Saturday, 31 October 2015

Doctor Who - The Zygon Invasion

Contains spoilers.

Well, crikey. Who'd have ever thought Doctor Who could do a story that politically resonant? There were constant uses of the word "radicalisation", strong subtext alluding to immigration, and even subtle nods to ISIS. Doctor Who has brushed on political themes before, notably in last season's Kill the Moon (also written by Peter Harness) which dedicated its entire second half to discussions on the abortion debate, but I can't recall any other episode that has foregrounded themes this serious.

The Zygon Invasion picks up after the events of the show's fiftieth anniversary episode, where it is revealed that humankind struck a ceasefire with the Zygons, allowing them to live on Earth but only if they remain in human form. As the episode progresses, the plot shifts from "The Zygons are peaceful" towards "The Zygons are radicalising", then "The Zygons are planning to invade" before finally settling on "The Zygons have already invaded". There's a hell of a lot of plot covered in this opening part, and Harness' script (adapted from a Moffat story) allows the episode to run at tremendous pace. So, in short, not only does this keep up Series 9's excellent standard, but it adds a whole new layer to it.

The Zygons are a strange creature, mostly in their appearance, and when they're in Zygon mode they're tough to be frightened or intimidated by as a viewer. This is why it's so great that Harness understands this, he allows the episode's most harrowing moments to come from the Zygons when they're in human mode. One particularly bleak sequence involves a group of UNIT soldiers instructed to fire at a Zygon group who have taken on the forms of the soldiers' families. It's a deeply unnerving scene, bolstered further by the impressive amount of emotional weight that Harness' script lends it.

Yet, it's the episode's closing moments in which the Zygons' threat becomes truly apparent. The U.S officer who accompanied Kate Stewart for this episode being a Zygon was a predictable twist, but handled well. The notion that Clara had been a Zygon since her first sequence in the episode was the real shocker, and the episode didn't even end there. The Zygon Invasion packs so much plot into a Part One premise that I really can't imagine how they're going to continue this with part two. When Steven Moffat promised us he would shake up the two part format this year, he really wasn't lying. Structurally this is the most traditional of the four two parters we've seen so far, but its exhilarating pace and hefty amount of plot help set it apart from any two parter pre-Series 9.

The most publicized aspect of this story prior to its airing was the return of Ingrid Oliver as Osgood, an enjoyable yet somewhat empty character who's popped up in a few episode since she debuted in the fiftieth anniversary episode. Yet last season's finale saw her killed by Missy, at least we thought so. As it turns out, her Zygon counterpart from the fiftieth special remained disguised as Osgood, and so we were left in the balance as to whether Missy killed the human Osgood or the Zygon Osgood. And we still don't know. It's interesting, though, that Osgood no longer sees herself as human nor Zygon; she is both. A hybrid, as the Doctor says, again alluding to something big in the making; this series has really loved that word "hybrid" ever since Davros mentioned it back in episode two.

Osgood's unwillingness to answer that question was a clever touch, as it adds yet more depth to the themes that this episode focuses on. There's a particular moment in which a Zygon talks about how it only wants to be able to live as its true self and not have to worry about hiding. As well as being a powerful moment in its own right, it also doubles as a strong parallel to illegal immigrants, living in fear of being found out. The way this episode attaches its themes to its story and characters was simply astounding.

The Zygon Invasion has all the makings of classic Doctor Who; it's fast, it's big, it's loud and it's spectacular. The episode bounces across the globe, with its run time divided across three separate countries. It is a bold, globe-trotting epic that lands seamlessly in every possible respect. While it's packed with superb performances, a handful of emotionally intense sequences and one hell of a cliffhanger, it's the episode's risky thematic gestures that allow it to stand out so well. This is Doctor Who at its absolute bravest, it pushes the boundaries as to what we should expect from this show now and how we should respond to it.

Gone are the days where Doctor Who was intellectually simple entertainment, something the casual viewer could hop in and out of and enjoy an episode despite only half paying attention. In order to appreciate the vast majority of this current series, the thematic concepts and layered script writing must be foregrounded or else the episodes would fail to impress. The Zygon Invasion is this series' seventh episode, and it's just as exceptional as the six that preceded it. This show is thinking in ways that it never has done before, and it's simply thrilling to see a show in its ninth series put out episodes of this standard, still able to pull off new tricks and try out things it hasn't even glimpsed at before. Thematically, tonally, visually and narratively, The Zygon Invasion is exquisite television.

This is Doctor Who's golden age.

  • It's interesting that, in the build up to her leaving the show, a lot of episodes are splitting the Doctor and Clara apart. Before the Flood separated them for almost the entire run time, Clara was cut entirely from The Woman Who Lived, and they spent most of their time in different countries tonight. It isn't damaging the show at all, it's just a strange recurring trait that I can't quite work out. 
  • On that topic, it's been revealed this week that Maisie Williams will be returning in the tenth episode entitled Face the Raven, the episode that is heavily speculated to be Clara's last. Given Ashildr/Me's declaration that she will become "the patron saint of the Doctor's leftovers", are we to connect these two dots?
  • On the topic of Clara, how fantastic was Jenna Coleman tonight? She's already affirmed her place as the best actress for a NuWho companion, but she keeps finding ways to better herself. Her transition into the Zygon Clara was just incredible, she was terrific. 
  • The only other episode Harness has written for Doctor Who was last year's Kill the Moon, which was critically acclaimed but widely divided the fanbase. Personally, I'd place it right at the top of my Series 8 rankings. I think it's superb.
  • Kate Stewart won't be dead, but that's fine. I'm interested to see where her story will go, and that's all a cliffhanger should do.
  • Zygon Clara told the Doctor that human Clara was dead, but we saw her seemingly alive in that stasis chamber. Was the Zygon lying to the Doctor?
  • I have an apology to make. I'm sorry that I'm not even remotely sorry about giving this episode a score upwards of 9.0 for the seventh week in a row. It just happens to be the seventh episode that's deserved it. 

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