Doctor Who Recap: This Week’s Episode Was Either Great Or Terrible. Are We All Even Watching The Same Show?

Why can't we agree on what makes Doctor Who good?

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There is less consensus among Doctor Who fans as to what constitutes a good episode than there is among the fans of any other franchise, be it Star Wars, James Bond, or one of those indistinguishable cheap-as-shit anime series that many grown-ups seem inexplicably obsessed with.

Browsing social media after last week’s The Zygon Invasion, I saw one friend (a lifelong Doctor Who fan) proclaim the episode to be the best in half a decade, and another (also a lifelong fan) saying he was done, and wouldn’t be watching any more episodes until showrunner Steven Moffat left the series.

You’ve got to wonder whether we’re all watching the same show.

Picture shows:  Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara

“Don’t worry, we’ll CG in a monster later.”

I suspect that the primary reason we can never agree on what makes Doctor Who good is that we can’t agree on what Doctor Who is actually supposed to be. Look at Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show that was relatively consistent from beginning to end: it didn’t go from a spy thriller and then veer into horror before ending up as a science fiction comedy. But Doctor Who was, in the 1970s, all of those things and more in the same space of time as Next Gen’s entire run. Wildly different voices took a stab at creating Doctor Who, and that is in part what makes the show great: it should be a tonal disaster, but somehow, alchemically, it works.

Naturally, some people definitely prefer the spy thriller to the science fiction comedy, or the horror to the fantasy. Doctor Who is not any one single thing, so we all have a completely different baseline for judging each episode.

This means that any given episode of Doctor Who is both great and terrible depending on who is watching it. To some, it’s an heroic return to form; to others, it’s the villainous final straw.

Picture shows:  Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara

“Don’t worry, the TARDIS has always been that size.”

It’s no wonder that Doctor Who so frequently features shape-shifters and clones. From Omega taking on the appearance of the Doctor in 1983’s Arc of Infinity, to the Martha doppelgänger in 2008’s The Sontaran Stratagem, to the shape-shifting Rutans of 1977’s Horror of Fang Rock: the show knows that if there’s one thing all fans will understand, it’s the difficulty in trusting seemingly identical copies.

Following last week’s The Zygon Invasion, this week’s The Zygon Inversion (easily the best “part two” name in the show’s long history) plays up the dualities: Is Kate really a Zygon? Which species is Osgood? Is Clara in control of her duplicate?

Co-writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat are distinctly aware of the delicate tightrope they’re walking in making the Zygon situation so closely echo current world events. The political consequences mean they are unable to make the Zygons either good or evil; though this may narrow the scope of the traditional science fiction plot, it also broadens it by exploring areas the show has never properly explored. It’s like 2010’s Cold Blood, only good.

Picture shows:  Peter Capaldi as The Doctor and Jenna Coleman as Clara

“Don’t worry, we’ll hire a new art director tomorrow.”

I was mildly critical of last week’s largely excellent episode for what I perceived to be wheel-spinning, the traditional drawback to the multi-part narrative. But if this is a one-episode story stretched into two episodes, we saw the payoff this week when the Doctor delivered a more-than-ten-minute speech (go back and time it if you don’t believe me) about the pointlessness and devastation of war. It’s a sentiment we’ve heard many times before, but not like this. Peter Capaldi delivers the tremendous mostly-monologue brilliantly, and it never ditches the story for the metaphor, or vice-versa.

On the other hand, you might have watched that same speech and found it dull or overwrought. That’s what happened last week when I praised the soldier vs Zygon mother scene; I later found out a lot of people thought was quite poor.

This Zygon two-parter was, to my eyes, an excellent story, and an exciting indication of where Doctor Who could go next. We’re due a new phase, a new mission statement, and Heavy Social Metaphor seems like a good place to take it.

But perhaps you feel the opposite. Because we’re all watching the same show, but seeing very different things.

Questions To Ponder

  • So, what exactly happened to the Zygon Kate Stewart? Remember in 2013’s The Day of the Doctor, Osgood wasn’t the only one to get a Zygon duplicate. And if neither of the Kates could remember who was Zygon and who was human, that means there’s another one floating about there somewhere. I thought she might emerge this week as a surprise twist, but they may be holding onto that one for later.
  • What’s the best joke ever in Doctor Who? Naturally, it’s “Chap with the wings, five rounds rapid”, the order that the Brigadier gives in The Daemons (which probably doesn’t sound remotely funny after decades of Doctor Who fans repeating it like it’s the damn parrot sketch). Either way, it’s neat that the Brig’s daughter survives her Zygon encounter by firing five rounds rapid, though a little strained.
  • Was it really Harry Sullivan who created the Z-67 gas, as we guessed last week? Well, yes. That was pretty obvious. But they actually name-checked him this week, and the Doctor called him an imbecile, just like he did in the good old days.
  • Is the Doctor James Bond? They both change faces a lot, and this week the Doctor seemed willing to jump out of a plane with a Union Jack parachute (something Daniel Craig probably wouldn’t be caught dead doing.)
  • If the second (third?) Osgood at the end is a Zygon, then presumably it’s copying Osgood, which means that she was a human all along and Missy killed the Zygon Osgood back on the plane, right? Possibly. Although they could easily insert a quick explanation for how Zygons could copy Zygons, so forget I said anything.
  • So which came first narratively: the Truth vs Consequences box, or the Truth or Consequences town in New Mexico? Did the Zygons go to New Mexico because they thought it would be a cool reference to the box? Or was it the other way round, and had they arrived in Oregon instead Osgood would have had to label the two buttons “Wankers” and “Corner”? Doctor Who really makes you think.
  • Is the Doctor’s first name really Basil? Yes. He said it, so it’s canon. Maybe his human mother gave him that name.

Throwback Thalday

ThrowbackDid you enjoy seeing two versions of the same character fight aliens on Earth, as well as the Doctor trying to stop a war between brutal warriors and shape-shifters? Then you need to check out 1985’s The Two Doctors.

This massively underrated story sees the Second and Sixth Doctors turning up to the same place at (almost) the same time, each armed with completely opposite agendas. Then there’s some weird stuff involving Spain, cannibalism, butterflies and cyanide. Weird, yet great.

Look, it doesn’t bare a whole lot of resemblance to The Zygon Inversion, but I’ll take any excuse to shill for this hidden gem.

Doctor Who screens at 7:30pm Sundays on ABC, before reruns at 8:30ppm Mondays and 12:15am Tuesdays.

Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist, who tweets at @leezachariah. Read his Doctor Who recaps here.