We All Can Easily Become Monsters, Doctor Who: The Zygon Invasion, Reviews, 02/11/2015

UNIT stories are where Doctor Who becomes an action movie. That was true ever since UNIT was introduced in 1968. This week, it’s become one of the most politically astute action movies I’ve seen in a long time.

I worried last week about whether the concept of the monster in Doctor Who had come to a crisis. I’m glad to see that Peter Harness can manage more than the impotent grinding and stalling of gears that we got this season with Lion-O and The Fisher King.

Since the Zygons returned in Day of the Doctor, they've
been put to fascinating use innovating new ways to be
a Doctor Who monster race. Harness here doesn't just
raise the problems of the monster race, or bang his
head against them as Catherine Tregenna did last
week. He might damn near have a solution.
Instead, Harness radicalizes the problem of the monster from the beginning, with the words of the Osgoods’ mission statement video. In every race (also people, culture, nation, species) there are good and evil, peacemakers and warmongers. The ordinary and the remarkable. 

It sets the philosophy of The Zygon Inva(er)sion from the start, which is all I can reveal before letting you know there are

SPOILERS

The Zygon Inva(er)sion is a story brave enough to engage the most fraught political issue in Western society: our fear of radical terrorism, morphed into a hysterical cultural fear of invaders and subversives, into a resurgence of violent and wrathful racism.

The analogy of the Zygon radicals to ISIS is so bold that it’s startling. Just a moment after the opening credits, we see Osgood’s hostage video as a total visual quote of ISIS, a radical Zygon logo that evokes the stark black and white flag of ISIS, and the murder of the two Zygon high command leaders, who we’ve encountered so far in human form as small girls.

Doctor Who is playing with fire this week. The UK government justifies its current meddling in the 47-front Syrian war as a mission against ISIS. ISIS is a powerful group of radical Islamists, the product of a union between the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq and many former officers of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, who all met in the American prison camp system during their decade-long occupation alongside the UK.

The Zygon leader Bonnie who takes Clara's form also
is a wonderful feature of this story, and I think she'll be
at the centre of the narrative next week. As Jane at
Eruditorum Press mentioned, Bonnie-as-Clara lets
you see the monstrous side of Clara herself. After
all, the mutual empathy of a Zygon and her model
has already been established. So Clara's cold, more
violent side is expressing itself in Bonnie-as-Clara.
This article gives a much more detailed history of ISIS, how they fit into the Third World War as a whole. But ISIS has become the centre of how many people in the West experience the Third World War. They’re the ostensible reason for our bombing campaign in Syria, and the bugbear of attacks on refugees from that war.

“We can’t let any Syrians into the country. They might be terrorists!” I heard this sentiment from Conservative cabinet ministers in my own country during our election this Fall. In a way, that’s acceptable. These people were campaigning for control of the Canadian government. 

Those are high enough stakes that you can understand why someone would talk themselves into becoming a monster. But I heard this from regular old white people on the campaign trail in Etobicoke. In fucking Etobicoke.

So in evoking ISIS so directly through these images, Doctor Who is engaging with the immediate problems of our world in the most direct way I think it’s ever done. The action movie setting of the narrative lets them to it most intensely. It’s easy to slip into the wrong tone here. There are several.

The story could have gone full jingo, treating the ISIS-modelled Zygons as irredeemably and essentially monstrous, like the Daleks. The Osgoods’ opening monologue settled that, thankfully. We’ll be dealing with the nuanced depiction of the enemy as people who’ve reached desperation thanks to their circumstances.

The radical Zygons’ key demand is similarly humanizing. They want to live openly among the human race, not in human form anymore, but their natural cephalopodic form. 

When the New Mexico sheriff outs herself as a Zygon,
she does so to tell honestly how her faction became so
radically violent. She tells a harrowing story of
bigoted, frightened humans hunting down and killing
her people. It makes radical terrorism understandable
as a human reaction to violence.
It’s a demand that resonates with many minorities. It particularly evokes the queer movement: the right to live as they are, not pretend to be something they’re not. But the queer movement never took up international terrorist subversion or mass murder to achieve that goal.*

* No matter what your local neighbourhood old white bigot would have you believe.

The radical Zygons were pushed over the edge by fear and violence from the community into which they were trying to integrate. In the small New Mexico town where a group of Zygons wanted to settle, the locals were suspicious of this influx of British families, especially since they behaved so oddly.

It was even worse that the new arrivals had no jobs, no businesses, no apparent sources of income. They became targets of the worst stereotypes and suspicions of immigrants and refugees. Accused of taking without contributing.

One day, someone spotted a Zygon in its natural, squid-like form. It was a child, still getting the hang of its shape-shifting abilities. The locals were already wary of the refugees, but now they believed them monsters.

When Kate Stewart arrives at the town’s Sheriff’s office, she finds a wall of photographs of murdered British people. At first, you think they’re the Zygons’ victims. But in the light of what you later learn happened, you realize that this is a wall – with at least 40 people on it – of Zygons murdered by their American neighbours.

I'm also incredibly pleased that Peter Harness has found
such wonderful potential in Osgood's character. In her
debut and Death in Heaven, she was little more than
a joke. But The Zygon Invasion gives her a complex
characterization, and a beautiful story.
Only in response to being hunted down and killed did these Zygons rise up against their human neighbours. The humans in the town were massacred only after they had begun to massacre the Zygons.

This is an even more brave stance for Doctor Who to take. Harness leaves no ambiguity that the radical Zygons are ruthless killers. They manipulate the UNIT troopers in Foreignlandistan** to their deaths, manipulate Jac and her UNIT crew to their deaths under London, trick Kate into her apparent death in New Mexico.***

** Okay, it’s actually called Turmezistan in the episode, but really? I’m just sick of fake catchall Asian countries to be generically Oriental, even though Harness lampshades it because the whole story is already steeped in immediately meaningful imagery.

*** Also, Kate Stewart is totally not dead. I’m going to make the call right now: Kate shot the Zygon town sheriff first, then used the sheriff’s phone to tell the radicals’ leader Bonnie that she was dead.

But the Zygons are also characters with their own storyline that evokes sympathy. Their desire to live openly as Zygons is understandable, given that the need to hide got many of them killed by freaked-out Americans who thought Invasion of the Body Snatchers had just come to life.

The radical Zygons are on a terror campaign because they’re responding to violence that ordinary people set on them. This is an especially dangerous thing to say when you’ve already associated the Zygons with ISIS – it suggests that, no matter how horrifying the group, the grievances of people upset enough to kill are legitimate.

No one is inherently monstrous. Not even this guy.
No one is inherently monstrous. Even the mass murdering sex slavers of ISIS are human beings with legitimate dreams, hopes, and grievances. That’s a powerful and unsettling message for Britain’s most popular cultural export right now to say.

It goes further. The Doctor himself openly states the counter-productive nature of using greater violence to stop a violent movement. If you carpet bomb the radicals, their deaths will encourage exponential growth in the radical movement. 

But when those radicals have just killed several of your compatriots and friends, you’d prefer to bomb them to pieces. It’s a human reaction. Horrifying, but ordinary. Many Americans who lived through the September 11 attacks had the same reaction. It was disastrous, but it was a legitimate feeling.

The story might even be more daring in its solution to this conflict, if Harness takes it where I think it’s going. 

The Zygon Inva(er)sion has given us several ways to understand even the most horrifying terrorism as a reaction to fundamentally racist fear, violence, and disgust toward the marginalized. But it also gives us Osgood.

One path to peace is to look in the face of the other and
see yourself in her difference. I also loved how many
women were in this story, a wonderful decision in
casting. The Doctor and a few minor UNIT soldier
characters were the only declared men in the piece.
All the Zygons are played by male actors, but they're
not conventionally gendered in the human sense.
She explains to the Doctor that the Zygons can now hold human form after the death of their model, an improvement over their previous powers back in Terror of the Zygons in 1975. Osgood also tells the Doctor that the replication process forms a link in the minds of the Zygon and human who share form.

That link is a deep enough understanding to know, eventually, everything about a person. The profound mutuality of the Osgoods’ relationship is a prime example. They’re no longer purely human or Zygon. 

The term ‘hybrid’ appears again, this season’s secret word, but that’s not quite what’s going on here. The Osgoods became a shared mind, where each constituted an individual person, but which expressed the same essence. 

The solution to the inescapable puzzle of the Zygon terrorist movement may lie, not in violence, but in this radical empathy that Osgood exemplifies.

It’s a beautiful idea, and one very suitable to Doctor Who. But it’s immensely dangerous for Doctor Who as a show funded by a state whose current masters are extreme conservatives. 

I don’t think Doctor Who has ever been so brave.

3 comments:

  1. It's certainly brave, not that that surprises me coming from the man who wrote "The Moon's an Egg." Still, there's a difference between writing a Doctor Who plot that will inevitably piss off Doctor Who fans who think the show should be hard sci fi, and pissing off the government that funds your channel. So yeah, props to Harness and the production team for daring to do this. If "The Zygon Inversion" sticks the landing, I really feel that this could be one of, if not the, most important Doctor Who story made.

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    1. I know. I mean, the Cartmel era never even got this politically controversial. Most of the McCoy years' explicit political sentiment was generally acceptable leftism – anti-racism and hatred of Thatcher was pretty mainstream in British entertainment.

      Harness is positively fearless for writing it, and the production crew fearless in producing it and standing behind it. Though I haven't seen a lot of controversy from official channels about the episode. The view might be different in Britain itself, surrounded by Murdoch media. I can get away from most of that, living in Canada.

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    2. The papers have been quiet in Britain so far, I'll be intrigued to see what the response is in the media (and from fandom) after part two.

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