After an interval of eight weeks (or possibly eight seconds, or eight hundred years, or minus eight weeks, according to whose timeline you may be following), here we are again with the second of the two instalments of my Doctor Who Series 9 review.
The episodes in this series are on a steep uphill climb, with nearly every story being better than the last. We’ve already seen a two-parter involving Missy and Davros (which, despite some interesting aspects, was mainly fanwank), a “base under siege” two-parter (standard Doctor Who fare, plus a time-travelling twist), the first Ashildr episode (more standard Doctor Who fare, but a nice snapshot of the Doctor doing what he does best), and the second one (an even less interesting storyline, but with some fascinating exploration of the life of an immortal). Now it’s time to move on to the second half of Series 9, in which every one of the stories makes Doctor Who history while also being fantastic in its own right.
Once again, of course, SPOILER ALERT.
#Episode 7: The Zygon Invasion
Who would have thought that the human-Zygon deal in the 50th anniversary special was not one of those loose ends left at the end of an episode and never tied up, but instead a storyline to be revived in such staggering style? Shape-shifting adversaries, enemies who can become you or your loved ones at the drop of a hat, make for a very interesting story in which you’re never sure who can be trusted or whether anyone is who they say they are. The possibilities of this trope are explored in several different ways: not just the Clara/Bonnie reveal, the mystery of the remaining Osgood’s species, and the policewoman in New Mexico, but constant uncertainty about everyone (e.g. for a while I was convinced that the Doctor and Osgood who escaped from Turmezistan must be Zygon impostors, because they seemed to be trapped underground when the bombing began).
Doctor Who has been known for decades for the political undertones in some of its stories, and this story is the most overtly political the show has seen for a long time. The Zygon splinter faction, based in the fictional country of ‘Turmezistan’, is a clear analogue for real-world organisations such as ISIS, and Kate-Lethbridge-Stewart, straining at the bit to bomb them into oblivion, might be said to represent the western leaders of the real world who favour extreme strategies against such organisations.
After the initial setting up of the problem, the storyline splits into three different strands, and in each one the Zygons use their shape-shifting ability to gull the humans and achieve victory. In the Doctor’s strand, their only victory is to destroy a UNIT squadron, before the trigger-happy faction of the humans start bombing them. In Kate’s strand, they’ve already taken a whole town (a real town, by the way), and at the end of the episode they seem to have taken her too. And Clara’s strand, of course, is the most exciting of all. That spine-chilling moment when you realise that what looks like Clara is actually evil – which we should have realised right from the moment it happened, since Bonnie has darker lipstick than Clara and wears her hair differently – easily makes up for the Doctor’s silliness with “poncing about in a big plane”.
- “Isn’t there a solution that doesn’t involve bombing everyone? This is a splinter group. The rest of the Zygons, the vast majority, they want to live in peace. You start bombing them, you’ll radicalise the lot. That’s exactly what the splinter group wants.”
#Episode 8: The Zygon Inversion
We start off with shots of Clara in dreamland – VERY strong shades of the 2014 special Last Christmas. The main point of the mental connection between Clara and Bonnie is apparently to set things up for the Doctor’s assertion at the end that Clara “got inside [Bonnie’s] head”. But really, I don’t think anyone is going to seriously credit Clara for Bonnie’s change of heart: that was all down to the Doctor and his awesome oration skills. Meanwhile, he’s still hanging out with Osgood – who, by the way, seems like she’d make a great Companion, with just the right mixture of fangirlishness, cheek, and intelligence. Oh for opportunities lost.
This episode is much more focused than the last one: everyone is aiming for the same place, and everything is geared towards the final confrontation there. We also get a creeping feeling that the Zygons have already won, especially (though not explicitly) in the scene with the silent and exceptionally creepy policemen, who must surely be Zygons in disguise. And the shopping centre scenes ram home perfectly the point of who really suffers most in wars like this – the innocents. Not the Zygon splinter group who started the war, nor the humans battling them, but the Zygons who just wanted to live peacefully and end up caught in the crossfire.
And finally, in what will surely become one of the Twelfth Doctor’s most famous scenes, the brilliant speech. It connects him to the Time War and all the previous Doctors, emphasising the pain and horror in his own past as well as his remarkable powers of persuasion. At this moment, if never before, Peter Capaldi truly shines as the Doctor. He now has his moment of glory to compare with Smith’s Pandorica speech, Tennant’s “Time Lord Victorious” and Voyage of the Damned introduction, and Eccleston’s “Everyone lives!” – and in my opinion, the Zygon Inversion speech trumps all of these, its shining moral message being more important than any badassery. This should be required viewing for all world leaders.
Favourite quote: although not my favourite episode, this one has without question the best dialogue of the entire series. Let’s have some BIG chunks of it:
- “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 whose 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 were always going to have to do from the very beginning. Sit! Down! And talk!”
“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!”
#Episode 9: Sleep No More
One of Moffat’s strongest points as a writer in the RTD era of Doctor Who was his scary episodes. “Are you my mummy?”, “Don’t blink”, and “Hey! Who turned out the lights?” are to this day some of the best-known lines of Doctor Who, and the episodes in which they originate, each of which takes something innocuous and makes it terrifying, consistently appear near the top when people list the best stories in New Who. This time, it’s sleep that gets the innocuous-to-terrifying treatment, in an episode that makes Doctor Who history in at least two (related) ways, being the first ever found-footage episode and also the first episode with no opening credits.
Naturally, this being Doctor Who, there’s a new twist on the found-footage genre: the rescue crew don’t really have helmet cams, so the point of view we’re seeing isn’t quite what we originally thought. I liked this idea because it’s something you can spot for yourself early on if you’re observant enough, even though I doubt many people did on their first viewing. Such compliments to the audience’s intelligence are a hallmark of good detective writing.
Then there’s the even bigger twist at the end, the kind of twist which means you need to watch the episode two or three times in order to understand it properly. Episodes like that can be a fun challenge once in a while, but I think having two in one series was perhaps a bit too much. As in Before the Flood earlier in the season, I had to go back over everything we’d seen and wonder how much we can really believe (and in this case, I actually rewatched the whole episode). But, again as in Before the Flood, nearly everything really was how we originally thought: the rescue mission was genuine, all the events we saw on-screen did actually happen, and even the idea that the Sandmen are created when people spend too long in the Morpheus pods could really be true: that “electronic signal” contained in the video could also be in every Morpheus pod. What still doesn’t entirely make sense is where the very first one came from; we seem to have a chicken-and-egg paradox. Did Rasmussen create the Sandmen, or did they (or their controlling consciousness) possess him? Rumour has it that a sequel to this episode could be in the works, so all our questions may yet be answered …
- “Congratulations, Professor. You’ve revolutionised the labour market. You’ve conquered nature.” “Thank you.” “You’ve also created an abomination.”
#Episode 10: Face the Raven
Unexpectedly bringing a one-off sort-of-Companion back into the show is a nice idea, and I wish they’d do it more often, even though Rigsy isn’t the one I’d have chosen. The whole notion of the hidden street is also great, and probably a lot more plausible than it seems at first glance, while the method they use to find it – looking for what they can’t look at – is just genius. The main plot is reasonably simple: Ashildr cooked up a murder accusation for Rigsy so that the Doctor would arrive and she could trap him and teleport him away. Things only get really interesting in the final scenes, after the bracelet is on the Doctor’s arm.
The theme of Clara wanting to be the Doctor has been developing for a long time now, ever since Series 8. In Flatline she took on the role of the Doctor while he was trapped in the TARDIS; in Death in Heaven she pretended to be him; in Under the Lake he expressed worry about her becoming too much like him; and now, perhaps reminded by Rigsy’s presence of how good she was at ‘being the Doctor’ in Flatline, she becomes so confident in her ‘Doctoring’ abilities that she ends up dead. Making the killer alien come after him instead of someone weaker might have worked well for the Doctor in e.g. Mummy on the Orient Express, but he has the advantage of a Time Lord education and a couple of millenia of experience, while all Clara can really do is copy him and hope it works.
In the final moments of this episode, we see the Doctor’s darker side, how dangerous he can truly be when roused to anger. This kind of thing, perhaps best expressed in The Waters of Mars, adds an extra layer of interest to both his personality and the show, and in this case it’s a foreshadowing of what he’s about to do over the next two episodes, going further than he’s ever gone before out of grief and loss and anger. The Twelfth Doctor has certainly displayed many different sides by this point.
Instead of a favourite quote this time, here’s an ode to Clara (my own work):
- Travelling through time and space with a friend’s eleventh face,
Witness in the final place of the Time Lords’ greatest war.
Travelling with Twelve was fun: so many things together done.
But will we still together run? Quoth the raven, “Nevermore”.
#Episode 11: Heaven Sent
Before this aired, I was doubtful about whether it was going to work. But I knew that if anyone could pull off a one-man show successfully, it was Capaldi: after The Zygon Inversion I was in no doubt about his ability to orate, to hold the viewers’ attention, to fill the screen all on his own. The episode’s setting also seems somewhat dull and monotonous at first glance – all in a single building, a castle whose various chambers and passages all look more or less the same – but the timing of the scenes is done just right so that it never gets boring and yet we still feel we’ve got to know some of the rooms and layout of the castle.
The tension is built masterfully as we find out more and more about how the castle and the Veil work, culminating in the Doctor nearly dying and then the incredible reveal that he’s actually been doing the same thing over and over and over again for thousands of years. This resonates deeply with me on a personal level, since I’ve had a recurring dream all my life about having to perform some never-quite-clear task over and over and over again for what seems an eternity, which almost seems like a reference or foreshadowing of this Doctor Who episode! The one thing I might complain about is the Doctor using his TARDIS as a ‘mind palace’, and only because I’ve seen that trick so often in Sherlock, Moffat’s other TV series, which I strongly dislike. This is still one of the best Doctor Who episodes for a long time, perhaps since the Tennant era. It also inspired more questions on the SFF site than any other Doctor Who episode ever except perhaps the 50th anniversary special.
The montage towards the end of short clips from throughout the episode is an absolute masterstroke. It gives us the sensation of huge amounts of time passing, and of the repetition that’s so key to the story, but without wasting too much screen time or allowing it to get boring. Speeding it up so these clips come in quicker and quicker succession is also perfect: it allows us to feel some kind of transition between the majority of the episode focusing on a single iteration of the cycle and the final minutes where we jump to the very end. After the sheer brilliance of the episode so far, the earth-shattering revelation of the Doctor’s final return to Gallifrey, a historic moment in the show and one which changes the direction of the whole of New Who, is almost an anticlimax.
Favourite quote: there are two quotes from the start and end which encapsulate the whole story nicely.
- “As you come into this world, something else is also born. You begin your life, and it begins a journey towards you. It moves slowly, but it never stops. Wherever you go, whatever path you take, it will follow. Never faster, never slower, always coming. You will run. It will walk. You will rest. It will not. One day, you will linger in the same place too long. You will sit too still or sleep too deep, and when, too late, you rise to go, you will notice a second shadow next to yours. Your life will then be over.”
“There’s this emperor and he asks this shepherd’s boy, how many seconds in eternity? And the shepherd’s boy says, there’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it, and an hour to go around it! Every hundred years, a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed! You must think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”
#Episode 12: Hell Bent
The society and structure of Gallifrey has hardly ever been shown in New Who before. The Doctor usually remembers the Time Lords fondly, but every time they actually show up, he doesn’t get on all that well with them. This happens again here, but now we also get to see the commoners of Gallifrey: not Time Lords, but country folk from the place where the Doctor grew up. The Doctor’s status as a “people’s Time Lord” is confirmed. Since the Time War, he’s become massively respected among the military as well, an advantage he uses to stage a coup and take over the planet. Later on, we get to learn about the Cloisters, with hints towards a much bigger backstory with the wraiths, the bells, and the Cloister Wars.
This may sound callous of me, but I would have preferred the story if Clara had died in Face the Raven and that had been it. Bringing her back, with no previous indication this was going to happen, smacks of shoehorning in a happy ending and extra complications that don’t really fit the story. And the Doctor’s obsession with Clara is another thing I can’t fully buy into. None of his other Companions seemed to inspire quite this level of devotion. He burned up a star to say goodbye to Rose in Doomsday, but this is something new: spending billions of years, killing one of his own people, and risking fracturing Time itself just to save someone who can’t be saved. However, I suppose this is the main point of the episode and of the whole Hybrid story. As Ashildr put it, “companions who are willing to push each other to extremes” – the extremes, in Moffat’s Doctor Who, being very extreme – is never likely to end well.
The theft of a new TARDIS, the Doctor’s life coming full circle, is a very nice touch – as is the new TARDIS itself, its interior a brand-new version of the old First Doctor era TARDIS. It seems for a while as though Clara is going to suffer a fate identical to Donna’s, but fortunately she turns the tables to create a more interesting situation. Rather than her going back to live an ordinary human life, he continues living a Doctory life but with specific aspects of his memories removed – and finally the diner scenes, where they don’t seem to recognise each other, make sense. The Doctor’s guitar, which I’ve never been a fan of since it first appears, actually redeems itself somewhat by playing the out-of-universe “Clara’s theme” and making it the in-universe one too. And the very final scenes, with the two TARDISes zooming through space, leave me with hope that perhaps one day Clara and Ashildr will return, even if only briefly, to this wonderful show.
- “Get off my planet.”