A criticism, or a critical observation, that could be fairly levelled at the Moffat era thus far is that it boasts a dearth of out-and-out classics. There have been very few, if any, stories that, generations from now, the fandom will look back upon with undiminished reverence. The Russell T Davies era has given Doctor Who its generous contribution of timeless classics (ironically, most of them written by Steven Moffat), but one would struggle to name many stories from the Moffat era that match the stature of Blink, Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, etc. There are a few that arguably meet the mark – the Series 5 finale, and The Day of the Doctor – but few would argue that the show since 2010 has produced as many stories of such universal acclaim and genuine timeless worth as the show did in its first five years.
I think, with this two-parter, we finally have a story that can indisputably claim to be the kind of story that will be venerated and treated by future Doctor Who fans with the same reverence they will reserve for any of the gleaming gems of the RTD era. I think in this two-parter, we have in our hands the first genuine, unequivocal classic of the Moffat era. It was a long time coming, but, gosh, it was worth it. Perhaps it’s the result of bringing in new blood to provide Doctor Who scripts. The two biggest finds of the Capaldi era have both been new writers — Jamie Mathieson and Peter Harness. The latest script from veteran Who writer Toby Whithouse, Under the Lake/Before the Flood, was good traditional Who fare, but hardly the stuff of legacy. Whereas the two scripts Harness has delivered so far have displayed a freshness of style and vision that takes this show into exciting uncharted new territory. In Kill the Moon, it resulted in a quality but inevitably divisive script that was not without its shortcomings — which was why I was initially apprehensive about Harness having been commissioned a second time. I needn’t have worried. In this two-parter, Harness has got it right. So, so right.
The writing is taut and purposeful. No moment or line is wasted. It positively drips with suspense throughout, especially in the second half. It paces itself fluently and generally feels impeccably choreographed. Steven Moffat is credited as co-writer in the second episode, but I suspect his contribution was minimal. There’s little to nothing in either episode that feels like it was written by Moffat. It doesn’t come with the excess and self-indulgence of a Moffat script: it’s tighter, cleaner, more restrained, and intelligent in a way that isn’t self-regarding and self-consciously clever. It’s actually composed with the kind of finesse and refinement that was characteristic of Steven Moffat’s scripts when he was writing for Russell T Davies, when he only had to write one story a year. Moreover, it makes exquisite use of the two-part format, not only successfully stringing the narrative out over the two episodes (as opposed to one and a bit episodes, with the rest padded out), but making the kind of contrast between the two episodes that gives them both a very distinct tone and feel: from the sweeping, worldwide conflict of the first episode, to the intimate, local, personal conflict of the second. It’s clever and effective.
This story feels a lot like a 1970s UNIT story, particularly one from Jon Pertwee’s first season, in which the show was as political and ponderous as it’s ever been. Now here’s Doctor Who once again wading bravely into very controversial waters, offering its thoughts on the issues of contemporary society. The analogies were unambiguous, and they were deployed effectively. Immigrant Muslim communities in the West, and the radicalisation among the younger generations thereof; domestic terrorism; the crisis in the Muslim world; immigration and assimilation. It was all dealt with intelligently, penetratingly and sensitively. It’s exhilarating to watch Doctor Who when it has something to say. It’s exciting to watch Doctor Who trying to be relevant and worth listening to. That it talked about “radicalisation” and the sacrifices that have to be made for peace is hugely significant. This is emphatically not a children’s show any more. Having said that, it justly recognised that the issues it was discussing were complex and multifaceted, and that reasonable people can reasonably disagree over them. It correctly didn’t beat the audience over the head with any single point of view. It did make its position movingly clear on one thing, though: there is nothing that justifies suffering.
The Zygons were treated as well as they’ve ever been. They were scary, for one thing. As much as the Zygon design is, admittedly, a bit naff, it’s a credit both to the direction and the writing that the audience was able to put aside its incredulity over the red suckered blobbies and actually treat the Zygons as some semblance of the threat they’d pose in real life. It was the idea of the Zygons, as much as their physical threat, that made them such a menacing presence. In that respect, the story played really effectively upon the fears and paranoia of our age in casting the Zygons, the bad ones, that is, in the role of terrorists as opposed to generic invaders. The unsettling hostage video, the black rebel Zygon war flag, the rebel Zygons’ snatching the two little girls from a playground and spiriting them away in a white van, the staged execution — it was all unnerving, disquieting stuff for this age of terror and paranoia. The Zygons’ shape-shifting abilities were also exploited to awesome effect, in that intense and confronting scene in front of the church in Turmezistan, and in the shocking revelation that Clara was a Zygon imposter, the latter of which really brought home the profound and singular threat of the Zygons.
We have to talk about that scene, though. It’s futile to attempt to explain why the Doctor’s monologue was so good. To attempt to do so would be to diminish the effect of the words and the acting. I could never explain or describe here what the Doctor was saying as well as he said it. Just watch the scene, and let it overcome you. It would take a pretty unfeeling and aloof individual not to be moved by the Doctor’s words. I’ll freely and unashamedly admit I was moved almost to tears, and I’m one of the most stoical and emotionally reserved people I know. The last time that happened was when I was watching that part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry watches Snape weeping over Lily’s dead body in the pensieve. It’s that powerful. The writing was brilliant, but so much of the credit has to go to Peter Capaldi himself, who delivered one of the all-time great performances as the Doctor. No, bugger it. I’m going to go ahead and say that was the greatest performance any actor has ever delivered as the Doctor. It was breathtaking. This is what you get when you cast an actor of Peter Capaldi’s stature in the role of the Doctor, and, by God, there’s no denying that the show is the better for it.
Some final thoughts. No review of this story would be complete without making room for fulsome praise for Jenna Coleman. Funnily enough, Clara was absent for most of this story, but I would venture to suggest that this was actually Jenna’s best performance yet. She took on the role of Clara’s evil Zygon double with gusto, and created a sinister, menacing character that felt very distinct from Clara Oswald. The face-off between Clara and Bonnie was electric, and it was all Jenna. Even in Peter Capaldi’s big scene, where the stage was almost totally Capaldi’s, Jenna absolutely shone in her facial acting as Bonnie, communicating so much with only expressive glares and clenched teeth. There’s not much more else to say, other than to repeat again that this one is going to be remembered. I’ve seen a couple of negative reviews and reactions — there always are (hence my “parody” review yesterday) — but the response has been overwhelmingly laudatory. Everyone seems to agree that this one is going to go down as one of the all-time greats, and justly so.
Quote of the week:
“I’m old enough to be your Messiah.”