A squad of Western soldiers, an international brigade formed of almost white men, surround what appears to be a church somewhere in the Middle East. Armoured in black, holding rifles and pistols, they fire off warning shots and demand the surrender of the surrounded occupants.
The door cracks open and a woman emerges. “I don’t have any weapons. Please!”
The soldier orders his men to take aim but the woman begs. She calls him by name. She claims to be his mother. She claims his whole family is inside. The whole squad’s family is there. When pressed for details about his life, she appeals to his emotions, to his loyalty, his kindness and charity. “They are using us against you,” the woman cries. “I’m so scared.”
More and more people emerge from the church. Despite the Middle-Eastern location many are white, all are clearly dressed in Western clothes. They appear to be the families of the assembled soldiers.
“That is not your mother, that is an alien hostile,” a commander calls over the radio. “Kill it.”
But the soldiers choose empathy, sympathy and trust over simple violence. They follow the people who look like their families into the church.
A few minutes later, when their commander, the commander who wanted to engage in wanton slaughter, breaks into the church the truth becomes apparent. All that remains of the ambushed soldiers are smoking piles of ash, in a room littered with military maps revealing a detailed invasion plan. This is the exact moment Doctor Who’s double-episode “The Zygon Invasion”/“The Zygon Inversion” arc not only loses me, but becomes an irrevocably damaging narrative.
In order to understand the symbolism at work here and how it becomes such a painful failure, we have to rewind slightly. The episodes here spin out of the 50th Anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, which aired on 23rd November 2013, arguably Nu-Who’s finest hour and a bit. In that story, the Zygons, a race of space-faring shapeshifters who have lost their home planet, are a technologically, militarily superior force with access to Britain’s Black Archive, a repository of lethal artefacts from a multitude of alien civilizations. At this point, the Zygons are, if not in a dominant position, at least equal to the human population in terms of personal agency and military power. When a peace treaty is established between humanity and the Zygons it is between effective equals – symbolically realised by visually establishing both parties as mirrored when the Zygons assume the form of the human negotiators. When we return to the situation in The Zygon Invasion, the dynamics have been explicitly reconfigured.
When the recurring character Osgood introduces the treaty and the underlying concepts of the episode she states: “[their task is] to resettle and rehouse an alien race, in secrecy, on planet Earth. With UNITs help twenty million Zygons have been allowed to take human form, have been dispersed around the world and are now living amongst us.” The initial language used around the Zygons configures them as being fairly analogous to refugees (albeit with science-fiction elements not equitable with any real-world dynamics). In the contemporary context it is difficult to disentangle any discourse about refugees from the ongoing refugee crisis that stems, at least partially, from conflicts in North Africa and the Middle-East, centred around Libya and Syria respectively. The UN regards this to be the worst refugee crisis since World War II. These parallels are made more explicit throughout the episode. For instance, in an abandoned Zygon command centre the Doctor references locations infamous for border-security issues (Mexico and Australia) or Islamic unrest (North Africa, the Middle East), and the screens display images that seem intended to evoke displaced or migrant populations.
It is here that the symbolic elements of the narrative begin to take on a harmful resonance. At the same time that the narrative is drawing parallels with refugees, it also begins to interject the concept of radicalisation into the discourse, and then moves to conflate them totally.
The idea that refugees and radicalised individuals can easily be conflated is both suspect and dangerous. When we speak of ‘radicalisation’ it’s important to be clear on what we mean, what the word is inviting us to assume and who this word is deployed against. Firstly, at a basic level ‘radicalisation’ is popular parlance for the process by which individuals adopt terrorist ideologies; however we need to note that this word is almost exclusively used with regard to Muslim populations and Muslim ideologies. Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger are not regarded as being radicalised and are rarely referred to as terrorists in mainstream media, but their actions and intentions are clearly couched within those terms. If they were espousing outright Islamic values, instead of white supremacist/racist or misogynistic ones, we would be quick and clear in how we labelled these murderers. So when Doctor Who takes that word and applies it to their fictional Zygon population, the inherent links to Muslims and Muslim refugees/immigrants cannot be brushed aside.
The linkage of refugee and radicalised individual/terrorist in popular culture has become particularly important in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. I won’t be talking here about the attacks themselves, which claimed the lives of 130 people and saw 368 injured, and were both tragic and horrific, but will instead be focusing on the reaction, both immediate an ongoing in Western media. Most significantly, within an hour of the first reports of violence, many media outlets including BBC, CNN and MSNBC were already drawing spurious and unfounded links to the refugee crisis. Newspapers have unconsciously evoked fascist propaganda, have published unsound, misleading polls with messages intended to stir up hate and have generally colluded in conflating terrorism with refugees. In America the pace of the discussion has moved even more quickly into dangerous territory, where American states are refusing to take Syrian refugees at all, the Senate is increasing already absurd restrictions and Presidential candidates are suggesting the forced registration of Muslim people in the US as a viable practice, without seeming to realise or care about the parallels with Nazi Germany.
Of course, in reality, it has been categorically proven that the Paris attackers were not refugees and did not use the refugee crisis as a means to travel across Europe. Many of them were born in Europe and the Syrian passports recovered from the bodies are most likely fakes made in Turkey for the express purpose of assigning blame to refugees and hardening attitudes against them. This has proved remarkably successful. Another important aspect of the attacks is the locations chosen which are often designated as greyzones; places of cultural mixing, often populated by younger people. These areas show that violence, distrust and hate are not the natural outcome of a meeting of cultures, but that those negative outcomes are products, symptoms of specific agendas and circumstances.
Meanwhile, attacks on British Muslims are soaring.
Where Doctor Who has so spectacularly failed, is in how it has effectively promoted the language and ideologies that ostracise and other refugees, that couch them as inherently dangerous, inside the symbolism deployed in the Zygon arc. Kate Stewart, the head of UNIT, who we can read as the nominal figurehead for British or Western military power, is the first to articulate the concept of radicalisation, expressing that they are aware that younger members of the Zygon populace are becoming radicalised, drawing on the very real terminology the military and intelligence services throw around to justify their surveillance programmes, which in turn sanction attacks and violence, even wars. When Kate Stewart declares that “the treaty has been comprehensively violated”, she is saying that she has the legal justification to use whatever means she requires to resolve the situation to her satisfaction.
It is useful to hear the Doctor, ostensibly the heroic figure, speak out against these kinds of poor solutions. He wants to open negotiations, to create a dialogue between the elements, pointing out that, “If you start bombing them you’ll radicalise the lot.” On an explicit level this works quite well, as we can see the real world parallels explicitly; the Doctor is condemning the indiscriminate drone and bombing campaigns deployed against Muslim populations internationally, actions that the West, particularly Obama’s administration, favour. There is no question that these kinds of initiatives cause real harm to civilian populations and act both explicitly and tacitly as recruiting tools for the terrorist organisations they are supposed to be destroying.
The “morality” of the drone strikes is further called into question in a scene where a drone operator sees what we can presume to be members of her family standing inside the designated strike zone. The actions here are categorised by the Doctor as “fun and games”, referring to the PlayStation mentality often associated with these strikes. When the ‘targets’ are humanised with the appearance of her family members, the drone operator refuses to carry out the attack. Unfortunately, the idea is not left here. In the scene I referred to earlier, a squad of soldiers enter a town in the fictional middle-eastern Turmezistan and are again persuaded to eschew a violent response by the familiar, friendly faces. The same military commander is once again frustrated in her attempts to fight the “enemy”. She warns, consistently, “You know what they are capable of”. When she is ultimately proved correct, when the Zygons – wearing stolen, familiar faces – execute the trusting soldiers, we must continue to read this within the context established by the narrative. If these aliens are analogous to refugees, explicitly Muslim refugees, we have to interrogate what the symbolism is saying.
It is here that we have to return to the concept of ‘radicalisation’ as espoused by the Zygon narrative. There are a few ways it is deployed, but it is almost always involuntary and unstoppable. The first victim, though we theoretically don’t know it, is the Doctor’s companion and arguably the audience POV character, Clara Oswald. Again focusing on the charity and warmth of the human/Western figures, Clara finds her young neighbour crying in the hall. The young boy, Sandeep, who appears to be of explicit Middle Eastern descent, cannot find his parents. Clara goes in search of them, and as they are already radicalised Zygons, she is captured and ‘replaced’ so that the Clara who occupies the rest of the episode is actually a Zygon sleeper agent who has infiltrated the narrative. To break this down into its most simplistic, a friendly, white native woman goes to the aid of a child of middle-eastern descent and is attacked by his possibly-immigrant father and then subsumed into their radicalised ideology as a sleeper agent. In light of the already established links to refugees, this becomes fundamentally troubling as it essentially espouses every fear that right-wing media has been promulgating as reality if Britain does not clamp down on refugees entering the country, particularly since the Paris attacks. Sandeep himself is later shown to be forcibly radicalised by his parents, when he is dragged off to the secret underground facility beneath London.
This is not even the only problematic symbolism foisted upon children in this arc. There is a scene early in the episode where the Doctor badgers two seven-year old girls on a playground. While the scene is essentially played for comedy, it reinforces the narrative that Zygons (radicalised Muslim potential terror threats) can be anywhere, any time, even in our schools, with our children. His interrogation of them reads a little differently if we reframe it outside the rascally adventures of our loveable but mad rogue, the Doctor, and instead view it in terms of the everyday reality where babies have been removed from airplanes and teenagers arrested for building clocks. The narrative furthers this problematic association by explicitly having the children claim ultimate responsibility for all Zygon factions, while our Doctor, the great, white adult saviour, won’t even allow them agency and declares that he is usurping their supposed authority. When they are murdered and their hierarchical position immediately subsumed by the radicalised faction, the inference seems to be that there is only a thin line of authority holding the Zygon population back from falling into an inevitable terrorist ideology.
The sense that the Zygon immigrants are perpetually on the verge of rebellion, insurrection or whatever term is best applied to their violence remains constant throughout the narrative. The episode itself opens with a natural-state Zygon attacking the recurring character Osgood, who is essentially configured as the avatar of the Zygon-human peace accorded. When, at the end of the first episode, a Zygon commander reveals their plan, we are led to understand that the fragile détente has not just been under threat, but has actually collapsed long before we entered the narrative. According to the Zygon, “the invasion has already taken place, bit by bit.” Twenty million Londoners, or some high percentage thereof, have been replaced by shapershifters who are now lying in wait amongst the British public to strike, just as every right-wing pundit ever has warned us.
When the following episode opens, we are immediately presented with an image of “invaded” Britain. Eerily silent teenagers loiter while a Government council-worker sweeps up what appears to be vaporised remains; we suspect none of them are human. A dishevelled and distressed man runs through the scene. He is followed tenaciously by a radicalised Zygon wearing Clara Oswald’s identity, embodying the sense of infiltration, that this radicalised ideology has crept into our legitimate, Western reality. She invades his home in order to “set him free”, removing his ability to “hide” behind a borrowed identity. As a result of her touch he begins to revert to his natural Zygon appearance, and also seems to lose control of his innate electrical powers. This leads to the accidental deaths of several people. Although the man rejects his radicalisation, declaring, “I’m not part of your fight, I never wanted to fight. I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?” the narrative makes his violence inherent, instinct and uncontrollable. The metaphorical language here, in case it is unclear, strongly points to a sense of forced, involuntary radicalisation being something inherent in the Zygon, and thus Islamic, populations currently residing in and fleeing towards the West. What is the audience meant to read from the man’s decision to turn his violent discharges inward, vaporising himself?
It is important to bear in mind the actual stated complaint of the Zygon population; they declare explicitly that all they want is “the right to be ourselves”. It is, in fact, quite likely a common expression amongst minority populations being asked to integrate into Western society. It is certainly a legitimate grievance or concern for the Zygons, but when we apply it to the context of the the narrative arc we can see something more sinister at work. The phrase “normalise” is used throughout the episodes to refer to Zygons changing from an appropriated human state to their natural state. It is in Zygon-form that they are often at their most menacing, or are seen to attack others like Osgood or the leader-children, and it is while returning to Zygon form that the involuntarily-radicalised man accidently murders a number of people. In this context, “normalise” for the Zygon population appears to be inherently linked to being dangerous, destructive or indeed uncontrolled. Normal, in Zygon terms, is monstrous.
If the Zygon population is explicitly bound to refugees and/or Muslims, we cannot ignore the wider implications of the symbolic language being used here.
Ultimately, safety and peace are granted on “human” terms, which are explicitly being encoded as “Western”. The Doctor himself makes many eloquent points about the nature of war and forgiveness, which outside the context of this analysis are worth engaging with, particularly around personal responsibility and agency; however, the explicit thrust envisions a conflict proportioned between equals. In the context we cannot resolve the symbolic constructions between Zygon and Muslim populations inside an easy Western/Middle-Eastern conflict, within a binary duality. It bears no resemblance to the reality of the situation and envisions the disenfranchised as far more powerful than we allow them to be. The narrative itself fails to be quite as insightful as the Doctor’s declarations, too full of very real, very Western privilege that fails to accurately account for the symbolic resonances already established and their real-world application. It exemplifies a certain kind of attitude which doesn’t offer co-existence as much as tacit assimilation on the part of the minority population as the only viable solution to conflict. While the Zygon commanders are made representative of the totality of the Zygon population, Kate Stewart is never made to assume the same responsibility for the human/Western dynamic. Both the Doctor and Clara serve as explicit reminders that other forms of human authority and philosophy exist, while Osgood represents a form of hybridised identity, as you never know whether she is human or Zygon and she actively identifies as both. Safety and peace exists inside a hybridised union, couched in terms of human mainstream values. The Clara-Zygon ultimately takes on permanent human form, becoming one of the two Oswald-entities which embody the peace, but it is deeply important that this resolution rests on her adopting a familiar, human appearance. That she is alien is acknowledged, but that is in itself packaged within a human template and the Zygon desire to “be” is abandoned.
This is not to say that neither pop-culture nor fiction are the right place for this kind of conversation; they absolutely are. There are many effective examples. Battlestar Galactica, for instance, is one place in which we can see a well-constructed refugee narrative. The Fleet is metaphorically deployed in many ways over the course of four seasons, but certainly it stands out as a population in exile with no home, particular when they attempt to resettle and are occupied by Cylon forces. This narrative is in turn subverted by “The Woman King” episode which features a Sagittaron population transferred to the main (metaphorically privileged) ship of the Fleet, Galactica, where they are ignored, ill-treated and abused on the basis of their fringe religious beliefs. This duality invites us to examine ourselves in both the position of the disadvantaged and as privileged.
In fact, stories of radicalisation themselves are not even taboo. It’s just that they are, as in the case of Doctor Who here, regularly poor and offer little to the ongoing cultural conversation. A recent storyline from the Ms. Marvel series featured an arc with very clear evocations of radicalization. Unlike Doctor Who and many other narratives playing with this concept, Ms. Marvel’s protagonist, Kamala Khan, is a Muslim and is stewarded by American Muslim creators, writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat. The ‘Crushed’ arc introduces the child of friends of Kamala’s parents, who is, just like our eponymous hero, both Muslim and Inhuman. In less deft, careful hands even the confluence of those words would be problematic, such as when Doctor Who conflates the phrase “normalise” with becoming monstrous. However, when Kamran is radicalised it is not within the context of his religion. They are held out as separate expressions of identity, not dovetailed in symbolism. Kamran is an agent for Lineage, a recurring Marvel Universe villain attempting to co-opt the existing Inhuman power structures for his own benefit and dominance. When Kamran attempts to recruit, indoctrinate and coerce Kamala into joining the rebellion/splinter group/terrorist cell, it is a foregone conclusion that she will reject and defeat him. The narrative actually comes into its own when Kamran attempts to radicalize Kamala’s brother. Aamir has been characterized throughout Ms. Marvel as a devout, enthusiastic Muslim character, and essentially represents exactly the kind of figure Western discourse often pigeonholes as a potential or inevitable terrorist convert. After he is exposed to a (terrigen) catalyst that appears to transform him into an Inhuman, the metaphorical implication is that he is being forcibly radicalised. Again, in opposition the narrative promulgated by Doctor Who, this act fails to inspire any terror or new violence in brother. His response remains perfectly in character and is an utter rejection of any radicalised or terrorist principles. When Kamran explicitly mentions Aamir’s faith and disposition, this forms part of Aamir’s rejection and affords him and the narrative the space to explicitly remove his religious background from the metaphorical space occupying his potential Inhuman configuration. In this, the narrative offers something more substantial than Doctor Who’s somewhat lazy articulation of the Zygon/refugee dynamic.
That said, we must be clear that Doctor Who is not responsible for the idea that either Muslims or refugees are somehow inherently dangerous. Doctor Who is not responsible for the reaction to the Paris attacks and the blatant racism and Islamophobia publically on display. However, when those of us in positions of privilege construct narratives around current events and make real world parallels, it is necessary that we, so to speak, “punch upwards”. Instead of taking Kate Stewart or the Western-prefigured humanity fully to task for our failings, instead of a light rap on the knuckles for our military imperialism, instead of offering a solution of co-existence that required Western/human compromise instead of capitulation of the minority population, Doctor Who’s creators have pinned the plot on poor, lazy and reductive stereotypes. In the wake of Paris we can watch the results of those ideas in action.
Our fictions can show us who we are, and they can show us who we could be.
I have always felt Doctor Who is intended to be largely aspirational, that The Doctor was trying to show his companions the best face humanity could put forward. At times, Doctor Who has even achieved this, but with the Zygon arc, with its poorly wrought parallels to the modern refugee crisis, it has failed, and failed utterly Instead of offering us a better compromise, instead of offering us a new way to look at our own actions, our own guilt and complicity within the situation, it has only spun out the familiar mess of fears, prejudices, excuses and abhorrence hiding beneath our civilized skins.