Friday, 20 November 2015

"Subtext" Of The "Zygons"

Doctor Who
The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion
Series Nine, Episodes Seven and Eight

Well, no prizes for guessing what this is about.

Doctor Who is often allegorical, because it's sci-fi and that's a handy way to show real world issues from a different angle.  See 1950s B-Movies, Cold War paranoia, Star Trek in general.  But Doctor Who isn't all that subtle.  It can be painfully obvious when it's telling you Drugs Are Bad or War Is Bad or Slavery Is Bad.

Above: no prizes, etc.
Part of the problem is telling you something that's completely obvious in the first place.  Slavery Is Bad?  Well, paint me pink and call me Percy – why didn't anyone say anything sooner?  The rest of the problem is taking said obvious thing and smashing you round the head with it, like in Midnight, when the Doctor's fellow passengers decide he's an outsider, "like an immigrant".  Would you like a crash helmet with that?

Well, these episodes are allegorical.  And they are blatant.  Check out the dialogue – you won't need to be a Where's Wally champion to spot the subtext.

*  "We can't tell who the enemy is any more, we can't count them and we can't track them."
*  "We will die in the fire, instead of living in chains!"  "Most of your own kind don't want that!"
*  "Isn't there a solution that doesn't involve bombing anyone?  This is a splinter group.  The rest of the Zygons, the vast majority, they want to live in peace.  You start bombing them, you'll radicalise the lot.  It's exactly what the splinter group wants."

It's a bit of a stretch to even call that subtext, what with the cast all but making quotation marks every time they say "Zygon", barely restraining a lean-in and a wink.  And yet to my surprise, I don't hate this.  Yes, it's blatantly Doctor Who does ISIS, terrorism in general, the xenophobic fallout from all of the above.  But this particular blatant thing hasn't been done in Doctor Who before.  (You might call that semantics and you might be right.  Shrug.)  It's also not a subject, or rather a viewpoint, that's already been tiresomely drummed into us.  Millions of people are worried about it right now, and many are very vocally small-minded about it on a daily basis.  Both points deserve recognition.  I honestly felt more impressed that they were going there than annoyed that it was obvious.  It's topical.  They-wouldn't-have-got-it-on-the-air-if-it-had-gone-out-one-week-later topical.

Ahem.  Sounds like a different show, doesn't it?  And there are times when these episodes feel more like Spooks, although they feature aliens and time travel so are marginally more plausible.  But ultimately, Peter Harness and Steven Moffat simplify the issues.  Of course they do – it's Doctor bleedin' Who, not Panorama, so the "bad" Zygons (aka terrorists) are equated with troublesome children.  Their victims are killed in the time-honoured (and all-importantly bloodless) sci-fi means of disintegration.  Into straw blobs.  (Okay, how far down the list did they get before straw?  Perhaps the chance to make tumbleweeds look scary, or even noteworthy was too good to ignore.)  In the end, when the episode reaches its potentially embarrassing goal of Arguing Against Terrorism, it does so in a quintessentially Doctor Who way.  I was... quite impressed, actually.

What's this?  More clips?  It's The Clips Agenda!
And I'm getting ahead of myself.  There's plenty of other stuff in here for the less allegorically minded.  Scary bits, funny bits, a doozie of a cliff-hanger... in a series not already stuffed with two-parters, this would be an easy win for the once traditional, middle-of-the-series, actually quite good one.  It's certainly the pick of Series Nine thus far.

Right, time for the plot: following on from The Day Of The Doctor, humanity (or more specifically, UNIT) is housing 20 million Zygons in disguise.  Despite the plots of previous Doctor Who episodes (like, for example, The Day Of The Doctor), they're not all bad.  "Subtext" incoming: "Every race is peaceful and warlike, good and evil.  My race is no exception."  The whole shape-shifting thing is a survival mechanism, not an invasion tactic – that is until some Zygons get angry at having to live in secret and launch an attack.  Cue ominous talk of the ceasefire breaking down, the one remaining Osgood (yay, we get to keep her!) being kidnapped, and the Doctor being summoned.  He's desperate to keep this from escalating.  With ominous kidnap videos sent to UNIT and small towns taken hostage, war seems inevitable.  Not to mention we already lost Osgood once.

First off, it's always a pleasure to drop in on Kate Stewart's increasingly-female-led UNIT, especially when you actually give them something to do.  Jemma Redgrave is crushing it here, as the generally peace-loving Kate inches closer to her father's legacy.  (They even throw in a "Five rounds rapid".)  She's keen to avoid a war but intends to win it if necessary.  The expression she pulls when she thinks Osgood #2 might have been killed... well, I wouldn't mess with her.  For me, it's a rare pleasure to see a recurring female character in the Moffat era who doesn't make me want to bash my head against a wall.  I'd even, dare I say it, support a spin-off.  (And she's got one, so I can!)

She's not the only example of wow-isn't-she-great in this.  Ingrid Oliver has some lovely material as Osgood, who may or may not be a Zygon.  (Don't bother thinking about it – there is no answer, that's the point.)  She's a very good actor, heightening what began as an affectionate sketch of a Doctor Who fan into, well, an adult, who cares passionately about her job and grieves deeply for her "sister".  (A death which, though sneakily cheated because Ingrid's still in it, also still resonates.)  She's great when she's with the Doctor, sometimes gazing at him with quiet awe, or asking him simple-yet-practical questions about his silly outfits and daft gadgets, or firmly putting him in his place when he asks The Zygon Question.  When he (inevitably) offers her a place on the TARDIS, it feels less like ticking The Obvious Box than simply and adroitly putting two brilliant people together.  (Of course she's too busy so she stays behind.  Boo!  She might be a cosplaying fangirl or a Zygon or both, but she's still more of a rounded person than Clara.  And hey, we all know there's a vacancy coming up.)

"Of course we greenlit a spin-off!  She did the look!
You don't say no to the look!"
So UNIT are compelling, although they're not actually doing very much even with ISIS – er, the Zygons wreaking havoc.  Kate investigates the abandoned town of Truth Or Consequences (that's what the terrorist group is called), Osgood waits for the Doctor to rescue her (but that doesn't mean she's a useless waif – she was out there doing important work in the first place), and Walsh, a no-nonsense army figure, just waits for an excuse to bomb the bad guys.  In spite of that she's refreshingly not painted as a villain, in that now traditional boo-sucks-the-military style of Who.  "Any living thing in this world, including my family and friends, could turn into a Zygon and kill me any second now.  It's not paranoia when it's real."  Well, fair enough.  Rebecca Front fills her scenes with weary determination.  (Also it's nice to watch her roll her eyes at Malcolm Tucker, since he was very rude to her in The Thick Of It.)

Okay, the scene where she tragically fails to talk her troops out of going to their deaths (as the Zygons have taken the forms of their loved ones) is almost disturbing enough to overcome how ninny-headed they're all being... but not quite.  Even Walsh sheds IQ points on the spot: "Ask her questions only your mother would know."  Duh!  They read your mind when they copy you!  Somehow, they still fail to answer any questions.  Bit of a giveaway, innit?  And not one of those army dudes thinks this is a little bit fishy?  Or opts to keep the doors open while they go in and investigate?  So long, then, Sergeant Wally-Brain.  Where's Admiral Ackbar when you need him?

Bringing up the rear UNIT-wise is Jac (aka Roz from Bugs, glimpsed in the season-opener).  It's a perfectly adequate performance but, eh, she's just filling in for Osgood.  Specifically, she's investigating a series of disappearances with Clara, who finally shows up after a mysterious delay.  There's almost a really cool reason for this except – huge spoiler incoming!  Seriously, spoilerspoilerspoiler!  This is your last chance!  SPOILER.!... – her Zygon body-snatching doesn't happen until after she gets 127 missed calls from the Doctor.  I mean, dude, pick up your phone already.  I think the twist would work better (and make a smidge more sense) if Clara was just a Zygon from the start.  But then, I'd happily keep Zygon Jenna instead.

Come back Jenna, all is forgiven?  Kind of.  As the fundamentalist Zygon leader – curiously and adorably named Bonnie – she reveals acting reserves she's presumably been using as paperweights since 2013.  Bonnie's interesting, and Jenna does loads with a sinister turn of the head, a furious dip in the voice, and that determined Terminator-ey stalk of hers.  Much of the performance is even more enjoyable the second time around, as you notice big stuff you may have missed ("Clara" deliberately operating the Zygon lift controls), or little stuff like her curious apathy in the face of danger and death.  You might point out that this is how Clara always reacts to danger and death, because she's a vacuous composite of Doctor Who companions with a load of other characters telling us how awesome she is instead of ever actually proving it, but that would be very mean of you, you mean old so-and-so!  (Don't feel bad if you didn't spot the difference at first.  Weirdly, neither does the Doctor.)  In any case, Clara's usual blasé-ness works wonders for Bonnie.

Huh.  I kind of want her to play other roles now.
Wait, I mean it in the nice way!
Coleman's perfectly okay as Clara too – it's not exactly a stretch, but then that's sort of the problem.  Bright, plucky, little bit witty: tick, tick, yawn.  Her highlight comes after the cliff-hanger, when Bonnie (now unmasked, so to speak) blows up the Presidential plane with the Doctor and Osgood in it.

As Part Two (The Zygon Inversion – I am loving the Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee titles this year) begins, we cut straight to Clara in her bedroom.  This one's co-written by Steven Moffat, so it's business as usual to subvert your cliff-hangery expectations: Clara bumbles around and notices something off about her surroundings, and we're treated to some rather slick continuity as she falls back on her Last Christmas Inceptioning.  She looks for dream clues, figures out she's not in Kansas any more and quickly learns to affect Bonnie's movements from within the dream world.  This is a neat little revamp of that unnerving dream stuff Steven Moffat loves so much.  I mean if they have to repeat themselves (see also: Forest Of The Dead), thank goodness there's a few new spins left.  And it keeps Clara neatly in the loop, although I still don't think she's barnstorming enough to deserve all the credit at the end.  Why yes, it's Clara what solved terrorism, although the Doctor technically did all the work.  I mean, if you want to be picky about it.

With Jenna providing the human face of the Zygons, and Zygons looking like humans wherever possible, it's strangely easy to forget there are Zygons in this.  (To be fair, the sledge-hammering allegory does a lot of the work.)  It's ostensibly a good story for them, as it shows them as being not-all-violent-all-the-time – kind of like some people in the real world, now that you mention it – but most of the actual Zygons on display are the "bad" ones.  With the possible exception of Osgood (I told you not to think about it!) and a couple who cark it at the beginning, there's approximately one harmless blobby alien in this, and he does not get a happy ending.  It's a shame there isn't more diversity here, which seems ironic when you consider what the story is about (heads up, it's topical), and that it's a two-parter.

Looking at them more as cool Doctor Who aliens than as people, since it was their scary blobbiness that has made fans go on and on about Zygons since 1975, this one's all about moving the goalposts.  The Zygons have developed fatal hand-lightning (I forget, they may have had that in The Day Of The Doctor – they weren't exactly the memorable bit!) and the ability to pluck body-prints out of your memory, apparently across great distances.  (Don't ask.)  They also don't need to keep you alive unless they want information, which the Doctor cleverly uses to keep Clara alive.  As for the Loch Ness Monster, which is totally a thing they came up with, there's no sign of that whatsoever.  Boo!  ("But we can do it on a proper budget and everything!", says Peter Harness.  "Okay, but it means cutting a whole episode," says Moffat.  Guys, there's a Mark Gatiss one coming up.  Let's do this.)

What could have been.  :'(
Apart from the monsters, what you're really here for is the answer at the end.  This is an especially big deal when the whole thing is a sock puppet for a real world problem we haven't solved yet, and tellingly there's not a huge amount of plot besides.  Kate spends a suspicious amount of time waiting in an abandoned town; the Doctor and Osgood run about; all that business with people disappearing in lifts goes half-unexplained.  (What about all the places without lifts?)  I guess it's a tension builder, and oh well, we're there now: how does the Doctor make it all go away?

He's been in similar situations with Silurians, who were doing the whole not-all-of-us-are-monsters bit long before there were even Zygons.  And it usually comes down to killing them off and uttering a sheepish "There should have been another way", avec shrug.  Well, you can't have aliens sticking around, can you?  Think of all the extra prosthetics.  But these are Zygons, and they can roam all over the place without affecting the budget, so we can have our cake and eat it!  Huzzah!  (Hardly anyone knows the Zygons are there, but that's a point for another time.  At least, it had better be.)

As for how the Doctor achieves all this, simply enough: he talks.  Okay, he speechifies, raging about the horrors of war and having to live with the consequences.  It teeters on the melodramatic, but it's perfectly in character so it flies.  Remember that line from The Girl Who Died: "Do babies die with honour?"  And, uh, the Doctor's entire stance on war over the years.  This is absolutely a logical progression of blowing up bad guys and feeling terrible afterwards.  And yes, it's enormously optimistic and romantic in-the-broader-meaning-of-the-word to suggest that talking to a terrorist will change anything, but that's largely what science fiction is for, isn't it?  Presenting a version of the world in which we can solve that problem we've been having?  (Okay, That Problem usually gets radioactive and smashes all the skyscrapers, but not always.)  It is pleasingly like Doctor Who to suggest that in the end, talk is the instrument of change.

And this isn't even my favourite bit.  Presenting the villain with exactly the sort of Impossible Choice he's had in the past (usually with a disappointing cheat for a solution), he asks Bonnie a simple question: what do you actually want?  And that's something I always want the heroes to ask the villains.  Look at Sauron or Voldemort: yes, they have a short-term goal to accomplish, next stop, Ze Vorld, but then what?  Paint everything grey and cackle loads?  It often seems as if villains want to burn things and pinch people because deep down, they're just really mean.  Feh.  Picking up on that kind of narrative lameness to de-construct the vicious circle of terrorism is dangerously close to inspired.  It's clever without getting smug – apart from the Doctor saying "Gotcha", which is a rather rubbish coda to all that "when I close my eyes I can still hear their screams" stuff.  Niggle aside though, it's a neat piece of writing and it's worth the wait.

Yay optimism and everything, but... really?
Bonnie completely reformed before the end credits?
In the middle of all this is Peter Capaldi, who is so utterly, Doctorishly adept that he can randomly call himself "Doctor Disco" or "Doctor Funkenstein" for no reason and still... well, no, those bits do stick out actually, along with the horrifying (for all the wrong reasons) American accent he does at one point.  A friend of mine wondered if the Doctor was a Zygon all along (hey Alex!), and even I wonder why he's suddenly so keen to "ponce about on a big plane" when last year he unequivocally wasn't.  Isn't this all a bit... Matt?  The grouchy misanthrope from Series Eight certainly feels further and further away.  Is it the hair?  No, wait, the guitar!  There, he got a guitar and instantly became The Cool Doctor.  (No need to tell us Guitars Are Cool, because duh.)  I honestly think he's better this way, so never mind, but Series Eight is looking more and more like an awkward false start next to it.

Anyway.  Zygons standing in for Muslims, Zygons standing in for ISIS, the Doctor standing in for the magical peace fairy that irritatingly does not exist.  It's about as subtle as writing "ISIS" on some knickers and pulling them over the actors' heads, but I still felt like they accomplished something meaningful here, and kept it firmly within the bounds of Doctor Who.  Well, apart from Nessie.  Boo!


  1. Highly entertaining. We particularly agree with your point, which we have made to other people who found the talking cure too facile, that talking probably wouldn't actually do any good but that saying it might is very Doctor Who. Liking the optimism. We rolled our eyes at the plane-poncing too, which seemed a very clunky way of shoehorning in the threat/parachute stuff. But we are less forgiving than you about the ISIS stuff. The allegory, it burns us. Not least because it takes no risks: unless you are a Daily Mail reader and thus have a head stuffed with straw, the position they take is utterly uncontroversial. But also because it's just not clever. We are currently passing around Robert Jackson Bennett's City Of Stairs, and man, the difference. In that he is quite obvious in some ways about the parallels he's drawing (he has a god laying down edicts forbidding mixing fibres, for example), but it's overall so much more subtle and interesting that it really underlines how thudding the DW allegory is. Some people say all SF is allegory: we resist that idea, but if it is true, then surely there are many more intriguing ways of doing it.

  2. I think that's fair, and I totally accept that it's bludgeoningly obvious. It would be lovely if Doctor Who were more subtle in general. But it still didn't bother me that much because, well, it's prime time TV asking people to stop being twats about refugees (and where possible, find another solution to terrorism besides feeding it). All very worthy, aye, but there are sadly *a lot of Daily Mail readers* and if it's at all possible to grab one of them and point out that actually you're on a slippery slope to Nazi-ism or just giving the psychos what they want, hooray for that. I certainly think it's a good idea with young viewers, since it's not knowing any better in the first place that gets people reading the Conservatives' sock-puppeted bilge and inadvertently adding to it. But your good selves aren't so foolhardy, so it's all acid obviousness, I suppose!

  3. Also fair enough, esp re the children, who might still be pliable. Perhaps we're overestimating the audience/people in general (which would be a first).