“The other day a woman came up to me and said, ‘Didn’t I see you on television?’ I said ‘I don’t know. You can’t see out the other way.'”
I sometimes wonder what Russell T Davies makes of current Doctor Who. Certainly I’m not sure whether anyone ever asks him. You cannot move online for press snippets and paragraph-long teasers from the current showrunner about the ‘fun chase’ that the Christmas special is promising to be, or how devastated everyone will be when Clara departs. I’m of the opinion that Doctor Who ought to stop telling its audience how we ought to be feeling and allow the drama to breathe and speak on its own terms, but that’s another day and another blog post, and one I may write, so let’s not dwell on it now.
But does Russell (yes, my animosity towards the man has evaporated to the extent that I can call him that now) sit in his flat with a vodka and tonic and a curry and cheer on this new, reinvented Doctor? Does he lament the fact that his five-year legacy of the tortured soul has been all but undone? Does he sit and weep while this new chap, the ageing Scot with the impressive eyebrows (because I’ve just finished The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who, and eyebrows get mentioned practically every page) talks about how close he was to an act of genocide before a soap actress pulled him back from the brink? Or does he nod and smile and say “Yes, that’s probably where I would have gone with it”, and then leave another message on Peter Davison’s voicemail?
We may never know, and in a way that’s fine. But I’ll bet he was watching last night, and thinking “Gosh. I could have had fun with the Zygons.”
Certainly Moffat has. In a way, this sort of story fits with his writing style like Mary Tamm’s tailored outfits clung to her bosom. There are three ways of writing hidden identity narratives: make the audience aware and play on the dramatic irony; keep them entirely in the dark; alternatively, allow them to spend time believing one thing before pulling the rug out from under their feet. Moffat has done the last one so often that the rug has almost worn threadbare. Vital missing seconds from scenes change allegiances, set booby traps, resurrect the dead. Moffat uses the concept of time like a child experimenting with Playdough, twisting and reshaping it into anything he sees fit. Lest we forget, at the end of series six he built an entire dramatic conceit upon the single use of the word “Actually…”
Peter Harness may have been responsible for the story, but you can feel Moffat lingering at his shoulder. Having spent last week building up to the moment a previously trustworthy character revealed their duplicity, here he does the exact opposite. It’s a trick that doesn’t work quite so well second time around, largely because we do not see an awful lot of Kate until the final act, and she is given a single scene with the Doctor before revealing that her true colours. Still, Jemma Regrave does a convincing sneer.
We know that we can trust Osgood and the Doctor, so it’s left to Coleman to thicken out the concept. Harness and Moffat achieve this by imprisoning her in a bricked-up flat, where the toothpaste tube is full of what looks like excrement and nothing much works except the TV. It’s a perfect opportunity for a Blake’s 7 marathon if ever I saw one, but Clara discovers that she has a limited control over her Zygon counterpart, as embodied by some rather silly hand movements.
In 1998, I saw a film called Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Helen – whose life branches in two directions depending on whether or not she catches a particular train. In the film, Happy Helen cuts her hair short and dies it blonde, presumably because blondes have more fun; Miserable Helen retains its original length and colour. So too this week Bonnie’s brisk and businesslike demeanour is embodied by a pony tail and bright red lipstick, while Clara spends most of the story looking like she’s just got out of bed. Bonnie strides with a glacial stare where Clara ambles; she could also learn a thing or two from Bonnie’s posture. Coleman brings a distinction to both roles; it’s the first time we’ve seen her play an out-and-out villain, and it works, despite occasional lapses into caricature.
By the episode’s end Bonnie has assumed the identity of Osgood – so there are now two of them, at least one of which is a Zygon – but it would be inconceivable to think that Moffat will not use Coleman again at some point. “Clara,” he assures us, “will never return”, but at no point has he suggested that Bonnie will not. Indeed, if the nature of Clara’s death (assuming that’s where we’re going) is in any way ambiguous, who is to say that he couldn’t have the internet debating whether he actually killed Bonnie instead? That’s what he does, after all.
The plot of ‘The Zygon Inversion’ is essentially built around the nuclear option. The action sequences are sparse and consist largely of people running away: the Doctor and Osgood escape the police, and then pursue an unmasked Zygon in an empty supermarket only for him to commit suicide rather than spend his life unable to cloak. “I never wanted to fight anyone,” he insists, not long before pulling the trigger. “I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?”
If last week’s episode was largely about immigration policy and the expectation of assimilation, this week is largely about extreme options and final solutions. We are once more in the Black Archive, with Capaldi raging and shaking in a speech that couldn’t be more obviously ‘BAFTA nomination’ if they’d stuck a flashing subtitle underneath it. The sunglasses are off, the preaching comes thick and fast, and the fact that “Do nothing” is once more the solution is, for once, not to the story’s detriment. It’s an impressive moment, worthy of the best of McCoy, and destined indeed to be recreated by past Doctors at conventions and posted across the internet.
Various jokes pepper the script and some of them are very funny. Capaldi bails out of an exploding plane with a Union Jack parachute – the fact that Spectre opened only last week is almost certainly a coincidence, but it helps. London is described as “a dump”. And the Doctor’s look of incredulity when Osgood reveals she does not know what TARDIS stands for is priceless, even more so when she admits that this is because “I’ve heard a couple of different versions”.
As with last week, there are misfires. The Doctor’s American accent is almost as dreadful as Missy’s (it’s nothing to do with Capaldi or Gomez, who manage fine; it’s just a criminally bad idea). Various scenes don’t make complete sense: the Doctor’s encounter with the police officers feels like it’s going somewhere and then doesn’t, while the ending is slightly muddled. Structurally, the whole thing feels slightly off-kilter, as if it would have benefited from a pacing rethink.
But in the grand scheme of things, this is nitpicking. We’re two thirds of the way through a series as bumpy and uneven as its immediate predecessor; mediocrity pervaded the Dalek story, the promising ghosts were ruined by time travel, and a fun romp through Valhalla was followed by dreary, plotless philosophy. There’s a risk that in calling ‘The Zygon Invasion / Inversion’ an obvious series highlight, I’m damning it with faint praise, and that’s unfair to everyone. In a year of lacklustre ideas and squandered potential, of course it stands out. But that doesn’t stop it being a darn good story in its own right. And just when all seemed lost. Tweak my diodes and call me Petronella.