Ladies and gentlemen … I think we may have just reached the pinnacle of Modern Doctor Who.
The strength of many Doctor Who 2-parters lies in the second part. We’ve seen innumerable occurences over the past ten years where a fantastic Part One is followed up by a confusing, wonky, or weak Part Two. But this is not the case here. This story, from the start of last week to the end of this week, has built and developed in a believable way, going from strength to strength, ratcheting up the tension and keeping the viewer engaged throughout.
Honestly, I don’t think that this week’s episode could possibly have been any better. The plot, the pacing, the direction, the acting, all were top-notch. Actually, calling them “top-notch” does them a disservice. With the likely exception of “Midnight”, this was the tensest hour of drama that Who has produced in the past 10 years. Ingrid Oliver gave her very best performance so far as the Osgoods, helped mightily by being given a script with actual meat in it. Jenna Coleman was absolutely amazing as the two Claras. Her delivery as Bonnie/”Zygella” was riveting, especially that “am I lying?” standoff. Part of me wishes that we could have Jenna back as a recurring villain to rival (and counterpoint) Missy. This is Jenna’s best performance in her Who career. And Capaldi … I don’t even know what to say about his performance in this episode, because any words that I use will utterly fail to convey the power he exhibited. In that climactic lengthy monologue, every time you think he’s peaked, he adds even more on. He brings a passion, a believability, and genuine weight to his Doctor.
The great strength, though, is in the writing. This is Peter Harness’ second script for the show, the first being last year’s “Kill the Moon”, which I mentioned in last weeks review. As I said, I had mixed feelings about that one. The moral dilemma that Clara was placed in was very engaging, but the story resolution was utter crap. Harness has now demonstrated what a brilliant writer he is (and I’m wondering how much of that is owed to Moffat stepping in as co-writer of this week’s Part Two). “The Zygon Inversion” carries Part One’s moral ambiguity a step further and resolves it in an understandable way. This is not easy writing. Giving both the good guys and the bad guys identifiable and believable motivations, showing us
both good and bad individuals on both sides of the equation, both good and bad actions in the same person, takes a very deft hand. Harness pulls it off astoundingly well here. Honestly, this is writing that we’ve not since since the days of the great Malcolm Hulke, one of the greatest writers in the history of Doctor Who, who gave us brilliant stories like “The Silurians”, “The Sea Devils”, “Frontier in Space” and others. Yes, Josh (a buddy of mine whom I hope will read this) I just equated Peter Harness with Malcolm Hulke. Happy now?
Here’s (partly) what makes this season so great: They’re sort of redoing things that have been done over the past 10 years and doing them far better. There are a couple of messianic references to the Doctor in this story, with him dispensing forgiveness, even jokingly referring to himself that way in terms of his age. The Doctor as Messiah was a theme in the RTD era, and most especially in season three. In the finale of that season, we see Martha traveling the world preaching the gospel of the Doctor, the whole world praying to him, and the Doctor assuming a crucifixion pose … it was all so blatant, heavy-handed, and insulting. In this one, they accomplish much the same thing, but in a far more subtle and understated way. Likewise, at the end of “The Girl Who Died,” the Doctor has his moment of being sick of losing people, sick of obeying rules that he doesn’t have to obey. He takes an action, and immediately regrets it, saying “I think I may have been irrational and made a big mistake.” It’s exactly the thing that happened at the end of “Waters of Mars”, but it was done so much more believably this time. It seemed a very natural response, a natural part of what the character of the Doctor would feel, rather than a plot point that a showrunner wanted to get across. Part of it is the way the scene was written, and part was the way it was acted. And yes, there have been some very significant and very exciting developments that have made me, as a “Classic Who” fan, excited, but more importantly to me it has addressed some of the same themes that we’ve previously seen in Modern Who and have improved upon them and presented them in a new way.
There are some fantastic references to past episodes: Mentions
Harry Sullivan (by name this time, where last week it was a bit more generic), the Doctor calling him “imbecile” (something that he first did in 1974’s “Revenge of the Cybermen”), and the thing that made me jump off the couch and punch the air, Kate Stewart saying “five rounds rapid”! (If you don’t know why that’s important, you don’t know your Brigadier history! And that’s okay – to hear the original line, watch 1972’s “The Daemons”). And finally to the Doctor’s role in the Time War, in a scene that, I predict, is going to be the one that will define Capaldi’s Doctor.
I do have one, really small, teeny-tiny quibble with this episode: I just don’t believe that Clara can “remote text” that accurately. Sure, it wasn’t a complex phrase or anything, but still. I can’t text that accurately while walking when I’m holding the phone and looking at it. Okay, actually two quibbles: I don’t understand why people who die are reduced to electric hairballs. I thought that looked silly.
Yes, yes, yes, I’ve said it before. Season Nine has been amazing, has been the best season of the Modern Era, etc. Thanks to the brilliance of “The Zygon Inversion,” that continues to hold true.
Next week: Mark Gatiss’s “Sleep No More,” which was given a particularly creepy trailer this week. Can’t wait!
If you enjoyed this review and would like to read more, order a copy of my book Doctor Who’s Greatest Hits: An Unauthorized Guide to the Best Stories From Time and Space!