It’s Saturday, gone midnight. An ill-advised Domino’s pizza is on the couch next to me, abandoned, destined to congeal until I chuck it away about six hours from now; I’m a little squiffy from my cousin’s birthday party, but momentarily that’s all forgotten. I’m utterly transfixed by what I’m watching on TV.
Peter Capaldi is on screen – raging, desolate and desperate, looking as old and tired as the universe. His eyes blaze out of my telly like some kind of mad special effect; even his hair looks furious. The shadows cast by his sculpturally gaunt features – sharp angles and near archaeological lines – could fill a room.
“When I close my eyes, I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count. And you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight – until 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.
This is a high point in a breath-taking, semi-monologue delivered by Capaldi like a nuclear blast. It lasts for almost ten minutes and rates as one of the best things I’ve seen this year. It has the fierce intensity of some of the best theatre I’ve seen. Time might as well have stopped. I’m riveted – I feel like a bystander, rather than a bleary-eyed 35-year-old who’s watching Doctor Who on catch-up when he should probably be in bed.
The episode is The Zygon Inversion, the conclusion of a two-parter by Peter Harness (who wrote last season’s ‘it’s a giant egg!’ episode, Kill the Moon) and Who showrunner Steven Moffat. Where The Zygon Invasion used the eponymous shape-shifting aliens to cleverly explore immigration and radicalisation, part two becomes a blisteringly powerful indictment of war itself.
And it all comes down to Capaldi’s Doctor pleading, desperately, with representatives of two sides – Zygon and human – not to press a button on the identical boxes in front of them that will guarantee total victory or defeat for their respective races. Two boxes, the ultimate deterrent, and one powerful analogy.
“You don’t know whose 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 were always going to have to do from the very beginning: sit down and talk.”
Doctor Who hasn’t delved into real-world allegory that much since it came back in 2005 (unlike its massive maggots in 70s-era story The Green Death). Still, that’s not exactly why – of all the episodes that have been on recently – I’m choosing to make a fuss about this one. No, I’m blithering on about it because of its effect, its reverberation down my own little timeline. And I’d wager that I’m not the only not-so-young person who has felt that shiver of the years when watching Who – the sudden nearness of their younger self.
But, first: if the word ‘Zygon’ made you snigger, if it made you sneer about rubber suited aliens – or if you think you can dismiss Doctor Who because it’s sci-fi or ‘just for children’ – you can leave right now. You’re too prejudiced to appreciate a show with such an open heart. And you’re ignoring a long tradition of literature that has found contemporary society in the most fantastical places. If Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is good enough for grown-ups, so is Doctor Who.
Besides, some of the best writing – on page, stage or screen – is for kids. Because, much like theatre companies who set their writers constraints (for example, only two characters, just one setting, a single prop), taking a child audience seriously – so not lazily steering away from the big subjects – makes you creative. It makes you think about metaphor, about meaning; all that great stuff that, when done properly, feels differently important to the next wide-eyed ten-year-old.
And while the focus has changed since Doctor Who started (from historical education to the new series’ exploration of friendship, love and loss), that’s still where the show lives. I’m old enough to remember ‘classic’Who – it’s there in my murkiest, earliest memories. It’s bundled up with that amorphous mass of first experiences that set me on my course towards being a writer.
Watching Doctor Who, at the age of seven, with Mum, lives in the same place in my head as my earlier recollections of Dad reading The Saga of Erik the Viking to me after he’d come home from work. The nearness of sleep probably added to my sense of wandering into somewhere new and exciting. In both instances, the stories opened windows – in the latter, Erik playing chess with Death on a cliff; in the former, Sylvester McCoy’s impish Seventh Doctor turning out to be Merlin.
It kicked my brain into gear and resulted in a bookshelf groaning under the weight of dozens of Target novelizations of Doctor Who. I remember these so vividly that, to this day, I’m still not sure which of the older stories I’ve seen and which I’ve just read. Images led to words, which led to my making up new adventures in my back garden, with the shed as the TARDIS and an unwieldy vocabulary. Several of the writers of Who were no stranger to pontification.
And the point of all of this? Well, it has a kinship with the novel Charlotte’s Web and Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman – the ending of which left my parents with a hysterical wreck of a son on Christmas Eve, 1986. Through their storytelling, they introduced me to what loss could feel like – that awful ache of knowing you’ll never see someone again – in ways I could comprehend, years before I’d experience it for real. They were probably the first links in my armour.
Doctor Who didn’t introduce to me death, but it showed me that – at least for a Time Lord – being good at football wasn’t the only way to be cool. The TARDIS, like the wardrobe leading to the land of Narnia, was a glimpse at a different kind of landscape. And it made me really think about things – with aliens and spaceships making it infinitely better than school. It opened my eyes to a more thoughtful world than the playground.
One of my favourite stories at the time was (I later learned) called ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’. In one scene, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) takes time out from saving the world to shoot the breeze with a café owner. (They could do that then, when stories were split over several episodes rather than 45 minutes.) In one wonderful exchange, the Doctor compares the consequences of our actions through time to the ripples of a stone thrown into a pond.
Causality! And thanks to the Doctor’s love of a metaphysical tea-break, I got it! At nine! I chucked a lot of stones into a pond in my local public garden after that. (Incidentally, the same pond I’d fallen into as a toddler, because I’d mistaken the algae for grass.) Back in the late 80s, defying tiny budgets, diminishing audience numbers and cold-shouldering from the BBC, Doctor Who expanded my little world with sci-fi. It flashed ideas before my eyes that made me think differently.
Where cynicism accretes with age and headlines, where people’s capacity for awfulness sometimes feels constant, Doctor Who helps to keep the optimistic version of me alive. A friend to whom I introduced the show a few years ago has learned to be wary of my showing him episodes (somewhat appropriately, I think) out of chronological order. And he despairs of my inability not to spoil those he hasn’t seen yet. (Rafi, if you’re reading this, apologies. Again.) But I can’t help it. And part of me is glad that I can still get so excited about it.
Sometimes, it stumbles, its concepts outstripping their execution or falling flat. But you can never fault its ambition. And, at its best, it puts into words and on to my TV screen things that resonate with mid-30s Tom and make him want to go back in time (a la the Doctor dropping in on Amelia Pond) and tell his nine-year-old self that all the long scarves and muttered storytelling in the back garden will pay off. That no one will care if he turns out to be gay, because everyone dances with everyone else in the future.
Then, I’d jump into that conveniently placed time machine and head back to last Saturday, just so I could watch myself, slightly worse for wear, be stunned by Doctor Who all over again. I’d watch a brilliant actor, gifted with brilliant dialogue, play an enduringly brilliant and unique character who articulates the awful, grinding, pointlessness of war in ways that ‘serious’ drama for ‘grown-ups’ couldn’t achieve in a million years.
It’s no coincidence that growing up with Doctor Who has inspired the careers of some of our best writers, from Mark Gatiss to Neil Gaiman (both of who have contributed episodes, with Gaiman’s ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ ranking has one of my favourites). And both previous showrunner Russell T. Davies and Mofatt are unapologetic fanboys. It’s consistently been a spur to the imagination. Hell, while we – inevitably – talked about theatre at the Exeunt drinks last Christmas, the conversation was at its hottest when it came to new Who’s season 8 finale.
Exeunt writers on Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor
Exeunt writers on The Day of the Doctor