The dirty little secret of Doctor Who is that it’s a show fascinated by the morality of war that has pretty much never had the budget to depict a war properly. There’s a reason the Doctor always seems to be going up against advance detachments or desperate last survivors or whatever else. When a big enemy army does show up, Doctor Who tends to just show the earliest stages of hostilities, before the carnage really begins. None of that need necessarily be a problem, especially when it fits with the Doctor we have gotten to know onscreen. Leaving aside whatever he may or may not have done during his unseen Time War adventures, the Doctor has never been one for leading armies into battle, and his great skill has always been a way to think and talk his way out of the kinds of situations from which others would only see a violent way out.

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The climax of “The Zygon Inversion” makes explicit something that the best anti-war Doctor Who stories have always understood. Depicting the madness of war doesn’t require an epic scale. If anything, narrowing the focus to a single conflict or moral dilemma clarifies the essential futility of violent conflict. I touched on this a bit when discussing the opening two-parter, but “Genesis Of The Daleks” makes an asset of its low budget and limited cast by depicting two desperate, dying races on the brink of mutual extinction, yet still each determined to prevail, even if it means trusting a monster like Davros, who dominates the entire proceedings. “The Caves Of Androzani,” probably the current consensus pick for greatest Doctor Who story and certainly my choice for that title, makes no secret of how grubby and pointless its central two-bit resource war really is, all the better to contrast with the 5th Doctor’s increasingly desperate efforts to save just one life, that of his companion. “The Parting Of The Ways” keeps the bulk of its attention on whether the 9th Doctor can bring himself to use the delta wave generator, to commit double genocide again and prove once and for all he can’t escape his Time War crimes.

Of course, that last story still featured Dalek destruction on a continent-melting scale, hence the narrative necessity of the Bad Wolf, the first of the so-called Davies ex machina. The narrative sleight of hand has gotten cleverer over the years—the first time the 11th Doctor faced impossible odds against all the cosmos’ most fearsome armies, Steven Moffat essentially blew up the universe to sidestep the threat—but the basic storytelling mechanism has remained constant, as the show still finds ways to discuss the horrors of war without ever quite depicting them. “The Zygon Inversion” makes an asset of all this by arguing war really can be reduced to a scale model, to a choice of two buttons for each combatant, one promising total victory, the other utter destruction. The episode takes what could be a problem when trying to explore war—the budgetary reality is that it’s always going to be easier to have characters talk about conflict than actually show it—and turns it into a thunderously powerful asset by giving the Doctor something very close to a 10-minute monologue in which he tries desperately to convince Kate Stewart and Zygella to choose peace.

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Based on this two-parter and last year’s “Kill The Moon,” I think it’s safe to say that this is what Peter Harness does: More than any other new series writer, he builds scenarios that culminate with the characters stepping back from the action and debating the biggest of ideas. There’s a straightforwardness and an earnestness to that approach that’s hard not to admire, even if you disagree with the execution of the arguments—and, much as I still love “Kill The Moon,” I’ll readily acknowledge the overall reaction does show that episode’s point was muddled at best—or the conclusions the characters ultimately draw. Perhaps “The Zygon Inversion” will prove every bit as controversial as “Kill The Moon,” but if this is another love-it-or-hate-it affair, I’m firmly on the love-it side of the ledger.

It’s worth taking a moment to understand precisely what argument the episode is making. “The Zygon Inversion” is not necessarily advocating pacifism for a fault. The Doctor Who universe has long allowed for the fact that, as the 2nd Doctor once so eloquently put it, “There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things, things that act against everything we believe in—they must be fought.” There are enemies out there like the Daleks and the Cybermen that cannot be reasoned or negotiated there, and the only option then is to fight back. What “The Zygon Inversion” suggests, however, is that the vast majority of wars are fought not between good and evil but rather between opposing groups too overwhelmed by petty hatred and fear to recognize what the Doctor points out, that war only delays the inevitable moment in which the two sides sit down and actually talk through their differences. Of course, by then, that fundamentally unnecessary war has likely already created all the trauma and anguish necessary to breed the next generation of warmakers.

Stripping war of the delusional glory and sense of self-righteousness imparted by actual combat and reducing it all to the mere push of a button—more than that, refusing to grant war unearned solemnity by treating it as anything other than a sick, destructive game—allows the Doctor to get through to two scared, angry people who sincerely believe they have no alternative. Here again we see what is so powerful about Capaldi’s Doctor compared with his predecessors, as his emotional straightforwardness gives his speechifying an immediacy and a vulnerability that might have eluded the 10th or 11th Doctors. While the Doctor remains fundamental to the resolution here, the story isn’t all about him, as evidenced by his utter refusal to engage with Zygella’s argument that the current situation is somehow his fault. The Doctor created the possibility of peace, and he left it to humans and Zygons alike to make the right choices within that framework. He doesn’t shy away from the inherent paternalism of this—he literally says “Daddy knows best,” for goodness’ sake—but I’d submit that safeguarding the lives of 20 million Zygons and seven billion humans justifies the Doctor placing his thumb on the proverbial scale.

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While last week’s “The Zygon Invasion” drew plenty of parallels with modern-day extremist groups, the Doctor’s grand appeal ends up universalizing the issues under discussion. It’s perhaps a little corny to hear the Doctor use the words “cruel” and “cruelty” quite so many times in a row to describe the cycle of war, but it’s corny in a way that’s very true to Doctor Who, and it’s not as though the Doctor is wrong in his assessment. Again, the arguments put forth in “The Zygon Inversion” are nakedly idealistic, but if the Doctor isn’t going to take a stand for the value of naked idealism, then who the hell is? What makes this work is that the Doctor gradually drops the high-and-mighty act, growing ever more desperate to get through to Zygella. This is a Doctor who is not too proud to plead and beg, and he points out that he speaks against war not in the abstract but from the most terrible of earned experience. We’ve seen the Doctor articulate his Time War trauma before, and Capaldi’s anguish here as he describes how the memories of his atrocities will never, ever leave him is as powerful a statement as any the new series has ever produced. There’s also that final moment, as he at last reaches Zygella, as his expressions run the emotional gamut. The Doctor has never looked quite so old, so worn down by the pain he carries, yet his defiance endures.

While that climactic scene dominates “The Zygon Inversion,” what leads up to it is similarly affecting, and Clara is particularly well handled. Imprisoning her inside the Zygon pod risks robbing her of agency, yet the result is much the opposite, as Clara tries everything she can think of to waylay her duplicate’s plans and to reach the Doctor. The interrogation sequence between the two Claras demonstrates just how far the companion has come in her time in the TARDIS, as she keeps her cool and retains as much control over the situation as she can, even as she faces off against a Zygon extremist who can detect her every lie. Crucially, Clara never plays the damsel in distress. Yes, she reaches out to the Doctor to let her know she’s awake, but her conversation with Zygella is about what awaits her inside the Osgood box and why she will soon need Clara again, not why the Zygon should, say, be afraid of the Doctor. I’ll admit the Doctor’s eventual suggestion that Clara had gotten inside Zygella’s head and helped influence her to stand down doesn’t quite work for me, as Clara never really tries to convince her to make peace, nor does she influence Zygella directly beyond gaining control of a finger or an eyelid, but given how well Clara is portrayed here, that’s mostly a quibble.

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Given the dual role she has to play, this is very much a showcase episode for Jenna Coleman, and perhaps the best compliment I can pay her performance as Zygella is that I kept finding myself thinking, “Man, Clara really isn’t in this episode much, is she?” Coleman’s Zygon feels like a wholly separate character, a harsh and committed fighter fully capable of holding her own against Capaldi’s Doctor even as her arguments crumble one by one. Coleman’s performance as Bonnie is nicely textured, shifting between pragmatic commander and zealous true believer. That’s all consistent with the idea that Zygella acts not so much out of some coherent if extreme philosophy as she does in angry, hurt reaction to perceived injustices. The world has hit her, and she wants to hit back, hard. All her actions make grimly perfect sense within that framework.

I just rewatched “Day Of The Doctor” for the podcast I do with fellow A.V. Clubber Caroline Siede—we talked about that damn thing for more than two hours!—and two things stand out about this current two-parter’s grand prequel. The first is how much better Doctor Who has gotten in the last couple years in how it handles its supporting characters, and its female supporting characters in particular, and that’s especially apparent with respect to Osgood. Ingrid Oliver is a winning presence in her initial appearance in the 50th anniversary special, yet the Osgood of that episode is a bit of a joke, a hyperventilating megafan who goes to pieces in the face of crisis, pleading for the Doctor to show up and save her.

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The Osgood of tonight’s episode is about as far from that as one can imagine, as she continues to live up to the lofty ideals the Doctor laid down when he brokered the ceasefire, arguing repeatedly that it doesn’t matter whether she began life as a human or a Zygon. She’s the one who realizes Clara is using her duplicate’s body to communicate, and she repeatedly, if non-judgmentally sees through the Doctor’s various misdirections. By episode’s end, her puffing on her inhaler functions as a call to arms, rather than a punchline, which is a remarkable progression given her only intervening appearance was the other Osgood’s fatal turn in “Death In Heaven.”

The other thing that puts this episode in conversation with “The Day Of The Doctor” is the explicit link the Doctor makes between Bonnie’s decision to not use the Osgood box and his own choice to not use the Moment and to save Gallifrey. More broadly, tonight’s episode serves to clarify a message that earlier story attempted to convey amid all the 50th anniversary spectacle: War requires making hard choices, but the hardest choice of all can be deciding to fight for peace. That choice is difficult not because it requires terrible sacrifice or grim resolve, but rather because it requires a person to look deep within themselves and to put aside their own pettiness, to find the capacity to forgive and to let go of their grievances. “The Day Of The Doctor” perhaps muddled that message a little bit by attaching it to something as seismic and game-changing as the decision to un-destroy Gallifrey. But “The Zygon Inversion” brings it all down to a pair of boxes, each with a pair of buttons. The simplicity of that setup allows this two-parter to be one of the show’s strongest ever statements against war, not because the Doctor is challenging us from on high to live up to his standard, but rather because he wants no one else to know his pain. He’s already had more than enough truth and more than enough consequences to last him infinite lifetimes.

Stray observations:

  • “I’m over 2,000 years old. I’m old enough to be your messiah!”
  • One thing I appreciated about how this episode used Kate Stewart was that the Doctor’s appeals were always to her directly, with no attempt to invoke the legacy of her father to persuade her one way or the other. At this point, Doctor Who treats Kate as a character who can stand on her own. Doesn’t mean she can’t bust out a “Five rounds rapid” reference after gunning down a Zygon, of course.
  • The Doctor admitting the time he thought Clara was dead was the longest month of his life is just heartbreaking. It’s taken awhile to really snap into focus, but I do genuinely feel the bond the Doctor and Clara share, and the fact that he’s ever more honest about how deeply he cares for her is a powerful indicator of this incarnation’s continued growth. Yeah … this is all going to end in tears, isn’t it?

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