[A short warning: due to some real-life commitments, also known as finals, I had to put some more elaborate articles on hold – so instead you’re getting this slice of very nitpicky analysis. It’s a bit more low-hanging and cheap that what usually fills my side of the website, I’ll be the first to admit it. Don’t worry, though that’s not what the future of this column looks like, it’s more a little aside. That hopefully will prove enjoyable!]
“I had this insane conversation with [director Daniel Nettheim] where he was saying ‘This bit doesn’t work. What am I going to do? I’m shooting on Monday!’ ” – Steven Moffat
Tomorrow, “Extremis” is going to air – an episode written by Steven Moffat and directed by Daniel Nettheim. If you’re paying attention to the names of various Who directors, you’d have noticed Nettheim, who has worked a lot on British TV since the 1990s – doing some work on Glue, most recently – has previously helmed the series 9 two-parter, “The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion“.
I’m on record as being notoriously cold on that two-parter. It’s not awful by any means, but it’s inconsistent and riddled with weird quirks – an especially unfortunate state of affairs for an episode that tries to tackle extremly dark, difficult and contemporary subjects. But this is not about a complete analysis of that story (although I do have some folders full of notes about it and am intending to put those to good use) – let’s focus instead on one specific aspect.
But first, a proposition: the Moffat era is arguably the first time in Doctor Who’s history where visually-driven storytelling has been a consistent and important feature all throughout the series. Or, at the very least: a lot of Moffat’s talent rests on his ability to craft a cohesive nexus of meaning encompassing both the technical aspects of an episode and its script. The show looks good, very good these days, and has more than its share of absolutely stellar directors, from Rachel Talalay to Paul Whilmshurst.
Which makes it all the more obvious, of course, when someone is not exactly up to the task. If you assume as a starting point that the directing of an episode is a text that parallels and complements the actual script, with every shot and cut being a letter or a punctuation mark – then, well, if that text is not impeccably written, or if it contradicts the script in some key ways, well, we’ve got trouble, to quote Peter Capaldi back in his hotel manager days.
And, obviously, I think this episode has quite a lot of issues at the visual level. Let’s talk about those, shall we?
If there’s one good thing to be said about Daniel Nettheim’s directing here, it’s that he absolutely does bring a sense of coherency to the episode’s imagery. It’s an episode about reflections, and about manipulation, full of people being forced to watch without being able to act. So, in a very nice touch, the whole episode’s visual language is structured around the act of watching, with a plethora of videos and screens: the episode opens on the two Osgoods recording a message, with the extra-diegetic camera putting the intra-diegetic one in the frame; the first scene we see of the Doctor has him catching a distress call on a monitor; UNIT receives a video of the Zygon High Command being executed; the drone operator watches her family through a screen and is incapable to act; Clara watches the actions of Bonnie through a TV screen; the video of the forcefully transformed Etoine is leaked on the internet, and so on … And this sort of weird distance, of surrealistic streak, is pushed even further at some points, especially during the confrontation on the steps of the church, in Turmezistan, when the soldiers suddenly see duplicates of their loved ones waiting for them. By far the best defence of that story I’ve ever heard is that it tries, in all its occasional excesses, to capture this sort of hard-to-define sensation of utter unreality you sometimes experience when you’re watching the news – images with hard implications but which, presented alone, seem like weird, abstract artifacts you don’t quite know how to react to. Nettheim might not succeed in conveying that all the time, but he does craft a series of utterly absurd shots, of odd, contradictory superpositions: the aforementioned church scene, but maybe the best exemple remains the Twelfth Doctor interviewing two little girls in a playground at the beginning of the first episode. Of course it gave plenty of comedy material to YouTuber and professional snarkers around the world, but it’s a compelling way to channel the unhealthy oddness that the Zygons embody – they’re you and not you, they live in the Uncanny Valley.
And he does bring some lovely, low-key random aesthetic or directorial touches. The Hartnell portrait towering above the UNIT safehouse I particularly like. You know, it doesn’t make much sense considering the Doctor never met UNIT until its second incarnation (unless there’s some EU material I’m not aware of dealing with that), but I like it: it shows the fact that this new UNIT has grown up idealizing the Doctor; it shows the episode is voluntarily going back to its past and its legacy, but in a new context. And, most interestingly, it shows (or it would, were the script a little bit more biting) that there’s something problematic with the Doctor being idolized – literally, it’s almost a Russian Icon we have there – being the one from the past, the most removed from us, coming straight from a more imperialistic age, and not the one from the present, the more complex character better equipped to deal with a more complex epoch. That’s what Nettheim is good at, really – ambiance work with some neat little symbols peppered on top (another lovely one: Kate Stewart’s scarf representing the Earth).
But you can’t build an Earth Invasion story on ambiance alone. One of the most generally praised aspects of the episode is its sense of size and scope. Which you know, is there, and it’s cool, and it even allows a very Moffat-esque process of starting by teasing an international espionage thriller to reduce the scope more and more, first to the sole city of London, and then to one single room where the concerned people talk their problems through. And it definitely changes from what you’re accustomed to see in Who – those large establishing shots you see at the beginning of the New Mexico and Turmezistan sequences, for instance, they’re surprisingly rare in the arsenal of a Doctor Who director. The problem is that, overall, you end up with a story that relies way too much on the establishing shots, and the unusual nature of its setting and tone, and too little on actually solid, scene-by-scene directorial construction. I guess you could call it a bit gimmicky, in a way – much like the stories in series 7 tended to be, except those had, generally speaking, stronger directing. The fact that the “exotic” locations are here only for a handful of scenes, making us constantly jump from one place to the other, really doesn’t help either – especially when you take into account all the time spent setting up the events in America and Turmezistan serves very little purpose at the end of the day. It “looks” good, but it “feels” off – it works on the macroscopic scale, not on the arguably more important microscopic one. It’s a story that’s incredibly attached to its signifiers, but not to the meaning they convey.
For instance, the important topic of moral complexity. The basic ambition of the episode is to offer a narrative that is both complex and linked to current events. So, you’d expect a certain level of nuance when it comes to the way characters are depicted and framed. You’d be wrong. Take Bonnie, for instance – she’s supposed to be the crux of the story’s moral ambiguity. But the camera paints her as a scheming supervillain. For starters, the costume. It’s a very beautiful attire, not saying otherwise, and Jenna Coleman looks even more gorgeous than usual in it, but it’s also, well, a very stereotypical outfit, with black colors and red lipstick – she looks like a James Bond villain, and feels like a James Bond villain, which is not a great way to make your antagonist comepelling and realistic. Xenia Onatopp is a lot of fun, but you don’t really see her as a The Wire regular, that’s all I’m saying. The villainous quality of Bonnie is also emphasized by the lightning – she’s often see with the red light of the Zygon Lair falling on her face, as seen during the reveal of her true identity, which is an immediate visual code for “evil”, or halfway in the darkness, with a sort of chiaroscuro effect on her face. The fact that, you know, she occasionally has those weird temper tantrums where she breaks stuff certainly doesn’t help her case.
The Zygons get hit by this perhaps even more – certainly, the way the actors are directed is to blame too, because they are overacting their lines like their life depended on it, smiling creepily at every chance they get, offering to the flabbergasted viewer a delicious plate of ham and cheese that could be very tasty in slightly different circumstances, but which feels severely out of place when you’re asked to actually to see these aliens as respectable creatures whose dignity you should acknowledge. It has always been a great question of science-fiction media involving aliens: how should they look? How can you make them both feel alien and look relatable? The always great Lindsay Ellis, one of the best critics you can find on YouTube, made a pretty good video about it recently. Truth be told, with that design, making the Zygons into dramatically compelling figures was always going to be a bit of a challenge, but the powers that be certainly didn’t help their case by allowing for that level of overacting. Or by having the Zygon musical motif be that dark, anguish-inducing blaring of horns. Or by having all those close-ups on their faces just to insist on how evil they are. Or by letting that shot into the mix:Seriously, what is that? What’s the point – is Nettheim just trying to make the Zygons as goofy-looking as possible? It was in the second trailer for series 9 – did they do it just for the trailer? If they did, they should have left it out of the actual episode!
There’s a messiness and a sloppiness to the execution of these episodes on a visual standpoint, there really is. Which sometimes morphs into full-on, actual laziness – I’m thinking the overuse of Dutch angles (aka: tilted camera to convey a sense of uneasiness), a very very sure way to spot the uninspired director. Look at Clara’s exploration of the abandoned apartment in episode 1 – past the first interior shot, every single moment is framed with Dutch angles. It’s not quite at the level “The Idiot’s Lantern” reached, but it’s still pretty bad – considering the scene is pretty brief and doesn’t really let the time for the tension to settle organically, it’s the cheapest, most straightforward and unoriginal way to call forth uncanniness. He does the exact same thing with the sequences taking place in Clara’s mindscape during the second part – albeit to admittedly much greater effect. And not to mention the absolute worst shot in the two-parter: Which is then followed by not one, not two, but three different shots of the soldiers walking in the tunnel, all in this Dutchest of angles, including one focusing on their feet for some reason. Why is this such a bad shot? Well, there, you see the good guys being framed as villains: Dutch angles, creepy marching sound, the UNIT troops almost like Nazi footsoldiers there for a few seconds. Which doesn’t make any sense: at no point is UNIT presented as an evil, antagonistic force – at the worst, colonel Walsh is an utter dick, but she never even sets a foot in London –, and those troopers we see are going to die two scenes afterwards. Case on point: that exact technique is used to frame the monsters in “Oxygen“, and those are as far removed from humanity as one can imagine.
There’s also the matter of the tumbleweed. Now that is a problematic subject. If you really want to be nitpicky, you could say that it has no reason to appear when it’s a Zygon-on-Zygon crime, because those would normally be produced by the hair of the electrocuted victim, but really, I’m not looking for plot reasons or scientific explications (we are talking about giant intelligent red phallic squids, after all) – it’s just that it looks terrible. It’s not that you can’t play up the goofy nature of your aliens – in all honesty, that has been one of Who’s strongest sides for decades – but there’s an art to it. Admittedly, it does work in one specific instance, producing a of creepy contrast when we get to the dustbins in Truth and Consequences and we realize just how many people have died, but, on the whole, we’re in a story that echoes very real, and very contemporary threats, so it seems like a natural demand for the fantasy version of said threats to look at least a bit serious. It’s possible to buy the red rubber suit, the ridiculous overacting, or the tumbleweed, but not the three at the same time – that just creates a weird tonal rift. Etoine’s suicide is a prime example: you see a living creature killing themselves, an extremely rare thing in this show. That should pack a hell of a dramatic punch – but no, he’s making weird faces and mugging in front of the camera and he’s got weird plastic-y suckers on his face and when he actually kills himself it produces tumbleweed. The drama might be good, but the aesthetics are not aligned with it enough – the story is camp in a way where the campiness actively undermines the drama. It’s not that you can’t make serious points with over-the-top moments and aesthetics – I refer you to Uma McCormack’s audio, “The Very Dark Thing” (Bernice Summerfield New Adventures, Set 3, Episode 3, 2016), which carries a strong pacifist message while throwing at the listener singing rivers and fluffy unicorns. Or hell, “The Happiness Patrol” is another fine exemple – although you might read it as more an aesthetic piece than a political one. But here’s the thing: those are stories that attempt, and achieve, a synthesis between camp and commentary – whereas here, the over-the-top aesthetic and deeply serious political message appear to be almost entierly disconnected. I don’t mind the Zygon prisonner being held by what seems to be tape, or the headquarters of the Turmezistan’s splinter group using these sort of weird, children toy-like pieces of wood on their word map – it’s actually kind of funny and endearing. But when we must believe that the Zygons are a real, concrete danger with ties to real-world context? It becomes a hinderance.
And another way to undermine the drama is through problematic editing. Which this story has in spades – the worst offender probably being the moment where Kate first arrives in Truth or Consequences. At 22:30 in episode one, to be precise – there’s this PoV shot of a something watching her through a window, with a characteristic Zygon sound. So, when she falls on the policewoman, we automatically assume that said policewoman is a Zygon – it defuses the tension the following scenes could have had, and, because you rigged the narrative in favor of the viewer, it makes Kate look a lot less clever all of a sudden. If you want to alert the viewer on the presence of Zygons, do it AFTER we meet her. There’s also the fact that the episode, still in its – honestly admirable – obsession with point of views and manipulation of the images, in a very meta way that I’d love to enjoy, likes to replay past footage in a new context. It does that twice: first with Clara – we see her entering the apartment, and then, at the end of the first episode, that she was kidnapped while she was there –, then with Kate – threatened by a Zygon and apparently killed at the end of the first part, except that we learn in the second that she turned the tables and saved the day through the power of good ol’ bullets –. Now, what would be the good way to pull that trick off? Well, to construct each part of the bait-and-switch as an independent scene, possibly with different camera angles. That’s the golden rule of repeated scenes: if you really have to do that, don’t let them play out the exact same way, change at least the directing – the Star Trek TNG episode “Cause and Effect“, for instance, takes place in a time loop, but each successive iteration plays out the same beats in a different way, directing included. It’s painfully obvious that these episodes doesn’t the exact opposite, though – the set-up and pay-off were all filmed in the same scenes, and they were then artificially cut in the editing room. That’s why both Clara’s meeting the parents and Kate watching the policewoman transform are two moments that look awkward as hell – the scene was never supposed to end like that, the cut falls too soon and makes it looks weirdly paced and not well-integrated in the rest of the story. Also, those are both really forced moments, which basically privilege a plot twist over the characters being, well, in character. Clara would probably be a little concerned and on her guards exploring the apartment where people have just disappeared (especially considering the scene immediately before reminds us how strong and confident she has grown in her role of time-travelling, alien-fighting badass), and when she sees a Zygon coming towards her, she would certainly not stay still and wait for it to zap her. Same goes for Kate, who stays staring at the policewoman/Zygon and doing nothing else for a properly excruciating amount of time.
That’s another of Nettheim’s recurring problem: he’s really not good at background action. A director, in theory, must make sure that, while the shot focuses on the main characters, the background still presents a cohesive and interesting picture. And let’s just say that UNIT, which is , by essence a collective group even if key figures are present here and there, gets screwed up big time by this failing. Ending the face-off at the church scene with the sergeant finally convinced and joining the Zygons in the church, for instance, that’s a logical decision. Ending that scene with every single soldier going into the church, well, it’s questionable from a plot perspective, and we’ll discuss it further later on, but you can still find a way to justify it one way or another. Ending that scene with a group of trained soldiers entering a trap and then getting themselves killed in 10 seconds (not an exaggeration: this is the exact amount of time that passes between the moment where we lose sight of the soldiers and the first shot inside the church), without anyone fighting, screaming, firing or defending themselves … That’s something else. Admittedly, a scene featuring Walsh and a Zygon duplicate of her son was supposed to be slotted between the entrance of the soldiers in the church and the Doctor coming to rescue them – but since it was left on the editing room’s floor, the flow of the scene is all wrong. And you know, fine. It’s okay to screw up once in a while – Rachel Talalay kind of did the same thing with the UNIT guards in “Death in Heaven”, that doesn’t stop her from being one of the absolute best directors Who ever got. Except it happens again ten minutes later. With another group of UNIT soldiers, walking into another trap, this time set by Clara in the sewers of London, getting swarmed by Zygons … And doing nothing while they’re electrocuted.
Which gets us to the cliffhanger. The responsibility on this one can’t really be pinpointed clearly between the scriptwriter, the director and the editor, but let’s tackle it here nonetheless. It’s always a problem, when it comes to two-parters, to know precisely where to make the cut fall – and it’s an even bigger problem when your stories are not exactly ideal for the two-parter format in the first place. Compare for instance, the cliffhangers for “Dark Water / Death in Heaven”, and “The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar”: the first one has a logical midpoint, with Missy’s true identity being revealed, and uses it to completely reverse the narrative (hell, the credits even change between the two episodes!), whereas the second one doesn’t really operate such a reversal, and has to effectively manufacture an artificial cliffhanger to fit the format – it’s written as an extra-long story, not as two-parter, and there’s a big difference between the two. “The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion” kind of falls in that category too – and that’s strange, because it shouldn’t have. The story has a strong, solid midway twist: Clara was a Zygon the entire time. I may have some quibbles about the execution of it all, as detailed above, but the idea is solid, and it totally holds up on rewatch: the set-up is strong, the teasers clever (that scene with Kate and Clara on the airport tarmac being an especially strong one: the nature of the exchange changes completely depending on whether this is your first or second watch – it evolves from simple exposition to a compelling power play). And, more than that, the story has a strong way to start the second episode: by having the focus on the real Clara waking up in the dream world – there’s a continuity of themes and characters between the two, it should write itself. But weirdly enough, the story doesn’t use the Zygon reveal as its midpoint twist – it keeps going after that, and the actual cliffhanger is Bonnie firing at the Doctor’s presidential plane. Which is not a very good cliffhanger, in all honesty. A good cliffhanger must create a form of tension, I would say: and obviously, it is difficult to achieve that in a show like Doctor Who, where the leads are shielded by a fairly thick plot armor. But still, it’s possible to obtain something interesting by asking the question of “how” – how are the heroes going to get out of this one? Creating these sorts of mini-mysteries for the viewers to ponder over the break, if you want. But that mystery is not good, because the answer is obvious: they are going to use parachutes, or whatever safeguards a presidential plane has (although, apparently there weren’t enough parachutes for the pilot and the Zygon prisoner – did I mention Nettheim’s nasty habit of losing track of anyone that isn’t the main characters?). Why would they rely on such an obvious trick, when they were other, better occasions to create tension? Not just the Zygon twist: the beginning of the second episode shows Clara battling Bonnie inside her own mind and leading her to miss her initial shot. And that is just baffling. If that is the direction they were going with, why not make the cliffhanger Bonnie hesitating or struggling to shoot? Then you’d have the double benefit of both creating a mystery for the audience (why didn’t she fire?), which leads organically to the opening of episode two, and, well, simply creating tension by not allowing the viewer to know whether she’s going to shoot or not. Alternatively, you could have her shoot once, miss, and then cut before she shoots a second time – more tension. The director and editor literally chose the most boring, middle-of-the-road way to present that scene, and that’s a freaking shame. Especially considering it impacts the opening to the second episode as well: you don’t feel especially clever when you understand Clara caused the shot to miss, since nothing in the way the sequence that closes “The Zygon Invasion” is filmed and framed gave you the impression that shot was going to miss in the first place!
And here our long list of complaints comes to an end. In a way, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Nettheim’s directing – but the specific issues with that story show how far Who has come. If you can make a story where a wrong prop choice or the lighting can have far-reaching consequences on the meaning of said story, that’s a bit of a victory. And we are going to discuss that at length in the coming weeks …
Also, Daniel, blow my mind with your series 10 episodes, please.