Tuesday, 3 November 2015


Satire on ISIS and immigration + Doctor Who monsters =
'The Zygon Invasion.' But did it work?

'Bad Clara' fights for the homeland. (Image copyright: BBC)

Last year, after ‘Kill the Moon’ and ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, I looked up Peter Harness and Jamie Mathieson, the respective writers. I found that Mathieson was a relatively inexperienced television author, while Harness had an extensive CV, both on the TV screen and on the stage. I was surprised, because Mathieson’s stories were full of originality, nuanced dialogue and worked on several levels. By contrast in ‘Kill the Moon’, Harness offered a didactic parable about the right-to-life with no subtexts, little light and shade and, on reflection, a bit of a cop-out solution. 

Maybe the Doctor Who production were impressed by the – admittedly great – showdown between Clara and the Doctor in Harness’s script, because this year he’s been given a big budget two-parter. Strikingly, the first instalment, ‘The Zygon Invasion’, doesn’t look like any Doctor Who story seen before, as there are several important scenes set in other countries in the present day – ‘Tumezistan’ (i.e. the Middle East) and New Mexico – that are convincingly realised on location. They help sell the production as an international action movie, from a UNIT safe house in South London to the heavy ordnance used by UNIT forces in the field, and the cliffhanger is genuinely dramatic, backed up by the lack of a ‘Next Week’ trailer. Among the guest cast, Ingrid Oliver, as believable as ever as UNIT geek Osgood, was the emotional heart of the story. Elsewhere, ‘Bad Clara’ is obviously a treat for Jenna Coleman to play.

Someone’s decided to make everyone’s favourite shape-changing aliens the Zygons, marooned among us since 2013’s ‘The Day of the Doctor’, symbolic of the War on Terror in general – quite literally the enemy within, because anyone you know could be an alien terrorist – and Islamic State in particular; a splinter group who, if bombed, could ‘radicalise’ all their kind. Add a further level of allegory with the Zygons having ‘no jobs, nowhere to live and no money’ and it’s been a long time since a Doctor Who story has been this politically direct.

Please - don't do that again. (Image copyright: BBC)
I’m all for it. Some of the best stories have satirically tackled contemporary issues: ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’, ‘The Green Death’ and ‘The Sun Makers’, to name but three from the last century. Here, though, Harness seemed intimidated by the subject matter because, just as in ‘Kill the Moon,’ he’s made it very literal. Present day allusions, like ISIS-style internet hostage videos and drone strikes on civilian population centres in the Middle East, sat awkwardly next to references to question-mark underpants, the Doctor throwing adolescent rock star shapes and making jokes about Zygons stealing benefits. Doctor Who has always thrived on contrasts, but to compensate for his (commendably) serious themes Harness made the humour almost hysterically broad, resulting in a production that was nearly schizophrenic in tone. There was, however, more on offer for the youngsters here than last week, with distinctive, creepy monsters who could turn out to be your best friend.

With its The X Files-style captions underlining a change of international scene, ‘The Zygon Invasion’ would like to be a balls-out, relevant, political conspiracy thriller like Homeland or 24. However, the genre hasn’t been adapted confidently or comfortably enough to either the family-viewing time slot or the science fiction context, and you sense that, for the most part, director Daniel Nettheim isn’t convinced by the uneasy compromise Harness has come up with. Tellingly, the best scene in the episode was when UNIT officer Hitchley (Todd Kramer) was confronted by a Zygon duplicate of his mother (Karen Mann), a sequence that didn’t intersect with the contemporary symbolism in the story.

The episode also illustrated how up and down the Doctor’s character has been this year; if he was Tom Baker, Capaldi has gone from the brooding, detached alien of ‘The Seeds of Doom’ to the madcap eccentric of ‘City of Death’ in the space of four stories. I’m starting to suspect that the shades, guitar and hoodies, not to mention calling himself ‘Doctor Disco’ and ‘Doctor Funkenstein’, is the production team back pedalling and saying ‘Honestly, kids, the old guy’s really with it!’ If that’s the case, it’s a damn shame after they were so committed to the radical overhaul of the character last year.

It’ll be interesting to see how the story resolves in ‘The Zygon Inversion’. Harness will have to pull off something pretty amazing to redeem the first episode’s nervous and uneven style.

Bit to rewind: ‘Bad Clara’ going all Fiona Volpe with a motorbike and rocket launcher.

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