It’s relatively rare for Doctor Who to comment directly on contemporary issues. The classic series was only occasionally interested in situating itself in terms of present-day controversies, and these instances are mostly confined to the Earthbound adventures of Jon Pertwee’s 3rd Doctor: “The Green Death,” for instance, has a lot to say about environmentalism, that most 1970s of hot-button topics (which isn’t to say we’ve fixed, well, anything about the environment since then, but “The Green Death” is almost dizzyingly 1970s in its approach to the topic). With stories like the present-day “Aliens Of London”/“World War Three” and the far-future “Bad Wolf,” the first season of the revived series pretty much set the template for how the show would address issues of the day: When the end of the world comes, people are just going to sit around and watch it happen on television. It’s the kind of satirical point that isn’t exactly shocking a TV writer came up with, and it had the added benefit of setting up a new round of celebrity cameos every time the Doctor watched the latest global peril begin to unfold. Russell T. Davies’ era never really developed much of a cohesive take on modern issues beyond a vague distrust of modern technology, be it the upgrades of “Rise Of The Cybermen”/“The Age Of Steel” or the killer GPS of “The Sontaran Stratagem”/“The Poison Sky.”
Under Steven Moffat’s stewardship, the show has drifted still further from any real-world parallels. Stories like “The Hungry Earth”/“Cold Blood” and “The Rebel Flesh”/“The Almost People” feel like they ought to have something to say about any number of contemporaries issues, but they end up being largely focused on the broader philosophical premises raised by the science fiction aspects of their premises. Those stories aren’t especially interested in setting up an allegory to contemporary events, but rather in asking something along the lines of, “If this preposterous thing happened, how would people actually react?” Indeed, through all 52 years of its existence, Doctor Who has been primarily interested in exploring more universal and more philosophical questions, rather than specifically engaging with our present political and social milieu. And honestly, that’s probably for the best, if the few alternately halfhearted and hamfisted efforts in that direction are any indication (with the one big, big exception of the Torchwood miniseries “Children Of Earth,” which is every bit as dark and bleak and incredible as people say it is).
All of which is to say that when something like “The Zygon Invasion” comes along, it feels fundamentally different from what the show usually gets up to. Episode writer Peter Harness, making his return after penning last season’s most divisive entry in “Kill The Moon,” crafts a story with some unmistakable parallels with the current chaos in the Middle East, with a particular emphasis on ISIS. The episode doesn’t go overboard in making these connections. The Zygon insurgents aren’t allegorical to real-world terrorists, but they are—to borrow J.R.R. Tolkien’s way of thinking—applicable to such groups. The Doctor points out that it plays directly into the radicals’ hands to attack them, as that only serves to radicalize the moderates. The rebel Zygons are savvy in their use of video and internet to strike fear into UNIT. They take the real-world use of innocent civilians as human shields to its most terrible logical extreme by raiding their enemies’ memories to turn into the very loved ones the soldiers would be least able to kill. And, on the other side, we see the Doctor Who debut of drone warfare, though that scene primarily acts an affecting bit of foreshadowing for Hitchley’s confrontation with his “mother” rather than any particular commentary on the use of drones.
That’s probably about the extent of the parallels, though, and it would be a mistake to say “The Zygon Invasion” is making any particularly deep point about the current geopolitical situation. It doesn’t need to. Rather, these connections serve to anchor the story in something more vital than your typical alien invasion plotline, while also offering viewers an opportunity to reflect on what this story might have to say about real-world situations, should they so choose—here again Tolkien’s observation that applicability “resides in the freedom of the reader” rings true. The Zygons’ motivations here are, not coincidentally, rather more nuanced than those in their two previous appearances. In fairness, both the Tom Baker classic “Terror Of The Zygons” and the 50th anniversary extravaganza “The Day Of the Doctor” established the Zygons as more than just evil galactic conquerors: Each story established the Zygons’ planet had been destroyed, and Earth was the chosen replacement, which is just the kind of dire situation that would excuse a certain degree of ruthlessness. But the Zygon radicals here have more specific, more relatable goals, as they demand the right to live openly, to not have to deny their own identities. And, yeah, there’s a bit about global domination mixed in there, but that’s just the outgrowth of what began as justifiable grievances from the younger brood.
The return of Osgood after her demise in “Death In Heaven” is handled about as well as one could reasonably hope, with the only real clunkiness coming down to the unanswered question of where precisely the surviving Osgood was when Missy and the Cybermen’s plans were kicking off. There wasn’t any indication in that previous episode that Osgood was living a life in duplicate, but then it wasn’t strictly relevant, and it’s not as though what we learn here isn’t a logical extension of the apparent bond the two Osgoods began to form in “The Day Of The Doctor.” This is probably a bit of a retcon, but it’s a minor one, as these things go, and “The Zygon Invasion” earns this de facto resurrection by having this Osgood refuse to reveal whether she began life as a human or a Zygon. I phrase it that way because it’s the only way to accept her premises while still wanting to know the answer to the essential question. Either way, her non-answer gets the Doctor once again thinking about hybrids, tying back to Davros’ rantings in “The Witch’s Familiar” and his similar musings on Ashildr at the end of “The Girl Who Died.”
Osgood herself is used minimally here, serving to set up the plotline with her “sister” in the beginning and then chatting with the Doctor about his old question-mark collars. Her ongoing sartorial impersonation of the Doctor now officially encompasses the period of the Doctor’s lives in which he was just randomly slapping questions on all his clothing—get a gander at the 7th Doctor-approved question-mark jumper in the pre-credits sequence—which in real life happened because then-producer John Nathan-Turner insisted the Doctor ought to be mysterious and had a crushingly direct way of realizing this brief. “The Zygon Invasion” almost justifies this past silliness by having Osgood wonder what the question actually was, which both ties the collar in with an ongoing preoccupation of the Moffat era and, more importantly, totally wrongfoots the Doctor as he attempts to interrogate Osgood about her own identity. There’s likely rather more to tease out here between the Doctor and Osgood, but what we see is enough to establish that she has become rather more formidable than her initial fannish awkwardness might indicate. Her vision of maintaining the peace is rather more idealistic than the Doctor’s, who appears intent on finding every last scrap of information he can to defeat the radicals and restore the ceasefire. The two are absolutely working to the same goals, but their methods and priorities don’t necessarily align.
As is often the case with the first halves of two-parters, much of what happens tonight ranges from setup to slow burn. There’s that one big twist, of course, and we’ll get to that momentarily, but much of what we see here tonight might best be understood as characterizing the radical Zygon threat as opposed to really engaging with it. Take Kate Stewart’s trip to Truth or Consequences. Beyond proving that Doctor Who still has the money for the occasional transatlantic filming excursion, that whole sequence primarily serves to build up tension until the final reveal. There’s not necessarily anything new we actually learn about the Zygon threat—or, for that matter, Kate as a person—leading up to the reveal that Norlander was a Zygon all along and Kate’s latest apparent death. (I say “apparent,” because never count out a Lethbridge-Stewart.) I’m hesitant to call this padding, because that implies scenes like these can’t be worthwhile just because they help generate tension, but I suppose that goes back to the great challenge of reviewing only the first 45 minutes of a 90-minute story: We’re still almost entirely in the buildup phase, and we can still only guess at how next week’s payoff recasts the opening episode.
Even so, “The Zygon Invasion” definitely isn’t the most energetic of setup episodes, and a lot of that has to do with the amount of time the Doctor spends on the sidelines. Peter Capaldi is tons of fun here, randomly nicknaming himself Dr. Disco and revealing that he does quite enjoy poncing about in a big plane, but he has only the briefest of interactions with the Zygons themselves. Osgood’s text message theoretically brings him into the main plot straight away, but the episode still wants to spend some time showing how humans deal with the threat the Zygons pose without the Doctor there to save them. This becomes most apparent with the Doctor’s trip to Turmezistan, where he just sort of stands around a lot, first when the drone operator finds herself unable to fire and later when Hitchley is confronted with the woman who might be but almost certainly isn’t his mother. Now, neither instance of the Doctor holding back is all that egregious, especially when Rebecca Front’s Colonel Walsh is there both times to block him from any interference he might care to do. “The Zygon Invasion” is methodical in how it paces the setup for next week’s story—which does rather mean we’re limited in how much we judged the effectiveness of that creative decision without first seeing next week’s “The Zygon Inversion.”
But no matter, because there are still plenty of some standout scenes here, in particular Hitchley’s standoff with his mother in front of the church. The impossibility of the scenario makes it play like something out of The Twilight Zone, although I was actually most put in mind of “The Third Expedition” from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Despite the presence of Zygon duplicates, it’s the humanity of the scene that elevates it: As much as it’s obvious that Hitchley’s mother is deflecting when she refuses to answer his questions, it’s also asking far too much of the man to ask him to kill someone who looks and acts exactly like his mother because she can’t remember the name of his favorite teddy bear. The scenario has a dreamlike quality, as more and more apparent beloved hostages come out of the church door, punctuated only by Colonel Walsh’s ignored orders. The Doctor here barely registers as a presence in the scene, but then he’s beside the point.
The big twist of “The Zygon Invasion,” and the one element that is likeliest to drive a good chunk of next week’s episode, is the reveal that the Clara we spend time with throughout most of this episode is, in fact, an impostor. I’ve had a chance to watch this episode a couple times now, and I can say that the twist works brilliantly either way: Perhaps I’m just naive, but I had no inkling that Clara had been replaced on first viewing, while the second time round I picked up on all the clues that really ought to have given the game away.
Admittedly, the show is playing a bit of a dirty trick on its audience, as the concealment of the twist relies in part on the fact that, well, Doctor Who has long since trained us to look past apparent inconsistencies in Clara’s character. It really ought to be obvious something is up when Clara leaves the apartment of a frightened child, fixes her hair, and nonchalantly calls back the Doctor with the flip, “Did you just call yourself Dr. Disco?” It really ought to be obvious when Clara interrupts a top-secret, highest-priority military operation to ask Jac if they can drop by her apartment and pick up some things, a request to which Jac is clearly a bit dumbfounded to hear. If this were a companion Doctor Who wrote a bit more tightly—any of the other new series companions, in other words—I suspect it would be obvious that her blase reactions indicate something is wrong. As it is, Clara’s murkier characterization, not to mention the Moffat era’s tendency to prioritize narrative coolness over character consistency, makes it easier to shrug off those bits of weirdness.
I’m not sure that’s something the show really ought to be given credit for, exactly, given the twist works in large part because it takes advantage of a more systemic weakness of this current era. But damn if it doesn’t work, and there are other moments that would work well with any companion—does the Doctor look agog at Clara because she just admitted she memorized Trivial Pursuit cards, or because he already suspects something might be up?—so I’m not going to get too hung up on this. That’s a good way to sum up “The Zygon Invasion” as a whole, honestly: This isn’t like “Under The Lake” or “The Girl Who Died,” both of which function beautifully on their own terms, without their narrative partner. This episode is more like a typical first half of a two-parter, in that this is always—at least as of next week—going to be judged entirely in tandem with “The Zygon Inversion.” As such, the only real questions to answer are does this episode generate anticipation for next week, and does this episode position “The Zygon Inversion” to go to places and explore things it couldn’t reach if it weren’t the back half of a two-parter? I’d say yes on both counts—assuming any of our heroes are actually still alive to be there next week, that is.
- I’m not completely sure, but this may well be the first Doctor Who episode that not only passes the Bechdel test but also fails the reverse Bechdel test, as I’m not sure two male characters actually talk to each other directly at any point in this episode. (Yes, the Doctor addresses the soldiers in a general sort of way, but nobody answers him, and I suppose the Zygons are a bit tricky in terms of how we classify their gender, but for all intents and purposes, there aren’t any men talking to men here, as far as I can see.) Does this mean anything? Nah, probably not, in that the Bechdel test is better understood in terms of how it talks to broad trends in gender representation rather than any sort of judgment of a specific episode or movie. But it’s still kind of cool that this episode is, without ever making note of it, so women-centric, if only because that’s still such a rare thing on television.
- If Osgood does make it out of next week alive, we need to figure out her future Doctor-inspired wardrobe choices. We’ve already had the 4th Doctor’s scarf, the 7th Doctor’s jumper, the 11th Doctor’s bowtie, and the question-mark collars favored by the 4th through 7th Doctors. I’m going to go ahead and say the 3rd Doctor’s frills or the 9th Doctor’s jacket and jumper combo would be fun and a bit less obvious than a 10th Doctor-inspired look, though that would probably be the favorite if she does return once more. Also … she needs to wear the 6th Doctor’s coat, if only to see the look on the 12th Doctor’s face. And you thought the Doctor was furious when he takes on the Daleks…
- I almost titled this review “Doctor Who is running the Battlestar Galactica playbook,” but I changed my mind upon realizing this isn’t really that great a match for the Cylon threat (other than the similarity in name with Zygon, I suppose). The terrorism parallels and the use of duplicate infiltrators both do feel very BSG, but I’m not sure that’s quite enough, on reflection.
- I love the fact that this Doctor apparently spends all his downtime playing the electric guitar. Of all the convergences between Doctor and actor, this might well be my favorite.
- It’s a big, big credit to Peter Capaldi and Rebecca Front’s versatility as actors that I never once thought of the Doctor and Colonel Walsh’s scenes together as a reunion of The Thick Of It. And The Thick Of It is one of my favorite shows! On that note, let’s make this week’s random comedy clip a reminder of Malcolm Tucker and Nicola Murray in … well, certainly not happier times. Less Zygon-y, I suppose! I, uh, don’t need to tell any of you that the language isn’t family-friendly, right?