Tag Archives: zygons

Inflexibility, impossibility and The Day of the Doctor (2013)

Fans sometimes talk about Doctor Who‘s infinitely flexible format. This is the show which can go anywhere and do anything. When an anniversary year comes around though, we discover this isn’t as true as we might like to think.

It’s all the fault of The Three Doctors really. It laid down a template for anniversary stories which ever since has been too good to resist. Multi Doctors, uniting against one enormous threat. Then The Five Doctors took it even further. Returning Doctors plus returning companions and lots of returning monsters.

The reunion episode is a TV staple, and on any other show, you could do it as often as you like. On ordinary shows, characters can age, and you can pick up with them years after their last TV appearance. You find out what ever happened to them, you try to guess which ones have had plastic surgery, it’s all good fun.

But Doctor Who can’t do that because each of the Doctors is meant to be ageless. We saw each of them turn into another of them, before they got old and creaky. Reunion shows doomed forever. Flexible format, my foot! The Day of the Doctor is bogged down in a format it inherited from Old Who and which was, by 2013, almost impossible to use.

Because here’s the problem. What other possible shape could the show’s 50th anniversary episode take? It’s very difficult to imagine it not being a multi Doctor story, because that’s what Doctor Who anniversaries are. And it’s inconceivable that it wouldn’t at least acknowledge each actor to play the title role.

Steven Moffat knew this. More than that, he wanted this – and more. He wanted every single Doctor joining forces to save Gallifrey from the Daleks. It’s testament to his ingenuity and determination that he made this happen. Despite three Doctors being dead, four looking significantly different to their Doctorly prime and one flatly refusing to participate.

But that Moff is clever. He takes an impossible format and makes it work. How did he do it?

First, he makes this a story about the Doctor and the biggest day of his life. Think of how different an approach this is to The Three and Five Doctors, where the multiple Doctors simply come out to play, just to have an adventure. Setting this story on the last day of the Time War, gives it an event worth watching, not just a chance to rival Doctors squabble. It’s an event big enough for this biggest of episodes.

Secondly, John Hurt. Every anniversary story’s been short its full quota of Doctors, and each has come up with inventive ways around the problem. But Moffat’s is the most audacious. Without Christopher Eccleston, he needs a Doctor upon whom to shoulder the story’s moral core – the redemption of the Doctor post his Time War atrocity. At a pinch, it could have been Paul McGann. But in search of a marquee name to hang out the front his 50th anniversary, the Moff creates an entirely new and hitherto unheard of Doctor and has him played by a movie star.

Think the Doctor is a tough role to play? Pah, step aside children. Hurt is instantly right in the part, creating, as McGann did 17 years earlier, a fully formed Doctor in about an hour. There’s a lovely bit somewhere in all the associated behind the scenes material about this story, where Doctors Smith and Tennant giggle like naughty schoolboys about their own acting deficiencies compared to Hurt. Smith says he’s busy pulling faces like mad, when all John Hurt has to do is look, and the shot’s in the can.

It would have been great to have Eccleston back. But if he hadn’t said no, we wouldn’t have got Hurt. And it gives The Day of the Doctor the chance to say something new about its lead character; that there was a time when he strayed from the path and became everything a Doctor shouldn’t be.  It’s another way in which Moffat breathes life back into the anniversary show format, by asking that question he loves to ask: Doctor Who? Who is this man and what has shaped him? It’s more introspective than any other multi-Doctor stories to date.

Finally, he plays fast and loose with the structure of a Doctor Who story. You’d be well within your rights to expect a villain of some sort to turn up in the biggest Doctor Who story ever. You might be wondering where the final showdown is, with the Doctors squaring off with some big arse Time Lord baddy, as per Three and Five. Instead Moffat gives us two alien invasions – the Zygons on Earth and the Daleks in the skies above Gallifrey- but boldly keeps these on the sidelines. The main question posed is not, “will the Doctors win?”, but “can the Doctor heal himself?”

The answer turns out to be, “yes, but only if we completely retcon the new series”. Moffat is unafraid of such bold, sweeping moves. In The Big Bang, he completely reverses the whole of Series 5. In The Wedding of River Song, he negates an alternative timeline. He’s used to travelling back to a crucial point in history, and just changing it. Time, remember, can be rewritten.

So in one fell swoop, he changes the outcome of the Time War, saves Gallifrey from destruction and absolves the Doctor of his crimes. It’s a resetting of the show along the lines of the classic series. The Doctor’s no longer a war criminal, Gallifrey’s in the heavens and all’s right with the world. Plus he manages to rope in all thirteen of the Doctor’s to help, in a smorgasbord of archive footage, vocal impersonations and impressive eyebrows.

Oddly enough though, here he’s on much more traditional anniversary story ground. The Three Doctors ended with the end of the Doctor’s earthly exile. Reset! The Five Doctors ended with the Doctor on the run from his own people again. Reset! And here, a new start, unburdened by the weight of the Time War, which the series has dragged around since 2005.

All delivered in 3D, in cinemas and a guest appearance by Tom Baker. So hats off to the Moff. Upon being told there were no toys left in the toybox, he held a kickass party anyway. And rewrote Doctor Who along the way. Yeah, that’s how he did it.

LINK TO Resurrection of the Daleks: the Dalek invasion of Gallifrey threatened in Resurrection finally happens.

NEXT TIME: The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God. We do the Devil’s work with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.

Huckling, suckling and Terror of the Zygons (1975)

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You’ve got to admire the creative commitment displayed by Broton, Warlord of the Zygons (John Woodnutt). He’s disguised himself as the patrician Duke of Forgill – he’s got the coat, the hat and the cold, aloof exterior of the minor aristocrat down pat. He flaunts his performance at every opportunity, even though it brings unwelcome attention to his real agenda, which is to destroy oil rigs with his fearsome, half-mechanical Skarasan. Skarasan being a Zygonian word meaning ‘sea cow’.

Broton must simply love the theatrics of it. How else to explain why he drives into town (picking up three oddly dressed hitchhikers on the way) specifically to heckle oil man Mr Huckle (Tony Sibbald) about his employees trespassing on his appropriated estate, deliberately mangling the poor bloke’s name to press home his disdain. A few oiks skyving off on the moors for a quick ciggie can’t pose much of a threat to the warlord of an advanced technological race.

But Broton really throws himself into the part anyway. “If my ghillie catches them on my land again, they’ll be shot,” he burrs menacingly. Surprisingly, no one present – not the Doctor (a gruff Tom Baker), the Brigadier (an amiable Nicholas Courtney) nor Mr Huxtable himself – mentions that is a fairly drastic step up from a stern warning and a markdown at their next performance review.

Terror of the Zygons is full of these odd moments. Not ineffective, mind. Just the opposite. They are usually well acted, stylishly directed vignettes. But they’re just strange enough to jolt you out of the story for a moment. Either that, or they’re completely superfluous to the plot.

For example, take hard hitting journalist Sarah Jane Smith (a stylish Elisabeth Sladen) and her interview with bagpipe-playing, sooth-saying Angus McRanald (Angus Lennie). With wide eyes and hushed tones, he tells her the sort of spooky stories that teenage girls use to freak each other out at sleepover parties. Of the man from the Black Isle who went missing on the Moor in 1922. And of the Jamieson boys of 1870: “They went out cutting peat and the mist came down. Donald just disappeared. They found the older brother, Robert, two days later, wandering about, off his head. His eyes, his eyes were terrible to see.” Look, it’s lovely stuff, but unless we find out later in the story that the disappearances were part of the Zygons’ nefarious plans (and we don’t) it’s pleasantly creepy scene setting, but of no plot value.

Then there’s a series of land rover related coincidences, which kick off with Broton driving past the Doctor, Sarah and Harry (a dependable Ian Marter) at exactly the right time to pick them up (why not just have them land in the town itself?). Not long after, Harry is driving a land rover down a random road at exactly the right time to find an injured oil rig worker and get shot himself (Broton wasn’t bluffing, as it turns out). And not long after that, the Doctor is driving a land rover, trying to draw off the aforementioned hungry sea cow, when it mysteriously breaks down. Inconvenient for the Doctor who then has try to outrun the beast, but handy for a cliffhanger.

Back to the Zygons’ penchant for dramatics for a moment. Not all of them are as skilled as Broton. He must have gone to RADA, given his commitment to a role, but the others have clearly graduated from the diploma of performing arts at Wollongong TAFE, so clearly do they signpost their evil intentions. The one masquerading as Sister Lamont (Lillias Walker) is giving a Botcherby worthy performance in sinister, which is surely exactly what you don’t want if you’re trying to hide out in a local hospital. (And by the way, why impersonate Sister Lamont? Is to finish off all those poor injured oil rig workers?) The Zygon who copies jolly, avuncular Harry gets his performance spectacularly wrong, making him a study in cold, sneering disdain. Sarah sees through him immediately, which was surely not the intention.

Like an actor in an hot, uncomfortable rubber costume, the Zygons must hate dressing up as humans, which might account for their inconsistent performances. “I loathe this abomination of a body,” the Lamont Zygon says at one stage, managing to keep a straight face. To be fair, those Zygon bodies are a terrific design, the bloated heads giving the impression of big orange embryoes (zygotes, I suppose). The new series Zygons seem to have done away with that association, which is probably wise. When Broton reveals that they feed off the milk of the rubbery Skarasan, the immediate mental image of a half a dozen Zygons suckling at the numerous teats of the puppety thing is another one of those story jolting moments. New Who can do without that.

Inside the Zygons’ spaceship, they’ve clearly gone for design over practicality. On the outside, it just looks like your standard tin box affair, but inside it looks like some something that’s been growing in the back of your fridge has got ideas above its station, and sprouted protuberances everywhere. The Zygons operate it by gently squeezing and fondling the various spongy bits which emerge, and it’s all very suspect in a masseur-who’s-crossed-the-line kind of way.

The Doctor, taken prisoner aboard the springy craft, is unfazed. He can instantly identify a fire sensor, a vacuum mechanism and a self destruct button even though they all look like indistinguishable orange growths. He’s that kind of guy. Anyway, his meddling forces the spaceship to land in a disused quarry (which for once is not code for an alien planet), which proves to be a good place to blow the whole thing up.

Except, in one of those annoying narrative dog legs, the story’s not quite over yet. Broton and the Skarasan are still on the loose. Earlier, Sarah and Harry, realising they had nothing in that episode to do, decided to go and rifle through Forgill castle, looking for clues to Broton’s plans. There Sarah discovered:

SARAH: The Duke is Chieftain of the Antlers Association, Trustee of the Golden Haggis Lucky Dip, whatever that might be, and President of the Scottish Energy Commission.

But then our investigative duo decided this was a waste of time and went back to the main plot. Once we get to the quarry, our heroes start to put all this together. Broton, it transpires, wants to go to an energy conference in London.

BRIGADIER: Yes, but he’d need a pass to get in. The security’s very tight.

SARAH: But he’ll have a pass. The Duke, the real Duke, is President of the Scottish Energy Commission.

DUKE: That’s right. I am!

Nice one Sarah. Except because the Duke is actually present in this scene, he could have told everyone that himself. Meaning that whole little detour of yours to the castle was meaningless padding. Still, I suppose it beats listening to more ghost stories with wee Angus McRanald.

Personally, I wish Broton would have staged his final endgame at the Golden Haggis Lucky Dip. That sounds much more fun than an energy conference which consists of a cellar, a corridor and a balcony, which cries ‘we spent all the design budget on the Zygon pizzamobile’.

It all ends with Broton dying with true Olivier-style gusto and the Skarasan wobbling unconvincingly on a CSO backdrop before heading back to Loch Ness. Weirdly, our heroes all follow suit, catching the train from London. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just put the TARDIS on the back of a land rover and driven it to them? No wait, on second thought, we know how unreliable those things are. You wouldn’t risk it.

LINK TO The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: both feature Americans, or at least characters with American accents.

NEXT TIME: We count how many beans make five with Mawdryn Undead.

Terror, Zygons and The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (2015)

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As series 9 loomed, this story as described by its pre-publicity, didn’t seem to be one which would offer too many shocks. After all, it’s a UNIT story, usually a signal to expect a standard aliens vs army runaround. What’s more, it’s got a return appearance from old favourites the Zygons, who may have been sinister, bloated foetuses on 70s debut Terror of the Zygons but who had become slightly comical sidebar villains in The Day of the Doctor. By rights we should know what to expect from this story, and it should be action packed, light hearted fun.

But like a vicious alien monster disguised as a beautiful woman, the outward appearances hid something far more frightening. The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion takes the trappings of 70s Who by numbers and anniversary hijinks and makes them the conduits for a Doctor Who take on terrorism and its underlying causes. It’s an uncompromising face slap of a story.

Right from the beginning it’s creating unusually visceral imagery, such as when we see Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) taken hostage, flanked by her captors and their monochrome flags, forced to read a propaganda ridden statement. As if it’s not shocking enough for Who to mimic terrorism onscreen, the tormentee is a scarf-wearing superfan. She’s us, kidnapped by ISIS.

Coming a close second for disturbing imagery is Clara-impersonating Zygon Bonnie (Jenna Coleman) shooting down a plane. At time of broadcast, it was barely a year since Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was brought down over Ukraine by a surface to air missile, killing all on board. To end an episode with a similar incident feels shockingly contemporary, but it’s also very close to tastelessness.

And for a third? How about the moment when Kate Stewart (Gemma Redgrave) on assignment in the New Mexican town of Truth or Consequences is shown a dumpster bin full of buzzing hairballs, the remains of humans fried by Zygon weaponry. Her revolted expression tells us the story, but then we pan over to see a line of other bins, and without seeing any violence, we get an acrid taste of the scale of the atrocities committed in this town. (And it makes us think back to when Kate rode into that town and a couple of random tumbleweeds tumbled through shot. These could so easily be mistaken for cliched indulgences from the art department, but now we wonder if they were in fact human remains).

Grim stuff, but this is meant to shock. It’s meant to provoke. And it does so not just through these big moments, but through a smart script that draws its analogies sharply without them seeming crass. Think how badly talk of radicalising Zygons and splinter groups could have gone. Think of the sledgehammer political commentary of Aliens of London/World War Three, for instance. Successfully avoided by writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat, whose treatment of the subject matter never makes us think equating Zygons with terrorists is dumb; rather that it seems an obvious match. Terror of the Zygons, indeed.

In that original story, the Zygons were just generically evil baddies, blessed with some outstanding design work and some better than average direction. On that occasion, the Doctor saw no shades of grey in these orange suckers; he simply blew them up as soon as was practicable. There was no attempt to uncover a sympathetic edge to this race, as might have been sought during the Pertwee era. The Day of the Doctor added little more to them. But here, we learn more, that there are peaceful and warlike Zygons, but that most want to live out their lives safely undercover. It’s a big change and adds far more depth to this once most generically drawn of species.

This makes the threat that the splinter group Zygons represent far more potent, because we can compare them to the worst of humanity. We know how appalling human terrorists are so we have a sense of how awful Zygon terrorists must be. It’s far more dramatic this way, knowing that you’re dealing with the very worst a race can drag up. And these bad guys are far scarier when they look just like us, not like calamari. The sequence of the UNIT soldier being unable to shoot a Zygon in the shape of his mother is tangibly frightening. And when Bonnie forces a Zygon to unmask in the middle of a shopping mall, she’s enacting the terrorist’s modus operandi of instilling fear of going about your daily business. As the Doctor says, panic and paranoia are their trade.

These episodes give us some of the edgiest material the program has ever served up, so it’s almost a shame when the plot has to reassert itself and move us towards some sort of climax. And that climax, is effectively a repeat of the sequence in The Day of the Doctor where Kate and her Zygon counterpart were forced into negotiation. It’s a small scale end for such an action-packed story, just the two chief protagonists, fingers poised over buttons and the Doctor on hand to referee.

So if you’re going to end a blockbuster with an extended monologue, best get it delivered by Peter Capaldi, who eats it alive with all the hunger of an aging anti-war activist who’s been railing at warmongering plutocrats since he played Amazing Grace on his guitar at Woodstock with Hendrix. It’s a moment which solidifies this Doctor; it’s difficult to imagine Matt Smith delivering this speech to the same effect.

His appeal to the terrified aggressors, both human and Zygon, is to stop and think. That’s the conclusion this episode seems to draw is that terrorism is ultimately an act of stupidity and if its perpetrators just thought logically about their actions, they’d never follow through with them. Who knows whether this is true, but it’s a beautiful hopeful thought. And as the Doctor once said, one solid hope’s worth a cartload of certainties.

In the pre-publicity for this story, co-writer Peter Harness talked about the influence of 50s sci-fi classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers on this story. And true enough, in the eery “can’t tell who’s who” scenes there is a passing resemblance. But actually, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion is cleverer than that film, a one-note screed against communism. This is a nuanced commentary on current affairs and a taut thriller into the bargain. What really makes it exhilarating though, is the realisation that every now and then Doctor Who, that venerable old show, still has the power to shake itself and its viewers out of the comfort zone.

LINK TO: The Chase. Duplicates. But more convincing.

NEXT TIME… It’s a game, within a game. A chance to remeet old friends and The Five Doctors.