Netflix UK TV review: Doctor Who Season 9, Episode 7 (The Zygon Invasion)
Mark Harrison | On 01, Nov 2015
This is a spoiler-free review. Already seen it? Read on at the end for spoilers.
While the timing of new episodes of Doctor Who may have been questionable, finishing after the watershed more often than not, it couldn’t be better for The Zygon Invasion to go out in the Halloween spot in the same week a new James Bond movie is in cinemas.
The latest story from returning writer Peter Harness starts out as a global horror story in which monsters dress up as humans, just around the time as little humans are done dressing up as monsters for the evening: this is NuWho at its most topical and, arguably, its most effective.
Like last week’s episode, this is a direct sequel more than a continuation of another story: The Zygon Invasion opens with a recap of the B-plot from the unparalleled 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, in which three Doctors sat down the shape-shifting Zygons with UNIT’s Kate Stewart to broker a secret treaty, thanks to a bit of memory manipulation.
Now, 20 million Zygons have been re-homed around the world under Operation Double, disguised as humans to blend in. But younger factions are stirring up revolution, demanding to reveal themselves to the public. The Doctor arrives in the midst of what UNIT calls “the nightmare scenario”, as the ceasefire between the two races is broken.
UNIT’s Osgood is the key human ambassador to the Zygons and when she is captured by the rogue faction, tensions reach tipping point. Against an enemy that can disguise themselves as anybody, including friends and family, is there any way to avert a war? And if not, is the Earth already lost?
Since Steven Moffat took over as head writer, the focus of Doctor Who has been on universal stakes, putting the space-time continuum in danger more often than the Earth alone. Its settings are usually temporal, and even philosophical, rather than geographical. That’s the only way in which you could say that The Zygon Invasion scales down, with director Daniel Nettheim delivering Bond-like globe-trotting scope to Harness’ suspenseful first part.
With SPECTRE currently playing in cinemas, the episode gets around at least as much as any of 007’s adventures. The story starts out in London and quickly expands to a town in New Mexico and the fictional state of Turmezistan, cycling between multiple settings over the course of 45 minutes. Some overseas shooting took place for this episode, but given how much of this was probably achieved in Wales, huge props has to go to the locations department for creating such an international feel.
In keeping with the recurring theme of this season, the Zygons could be friends or enemies and their tactics for fighting a platoon of UNIT soldiers (led by The Thick Of It’s Rebecca Front) are pure dastardly genius. It’s only been a short time since they were an iconic one-off, ostensibly brought back for the 50th because they were David Tennant’s favourite monster, but they’ve been used more effectively than almost any other returning monster bar the Daleks. Just like those more prolific foes, they have an inimitable design and their MO has been both expanded and improved for their 2015 reinvention.
The radicalised Zygons have an obvious parallel in real life and it’s one that is alluded to time and again in the dialogue and iconography of the episode. Although ISIS is never mentioned, this is the kind of boldly political story we haven’t seen from Who for yonks and it’s especially brave to try and tackle it in a two-parter.
Harness’ previous episode, Kill The Moon, was rather more outlandish, but it still hung on the hook of a central debate about abortion, which is seriously heavy stuff for a family show. If anything, this tackles even more controversial material, but it’s also more of a traditional UNIT adventure.
Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver both return as Kate and Osgood respectively, with the latter once again making a terrific audition for the soon-to-be-vacant role of the Doctor’s companion while also proving to be more pivotal than she ever has been in her previous episodes. An exchange between Oliver and Peter Capaldi regarding fashion and punctuation is a delight for old and new fans alike. Meanwhile, Jenna Coleman gets more to do this week, with the story splitting up the Doctor and Clara as the story moves between locations.
If you feel that the most important function of science fiction should be to reflect and comment upon the world as it exists now, then The Zygon Invasion represents some of the straight-up best sci-fi that Doctor Who has had to offer since the Russell T. Davies era and also harkens back to the kind of UNIT stories we got decades ago. However, its international scope and overall creepiness make it a perfectly modern episode.
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Additional notes (contains spoilers)
– You have to operate Zygon technology by “titillating the fronds”- this is officially the most weirdly erotic line that Capaldi has delivered since taking on the lead role and Harness’ script is well aware of the silliness of the series’ historical affinity for bio-mechanics.
– Kudos to Capaldi and guest star Rebecca Front, who previously co-starred in The Thick Of It. With the baggage of their previous characters, it should have been near-impossible not to see Malcolm Tucker and Nicola Murray in the scenes between the Doctor and Colonel Walsh, but the fact that this connection never crosses your mind while you’re watching it stands as testament to how great they are.
– The naval surgeon that Kate alludes to is Harry Sullivan, the companion who parted ways with the Fourth Doctor in 1975’s Terror of the Zygons. The last canon mention of him came in The Sarah Jane Adventures story The Death of the Doctor Part 2, when we learned he’d saved thousands of lives through his medical research, so we’re not sure that we like the idea that he designed a nerve gas that turns Zygons inside out. We like Harry, though.
– The Zygons have evolved – formerly, they had to keep their subject alive in order to maintain their form, but they’ve developed the ability to essay the appearances of friends and family from memories, leading to a particularly brain-wrinkling brand of psychological warfare. It also means that we don’t know whether the surviving Osgood is the original or her Zygon sister. We imagine that the truth has something to do with what’s in the Osgood box, mentioned in the pre-titles sequence, but we’ll find out next week.
– We discover that Clara is not Clara, but Bonnie, a Zygon who captures her from the tower block where she lives near the beginning of the episode. Bonnie’s inadvertent giveaway of this to UNIT’s Jac makes for a chilling twist in the tale, as the Zygons close their trap and neutralise the good guys.
– The Doctor’s presidential plane has been twice doomed between this story and its previous appearance in Death In Heaven. At least this version of Osgood has the distinct advantage of being alive when it happens. But how will they get out of it this time? You know that a cliffhanger is serious business when there’s no “Next Time” trailer, so we couldn’t possibly speculate on how the adorable pairing will avert disaster after Bonnie’s attack.