Contains Spoilers in Duplicate
A few weeks ago, I commented on how Steven Moffat is able to pick up a stray bit of random, accidental production miscontinuity and weave an entire story beat out of it, as he did recently in “The Girl Who Died” when he made use of the fact that Peter Capaldi had already appeared in Doctor Who as a different character before he was subsequently cast in the title role.
This week’s story “The Zygon Invasion” does that again, this time taking a whole bunch of loose threads left over from past stories and fashioning from them a full-blown tapestry to compete with the very best that Bayeux can produce. So much so in this case that for the first time I can recall outside of a formal two-parter, the episode has to do a fully-fledged American-style pre-titles flashback in order to recap events that happened a couple of years ago – specifically in the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” which had marked the first return of the classic Who adversaries the Zygons, one of the best loved creatures from the history of the show despite the fact that they only ever made one appearance back in a 1975 Tom Baker story.
In truth, the Zygons’ return in 2013 was little more than a bit of fan-pleasing nostalgia to mark the golden jubilee of the show, merely an accent from the past delivering some thrills and spills to delight the younger viewers while the real meat and substance of that landmark story was actually to do with the Doctor re-evaluating his part in the Time War. One of the criticisms I had with “The Day of the Doctor” – actually, pretty much the only criticism I had of it at the time as far as I can recall – is that the minute Moffat got bored with the Zygon B-plot he dropped it like a hot potato with an annoyingly ambiguous and unresolved ending inviting the audience to decide for themselves what happened next. Which is fine in a way, but to be honest it’s what we pay the writers and showrunners to do for us in the first place.
Perhaps Moffat listened to the (admittedly mild) rumblings of dissatisfaction on this point, or perhaps he always intended to return to the dangling thread and pull on it at some point down the road. Or perhaps the lack-of-resolution simply sat in Moffat’s mind, percolating away, waiting for the right time to re-emerge as a whole new story idea that he could hand off to this week’s writer Peter Harness (who wrote last year’s “Kill The Moon”) to bring to fruition. Whatever the story-behind-the-story, “The Zygon Invasion” means that those of us with an OCD disposition no longer have to worry about that tantalising, teasingly dangling thread from “The Day of the Doctor” any longer, as we soon find out that the peace brokered at the end of that episode entailed 20 million Zygons being given asylum on Earth to live their lives. As human duplicates. Mostly in large cities in the UK. What could possibly go wrong?
For a long time now, Moffat has steered the series into ‘dark fantasy’ and fairy tale country. While it has mused a-plenty on grand themes such as what it means to be a good or bad, what exactly constitutes a hero, and the power of myth, legend and storytelling, the show under Moffat has largely stayed away from anything too directly topical in recent years with nothing like the sort of real-world relevance of “The Green Death” or even the political parables of the pair of Peladon stories. That’s what makes the first half of “The Zygon Invasion” so jaw-dropping, as you realise that any vague sub-text about immigration, integration, radicalisation and terrorism aren’t going to stay ‘sub’ for very long and indeed by mid-episode the Doctor is already explaining why sending drones to bomb an extremist Zygon splinter group is a bad idea as all it will do is end up alienating the moderate Zygons and start a full-on war. Any comparisons and direct relevance to the current state of affairs with Al-Qaeda and ISIL is strictly intended, and the Doctor’s view on the situation is far from being safely uncontroversial. In many ways it reminded me of the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot at his finest, when it took on issues of fundamentalism and how even the good guys can resort to heinous acts like suicide bombings in order to save their loved ones and their civilisation from total destruction – making us see the viewpoint of ‘the enemy’ from our own perspective for once.
Also in Battlestar Galactica there was the ongoing story of not knowing who was actually a Cylon sleeper agent in human form, and “The Zygon Invasion” is able to supersize this same paranoia to even greater heights. Even back in the 1975 story they had been a race of shapeshifters, but now they get an upgrade and can pluck memories from a target’s mind to present them with the image of a long-dead loved one whom it is impossible to kill. It means that at no time can you trust anything that you see on the screen: the person you’re watching might be the long-running beloved character you think they are, but they might just as easily be a murderous doppelgänger. You might see the twist coming, but if you do then you’ll probably also see half a dozen other twists that actually aren’t there at all, such is the extent to which your mind is scrambled.
The personification of this dual uncertainty is Osgood, UNIT’s scientific officer played by Ingrid Oliver who was abruptly killed by Missy to howls of fan protests in last year’s season finale “Death in Heaven”, another story which contributes almost as heavily to the continuity of this week’s story as “The Day of the Doctor”. Of course the dangling thread in Osgood’s case was exactly which Osgood had been killed, since her previous appearance in the 50th anniversary special had left us with two of them, the ‘real’ Osgood and her Zygon copy. It turns out that in the intervening period the two had become genuinely close, seeing themselves as symbiotic sisters and the embodiment of the peace that had been struck between their two species. So much so that the surviving Osgood would no longer identify herself as either properly human or fully Zygon, but insisted that she was instead both at the same time; Schrödinger’s Osgood, if you will. Or as the Doctor quickly pointed out, she has effectively become a hybrid of two warrior species – by no means the first time that this same idea has come up in season 9.
The show takes a moment to address a strictly geek side-issue in that the original 1975 Zygons could only maintain their shapeshifted form for an extended period if they had the target victim alive and in stasis to draw from. That would appear to incontrovertibly confirm that this Osgood is the human original after all. But this is no longer the case says Osgood (or perhaps we should call her Zygood?) who explains that tech upgrades mean that the copied pattern can now actually be held indefinitely. It’s purely an aside for the long-time fans who would have been bouncing up and down bursting to share their knowledge of this small but pertinent bit of series lore, but it’s by no means the only one. Most obviously there’s Osgood’s outfits clearly evoking the costumes of the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Doctors. There’s also a mention of a Naval lieutenant who developed an anti-Zygon bio-weapon, surely a reference to classic series companion Harry Sullivan; and then the apparent off-handedness about exactly when that original confrontation with the Zygons occurred in Scotland, Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) airily waving it off as “the 70s or the 80s” which is a sly in-joke reference to the Great UNIT Dating Controversy that has lasted longer and caused greater schisms across the Whoniverse than the Time War itself ever did.
The biggest bit of nostalgia in the entire episode (other than seeing David Tennant, Matt Smith and Sir John Hurt back together again in the flashback, perhaps) is the return of the Zygons themselves. There was always something wonderfully effective about the Zygon’s appearance, originally created by BBC costume designer James Acheson (later the winner of three Oscars) and prosthetics pioneer John Friedlander: while essentially just a man in a rubber suit, there’s the way that the suit breaks up the traditional humanoid outline and covers the body in pustule-like suckers and nodules that makes it both memorable and truly repellent at the same time. It’s so successful that the modern reinvention of the Zygon changes almost nothing about it, just using 21st century methods to create the same effect. The performances are also upgraded, making then even nastier and vicious, far more feral here than they were in their rather mannered début in “Terror of the Zygons” 40 years ago. Overall the Zygons are so successful that you really do wonder why it’s taken them so long to return to the television series, and most of all it’s just great to have them back as the proper focus to a story rather than a mere aside for a B-story.
Whether it’s the return of the Zygons or the presence of gun-waving UNIT troops, or simply that this is an ‘Earth under threat from a massive alien invasion’ story, this really does feel like something of a throw-back to those 70s or 80s stories. I’ve used the term ‘old-fashioned’ several times now in my review of season 9 and it’s never been meant as a pejorative – indeed, reconnecting with some of its roots and inspirations has been nothing but a healthy tonic for Doctor Who this year in my view – but I probably should give an overdue clarification of what I mean by it. While it’s true that the return of Davros and the Daleks in “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar”, together with the reprise of the base-under-siege format for “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood” and the pleasingly old time historical feel of “The Girl Who Died”/”The Woman Who Lived” are all on the face of it simple throwbacks, in each case they’ve all been subtly reinvented and reimagined, thrillingly updated for the modern era rather than just left as lazy retreads at any point.
So it is with “The Zygon Invasion”: while this episode is more than usually concerned with looking back at both the recent and more distant past of the show, it is also restlessly inventive and fearless in going new places with those classic inspirations. It’s a show that is both old and new, equally comfortable with its own history as it is careful not to exist solely within it, also striding boldly into the uncharted territory of the future. In many ways, Moffat has finally found the perfect format for the show that allows him to be both brilliantly innovative while at the same time appearing satisfyingly traditionalist, thereby melding all the different themes and strands of the show into something completely new: daringly thrilling and yet reassuringly familiar all at the same time.
As a result, “The Zygon Invasion” is never less than a gripping watch, much more a global paranoid action thriller than what we’ve come to expect from the show in recent years. Peter Harness was a great choice to write the script: although I bridled at the scientific inaccuracies of his maiden effort for the show last year and was less than kind about the TV adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell there’s no question that the guy can write drama that grips you by the throat and refuses to let go. As for any plot logic holes this time around – well, I was rather rolling my eyes at the idea that the head of UNIT would set off all alone into a Zygon hotspot lacking absolutely any sort of back-up without at least a little more foundation from the script, but many a TV show makes that sort of sacrifice in order to heighten the tension and further the storyline.
The two-part format allows Harness and first-time Who director Daniel Nettheim to take full advantage of being able to build up the suspense and paranoia without feeling the need to pack every minute with full-on action. As the end of the episode approaches, our heroes are broken up into various groups scattered around the world and things start to go very badly wrong on all fronts, leaving pretty much everyone facing imminent danger in the spirit of the very best cliffhangers. Sadly I fear it’s the last we’ve seen of Osgood-surrogate Jac (a thin part given admirable extra life by a spirited performance from Jaye Griffiths), while I’m hoping that Colonel Walsh is still around given that it was wonderful to see Rebecca Front paired up with her old The Thick Of It co-star Capaldi both in very different roles this time around and clearly enjoying every minute of this strange life called ‘acting’.
Then there’s Clara, whom the Doctor finds oddly difficult to reach in the early part of the episode (her voicemail greeting is a hoot). It turns out it’s rather difficult to evaluate what this episode says about the character as even when she turns up, she’s hardly in it for very long before she’s, err, not in it anymore. Even when she is. Yes, I know I know I gave a warning about spoilers at the top of this article, but even so I can’t bring myself to make this twist explicit because it’s just too exquisite a reveal even though at heart we’re half-expecting it one way or another. The way that Jenna Coleman plays the moment the secret is given away is just perfect – another scene for her highlights reel that is surely already getting far, far too long by now.
The final minutes of the episode seem to make clear that Kate has also succumbed to the enemy and is no longer feeling herself. (Spoiler speculation: I’m pretty sure that the Zygon she was with in New Mexico is one of the ‘good kind’ and that Kate is still Kate after all and will be riding to the rescue in the second part. Oh, and random thought – why did it look as though a New Mexico police officer was wearing a Mexican flag? Did the production team not realise that this was still a US state?) And then at the very end we have the plane carrying the Doctor and Osgood and their captive Zygon (who really should have been nicknamed Hannibal given the way he was tied up and restrained on an upright gurney) being shot out of the sky – a scene I’m rather tempted to believe might have been trimmed slightly given the real life circumstances earlier in the day over the Sinai peninsula where the real-life ISIL was claiming credit for a similar atrocity, making the overlap between reality and science fiction uncomfortably prophetic and not for the first time in the recent past (see also “Robots of Sherwood”).
It all tees up everything very nicely indeed for “The Zygon Inversion” next week. So far this feels like the most old-fashioned (there’s that term again – sorry) story of season 9 to date and it’s hard to see how next week won’t be a straightforward linear continuation of the story for once, the sort of television convention that Moffat has been valiantly resisting so far this year with his determined twist on the two-parter format in the previous three stories meaning that you never know what you’re going to get next. As a result, at a ‘pick up where we left off, and carry on’ approach could almost be the most surprising thing to actually happen in seven days time! And perhaps more than any of the two-parters so far this year, “The Zygon Invasion” is the one that we really need to see the second part before we can come up with a full review and appreciation of where it stands in the Doctor Who firmament.
But for the time being, I’ll go out on a limb: this was another top-notch episode of a season that is shaping up to the best in the show’s 52 year history. No pressure to deliver next week, then.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Saturday evenings.