It is a truth universally acknowledged in fandom that a single episode of Doctor Who in possession of a lousy script must be in want of a Zygon.
Series 9 divided people. Barriers were erected and battle lines drawn. On one side, those who felt that the show had run its course. On the other, those re-invigorated by the freshness of new monsters and new approaches. A few of us – critics, sceptics, columnists – straddled the wall, tiptoeing on an awkward parapet, veering dangerously from one camp to the other. Played out on a global stage, we were the Swiss.
But there were rare moments of general harmony. If Series 9 had been trench warfare, Heaven Sent would be its Christmas Day 1914 moment: an atypical, universal acknowledgement of brilliance. This is ironic, given that the only thing that could have improved it would have been a football match between the Doctor and the Shade, Time Lords in the castle gardens, velvet jackets for goalposts. Instead, we had Capaldi taking four billion years to recount a fable, the sort of relaxed approach to narrative that would make even Stanley Kubrick envious. The other series high point was Peter Harness’s Zygon two-parter: overblown, overwrought, and subtle as a Panzer, and quite brilliant to boot.
When it comes to social commentary, Harness has form – if you broaden the term ‘has form’ so that it means ‘wrote one additional episode that started out as Arachnophobia-meets-Aliens and then turned into an abortion debate’. Where The Zygon Invasion/ Inversion succeeds – and where Kill The Moon failed – is that Harness never pretends the story is about anything else. Its themes of immigration, integration, paranoia and the weary inevitability of conflict couldn’t have been more transparent if the episode had concluded with a monologue to camera from the Doctor, He-Man style, beginning “In today’s story we learned…”. As it stands, this is more or less what happens; it’s just (for once) he’s looking at Jenna Coleman instead of peering through the fourth wall.
At its emotional denouement, The Zygon Invasion/ Inversion becomes a story about pacifism – something we’ll get to – but, while it stops understandably short of sketching out the land grab scenario that is the catalyst for almost all wars, its earlier scenes are a decent commentary on the exacerbated political circumstances that lead to localised conflict. What’s unnerving, indeed, is the extent to which the narrative not only reflected current events but anticipated future ones – the axis of which is Harness’ uncanny foreshadowing of the Syrian exodus, itself mirroring the foreshadowing of the Occupy movement in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Immigration is always topical, but sometimes life imitates art.
In the end, though, it’s the scent of war that lingers – or, to be specific, its merciful absence. To make his point, Harness drops in the mother of all monologues; the kind that gets its own tumblr feed, destined to be referenced and YouTubed and performed by other Doctors for years. It’s the sort of speech that wins awards, or at least makes the ‘and the nominees are’ montages. It was inevitable – 2016 was chock full of ‘get Peter a BAFTA nomination’ moments, from the Shakespeare in Sleep No More to the wall of silence with which he greets the Time Lords at the beginning of the series finale, to his understated farewell to Clara in Face The Raven, to… well, the entirety of Heaven Sent. It’s unfortunate that this testament to Good Acting swiftly wore out its welcome: it smacks of writers trying desperately hard, and the fact that Capaldi subsequently wasn’t nominated is undisputed proof that above all else, no one likes a brownnose.
What long-term fans will note, of course, is that the anti-war speech is nothing new. The Doctor’s been filled with eloquent rhetoric ever since he held a cane and forgot the names of his companions – I’m thinking particularly of The Savages, but you will have your own examples. It’s not just the Doctor: as early as 1964, Ian was warning the Thals over the dangers of unchecked pacifism, something explored some four years later in Star Trek‘s A Private Little War.
But if we’re looking for Zygon facsimiles, it’s Battlefield that provides one of the more recent (and in many ways one of the closest) parallels, the Seventh Doctor engaging with Arthurian legend at the site of an archaeological dig, joyriding in Bessie and catching up with some old friends. Crucially, in scripting the story, Ben Aaronovitch moves the explosive finale to a comparatively early point in the final episode in order to leave enough breathing space to make his point, the Doctor’s desperate pleas with Morgaine echoing last year’s entreaties with the Zygon insurgents (that should probably be the other way around, but you get the idea). What makes Battlefield better than The Zygon Inversion is that it has a swordfight by a lake (including a wonderfully McCoyish moment when the Doctor strolls between the feuding warriors, casually tipping his hat), the return of the Brigadier, and one of the best cliffhangers in the history of the show – plus it doesn’t have its protagonist feigning an embarrassing American accent.
Battlefield carries a message of peace at its centre, but it would dull the argument to say that the Doctor is anti-war. This is, after all, the same incarnation who blew up Skaro without a moment’s hesitation. The fact that the same writer is responsible for both stories suggests a progression of sorts, borne out in both what made it to the screen (the Doctor’s declaration that “THERE WILL BE NO BATTLE HERE!” is, Aaronovitch insists, as much an internal promise as it is an external one) and what was cut (McCoy’s encounter with Morgaine was, at one point, considerably longer). It’s a contentious issue, but the Remembrance/ Battlefield contrast is the closest we get to overt character progression from the Seventh Doctor: everything else is either implied or apocryphal.
It’s not even as if the Doctor’s destruction of Skaro is particularly anomalous in the grand scheme of things. The Dominators concludes with the Doctor’s decision to dump the nuclear fission seed on board the aliens’ departing ship; it’s posited as the only option, but its execution is shockingly casual when compared to the way the show would eventually be written in years to come. The default option is to offer peaceful alternatives, watch as they are rebuffed and then lament, in the gloomy peace that follows carnage, that there should have been another way – nonetheless it’s tempting, when the Doctor chews out Harriet Jones at the end of The Christmas Invasion for destroying the retreating Sycorax fleet, to simply cough politely and invite him over for a screening of some of his greatest hits. And don’t tell me that this sort of thing started in the ’70s. This has been going on since (literally) the dawn of man, and that scene in An Unearthly Child (oh, you know, the one with the rock).
It’s therefore strange, in many ways, to see the amount of fuss generated by the Time War and the Doctor’s behaviour therein. Davies’ decision to give us a darker, obviously tortured Doctor may or may not have been influenced by Eccleston’s casting, but the upshot is the same: a man tortured by the actions of his past, superficially cheerful, defensive and angry before (quite literally) throwing down the gun and redeeming himself. I wouldn’t mind, but it’s an inconsistent message: the Tenth Doctor repeatedly panics about overstepping the mark, ultimately confessing to Wilf that he is, in many ways, worse than the Master, and seemingly reforming, before promptly inducing the world into a state of subliminal hypnosis and genocide in Day of the Moon.
Perhaps I’m nitpicking, but for better or worse, the show has become more overtly pacifist since its 2005 revival. UNIT’s military bluster is viewed with an increasing abhorrence (the appalling treatment of Colonel Mace in Helen Raynor’s Sontaran stories is a notorious example), and any time the Doctor is seen handling a gun, it’s a crisis point. Gone are the days of high-octane HAVOC-staffed shootouts in warehouses while Pertwee karate chops three guards before turning his rifle on a retreating Ogron. Capaldi’s behaviour in Into The Dalek is the closest we’ve come to the sort of casual indifference for which the Sixth Doctor was renowned, at least on television: for all the lectures about darkness and moral hand-wringing, this is generally a lighter, more child-friendly Doctor, more Gentle Ben than James Bond.
What’s the rationale behind this? There is a mildly unnerving streak of political correctness running through it. I mentioned James Bond: this is the sort of thing that pervades contemporary 007, depicting as it does a man who is still allowed to be casually misogynistic and unremittingly violent, provided that he doesn’t smoke (calling to mind South Park’s Sheila Broflovski, who asserts that “Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words”). This is presumably the sort of thing they discuss in the tone meetings. If the Doctor has a gun, can he be seen to use it? What if he fires it at something inanimate? Does he like his friends having guns? Can we do another banana joke? The conversations must be fascinating; I salivate for the eventual prospect of candid retrospectives in thirty years’ time, instead of the glossed-over, borderline-sycophantic production notes we had on Doctor Who Confidential.
There’s a marked difference, of course, between anti-violence and anti-war – but even the violence (at least that of the Doctor) has been toned down, or reduced to comedy punches and the occasional swordfight. So out-of-character is the Tenth Doctor’s sudden dispatch of the Sycorax commander at the end of The Christmas Invasion that it got its own follow-up, the Doctor Who Magazine strip, The Widow’s Curse, which dealt with the consequences. It’s not all the Doctor’s fault, of course, and that’s acknowledged, but given the way he behaves later in his run, the natural reaction when Tennant insists that he’s a “no second chances” type is to point and laugh. (A notable exception is the end of Deep Breath, the fate of the Half-Face Man ambiguous to the end. Did he jump, or was he pushed? We’ll probably never know, but the latter is surely the more enticing.)
It’s also curious that most of the depictions of war in the show (at least these days) are either allegorical or irrelevant. A notable exception is the Human Nature/ Family of Blood two-parter – a tale I purposely haven’t touched in this article given that we’ll be dealing with it elsewhere this week. But we have yet to see a New Who episode that deals with the horrific realities of the Second World War – a time pocket that the show has delved into at least three times since The Empty Child, but in which the historical context is either a triviality or an excuse to sling a Spitfire round the dark side of the moon. The closest we come to tackling the horrors of Nazism is via the Daleks, and even then there is nothing in the tedious contractual obligations that pass for stories to match the dizzy heights of Terry Nation’s SS officers as depicted on Skaro in 1975.
Perhaps that’s for the best. As good as The Zygon Inversion was, it feels like an anomaly, and I’m not sure I place sufficient trust in the current production team to be able to handle something so weighty with sufficient gravitas – or, even if they did, there’s a decent chance that it would be at the expense of the story. Recent examples have demonstrated this all too well – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship closed with the Doctor’s callous disregard for Solomon, while A Town Called Mercy dealt with the emotional fallout, but only one of those episodes is actually any good (I will not tell you which one I prefer; you’ll have to guess), and it has nothing to do with the subtext or the Doctor’s journey.
Ultimately, this is Doctor Who: it is not Saving Private Ryan, or Apocalypse Now, or The Hurt Locker. I’m not saying that every story has to be lightweight and disposable and skate around the serious themes, but unless carefully handled, episodes that touch on war risk becoming preachy platitudes. Far better, perhaps, that we allow the narrative to speak for itself, on its own terms, simply telling the story of the Doctor, wherever he is and whatever he happens to be doing. Perhaps ultimately, the story of the Doctor ought to be enough. For better or worse, the universe of Doctor Who is seen very much through his eyes – the eyes of a warrior, a manipulator, an impartial arbiter, but above all else, a lonely traveller.
Just don’t call him a pacifist. He really isn’t.