Welcome back to my piece on Organised Nonsense, where I currently look back on season 9 of Doctor Who. Not much to say on this intro, so let’s get right into it!
The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived
The Girl Who Died is written by Jamie Mathieson, and is probably the most marketed episode prior to transmission due to its introduction of Maisie Williams’s Ashildr. Much has been made of her character in other publications and I’ve seen some good stuff written about it, so I’m not going to go too in-depth here.
However, I can’t help but be disappointed in this episode. The dialogue isn’t fantastic and this is especially noticeable in Ashildr’s case. It really seems like more solid lines should’ve been written for a character they were pushing hard in the season’s build-up. Maisie Williams does a fantastic job at adding depth to the character, but it feels like more could’ve been done. The explanation for Capaldi having an existing character’s face feels quite contrived for a plot point that was referenced in his regeneration episode. Maybe I was wrong to expect more coming from that point, but it just seems like over-explaining – after all, nobody cared that Amy Pond looked like a character from Fires of Pompeii.
Of course, the worst part of this episode is probably the villain. There’s a stark contrast in what The Mire are supposed to be vs. what they’re shown to be. We’re told that they’re one of the strongest warrior races in the universe, and have conquered many worlds. The force actually on display in this episode, however, is laughable. Their leader is a comedy Viking who was meant to be played by Brian Blessed. The solution to the plot? One of the greatest fighting forces in the universe is scared away by a hologram created by a teenage girl and the Benny Hill theme.
This episode isn’t a complete mess. The actors are on fine form, with Capaldi providing great speeches and Maisie Williams giving a great performance. The last shot, in particular, was a great show of non-verbal acting. The episode is enjoyable; the Doctor training a village of farmers how to fight aliens is a pleasant concept and the montage around it is fun. Clara serves as a great foil for both the Doctor and Ashildr.
So, it’s not a complete mess… but at the same time, neither is it a very good episode. Five silly Vikings out of ten.
This two-parter is interesting because of how separate it feels. It shares the same character (Me/Ashildr), but besides that the episodes are almost unrelated. The director, writer and setting are all different from Died to Lived. The two don’t even need to go back-to-back to work together; Lived could’ve just as easily been put two or three episodes later.
The Woman Who Lived is companion-lite, meaning that there’s no Clara here, only the Doctor. The episode’s primary focus is the interplay between the Doctor and Me, and the consequences of the Doctor’s actions. As such, not having a third character to add to the story serves it well. To be honest, the episode would’ve probably needed to be longer if Ashildr/Me’s relationship with Clara was to be explored adequately. There’s some potential there, but keeping Clara out of the picture was probably the right idea.
Anyway, I preferred this episode to the first. Me is a much better character than Ashildr, with more depth, more experience and an extremely interesting past. She’s lived through England’s most important events, and there’s a lot that can be mined there. Maisie Williams manages to do a much better job at acting here, though that can be attributed to her having a much better character to act.
The dialogue in this episode is a marked improvement over Died. Sam Swift almost makes the episode in and of himself, with his hanging becoming one of the funniest sequences in the season (and one of the most blatant phallic jokes in the show):
When I’m gone, they’ll all say, that Sam Swift, he was well hung.
Even the serious dialogue is memorable:
Doctor: Oh, you remember Clara, do you?
Me: Of course. I take particular note of anyone’s weaknesses.
Me: You didn’t save my life, Doctor. You trapped me inside it.
For all this episode is an improvement, there are still some problems. The villain is, of course, the worst offender. He’s basically a dodgy-looking pantomime lion. Leandro does nothing threatening besides breathing a tiny bit of fire at no-one in particular. He’s predictable, and his plan is foiled in one simple move. He gets taken out extremely easily. Even his voice is classic Doctor Who-villain bad. The focus of the episode was the Doctor and Me’s damaged trust of each other, but that doesn’t mean the villain has to be a footnote too.
All in all, the Woman Who Lived is a much better episode than its predecessor, but still has flaws. seven silly fire lions out of ten, for an average six and a half out of ten.
The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion
Which brings us to the second two-parter of this article, the Zygon Invasion and the Zygon Inversion, written by Peter Harness (with an assist by Moffat in Inversion). After last year’s controversial Kill the Moon (which I thought was rubbish), does this scribe’s sophomore story amaze?
Well, with the first part, not really. It’s got a better focus on the plot than the previous two-parter, but it still isn’t a fantastic episode. Harness decided to lay on the Zygon-ISIS parallels a bit thick, and it actually brings down an otherwise enjoyable episode. Don’t get me wrong, I like that he drew those parallels, and I think that Doctor Who should definitely do topical stories like this. I just think making the Zygons put out a viral video with a hostage reading a war declaration was a bit much.
Besides that, this is an alright set-up. It’s always nice to have a down-to-earth (relatively) UNIT story. The continuity with all of the Day of the Doctor references and the new Brigadier is nice and done really well. Jemma Redgrave once again turns in a stellar performance as Kate Stewart, and feels like a worthy successor to the original Brig. Her storyline in the small American town feels tonally different to the rest of the episode, and provides a fascinating subplot beyond Moffat just showing off how Doctor Who can go to ‘Murica now. Between Stewart and Osgood, Big Finish audio’s UNIT spin-off seems like it’s got a lot of potential.
Jenna Coleman gets to show off her acting skills here as well, with the reveal that the Clara we’ve followed through the episode is a Zygon being a shocking moment. There’s some subtle hints to Bonnie’s identity throughout the episode, so it’s definitely worth rewatching.
The episode isn’t great though, being happy with just being a decent setup. The dialogue has some real eye-rollers, with Osgood’s “I am hope” speech being particularly heavy-handed.
The plot moves from setpiece to setpiece without focusing much on connective tissue. This focus on dramatic beats relies on the setpiece actually being dramatic. Unfortunately, Invasion doesn’t always suceed in this regard. Probably the worst part of the story is the scene where a trained squad of UNIT members fall for an incredibly obvious shapeshifter ploy, ignore their training and end up dying. It falls flat because the tension is so forced. These guys are trained soldiers, they’ll seriously fall for Zygons who can’t answer the simplest of questions?
So, while this episode is better in plot and conception from Kill the Moon, it still falls prey to a lot of the same problems as that episode. The same awkward dialogue and overblown social commentary is still present in this episode. However, Invasion manages to focus more on Harness’s strengths than weaknesses, and it holds up better because of it. Seven Zygons out of ten.
And so, the final episode of this review, The Zygon Inversion. Not as much happens in this episode, but what does happen is quite good.
There are three main parts to this episode: Clara vs. Bonnie in Clara’s mind, Osgood and The Doctor meeting the rogue Zygon, and the final confrontation in the Black Archives.
Starting with the first, Clara vs. Bonnie proved a great way for Jenna Coleman to show off her acting skills. She plays two quite different characters in this episode, and the way that she’s able to create clear contrast between the two is impressive. It takes an actor of some skill to act successfully against herself. The idea of Bonnie using her own pulse as a lie detector was clever too.
The second setpiece was the Doctor and Osgood finding an extremely stressed Zygon, who just wants to be left in piece. While I found another bit of overt commentary (the Zygon doesn’t want to be radicalised, but doesn’t want to be on the Doctor’s side either), Capaldi and the Zygon actually did the scene justice. The Zygon’s suicide is dark and packs emotional wallop, while showing the side of the aliens that don’t want to be evil.
Which brings us to the final setpiece of this episode was, of course, the standoff between Kate and Bonnie and the Doctor’s resulting speech. It’s the best part in the two-parter, and probably the entire season. If we’re going that far, let’s go the whole hog and say it’s probably Twelve’s most defining sequence so far. It features some stellar performances from every actor in the room, but let’s face it, Capaldi owns the scene.
From the beginning of the scene where he breaks out his American accent, to his ruminations on the cycle of violence, to his desperate attempts to avoid war, to his memories of war… It’s just a showcase of great writing carried by amazing acting. It kills me the Beeb doesn’t have any official source of the video, but I don’t want to link any unofficial videos, and the text alone won’t convey the speech, so basically… Go watch the episode. It’s good.
The episode isn’t without flaws, of course. As you can see, Inversion doesn’t have as long a review as most of the others, because, well… Not much plot happens in it. The Doctor’s speech alone takes over ten minutes. There’s the cliffhanger wrap-up, what I’ve gone into detail about, and a happy little epilogue. Everything in-between is superfluous. Maybe the episode needed more time to flesh out its developments or maybe a smaller runtime would’ve fixed the pacing. Harness’s setpiece writing can make for great, memorable moments, but is a really great scene worth an episode with some fluff?
That’s something for the individual reader to decide, but for now, I’ll err on the side of optimism. It’s really good.
All in all, nine Zygons out of ten, with the two-parter averaging . It’s a very good two-parter, and the last episode has, mark my words, the Capaldi scene.
Hope you guys’ve enjoyed this second part of my review/retrospective! I’ll be back soon-ish to look at Sleep No More, Face the Raven, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. Big thanks go to Caelum (for the help), Kevin (for the motivation) and Christian (for the criticism). See you next time!