Thoughts on: The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion

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Warning: spoilers.

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 BlinkHuman Nature/The Family of BloodSilence 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rating: 10/10.


Quote of the week:

“I’m old enough to be your Messiah.”

First thoughts: The Zygon Invasion

10 minutes into invasion and chill and he gives you this look

Warning: spoilers.

  • This series is continuing its run of stellar form with what looks to be yet another modern classic. Seriously, there hasn’t been anything approaching a bung episode so far this series. The only two episodes that have fallen flat for me are Before the Flood and The Woman Who Lived, and that’s really only because they haven’t lived up to the unreasonably lofty standards set by the rest of this series’ episodes. In any other series they’d be among the series’ highlights. Both were made up for by their first “halves” anyway, and the second by Maisie, who turns anything she touches into gold dust.
  • But this episode, though. It was splendidly written, by one of Doctor Who’s most promising new writers, Peter Harness. I found it intelligent, involving and suspenseful and I’m excited af for the second half.
  • What I really love about this script is that it isn’t a generic invasion story. It isn’t “aliens are invading Earth (read: London) for the umpteenth time, OMG”, a trope that Doctor Who has done to death even only in the modern series. No, we’ve moved on from predictable Dalek, Cyberman, Sontaran, Sycorax and Slitheen assaults upon the planet and we’re given something genuinely imaginative and relevant in this follow-up to the events of The Day of the Doctor. There’s real-world analogies to Islamic State and religious radicalisation among immigrant communities living in Western countries, and that’s what made this narrative so unique and gripping.

  • And the terror analogy was really well deployed. The images of a hostage video, with two menacing Zygons leering at the camera beside a captive Osgood, and of a staged execution of Zygon “traitors”, and the black rebel Zygon war flag, were all very evocative and, honestly, more unnerving in this age of terror and paranoia than any of the monsters-of-the-week we’ve seen in recent times. This is hiding-behind-the-sofa for adults.
  • The political allusions were discussed with sensitivity and maturity. Topics including immigration and assimilation and the current crisis in the Middle East were commented upon, but, mercifully, the episode didn’t beat the audience over the head with the views of the writers. It acknowledged that these are incredibly sensitive and complex topics which have no simple answers. It gave us the Doctor’s views but also presented the opposing outlooks of Kate Stewart and Colonel Walsh with sympathy.
  • The Zygons themselves are as menacing as they’ve ever been. The directors rightly appreciated that the Zygons are most effectively scary when bathed in shadow (literally and figuratively), hence the liberal use of shots like the one above. The Zygons’ shape-shifting abilities were exploited to disquieting and shocking effect, as well, most notably in that delightfully suspenseful scene in front of the church, and in the revelation of Zygon-Clara.

  • Perhaps the one thing I didn’t like about the Zygons is the facial designs. The Zygons’ faces seem to be stuck in a permanent snarl, teeth bared and all. When those two “good” Zygons who represented the Zygon High Command, disguised as little twin girls, transformed into their Zygon forms, I wasn’t sure at first if they had been the ones speaking and making threats to the camera, because their Zygon faces were twisted into the most horrible snarls. The Zygons in the modern series have been pretty much totally faithful to their original designs in the classic series, but they may have benefited from also retaining the less, er… “snarly” faces of the classic Zygons, which look more real and less comic book.
  • “Doctor Funkenstein”. Love it.
  • I think Jenna Coleman’s having a bit too much fun playing her evil Zygon double. She’s a class act, this one, though.
  • I’m astounded that Peter Harness managed to get the two The Thick of It leads back together and resisted the temptation to script a proper shouting match between them. Maybe next week.
  • Honestly, I’m immoderately excited about the second half of this story, and I’m confident that, if it follows up on this week’s episode as well as it promises to, this two-parter will be remembered as an instant classic and a modern masterpiece. It’s already looking like the best story of this series (so far), and is easily some of the best Who we’ve seen in years.

Thoughts on: The Power of Three

It was unconventional, I’ll give it that. This episode strayed from Doctor Who’s tried and tested forms of storytelling by casting the story from the companions’ point of view. The episode was enabled to do that by the central premise of the episode in which the Earth finds itself invaded by trillions of small black cubes which… do absolutely nothing. Thus obliging the Doctor to wait around in the Ponds’ house until the cubes do do something. Both devices — the companion POV and the lack of immediate threat — were unconventional for Doctor Who. The episode deserves praise for daring to be different, at least, but unconventional doesn’t necessarily mean effective. Watching the Doctor hanging out with Amy and Rory and trying vainly to pass the time while waiting on the cubes and, failing that, whisking Amy and Rory away for adventures of which we only see the entertainingly absurd endings, was charming and amusing, yes, but didn’t really make for particularly gripping storytelling. I was wondering impatiently when the episode would get to the point while watching all this.

When it did, belatedly, things started to improve. Although “the invasion of the cubes” is the kind of idea that initially makes you wonder what the writer was thinking, the cubes turned out to be a properly intriguing mystery. Especially so after they “activated”. The countdown was spiced with tension, and things really started to hot up when people started collapsing in the streets. The gruesome grill-mouthed men posing as hospital staff, spiriting away patients and nurses’ unsuspecting fathers through a goods lift to an ominous looking spaceship orbiting the Earth, had real fear factor, but their child-scaring potential was unfortunately not fully exploited. Moffat should beat into Chris Chibnall Rule 1 of Doctor Who: take no prisoners when it comes to trying to traumatise children.

For the episode’s build-up, though, both the revelation and the resolution felt undignifiedly underdeveloped. The idea that the shadowy alien masters of the cubes wanted to use them to exterminate the human race before they spread into the universe was fine enough, but the whole thing felt like an afterthought. It felt awkwardly lynch-pinned on, the revelation of these malignant, semi-legendary “pest controllers of the universe” (the Pesticide Lords?) sitting incongruously with the light, fluffy tale that had preceded it. I didn’t feel the conviction in that scene; neither in the writing nor in Matt Smith’s delivery of the “humans rule, OK?” speech. Nor was the resolution any good. I’m not among those who insist the sonic screwdriver is an overused “magic wand”, but if one were to point to a perfect instance of the sonic screwdriver being used as a magic solve-all, it’d be here, where the Doctor seemingly waves his sonic screwdriver at the screen and brings billions of people back to life. It was all disconcertingly over in a matter of seconds.

This episode couldn’t stand on its plot, but where it does succeed is its character element. It’s great writing and directing, along with acting from the three leads, portraying the Ponds’ anxieties and equivocation over having to sort out their “real” lives from their Tardis lives. Seeing the Ponds increasingly committed and content with their “normal” life, and seeing the Doctor’s apprehension about that, is charming and just a bit sad (I loved the Series 6 Doctor-Ponds dynamic, and it pains me to see the Doctor and his best friends drifting apart from each other like that). This emotional element of the story led to a couple of tender character moments—the Doctor and Amy’s emotion-laden conversation outside the Tower of London was particularly beautiful. The Doctor’s poetic exposition of why he runs to things, not away from them, was only topped by his assertion that he keeps coming back to Amy, “Because you were the first. The first face this face saw. And you’re seared onto my hearts, Amelia Pond. You always will be. I’m running to you, and Rory, before you fade from me.” Also very poignant moments were the Doctor’s admission to Amy earlier that, all the adventuring around time and space aside, he missed her. And his being forced to admit to Brian what happened to his former companions—you can see the repressed pain and regret written all over the Doctor’s face.

Some final thoughts. I have laudatory things to say about two characters in particular. First, Kate Stewart was a wonderful invention. I’m not sure who, of Moffat or Chibnall, gets the credit for Kate, but her conception was ingenious. She was written well and played impressively by Jemma Redgrave, who has become the face for Moffat’s new-look, revamped science-driven UNIT. She’s a fitting successor to the venerable Brigadier. Brian Pond Williams is shaping up to be the next beloved companion parent. Few could convincingly fulfil that role after Bernard Cribbins played the endearing companion parent par excellence in Wilfred Mott, but Brian really pips it, an adorable, quirky, devoted old man who truly deserves his status as an honorary Pond. Although Amy has slowly matured since we first met her at the beginning of Series 5, it occurred to me that the difference was particularly marked in this episode. She still retains a few of the familiar old Pond-isms (Rory: “There are soldiers all over my house, and I’m in my pants.” Amy: “My whole life I’ve dreamed of saying that, and I miss it by being someone else.”), but, other than, obviously, physically*, she’s distinctly older, more mature, and even audibly older — her vocal range and speech patterns seem less, er, teenage girl-ish and more mature young lady. Amy’s character development over her two-and-a-half seasons has been really subtle and well-orchestrated, and I’d say the most successful character development yet of any of the New Who companions.

* She and Rory calculated that it’s been 7 years in (relative) time since they first took up with the Doctor, which makes them about 26 in this episode. The age of their friends indicates what age they’re supposed to look.

Rating: 6/10.