This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
You say invasion, they say inversion, but let’s not call the whole thing off. From the pun-tastic title onwards, The Zygon Inversion is an absolute belter of an episode.
With an assist from co-writer Steven Moffat, Peter Harness has crafted the best overall two-parter in a run of really good two-parters and does so unexpectedly to boot. We should have guessed from the title, but the whole two-parter is an inversion of what we know about how this type of story should be structured, narrowing the scope and homing in on the drama of the story rather than escalating to a big bang – and it’s electrifying.
As of last week’s episode, UNIT has been disabled by a calculated attack by Zygon radicals – their military force has been neutralised, Kate Stewart is missing, presumed dead, and Bonnie, a duplicate of Clara Oswald, fired a bazooka in the general direction of the Doctor and Osgood’s plane, destroying it completely.
Now, Bonnie is looking to get into UNIT’s Black Archive, where the Osgood box is contained for safe-keeping. If she can get hold of it, she will end the ceasefire between humans and Zygons and start a war for the planet. As the radical’s conspiracy comes to fruition, is there any hope that peace might be upheld?
As the Doctor remarked last week, peace is a near-impossible predicament to be in, and the conclusion of this story continues in that vein of presenting topical issues of foreign policy in a uniquely sci-fi way. It may just help that the story is the least timey-wimey since last season – there’s no easy get-out in this situation and any return to peace must be hard-won. Even the Doctor and Osgood’s inevitable escape from last week’s cliffhanger is another hat-tip to James Bond, rather than an expected bit of Doctor-ish temporal trickery, something that helps to ground the stakes.
There are many things to applaud, but in a season that’s been surprisingly Clara-lite at times, this is where Jenna Coleman really shines. It’s not just as Bonnie, either: Clara is still very present in the action due to a device not unlike one in a previous Moffat story, whereby she’s still “awake” in her captive state. This dual performance yields a confrontation scene that in any other episode would be the absolute highlight, as Clara and Bonnie verbally and psychologically fight for for the upper hand.
But the centrepiece of the episode is a blistering scene that represents some of Peter Capaldi’s very best work as the Doctor so far: a 10-minute monologue that fiercely refutes the recurring mantra of “truth or consequences” and the narrative of good-versus-evil that proliferates in war. As he puts it: “Sit. Down. And. Talk.” Doctor Who hasn’t approached this level of topical commentary since 2005 and it’s glorious.
What truly makes this great sci-fi is that it’s all about two confrontations – Clara vs. Bonnie and the Doctor vs. war, in general – in which there’s not a punch thrown or a ray-gun fired, but the threat of violence looms large. That these scenes feel more explosive and gripping than any amount of body horror or Bond-ian intrigue firmly establishes Harness as an all-rounder and possibly the heir apparent to Moffat’s head writer job, just as he was to Russell T. Davies.
You wait ages for one of these and then Harness, Jamie Mathieson and Toby Whithouse all come along at once, but as of The Zygon Inversion, it’s the former who masterfully takes the lead. The episode echoes and develops upon previous Zygon stories (all two of them), situating the action right on the brink of horrible, futile war and showing off brand new sides of both Capaldi and Coleman to deliver this terrific run’s best episode yet.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– You may notice upon reflection that a lot of the beats of The Day Of The Doctor are re-trodden here. Kate gives it the old Elizabeth I by killing a Zygon (“five rounds rapid”, as her dad used to say) and then pretending to be her own duplicate and, of course, there’s a stalemate in the Black Archive. Plus, the Doctor clearly got the idea for the Osgood box from The Moment. The extra touch that makes this so original (and scary) is that when the Doctor uses the Archive’s security system to wipe the combatants’ memories and defuse the situation, it’s the second time we’ve seen him do it, but it’s the 15th time for him.
– As mentioned, we also get a throwback to Season 4’s Forest Of The Dead with Clara communicating with her double from inside a mindscape that looks like a home. Again, there are layers on top of that to distinguish it and the shifting balance in the interrogation between the two Colemans is terrific and very well-acted.
– We finally discover what Osgood’s first name is, and it’s… Petronella. Well, as the Doctor suggests, we can always stick with what we had. She’s evolved incredibly since her first appearance in The Day Of The Doctor, from asthmatic fan-girl to a companion-in-waiting who’s wise enough to turn down the opportunity to travel in the TARDIS. We don’t necessarily need to see Ingrid Oliver’s name in the opening credits next year, but she’ll be a welcome semi-regular, more fleshed out than any of the characters of her ilk in recent years.
– “I’m over 2,000 years old, I’m old enough to be your Messiah!” We could pick any line from the monologue, but this one made us laugh the hardest. This is Who at its cheekiest in an episode with unparalleled human stakes.
Photo: Simon Ridgway / BBC