Doctor Who has been an important part of my life. Not only has it given me great entertainment through most of my years, it has directly led to me meeting important people in my life, and sending me in the direction of my writing career. So I have a lot of memories about the program and my reactions to it. I feel it is significant, therefore, that at no time has Doctor Who ever made me want to cry. Until now.
Maybe I may have a harder heart than some people (like Vivian, who was reduced to tears to learn of Abigail's terminal illness in A Christmas Carol), or maybe I'm softening in my old age (after all, Inside Out reduced me to tears as well; if you've seen it, you probably know the scene). Still, it's significant.
And it's not an indictment on anything, either the classic series or the current serial. As I was growing up as a young teenage boy, crying was decidedly uncool, and for a program to take me out of that safe zone would be a distinct challenge to my ability to watch it. But we grow and we change and we should push our boundaries. True art at least tests the edges of the safe zones.
And it was just one moment -- in the middle of an admittedly powerful soliloquay -- that did it. It came down to an acting choice made by Peter Capaldi (if it was an acting choice), a little catch in his voice that made me put my hand to my mouth and think, "oh, my God, he's going to break down!"
This is something that Doctor Who has never done for me before. It shows that the program can still land its punches.
A full spoilery review appears after the break.
It's significant that this episode came out before Remberance Day, because it has a lot to say about war.
Once upon a time, on the fiftieth anniversary of the program, there was a subplot, where three Doctors achieved a moment of personal growth and triumph by turning down a horrible decision made centuries ago, and used that knowledge to tell two younger races not to make the same mistakes they had done. An invasion of the Earth by the Zygons was thwarted in very un-Doctor Who fashion by turning back from war, and forcing both sides to sit down and talk peace. It moved the War Doctor deeply, gave him hope for his successors, even if not for his own personal fate, and was quite possibly the Doctor's single greatest achievement.
Two seasons later, that achievement looks shaky, as a radical faction within the Zygon refugee settlers on Earth, decide they can't abide by the articles of the peace treaty, and risk war for the right for Zygons to be Zygons. Fortunately, in the event of a challenge to the ceasefire, UNIT scientist Osgood, who was duplicated by the Zygons, but embraced the idea of living as a twin sister (until one or the other of her was vaporized by Missy), has set up a protocol. There is a device called an Osgood box, which can end the ceasefire and launch the war. So, of course, she's a target for this radical group of Zygons, and is captured after fleeing to Truth and Consequences, New Mexico. Before being captured, however, she is able to send a message to the Doctor, saying oliquely, "nightmare scenario".
Part one, entitled The Zygon Invasion, moves at a frenetic pace, starting us a few weeks into the ramping up of hostilities. The Doctor arrives too late to save the moderate leadership of the Zygons from being captured by the radicals and executed. UNIT, led by Kate Lethbridge-Stewart, are freaking out, and seriously questioning the wisdom of the Doctor's peace treaty, allowing twenty-million Zygon refugees to take up residence on Earth as disguised humans. They have a point, as if the twenty-million Zygons do decide to break the ceasefire, things will get very nasty indeed. However, the Doctor points out that the vast majority of the Zygons on Earth respect the cease-fire, and are as terrified of the radicals as UNIT is.
To assess the radical Zygon threat, the Doctor and company split up, with Kate going off (alone? What the hell, Kate?) to Truth and Consequences, New Mexico, and the Doctor going with a belligerant UNIT Colonel Walsh to a radical-Zygon occupied village in the Physically Similar To But Legally Distinct From Republic of Turkmenistan (known as Turmezistan), to try and rescue Osgood. This leave Clara to manage the UNIT troops back in the United Kingdom, but strange things appear to be happening there, as poor Clara seemingly misses the reenactment of Invasion of the Body Snatchers taking place within her own apartment complex.
Note that I said, "seemingly". Yeah, I fell for the companion switcheroo, and that almost excuses Clara's seeming drop of several IQ points as she walks out on a poor kid who clearly has had his parents replaced by Zygon duplicates. Whatever hard feelings I had for this scene, however, is wiped away as Jenna Coleman sinks her teeth into her new role as the episode's villain, the Zygon named Bonnie.
Wait: Bonnie? Zygon names thus far in this series have had their own etymology. We've had Brotan and Brelarn. Bonnie?
But perhaps that was the name she was given, or maybe she took it on ironically, as the current generation of Zygons insinuates themselves in Earth culture. Perhaps this is a symbol of what the radical Zygon leader is reacting to.
This isn't explicitly stated, and takes some thinking to suss out, but it's a powerful point that is possibly at the heart of this two parter. The Zygons lost their home planet due to the Time War, and the Doctor's attempt to make the best of a bad situation is to prevent the Zygons from taking Earth as their own, and allowing the species to live on masquerading as humans. This gives the Zygon race life. However, it also demands that the Zygons essentially assimilate into the human race. For a species that (like humans) is used to dominating the ecosystem they're living in, this might be hard to take, and an easy grudge for radicals to whip up into rebellion.
The Zygon Invasion has been called one of the most political episodes of Doctor Who in a while, taking on issues of refugee settlement and radicalization and drawing parallels to the current situation in Europe. Writer Peter Harness even takes the time to describe the situation in Truth and Consequences, New Mexico, where a bunch of "British" citizens came and settled down, but were, according to the local populace, "weird", "kept to themselves" and had trouble finding jobs. How do you like dem apples, British viewers?
There is a lot crammed into part one, and I fear the story suffers because of it. Motivations only become really clear thorugh the use of Fridge Logic. I mean, what is Bonnie's motivation, here? She hints at cruelty, possibly systemic racism, but we don't see too much of it on the screen -- likely because there's only so much you can tell in 42 minutes. Moffat and Harness (co-authors of part two, The Zygon Inversion) do manage to get some sense of the fear of the moderate Zygons when Bonnie forces a poor, unassuming Zygon to reveal his true shape in public.
Unfortunately, with all that needs to be done in part one, all of the world hopping, and the large cast of characters to manage, part one feels a bit rushed, albeit undeniably exciting (thanks to director Daniel Nettheim) and very well acted. However, there is a reason why a lot is shoved into part one, because the chairs need to be set up for part two, where things are given time to breathe, and the result is a stellar production.
Let me mention again how great Jenna Coleman is as a villain. Can we have her back, please? Or maybe she could go menace James Bond? Because she's just so good at it. And Jenna is given a lot to do in The Zygon Inversion as Clara, shut up in her Zygon-duplication-machine, struggles with Bonnie for control.
It's all a set-up for a situation the Doctor maneuvers all parties into: a final confrontation between Kate Lethbridge Stuart (representing humanity) and Bonnie (representing the radical Zygons) with the Osgood boxes between them, with both hands poised on the proverbial buttons that can end the ceasefire and bring about a holocaust. It is, as the Doctor calls it, a scale model of war that everybody can understand and appreciate.
The Zygon two parter is not perfect. As I mentioned, too much happens in part one, and many elements don't get a chance to really breathe. What really did happen in Truth and Consequences, New Mexico? Why was police chief Norlander left behind? What was the significance of her statement about a young Zygon that was unable to copy her duplicate properly?
Indeed, I think this ranks as one of the biggest wasted opportunities of this serial. It's no surprise that Kate survives and pretends to be her own Zygon duplicate to infiltrate her way back into Zygon-compromised UNIT. However, rather than shooting Norlander and placating fans with the admittedly cool "five rounds rapid" quote, it would have been better if Norlander had transformed into a Zygon and said, "I'm not with them!" and handed Kate what she needed to launch her ruse. That would have shown how the radical Zygons didn't speak for all the Zygons, and that there were moderates who would be just as badly affected as the humans if the radical's plans were allowed to bear fruit. Fortunately, Harness and Moffat's sequence where Bonnie forces a poor Zygon to reveal his true form in public help raise sympathies for the average Zygon in this production.
"I'm not part of your fight. I never wanted to fight anyone. I just wanted to live here. Why can't I just live?"
And of course, there is the climactic scene, which in many ways runs counter to the usual way Doctor Who stories end, as Peter Capaldi's Doctor tries the hardest I've ever seen to talk the antagonist out of her plans. This is, really, the Doctor at his heart: the pacifist defender of the universe, who has rarely had a chance to see his attempts to talk people to a better way of life bear fruit. However, he gives it his all here, and while such a tactic can't, on paper, be seen as a thrilling or exciting way to end a television serial, he delivers gravitas and anger and anguish that silences the audience and leaves them staring speechless.
I would like to ask Peter Capaldi, when the director yelled "cut" at the end of the scene, did the other actors rush forward and hug him? Because if I'd been there, I might.
But let's not leave out who else is in this scene, particularly Jenna Coleman as Bonnie and Clara, Ingrid Oliver as Osgood, and Jemma Redgrave as Kate Lethbridge Stuart. Jemma Redgrave herself matches the Doctor in terms of putting on an emotion performance, as she reacts in terror for humanity, and then in horrified shame. The moment she reaches out and closes her Osgood box is the second-most powerful moment in this scene. The actress is almost in tears as she emotes over what her character was prepared to do. Just, wow.
But, of course, the moment is the Doctor's soliloquay, profoundly written by Moffat and Harness and stellerly delivered by Capaldi himself. The moment when his voice catches, and I worry he's about to break down in tears is a moment when I'm close to tears myself.
And the Doctor wins. Because, in a rare moment in the history of the program, the antagonist realizes the error of her ways, and backs down, even at considerable risk to herself after all that has happened.
At first, I had to wonder if this would even be possible. People had died up to this point. Think of Jac. Think of the people of Truth and Consequences, New Mexico. Think of the UNIT soldiers who were tricked by the Zygon duplicates of their loved ones, and walked to their doom. How do you walk back from that?
But, think about it: if you want peace, you have to. How did Ian Paisley manage to sit next to Martin McGuinness in the Northern Ireland Assembly after all that the IRA and the UDA had done? How does Europe function after the Second World War? How do you live with the fact that you've killed, and you're working with people who've killed people on your side? Except that, if you want peace, you have no choice. It is, as the Doctor admits, an impossible situation. It's called peace.
The Doctor: And we're off! Fingers on buzzers! Are you feeling lucky? Are you ready to play the game? Who's going to be quickest? Who's going to be the luckiest?
Kate: This is not a game!
The Doctor: No, it's not a game, sweetheart, and I mean that most sincerely.
Bonnie: Why are you doing this?
Kate: Yes, I'd like to know that too. You set this up -- why?
The Doctor: Because it's not a game, Kate. This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought right there in front of you. Because it's always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who's going to die. You don't know who's children are going to scream and burn. How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everybody does what they're always going to have to do from the very beginning -- sit down and talk! Listen to me, listen. I just -- I just want you to think. Do you know what thinking is? It's just a fancy word for changing your mind.
Bonnie: I will not change my mind.
The Doctor: Then you will die stupid. Alternatively, you could step away from that box. You could walk right out of that door, and you could stand your revolution down.
Bonnie: No, I'm not stopping this, Doctor. I started it. I will not stop it. You think they'll let me go after what I've done?
The Doctor: You're all the same, you screaming kids, you know that? "Look at me, I'm unforgivable." Well here's the unforeseeable, I forgive you. After all you've done. I forgive you.
Bonnie: You don't understand. You will never understand.
The Doctor: I don't understand? Are you kidding? Me? Of course I understand. I mean, do you call this a war? This funny little thing? This is not a war! I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you could ever imagine. And when I close my eyes I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count! And do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight till it burns your hand, and you say this: No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!