On the 11th of November, as we remember those who have died in wars past and present, it is important that we learn the lessons of our painful history, and say never again. While news and television coverage of Remembrance Day seems to have long forgotten this though, helping re-purpose a ceremony that now sees wreaths laid to sanctify war, rather than to end it – there was still someone who took a stand for peace. The Doctor.
“Since Moffat took over”; the eternal preface to every fan’s lament regarding the lapse in quality of sci-fi institution Doctor Who, has become something of a critic’s staple too in recent years. Since Steven Moffat took the helm, after the departure of the towering Russell T Davies, who guided the initial Who revival to great heights, the franchise has undeniably suffered some hard times. Story-lines of the subsequent series seemed increasingly targeted towards what can only be termed as ‘nerd bait’; where the show cynically attempted to appeal to an ironic fan-base who only really invested in things that were crazy or ‘cool’. Dinosaurs vs Robots anyone?
The problem with most of Moffat’s shows, including the infamous Sherlock, is that they seem to inherently distrust their own audience – often bordering on insulting the intelligence of those who go out of their way to watch them. Anyone who watched the last series of said show will be reminded of the continuous snarky attacks at the online fan-base, who had their “how did Sherlock survive a 10 story fall” theories roundly barracked without a satisfying explanation being presented after. If you were looking for a reason as to why, you might very well point to frustration on the writer’s own part at being unable to concoct a decent explanation of his own… but I digress.
Moffat has time and again failed to engage with audiences in a meaningful way because he seemed to regard such attempts as old fashioned or embarrassing. But while Doctor Who was indeed occasionally kitsch and campy, it used sci-fi to dive headlong into ideological and emotional minefields in a way that millions of people came to love. His tenure had, so far driven the show into something of a post-modern nightmare. Nothing really matters, but look, shiny things. Did someone say convincing female character- ooh, a laser, isn’t that cool?
But you knew all that didn’t you? Because the phrase “before Moffat” has been done over and over by the print and online commentariat, and his reign to date, better analysed by those sources too. But while the phrase might now border on cliche, it is entirely apt for what I have to say, because Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who was the most poignant since “before Moffat”. Co-written by Moffat himself, with Peter Harness,The Zygon Inversion was broadcast hours before a Remembrance Sunday where assorted war-mongers barracked Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn for not bowing deeply enough in memory of people Cameron and Blair would not think twice about sending to their deaths today. The episode, which concluded a two-part serial regarding a peace-treaty between humans and an alien race hidden among them, was a brilliant and unashamed anti-war polemic that must surely go down as an epic stride in the right direction for the series.
In the final act, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi, giving a pitch-perfect performance having at last given something worth getting his teeth into) finds himself trapped between human and alien generals bent on each other’s destruction. The two are stood opposite one another with their fingers on the proverbial button. The problem for them, is that thanks to Osgood (Ingrid Oliver as a human/Zygon plagued by the question “which one are you?”) and the Doctor’s planning, each warring faction has a twin box with two buttons labelled “Truth” and “Consequences.” Each has a button that will give them what they want, each a button that will essentially lead to their oblivion – and neither knows which is which.
Despite being unsure of the cost, the pair seem bent on going through with it anyway – until a bravura speech from the Doctor, to be found in full below, challenges their desire for carnage. In penning this payoff, Moffat and Harness finally deliver what true Who fans will have been missing since the former’s tenure as head writer began – but if he can continue in this vain, then it is not too late to save the soul of a show that should be the heart in a heartless universe. In the speech itself, the Doctor – in a way reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator – speaks almost directly to us, of the lessons we must learn from our own blood-spattered past.
The message could not be more timely for a Britain poised to join military interventions in Syria and the Middle East yet again, while the political establishment attempt to transform a day commemorating the horrors of international conflict into a day for slavish obedience to nationalistic fervor. The real lesson of the World Wars, and of every conflict since, is not to sanctify those dragged off to die in a muddy hell far from those they loved, or to praise them for ‘heroism’ – it is that we must do everything in our power to prevent those still alive today from going through that same agony, time and again. On the 11th of November 2015, we must all swear to ourselves, not to revel or take pride in battles of the past – if we are really to remember those who died by the thousand in needless and petty conflict, we must build a better world in peace, that we can really be proud of. We must swear “No one else will ever have to feel this pain. Not on my watch.”
Bonnie: Why are you doing this?
Kate: Yes, I’d like to know that too. You set this up — why?
The Doctor: Because it’s not a game, Kate. This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought right there in front of you. Because it’s always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who’s going to die. You don’t know who’s children are going to scream and burn. How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everybody does what they’re always going to have to do from the very beginning — sit down and talk! Listen to me, listen. I just — I just want you to think. Do you know what thinking is? It’s just a fancy word for changing your mind.
Bonnie: I will not change my mind.
The Doctor: Then you will die stupid. Alternatively, you could step away from that box. You could walk right out of that door, and you could stand your revolution down.
Bonnie: No, I’m not stopping this, Doctor. I started it. I will not stop it. You think they’ll let me go after what I’ve done?
The Doctor: You’re all the same, you screaming kids, you know that? “Look at me, I’m unforgivable.” Well here’s the unforeseeable, I forgive you. After all you’ve done. I forgive you.
Bonnie: You don’t understand. You will never understand.
The Doctor: I don’t understand? Are you kidding? Me? Of course I understand. I mean, do you call this a war, this funny little thing? This is not a war. I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you could ever imagine, and when I close my eyes… I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count! And do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight… Til it burns your hand. And you say this — no one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will ever have to feel this pain. Not on my watch.