Doctor Who 10.6 and 10.7 – Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World

Two days ago, I read aloud someone’s joke on Twitter, prompting our son to ask what the word stigmata meant. This turned into a long and silly discussion about holy relics and the sort of things that the Vatican is said, in fiction, to keep in dark and secret archives. And so last night, we watched Steven Moffat’s unbelievably good “Extremis,” which launches what seems like, for a good while, is going to be one of the all-time greatest Who adventures. Will Moffat fail to stick the landing? Of course. It’s Moffat, and it’s Who. The show’s endings, as I’ve said often enough, are rarely as good as its openings. When Moffat nails it, it’s punch-the-air excellent, but he’s uneven, and the higher the stakes, the greater the chance of a belly flop.

“Extremis” takes us to the Vatican’s secret vault of heretical writings, which is brilliantly designed and also extremely large. Dudes have banned a whole lot of books in two thousand years. It introduces us to the Monks, who are also brilliantly designed and also extremely patient and clever. These guys don’t pull off many invasions, but the ones they do, they do intricately and carefully.

The hour is an amazing example of one misdirection after another, which feeds into part two. Perhaps my favorite is the slow and fascinating explanation of why the Doctor has been guarding this vault underneath St. Luke’s for the first fifty (or seventy?) years of a promised thousand: Missy is in it. The direction makes it look like that Michelle Gomez has been brought back to serve as the Doctor’s executioner, but no, he has been assigned to kill her. He has a better idea.

Also, I really, really love the way that Missy takes a break from all the taunting, realizes that the Doctor has ended his retirement because River has died, and quietly offers her condolences. Amazing.

So for part two, Peter Harness comes on board as co-writer as the action moves to Turmezistan, which Harness introduced in his Zygon adventure in the previous season. I’ve less to say about the second part, except that it’s done so brilliantly well. Watching it again just cements how much I absolutely love Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.

Our son has enjoyed the daylights out of the story so far. In both parts, the Doctor’s triumphs have had him grinning ear to ear, fists clenched. He gets so animated when the hero turns things on the villains, especially when the Monks’ own attempt at misdirection backfires and the Doctor figures out where they don’t want him to be. But there’s a flaw in his plan, and – not for the first time – one of the Doctor’s companions makes a deal with the devil to save his life. The cliffhanger is downbeat and I truly enjoy how we couldn’t guess what would happen next.

Doctor Who 9.8 – The Zygon Inversion

So the kid said that he enjoyed this episode and that it was “powerful,” and I think that’s an unusual word for a ten year-old to use to describe a piece of television. I think that he’s right, and I think that many people will agree, but I’m pleasantly surprised that we’ve raised a kid who, only ten, can see that television that challenges viewers to think more about the emotions and the reasons and the consequences for and of war might need different words than “cool” or “awesome.”

Many people seem – quite understandably – to think of the big climax, with Capaldi forcing his angry enemy to think about those consequences and change her mind, as the big moment to take away. But I sometimes come back to this scene in a small, closed supermarket, and think it’s one of the most amazing pieces in all of Who. Most of what happened before is left to our imagination, but we know that the rebel leader messed with this peaceful immigrant Zygon’s ability to hold a human form. He turned into an alien monster again in front of people, the video went viral, and hours later, there are dead people in the lobby.

The Zygon just wanted to live in peace. He had been a Briton for two years, living quietly in what looks to be a beat-up, aging council estate in south London. Nobody bothers him, and he’s happy. Then some young, violent meatheads do something terrible, and racists close ranks, and immigrants aren’t welcome. Every time that racists and white supremacists and nationalists do something even more disproportionately terrible in response to whatever’s pissed them off this month, this scene hits harder. It’s brilliant, brilliant writing.

In a much lighter observation, after the previous episode’s revelation that seventies – or possibly eighties – companion Harry Sullivan had worked on the team developing an anti-Zygon nerve gas, I made sure to remind our son of the delightful moment toward the end of “Revenge of the Cybermen” when the Doctor tells everybody within earshot that Harry Sullivan is an imbecile. 1300 or so years later, and the Doctor’s opinion hasn’t changed; he’s still “that imbecile.” And our son observed that cosplaying as Osgood probably isn’t that difficult, although his methods certainly are. He suggests that anybody who wants an Osgood costume just needs to go to the “BBC Costume Creation Department and take all their old designs and things for the Doctor that they’ve thrown away.” I think he might could build a better mousetrap if he thought about that a bit longer.

Doctor Who 9.7 – The Zygon Invasion

I’ll get the worst out of the way, because Peter Harness’s two-parter is otherwise extremely good, especially its second half. I don’t like the Zygons’ weapons turning people into blobs of sparkling hair because it looks ridiculous. It’ll be topped by an even dumber death visual in the next season, unfortunately. But what I really can’t stand is this absolutely unbelievable interlude where the Zygons shapeshift into copies of the family members of these crack UNIT troops.

Okay, sure, UNIT’s always been known to find soldiers of the “Holy Moses! What’s that?” variety, but you’d think that fifty years later, they’d have sorted out who gets to wear the blue badge. But no, we have an entire company of redshirts sent to Turmezistan, who know the Zygons pulled the “don’t kill my kid and his dad” trick with the drone operator, who’ve been told by their commanding officer to watch out for the trick, and a dozen soldiers nevertheless fall for it anyway, meekly walking along to their offscreen death by sparky-hair, in a scene that is utterly unnecessary to the plot. The story would have continued in precisely the same way if Colonel Walsh and the Doctor had gone in by themselves. It adds nothing except to say “Aren’t these heroes gullible idiots?” and “I’m sure the director thought that was dramatic; he was wrong.” It’s padding every bit as obvious and awful as that bit in “Timelash” where the Doctor shouts at Herbert for six minutes, and stands as one of the most breathtakingly stupid and misplaced moments in the whole of Doctor Who. That bad.

Whew. I mean, we understand and often love the fact that Doctor Who is frequently stupid, but it’s frequently lovably stupid. This one’s full of those moments, like the revelation that the two Zygon bigwigs in the UK have chosen to disguise themselves as two schoolgirls. Then there’s “Doctor Disco” and the Nixon salute and the great little revelation that the “hush-hush” business that Harry Sullivan had been up to at Porton Down was developing an anti-Zygon nerve gas, after his experiences with them back in the seventies or eighties.

The premise is that after the events of “The Day of the Doctor” two years previously, twenty million Zygons have resettled on Earth, agreeing to hide as humans and keep a peace treaty. I remember that some people baulked that twenty million is a huge number, but it’s also about the population of Cairo, spread out everywhere from Turmezistan to New Mexico, so maybe it isn’t that outrageous. UNIT’s Osgood has been concerned that some of the Zygons were not going to be happy with this, and now her predicted “Nightmare Scenario” has come true.

But at its core, this is an angry story that’s really well told and has a few very good twists in it. It’s a story about radicalization, using alien shapeshifters to talk about young, impatient jerks waging jihad. It goes out of its way to insist that there are good and evil in all cultures, but perhaps sadly this story is only about the radicals, who announce themselves with a spray-painted stencil of a black claw. The leader, who takes the name Bonnie, seems to have a following of a few thousand Zygons, possibly a drop in a bucket of 20,000,000, but more than enough to be one of the greatest threats the planet’s ever seen. After all, as Colonel Walsh asks, how can you actually count them?

Doctor Who 8.7 – Kill the Moon

You have to wonder what the people at the BBC who come up with the criteria for what makes a companion – something that a lot of people have seemed to enjoy making obsessive lists about- are thinking. Apparently, Astrid Peth, the character played by Kylie Minogue in “Voyage of the Damned” is an official companion despite never even seeing the Doctor’s ship, while Courtney Woods, who took two TARDIS trips in subsequent stories, isn’t. And it can’t be because the Doctor made the invitation to Astrid and she accepted before she died, because he also made the same invitation to Lynda-with-a-Y at the end of series one and she also said yes before she got killed.

Anyway, you can’t help but like Courtney. She goes to the moon 35 years in her future and the first chance she gets, she posts pictures on Tumblr.

It’s easier to squint and ignore the breathtakingly dumb science of “Kill the Moon” from a distance. I think when it first aired, the revelation about what’s happening and how it is resolved just felt so amazingly stupid that it overwhelmed everything else, but everything else about this story is actually incredibly good. It’s the first Who adventure written by Peter Harness – he’d do the fine seven-part adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for the BBC the next year – and I think it moves a bit too fast in the beginning. I’d like to have spent a little more time with Capaldi and Coleman speaking a little less frantically about how the Doctor’s thoughtlessness has affected Courtney. Once we’re in 2049, it’s excellent.

And once we’re back in 2014, it’s excellent again. Clara really did become the companion who should have left many, many times. Maybe this should have been her goodbye. Coleman is amazing; she’s so furious and I mostly agree with her. The Doctor is being incredibly manipulative in this story. Sure, it means we’d have been robbed of what should have been her farewell scene in “Death in Heaven,” and what should have been her farewell scene in “Last Christmas,” and what should have been her farewell scene in “Face the Raven”… but you see what I mean?