel quite right but wouldn’t necessarily raise suspicion on its own… and, yet, it had been signposted quite so obviously in the beginning that there was little tension to the subplot.

So, all in all, a much better episode than I’d expected, but still not quite as good as I’d hoped. Certainly, I’m heavily anticipating tonight’s episode (9 minutes!), and that’s because this episode did a good job of setting it up.

We will give this episode a provisional 8/10.

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The Pseudo-Science of Doctor Who

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So, In the Forest of the Night and Kill the Moon recently have both got me thinking about science and realism in Doctor Who, and to what extent something actually has to be ‘correct’ within any given episode of the show.

I mean, Doctor Who is only science fiction in the broadest of terms really – how concerned it is with the science part of science fiction is rather malleable across the fifty years of the show. I think normally people would point to the beginning of the show, or Christopher Bidmead’s episodes as evidence of a time when Doctor Who was more concerned with actual, ‘hard science’, but equally you’ve got the Daleks and Maths Priests saving the universe.

It’s probably fair to say, I think, that Doctor Who is a show that uses the trappings of science fiction to present different forms of drama, and examine aspects of society.

The question is though, of course, to what extent does it matter how accurate the scientific trappings are.

Things like the TARDIS and other original ideas get a pass, I think, because they’re part of the suspension of disbelief. You accept that because no one really has a way to argue against a time machine, or a warp drive – if the narrative says “Aliens can do this” viewers are more willing to go along with this because it’s all fictional, and that’s inbuilt into the show.

But conversely, something like the Moon being an egg isn’t going to have such an easy time of it, because people know a lot about eggs. The problems with an egg increasing in mass, or the Space Dragon laying another egg identical in size to the one it just hatched from, are relatively self-evident to a pretty large amount of the audience.

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It kinda comes down to a quote from… I think it’s Community? Anyway, it’s “That sounds wrong, but I don’t know enough about it to dispute it.” In scenarios where you can easily debunk something, or you know that the writer could have solved the issue with a quick google search, it’s far more likely to be a problem. But when there’s nothing more than a sense of “Hmm-I-don’t-know-about-this”, which is where In the Forest of the Night fell for me, I think one is more likely to go along with it, albeit with some reservations.

Equally though, how much does that matter?

For me personally at least, it depends how much I’m enjoying the actual story. I’m far more likely to give errors a pass if the plot itself is engaging – if I’m bored or disconnected from the story, I’m more likely to notice mistakes, and that’s only going to take me out of it more. (Incidentally, I think much the same of plot holes.)

And sometimes there’s moments where the incorrect science is actually better for the story than something which would be more correct – right now I’m thinking of Robot of Sherwood in particular. In a Robin Hood story, it makes sense for the resolution to relate to the firing of an arrow; the fact it doesn’t actually make scientific sense is mostly not the point, because it makes story sense.

Ultimately, of course, it is down to one’s own particular tastes. I think with simple things that can be easily fixed, then yes, the writer probably should amend it.

But to go into Doctor Who expecting rigorous scientific accuracy is probably missing the point a little bit.

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Doctor Who Review: Kill the Moon

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Whatever future humanity might have depends upon the choice that is made right here and right now.  Now, you’ve got the tools to kill it; you made them. Kill it or let it live, I can’t make this decision for you.

When I watched The Rings of Akhaten, I was quite… frustrated, I think, by the way it ended, and the way cultures were treated within it. I didn’t like how, at the end, the Grandfather was destroyed, taking with it the sun for an entire system of planets, and destabilising an entire religion. I know it wasn’t the main concern of the episode, but it made me uncomfortable nonetheless – the consequences of the Doctor and Clara’s actions were pretty damn clear, and the fact that they weren’t taking responsibility, nor the narrative presenting them as having a need to, irked me, to say the least.

So since that point, I’ve wanted a story where the Doctor takes responsibility for his actions, or, à la the Prime Directive, said he wasn’t going to interfere in something that resolutely wasn’t his business.

I thought I was going to get one, actually. I’ve lived for over 2000 years, and not all of them were good. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and it’s about time I did something to fix that. As a line, that sort of indicates the kind of thing I’m talking about, doesn’t it? A more reflective, responsibility and consequence driven approach.

And, hey, for a moment or two the story actually tries to be like that. The Doctor says it’s not his choice! Not his moon, not his choice.

Wonderful. The sort of theme I’ve been waiting for the past year, the brilliant team that is the Twelfth Doctor and Clara, and it has spiders on the Moon. How could I not love it?

Well, you want the full list of reasons, I suppose.

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I mean… I’ll start at the beginning, because of course that’s what makes the most sense.

This episode felt very strangely paced. It’s most obvious at the start, where you go from Courtney in Coal Hill to a confrontation on the Moon. Very quick there, and yet everything is really drawn out after that. There’s little in the way of properly establishing things – the episode is far more concerned with getting to a certain point, and then just… staying there. It harmed the clarity of the scenes, I think, and the understanding you get of what’s actually going on.

The bit with Courtney at the start, for example. It’s never really followed through, the idea that put downs and insults can harm a child’s development – and, look, if you’re not going to follow through on it, why bring it up? It’s stranger still because it’s implied later on that Courtney and Clara were just joking and trying to convince the Doctor to give her a ride in the TARDIS. Except, the way that line is delivered means that it falls at a very strange point in the story and could easily be missed – which, like I’ve said, messes around with the clarity of the story.

It’s the same with Hermione Norris and her crew of Rubbish Spaceman and Teacher Spaceman. The point of them being there is brought up and dispensed with really quickly, when it should have been a much larger point of focus, especially given the eventual climax. Something has changed within the Moon, and it’s wreaking havoc all across the Earth, killing millions. These people are on a suicide mission to destroy the Moon, because even though that’s going to cause problems, it’s better than the alternative they already have.

What I just said there? That should have been a massive part of it. It’s practically crucial to the episode. But it’s two lines of dialogue at most, which is very easily missed. In fact, part of that I only knew because I’d read previews ahead of the episode, rather than it being anything established on screen. That’s a ridiculous error to make, because something like that is central to the episode. That’s the reason why they’re on the Moon with so many nuclear weapons (which are briefly established to have come from across the world – again, that’s a really important thing to note) and it adds a whole other dimension to the final conflict. And it’s a really, really important one; this isn’t just a case of what might happen if the Moon hatches, it’s also what is already happening. 

The “time is in flux” thing is also starting to get a little tired. I know that’s a ridiculous criticism to make; whether or not time is in flux is something of an inherent problem to Doctor Who, because, of course, the future is no less mutable than the past, so why can they act one way in some places but not in others? It’s a difficult one to answer, obviously. But when it’s the focus of an episode, it needs to at least have something new or interesting to add to the idea, rather than just trying to suggest that “anything can happen”. The fact of the matter is that it’s obvious the Moon won’t be removed, because that’s just awkward. Bringing it up like this just draws attention to the fact that this episode isn’t actually going to have any sort of lasting impact at all.

I mean, credit where it’s due, of course. A lot of the speeches here about time were quite well written, and Peter Capaldi is absolutely fantastic at giving the sense that he’s staring at something not quite there, something nebulous that’s just beyond us. He really looked like he was seeing into the web of time. Or came quite close to it, at any rate.

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But anyway. Onto the real problem, the thing that really bothered me.

The ultimate climax, the choice of whether or not to ‘kill the Moon’, seemed quite clearly to be an allegory about abortion. And it took a very specific, pro-life stance. Hermione Norris, who advocates the abortion equivalent, is shown to be in the wrong. She is criticised, implicitly by the narrative and explicitly by the other characters. They call her out on wanting to kill a “vulnerable baby”, tell her it’s not to blame, say that she shouldn’t take a life. And at the end, a very large show is made of her thanking Clara – specifically, thanking Clara for ignoring the decision made, and letting the Moon Dragon live. Letting it live is shown to be unequivocally right and good, and the alternative is a mistake. (Ignoring, incidentally, the set up given at the start, that the Moon as it is is killing the Earth. By not setting that up properly the dynamic of this metaphor is shifted away from “baby is killing the mother” to “baby is making the mother uncomfortable”.)

Now, I don’t really like getting deeply into politics on this blog. Largely, it’s not my place, and I’m not really qualified to comment. I’m not entirely sure I should be saying this now. But, equally, it’s a media review blog. Media connects with the real world, it has to. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, after all; there are politics in media. There are allegories. I think it’s important that these allegories exist, and I think it’s important that fiction gives commentary on issues like abortion.

The thing is… within the context of Doctor Who, yes, saying that you should try your best to make sure the Moon Dragon can live makes sense. Of course it does. But within the context of an abortion parable, which is what this episode tried to be – Doctor Who should not be saying that abortion is wrong under any and every circumstance. That just isn’t right.

Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable. The general dreariness of the episode would be forgivable, but for this aspect. The way it ended up, the message of this episode is just unpalatable.

Listen, at least, wasn’t offensive. This is… this is not so great.

3/10

Note from Alex of 2018: I am, with this review, quite out of step with certain circles of Doctor Who fans, circles I now move in quite a bit. Much of the above is not exactly brilliantly written, and I’m not entirely sure how much of it I’d agree with were I to watch the episode again.

Equally, though, I’m not exactly in a hurry to do that, because that abortion analogy – denied though it may have been by many involved with the episode – really did bother me quite a lot on a personal level. So, you know. 

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