The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: Series 9


For previous installments:

A new edition to Doctor Who this year was the guitar, and sonic sunglasses. I was not a fan of either of these things. By Hell Bent, he got a new sonic screwdriver, after the previous one was destroyed in The Magician’s Apprentice. Will the guitar reappear? I wouldn’t doubt it, but hopefully not soon.

The Best:

The Girl Who Died, The Woman Who Lived, Face the Raven, and Heaven Sent

Given this is the most episodes ever on a ‘best’ list. I feel it best to do so individually:

According to The A.V. Club review of The Girl Who Died:

Way back in “Deep Breath,” Doctor Who made us a promise about this new incarnation: This was the Doctor with the veil lifted, with the disguises removed. Last season went to some lengths to sketch out just what that might mean, kicking around ideas of whether the Doctor was really a good man and presenting a more remote version of the Time Lord. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, but the whole thing had a slightly didactic quality, as though the show were straining to construct an argument about the nature of the Doctor it never quite managed to work out. “Death In Heaven” largely resolved this as the Doctor proudly asserted his identity, and the episodes since have hit upon a much simpler, more pleasing way of presenting a Doctor without artifice. With the Doctor of “The Girl Who Died,” there’s almost nothing beneath the surface, and what you see is pretty much what you get. The Doctor isn’t playing the happy wanderer or the whimsical madman as a way to deflect attention from his true feelings, but he also hasn’t swung all the way back to wondering what emotions are in the first place.

Make no mistake: The Doctor of this episode is as alien as ever, but “The Girl Who Died” allows him to feel and then articulate recognizable emotions. When he feels rage and heartbreak after Ashildir’s death, he doesn’t hold back in his reactions or—and this is crucial, given how circumspect the Doctor can be—explaining just why he feels so strongly. In pretty much all phases of the episode, the Doctor is honest in ways we so rarely see him be. When Clara points out that he never actually tells her the rules of what they can and can’t do, he gradually admits that there really aren’t any hard-and-fast laws, just lots of unintended consequences. This isn’t an episode where the Doctor pretends to not have a plan right up to the opportune moment. He genuinely has no idea how he, Clara, and a bunch of Norse farmers and fishermen are going to defeat one of the galaxy’s most fearsome warrior races, and that melancholy hopelessness informs both his joy when he does come up with a plan and his heartbreak when he realizes he once again couldn’t save everyone.

But we can come back to that, because the straightforwardness of the Doctor isn’t just played for drama. Co-written by Steven Moffat and “Flatline” and “Mummy On The Orient Express” writer Jamie Mathieson, “The Girl Who Died” is a fantastically funny episode whenever it wants to be, and much of that has to do with just how damn underwhelming the Doctor can be. The opening destruction of the sonic sunglasses sets the tone, as the Doctor immediately accepts that, yeah, he and Clara are going with the Vikings. The scene with Odin and the yoyo is brilliantly played by Peter Capaldi, as he finds room for deeper emotions and more impressive moments—when he first sees Maisie Williams’ Ashildr, when he tells Clara that he got out of his handcuffs by magic—amid all the bickering with his companion about his lack of plan and his deeply unconvincing Odin impression. The Doctor’s voice as Odin a wonderful choice, as it’s the kind of half-assed imitation that someone would only undertake if he really, really thought the locals were dumb enough to believe anything. But then, he was going to bluff his way out with a yoyo, so that really goes without saying. Although one might at least have figured the Doctor was, you know, good with a yoyo, an assumption of which the episode most hilariously disabuses us.

It isn’t just the Doctor who gets a chance to comically underwhelm the audience, as the remaining Vikings prove woefully inadequate to the task of even the most basic fighting. A good chunk of this episode plays as a deeply silly Norse riff on The Seven Samurai, with the Doctor proving a perfectly capable trainer of perfectly incapable fighters. The trick for “The Girl Who Died” is to have fun with its guest characters without undercutting their capacity for pathos. Mathieson and Moffat write the disastrous training sessions as jokes that are funny right up the very moment that they’re not. In the moment, the episode has great fun with the Doctor as grumpy head coach, with him declaring he’s much too busy to learn names and tetchily reminding the Vikings just why they can’t be trusted with actual swords. The quick cut to the fiery aftermath of the reintroduction of said swords is a wonderfully audacious bit of comedy, pushing the episode’s slapstick quotient to the very limit. In this respect, the Vikings are a particularly good choice as a people to build this episode around. The episode doesn’t exactly strain for historical accuracy—yes, yes, the Vikings didn’t actually wear horned helmets, we know—and the village feels almost strategically low-budget, presenting a consciously more sanitized version of the medieval world to contrast with, say, the grime and violence of Maisie Williams’ other show.

All those choices—in the writing, in the acting, in the design and stylistic choices—invite the audience to think of this all as a joke, but the episode is ready to flip the switch. The episode doesn’t need to explicitly ask us what it would actually be like to take part in such a mess of a training session and then realize that an alien army is coming to kill everyone tomorrow—the looks on the Vikings’ faces during the dinner scene say it all. This could all so easily result in tonal whiplash, but Doctor Who is the perfect show to flit between emotional states in this way. After all, that’s the Doctor’s trademark. Sometimes the pathos comes by reconsidering what was began life as a source for goofy jokes, as with the Doctor’s ability to speak baby. Not to play down the emotional heart of Craig and Stormageddon’s relationship in “Closing Time,” but the 11th Doctor’s interactions with the baby there primarily functioned as comic relief, as one more way of hinting at how the Doctor was privy to a world far wilder and sillier than the one we know. When this Doctor speaks baby, he simply puts pained, sorrowful words to what emotions we could already more or less guess. The Doctor translating a baby’s anguished crying reveals something primal, something fundamental about the human experience.

Indeed, just about every time “The Girl Who Died” reaches a point where an explanation is required, it goes for the most resonant choice. Look at the scene where Clara asks the Doctor why he would abandon the town. There are several plausible ways the Doctor could answer this question. He could talk about his principled distaste for violence, perhaps alluding to mistakes he made in the Time War. He could gesture at the laws of time, as he did in episodes like, say, “The Fires Of Pompeii.” Those could work, but those reasons are distant. They work to the extent that the actors can imbue them with emotion, because they don’t necessarily offer something the audience can really connect with. But the Doctor’s answer here is crushingly practical. Sure, he might be able to save the town. It wouldn’t rip a hole in the universe or anything to do so. But it would mean declaring war on a species that takes every loss personally, and it would mean making a defenseless Earth the target of countless alien armies.

This response sidesteps a common and generally valid critique of the new series and the Moffat era in particular, in that the Doctor’s rationale isn’t all about him. His non-interference isn’t tied up in some insular angst about his Time Lord responsibilities, but is instead an inescapably pragmatic choice made with the best interests of the greatest number in mind, and it’s only then that we see how much it tears up the Doctor to have to make that calculation. Doctor Who talks a lot about the Doctor’s vast perspective, but this is the rare instance in which it succeeds in showing us, rather than simply telling us, what that entails. His argument is logical, but it’s not necessarily the logic of we humans, with our more limited view, and that indeed is what Clara is there to remind him of.

Once “The Girl Who Died” establishes that dilemma for the Doctor, of how to defeat the false Odin without putting humanity at greater risk, it answers the question in two distinct ways, one speaking to the head and the other to the heart. The first is in seeing how the Doctor does eventually work out a plan that will deliver victory for the Vikings. His strategy is pleasing on multiple levels, as it effectively takes the silliness on display in so much of the episode and weaponizes it against the more serious threat of the Mire. The solution lies not in making the Norse more fearsome but rather in getting the aliens to admit they are every bit as ridiculous as anything else going on here, with the Doctor showing off some clever psychology about the importance of reputations to boot. The preceding sequence, in which the Doctor realizes the electric eels are the solution as the townspeople gawp at him, is one of the best-realized examples of the Doctor appearing only dimly aware that there is anyone else in the room with him. Again, “The Girl Who Died” is very smart in when it makes the Doctor alien and comedic and when it makes him human and emotionally vulnerable.

And that indeed takes us to the other half of the payoff to that dilemma, as the Doctor realizes just why he chose this familiar face for himself. An existence such as the Doctor’s, with all the vast power and knowledge at his command, necessarily requires that he set rules for himself, that he concern himself primarily with keeping as many people safe as possible. The Doctor can’t help but see people at a distance, which is why it hurts all the more when he loses those that he lets get close to him. The Doctor mentions that’s why he always runs away sooner or later, a potentially interesting statement given that the opening two-parter once again asked the Doctor why he ran away from Gallifrey in the first place. But never mind such speculation, because the in-universe answer to why the Doctor and Caecilius share a face is so wonderfully simple: The Doctor chose it to remind himself that, whatever the rules and whatever his responsibilities, the thing that makes him the Doctor is the fact that he saves people. Reminded of his first and most basic promise, the Doctor decides to save Ashildir, and hang the consequences.

I haven’t yet talked much about the episode’s big guest star, as Game Of Thrones favorite Maisie Williams plays the title character, an individual who is quite rudely not Susan or the Rani or River or Jenny or a Clara fragment or whoever else. Rather, she’s just a brave, kindhearted girl that neither the Doctor nor the town could bear to lose. Williams is very good here, although I suspect it’s next week’s “The Woman Who Lived” that will really see her show off her acting chops and challenge the Doctor, so I’ll save most of my discussion of her work for that next week. Her best quality here is one that likely won’t surprise those familiar with Arya Stark, as she has a presence here that feels both authentically medieval and eminently relatable. When she undoes Clara’s very smart work talking the Mire into leaving and declares war on them, she reveals herself the product of a culture nearly as alien to us as the Mire, yet it also feels completely logical for her to defend her town’s honor in this way. Much as this season’s episodes have seen Peter Capaldi move from playing the Doctor to, at least to the extent it’s possible, being the Doctor, so too does Maisie Williams show the difference between pretending to be a Viking girl and really inhabiting the role.

The episode is less revelatory with respect to Clara, though nor does she feel like an afterthought. “The Girl Who Died” doesn’t exactly avoid a common pitfall of the show’s handling of Clara, in that this is yet another episode in which she seems to exist primarily to provide emotional guidance for the Doctor’s journey; she doesn’t necessarily need to be a co-lead like past new series companions, but she also feels overdue for another showcase like Mathieson’s own “Flatline.” That said, Clara makes it clear she has become just as quick-witted as the Doctor in assessing and understanding new threats, and her scene bluffing the Mire into almost leaving is a great demonstration of this increasingly Doctor-ish conception of Clara. Indeed, it’s now Clara who is the TARDIS traveler more prone to deflection, as she ignores the Doctor wondering just what he has made of her. I’m still not really sure the show is committing enough to the idea that the Doctor is changing Clara into something dangerous, if only because all companions tend to be supportive and less aware than they should of the carnage unfolding around them, but what we get here works well, at least in the immediate context of the episode itself.

So yep, I might as well say it: “The Girl Who Died” is a damn triumph. More than that, it’s a triumph because it feels so resolutely like a Doctor Who episode. There are silly comedy villagers and ridiculous aliens and (intentionally, I think) bad special effects, but the day to dismiss an episode of Doctor Who because it has any of those things is to miss so much of what makes Doctor Who charming in the first place. This episode takes a potentially goofy premise, something that seems not so dissimilar from last year’s lightweight but fun “Robot Of Sherwood,” and it instead spins out some of the best-executed moral dilemmas and emotional journeys in the show’s history. That’s a blend that Doctor Who does better than perhaps any other show, and all the pieces—the writing, the acting, the directing—combine to create what is quite possibly the best episode yet of this Doctor’s tenure.

And, best of all, the entire thing is in service of next week’s sequel, in which we get to see the consequences explored of the Doctor’s decision to revive Ashildir. Whatever else this decision is, it’s not a mistake: After all, the Doctor knows exactly what he’s doing to Ashildir by yreating her with the Mire battlefield medical kit. Given his past distaste for immortals—and his own not especially subtle comments about how hard it is for him to endure when everyone around him inevitably grows old and leaves him—the Doctor makes a remarkable decision here, one he later admits may well have been born of anger and emotion. To which I can only say: good. Maybe the Doctor did the wrong thing here for the right reasons, or perhaps the right thing for the wrong reasons. Either way, the Doctor is fallible in this episode not in a way that indicts him but rather in a way that makes him all the more recognizable to the rest of us. The choices the Doctor makes and the consequences he faces operate on a scale incomprehensibly more vast than our own. But “The Girl Who Died” remembers that what motivates the Doctor’s decisions are fundamentally the same emotions that we all feel, and that’s what makes this such a brilliant hour of television.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Woman Who Lived:

There’s really nowhere to start here other than with Maisie Williams’ performance. Her work in last week’s “The Girl Who Died” was very good, bringing nuance and humanity to what in lesser hands might just feel like just another random historical character with hints of deeper mystery. But her work in “The Woman Who Lived” is an order of magnitude better, if only because she is asked to do so much more here than she was last week. The Ashildir of “The Girl Who Died” falls into one of my favorite categories of Doctor Who supporting characters, the goodhearted ally who believes in the Doctor even as they never quite see eye to eye. But this week’s Ashildr—to the extent she even accepts that name as her own—is a character very nearly without precedent in Doctor Who history. No, she’s not the first immortal we’ve met, something the Doctor makes explicit with his reference to Captain Jack Harkness, but what sets Ashildr apart from the likes of a Captain Jack or even a River Song is that her extended lifespan is her only special ability. Without infinite memory, infinite life can mean nothing to her but constant loss: of those she cares about, of the knowledge of her own experiences, and ultimately of who she actually is.

That’s perhaps what hurts the most about “The Woman Who Lived,” as Williams layers in almost none of last week’s Ashildr into the woman we meet here. There’s no sign of her love of storytelling or of her insecurities about how her actions, even her thoughts, might hurt others. Her imagination, her gallantry bordering on the headstrong, it’s all gone, and it never really comes back. The only moment we really see Ashildr again comes during the Leonians’ attack on the villagers, as she shows an urgent compassion that feels very much of a kind with what we saw last week. It feels right for the Doctor to grin and welcome back Ashildr in that moment, but it’s fleeting. The woman in the next scene in the tavern is a wiser, kinder individual that the one the Doctor spent most of today’s episode with, but she’s still someone the Norse villager of last week would barely recognize. That’s hardly surprising, given the better part of a millennium does still separate those two individuals.

As the 5th Doctor once observed, people are the sum of their memories, and “The Woman Who Lived” is heartbreaking in how it teases out just what Ashildr has chosen to remember and what she has chosen to forget. At first glance, it might appear odd that she still remembers the Doctor and Clara after all this time yet she has forgotten her own name, family, and birthplace. And yeah, the episode maybe could have addressed little tensions like that head-on, but it’s not hard to understand something like that in the context of what Ashildr tells us. It’s not as simple as she forgets everything that happened to her before a certain point. Rather, she has to choose carefully what few things she will retain through the centuries, and it’s those that she keeps in her mind or her diaries. Even more important than what she chooses to remember, however, is what she cannot bear to hold onto. There likely came a point a long, long time ago at which the memory of her village and her loved ones was nothing but painful for her. The Doctor, on the other hand, is her hero and, as she points out toward the end of the episode, her jailer. He’s still her one hope to set her free, and so it pays to remember him and, in Clara, his weaknesses.

To make all this coherent, the episode asks everything of Maisie Williams, and she delivers. Her first line after she reveals her true identity—the bit she asks the Doctor what took him so long, which was used as the closing sting for one of the season trailers—might suggest that she and the episode are going to present the immortal Ashildr as another playful, quip-heavy character that we’ve seen more than our fair share of in the Steven Moffat era, but the episode fast reveals that this is merely bravado masking brittleness. There are a few ways Williams could have theoretically played her first reaction to the Doctor calling her character Ashildr, and her good-natured lack of any reaction at all might well be the saddest possibility. When she says, “If you say so,” it’s as though she’s happily ceding control of her own past to the Doctor. As the episode continues, it becomes evident just how much that is a defense mechanism, a way of temporarily warding off the hell that is her continued existence.

There’s a question I didn’t think to ask about “The Girl Who Died,” and “The Woman Who Lived” never quite asks this specifically, though it’s just a more concrete version of the Doctor’s own characterization of himself as the man who shows up for the war but runs from the fallout. Why did the Doctor leave immediately after he resurrected Ashildr? What if he had just taken a few days, even a few hours, to prepare Ashildr for what immortality might mean? It feels silly to even ask that, because the Doctor always leaves at the earliest possibility opportunity, and that’s been the case from the very beginning. As such, I just kind of take it as read that, yeah, of course the Doctor is going to abandon Ashildr to her immortality. Last week’s episode points to a couple potential reasons: The Doctor says he always runs away when his pain becomes unbearable, and he may well have already been too ashamed of the mistake he has made in bringing her back to face Ashildr for long.

On that second point, consider when the Doctor mentions the last time he checked in on Ashildr and found her running a leper colony. She takes the Doctor to task for only understanding how she is doing in terms of her doing good, not in terms of how she actually feels about anything. The Doctor judges her by her actions, not by her inner turmoil, hence why he could look at an immortal woman running a leper colony and see nothing but positives in that. This recalls similar instances in which past Doctors have tried to understand why past companions might not understand why they were left behind—think the 10th Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith in “School Reunion,” or, for those looking for a deeper cut, think the 11th Doctor and Jo Grant in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode “The Death Of The Doctor.” (Still the only time Russell T. Davies has written for a Steven Moffat Doctor, if you’re curious what that looks like.)

Through all these instances, there’s a sense that there’s more going on here than the Doctor failing to understand human emotional needs. There’s also an aspect of the Doctor seeking to soothe his own troubled conscience, and knowing Ashildr is helping others is a way for him to redeem his own actions in bringing her back. On some level, he might know Ashildr herself is a lost cause, so he can only look at in her in terms of whether her existence represents a net positive. He might articulate that in warmer, more aspirational terms, but that could well be the core psychology in play there.

As for the other part, about the unbearability of loss and grief across an infinite life, there we see perhaps the most powerful element of “The Woman Who Lived.” As Ashildr says, all those emotions just run out over a long enough timespan, until there’s nothing left but empty thrill-seeking. Robbing and killing at least make her feel something, if only for a moment, and it’s hard for her to take the consequences seriously when she knows those she hurts are going to be dead in what to her is barely more than a blink of an eye. The Doctor needs similarly visceral, immediate experiences to keep himself anchored in the lives of mortals, and his great advantage is that he can always step back into his TARDIS and head somewhere else. It’s easy for the Doctor to say Ashildr she will fly soon enough when he could materialize on the windswept sands of Kitty Hawk whenever he wants—assuming he could fly the TARDIS accurately, which, yeah, best of luck—but he’s still talking about a distance of more than 250 years. The Doctor has the luxury of making vast gulfs of time and space meaningless to him, which in turn makes it all the easier to focus on forging those more immediate connections with people like Clara. Ashildr can’t escape her circumstances so easily. It’s just another way the Doctor unwittingly trapped her.

While we’re vaguely on the subject of Clara, it’s worth pointing out this the first companion-light episode since, what, “The Doctor, The Widow, And The Wardrobe”? (It kind of depends how you categorize different episodes, but I’m just going to keep this simple and say a companion-light episode in the Moffat era is one in which neither Amy nor Clara is involved in the episode’s main story.) From a really basic storytelling perspective, there’s just no need for Clara here. Like any companion, Clara is there primarily to serve as a bridge between the Doctor and the everyday people, but Ashildr has no such requirements. It’s hard to see what Clara could have added to this episode, and that’s not really a criticism of her character: I’d feel the same way about any other new series companion. Ashildr is entirely capable of asking the Doctor the hard questions here, and the presence of a companion would only lessen the sting of Ashildr’s rebukes.

More than that, Clara’s absence gives “The Woman Who Lived” an actively different feel from a typical Doctor Who episode, as there’s nothing here to cut against the Doctor and Ashildr’s remove from humanity. The core of this episode is the meeting of two lonely, broken immortals, but it’s not just in the drama that “The Woman Who Lived” benefits from mixing things up and keeping Clara on the sidelines. The Doctor is even goofier and more detached than normal, as shown by his opening inability to realize he’s wandered into a robbery, and untethering this Doctor lets the show play around with some different kinds of jokes.

Like Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat’s script for “The Girl Who Died,” Catherine Tregenna’s writing flits between comedy and drama. The first woman to write for the show since Helen Raynor in series 4, Tregenna previously penned some of the best of Torchwood’s pre-Children Of Earth episodes, including episodes like “Out Of Time” and “Captain Jack Harkness” that similarly explored how people might deal with being disconnected from their time and place. This is one of the strongest basic premises for a Doctor Who episode in the show’s history, and Tregenna at every turn finds ways to drill down into precisely what Ashildr’s immortality really means. In this, Maisie Williams is a constant ally: Consider, as one example of many, the scene in which Ashildr talks about how people are like mayflies, always repeating the same mistakes over and over, and how boring it all is. This is a terrific insight into what it would mean to be stuck on Earth for hundreds and hundreds of years, and the predictable—still very good, but predictable—way to play this would be with an edge of contempt. But Williams instead plays the moment with apathetic remove. It’s just a fact, and one of the many that has hardened her to the world at large.

Tregenna’s script doesn’t delve too deeply into what it might mean specifically for a woman to wander through history, though it’s ever present in the subtext: Ashildr having to pretend to be a man both at Agincourt and with the highwaymen, her being drowned as a witch by a town she cured of scarlet fever, and her angrily (and quite justifiably) taking the Doctor to task when he suggests she seeks to become the Leandro queen. Ashildr’s most horrible memory, the one so bad she holds onto for fear she might ever forget and repeat it, is losing her children to the Black Death, though Ashildr’s lost motherhood is but one of many aspects to her character. These all represent still more elements the Doctor might understand intellectually—he knows enough to wonder what could ever hurt more than losing one’s children—but perhaps not feel viscerally, and the episode’s careful recognition of how Ashildr’s gender informs her story without defining it helps add to the general effectiveness of “The Woman Who Lived.”

This episode is all about the interactions between Ashildr and the Doctor, to the extent that the plot feels beside the point. In this regard, the choice of building this story around 17th century highwaymen is clever: This historical era presents a fun backdrop, much like the Viking village did last week, but it doesn’t feel so important or immediate that the show has to treat it as anything more than a background element. Comedian Rufus Hound—last seen profusely apologizing for maybe kind of accidentally but probably just inadvertently tipping that Peter Capaldi was going to be the new Doctor on that endless casting announcement special the BBC did a couple years ago—is a lot of fun as Sam Swift the Quick, and his character is yet another illustration of how this and “The Girl Who Died” move seamlessly from comedy to drama. On the one hand, yeah, he’s a larger-than-life highwayman, always ready with a joke and a smile, but his entire life is defined by the specter of death, something that becomes grimly immediate during his hanging scene. Beyond giving us what might be the first dick size joke in Doctor Who history, that sequence offers the perfect way to illustrate the Doctor’s later point about how people like him and Ashildr need the likes of Swift to keep them grounded, to show them by example how life is something to be lived, no matter how much or how little of it a person might have.

On balance, “The Woman Who Lived” isn’t quite the all-encompassing joy that “The Girl Who Died” was: Leandro is fine, as Tharil knock-offs go, but he isn’t as interesting as the Mire, and his eventual defeat isn’t nearly as inventive as how the Doctor dispatched the fake Odin last week. The climax of this episode feels very much like something of the Russell T. Davies era, in which there’s a quickie alien invasion and all hell breaks loose because, well, it’s about that time in the episode. (Not to say that doesn’t also happen a fair amount in the current era, but my unverified gut feeling is that there tends to be a bit more variety these days in how stories are resolved.) But whatever small deficiencies there might be in the ancillary elements are more than offset by how strong the core of this episode is, as Ashildr comes into her own here in a way that “The Girl Who Died” only hinted at. The conversations between the Doctor and Ashildr represent some of the most sustained exploration of the Time Lord’s actions we’ve yet seen, and the episode’s meditation on the sorrow of immortality is more than enough to vault this into the show’s uppermost echelon.

According to The A.V. Club review of Face the Raven:

This isn’t the end of Clara Oswald. If nothing else, her death here figures to reverberate throughout each of the next two episodes, and it’s frankly hard to imagine the finale will pass without some appearance from Jenna Coleman in one form or another. (And that’s without getting into parsing cast announcements for future episodes, because it’s not as though the show is above trotting out misdirections inside misdirections.) That “To Be Continued” at the end of tonight’s episode is a reminder that we have only just begun sorting through the consequences of what just happened, and Clara’s death will surely inform the decisions the Doctor makes as he faces his latest, mysterious trial. As such, I think it’s best for me to resist the urge to eulogize Clara too much, if only because it’s still possible—nay, probable—that some manner of twist is coming, even if it doesn’t actually go ahead and resurrect Clara. Instead, let’s keep the focus tightly on what the episode specifically ends up saying about Clara, because “Face The Raven” represents the clear culmination of a character arc that began in the back half of last season, and the payoff for that alone immediately places this story in the top tier of companion departure episodes. (Not that represents the stiffest competition, but still.)

It’s kind of remarkable to look back on Clara’s initial run of episodes alongside Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor and realize that she was, if not exactly a coward (a term I did kick around a couple times back then, probably inaccurately), then at least someone who reacted to the insanity of traveling with the Doctor with distinctly less of the verve and steely resolve that her predecessor Amy Pond had shown. In other words, she reacted to being a Doctor Who companion much as a regular person would, which made it a little funky—though still probably the right move, narratively speaking—when the show began introducing other, even more average people like Danny Pink to point out how much traveling with the Doctor had changed Clara. Though the character-building arc from one point to the other wasn’t the best or smoothest in the show’s history, consider the vast gulf between how a petrified Clara addresses the Half-Face Man in “Deep Breath” and how a confident Clara comes this close to talking the Mire in leaving Earth in “The Girl Who Died,” and would have succeeded if not for Ashildr sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. (Which, huh, that might well count as a bit of a bookend, come to think of it.)

As much as I’ve had my issues with the show’s handling and characterization of Clara, that transformation really does work, mostly because the underlying person doesn’t actually change there. In both those stories, and in pretty much any story with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, Clara is clever, perceptive, and willing to take risks—both with her life and with others’—and all that’s changed is how much she believes in her own abilities. Last season’s “Mummy On The Orient Express” and “Flatline” started kicking around the ideas that Clara was addicted to the thrill of traveling with the Doctor and that she was beginning to act like the Doctor at the expense of some measure of her humanity. Those were fine ideas, though they got a bit lost in the shuffle as the show turned it attention elsewhere with “Dark Water”/“Death In Heaven,” and the attempts to revive those story arcs this season have often felt perfunctory.

Until tonight’s episode. The opener is a good reminder of the power of starting a story mid-sentence (or just after the last sentence had finished, at any rate). Seeing the Doctor and Clara talk about the latest impossible scrape they just extricated themselves from without actually seeing them do it can’t help but make them appear cavalier in response to danger. Just for a moments, they are strangers again, and that glimpse of the part of their lives beyond our view makes it all the harder to watch their final outing together. And there are all the little hints, like the Doctor and Clara being interrupted mid-banter by Rigsy’s phone call and director Justin Molitnikov’s approach to the lighting in that opening scene, which has the Doctor and Clara literally emerge from a bright, smoky glow. Everything underlines the sense that we’ve already witnessed the end of something, even if the TARDIS duo doesn’t realize it yet. And while the parallels between the Doctor and Clara are really underlined once the story reaches the trap street, the rest of the episode weaves in the hints of how the two characters have converged. It’s probably not a total coincidence, for instance, that Clara’s hanging out of the TARDIS—the specific thing the Doctor and Rigsy agree she enjoys far too much—so strongly echoes the 11th Doctor’s similar jaunt through the London sky in “The Day Of The Doctor.”

The dual return of Rigsy and Ashildr, beyond bringing back two of the best guest characters of this Doctor’s era, allows the show to set up a kind of spectrum of humanity, with Clara and the Doctor nestled between the two supporting players. The reactions to Rigsy’s apparent murder victims are telling, even allowing for the fact that this is part of Ashildr’s deception. The self-appointed mayor of the trap street speaks only in terms of the bigger picture, situating the tragedy of the death only in terms of how it threatens the fragile peace of the community. The Doctor asks questions, seeking the information he needs to find a solution. Clara rages against the injustice of Ashildr condemning Rigsy to death without even bothering to determine what actually happened. And Rigsy, for his part, simply asks the name of the woman he supposed killed. All four of them, in one way or another, are demonstrating compassion. It’s just that each character’s compassion operates at a greater level of remove and abstraction as we move from Rigsy to Clara to the Doctor to Ashildr. Rigsy is the only one of the four who, at least in that moment, truly acts as though there is a newly dead body in the room.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the other three, at least not exactly. “Face The Raven” is careful not to judge Clara for the mistake of believing she can take the same kinds of risks that the Doctor does and expect to get away with it. As the Doctor himself argues, it’s not that he’s any better than Clara; he’s just less breakable. The Doctor also does operate with far more extensive knowledge than that of his companion, and with that a greater awareness of when he needs to pause and learn more before deciding to act. Clara internalized the risk-taking of the Doctor without quite understanding the calculations that underpin those risks. She tried to outsmart the universe, not realizing she was finely parsing the wrong sentence. Clara assumed Ashildr’s promise of absolute protection could be considered an immutable fact, when she really should have been focusing on the precise conjunction in Rump’s explanation of how the chronolock works, which left open the possibility that the death sentence could be lifted by the issuer unless it was passed to someone else.

Speaking of which, if there’s one particular issue with “Face The Raven,” it’s that the mumbo jumbo quotient is very high here. Sarah Dollard’s script leans heavily on the fantasy and the fantastical, with the episode couching its explanations of what’s going on in something far more akin to magic than we’re used to seeing on Doctor Who. The decision to have all the aliens of the trap street disguised as humans is smart from a budgetary perspective, if nothing else, and it does lend a dreamlike quality to the proceedings, as though the audience never truly gets to see what’s really going on. The episode avoids the trap of some of the other more mystically inclined Doctor Who episodes, in that its presentation of the more magical elements doesn’t become an excuse for the episode to elide necessary explanations. There are rules here, and indeed Clara’s confusion about what they are proves absolutely crucial. From a plotting perspective, this all works fine, and indeed a lot of it ends up nicely undergirding the story of Clara’s fatal mistake. No, the potential problem with the episode’s magical elements is more one of relatability. A chronolock isn’t just beyond our experience, as it also doesn’t necessarily make all that much sense intuitively, which can make it harder to really feel the full weight of Ashildr and Clara’s decisions. Still, the acting is strong enough for us to feel the emotional stakes of the characters’ decisions, even when they are built around such fantastical elements.

One thing this episode does sidestep is the moral peril of a companion losing her human perspective, which was sort of what the show did way back in “Army Of Ghosts” when Jackie took Rose to task, though that always felt a bit half-formed. “Face The Raven” is far more about the honest mistakes that can happen when a person treats life-or-death matters like a game. What’s nuanced about this is that Clara never loses sight of what this all means to Rigsy, pointing out how devastating it would be for his partner and daughter if he never came home again. Yet she doesn’t think to extend that same concern to herself, in part because, well, the main person left to mourn her is the Doctor. (Yes, I’m aware Clara might have a family. Since we’ve not seen them since “The Time Of The Doctor,” I’m inclined to say they don’t exist anymore, narratively speaking.) Maybe there’s some hubris in Clara believing that she can play with fire so many times without getting burned, but that feels like an unnecessarily ungenerous reading of her motivations here, particularly when she so completely accepts the consequences of her actions.

Once Clara’s mistake is revealed, we see Doctor Who show off one of the greatest newfound strengths of this Doctor’s tenure: the ability to slow things down and let the characters’ interactions guide what happens next. After the breakneck pacing of previous eras, this is essentially decompressed storytelling, and “Face The Raven” provides plenty of time for both the Doctor and Clara to make clear what the latter’s impending death means to them. The Doctor’s opening salvo of threats to Ashildr is terrifying in part because, at least on some subconscious level, the audience must already realize how futile these threats must be as a way to save Clara—if there were some way to prevent her death, surely the Doctor would be busy doing that instead. Certainly Clara recognizes straight away that this is just the Doctor talking himself into rage and revenge, even if his fury would subside in the face of the first crying child.

In some of Clara’s early appearances, especially those alongside the 11th Doctor, the show had trouble defining Clara as a character outside of what she meant to the Doctor; far more so than previous companions, she was a true secondary character, and what she did and said mattered primarily in how it guided the Doctor’s actions. At first blush, Clara’s words to the Doctor fall into that category, yet “Face The Raven” artfully positions what she says so that the show never loses sight of who actually is dying here. Clara comforts the Doctor not because her death is unimportant relative to his pain but because she wants her death to mean something, and she refuses to let him insult her memory by using her death as a motivator for vengeance. It’s the same reason she refuses to let Rigsy feel guilt over her death, and, in its way, why she stops talking to Ashildr the moment the mayor admits that there’s nothing she can do. Clara restricts her focus to what matters to her, and above all she wants to die right, just as Danny did. That’s a fine thing to aspire to, at least in the context of her available options, and she admits she would like the Doctor to find it in himself to be at least a little proud of her as she goes out to face the raven.

“Face The Raven” isn’t quite perfect, but it’s damn close, and it’s hard to imagine a finer exit episode for a companion (notwithstanding the fact that I’m still a little dubious that this is Clara’s actual exit, but what the hey). Doctor Who doesn’t often devote a lot of creative energy to building satisfying departure stories for its companions, particularly in the classic series, but the rare occasions the show has put in an effort have tended to pay dividends: “Army Of Ghosts”/“Doomsday,” “The Angels Take Manhattan,” and “Face The Raven” are all terrific episodes, and I’d say this one surpasses those previous two because it hits just the right balance in devoting plenty of time for the Doctor and companion to say a proper goodbye without falling into the trap of maudlin melodrama. (Not that I’m saying “Doomsday” did that. But let’s just say it was close to doing that.) Clara gets to go out on just about the highest of all possible notes, with both her Doctor and, in Rigsy, her companion by her side, and Jenna Coleman saves her best performance in the role for her last bow, as she easily navigates the gamut of emotions, from exhilaration and joy to outrage to grief tempered by resolve. Clara wasn’t always the most sharply focused companion, but Coleman and Doctor Who as a whole made damn sure that, when it counted most, we knew the full measure of the woman who stepped out that door and faced the raven. Now we find out who precisely the Doctor is when stripped of the person who mattered most to him.

And then that post-credits shot of Rigsy tagging the abandoned TARDIS. There’s not enough heartbreak in the world for that.

According to the A.V. Club review of Heaven Sent:

Let’s start with the blindingly obvious first: There has never been a Doctor Who episode like “Heaven Sent.” It’s a tour de force for writer Steven Moffat, director Rachel Talalay, and star Peter Capaldi, who is by himself for a good 95 percent of the episode’s running time. The episode is built around one of the greatest twists Moffat has yet devised, and not even necessarily because it’s so surprising—all the clues are there to work out what is going on, which is only a good thing—but rather because what it ends up saying about the Doctor. And while it’s easy to say this episode is all about the Doctor, given that he is pretty much the only character in the whole thing, the episode also deals at some length with Clara’s death in “Face The Raven” and what his lost companion means to him. The episode presents the Doctor at his most brilliant, most broken, and most resilient, and all that is directly informed by the grief he feels for Clara, and how he intends to honor her memory.

That closing montage is likely to dominate audience’s memories of “Heaven Sent,” and quite right too. But before we consider all that that scene means, it’s worth looking at what comes before. The opening sequence, in which the Doctor first wanders around the castle and demands his unseen antagonists show themselves, very much presents a man in search of an audience. This is a story without a companion, yet the Doctor always needs someone to talk to, so he still has little bits of self-banter about his hatred of gardening and his warning to his tormentors that he will soon enough be able to work out precisely where he is and what’s going on. And, of course, he uses the TARDIS inside his mind as a way to keep the spirit of Clara alive, talking out all his crises and concerns with her, even if she only truly appears beside him that one time. The conceit of having the Doctor step into the TARDIS every time he is in mortal peril could be little more than a bit of stylish cleverness—not that that would be the worst thing in the world—but what makes this storytelling device work is how much it ends up revealing about his character.

The deconstruction of how the Doctor’s blind leap out the window is anything but that is a marvelous bit of fun, with the Doctor even winking at the audience as he admits it probably spoils the magic a bit for him to reveal that every stray action was a way of testing the local conditions before deciding he could indeed survive his jump. The episode doesn’t even hint at this connection, but it’s interesting to look at how the Doctor’s decision-making process works in the light of what happened to Clara in “Face The Raven.” Even those of us who have been traveling with the Doctor for years—companion and audience alike—could so easily miss the insane amount of strategic thinking that goes into the Doctor’s every move, and so it would be tempting to think that it would be possible to replicate that for oneself. That was part of Clara’s mistake last week, after all. But the Doctor doesn’t just lead a charmed life, as really he’s two different kinds of genius. He’s a brilliant enough lateral thinker to always find the hidden alternative, and his brain is a powerful enough processor to work through all the variables to know whether his plan will work before he puts it into action. To borrow and twist Arthur C. Clarke’s old line, any sufficiently prepared plan is indistinguishable from magic.

As the episode goes on and the Doctor works out just why he has been brought to this castle, the tone of the story changes, with the Doctor’s initial irascible fury giving way to a full understanding of what’s actually going on. There’s very little Peter Capaldi does here that’s not worthy of praise, but I especially love his pained delivery of the line when the Doctor recognizes this place doesn’t just require truth, but confession. The show has flirted with the idea of the Doctor safeguarding certain truths that must never be revealed, most notably in “The Name Of The Doctor,” but that previous episode struggled because the 11th Doctor never did much but stand around looking mournful. “Heaven Sent” improves on this simply by placing the Doctor in a more direct life-or-death situation, with the Veil providing an immediate, ever-present specter of implacable, imminent demise. It also helps that the Doctor’s very first confession is to reveal that he genuinely is afraid of dying, and that he feels that way because the Veil is closing in on him, which instantly makes all that follows feel more visceral than it might otherwise. Besides, the Doctor does divulge some information, even if what we learn at first merely reiterates what the Doctor revealed to Davros in “The Witch’s Familiar.” It’s only with the true nature of the hybrid that the Doctor draws an absolute line, one that he never crosses—even when given a hundred billion chances to do so.

Let’s really think about that for a second. The Doctor at last reaches Room 12, and the word “bird” written in the sand makes him realize at last what has been going on. The look of horror on the Doctor’s face at that moment is palpable, as he tells the Clara in his head that he can remember every single time he has reached this room and died slowly, horribly at the hands of the Veil. He can see that wall, at least 20 feet thick, and he knows there’s not a chance that he will succeed this time or any time in the remotely nearly future. To keep on his present course is to consign himself to the worst possible death, lived out in near-infinite repetition. And yet … that’s the only solution. That’s the only way out, because the alternative would be to reveal the truth of the hybrid to his mysterious captors. He can neither trust these unseen antagonists with that information nor assume they will do anything but kill him should he reveal that final confession. So that way is to lose. The other option, as the illusory Clara puts it, is to win, yet winning means enduring unimaginable agony nearly a trillion times over, each time just to be reborn with his grief over Clara as fresh as ever. If that isn’t hell—and not just heaven for bad people—I really don’t known what is.

Yet the Doctor goes through with it. Every. Single. Time. He has that same breakdown, every single time, in which he wallows in entirely understandable self-pity before finding the solace and the strength he needs to face the next death on the way to his eventual victory. And that solace comes from Clara, from his companion, just as it always should. Last season made a big deal out of the notion that Clara functioned as this Doctor’s conscience. It was a decent idea, but it now feels like another way in which season eight was overly schematic, telling us things that this more effortless season nine has simply shown us. The Doctor has internalized Clara, letting her be the voice of all the best parts of him. She keeps him asking questions, and she keeps him fighting when he would be willing to surrender. That’s just about as beautiful and perfect a tribute as companion could ever hope to receive, and it feels so right that the Doctor, for all his dire pronouncements of what he might be capable of now that Clara’s gone, ends up being just about exactly who Clara always believed he could be.

As is often the case with the best Steven Moffat scripts, it takes at least a second watch for the full brilliance of “Heaven Sent” to become apparent. There are little mysteries, like the Doctor’s replacement outfit after he clambers up out of the water, that are easier to solve once you know entirely what’s going on, and the final montage has so much going on in it that it’s easy to not make the connection there. The Doctor’s opening monologue sounds like another grand Moffat statement on life, the universe, and everything, but it functions more precisely as a description of the Doctor’s situation, perhaps even as a warning from one Doctor to the next. The Doctor’s breakdown after he sees the word “bird” is plenty powerful on first viewing, but without the full understanding of the Doctor’s situation—which is only explained later, as the dying Doctor drags himself back to the teleport chamber—the natural interpretation is to think that the Doctor remembers all his previous heartbreaks, all his previous tragedies, and that he’s talking generally about his life instead of specifically about the latest round of hell he’s about to endure.

This is a meticulously constructed episode, one that works on every level. For those who revel in the narrative pyrotechnics that so often defined Moffat’s work with the 11th Doctor, “Heaven Sent” delivers that in a way the show hasn’t pulled off since “The Wedding Of River Song,” or maybe even “A Christmas Carol.” That closing montage is a sustained blast of exhilaration, laying plain just how impossible a hero the Doctor here, how truly committed he is to his infinitely repeated opening warning that he will never, ever stop. The accumulation of years and the gradual punching away of the wall, all as the Doctor gets another word or two into the Brothers Grimm story about a bird sharpening its beak on a diamond mountain, is nothing short of extraordinary, again the perfect nexus of Steven Moffat’s writing, Rachel Talalay’s direction, and Peter Capaldi’s performance. Yet this is also an episode that is willing to give the Doctor space to be emotional and vulnerable in a way that he needed to be after “Face The Raven.” The Doctor is given space to mourn, to grieve, and to suffer without the episode ever quite becoming maudlin, in part because Clara shows up and slaps some sense into him at the very moment when the Doctor threatens to do just that.

This season has been a remarkable achievement for the show, and, pending next week’s finale, it’s got a real chance to go down as the best season of the revival, topping even Matt Smith’s debut in season five. And hey, maybe “Hell Bent” will be the perfect capper to this season, or maybe it won’t. But the genius of the construction of this season’s endgame is that “Hell Bent” could be an unmitigated disaster and it still wouldn’t really undo the genius of “Heaven Sent” or “Face The Raven” before it. Those two do form part of a larger three-parter, but each has had its own particular story to tell. The first was all about the end of Clara. The second was the all about the survival of the Doctor. And the third? Why, nothing less than the return of Gallifrey. The Doctor wasn’t kidding when he said he came the long way round.


The Worst:

The Zygon Invasion, and The Zygon Inversion

There is really so many ways, a story I fundamentally disliked very, very much, so I will begin with how if essentially mocks the oppressed, then move on to depictions of individual characters, and how the Doctor plays the role within it.


Mocking the Oppressed

When your story essentially serves as commentary on a contemporary issue with the lives of real people involved, namely ISIS, or Islam, this is bound to either be really good (with humanizing them), or really terrible (with paternalizing them). This ends up really terrible because now we are singling out a specific population.

Many news sources note the analogies with Muslims, Islam, and/or ISIS:

  1. “With analogies to Islamic State, radicalisation and foreign policy strategy, tonight proved to be a serious discussion of the biggest news story in the world without once mentioning IS.” (Doctor Who, The Zygon Invasion TV review: The Time Lord tackles ISIS brilliantly, Express UK)
  2. “They retreat to the fictional country of ‘Turmezistan’, they advance their abilities in a training camp, they kidnap a character and make her read out a statement on video. Save for a soliloquy on water-boarding, or a cameo from Tony Blair, they couldn’t possibly make it clearer: this is Doctor Who’s take on immigration, Islamophobia and – blimey – ISIS. How surreal is that? To hear the word ‘radicalisation’ in Doctor Who? To hear an innocent Zygon plead that, “I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?” To hear the Doctor assert again and again that the extremists don’t speak for the majority.” (The Zygon Invasion is Doctor Who’s best – and most political – story in years, RadioTimes)
  3. “All of which is to say that when something like “The Zygon Invasion” comes along, it feels fundamentally different from what the show usually gets up to. Episode writer Peter Harness, making his return after penning last season’s most divisive entry in “Kill The Moon,” crafts a story with some unmistakable parallels with the current chaos in the Middle East, with a particular emphasis on ISIS. The episode doesn’t go overboard in making these connections. The Zygon insurgents aren’t allegorical to real-world terrorists, but they are—to borrow J.R.R. Tolkien’s way of thinkingapplicable to such groups. The Doctor points out that it plays directly into the radicals’ hands to attack them, as that only serves to radicalize the moderates. The rebel Zygons are savvy in their use of video and internet to strike fear into UNIT. They take the real-world use of innocent civilians as human shields to its most terrible logical extreme by raiding their enemies’ memories to turn into the very loved ones the soldiers would be least able to kill. And, on the other side, we see the Doctor Who debut of drone warfare, though that scene primarily acts an affecting bit of foreshadowing for Hitchley’s confrontation with his “mother” rather than any particular commentary on the use of drones….That’s probably about the extent of the parallels, though, and it would be a mistake to say “The Zygon Invasion” is making any particularly deep point about the current geopolitical situation. It doesn’t need to. Rather, these connections serve to anchor the story in something more vital than your typical alien invasion plotline, while also offering viewers an opportunity to reflect on what this story might have to say about real-world situations, should they so choose—here again Tolkien’s observation that applicability “resides in the freedom of the reader” rings true. The Zygons’ motivations here are, not coincidentally, rather more nuanced than those in their two previous appearances. In fairness, both the Tom Baker classic “Terror Of The Zygons” and the 50th anniversary extravaganza “The Day Of the Doctor” established the Zygons as more than just evil galactic conquerors: Each story established the Zygons’ planet had been destroyed, and Earth was the chosen replacement, which is just the kind of dire situation that would excuse a certain degree of ruthlessness. But the Zygon radicals here have more specific, more relatable goals, as they demand the right to live openly, to not have to deny their own identities. And, yeah, there’s a bit about global domination mixed in there, but that’s just the outgrowth of what began as justifiable grievances from the younger brood.” (Doctor Who gets shockingly contemporary with its Zygon invasion, The A.V. Club)
  4. “Did somebody say topical contemporary reference? It’s always been the job of sci-fi to hold a mirror up to society, but returning writer Peter Harness goes considerably further than Doctor Who has in recent years. Lines like “They’ll think you’re gonna pinch their benefits,” raise a laugh, but repeated use of the word “radicalisation” in the script is a bravely emotive move in what is still perceived by many as a children’s show. Meanwhile, the rebel Zygons’ video made a chilling nod to Isis that can only have been deliberate.” (Doctor Who series 35, episode seven – The Zygon Invasion, The Guardian UK)
  5. “The tragic thing about the Zygon displayed in this narrative is that it just wanted to live in peace (something I am sure is true of the majority of people living in ISIS occupied areas), and had this basic right taken from him by those looking more. Because of this, the actual suicide scene itself was very believable as it needed to be given the sensitivity of the topic.” (12 Great Moments From The Zygon Inversion (Part 1), Doctor Who TV)
  6. “A Classic Who story with a 21st century pace and a global scope. It’s a 3rd Doctor-ish adventure on a Judith Chalmers grade travel budget (Judith Chalmers is still trendy, right?). And that adventure is Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets ISIS, as a home-grown terrorist cell of Zygons cause trouble for their own kind and humanity, and the peace accord reached in 2013’s ‘The Day of The Doctor’ is put in jeopardy.” (‘Doctor Who’ Season 9 Episode 7 review: ‘The Zygon Invasion’, CultBox UK)
  7. “The topicality of “The Zygon Invasion” isn’t particularly subtle, which isn’t a shock; Doctor Who rarely is when it touches on real-world themes. With a fairy tale-like set-up (complete with a “Once Upon a Time” prologue), we learn that the Zygons from Day of the Doctor were resettled around the UK living under the guise of humans they’d copied. They’re essentially refugees after the destruction of their homeworld, echoing current debates raging across the world about immigration, terrorism and the like. ISIS is the obvious direct correlation, but far from the only one. It’s not hard to argue that this is the most politically-themed episode of the series since it returned in 2005, and that’s bound to divide people’s opinions about it.” (Doctor Who 9.7 Review – ‘The Zygon Invasion’, 411MANIA)
  8. “That’s not to say the series never has; it’s just that such topical issues are often buried a little more beneath the surface than they are in ‘The Zygon Invasion,’ which has its fingers on several hot buttons; namely, ISIS, the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration, and the war on terror.” (Doctor Who Proves It Is Up On Current Events, ScreenRant)
  9. “While the episode never explicitly connects the Zygon invasion to modern splinter groups, it doesn’t have to: Replace “Truth or Consequences” with “ISIS,” and “human” with “western” and you see the parallels are obvious.” (The Doctor Gets Political in “The Zygon Invasion”, InVerse)

Now that a specific socio-political group has been targeted, suggested, and otherwise, identified: How are the oppressed groups mocked? First, their aims are largely difficult to truly discern.


Early in The Zygon Invasion, we are shown the first of three:

Kate Stewart: That’s the Zygon High Command. It’s Jemima and Claudette.
Zygon [OC]: We have been betrayed. We were sold. Our rights were violated. We demand the right to be ourselves. Normalise. Normalise!
(Jemima and Claudette transform into Zygons, then are zapped to dust by electricity from two other Zygon hands.)
Zygon [on screen]: We are now the Zygon High Command. All traitors will die. Truth or consequences.
(Message ends.)
Doctor: So, we have a Zygon revolution on our hands. We need to open negotiations.
Kate Stewart: I’m not negotiating with them. As far as they’re concerned, everyone’s a traitor.

It is never explained why they want to be themselves at any time, merely, that they do. Later, in this episode, however, another goal is stated:

Zygon: You are the President of the World.
The Doctor: Yea, I suppose so.
Zygon: We want the world.

This, of course, is an entirely different motive. The idea of going from refugees in need of a home, to a worldwide occupation, is quite a stretch. There is nothing realistic about this motive, or narrative, save television, where the writers and producers can literally come up with whatever they please.

Finally, the third, and final, motive is stated by Bonnie during the impassioned Anti-War Speech:

Doctor: What is it that you actually want?
(After a long pause.)
Zygon Clara: War.
Doctor: Ah. Ah, right. And when this war is over, when you have a homeland free from humans, what do you think it’s going to be like? Do you know? Have you thought about it? Have you given it any consideration? Because you’re very close to getting what you want. What’s it going to be like? Paint me a picture. Are you going to live in houses? Do you want people to go to work? Will there be holidays? Oh! Will there be music? Do you think people will be allowed to play violins? Who’s going to make the violins? Well? Oh, you don’t actually know, do you? Because, like every other tantrumming child in history, Bonnie, you don’t actually know what you want. So, let me ask you a question about this brave new world of yours. When you’ve killed all the bad guys, and when it’s all perfect and just and fair, when you have finally got it exactly the way you want it, what are you going to do with the people like you? The troublemakers. How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?
Zygon Clara: We’ll win.
Doctor: Oh, will you? Well, maybe, maybe you will win! But nobody wins for long. The wheel just keeps turning. So, come on. Break the cycle.

Be ourselves. The world. War. None of these aims together actually make any sense, except to “be ourselves.” Trying to take over ‘the world’ is somehow shown here to a reasonable, and achievable, goal, even though it really is not.

As far as ‘war’ is concerned, isn’t that just a little too obvious? This is simple Black and White Morality: Zygons are “bad,” but the Doctor is “good.” Frankly, the war had already started during the previous episode. It’s really easy to point fingers at the “bad” guys when they are legitimately, and actually, bad. This is not humanizing another person, another being, by any means.


Zygon Etoine

Yet more occurs during The Zygon Inversion to make note of. Bonnie forcibly changes another Zygon, Etoine, into his Zygon self, permanently. This conversation between him and the Doctor, states the following, before he commits suicide:

Doctor: Which one are you? Human or Zygon?
(A door opens nearby and something squelches. They run to find a Zygon, who in turn runs into a general store to try and hide. It turns back into the man from earlier, but not completely.)
Doctor: We can help you.
Etoine: It wasn’t me. They attacked me. They saw me. I had to.
(The squelchy transformation should, but he doesn’t change much, just the odd sucker. It clearly hurts.)
Doctor: It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. It’s okay, it’s okay.
Etoine: A commander came. She turned me back! Argh!
Osgood: We can help. We can help you. Doctor, we can help him, can’t we?
Etoine: I’m not sure.
(A burst of electricity leaps from Etoine to the Doctor, who staggers briefly. Etoine runs.)
Doctor: Please! Come back! Come back!
Doctor: I can’t help you just now, but
(Another bolt of electricity leaves Etoine and grazes the Doctor.)
Etoine: Why? I was happy like this. I was happy here.
Doctor: I understand.
Etoine: I can’t change. I can’t hide.
Osgood: Let us help you.
Etoine: No! You’re Truth or Consequences.
Osgood: We’re not. We’re really not.
(Etoine transforms a little more.)
Etoine: 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?
Doctor: We’re on your side.
Etoine: I’m not on anyone’s side. This is my home.
Doctor: Listen, we are not them.
Etoine: I can’t go back now. You’ve taken my life!
(Etoine holds his hand up, palm towards his own face.)
Doctor: No, no, no! Stop! Stop! Stop,
Etoine: They will kill me.
(Etoine commits suicide.)
Doctor: There it is, Osgood. There’s their plan.


This portion actually displays a desire to “hide,” to not be themselves (truly, the only reasonable goal established by this faction of rebel Zygons), and as such, perpetuates continuous oppression of marginalized groups as in, “Well, they want to be like this anyway!”


Finally, the Doctor, quite literally mocks the Zygon, Bonnie, in conversation (also during The Zygon Inversion), by calling her ‘Zygella’:

Zygon Clara: You’re dead.
Doctor: Yes, well, I’m dead now, and I think I might be a bit more dead in a minute. What’s your plan, Zygella?
(The police car is reversing to block access back to the beach.)
Zygon Clara: I don’t have a plan.
Doctor: Come on, you don’t invade planets without having kind of plan. That’s why they’re called planets, to remind you to plan it? Hey, hey! That’s good! Pun-tastic. Doctor Pun-tastic! Oh, come on, that was a good one, Zygella!
(The policemen get out of the car to follow them.)
Zygon Clara: Don’t call me Zygella. My name’s Bonnie. My name’s Bonnie.


Certainly the impassioned opening of the Osgoods is fair towards both races, but within the first 10 minutes the Doctor leaves Clara a message which includes that he is stalking “some of the most dangerous creatures imaginable.” Not scared, but dangerous.

Basically, this story tells us that who we think are savages, in fact, really are savage, and deserving of poor treatment: Your fears are justified. Not exactly a great message.


Attacks on Feminism

Although not apparent at first, given the massive array of female characters presented to us, I firmly believe this story is an attack on feminism. Certainly, we have four female leaders in this story who are pitted against each other: Kate Stewart, Colonel Walsh, Bonnie (Zygon), and Clara, plus several minor character’s such as Jac, Norlander (Zygon), Hitchley’s Mom (Zygon), and Osgood. But looking closer at their individual presentations, it becomes clear that all is not so good with this story. (Note that although the Zygons are essentially gender-less, their gender depiction is quite relevant to what is being conveyed within the story itself.)


Kate Stewart

Kate’s behavior within this story is rather strange, given not only is she the daughter of UNIT’s Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, but also it’s current director, so she should have some basic knowledge on how to handle these situations (conflict), yet she actually helps instigate the conflict, as seen here.

Kate Stewart: I’m not negotiating with them. As far as they’re concerned, everyone’s a traitor.
Clara: If you’re not going to negotiate, what are you going to do?
Kate Stewart: They’re holed up in this settlement in Turmezistan. It’s where they’ve taken Osgood. I’m going to order Colonel Walsh to bomb it.
Doctor: Isn’t there a solution that doesn’t involve bombing everyone?
Kate Stewart: The treaty’s been comprehensively violated, Doctor.
Doctor: 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.
Jac: Truth or consequences. What exactly does that mean?
Kate Stewart: It’s just the usual kind of nonsense these idiots call themselves.

It’s not simply this exchange that shows she is also responsible for the conflict, but most importantly, when she approaches the Red Osgood Box. This is uniquely uncharacteristic of someone who is specifically trained to handle conflict.


Additionally, the Doctor wiping her memory again doesn’t allow her to have any knowledge to solve future conflicts. It robs her of leadership, of capability, and rests everything with the Doctor. He is in control here, not her. Failed leadership.

The Zygon Inversion - 23

Interestingly, the point at which Kate becomes useful, when it is revealed she is not a Zygon, alludes to her father, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (“Five rounds, rapid!“). This usefulness ends, of course, when she approaches the Osgood Box.

invasion 2

Colonel Walsh

When we meet Colonel Walsh, she says to the Doctor, “Any living thing in this world, including my family and friends, could turn into a Zygon and kill me, any second now. It’s not paranoia when it’s real.” Of course, paranoia is hardly considered a useful emotion, especially for those in the military. Again, failed leadership.


Bonnie (Zygon)

Despite Bonnie’s ambitions, whether it be “war,” or “the world,” she, being the ‘evil’ one, doesn’t succeed, not that this is unsurprising.

  • The Doctor escapes the plane alive with Osgood,
  • Clara manages to take control of her actions through the link,
  • Kate Stewart tricks her into thinking she’s actually a Zygon, and
  • The Osgood Boxes have nothing in them.

On top of this, the Doctor makes fun of her name, and she atones for her actions by keeping the very peace treaty she was fighting against.

The Zygon Inversion trailer, additionally, alludes that Bonnie is evil, and nothing more.

Bonnie (Zygon) and Clara

The Doctor’s companion, Clara, is absent for most of the first episode of the story, leaving most of her interaction during the second episode, with her evil double, Bonnie. Bonnie is an empowered feminine figure, who faces off with her, and later on inside the Black Archive with Kate Stewart (an actual woman leader), suggesting that feminism is “antagonistic towards other women” (along with several minor male soldiers depicted in this story). Men, like the Doctor or Hitchley, are shown more likely to be peaceful and help create resolutions.



Jac, who first appeared in The Magician’s Apprentice, is killed in this episode.


Only one of two people of color in this episode (the other being this Zygon, who has no speaking lines), her character was never truly developed, so her loss, though shocking, lacks any emotion for the viewer. Certainly, more characters would later appear in Sleep No More, and The General would regenerate in Hell Bent (though only appear briefly in this incarnation), none of them, like Jac, would be considered recurring.


Norlander (Zygon)

Sheriff Norlander, actually a Zygon, in this story continues the tradition that feminism is antagonistic towards other women when she attempts to kill Kate Stewart.


Hitchley’s Mom (Zygon)

Although much of this story revolves around fear that the Zygons could simply pose as one of your family and kill you, this happens to Hitchley, though doesn’t make much sense how. When the Doctor and Colonel Walsh head to Zygon Village in Turmezistan:

Hitchley: Come out! Throw down your weapons! Come out! We have you surrounded! Come out of there! Come out, we have you surrounded!
(The carved church door opens and an old woman comes out.)
Hitchley’s Mum: I don’t have any weapons. Please.
Hitchley: Take aim. On my command.
Hitchley’s Mum: No. No, don’t, please. Johnny, you don’t understand.
Hitchley: You’re not my mother. Don’t use my name.
Hitchley’s Mum: They took us here. They came to the house and took us. They took your sister. Me.
(She starts to walk down the steps.)
Hitchley: Stay where you are.
Hitchley’s Mum: It’s not us who are the impostors. Don’t let them trick you. It’s your commanders, your chief. They’re the aliens.
Walsh: Do not fall victim. Ask for details. She’s a copy. Ask something. Only your mum could know.
Hitchley: Mom, I’m going to have to ask you some questions.
Hitchley’s Mum: Don’t do this. You know it’s me. Don’t let them trick you.
Hitchley: Date and place of my birth.
Hitchley’s Mum: They brought us here. They’re using us against you. I’m scared. Please, I’m so scared.
Hitchley: Name of my favourite teddy bear.
Hitchley’s Mum: I don’t remember. I’m sorry, I don’t. Don’t kill me because I can’t remember!
Walsh: Hitchley!
(More people come out of the church. The soldiers start to lower their weapons as they recognise them.)
Hitchley: Stay back! All of you, stay back from them!
Walsh: That is not your mother. It is an alien hostile.
Hitchley’s Mum: We’re not those creatures. We’re hostages.
Walsh: Kill it!
Hitchley’s Mum: I can prove it. I can prove who we are. Just come inside, I’ll show you.
Walsh: Don’t go in there.
Hitchley’s Mum: Please.
Hitchley: You’re not my mom.
Hitchley’s Mum: Oh, God, you’re going to kill me.
Hitchley: Mom, please.
Hitchley’s Mum: You are. You’re going to kill me. I love you. I forgive you and I love you.
Walsh: Do it!
(The soldiers all raise their weapons again. Hitchley’s mum closes her eyes, then Hitchley lowers his gun. He is nearly crying.)
Hitchley: What proof?
Walsh: Don’t go in there. You’re going to your death! Hitchley, kill it.
Hitchley: Let’s go. Over and out, ma’am.
(The soldiers follow their relatives into the church.)

Colonel Walsh had stated earlier that “any living thing,” “including my family and friends,” and “kill me,” which happens here to Hitchley and his soldiers, is interesting, because the language and presentation suggest the battle between Walsh and the Zygon.


The Osgoods

Petronella Osgood, through this story, only really appears alongside the Doctor (or, as by story’s end, with another Osgood).

  1. The Doctor finds her in the church basement in Turmezistan;
  2. They board the plane together;
  3. Bonnie destroys the plane with the Doctor and Osgood inside;
  4. They continue travelling together on foot;
  5. The Doctor and Osgood find Zygon Etoine;
  6. The Doctor and Osgood find Kate Stewart in the Black Archive Tunnel;
  7. The Doctor, Clara, Bonnie, Kate Stewart, and Osgood hear the Doctor’s speech inside the Archive;
  8. The Doctor speaks to the Osgoods in nearly the same spot he met the Zygon High Council.

So what does this mean? Well, the first scene explains it:


Osgood is a Damsel in Distress (see Feminist Frequency‘s Damsel in Distress series).

There is no development of her character (save her first name). Other than the Doctor, she only speaks to Kate Stewart and the other Osgood, presumably formerly Bonnie. For this reason, her mysterious status (unlike Clara during Series 7) remains mysterious.

The Doctor, Sexism, Showmanship and Paternalism

The Doctor’s behavior during these stories is particularly deplorable, as although during his Anti-War Speech, for example, he says “No, it’s not a game, sweetheart, and I mean that most sincerely.” Now this comment will be important soon, but let’s focus on the ‘sweetheart’ comment first.

Calling a woman (in this case, directed at Kate Stewart) a ‘sweeheart’ (or any other nickname) is, and remains, sexist. According to The Guardian‘s “Men who use nicknames for women to win fights are creepy, sexist and dumb“:

When I argue with a sexist, there’s an inevitable point at which he will call me “sweetheart”. (I like to think of it as shorthand for “you’re winning”.) If I’m really making him feel foolish, he may resort to “bitch”. “Ugly” is the last refuge of the hopelessly destroyed.

I’ve been writing about feminism on the internet long enough that these names don’t really bother me. But nothing is more grating than when a man I don’t know – in comments, Twitter or real life – calls me “Jessie”.

It may seem odd that I’d prefer a curse to a cutesy nickname. Like most things men call women when they want to diminish them, “Jessie” is meant to remind me that no matter what I accomplish – the number of books written, articles published, speeches given – I’m still “just a girl”. But it’s the overly-familiar infantilization that really makes my skin crawl. Very creepy Uncle Chester.

As it turns out, it’s not just me. Behind every female with an opinion is a man with a sneering nickname for her.

Sophia Wallace, a photographer and feminist artist, tells me, “In professional contexts, I suddenly become ‘Sophie’ with people who have an issue with me. Usually they think I have exhibited too much leadership and are trying to bring me down.”

When I asked Rebecca Traister, a senior editor at the New Republic and author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women, about men calling her something other than her name, she responded: “Becky, Becky, Becky.” Slate’s Amanda Hess gets “Mandy”. The Guardian’s own Jill Filipovic told me, “Male commenters pretty regularly call me ‘Jillly’ when they’re trying to be condescending.”

Lauren Bruce, founder of Feministe, says, “I don’t have a name that’s easy to make a nickname from, so I got called ‘Missy’. Like scolding a little girl.” Feminist activist and writer Jamia Wilson agrees: “I hate ‘Missy’.”

Nicknames as insults are also standard for female politicians. Conservative blogs like Hot Air and WorldNetDaily, for example, have carried articles calling Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren “Lizzy”, a swipe as irritating as it is incorrect – friends and family actually call Warren “Betsy”– and a search of “Hilly Clinton” brings you to the dregs of the misogynist internet (even worse: “silly Hilly”).

Women have complicated relationships with what we’re called. It was only in the 1970s that “Ms” – American women’s first marriage-neutral honorific – became popularized. And despite feminist gains, less than than 20% of women keep their last names after marrying men. In fact, a 2009 study from Indiana University showed that 70% of Americans think women should take their husband’s name and 50% believe it should be legally required.

Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan bemoaned a culture where women “answer the question ‘who am I’ by saying ‘Tom’s wife … Mary’s mother.” What we’re called matters; it’s a central part of our identity and signals to the world who and what we are – self-determined individuals. So when men try to wrest control of that narrative and diminish it, it stings.

Now, on the scale of awful things men can call women, nicknames don’t rank as horrifying as other put-downs. Harassment and violent rhetoric against women has become expected, especially online – and the threats so many of us face can be terrifying. (Consider the racist and misogynist free-for-all directed at pundit Zerlina Maxwell when she dared to suggest on Fox News that men should be taught not to rape.)

The good news is that no matter what they call women – bitch, slut or “Jessie” – name-calling is all sexists have in a debate. Calling us something other than what we are does not make us less right, and it won’t make them more just. When misogynists resort to name-calling, they’re labeling themselves more than they ever could disprove us.

Now, this can also be applied to the Doctor calling Bonnie, ‘Zygella,’ as well. The show, by having it’s lead character go around behaving in this way, perpetuates this behavior as normal, as permissible, when it really is not OK at all.


“No, it’s not a game…”

The Doctor, though, for much of this episode, treats everything he helped set in motion, as a game. From calling himself “Doctor Disco,” “Doctor Funkenstein,” and “Doctor Pun-tastic,” he display a lack of seriousness on the unfolding events. This is all, sort of, a joke for him, but it does lead into exercising quite a bit of power (and being a showman, like this picture directly above). According to Whovian Feminism‘s review of this story:

So the Doctor has to police the ceasefire. His solution — the Osgood box(es) — relies on fear and sleight-of-hand to keep the ceasefire standing. And don’t get me wrong, I loved the concept of having that scale model of war and how the Doctor used it to illustrate that you’ll never know who will live or die when you start that conflict. His speech about living with the consequences of war literally took my breath away. The ragged pain in his voice as he shouted his grief and guilt absolutely gutted me.

But…there’s that lingering doubt I can’t shake. For all his shouting about how people will always, eventually, have to sit down and talk through their conflicts, he doesn’t really let the humans or Zygons meaningfully do so.

I’m not sure whether or not the Doctor’s remark that UNIT and the Zygons have been on the brink of using the Osgood box(es) fifteen times before was a joke or not — but the implication that they have is disturbing to think about. Clearly the underlying resentments between humans and Zygons aren’t simply going to vanish. So why not bring everyone back to the table and have them really talk? No tricks, no memory wipes, no sleight-of-hand with the Osgood box(es). Let them talk through their differences while they feel invested in the process and feel like they’ve been given the agency to make their own choices. It’s time for the Doctor to step back and let the humans and Zygons renegotiate the ceasefire without his interference.

This is hardly the first time during the Moffat Era that the Doctor has been a showman:

Yea, seriously. A resurgence of that.


During Death in Heaven, the Doctor expressed dislike to being ‘President of Earth,’ as he had said, “I don’t like being the president. People keep saluting. I’m never going to salute back.” By this story, however, this humble attitude had apparently disappeared:

Doctor: Okay. Kate Stewart, no bombs for you. Go to Truth Or Consequences. See what you can find out. The Doctor will go to Turmezistan. Negotiate peace, rescue Osgood, and prevent this war, cos that’s what he does. Clara, Jac, you stay here. This is your country. Protect it from the scary monsters. And also from the Zygons.
Clara: Fine.
Doctor: Oh, and do you still have the presidential aircraft?
Clara: I thought you didn’t like being President of the World.
Doctor: No, but I like poncing about in a big plane.

Once he arrives at the UNIT Command Base in Turmezistan:

Doctor: At ease. I’m the President of the World. I’m here to rescue people and generally establish happiness all over the place. The Doctor. Doctor Funkenstein.
Walsh: Yes, we know who you are.
Lisa: Going to strike altitude.
Doctor: What’s going on here? Fun and games?

But, truthfully, yes, for him.


As revealed, the Osgood Boxes are entirely empty. Nothing is in them.

Zygon Clara: It’s empty, isn’t it? Both boxes. There’s nothing in them. Just buttons.
Doctor: Of course. And do you know how you know that? Because you’ve started to think like me.
(Zygon Clara drops her hand away from the buttons.)
Doctor:It’s hell, isn’t it? No one should have to think like that. And no one will. Not on our watch. (their eyes meet) Gotcha.
Zygon Clara: How can you be so sure?
Doctor: Because you have a disadvantage, Zygella. I know that face.
Kate Stewart: This is all very well, but we know the boxes are empty now. We can’t forget that.
Doctor: No, well, er, you’ve said that the last fifteen times.

The Doctor had said only moments earlier that this was a “scale model of war,” “every war,” “in front of you,” but when Bonnie (after this) tells him he “doesn’t understand,” he replies “This funny little thing? This is not a war!” The Doctor is always bigger, better, knows more, and understands more than everyone else. So when Bonnie does say to him, “You engineered this situation, Doctor. This is your fault,” she isn’t incorrect, only except that the episodes portray her as ambitious, savage, brutal, sadistic, and murderous, the audience isn’t allowed to relate to the motives of her character, or given a glimpse of understanding simply as to why all of this was necessary, because they are, of course, simply evil. No explanation necessary.

doctor who osgood box


First, the narrative seeks to tie itself into a contemporary political issue, being ISIS, Islam, or in general, Muslims. (Note the similarities between Turmezistan to Afghanistan in terms of spelling and pronunciation.) Throughout the story, the parallels between the rebel Zygon faction and Muslims will remain constant.

Second, the aims of this particular group, are not entirely clear (“We demand a right to be ourselves,” “We want the world,” “War”). “We want to be ourselves” is the most reasonable of these goals, although the reason why this is a goal remains a mystery. “We want the world” describes an intent to dominate (accompanied by the aggressive, masculine features of this Zygon aboard the plane). Finally, “War” simply validates any action by other characters to continually oppress this group, because it proves that they are actually savage.

Third, although the opening narrative (“Any race is capable of the best and the worst,” “Every race is peaceful and warlike,”” Good and evil,” “My race is no exception,” “And neither is mine,” “If one Zygon goes rogue,” “Or one human,” “Then the ceasefire will break”) by the Osgoods, in the opening, suggests an atmosphere of fairness towards both races, as the Doctor leaves Clara a message calling the Zygons “some of the most dangerous creatures imaginable,” this quickly points out the Zygons as the likely perpetrators, not the humans. When Zygon, Etoine, states that “I was happy like this” and “I was happy here,” after Zygon Bonnie changes him permanently into his Zygon-state, this further establishes continuous oppression of this specific group (Muslims), because they want to be oppressed (not to be themselves). Finally, the Doctor’s renaming of Bonnie, ‘Zygella,’ the leader of this rebel Zygon faction, further promotes oppression of a marginalized group. Even though Zygon Sheriff Norlander tells a story (right before she is revealed to be Zygon) of the Zygons as a victim of a human perpetrator, the initial images towards the viewer show the rebel Zygon faction as the perpetrators by having them kidnap Osgood, and kill the High Council, whom pose as two little school girls, that allows us to comfortably blame the Zygons for the violence. Truth and Consequences, by addition, suggests an ultimatum present.

Fourth, as there are many female characters present in this episode (Petronella Osgood, Kate Stewart, Clara, Zygon Bonnie, Jac, Zygon Sheriff Norlander, Zygon Hitchley’s Mum, and Colonel Walsh), many of them are not depicted positively, with enough character development, or only within the shadow of a male character: Kate Stewart is almost entirely useless throughout this story until she does an act very reminiscent of her father, while also being directed to go to Truth or Consequences by the Doctor, and does an uncharacteristic act of escalating conflict by approaching the Blue Osgood Box. Petronella Osgood serves as the Damsel in Distress throughout. Clara Oswald does not appear much in the first part of the story, and only does things through Zygon Bonnie throughout the second part. Zygon Bonnie is shown to be murderous (ordering the deaths of Jac and the soldiers, tries to kill the Doctor and Osgood with a rocket, and desires “war”), manipulative (tries to trick UNIT soldiers into killing other humans, and poses as Clara Oswald),  ruthless, and ambitious. Colonel Walsh expresses sentiment that “It’s not paranoia when it’s real,” when it realistically, paranoia, as no obvious tests were created to allow the differences between Zygons and humans to be determined. Zygon Hitchley’s Mum is shown to excessive manipulative, while Zygon Sheriff Norlander is shown to be antagonistic. Kate Stewart, Zygon Bonnie, Zygon Sheriff Norlander, Colonel Walsh, and Jac are shown to have different forms of failed leadership, which can be tied to their roles.

Fifth, the Doctor is shown to be particularly condescending towards Zygon Bonnie (he calls her ‘Zygella’) and Kate Stewart (he calls her sweetheart), while also displaying behaviors of being a showman in the limelight (ordering the Presidential Jet), and excessive amounts of paternalism. He acts out this paternalism by behaving as if this is a game (calling himself ‘Doctor Disco,’Doctor Funkenstein,’ and ‘Doctor Pun-tastic’), which is accurate. He left the mythic Osgood Boxes behind to lure potential Zygons with ambitions of world domination and destruction. This leads both UNIT and Bonnie to the UNIT Black Archives, where the Doctor, by creating the scenario, teaches a lesson to the rebel Zygon Bonnie (simultaneously erasing Kate Stewart’s memories of the event) about war, peace, and consequences. This justifies keeping other Zygons ‘in line’ to keep the peace going. The Doctor’s lecture including the obvious matter of to “sit down and talk,” yet none of this actually happens between the Zygons and humans, since all events are under control by the Doctor.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Zygon Invasion:

It’s relatively rare for Doctor Who to comment directly on contemporary issues. The classic series was only occasionally interested in situating itself in terms of present-day controversies, and these instances are mostly confined to the Earthbound adventures of Jon Pertwee’s 3rd Doctor: “The Green Death,” for instance, has a lot to say about environmentalism, that most 1970s of hot-button topics (which isn’t to say we’ve fixed, well, anything about the environment since then, but “The Green Death” is almost dizzyingly 1970s in its approach to the topic). With stories like the present-day “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three” and the far-future “Bad Wolf,” the first season of the revived series pretty much set the template for how the show would address issues of the day: When the end of the world comes, people are just going to sit around and watch it happen on television. It’s the kind of satirical point that isn’t exactly shocking a TV writer came up with, and it had the added benefit of setting up a new round of celebrity cameos every time the Doctor watched the latest global peril begin to unfold. Russell T. Davies’ era never really developed much of a cohesive take on modern issues beyond a vague distrust of modern technology, be it the upgrades of “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel” or the killer GPS of “The Sontaran Stratagem”/“The Poison Sky.”

Under Steven Moffat’s stewardship, the show has drifted still further from any real-world parallels. Stories like “The Hungry Earth”/“Cold Blood” and “The Rebel Flesh”/“The Almost People” feel like they ought to have something to say about any number of contemporaries issues, but they end up being largely focused on the broader philosophical premises raised by the science fiction aspects of their premises. Those stories aren’t especially interested in setting up an allegory to contemporary events, but rather in asking something along the lines of, “If this preposterous thing happened, how would people actually react?” Indeed, through all 52 years of its existence, Doctor Whohas been primarily interested in exploring more universal and more philosophical questions, rather than specifically engaging with our present political and social milieu. And honestly, that’s probably for the best, if the few alternately halfhearted and hamfisted efforts in that direction are any indication (with the one big, big exception of the Torchwood miniseries “Children Of Earth,” which is every bit as dark and bleak and incredible as people say it is).

All of which is to say that when something like “The Zygon Invasion” comes along, it feels fundamentally different from what the show usually gets up to. Episode writer Peter Harness, making his return after penning last season’s most divisive entry in “Kill The Moon,” crafts a story with some unmistakable parallels with the current chaos in the Middle East, with a particular emphasis on ISIS. The episode doesn’t go overboard in making these connections. The Zygon insurgents aren’t allegorical to real-world terrorists, but they are—to borrow J.R.R. Tolkien’s way of thinking—applicable to such groups. The Doctor points out that it plays directly into the radicals’ hands to attack them, as that only serves to radicalize the moderates. The rebel Zygons are savvy in their use of video and internet to strike fear into UNIT. They take the real-world use of innocent civilians as human shields to its most terrible logical extreme by raiding their enemies’ memories to turn into the very loved ones the soldiers would be least able to kill. And, on the other side, we see the Doctor Who debut of drone warfare, though that scene primarily acts an affecting bit of foreshadowing for Hitchley’s confrontation with his “mother” rather than any particular commentary on the use of drones.

That’s probably about the extent of the parallels, though, and it would be a mistake to say “The Zygon Invasion” is making any particularly deep point about the current geopolitical situation. It doesn’t need to. Rather, these connections serve to anchor the story in something more vital than your typical alien invasion plotline, while also offering viewers an opportunity to reflect on what this story might have to say about real-world situations, should they so choose—here again Tolkien’s observation that applicability “resides in the freedom of the reader” rings true. The Zygons’ motivations here are, not coincidentally, rather more nuanced than those in their two previous appearances. In fairness, both the Tom Baker classic “Terror Of The Zygons” and the 50th anniversary extravaganza “The Day Of the Doctor” established the Zygons as more than just evil galactic conquerors: Each story established the Zygons’ planet had been destroyed, and Earth was the chosen replacement, which is just the kind of dire situation that would excuse a certain degree of ruthlessness. But the Zygon radicals here have more specific, more relatable goals, as they demand the right to live openly, to not have to deny their own identities. And, yeah, there’s a bit about global domination mixed in there, but that’s just the outgrowth of what began as justifiable grievances from the younger brood.

The return of Osgood after her demise in “Death In Heaven” is handled about as well as one could reasonably hope, with the only real clunkiness coming down to the unanswered question of where precisely the surviving Osgood was when Missy and the Cybermen’s plans were kicking off. There wasn’t any indication in that previous episode that Osgood was living a life in duplicate, but then it wasn’t strictly relevant, and it’s not as though what we learn here isn’t a logical extension of the apparent bond the two Osgoods began to form in “The Day Of The Doctor.” This is probably a bit of a retcon, but it’s a minor one, as these things go, and “The Zygon Invasion” earns this de facto resurrection by having this Osgood refuse to reveal whether she began life as a human or a Zygon. I phrase it that way because it’s the only way to accept her premises while still wanting to know the answer to the essential question. Either way, her non-answer gets the Doctor once again thinking about hybrids, tying back to Davros’ rantings in “The Witch’s Familiar” and his similar musings on Ashildr at the end of “The Girl Who Died.”

Osgood herself is used minimally here, serving to set up the plotline with her “sister” in the beginning and then chatting with the Doctor about his old question-mark collars. Her ongoing sartorial impersonation of the Doctor now officially encompasses the period of the Doctor’s lives in which he was just randomly slapping questions on all his clothing—get a gander at the 7th Doctor-approved question-mark jumper in the pre-credits sequence—which in real life happened because then-producer John Nathan-Turner insisted the Doctor ought to be mysterious and had a crushingly direct way of realizing this brief. “The Zygon Invasion” almost justifies this past silliness by having Osgood wonder what the question actually was, which both ties the collar in with an ongoing preoccupation of the Moffat era and, more importantly, totally wrongfoots the Doctor as he attempts to interrogate Osgood about her own identity. There’s likely rather more to tease out here between the Doctor and Osgood, but what we see is enough to establish that she has become rather more formidable than her initial fannish awkwardness might indicate. Her vision of maintaining the peace is rather more idealistic than the Doctor’s, who appears intent on finding every last scrap of information he can to defeat the radicals and restore the ceasefire. The two are absolutely working to the same goals, but their methods and priorities don’t necessarily align.

As is often the case with the first halves of two-parters, much of what happens tonight ranges from setup to slow burn. There’s that one big twist, of course, and we’ll get to that momentarily, but much of what we see here tonight might best be understood as characterizing the radical Zygon threat as opposed to really engaging with it. Take Kate Stewart’s trip to Truth or Consequences. Beyond proving that Doctor Who still has the money for the occasional transatlantic filming excursion, that whole sequence primarily serves to build up tension until the final reveal. There’s not necessarily anything new we actually learn about the Zygon threat—or, for that matter, Kate as a person—leading up to the reveal that Norlander was a Zygon all along and Kate’s latest apparent death. (I say “apparent,” because never count out a Lethbridge-Stewart.) I’m hesitant to call this padding, because that implies scenes like these can’t be worthwhile just because they help generate tension, but I suppose that goes back to the great challenge of reviewing only the first 45 minutes of a 90-minute story: We’re still almost entirely in the buildup phase, and we can still only guess at how next week’s payoff recasts the opening episode.

Even so, “The Zygon Invasion” definitely isn’t the most energetic of setup episodes, and a lot of that has to do with the amount of time the Doctor spends on the sidelines. Peter Capaldi is tons of fun here, randomly nicknaming himself Dr. Disco and revealing that he does quite enjoy poncing about in a big plane, but he has only the briefest of interactions with the Zygons themselves. Osgood’s text message theoretically brings him into the main plot straight away, but the episode still wants to spend some time showing how humans deal with the threat the Zygons pose without the Doctor there to save them. This becomes most apparent with the Doctor’s trip to Turmezistan, where he just sort of stands around a lot, first when the drone operator finds herself unable to fire and later when Hitchley is confronted with the woman who might be but almost certainly isn’t his mother. Now, neither instance of the Doctor holding back is all that egregious, especially when Rebecca Front’s Colonel Walsh is there both times to block him from any interference he might care to do. “The Zygon Invasion” is methodical in how it paces the setup for next week’s story—which does rather mean we’re limited in how much we judged the effectiveness of that creative decision without first seeing next week’s “The Zygon Inversion.”

But no matter, because there are still plenty of some standout scenes here, in particular Hitchley’s standoff with his mother in front of the church. The impossibility of the scenario makes it play like something out of The Twilight Zone, although I was actually most put in mind of “The Third Expedition” from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Despite the presence of Zygon duplicates, it’s the humanity of the scene that elevates it: As much as it’s obvious that Hitchley’s mother is deflecting when she refuses to answer his questions, it’s also asking far too much of the man to ask him to kill someone who looks and acts exactly like his mother because she can’t remember the name of his favorite teddy bear. The scenario has a dreamlike quality, as more and more apparent beloved hostages come out of the church door, punctuated only by Colonel Walsh’s ignored orders. The Doctor here barely registers as a presence in the scene, but then he’s beside the point.

The big twist of “The Zygon Invasion,” and the one element that is likeliest to drive a good chunk of next week’s episode, is the reveal that the Clara we spend time with throughout most of this episode is, in fact, an impostor. I’ve had a chance to watch this episode a couple times now, and I can say that the twist works brilliantly either way: Perhaps I’m just naive, but I had no inkling that Clara had been replaced on first viewing, while the second time round I picked up on all the clues that really ought to have given the game away.

Admittedly, the show is playing a bit of a dirty trick on its audience, as the concealment of the twist relies in part on the fact that, well, Doctor Who has long since trained us to look past apparent inconsistencies in Clara’s character. It really ought to be obvious something is up when Clara leaves the apartment of a frightened child, fixes her hair, and nonchalantly calls back the Doctor with the flip, “Did you just call yourself Dr. Disco?” It really ought to be obvious when Clara interrupts a top-secret, highest-priority military operation to ask Jac if they can drop by her apartment and pick up some things, a request to which Jac is clearly a bit dumbfounded to hear. If this were a companion Doctor Who wrote a bit more tightly—any of the other new series companions, in other words—I suspect it would be obvious that her blase reactions indicate something is wrong. As it is, Clara’s murkier characterization, not to mention the Moffat era’s tendency to prioritize narrative coolness over character consistency, makes it easier to shrug off those bits of weirdness.

I’m not sure that’s something the show really ought to be given credit for, exactly, given the twist works in large part because it takes advantage of a more systemic weakness of this current era. But damn if it doesn’t work, and there are other moments that would work well with any companion—does the Doctor look agog at Clara because she just admitted she memorized Trivial Pursuit cards, or because he already suspects something might be up?—so I’m not going to get too hung up on this. That’s a good way to sum up “The Zygon Invasion” as a whole, honestly: This isn’t like “Under The Lake” or “The Girl Who Died,” both of which function beautifully on their own terms, without their narrative partner. This episode is more like a typical first half of a two-parter, in that this is always—at least as of next week—going to be judged entirely in tandem with “The Zygon Inversion.” As such, the only real questions to answer are does this episode generate anticipation for next week, and does this episode position “The Zygon Inversion” to go to places and explore things it couldn’t reach if it weren’t the back half of a two-parter? I’d say yes on both counts—assuming any of our heroes are actually still alive to be there next week, that is.

According to The A.V. Club review of The Zygon Inversion:

The dirty little secret of Doctor Who is that it’s a show fascinated by the morality of war that has pretty much never had the budget to depict a war properly. There’s a reason the Doctor always seems to be going up against advance detachments or desperate last survivors or whatever else. When a big enemy army does show up, Doctor Who tends to just show the earliest stages of hostilities, before the carnage really begins. None of that need necessarily be a problem, especially when it fits with the Doctor we have gotten to know onscreen. Leaving aside whatever he may or may not have done during his unseen Time War adventures, the Doctor has never been one for leading armies into battle, and his great skill has always been a way to think and talk his way out of the kinds of situations from which others would only see a violent way out.

The climax of “The Zygon Inversion” makes explicit something that the best anti-war Doctor Who stories have always understood. Depicting the madness of war doesn’t require an epic scale. If anything, narrowing the focus to a single conflict or moral dilemma clarifies the essential futility of violent conflict. I touched on this a bit when discussing the opening two-parter, but “Genesis Of The Daleks” makes an asset of its low budget and limited cast by depicting two desperate, dying races on the brink of mutual extinction, yet still each determined to prevail, even if it means trusting a monster like Davros, who dominates the entire proceedings. “The Caves Of Androzani,” probably the current consensus pick for greatest Doctor Who story and certainly my choice for that title, makes no secret of how grubby and pointless its central two-bit resource war really is, all the better to contrast with the 5th Doctor’s increasingly desperate efforts to save just one life, that of his companion. “The Parting Of The Ways” keeps the bulk of its attention on whether the 9th Doctor can bring himself to use the delta wave generator, to commit double genocide again and prove once and for all he can’t escape his Time War crimes.

Of course, that last story still featured Dalek destruction on a continent-melting scale, hence the narrative necessity of the Bad Wolf, the first of the so-called Davies ex machina. The narrative sleight of hand has gotten cleverer over the years—the first time the 11th Doctor faced impossible odds against all the cosmos’ most fearsome armies, Steven Moffat essentially blew up the universe to sidestep the threat—but the basic storytelling mechanism has remained constant, as the show still finds ways to discuss the horrors of war without ever quite depicting them. “The Zygon Inversion” makes an asset of all this by arguing war really can be reduced to a scale model, to a choice of two buttons for each combatant, one promising total victory, the other utter destruction. The episode takes what could be a problem when trying to explore war—the budgetary reality is that it’s always going to be easier to have characters talk about conflict than actually show it—and turns it into a thunderously powerful asset by giving the Doctor something very close to a 10-minute monologue in which he tries desperately to convince Kate Stewart and Zygella to choose peace.

Based on this two-parter and last year’s “Kill The Moon,” I think it’s safe to say that this is what Peter Harness does: More than any other new series writer, he builds scenarios that culminate with the characters stepping back from the action and debating the biggest of ideas. There’s a straightforwardness and an earnestness to that approach that’s hard not to admire, even if you disagree with the execution of the arguments—and, much as I still love “Kill The Moon,” I’ll readily acknowledge the overall reaction does show that episode’s point was muddled at best—or the conclusions the characters ultimately draw. Perhaps “The Zygon Inversion” will prove every bit as controversial as “Kill The Moon,” but if this is another love-it-or-hate-it affair, I’m firmly on the love-it side of the ledger.

It’s worth taking a moment to understand precisely what argument the episode is making. “The Zygon Inversion” is not necessarily advocating pacifism for a fault. The Doctor Who universe has long allowed for the fact that, as the 2nd Doctor once so eloquently put it, “There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things, things that act against everything we believe in—they must be fought.” There are enemies out there like the Daleks and the Cybermen that cannot be reasoned or negotiated there, and the only option then is to fight back. What “The Zygon Inversion” suggests, however, is that the vast majority of wars are fought not between good and evil but rather between opposing groups too overwhelmed by petty hatred and fear to recognize what the Doctor points out, that war only delays the inevitable moment in which the two sides sit down and actually talk through their differences. Of course, by then, that fundamentally unnecessary war has likely already created all the trauma and anguish necessary to breed the next generation of warmakers.

Stripping war of the delusional glory and sense of self-righteousness imparted by actual combat and reducing it all to the mere push of a button—more than that, refusing to grant war unearned solemnity by treating it as anything other than a sick, destructive game—allows the Doctor to get through to two scared, angry people who sincerely believe they have no alternative. Here again we see what is so powerful about Capaldi’s Doctor compared with his predecessors, as his emotional straightforwardness gives his speechifying an immediacy and a vulnerability that might have eluded the 10th or 11th Doctors. While the Doctor remains fundamental to the resolution here, the story isn’t all about him, as evidenced by his utter refusal to engage with Zygella’s argument that the current situation is somehow his fault. The Doctor created the possibility of peace, and he left it to humans and Zygons alike to make the right choices within that framework. He doesn’t shy away from the inherent paternalism of this—he literally says “Daddy knows best,” for goodness’ sake—but I’d submit that safeguarding the lives of 20 million Zygons and seven billion humans justifies the Doctor placing his thumb on the proverbial scale.

While last week’s “The Zygon Invasion” drew plenty of parallels with modern-day extremist groups, the Doctor’s grand appeal ends up universalizing the issues under discussion. It’s perhaps a little corny to hear the Doctor use the words “cruel” and “cruelty” quite so many times in a row to describe the cycle of war, but it’s corny in a way that’s very true to Doctor Who, and it’s not as though the Doctor is wrong in his assessment. Again, the arguments put forth in “The Zygon Inversion” are nakedly idealistic, but if the Doctor isn’t going to take a stand for the value of naked idealism, then who the hell is? What makes this work is that the Doctor gradually drops the high-and-mighty act, growing ever more desperate to get through to Zygella. This is a Doctor who is not too proud to plead and beg, and he points out that he speaks against war not in the abstract but from the most terrible of earned experience. We’ve seen the Doctor articulate his Time War trauma before, and Capaldi’s anguish here as he describes how the memories of his atrocities will never, ever leave him is as powerful a statement as any the new series has ever produced. There’s also that final moment, as he at last reaches Zygella, as his expressions run the emotional gamut. The Doctor has never looked quite so old, so worn down by the pain he carries, yet his defiance endures.

While that climactic scene dominates “The Zygon Inversion,” what leads up to it is similarly affecting, and Clara is particularly well handled. Imprisoning her inside the Zygon pod risks robbing her of agency, yet the result is much the opposite, as Clara tries everything she can think of to waylay her duplicate’s plans and to reach the Doctor. The interrogation sequence between the two Claras demonstrates just how far the companion has come in her time in the TARDIS, as she keeps her cool and retains as much control over the situation as she can, even as she faces off against a Zygon extremist who can detect her every lie. Crucially, Clara never plays the damsel in distress. Yes, she reaches out to the Doctor to let her know she’s awake, but her conversation with Zygella is about what awaits her inside the Osgood box and why she will soon need Clara again, not why the Zygon should, say, be afraid of the Doctor. I’ll admit the Doctor’s eventual suggestion that Clara had gotten inside Zygella’s head and helped influence her to stand down doesn’t quite work for me, as Clara never really tries to convince her to make peace, nor does she influence Zygella directly beyond gaining control of a finger or an eyelid, but given how well Clara is portrayed here, that’s mostly a quibble.

Given the dual role she has to play, this is very much a showcase episode for Jenna Coleman, and perhaps the best compliment I can pay her performance as Zygella is that I kept finding myself thinking, “Man, Clara really isn’t in this episode much, is she?” Coleman’s Zygon feels like a wholly separate character, a harsh and committed fighter fully capable of holding her own against Capaldi’s Doctor even as her arguments crumble one by one. Coleman’s performance as Bonnie is nicely textured, shifting between pragmatic commander and zealous true believer. That’s all consistent with the idea that Zygella acts not so much out of some coherent if extreme philosophy as she does in angry, hurt reaction to perceived injustices. The world has hit her, and she wants to hit back, hard. All her actions make grimly perfect sense within that framework.

I just rewatched “Day Of The Doctor” for the podcast I do with fellow A.V. Clubber Caroline Siede—we talked about that damn thing for more than two hours!—and two things stand out about this current two-parter’s grand prequel. The first is how much better Doctor Who has gotten in the last couple years in how it handles its supporting characters, and its female supporting characters in particular, and that’s especially apparent with respect to Osgood. Ingrid Oliver is a winning presence in her initial appearance in the 50th anniversary special, yet the Osgood of that episode is a bit of a joke, a hyperventilating megafan who goes to pieces in the face of crisis, pleading for the Doctor to show up and save her.

The Osgood of tonight’s episode is about as far from that as one can imagine, as she continues to live up to the lofty ideals the Doctor laid down when he brokered the ceasefire, arguing repeatedly that it doesn’t matter whether she began life as a human or a Zygon. She’s the one who realizes Clara is using her duplicate’s body to communicate, and she repeatedly, if non-judgmentally sees through the Doctor’s various misdirections. By episode’s end, her puffing on her inhaler functions as a call to arms, rather than a punchline, which is a remarkable progression given her only intervening appearance was the other Osgood’s fatal turn in “Death In Heaven.”

The other thing that puts this episode in conversation with “The Day Of The Doctor” is the explicit link the Doctor makes between Bonnie’s decision to not use the Osgood box and his own choice to not use the Moment and to save Gallifrey. More broadly, tonight’s episode serves to clarify a message that earlier story attempted to convey amid all the 50th anniversary spectacle: War requires making hard choices, but the hardest choice of all can be deciding to fight for peace. That choice is difficult not because it requires terrible sacrifice or grim resolve, but rather because it requires a person to look deep within themselves and to put aside their own pettiness, to find the capacity to forgive and to let go of their grievances. “The Day Of The Doctor” perhaps muddled that message a little bit by attaching it to something as seismic and game-changing as the decision to un-destroy Gallifrey. But “The Zygon Inversion” brings it all down to a pair of boxes, each with a pair of buttons. The simplicity of that setup allows this two-parter to be one of the show’s strongest ever statements against war, not because the Doctor is challenging us from on high to live up to his standard, but rather because he wants no one else to know his pain. He’s already had more than enough truth and more than enough consequences to last him infinite lifetimes.



Next in the best and worst is Series 10.


3 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Doctor Who: Series 9

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