• 11th November 2015 • Review by Seb Patrick •
In conclusion, then: Doctor Who. It’s pretty bloody effing great at the moment.
Four episodes left, too, for this series to confirm that it’s the best series since the show returned – if not one of the best it’s ever had. There simply hasn’t been a duff episode among them yet – I’d place “Before the Flood” and “The Woman Who Lived” as the weakest, but still found plenty to enjoy in both – and so this series, for me, outstrips the previous best sustained run (“Human Nature” through to “The Sound of Drums”). For this not to be the best series, all four of the remaining episodes would have to be sub-“Fear Her” – and with a Moffat-written two parter that purportedly includes a Capaldi single-hander as its first half, would you bet on that happening in the slightest?
So where do we go from here? The closing moments of the episode seem to point so heavily towards the “Clara is already dead” idea that I’m now starting to doubt it as a theory. Let’s face it, if it’s what we’re meant to think, then it’s clearly not going to be so simple.
But the series has been happening out of order in some way, I’m convinced of that; and I’m equally convinced that Ashildr showing up in “Face the Raven” will be the moment that we find out (because I believe she’ll be meeting the Doctor later from her perspective and earlier from his). But I don’t think Clara’s “dead” in the Doctor’s current timeline, even if he thinks she is. I think it’s more likely that she’ll decide to stop travelling with him when she realises the extent to which she’s caused him to break the rules.
Either way, gosh, only four episodes to go before we have to go through the process of discovering a new companion for only the third time in half a decade. And Clara isn’t going to replace Amy as my favourite non-baseball-bat-wielding companion – as if anyone ever could – but all the same, it’s going to be a strange place without her.
When we talk about directors on Who, we generally refer to how episodes look – and how they’ve become significantly more stylish since the start of last year. But Daniel Nettheim deserves particular credit for the level of tension in this episode, and the performances he draws – not just in that Black Archive scene, but in that terrifying, heart-rending sequence in the supermarket.
Particularly when you’re a kid, Doctor Who is sold to you as being about monsters. There are all these different alien races, and they’re all horrifying and all out to get us. But while in a few cases – your Daleks, your Weeping Angels – that’s true, it’s important to remember that Doctor Who is not a fascist programme. Alien does not automatically mean villain, and that’s why we have Strax, and Vastra, and Izlyr, and Kroton. There are different races and species out there, but they’re people. And while some of them might want to kill us all, some of them are innocents who just want to get on with their lives.
Coming back to Osgood for a moment, there’s an underlying theme in the story that I think is in danger of getting lost amid the rather bigger, and more obvious one. But right from the moment Osgood said “I don’t answer that question” in part one, I’ve been unable to shake the feeling that her story is one that’s terribly relevant to transgender issues. Osgood’s identity is not about who she was, or what species she is, but the person she identifies as: that’s more important than anything, and it’s significant that neither episode gives in to the audience’s desire to know once and for all whether she’s the “original” or the Zygon.
Having already established the Time Lords once and for all as a genderfluid race, and with the upcoming casting of Bethany Black, this feels like Doctor Who establishing a progressive lead that other shows ought to follow. Which, again, is a very Doctor Who thing to do.
(The only thing that disappoints me is the Doctor’s repeated insistence that he must know the answer to the Osgood question. I can forgive his curiosity, but there comes a point where, having been told that you won’t be given an answer, you really should stop asking out of respect for the person. You can perhaps justify it as the Doctor wanting to know which character he should be mourning – perhaps. Or maybe it’s just one of those examples of him actually being wrong. It does happen.)
But let’s face it, Clara isn’t the star companion in this episode: Osgood is. Contrary to some of the disappointed noises that greeted the ending, there was never any chance of Ingrid Oliver getting to become a regular passenger aboard Totally And Radically Driving In Space. She’s got a more important role to play.
But damn, is she good. I find it hard to believe that this is the same actress who once starred in one of the worst sketch shows I’ve ever seen, as she utterly and wholeheartedly sells perhaps the most likeable and engaging supporting character the series has had since Brian Williams shuffled in for his two-episode turn. The “Doctor’s fan” figure can be a difficult one to get right, and the show has had stabs at it before, but Osgood skirts the line between devoted obsession, and independent competence. Who’s watching that doesn’t want to be her, frankly?
Kate Stewart, too, gets perhaps her best episode to date – I still don’t find her a particularly compelling character, but in those closing confrontations I get a better idea of where she and the Doctor stand in relation to one-another, and where she differs from her father. Nice to get a timely reminder of how she’s similar to him, of course, too.
(Will there ever be a time when someone saying “Five rounds rapid” doesn’t result in an air-punch all around? I hope not.)
Of course, if we’d lost the plane scene, we’d also have lost that excellent “dream” sequence with Clara, followed by her getting to have an argument with her Zygon self.
Jenna Coleman’s work throughout this episode is superlative – and it does rather say something about the inconsistent and sometimes ill-defined character she’s been working with since day one that she gets to shine more than ever before when playing someone who isn’t Clara – but while that stunning face-off with Capaldi in the Black Archive is the highlight, in those opening minutes she does also get some of her best ever scenes as the character she was actually hired to play.
The confident, effortless brilliance of the episode’s second half is, it must be said, preceded by one or two missteps in the first half. As impressively realised as it is, the plane crash sequence feels misjudged even before you take current events into account. What, for example, happens to everyone else on the plane? The glib tone of the Doctor and Osgood’s landing on the beach (and an admittedly excellent gag involving the parachute) sits uncomfortably with the thought that they’re the only two people who will have survived, and that the people who’ve died have done so purely because they happened to be near to the Doctor. I’m also confused as to why, in the aftermath, two Zygons-masquerading-as-police don’t actually give chase to the pair, instead standing around ineffectually.
Actually taking current events into account, however, makes the opening minutes even more difficult. While the rest of the episode makes clear that postponing it from its night-before-Remembrance-Sunday slot would have stripped it of much of its power, and “Robot of Sherwood” showed what happens when you ham-fistedly chop an important scene out at the last minute, I can’t help but think – given the lead time of several days – that something might have been possible. Even just showing the Doctor and Osgood walking down the street having survived, without explaining how, would have been a quite daring move in an episode full of quite daring moves.
I can also think of no more Doctor Who way to resolve a crisis, incidentally, than “the boxes are empty”. At its best, Doctor Who is very often about flipping almost everything you thought you knew on its head. The Zygon Inversion, indeed.
There’s no other place to start when it comes to discussing the specifics of this episode, of course, than at the end. With that scene. That unbelievable, instantly memorable scene. That scene which is going to go down in Doctor Who history as one of the greatest things the show has ever come up with. An astonishing, gripping, nearly ten-minute-long scene that sees the Doctor win the day and avert a global war not by fighting, but by talking. And for once, not even really by outsmarting – but by out-empathising.
“Capaldi is getting better for me,” said a poster on a forum I go on, where most of the Who thread’s regular denizens have for some reason been less than impressed with the performances of the leading man over the last year-and-a-half. “Capaldi did alright in this one,” said another. Cripes, imagine how they’d have reacted to this if they actually liked him?
Well, they’d probably react like me. I’m not going to say this is the moment Capaldi’s Doctor finally stepped up to the mark, because it patently isn’t. He’s had countless moments where he’s done that, going at least all the way back to “Listen”. His monologue here didn’t establish, finally, that he was good at playing the Doctor. It established that he is very possibly the best at playing the Doctor. All the long, righteous monologues the Doctor has ever been given, have any of them ever been sold with quite as much unshakeable conviction as this one?
And have any of them quite so amazingly and succinctly re-stated the core principles that make Doctor Who what it is? I can sum it up no better than I saw in this tweet:
Good to see Dr Who reinforcing such key values as compassion, empathy, forgiveness, tolerance and communication. Relevant and timeless.
— James VHS Gent (@jamesgent76) November 7, 2015
So, to begin with: a hearty welcome to Peter Harness, the next showrunner of Doctor Who.
I mean, it was pretty hard not to interpret his being given this series’ big-budget “blockbuster” two-parter, a sequel to The Day of the Doctor and a pivotal point in what has so far been one of the strongest series since the revived show began (of which more later), as an audition for the Top Job. And it’s pretty hard not to say that it’s an audition he’s passed with flying colours.
The very fact that someone has moved into pole position for the job after only having written two stories for the show (the first of which, although I loved it, still faces a rather mixed reception) does reflect the general dearth of candidates out there. Gatiss has never really looked like a convincing possibility (and besides, I still expect that when Moffat leaves, he will too); Whithouse seemed for a long time like the one they were grooming, but he’s still never turned in a truly standout episode. Harness, though, already has his “successfully ran a big drama series” in his pocket (Strange and Norrell didn’t set the ratings world on fire, but it certainly ticked all the right boxes otherwise), and now he has his status as the writer/co-writer of this astonishingly good two-parter.
It is, of course, still perhaps too early to speculate on the post-Moffat future, given that we’ve got at least another series of this to come (and when the show is as good as it currently is, why would you even want to contemplate something different?) But if and when he does leave, and if and when it is Harness that takes over… well, “The Zygon Inversion” makes me pretty confident, for the first time, that Doctor Who will be in safe hands.