A recurrent and to my mind fascinating theme of Peter Harness’s Doctor Who work has been its distinct hostility to democracy. Kill the Moon hinges on the flagrant disregard of the expressed wishes of humanity, while the Zygon two-parter ultimately endorses the existence of unelected guardians who lie to people in order to keep them under control. I should stress, if it’s not obvious, that my fondness for this is not straightforwardly a quasi-neoreactionary rejection of democracy or endorsement of dictatorship – rather it is specifically the extent to which the episodes themselves seem conflicted on this. It’s a bit of grit that complicates the show’s default ethos of liberal centrism – something that extends naturally out of its embrace of rebelliousness and dissent, but that the show usually avoids having to look at head-on.
So it’s not especially a surprise that Harness, writing in the heat of 2016, turns in a script that is more explicitly about the terrible decisions that humanity makes than ever before. This time there is no undemocratic savior to be had. Indeed, there’s not a savior of any kind – the bad decision is taken and the bad guys win. The Doctor’s scheme to stop them is basically for naught. For the most part it’s an even bigger defeat for the Doctor than Extremis was, and is certainly the most bluntly pessimistic thing Harness has written for the show.
For the most part, this works. Certainly it’s something I’m glad the series did. But as with Oxygen, there’s a grimness to it that keeps it from ever quite being fun. There are moments of humor, to be sure, and it’s difficult to seriously suggest that an episode marching towards an ending like this while also situating itself as the middle part of a trilogy that starts with Extremis would be very frock. But there’s a nagging frustration – a sense that “geopolitical thriller” is not the Doctor Who subgenre that Harness was best pigeonholed into. I mean, I can see why it happened – many of the best bits of both Kill the Moon and the Zygon story were the overtly political bits. But what made those stories really sing was the juxtaposition between the snarling politics and the baroque ridiculousness. Here, lacking a fundamental part of the equation, Harness is… well, still fantastic, to be clear, but not at the ecstatic heights of the last two seasons. Which, to be fair, you can thus far say about Series 10, which is starting to shape up a lot like the back half of Series 7: no disasters, but no stone cold classics either.
And of course, we should be clear: this is an absolutely bonkers political thriller. Which is to say, it’s still clearly Doctor Who, and not just because of touches like the corpse monks or the “strands of history” plastic tubing. The Doctor Whoness of it comes as much from what isn’t there, like even a vague account of why the Russian, American, and Chinese militaries are in close proximity in a foreign country or where the hell the entire rest of the chain of command is. This is the iconography of a political thriller, sure, but only in a purely formal sense.
No, the actual driving structure of the episode is the three surrenders, which mark the actual clear set of efforts to resolve the situation. Conceptually, this is great – especially as related to the notion of consent. It takes the baseline theme of “why do people vote for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party” and builds on it. On a superficial level, this weakens the politics slightly, in that the easy and accurate answer to the question is fear, which is ruled out when the Secretary General is disintegrated. But this serves to sharpen the overall critique. Yes, sometimes we vote Leopard Eating out of fear or out of some sense of tactics. But the really ugly horror – the awful truth at the heart of it – is that we do it out of love. It’s easy, looking at ardent Leave voters or the #maga crowd, to frame the choice in terms of economic anxiety, or to talk about how voters are lied to and distracted by cynical attempts to play on racism. And sure, yes, that absolutely happens. But for the most part, this obscures the fact that there are people who just love the idea of Donald Trump. The apocalyptic shitstorm unfolding outside our browser windows is something people want.
This, however, brings us to the one thing about the episode that feels to me like a concrete problem, and why, despite enjoying it a great deal, it’s going to be the first Peter Harness script to not top the ratings: the decision to have the bad ending be entirely Bill’s fault. It’s not that I particularly mind her reasoning – and I greatly appreciate the explicit acknowledgment that her logic is that the Doctor will be able to win the world back so that this isn’t just “the companion is an idiot” story. But “more than just that” is the best you can do with that resolution, which is one that doesn’t particularly feed into the thematic structure. I mean, sure, yes, even good people are susceptible to bad causes, but every effort was made to have us think of the Secretary General and the soldiers as good people too. (Well, every effort short of actually characterizing them, but that’s not the point.) It’s an arbitrary resolution that jars with the episode that had come before.
Which is a pity, because that underlying episode structure is great. The sense of growing dread provided by the lab scenes, which are clearly flagged as “the thing that will end the world” is artful. It’s got multiple great twists and casually elegant concepts, some central to what it’s doing, some deployed with charming casualness. The intercut “previously”/Bill and Penny’s date opening is brilliant. It didn’t quite sweep me into the breathless reverie that Kill the Moon and the Zygon two-parter did, but that’s straightforwardly the only standard by which this can be said not to have worked. If, as it sounds like is the case, Chibnall spurns Moffat’s stable of new writers for the program, all three of them went out on worthy notes that raise the question of the writer of The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood and Dinosaurs in a Spaceship would want to do that.
- This is the most crowded title card in series history, and either the joint longest, second longest, or third longest title, depending on whether you count spaces and which title you prefer for a Hartnell-era story (or indeed whether a title that never appears on screen counts at all).
- When grousing about the lack of strong thematic unity, it’s difficult not to wonder about the cowriting credit, especially given Moffat’s public apology to Harness for not letting him finish the script on his own. I don’t have any special insight into this – for the most part the script felt more like Harness to me than like Moffat, but Moffat has pretty consistently been a pretty invisible hand in his cowrites. But one assumes that Moffat would have done the lion’s share of tying it to Extremis and The Lie of the Land, in which case the Bill resolution would be his, providing at least some explanation of why it doesn’t quite fit the rest of the script. But I do wonder what Harness’s original structure was.
- One explanation of the ending that’s utterly unsatisfying from any perspective other than my own is that it’s simply an inversion of Kill the Moon, in which the companion makes the wrong choice instead of the right one, and thus brings Harness’s triptych of stories to a nice and symmetrical ending. And there’s something to that – for all that Bill’s choice was wrong, it was the choice that sustained the narrative of Doctor Who, and its negative consequences shouldn’t take much more than 45 minutes to sort out. Though man, if only the Doctor had bothered to explain regeneration to her back in Knock Knock.
- I’m willing to say with some conviction that making “the Doctor doesn’t want to tell Bill” the primary drama of the Doctor being blind was a mistake.
- An obvious thread of interpretation that I’ve only started to wrap my head around is based around the wording of “consent.” This could go a lot of ways. On one level, it’s tempting to read it in the same way as the abortion metaphor in Kill the Moon, which is to say as an accidental implication that probably would have been caught if the writer and executive producers weren’t all men. And yet the equation of consent with love and explicit line “fear is not consent” seem at first glance to make it a pretty robust metaphor for sexual consent. If so, however, any metaphor is going to go far better with a BDSM/kink-inflected reading of “consent” than a rape-based one.
- But, of course (and this applies to my primary gripe about the episode), Harness’s scripts have never yielded to straightforward allegorical readings, and an attempt to have this episode be a doctrinal political statement in the way that Oxygen and Thin Ice were is going to fail. Harness’s starting point has always been things that trouble him, as opposed to things that he believes. Which is to say that the thematic questions are firmly features, not bugs.
- Unsurprisingly the doomsday clock image got a smile out of me, whether or not it’s a Watchmen reference (and I’ve no particular reason to think it is.)
- The best detail of the episode: the Monks’ pyramid-shaped monitor.
- Speaking of the monitor, I’m glad that Harness’s usual focus on mediation and the act of watching was in play. Also that Capaldi got an address to camera. Pity nobody argued frantically over whether to push a button.
- For the Americans, my review of the penultimate episode of Class, in which you can watch as something just snaps in my ability to tolerate the show.
- Podcast on Thursday. See you then. (Well, also on Tuesday for some Proverbs of Hell, but you know.)
- Thin Ice
- The Pyramid at the End of the World
- The Pilot
- Knock Knock