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Monday, 9 November 2015

Doctor Who S35E8: The Zygon Inversion.

Doctor Who
Series 35, Episode 8
The Zygon Inversion.

Just when you thought that Doctor Who's creepy propaganda-ing couldn't get any weirder and more uncomfortable, it gets weirder and also more uncomfortable. More than possibly any set of two episodes in this series, this Zygon two-parter has hammered in that Steven Moffat (and Peter Harness, because let's give blame where blame is due to the main writer for this episode - Moffat is credited as a co-writer - who, you might recall, also wrote Kill The Moon, which was terrible but was, at least, not creepy) seems to have forgotten who the show is actually aimed at.

Just in case you're reading this, Moff - you're not, obviously, but it gives me a segue - it's aimed at British children, not American adults.

The first of those two is relevant because there is something deeply inappropriate and creepy about an hour and a half of what is more or less sheer political propaganda (and it's even worse in this episode than it was in the last) being marketed towards children. The second of those two is relevant because if this episode makes anything about this two-parter clear, it's that these two episodes were meant to appeal to Americans: To play to their bedwetting fears, their paranoias, their notions of how the world should work - and let's face it, the US is a mass of paranoia and nervousness at the best of times, so playing to that is always a crowd-pleaser.

We'll talk about that in a few moments.


Picking up where the previous episode left off, this week's episode sees the Doctor and Osgood escape the plane, as Clara exerts some control over her Zygon double (who calls herself Bonnie) to make her hesitate. It turns out that Bonnie is after the Osgood Box, a box left by the Doctor in the care of the Osgoods which can either reveal the existence of every Zygon on Earth and cause mass panic, or wipe all of the Zygons out.

Let's start off with the technical aspects of this episode, because those were all more or less uniformly terrible: The Zygons still look ridiculous, after an episode revolving around finding her Osgood is more or less a non-entity in this episode, and perhaps worst of all, all of Jenna Coleman's acting talent seems to vanish. She was the big redeeming feature of the last episode, playing out a slightly tired plot twist with admirable skill - but now that that big plot twist has been revealed, she apparently decides to play Bonnie with a faux high-pitched, childlike voice for reasons that are completely beyond me. It sounds forced and ridiculous.

The pacing off this episode is bizarrely off as well: The Clara-Bonnie parts are paced fine, apart from a rather odd digression where she forces a Zygon to reveal himself as a Zygon for reasons which don't aid her plan at all and aren't especially clear - in fact, the episode manages to build up some decent tension by having Clara and Bonnie engage in mind games with each other, with Bonnie trying to pry information and Clara trying to avoid giving it to her. But the parts with the Doctor and Osgood are horribly, bafflingly paced - there's not really any sense of movement so much as it seems like he's teleporting about the place (he's not - that's worth pointing out, since this is a science fiction show - it just feels that way), clearing up plot threads here and there before blinking into UNIT for the finale.

You can tell it's Clara, because her hair is down and, more importantly, she has
lighter lipstick and less make-up than Bonnie.

So bad was the pacing that when the Doctor showed up at UNIT for the big standoff over the Osgood Boxes, I had to stop the iPlayer stream, rewind it slightly, and watch again, because I was convinced that I had missed a scene or five.

Typically, the episode tries to build up tension with a rather tired and forced trick that has always been a problem with New Who - let's not pretend Davies didn't have this problem, because he did - but which has definitely become worse under Moffat: Having otherwise straightforward characters shed all of their characterisation to talk in riddles. "The Osgood Box can wipe out humanity. The Osgood Box can start the war. But there's a catch: It's called the Osgood Box for a reason. Have you figured it out yet?" a recording of the two Osgoods tells us. Coming from the Master or even the Doctor this dialogue would be a little silly, but ultimately fine: Coming from the Osgoods, characters who are not portrayed as exactly the riddling types, it feels like the writers using them as a mouthpiece and barely restraining themselves from screaming 'It's really clever!' in their audience's faces.

Frankly, you may as well just have had their monologue start with 'One of us always tells the truth, and the other always lies,' it's that bad. 

Most of what is creepy and propaganda-y of the episode I described in the previous episode, and isn't until the aforementioned finale under UNIT that the episode really pushes itself into even more horrible territory, as the Doctor launches into a rant about how Bonny and the Zygons are just throwing a temper tantrum and are children that need to be educated by him. The children analogy comes up over and over again, culminating in the Doctor pronouncing that he is the expert on war and knows all about.

Interesting note here: In the police car are two Zygon police officers. They are black
and South Asian respectively, making the current count of evil non-white characters
to good non-white characters in this two-parter three to one; and for this episode, two to nil.

I've seen various media sources praising it as the ultimate anti-war speech on television, but that's not really what it is - remember, certain kinds of war are still treated with the gravitas they warrant: It's the Zygons, who are directly meant to parallel radicalised elements in the Middle East, that are not only being portrayed as literal inhuman monsters, but also getting this rant about them being children throwing their toys out of their pram.

And that, really, is what I mean when I talk about this episode playing to the ideals of American adults: Because the big, uncomfortable truth with all of the horrible, violent, brutal things that radical groups (and especially ISIS) have done in the Middle East is that as horrific and indefensible as they are, those groups and those radical ideologies have flourished in large part because of the actions of American and British governments and militaries and businesses and, yes, especially in the case of the US, its civilian population.

An episode written with more thought and more sensitivity would have attempted to address that, would have worked into it this idea that these radical elements do not and have never existed in a vacuum, that their often meteoric rise has always been fueled by the atrocities visited on their civilians, and that all of the so-called wars upon them have been one long exercise in lobbing fuel onto a fire by murdering more and more civilians (and whether that's intentional or not is a post for another time, and a different blog). That would have made a lot of people uncomfortable, in Britain and especially in America, but it would have been a worthier episode of this show.

Yes, thank you for the ugly mood lighting that makes it difficult to see.

Instead, we get a rant about how the radical Zygons are children throwing their toys out of the pram - and it's a rant that's clearly meant to be applicable to real life, casting radicalised groups as angry, screaming children and America and Britain as sighing, tutting parental figures who only want the best for them. That's certainly an appealing idea to the Daily Mail reading and Fox News watching demographic.


I do not recommend this episode, or this two-parter, and it has not escaped my notice that eight episodes in to a twelve episode series, we are as yet only slightly closer to a plot. I say 'slightly', because this two-parter not only gave us another mention of hybridisation (previously seen in the opening two-parter and the Maisie Williams two-parter), but also had, if you were watching carefully, a symbol of a three-tailed meteor scattered about. It bothered me for most of the episode trying to place it until I realised that we've seen that symbol in several episodes prior - most notably, as part of a large mural in the to-be flooded Scottish village of Before the Flood.

But much as it saddens me to say, this is not shaping up to be a good series of Doctor Who. I was so, so hopeful - I enjoyed the first three episodes, was kind of sort of okay with the fourth, and I really wanted the series to keep up that quality, and I've just been disappointed. Maybe the last four episodes will drag it back, but I'm not holding out hope. 

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