Doctor Who is largely pitched as escapist action-adventure, but “The Zygon Invasion” has an unusually hard-edged, realistic feel for an episode that pits the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his friends against the show’s typical grotesque, rubber-suited monsters, thanks to a story that deliberately parallels some of the distressing real-world events of the last decade. Writer Peter Harness greatly improves on last season’s “Kill the Moon” by writing a script with all of that story’s strengths, including excellent suspense building and strong characterizations, and none of its weaknesses (in particular, the egregious disregard for basic science that made it so hard to take seriously).
A race of alien shapeshifters, the Zygons appeared in just one story in the mid 1970s, but made such a memorable impression that it seemed only a matter of time before they would turn up again in the modern series. Eventually, showrunner Steven Moffat used them in a subplot of 2013’s 50th-anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” (as seen here in a pre-titles flashback), in which the seeds for this story were planted. The Doctor induced Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), the leader of the military organisation UNIT, to negotiate a peace treaty with a hidden Zygon force marooned on Earth. That plot thread was deliberately left unresolved until now, when we learn that the agreement involved 20 million Zygons taking human form and being resettled around the world.
Thanks to a little rewriting of history (the claim that the Zygons are predominantly peaceful, using their shapeshifting ability only as a defence mechanism, is hard to square with the Doctor’s initial encounter with them), this state of affairs is used to generate multiple analogies to the current state of the world, most obviously the radicalization of young Muslims whose parents had previously been integrated into the societies they had immigrated to. Elements such as drone strikes, hostage videos, airplanes being shot down by shoulder-fired missiles, and the execution of captured political opponents contribute to making a splinter group of rebels within the Zygon ranks function as a substitute for real Islamist terrorists. Fortunately, the story works well enough in its own right to prevent the allegory becoming intrusive, though a final judgment will have to wait until next week, when the series will have the challenge of presenting some kind of resolution to the situation.
Last year the Doctor exhibited an antipathy toward soldiers bordering on the cartoonish, but he’s more restrained here. He restricts himself to occasional sniping, as when he flies off to the Zygon rebels’ base in the fictional nation of Turmezistan (taking advantage of his status as president of Earth, conferred in “Death in Heaven”), leaving Clara (Jenna Coleman) in the U.K. and telling her to “Protect it from the scary monsters…and also from the Zygons.” However, while Colonel Walsh (Rebecca Front) is presented unsympathetically, it’s notable that the Doctor doesn’t have an answer for her contention that the aliens’ shape-shifting renders them too dangerous to deal with (“It’s not paranoia when it’s real”). Indeed, Walsh is the only survivor when the Zygons annihilate her troops after assuming the forms of their loved ones—in a scene that’s unfortunately drawn out and overplayed with saccharine music. Meanwhile, Kate investigates the town of Truth or Consequences in New Mexico where the Zygon insurrection started (in a nice touch, the town’s name also serves as the rebels’ slogan), where we learn that the whole debacle began with the sight of a Zygon in its unconcealed form precipitating a mob attack, which led to a depressingly familiar cycle of violence.
At the opposite extreme to the Zygon rebels is Osgood (Ingrid Oliver)—a fan favorite, with her habit of wearing clothes reminiscent of the Doctor’s past outfits. Having come to terms with her own Zygon duplicate back in “The Day of the Doctor,” she and her “sister” represent the concept of peace between the two races in its most ideal form. We may never know which Osgood was killed by Missy in “Death in Heaven,” given the survivor’s refusal to differentiate between her human and Zygon selves. Oliver brings a sincerity and strength to a character previously used mainly as comic relief. (And in passing, the Doctor refers to her as a “hybrid,” in what appears to be this week’s teasing reference to the background arc of the season.)
A story about shapeshifters can be counted on to play the “someone is not who we thought they were” card, and this one plays it multiple times, leading up to the revelation that Clara was replaced by a Zygon early in the episode. The plotting is cleverly done: What seemed like a rather far-fetched coincidence when Clara happened to find an entrance into the aliens’ underground base is explained in retrospect as the fake Clara engineering a way to get all the friendly UNIT troops down there so they can be massacred. Coleman does an impressive job with “evil Clara,” expunging all of her usual warmth with just a few slight changes to her bearing and voice.
This being the first half of a two-parter, things start out bad and get steadily worse, ending with perhaps the season’s best cliffhanger to date. The Zygons have thoroughly neutralised UNIT, nearly all of the Doctor’s allies are captured or worse, and the false Clara has just launched a missile at the Doctor’s airplane. Of course, the mysterious “Osgood box” shown at the top of the episode is an obvious hint at the story’s ultimate resolution (it’s a good bet that it contains the anti-Zygon nerve gas mentioned in passing by Kate as being previously confiscated by the Doctor). What’s in question isn’t what the outcome will be, but what it will end up costing.
Next Week: The conclusion of the story, in “The Zygon Inversion.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: The original encounter with the shapeshifting aliens can be seen in 1975’s “Terror of the Zygons,” starring Tom Baker, with Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter.
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