Holy shit that was good. An astonishingly well-tuned, clever piece of television full of surprises big and small. Every bit as good as you would hope from the writing credit, from the actors, from the directors, and really from Doctor Who. I am as thrilled to have watched this happen as I am jealous of those who got to see Terror of the Zygons on first transmission, and I have zero doubt that in 2055 fandom will talk about this like we talk about Terror today.
There is nowhere to start besides the big scene. It is essentially a ten minute long Peter Capaldi monologue. I mean, he has four other characters and three other actresses to work off of, but they are all obligingly standing in corners and letting him do his bit. And it’s basically perfection. This is true on essentially three levels. First of all, of course, is simply the fact that Peter Capaldi is very good at his job. There’s almost nothing more to say than that. I mean, just go watch it five times in a row. Go ahead. It will stand up to that. You will keep noticing new things and getting excited about new bits. It will be like falling in love with a song only with television.
Second of all, Moffat and Harness are very good at theirs (and this scene, at least, feels very much a… hybrid). This isn’t just well paced and well-acted, it’s well set up. Harness built the overall story very well. The basic decision to have the story’s sole actual Zygon Duplicate be Clara was very clever, as was the decision to have the actual villainous faction just be a raging ISIS-style splinter group. The result is on the one hand unambiguously a full on villain, and no effort is made to morally justify Bonnie’s lunacy as such, and on the other hand impossible not to empathize with because she’s played by Jenna Coleman. The resolution – the heartbroken “there’s nothing in the box, is there” – is astonishing, as is “you’re one of us now,” a line meticulously situated within the overall Invasion of the Body Snatchers rhetoric of the story, but given a strange and wonderful meaning contrary to what the line would normally do. And then there’s all the little verbal mirrorings – the use of the word “troublemakers,” with which the Doctor clearly implicates himself just as much as Bonnie, for instance.
But third of all, and perhaps most importantly, are the basic and particular ethics of it. The original Zygon ceasefire was an unusually philosophically deft move on Moffat’s part; a tacit quotation of the great liberal philosopher John Rawls. This moves beyond the pretty philosophical theory into terrain that is at once realist and full of empathy. The Doctor’s final turn into “of course I know how you feel you moron” is astonishing, as is the act of forgiveness. The arguments made are wise and sensible. Space is made for the legitimacy of violence, but none is made for the legitimacy of suffering, and the contradiction involved is accepted. Empathy and secrets are both necessary, and part of a larger process. Just like the first episode flickered deftly between the Letts and Hinchcliffe 70s, the second flickers just as deftly between the historical and personal scales of politics and society. The cleverest bit: the tension between breaking the cycle and this being its fifteenth iteration of one sort or another for Kate.
But this was the grand finale to a much bigger thing with many other truly great beats. The Clara/Bonnie scenes are incredible; my jaw hit the ground at the underplayed darkness of Clara trying to turn the gun on herself, and the mutual interrogation is a wonderfully structured scene in which Clara’s usual set of tricks are taken away from her and she finds a new way to do what she does. This is the best story Coleman has gotten all season (less so Clara, technically, but her dream sequences are phenomenal), and ranks among the best material she’s gotten across her three seasons. Breathtaking stuff.
Also brilliant is the scene with the unnamed Zygon that Bonnie shifts back, which is heartbreaking and an absolutely vital thing to include, not least because it provides the moral justification for the Doctor at the end. And it solves one of the two-parters biggest problems, which is that the plot hinges on the fact that Truth or Consequences doesn’t represent the Zygons at large, but being a Doctor Who story is nevertheless the chunk of Zygons we’re going to spend most of the time dealing with. So this scene does a lot of work, and it manages it in wonderfully unsettling fashion, providing one of those classic Doctor Who moments of tragic humanity from a man who is constantly erupting into blobs and suckers. I’d say that I trust the idiots claiming the first episode was Islamophobic will shut up now, but they’re idiots, so that’s unlikely.
On the whole, this is, I think even better than Kill the Moon. That is not quite the same as saying that I liked it more, but my first experience of Kill the Moon is a treasured memory to me in the same way that my first experience of The Ark in Space was, and the tier of memories above it is pretty much reserved for getting married and shit. But this is the better script and the better story. An absolute jaw-dropping triumph.
- Once again nobody who watched it live then went to Tumblr, so no quote. We’ll see if I remember to check after the US airing and add one.
- It is going to get at least some stick – possibly from Jack, who I know is planning on writing about Zygons later this week, but have no idea what he’s going to say – for ending up being very pro-assimilation. This isn’t an unreasonable criticism, although it’s worth pointing out, as Al Ewing did in last week’s podcast, that the alternative of a world where humans and Zygons live together with the Zygons in their natural form is a budgetary impossibility, and the ultimate reason why the Zygons had to maintain human form – because humans couldn’t be trusted otherwise – is, let’s face it, depressingly credible. Though actually the detail I like the most was that total assimilation is the threat used within the blue Osgood Box, equivalent to a nuclear bomb going off under London in the orange one. Assimilation becomes an ugly and unsatisfying compromise, as opposed to an ideal. That’s good and subtle.
- I like the weight Kate is given in the narrative; kept out of it for the first half, used as a clever twist at the halfway mark, and then involved in the resolution, but on a fundamentally different scale to people who have learned to think like the Doctor. Denying her the sort of terrifying enlightenment that comes of thinking like the Doctor is beautiful and cynical in all the right ways. Similarly brilliant is the use of “five rounds rapid” in such a bleak context.
- If I am going to quibble with the episode’s politics, it’s actually in the moment where the Doctor criticizes Bonnie for not having a post-revolutionary plan, which I don’t think is a fair thing to demand of a revolution. The obvious caveats are “well, it kind of is once the revolutionary has their finger on the button, as the Doctor points out in the episode” and “OK, but the point is that Bonnie’s revolution is just mass chaos, panic, and death, which is a bit more than just not having a plan,” both of which are fair, but it’s still the moment in the episode’s politics that gives me the most reservations. But those reservations are more than outweighed by the fact that it is, in the end, the same objection the Doctor raised in Terror of the Zygons: “You’ve got to come out onto the balcony sometimes and wave a tentacle.”
- Much attention has been given in the mainstream press to ISIS and immigration as themes of these episodes. I wonder if anyone in the mainstream press will pick up on the discussion of what treaties are and what they do, which is quite a statement to make as Cameron heads into EU treaty renegotiation, especially from a Brit living in Sweden.
- In any case, the politics score is unambiguously pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, anti-UKIP, and pro-EU, yes?
- Also, it seems like Bonnie’s decision to become Osgood strongly suggests that the person who died in Death in Heaven was assigned Zygon at birth, yes? Or is the state of affairs that both Osgoods are possibly Zygons now, and this simply doesn’t matter? Either’s good, really.
- When Tat Wood gets around to writing what I assume will be Volume 10 of About Time, one imagines the “Things That Don’t Make Sense” section will have quite a bit of fun trying to figure out the coincidence that the attack on a Zygon child that began radicalizing the Zygons and gave their faction their name took place in Truth or Consequences, which also happens to be what the Doctor wrote inside the Osgood Boxes.
- At this point Series 9 is firmly in contention with Series 8 in terms of quality, although still lagging slightly behind. Still a third of the game to be played, of course, but if Heaven Sent/Hell Bent lives up to its strange and cryptic potential and the next two hold up it really could astonish. I’m genuinely curious whether Gatiss can impress, and what him writing Capaldi having seen him instead of blind will be like, given that in a lot of ways Robot of Sherwood was the odd story out in his first season characterization.
- This also seems like a good time to mention that I’m doing an interview with Peter Harness this week that will be an exclusive for my end-of-year Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons collection, which is officially available for preorder. (And here’s the UK link.)
- The Zygon Inversion
- The Zygon Invasion
- The Girl Who Died
- The Magician’s Apprentice
- The Woman Who Lived
- The Witch’s Familiar
- Under the Lake
- Before the Flood
- The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion
- The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived
- The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar
- Under the Lake/Before the Flood