“The Zygon Inversion,” the best episode of this season of Doctor Who thus far, is a powerful conclusion to the story started last week. Writer Peter Harness places the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman)—or, rather, Bonnie, Clara’s Zygon duplicate—on opposite sides of a confrontation that has even more blazing intensity than he provided at the climax of last season’s “Kill the Moon.” Showrunner and co-writer Steven Moffat’s handiwork is visible in the way the episode conforms to his usual practice with the second half of a two-parter: After a sprawling first half, the story’s focus is now confined almost exclusively to the regulars. There are practically no other on-screen characters (and only one other speaking part) besides the Doctor, Clara and Bonnie, UNIT leader Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), who represents humanity in this conflict with the shape-shifting aliens, and scientist Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), who gets to be the Doctor’s companion while Clara is held captive.
Apart from a couple of scenes where Coleman is playing against herself, the real Clara has a secondary role in the episode. At the start, she finds herself trapped in a dream version of her apartment—a deliberately disorienting shift of perspective which is another technique Moffat has previously employed to begin the second half of a two-parter (see, for example, 2008’s “Forest of the Dead”). She cleverly works out that the mental link between her and Bonnie allows her to influence Bonnie’s actions, and last week’s cliffhanger is resolved when Clara’s efforts cause the first missile fired at the Doctor’s airplane by Bonnie to miss, giving the Doctor and Osgood time to parachute from the plane before a second missile destroys it.
With Bonnie taking center stage, Coleman is again outstanding at playing a character who’s much more than just an “evil twin” version of Clara. As the leader of the Zygon revolution, Bonnie displays all the self-righteous certainty of the true fundamentalist, convinced that all 20 million Zygons around the world will automatically take her side against the humans when they’re forcibly unmasked, even though, as is the case in all such conflicts, the vast majority want to simply live their own lives in peace.
These friendly Zygons are represented by one man (Nicholas Asbury) who Bonnie prevents from staying in disguise, rendering him a monstrous amalgam of human and Zygon that she intends to use to create a climate of fear. The Doctor finds him and tries to help, but cannot prevent the man from suiciding in despair at being thus used. (One of the episode’s few flaws is the bizarre lack of reaction from the crowd of bystanders when the monstrous Zygon appears next to them. It’s possible that, rather than humans, they’re intended to be other Zygons that Bonnie has intimidated into cooperating, but neither the script nor the direction makes this clear.)
It’s no surprise when the “Osgood box” left behind by the Doctor when he originally set up the whole human/Zygon agreement proves to be crucially important, but in an excellent twist (which, as he points out, should have been obvious given there were two Osgoods, human and Zygon), it turns out there are two boxes. Inside each, the phrase used as a glib slogan by the revolutionaries, “Truth or Consequences,” assumes a terrible significance: Kate and Bonnie each find themselves facing two buttons, either of which will end their war, but only one of them in a way that they would wish, and the Doctor’s task is to convince them both to refrain from selecting any of the dreadful alternatives.
Capaldi is mesmerising in this confrontation. There’s only his voice on the soundtrack, no incidental music at all, but he controls the tempo masterfully as the Doctor expounds on his “scale model” of war and tries to persuade Bonnie to break the cycle of violence. Coleman rises to the occasion as well, showing Bonnie’s certainty melting away under the Doctor’s onslaught as he compares her behavior to a child’s tantrum: no thought for the future, no plan to actually accomplish anything, simply a desire for revenge against an innocent population for mainly imaginary slights.
Eventually, Kate makes the decision to close her box, allowing the Doctor to concentrate on Bonnie; her quiet “Sorry” as she comes back to her senses and the Doctor’s heartfelt “Thank you” is a moving moment. At last, Bonnie is reduced to griping, like a petulant teenager, that nobody understands her. The music steals back in, and Capaldi soars to the climax of the scene as the Doctor uses his experiences in the Time War to finally break through her self-centeredness. (In a clever touch, the design of the Osgood boxes deliberately echoes that of the Moment from “The Day of the Doctor.”) The whole sequence is the finest yet of the Capaldi era, and a defining moment for his Doctor.
While the previous episode had many obvious references to read-world events, such allusions are considerably toned down here. But the lack of specific applicability to a current, ongoing conflict makes it easier for the story to reach a happy ending, as Bonnie takes on Osgood’s appearance to replace the Osgood twin who was previously killed. Gaining a place in the group protecting the planet is a fitting reward for her ultimately realising that, in fact, the Osgood boxes were empty. There was no route to a quick victory, just the prospect of a war that would cost millions of lives. Only with that understanding did her desire for war wither; as the Doctor always knew, the key to peace is all in the mind.
Next Week: Creepy nocturnal horrors again, this time on a deserted space station, in “Sleep No More.”
Classic Who DVD Recommendation: “The Enemy of the World” is a late-’60s version of the present-day conspiracy thriller which also plays games with identity, thanks to its villain being a physical double of the Doctor (a kind of mirror image of this story, where every character except the Doctor is or could be a duplicate). Missing for many years from the BBC archives (it was only finally returned in 2013), it stars Patrick Troughton, with Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling.
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