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 7.15 – The Day of the Doctor

Pew-pew lasers.

It’s 99% wonderful, but they finally give us the thing we should never have seen: the Time War. It should’ve been the epic crashing of centuries that never happened, waves of possibilities undoing the evolution of universes, Daleks decaying into dust because the metal of their casings had never been designed, Gallifreyans blinked from existence as Daleks slaughtered them in their Time Tot cribs before they joined the sky trenches, the home planets of the Zygons and the Nestenes ripped into nothing but half-forgotten memories shared by terrified survivors. Instead we got pew-pew lasers.

And what makes it infuriating to the point of madness is that Nick Hurran otherwise makes just about the strongest argument possible for being Who‘s very best director with this story. Every frame looks amazing, the lighting and the composition are perfect in every single shot. For Who‘s fiftieth birthday, they gave us an incredibly fun story, a mostly perfect script by Steven Moffat under rotten circumstances – for some weeks, they had zero Doctors under contract, with which people who whined that the story should’ve had more than three never sympathized – and a couple of surprising guest stars in Billie Piper and Tom Baker.

But pew-pew lasers. And Osgood. Everybody else likes Osgood more than I do, which is fair, but I can’t believe anybody’s satisfied with Doctor Who taking the route of conventional sci-fi action instead of something with imagination and power.

I think this story underlines the discrepancy between the two quite harshly. It’s such an intelligent script even before the wit and the putdowns and the Doctors sniping at each other. It features some of Moffat’s very best timey-wimey stuff as the action moves from the National Gallery to the Tower of London, and one character gets a phone call from the Doctor about two seconds after the Doctor leaves the room, and a big painting that we saw in one location ends up in the other, which looks so odd that I honestly thought it was a continuity error on that magical afternoon in 2013 until they explained it.

Our son, who was thrilled by the Daleks and the Zygons and all the other Doctors, noted that there really wasn’t a villain “for the main part,” which is why this works so well. It’s not about saving Earth from Zygons or saving Gallifrey from Daleks. It’s about the Doctor dealing with his decisions, and forgiving his past, and changing history without changing his memories or his guilt. It’s a really remarkable script, and as much as it would’ve been nice to have had Paul McGann and/or Christopher Eccleston in this story, John Hurt is amazing and perfect.

Other kid notes: I quickly covered his eyes just before David Tennant’s name appeared onscreen to preserve the surprise, which worked wonderfully and he loved it. I also neglected to find an occasion to casually remind him of the Zygons, who hadn’t shown up in this show in a very, very long time, but he remembered them. “It’s hard to forget big red monsters with suckers who brought the Loch Ness Monster,” he assured me. I’m not going to hold my hand over my heart and swear that he knew that was Tom Baker playing the Curator – I’m afraid of that heart breaking if I ask – but of course he’s going to remember the Loch Ness Monster.

Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts three and four)

It’s funny how my son and I look at Doctor Who from totally different perspectives. For me, the show almost always starts strong and peters out as it goes, the initial mystery and atmosphere giving way to basic plotting and the world being doomed by this month’s threat. Fortunately, Who has enough charm, wit, and fun that it often doesn’t matter all that much.

But our kid keeps looking at it this way: Doctor Who is a scary, scary program where scary things keep happening and the bad guys have control of the situation for a very long time, and it scares the bejesus out of you, until finally the Doctor wraps things up and there’s usually a big explosion or two, at which point it becomes one of television’s great pleasures. Once again, he grimaced and hid through three episodes, only to rise cheering when the Zygon spaceship blows up, and when the Loch Ness Monster arrives in London for a few seconds before going home. It’s one of the all-time awful special effects. Kitten Kong was more convincing. Ah, well. It looked and sounded terrific up to then. We’ll allow director Douglas Camfield a few seconds of fumble in an otherwise glittering career.

Harry decides to stay on Earth after this adventure. We’ll see him again in a few weeks, along with John Levene’s long-serving character Benton, who had been promoted to warrant officer during the events of “Planet of the Spiders” and “Robot,” and promoted again to regimental sergeant major prior to this story. Even though the character is last seen in the series as RSM Benton, everybody always calls him Sergeant Benton.

Surprisingly, when they come back, it will be without the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney would have another acting commitment when the next, and final UNIT story of the seventies was made, and so this story becomes his swan song as a semi-regular. None of these three characters get a proper goodbye. Courtney would turn up again in three Who stories in the 1980s, and one installment of The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2008.

Between “Zygons” and Courtney’s next appearance in Who in 1983, Courtney mainly worked in the theater. He made occasional small guest star parts on TV, but bizarrely, a starring role in a sitcom was completely shelved for eleven years. In 1982, he starred opposite Frankie Howerd in a six-part series called Then Churchill Said to Me, with wacky hijinks set in that top secret wartime command bunker that Matt Smith’s Doctor once visited. The BBC, being as overcautious and oversensitive as ever, decided that they shouldn’t broadcast a comedy making fun of the military in the middle of the Falklands Islands crisis, but once it concluded, they just left it in the cupboard. It finally aired on a cable channel in 1993, and, if you’re a fan of Howerd’s humor like I am, it’s really an amusing show. I just think it stinks that Courtney was denied a starring part at a time in his career when he really could have used one.

Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts one and two)

And now back to September 1975 and season thirteen of Doctor Who. The season started with a very popular and well-remembered serial written by Robert Banks Stewart, directed by Douglas Camfield, and featuring my absolute favorite incidental music in all of Who, by Geoffrey Burgon. These three would also be responsible for making the season finale look and sound so good.

Camfield and Burgon’s work here is so atmospheric and so wonderful that anybody with a heart and soul would be happy to overlook the story, which is a by-the-numbers tale of alien monsters who speak in Alien Monsterese, with phrases like “centuries by your timescale” and “one Earth mile.” The Zygons are shapeshifters without a home planet, and they only appeared this one time in the original run of the show, but they’re so well remembered, in part because, well, never mind their dialogue, just look at that wonderfully gross design and the terrific costume! Anyway, everybody remembered the Zygons and their pet Loch Ness Monster from their childhoods, so they’ve come back in a couple of stories under Steven Moffat’s time as producer and have been referenced a couple of times more.

Our son was petrified by these episodes. He was so scared! He tells us that the most frightening scene was when the Doctor extracted the cast of the monster’s gigantic tooth. He also didn’t like Harry getting shot, the Zygon grabbing Sarah from behind in the corridor, and the Zygon trapping the Doctor and Sarah in the decompression room. He especially didn’t like the Zygon that was impersonating Harry hiding in the barn and getting ready to attack Sarah. Part two ends with the giant monster chasing the Doctor across the moor, and he didn’t like that either. His latest way to fend off scary beasts is to wrap his security blanket, “Bict,” around his head, instead of wadding it up in front of his face. He’s going to be doing that a lot this season!

Oddly, though, the revelation during the cliffhanger climax that the dinosaur-creature is the Loch Ness Monster rebounded without impact. Bizarrely, he did not know what the Loch Ness Monster was. If you were six years old in 1975, you knew about Nessie. If he ever has heard a reference to it, he’s forgotten. True, this kid doesn’t have a very good memory, but clearly this monster needs a new PR firm.

One note from my own youth, and seeing the TV movie of this story in February 1984: I absolutely loved it, of course, although I was still unclear how the heroes travel around. The story opens with the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah already in Scotland. I remember having a very hard time putting all this together. This was my third story. In “Genesis of the Daleks,” their transmat travel is intercepted by the Time Lords, and at the end, they use a Time Ring to go back to Nerva Beacon. They get inside a blue box at the end of “Revenge” – the same blue box that’s in the opening credits – and it vanishes. Is it a magic cabinet, or does the transmat beam send them in that protective “capsule” to their next destination? I guess when a show’s been on television for twelve years, there’s an assumption that some grownup in the audience can explain all this stuff to new viewers! Us poor kids watching the compilation movies late Saturday nights on PBS without any reference needed some help. And help was indeed on the way, as I’ll relate in a week or so.