Monday, 9 November 2015


Peter Harness's allegory on terrorism, immigration and race relations comes into focus in a stunning second half.

What's in the box, Osgood? (Image copyright: BBC)

I’ve been thinking a lot about satire in Doctor Who this week. Specifically, if I was too hard on last week’s ‘The Zygon Invasion,’ as it’s allusions to Islamic State terrorism and immigration in general weren’t exactly understated. I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t. In the past, Doctor Who has done satire beautifully. The series’ very first trip to another planet, ‘The Mutants (a.k.a. The Daleks)’, was a nuclear war allegory, but it didn’t resort to the sledgehammer-subtle topical references of last week; the parable arose from intelligent conjecture on a contemporary situation. Likewise ‘Carnival of Monsters’: the alien Miniscope is analogous to television, but the device was also a carefully thought out sci-fi idea wrapped up in a political plot.

Interestingly, conflicts that are morally and ethically murky have made TV sci-fi writers nervous in the past. I caught the original, 1960s Star Trek series’ ‘A Private Little War’ this week. When Captain Kirk and company find that the Klingons have been arming one primitive tribe on a neutral planet with flintlocks, after a thumpingly direct reference to ‘brush wars on the Asian continent’, before you can shout ‘Vietnam!’ Kirk has decided to start an arms race by giving an opposing community similar guns, even though he knows it’s wrong. For Star Trek this is a very cynical ending – significantly, the only one in its initial run – totally contradicting the utopian ‘United Nations in space’ remit of the series. Trying to make a comment on something that was happening in the real word, writer and creator Gene Roddenberry effectively gave up creatively (or revealed his true political colours).

Bearing all that in mind, it was going to be intriguing how the concluding episode of the Zygon two-parter played out. In a week that saw a Russian airliner apparently blown up by ISIS, would it have the courage to make a profound statement on relations between different cultures (‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’), or give in with a moral cop-out (‘Kill the Moon’)?

As it turns out, the former. And an optimistic one at that.

Zygella: terrifying. (Image copyright: BBC)
The more the scale became smaller – from a global conspiracy to a confrontation in UNIT’s Black Archive – the more the dramatic intent of the story came into focus. Here was a classic allegorical set up, ‘a scale model of war’: two sets of doomsday boxes, each containing two buttons that would either destroy (at the hand of UNIT’s Kate Lethbridge-Stewart) or unmask the 20,000,000 Zygons on Earth (at the claw of ‘Zygella,’ the alien commander). It’s a concept both simple and powerful as, more than ever, military action now revolves around the flick of a switch with consequences many miles away. There’s also been a lot media interest recently in the new leader of the Labour Party refusing to ‘push the button’. The final twist – that the boxes weren’t connected to anything – was particularly satisfying.  

The main man was on fire this week.
(Image copyright: BBC)
It was a great setting for a debate on the ultimate futility of war, that can only end when people ‘sit down and talk’, fuelled by an incendiary performance from Peter Capaldi (left). It was mesmerising to watch his formidable acting range, from the amusingly flip remark ‘I’m old enough to be your messiah’ at the beginning, through his cranky geriatric walk to the emotionally scarred Methuselah who’s seen so much carnage that he doesn’t want anyone else to ‘feel this pain.’ On this occasion, reasoned argument and peaceful coexistence won out, a status quo underlined by Osgood refusing to reveal if she was human or Zygon. The upbeat message is that, whoever we are, we’re not really that different, an idea that also came through in how the two Clara’s hearts and minds were linked – the real one stopping the copy from pulling a missile trigger was a great touch – as well as the Zygon ‘traitor’ who ‘just wanted to live here.’

Picked you up on my TV screen...
(Image copyright: BBC)
On this showing, it seems that a smaller canvas suits Harness as he can develop ideas better, though one of my favourite things about the episode, the dream sequence in which the two Claras confronted each other (left), seemed more characteristic of Steven Moffat: the use of Morse code through winking was very him, very funny and very Doctor Who. In these scenes, even more so than last week, Jenna Coleman demonstrated what a skilled actress she is too. The real Clara was witty, clever and humane, Zygella was sleek, severe and raging beneath a cool exterior. Her delivery of the line ‘We will die in the fire instead of living in chains,’ minus any trace of a Northern accent and alluding to a Zygon Jihad, was especially chilling. 

To use a random football reference, ‘The Zygon Invasion/Inversion’ was the proverbial game of two halves. In the unfocused first episode, the symbolism was at its most obvious and the tone uncertain. In the focused second, unsurprisingly the allegory and drama were at their most intelligent and strongest, delivering one of the best episodes of this series and Capaldi’s tenure so far; I reckon in years to come the closing Black Archive sequence will be seen as one of the classic moments of Doctor Who (if it isn’t already). Ultimately Harness’s tale was really rewarding, and it was good to see him have the artistic confidence to more than better Trek’s ‘A Private Little War’.

Whether it was always intended to transmit ‘The Zygon Inversion’ on Remembrance weekend or not, it was very timely, particularly as it will make children think about important issues (if, of course, there were any watching at 8pm). On The Andrew Marr Show this morning, they were discussing the nuclear deterrent and speculating whether or not ISIS now have missiles that can bring down airliners. 

If only they would sit down and talk.

Bit to rewind (again and again): The climactic sequence in the Black Archive.

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