Doctor Who: “The Zygon Inversion”

Imagine you’ve been forced to move to another country, one where you don’t speak the language and the customs aren’t your own. You probably still dream about home, where everything is as you understand it, but then you wake up in your new apartment and everything is strange. Perhaps the clock still shows numbers you can read, but the newspapers are in another language, and even the toothpaste looks a little strange.

This is how Clara experiences being asleep inside the Zygon pod at the start of this episode, but she could just as easily be in another country, on another planet. The Zygons imitating humans have the advantage of absorbing at least some of the memories and personality of the originals, but some of the strangeness of Earth must be difficult and terrifying for them to grasp. We get a glimpse of this later in the episode, when the Doctor and Osgood encounter a Zygon whose ability to maintain human form has been disrupted by Clara’s duplicate, Bonnie. He’s the only representative of the Zygon majority we meet, the only one not in the militant splinter group, and while he seems to consider Earth his home, he seems disoriented and terrified and disheveled even before Bonnie attacks him. He doesn’t make much of a well-adjusted, integrated human.

I’d call these scenes highlights of the episode, but the episode is entirely highlights, no filler. We also get the Doctor and Osgood trading pure gold banter after escaping Bonnie’s attempt on their life (perhaps the reason for the Moffat co-author credit on this half), Clara using the Zygon link to influence Bonnie’s actions, Bonnie using it to detect Clara’s lies, Kate Stewart at her very best (echoing her dad’s famous line “five rounds rapid”) and finally everyone in a room with the Doctor urging them to stand down from the brink of war. It’s unflagging brilliance and, as much as I liked “The Woman Who Lived,” I have to admit it’s the best episode of the season so far.

If I had to pick a few bones, I’d first point to the fact that the two key monologues might have been improved as dialogues. The scene with the frightened Zygon who just wants to live and can’t see a way to do it depends on the fact that he’s too overwhelmed by panic and paranoia to listen to a word the Doctor says. And the Doctor’s bravura speech against war and revenge and violent revolution depends at least in part on Bonnie being a bit simple-minded and not having thought through her goals. That she’s the sort of revolutionary who just wants to tear things down without any idea of building them up again is plausible, but maybe not as interesting. It’s still just a bit troubling that none of the Zygon violence from the previous episode was subverted in any way — they were as unsympathetic and bloodthirsty as they appeared after all, and that one peaceful Zygon was too far past sanity to tell that side of the story effectively. And there are a few moments where the Doctor slips into an American accent for comedic purposes, and neither the accent nor the jokes really achieve those purposes.

But none of these flaws stand in the way of a story qualified to be a classic. It doesn’t hurt that Peter Harness has once again written a political subtext that seems to be read in opposite ways by different viewers, even though the full import of the line “you’re not superior to the people who were cruel to you” ought to cut deep into all parts of the political spectrum. But the Doctor knows as well as we do that these kinds of lessons must be learned over and over again all throughout history; it doesn’t take a memory wipe for people to forget that they should be talking instead of pressing the big red buttons.

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion”

And just like that we’re back in a classic mode, in this case the Earth invasion stories that introduced UNIT in 1970 and continued through the mid-70s. Some would say this mode peaked in 1975 with “Terror of the Zygons,” the only story of the classic series to feature them (and their cybernetic Loch Ness Monster). Even in that story they were explicitly refugees, unable to return to a home planet destroyed in a stellar explosion. This, along with their shapeshifting ability, makes them an ideal choice for an uncomfortably on-the-nose story about current events, including radical terrorist insurgency and the Syrian refugee crisis.

It’s gripping stuff, to be sure. It makes the previous six episodes, enjoyable as they were, seem like a lot of playing around. If you’re alive in the world today you can’t fail to be interested in these topics, regardless of your position on them, and they’re treated in a way that might seem unusually gritty to Doctor Who fans who’ve never seen the classic series. The body count is high, even if the corpses are tastefully if somewhat comically represented by electrified hairballs. Children are kidnapped and apparently murdered. There is an extended scene in which a soldier points a gun at a woman who may or may not be his mother and deliberates about whether to shoot her down. You can’t really accuse this episode of playing around.

You can accuse it of jumping around a bit, and it’s a little confusing just what exactly the plan is half the time. It seems that the peace treaty between humans and Zygons negotiated in “Day of the Doctor” allowed Zygons to remain on Earth and live side by side with humans as long as they never ever revealed themselves as Zygons. Of course, they are apparently exact copies of living humans, and while the two Osgoods could easily have lived as twin sisters it’s not clear how the other 19,999,999 copies are supposed to coexist without anyone noticing. It’s an ambitious idea, to put it mildly, but perhaps very slightly easier to swallow than the idea that the moon has always been an egg. When one Zygon child accidentally reveals its true form, all hell breaks loose and suddenly the Zygons (or at least a radical splinter group of them) decide the war is back on and it’s back to imitating humans for purposes of infiltration and murder, not assimilation. Our heroes split up, which as always is a terrible idea, and what ensues is scene after scene of tricky tricky Zygons doing nefarious things.

All sorts of interesting questions are sidestepped. Before the treaty fell apart, what was life like for a Zygon — a hulking, moist, hissing amphibious-looking creature with limited social grace by human standards — trying to fit into human society? Were there enclaves or settlements where they could stretch out their suckers and relax where humans couldn’t see them? Did they pay taxes, shop, go to hospitals? A couple scenes of these would not only have been entertaining and intriguing but would more importantly have set the stage for the idea that this treaty was a viable strategy for peace and that the Zygons actually deserve some measure of compassion.

Because “The Zygon Invasion” does a lot of work to erode any sympathy we might feel for the creatures. Scene after scene shows them as conniving, ruthless, bloodthirsty murderers, willing to use literally duplicitous tactics to play on human scruples and gain the upper hand. In one scene a drone pilot can’t bring herself to bomb a Zygon family that appears too much like her own. In another Clara seems bizarrely willing to overlook what appears to be a child afraid of his own parents (though this is later explained). And then there’s that scene with the soldier and his mom. None of this is likely to endear Peter Harness to the crowd who felt his previous “Kill the Moon” read as a pro-life allegory, and are likely to read this one as an anti-Muslim anti-refugee polemic, despite the “splinter group” and anti-assimilation dodges. It seems inevitable that we’re being set up to change our minds about them in the conclusion (whose very title, “The Zygon Inversion,” all but promises this), but Harness has gone to great lengths to make this seem impossible.

He’s also gone to great lengths to ensure this episode passes the Bechdel Test. Like his previous “Kill the Moon,” “The Zygon Invasion” keeps most of its male characters to the sidelines in favor of its female leads. The military leader working with the Doctor, the drone pilot, the sheriff of Truth and Consequences, the two ousted Zygon leaders, all female, and all for the most part well cast and acted. Clara gets a bit more to do this time around, after being absent for most of “The Woman Who Lived.” And of course Osgood’s back, and terrific; we may never know if she’s the human or the Zygon Osgood, since it’s become a moral issue for her not to disclose her origins.

Sadly, it’s our UNIT crew who still fail to inspire confidence. Even though they’ve supposedly shifted from a military focus to a scientific one, and even though she’s considerably stronger here than she has been in most of her previous appearances, Kate Stewart still seems strangely inadequate to the task at hand, and Jaye Griffith’s character Jac seems completely at sea in a crisis. To be fair, classic series UNIT’s Sergeant Benton and Captain Yates never came off as the most hardened of military men either, but still.

Then there’s the Doctor, curiously passive just as in “Kill the Moon.” He does get in a bit of grandstanding (mainly “poncing about in a big plane”), perhaps a bit too much. I’ve been giving the guitar playing and the sonic Wayfarers a lot of rope, but with this episode they may have hung themselves. The Doctor doesn’t need to strum pensively every time he finds himself alone in the TARDIS. These motifs are starting to look less like Capaldi’s grace notes for his Doctor’s character and more like the desperate attempt at cool their detractors always said they were. It doesn’t help that he refers to himself as “Doctor Disco” and “Doctor Funkenstein” over the course of the episode. Relax, dude.