It’s amazing. I haven’t disliked a Doctor Who story/serial/episode this much since Russell T Davies was at the helm. And for much the same reason I didn’t care for a lot of RTD’s work: a hamfisted attempt at social commentary coupled with carelessness about subtext creates an unpleasant and alienating story.
First things first.
An apology to Clara Oswald, fictional character
By about halfway through the first episode, I was Officially Done With Clara. Ignoring a child in distress, making ageist and dismissive remarks to an older woman of colour — she had gone from Quite Irritating to Just Straight Out Awful.
Then came the reveal that this was in fact a Zygon duplicate, and I felt … well, better about Clara.
For a glorious moment, I wondered if maybe she had been replaced ages ago, and all her general unpleasantness of the season so far was the result of her Zygonousity. Then a friend pointed out that, no, we see that she’s replaced in her neighbours’ flat. Look, iView streams have been wretched this last couple of weeks.
Anyway, Clara has been moved in my heart from Dead To Me back to I Still Can’t Wait For Her To Leave But She’s An Okay Character I Just Haven’t Connected With.
(One of the fun side effects of being highly active in Doctor Who fandom around 2005-2009 is that it’s really hard to say you just don’t like a companion, for fear that the people who do like her will come and attack you/troll you/talk about your real life and real job on anon memes/etc.
Plus, I seem to spend a lot of time trying to analyse my feelings for Clara, and try to figure out whether they’re coming from a place of unexamined internalised misogyny.
I don’t enjoy not liking a companion! I co-edited a whole book about how companions are great! I can’t believe I tie myself in knots of introspection about a fictional character!)
The one thing that distinguished this from a russell t davies-era script
And also one of the things I actually liked about these episodes: all the women! Including multiple middle-aged women, who mostly come out alive and not put through ritual humiliation for daring to be a woman over the age of 30 on television!
Yes, they were mostly white, and the one woman of colour was also the one who got the ageist condescension from fake!Clara, but multiple women of various ages and they didn’t die. (Look, the RTD era left me with really low standards for depictions of women in Doctor Who.)
unfortunate subtext is unfortunate
How I assume this episode got made:
“Hey, so there’s this international refugee crisis, yeah? And the humanitarian thing to do would be for countries with a lot of resources to take people in, but the right wing is faffing about fanning fears that even refugees who seem totally okay might be ‘radicalised’ and become dangerous.”
“So what we really need is a story about how taking in refugees is a bad idea because some might be radicalised and become dangerous. It’s ripped from the headlines!”
“Sure, if you’re reading The Daily Mail. Won’t people notice that’s a bit dodgy?”
“Nah, we’ll throw in a joke about how people will think the aliens are here to take their benefits.”
“BRILLIANT. Now, down to the pub.”
Part 1 left a very bad taste in my mouth. It’s no use talking about all the “good” Zygon refugees if all we see are the terrorists, you know what I mean?
Part 2 was marginally better, in that we get to see one Zygon who becomes a victim of his own people’s terrorism, but it also introduces a new subtext: that the best immigrants and refugees are the ones who totally assimilate, to the point where every single part of their culture is erased.
And what do we see of this culture? Absolutely nothing. This is one of the problems with using monsters and aliens as metaphors for marginalised humans: it nearly always turns messy. Especially in a series like Doctor Who, which in its rebooted form has taken remarkably little interest in humanising its monsters.
(So to speak.)
(Let us take a moment to remember the glorious Azetbur of the Klingon Empire, and her important commentary on the limits of applying contemporary social justice discourse to situations involving non-humans.)
Coming one day: No Award Watches Star Trek VI: The Greatest Star Trek Movie Of All Time Bar None Except That Gross Bit With Valeris, You Know, That One.
Back to doctor who
It’s not entirely surprising that this story had a right wing subtext, because, well, it’s a UNIT story.
Now, traditionally in Doctor Who fandom, Third Doctor fans were at war with Seventh Doctor fans, because the Seventh Doctor’s era had an overt socialist agenda. Like, not just “a bit trendy and left wing”, actively socialist. IT WAS GREAT. Especially if you enjoy stories about giant candy robots working for Margaret Thatcher, which apparently I do.
The argument (from many Seventh Doctor fans) is or was that the Third Doctor’s era was totally right wing and fascist and terrible. I personally think Three’s fascism is exaggerated, but it is an era where the Doctor spends most of his time working with the military, and that’s kind of awkward, even recognising the fact that the Doctor has become much more of a pacifist since the (non)destruction of Gallifrey.
(But it’s not as awkward as that episode where Three claims to be good buddies with Mao Tse-tung. That was in 1971, before conditions under Mao were widely known in the west. Suffice to say there’s been a lot of backpeddling and retconning in tie-in media since then.)
UNIT stories often try to have their cake and eat it too, with the Doctor making a lot of arguments against violence, and UNIT going ahead and killing aliens anyway. This is enough of a cliche that it’s almost brushed off here, with Kate admitting to killing a Zygon in self-defence, and adding, “I know you disapprove.” UNIT has traditionally been rooted in old-fashioned invasion stories and militaristic shenanigans, and that sits uneasily with the attempt at a humanitarian narrative here.
(It’s possible to overstate the Three v Seven thing, but it’s worth noting that Seven’s only UNIT story moved the Brigadier into retirement and gave us a Black woman as his replacement.)
scottish doctors can’t shout
Sorry, but I don’t make the rules. Whenever a Scot holds the role of the Doctor, any time he tries to be shouty and dramatic, the result is actually overwrought and a bit embarrassing.
“I’m a big fan.”
The biggest, brightest light in this dire two-parter was Osgood. Who would have thought that the sweet-but-two-dimensional Doctor fangirl we met in “The Day of the Doctor” would emerge as such a dynamic and interesting character? (Well, two of them.)
One of my favourite things about the Moffat era is how fandom is embodied as a woman, whether that’s Amy Pond growing up with the Doctor, or Osgood as a cosplaying scientist. So I was (a) pretty sad when she died last season, and (b) overjoyed that she’s back. Both of her.
Speaking of Osgood, actress Ingrid Oliver has a sketch comedy series. I watched a bunch of sketches from it, and they were awful.
But she does make a compelling Don Draper:
“Clara oswald got into your head.”
It’s interesting how, once again, “becoming the Doctor” is framed as a bad thing, in this case for Bonnie, faux!Clara.
I’m also wondering if, by turn, the Doctor becoming more Clara-esque is bad for him. Certainly he’s willing to take actions that he’d have previously avoided, such as giving Ashildr the immortality chip.
Clara is ruthless in avoiding death, not necessarily for herself, but for people she cares about. The best, and most shocking, illustration is in the season 8 finale, where she emotionally blackmails the Doctor (and threatens the TARDIS) to get Danny back.
(This was where I started to dislike her, I realise now. Emotional blackmail is one of my triggers, and accordingly something I’ve learned not to tolerate in others.)
This brings us back to That Thing I’ve Been Saying All Season: that things aren’t going to end well for Clara. Or at least, things are going to get very bad before they get better.
I’ve also realised that, in a lot of respects, Clara is the anti-Martha. Like Martha, she arrived in the wake of a popular and iconic companion, and has clung to her life outside the Doctor.
Martha also became the Doctor, both literally through her profession, and metaphorically through her journey around the world in The Year That Never Was, The Only Good Thing About “Last of the Time Lords”. Hands up, everyone still mad about that two parter: o/
For Martha, becoming the Doctor made her kinder and more courageous, and more confident in these qualities. She, too, recognised the need to make terrible, world-destroying decisions, but maintained her compassion and empathy for individuals.
For Clara, becoming the Doctor has made her more callous and less empathetic. (But she’s white, so she still gets more love and less criticism, both in-show and out, than Martha.) She’s still capable of great kindness, but it’s more of an effort for her.
I test-drove this theory on Twitter, and got an interesting response:
I’m intrigued by the notion that Clara’s story is following the same path but getting more focus. Martha’s whole role in almost blowing up the Earth in “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End” is so random and out of character for her that I sort of forgot about it.
At least we’ve got the obligatory Two Terrible Episodes Per Season out of the way, so it’s smooth sailing (probably) from here on out.