Doctor Who Recap: So Does The Doctor Hate Refugees Or What?
There was a very real, current subtext to last night's episode.
When Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005, its third episode featured the Doctor meeting Charles Dickens at Christmas, as reanimated corpses haunted Cardiff. The corpses are inhabited by gas creatures known as the Gelth, a species displaced by the Time War who are searching for new bodies. The Doctor is completely behind their plan: after all, the humans aren’t using their corpses, and these are people in need. But then the Gelth turn evil, revealing their true plan to kill all of humanity.
The Unquiet Dead was famously (within fan circles, anyway) criticised for being an anti-immigrant screed, playing into the worst fears of xenophobes: welcome refugees at your peril, for they are actually coming to get you. It’s a fairly safe bet that writer Mark Gatiss did not intend this subtext at all, and for my money that made it all the more fascinating. Rather than confirming the fears of the anti-refugee crowd, the episode confirmed those fears really only work in a science fiction setting, where wildly dramatic twists featuring evil aliens are a necessity.
A decade later, the Doctor has attempted to settle another alien race on Earth. In the massive 50th anniversary story The Day of the Doctor, rather than repelling an invasion by Zygons – a race of shape-shifters who can transform into humans – the Doctor forges a peace that ultimately allows humans and Zygons to live together harmoniously.
Two years on, how’s that working out?
In this week’s The Zygon Invasion, we learn that this peace has broken down. A splinter group of young angry Zygons are fighting back, furious that they are not allowed to live in their natural state (ie: looking like Zygons instead of adopting a human appearance).
In this instance, writer Peter Harness appears acutely aware of the real world parallels: Zygon leaders keen to maintain the peace are struggling to control the young radicals; the army uses drone warfare, and struggles with civilian casualties and human shields; Zygons can only live on Earth if they integrate and hide who they are; the Doctor points out that if the humans use force, it will simply radicalise even more Zygons. This is ripped-from-the-headlines stuff, and Harness underscores that the war is being waged by a fringe group that is making all Zygons look bad. It’s a caveat, however, that seems drowned out by the Zygons Are Out To Get Us narrative.
Subsequently, it might possess a subtext that does not necessarily align with your politics — but it’s necessarily dramatic, and plays on the fundamental fear of an unfamiliar entity coming to change your way of life. In a country where the refugee debate rages fiercely on, exploring the issue in popular culture feels vital.
But how does it hold up as a story?
Like so many multi-part stories both past and current, this one feels like it’s spinning its wheels. Rather than using the two-parters to let the story breath, it’s a tad flabby for Modern Who, with slightly more padding than it actually needs.
But what sticks out when thinking back on this episode isn’t necessarily the narrative, but the setup. A solid setup is great, but what turns Doctor Who stories into classics are those memorable moments, scenes where dialogue and action become eternally quotable. The best sequence of this particular episode actually involves people we’ve never encountered before: a previously-unseen soldier threatens to shoot a woman who might be his mother, or might be a Zygon imposter. That’s a dramatic, tense scene that deserves to be remembered.
Overall, it’s a strong episode that is both well-written and well-directed, with a great twist and a classic villain finally taking centre stage. Roll on part two.
Questions To Ponder
- Has Doctor Who ever been so explicit about referencing its history as it has this season? I’d suggest not — not even in the continuity-obsessed 1980s. This episode dares to open with a shot of three Doctors who aren’t Peter Capaldi. Neat connection to its past, or a niggling distraction?
- The word “hybrid” is definitely a thing this season, isn’t it? The hint of a Time Lord/Dalek hybrid in the season opener seems increasingly certain to return in the finale.
- Was the return of Osgood a cheat given she died last season? Definitely not. The dual Osgoods were established a year before her on-screen death, and the mystery of which one died is central to this story.
- Why did the Zygon Clara identify herself as Bonnie? That seemed a little out-of-nowhere, and not terribly dramatic if you’re a Zygon trying to instill fear in your enemy. But the whole Clara-as-Zygon, which could have been blisteringly obvious, was very cleverly handled.
- What’s the deal with Truth Or Consequences? Obviously it’s the name of that town in New Mexico, but “Bonnie” repeats it at the end as if it pertains to what we’ve been watching. I’m struggling to see how that phrase has any significant bearing, overt or symbolic, on this week’s story. Maybe in part two?
- Who are they saying invented that Zygon toxin? “One of our staff was a naval surgeon,” says Kate Stewart, “worked at Porton Down when we captured Zygons. Developed Z-67.” This is clearly former companion Harry Sullivan, the beloved UNIT naval doctor who travelled with the more capitalised Doctor until he left the TARDIS in, believe it or not, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons. But this line is a fairly obscure callback to dialogue in 1983’s Mawdryn Undead, in which the Brigadier (Kate’s father!) tells the Fifth Doctor that Harry is “doing something hush-hush at Porton Down”.
- Are we still confused over the UNIT dating controversy? The “1970s or maybe 1980s” thing was cute when the Tenth Doctor said it in 2008’s The Sontaran Stratagem, but at this point I’d rather they just settled on a time before it becomes a weird catchphrase.
- The Doctor wears question mark underwear? What a stunning, brand new revelation! …Or is it? The underwear was actually first glimpsed on the Eighth Doctor in 2000’s comic The Glorious Dead.
- Did you spot the painting of the First Doctor in the UNIT safe house? Interesting choice, given the First Doctor is the only incarnation to never encounter UNIT (the Skype call in The Three Doctors notwithstanding). Maybe that’s why they had to paint him. No photographic evidence.
Featuring the all-time classic TARDIS line-up of the Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan, as well as an appearance by the Brigadier, this story was so memorable that the Zygons were often cited as one of the best monsters, despite the fact that they never returned in the original series. (That we know of. They are shape-shifters after all.)
Pick up this story and find out why they endured.
Doctor Who screens at 7:30pm Sundays on ABC, before reruns at 8:30ppm Mondays and 12:15am Tuesdays.