Peter Harness interview: Doctor Who, The Zygon Inversion

Spoilers: writer Peter Harness chats to us about The Zygon Invasion, The Zygon Inversion and Doctor Who...

This interview contains spoilers for Doctor Who: The Zygon Inversion, The Zygon Invasion, and Kill The Moon.

The weekend just gone saw The Zygon Inversion screen on BBC One, penned by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat. It’s Harness’ third Doctor Who episode, following The Zygon Invasion and Kill The Moon, and his pen also adapted Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, that appeared on our screens earlier this year.

He spared us some time for a spoiler-y chat about writing, Doctor Who, and taking risks…

I remember talking to James Moran around the time he wrote The Fires Of Pompeii for Doctor Who. He recalled that when he wrote that episode, Russell T Davies gave him some particular ingredients. It was going to be Pompeii, the day before the eruption, a moral dilemma, all framed through the eyes of one familiar.

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How does Steven Moffat work? What kind of brief did you get for your Zygon two-parter?

Last series, with Kill The Moon, they were just looking at the time for what they called movie pitches, movie ideas, things that could be easily summarised. So ‘Dinosaurs On A Spaceship’ or ‘Journey to the Centre Of The TARDIS’. I thought about that, and that’s how I came up with my pitch: the moon is an egg.

I pitched that, and didn’t really have more than that to give them, and worked it out as I went along.

But this series, I pitched them a couple of things in a fairly non-serious way, not very worked out ideas. They didn’t go for them, but Steven took me aside at the screening of Deep Breath and told me the idea for the Zygon thing.

I think how he pitched it to me was it’s two Osgoods, Osgood coming back, it’s about the consequences of the peace treaty that the Zygons signed, it’s an urban international thriller, with a global reach. And something goes wrong with the peace treaty, a murder happens, and the peace treaty breaks down.

Then I went off and thought up a story around it. That’s what my experience has been around it so far!

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Steven Moffat pulls you aside at a Deep Breath screening, and asks you to write a Zygon episode? Tell us about that moment!

I suppose it didn’t really sink in for a while! I didn’t go away and get really excited about it. I went away and thought ‘how the hell am I going to do this then?’

I love the Zygons, and I think it’s clear now that they’re one of the series’ best monsters. It’s remarkable that they haven’t been brought back more…

But helpful to you?

I suppose so, yes! But why were they not back the year after, and every four or five years since? Thank god Steven brought them back in the 50th, and it felt extremely natural for them to be there.

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I think they’ve got much more mileage in them. Not necessarily coming back every year, but I’d love to see them back again. But it’s what I do with everything – how am I going to make this into a good story? It didn’t occur to me until late on, probably after I’d finished it, that this was quite a big deal! Doing a sequel to Terror Of The Zygons and Day Of The Doctor.

Was it always mooted as a two parter, this one?

Yes. They’d always thought about this series as a series of two parters.

How do you go about the split, then? The Zygon Invasion felt very much like an international thriller, but The Zygon Inversion is less easy to categorise. Across both, there’s so much in them that you want to say, too. Do you come up with the framework for your story, and work out the specific things you want to say within it? Is that how you work?

With that kind of brief, a peace treaty between shapeshifting aliens and humans… Steven didn’t tell me what the terms of the peace treaty were, so I worked those out myself. The treaty, the aliens, a global conspiracy thriller… to me, if you do something like that, you can’t not involve some political elements of what’s going on in the world today.

Obviously I did want to write about these things. I’d be being disingenuous if I said I didn’t want to. But I never approach a piece of writing with an allegory or a political dimension that I want to cram into it – it’d be approaching arse-end on! I start with the situation and the characters, and really I thought in terms of what those aliens would do would probably look quite like how we tend to fight wars now. They’re a kind of minority of a minority. There are only 20 million Zygons in the world, like Clara says, against 7 billion people. And there is a section amongst that who are interested in making wars. So they would probably have to fight a war in the ways that we tend to see nowadays.

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But then you start thinking, what are the best psychological weapons of shapeshifters? They can turn into your family, and do things like that.

I’ve been following the news, and I was keen to write something about it. But I didn’t approach it from that way. It just became a good kind of environment in which to borrow things from that, and tell a sci-fi story. Because I also don’t believe in telling people what to think.

I think certainly in this and Kill The Moon, I tried not to read too many things about it. But people find ways of finding you, and I’ve been called a raving lefty Marxist, a disgusting Conservative, and everything in between! For me that says I’m doing my job well: I’m presenting something for discussion, I’m not reaching a conclusion. I don’t believe that drama, or art, is there to provide answers. It’s not to tell people what to think, it’s to encourage people to think, and come up with answers themselves.

Was there any film or show that was a touchpoint for you in particular?

My big reference was the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, so I put in a few references to that. Playing Amazing Grace, the Doctor sitting like Robert Duvall at the beginning.

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I really love that movie! Also, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly was in my mind when I wrote the Clara sequences in part two.

One thing that struck me is that I get frustrated by people dismissing what genre is and what genre can do. I keep coming back to Battlestar Galactica, which is one of the best dissections I’ve ever seen of the relationship between religion and politics in a mainstream TV show.

Yes, yes.

And yet I can’t persuade some people to watch it, because they dismiss it as a silly space show. Which it isn’t. You’ve hit this a few times, with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as well. That people try and pigeonhole what storytellers in genre are trying to say, and what they’re allowed to say. Do you fight that, though? Do you accept that bits of that war are unwinnable, and does it ever change how you approach something, seeing just how dismissive and sneery some parts of the media can be?

I think if they’re dismissive and sneery they’re idiots, really.

Firstly, I don’t buy the argument that sci-fi and fantasy shouldn’t cover these sort of things. Because I think that’s the tradition they emerge out of, and in a lot of ways, that’s what they’re for. Primarily, of course, they have to be entertaining and about telling good stories. But the way that you make those stories accessible to everyone – not just kids, not just people who like bangs and spaceships, but people who like to have something to digest and think about – is to put big things in them.

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The great thing about sci-fi and fantasy working in that way is that you don’t have to be specific. You don’t have to be specific about certain conflicts, and certain factions. You can explore things on a more deep and philosophical level, which doesn’t need to get snarled up in specifics.

I think storytelling, not just fantasy and science fiction, is basically the best way in which to explore some of the deepest issues that affect us. Simply because reimagining them it makes it easier for people to see the issues, and the ridiculousness of certain things.

When I watch Doctor Who, I watch it with my kids, and I love seeing the show through their eyes as much as mine. And we all took different things from your Zygon stories. Furthermore, there are things waiting to be discovered on a rewatch, too.

You seem to work very hard to ensure your writing is layered, and not disposable. Whether people like what you do or not, there’s no suggestion that your work is ever just there to fill space.

Can you talk about how important that is to you, not least within the context of Doctor Who?

It’s very important to me. And as you know, Doctor Who is watched on various levels, as Tom Baker said.

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But that’s one of the best things about writing Doctor Who. That you can push it as far as it’ll go I think. I suppose that these episodes that I’ve done obviously have pushed too far for some people.

But I think that every episode of Doctor Who should push where Doctor Who can go. I don’t have space for people who say ‘but this isn’t Doctor Who?’. No episode of Doctor Who is Doctor Who. It’s only Doctor Who according to how the viewer thinks it is, and how it was done at a certain time. Or whatever. The glory of it is that it’s a totally flexible format, and you can push it. And keep on pushing it. And you should be able to surprise yourself and surprise the audience.

As long as it’s something that a five year-old can watch, and enjoy, and be scared by, and reassured by. And something a seven year old can be challenged and excited by. And something that won’t bore the grown ups.

I do try and make my stuff as layered as possible, and I certainly don’t think of it as disposable. It would bore me shitless to just do a kind of quick caper or a runaround in anything that I do.

We have to talk about the Doctor’s monologue towards the end of the episode. “Who’s going to make the violins”. That’s the line that made one of my children sit up and question.

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That speech was originally going to be a lot longer! “What are you going to eat? Are you going to eat beetroot? Who’s going to grow the beetroot?! Will your brave new world consist of massive fields of beetroot?!”

That was a long speech! We had estate agents in it at one point, travel agents. It went on for pages and pages!

I wrote in my notes that it’s the most Peter Capaldi speech I’ve seen Peter Capaldi deliver in Doctor Who, but I think my notes sell him and the show short there. Yet to have a long monologue towards the end of the concluding episode in a story is an unusual structural approach. The last third of anything these days seems to be a big punch up more often than not.

Was there a ‘eureka’ moment to getting it right?

No, I don’t think so. And also, I’m still quite nervous about the second episode.

The first episode is very ‘gettable’ as far as I can see. You start with a premise and aim it at a cliffhanger. The second one hinges on a very long almost-monologue. And it is an unusual way to do it, but I suppose it’s a Doctor Who version of the punch up between the good guy and the bad guy.

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What Doctor Who does though is make it about talking, about persuading people, and rejecting violence, and being clever, and using your brain.

You also have the glorious sequence earlier than that monologue too, where you have the chat between the two Claras.

What I really like about that is that the balance of power keep shifting, and the execution of it is superb. Appreciating it’s a boring and logical question to put to writers, it’s nonetheless one I find interesting: how close to what you envisage are these sequences coming out? Do you believe when you’re writing your episodes that they’ll have the courage to execute it as you see it?

Yes. I believe that they will. I’ve co-written the second episode with Steven, so you can see his influence and bravery in those things as well. I would say that both of those key sequences come from discussion and suggested lines, and bits and pieces from both of us.

They’re a genuine collaboration, with both of us working towards the same goal.

I don’t usually worry too much about whether they’re going to have the courage to implement things, because it’s a very courageous team. They’re not interested in being afraid, they’re interested in taking risks and pushing things. When it became clear when this was going to be a story about war, about political arguments, and the psychology of war, they all went great, let’s go for it, and see where we can go for it.

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You said you’re nervous as to how The Zygon Inversion will be received. Why? Does the reaction matter to you? And also, to use your own words back at you, if this one goes out and does divide people heavily, isn’t that you in part doing your job?

I suppose it is! If you’re writing for a kind of global audience of millions of people, a lot of whom have a long investment in the programme, you’re never going to get it right in everybody’s eyes. You can’t let that affect you very much, but I think you have to battle to not let it affect you in a lot of ways.

What I want to do is a writer is make something that entertains people, and that moves people, and brings people along with the story. I’m not writing things that I hope will alienate people or piss people off.

Equally, if you are writing stuff that has a certain amount of challenge, and expectation, and will push at the boundaries a bit, then I think a lot of people won’t accept it. At first, it’s going to be too much change, or too different. I guess that would mean that I was doing my job properly.

But it’s just I feel I’m on less steady ground. I was worried about how Kill The Moon would be received, but it turned out to be the case that I was worried about the wrong things! It’s just unusual. It’s because it ends on a ten minute monologue from the Doctor, and that’s a very unusual way to go with it. I just wonder if people will be expecting more guns and bombs and bells and whistles and more of a fight. But it’s good to be nervous about things, to be uncertain whether you’re on shaky ground or not. If you feel secure, then you’re probably not experimenting, or doing anything new.

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What would you say to people looking to break into writing for a living, when deciding how much of themselves to put on the line? How many risks should they take, how much should they put themselves out there? How much is right to put on the line when you’re trying to put together a piece of writing? Both in terms of yourself as a person, or your own securities?

I think if you’re a writer you’ve got to be taking risks all the time. You’ve got to do things that feel risky. I think probably most writers are quite raw people, who have bits of themselves a bit too close to the surface for comfort at times. Because you need to access things, and you need to be able to excavate them. Sometimes, that’s necessarily a public thing.

I wouldn’t in any way advocate people not doing that for fear of the reprisals they get. I can see why you’d get burnt and wounded by that, and so there’s some kind of defence mechanism in the brain that says don’t do that again. But I think you have to do that again. It’s the accommodation that you make with yourself and what you do, and the reaction that it gets.

Despite being quite kind of raw and near the surface, as unpleasant as it can be, you have to grow some sort of second skin and work out why you do it. Work out why you do it in the first place. Whether you do it for the approval of everybody, whether you judge its success on whether it’s approved of by everybody. In which case you’re always going to be disappointed.

What about feedback and reviews?

It’s a trait of writers is to sift through all of the positive reviews until they find a negative one, and focus on that. If you’re looking for fulfilment and happiness from the critical response you get, or what’s written about you online, you’ve not going to find it.

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You should get to know your own work, get to know what you value about it, and just have a belief in that occasionally you’ll get beautiful little bits of affirmation for it, which mean a lot to you. Usually from people in the most unexpected places!

I had a friend of mine say he goes in and teaches writing in primary schools, and he said that all of the kids there loved Kill The Moon because they said they could look up into the sky at night and imagine it. I thought that was lovely, that I’d managed to engage the imagination of children. A belief that things are not necessarily always as they are.

I’d much rather live my life according to that, than people who say ‘he made the moon an egg, that’s ridiculous’. Because of course it is ridiculous, but it’s also imaginative and beautiful too!

But there’s still an inherent fear in writing for a living.

It’s hard not to be afraid of what people are going to say, and what people are going to think. But it’s part of being a writer. It’s not the nicest part of being a writer by any means, but if you’re going to write stuff that you’re hoping will communicate stuff to people, then you have to be prepared for that.

You put things online with your name on them, and I put things out into the world with my name on them. A lot of people who have a go at you are doing so anonymously, with the full knowledge that they’re never going to have to meet you or justify their opinions. Whatever you do with your name on it is a lot braver than whatever somebody says anonymously.

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Where are you now, then? We chatted to you earlier in the year, and it sounded then that you were juggling a collection of projects. What’s next, and what are you looking to tackle?

I’ve had a couple of months off recently, which felt very good. For the past two and a half years I’ve gone through a real whirlwind of shooting and whizzing deadlines – Jonathan Strange, Kill The Moon, doing Wallander, back to Doctor Who again. It felt like I’ve been long overdue a break. I suppose I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do next. It seems I’ve been doing lots of adaptations, but it’s hard to turn them down when they’re such good books!

What I’ll try and do in the future is be strict with myself, and do at least 50% original work. I’ve got a couple of original series in development, and I’ve got a couple of adaptations going. I’ve also got two or three ideas for one-offs that I’d love to do. And of course I’d love to do more Doctor Who if they’d want me back!

Peter Harness, thank you very much!

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