Sunday 8 November 2015

Doctor Who - The Zygon Invasion

Note: Even though the second episode has already aired at the time of posting this review, it was written without seeing that episode. A number of unforeseen factors simply delayed posting it until now.

When I first started this blog in 2011 and first started writing my Doctor Who reviews, I debated with myself how I would handle multi-part stories. Should I review each episode individually, or should I wait until they had all aired and respond to them as a whole? I couldn't quite come up with an answer, but it turned out, I didn't need to—at least, not right away. My first review was of “Let's Kill Hitler” which began the second half of Series 6. There were no multi-episode stories for the remainder of the series. There were none in the entirety of Series 7 either. There were none until “Dark Water”/“Death in Heaven” came along at the end of Series 8. However, at that time, I was on my unplanned hiatus. At the time, as I was still hoping I could somehow get caught up, I figured I would review both episodes together to make my job a little easier. But I didn't get caught up. When Series 9 started, I noted that there were going to be a lot of two-parters, so I had to make a final decision. I decided to review every episode individually.

So far, it's worked out pretty well, I think. The opening parts of the two-part stories (“The Magician's Apprentice” and “Under the Lake”) have stood pretty well on their own, even if not technically complete. However, the latest episode, “The Zygon Invasion”, is considerably more dependent on its second episode, which is still to come. It doesn't stand alone in the way previous first parts this series have. As such, it's somewhat harder to review. That doesn't mean there's nothing I can say about. In fact, I have a lot to say about it. It just means that it comes with the caveat that I could end up reassessing large portions of it once I've seen “The Zygon Inversion”.

All things considered, “The Zygon Invasion” is a gripping story and highly enjoyable. It brings Doctor Who back to modern day Earth and straight into a political thriller. In some ways, the episode feels reminiscent of later Torchwood episodes, and some Russell T Davies-produced Doctor Who. The episode does have a number of flaws, particularly in terms of character development; however, it's a good start to what may turn out to be a great story.


Perhaps the thing that stands out most—for good or bad—about “The Zygon Invasion” is its overt political allegory. Although Doctor Who has frequently been political in the past (the Jon Pertwee period is practically nonstop political allegory), it has mostly avoided this during the Steven Moffat's time—though not entirely. Series 8's “Kill the Moon” was seen by many people to have a strong anti-abortion message to it, which caused some controversy at the time. However, some other people saw the message as pro-choice (the choice of whether or not to kill the creature about to be born from the egg of the moon is left to a group of women), making the story's position not as clear-cut. Writer Peter Harness has since stated that, while he agrees that one can read an abortion allegory in the story, it was actually unintentional.

But while one can debate authorial intent versus viewer impression for “Kill the Moon”, it's pretty clear that the political allegory in “The Zygon Invasion” (also by Peter Harness) is intentional. Words such as radicalise flow freely, and the symbol of the Zygon malcontents is disturbingly similar to that of ISIS. The episode even ends with an attempt to shoot down a planelikely an unsuccessful attempt, but still... There's little denying that this is a story about immigration, racism, terrorism, and more.

I find it quite refreshing that Doctor Who is once again willing to tackle topics like this. That, after all, is kind of the point of science fiction. The out-of-this-world elements are there to make an entertaining mirror to the real world and to make us question our assumptions and possibly change our ideas, to make us think. Doctor Who can be a particularly effective vehicle for this, with its ability to do virtually any genre or style of story.

At this point, it's hard to say conclusively what stance “The Zygon Invasion” is taking on its subject matter. That will, presumably, become clearer in “The Zygon Inversion”. For now, we see a number of perspectives, from UNIT's typical shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to the Doctor's stance of avoiding any killing at all. This is the biggest strength of “The Zygon Invasion”. It shows that solutions to these kinds of problems are not generally straight-forward, and numerous people have numerous different takes on them. It also shows that decisions have consequences, right down to the Zygon slogan, “Truth or consequences”.

I like that the Zygons are not presented as a monolithic society. Alien races in Doctor Who do have a tendency to all be villainous conquerors with little variation to them—indeed, the Zygons themselves have always previously been like this. It's refreshing when we get to see aliens who have variety amongst them. It's much more realistic that way. I think it's great, too, that we learn the motivations for the villainous Zygons, and that they're actually pretty understandable. They want to live as themselves and not have to pretend to be something they aren't. In truth, this is completely reasonable. Imagine having to live your whole life in disguise, and all because of an agreement your parents made without your input. The problem becomes the methods the villains use to achieve their desires, not the desires themselves. It adds a sympathetic side to the villains—something we also don't get a lot of in Doctor Who.

That said, I wish we got see a few more of the “good” Zygons in this story—or at the very least, a few more scenes with the ones we do see. We're told frequently that the majority of Zygons want to live in peace, but the only ones we see are the two members of the Zygon High Command and Osgood (who may or may not be a Zygon). If the episode at least spent a little time developing the Zygon High Command as characters before killing them off, it would do a much better job of showing that there are differences of opinion amongst the Zygons themselves.

The presence of Osgood certainly helps in this regard, however, and her role certainly shows the overlap between humans and Zygons beautifully. I must admit that, when I first heard that Osgood was returning this series, I was worried. Osgood first appeared in “The Day of the Doctor” (which this story is a direct sequel to) and quickly became a fan favourite. I always felt she was underdeveloped (but that is a common complaint I've had in Steven Moffat's Who), but generally liked her. She was killed off in last year's “Death in Heaven” in a scene primarily designed to show just how evil Missy is. During Steven Moffat's time, death has become a less common occurrence in Doctor Who, and those who do die, tend not to stay dead. Resurrections occur regularly, and this removes both threat and consequences, both things that I feel are important to good storytelling. However, Series 8 began changing that. When characters died, they actually stayed dead, and so did Osgood. Her death really did make Missy into a threat. Hearing she was coming back threatened to ruin that.

However, as Osgood had a Zygon doppelgänger in “The Day of the Doctor” and it had also been revealed that the Zygons were returning, many people quickly began theorizing that it might be Osgood's double that might be returning. This would be a good way of handling it, I felt. It would maintain the tragedy of Osgood's death while allowing a version of her to still appear on the show. But there was another possibility that fewer people seemed to consider—that this episode would reveal that it was the Zygon double who was killed by Missy, not the “real” Osgood. This was the version I feared would happen. While it would make sense within the context of the stories, it would be something of a cheat—a way to say, “Ha, we fooled you.” It's the sort of thing that can work well in moderation, but when so many other characters refuse to stay dead, it loses any power it might have had. This is all especially true in this case, considering that “The Zygon Invasion” is a story all about consequences (something that makes me really happy). Osgood surviving could undermine the message that there are consequences to every action and decision.

Luckily, we've gotten something better than either of these possibilities: an open question. I love that the two Osgoods became close “sisters” and refuse to reveal which is which. Maybe the human Osgood died or maybe the Zygon Osgood did. As long as this question remains unresolved (and I really hope the second episode keeps it unresolved), this becomes an incredibly powerful device. It's also an incredibly powerful statement, showing that two seemingly very different peoples not only can coexist, but are perhaps not all that different after all. They can get along. They can become one.

This does rely on changing some of the rules for how Zygon shapechanging works, and I'm glad the episode actually calls this out. The rules have changed for other aliens in recent years (the Weeping Angels, in particular, come to mind) without acknowledgement. It's not entirely clear how the Zygons went about changing the rules, but presumably it is through some sort of technological advancement.

We do see Osgood use her inhaler in this episode though, and that might be a clue to which one she is. In “The Day of the Doctor”, we learn that her double doesn't need the inhaler. However, the double also takes the inhaler as part of her act. It's entirely possible that she's gotten into the habit of using it to make sure no one knows which one she is. So the presence of the inhaler is not necessarily an indication that the surviving Osgood is the human one.

Where “The Zygon Invasion” works less effectively is on the level of individual characterisation (excepting perhaps Osgood). We get a good picture of the overall groups, but the individuals are rather static and, frankly, not very interesting—mostly because we know next to nothing about them. Take Jac, for example. I know several people in my own circle of friends, who, if I mentioned that name to them, wouldn't know who I was talking about. She's appeared in two episodes now (the first being “The Magician's Apprentice”), but we've learned virtually nothing about her. I'm not even sure exactly what her position in UNIT is. She's a scientist, clearly, but beyond that... Nothing. What's she like as a person? We don't know. The scene where it is revealed that Clara is really a Zygon and has led Jac and the UNIT soldiers into a trap is quite chilling (and Jenna Coleman does an incredibly good job of playing evil), but I can't help but imagine how much more powerful the scene would be if we had actually gotten to know and care about Jac before she dies. Instead, she's little more than the no-name UNIT extras.

Due to the lack of character development in this episode, too, we end up with numerous circumstance of characters apparently doing things just because the plot requires it of them, rather than actually understanding why. This leads to almost the entirety of UNIT looking like complete idiots. To be fair, UNIT has never been known for intelligence (despite the word being in their name), but there are some odd decisions made here. The church scene stands out in this regard. I know what the story is going for here, but it actually does it a lot better with the earlier scene with the drone operator. In the earlier scene, it's one person who can't drop a bomb because it might take out a family member. Here, it's an entire group.

My problem with this scene is that all the UNIT soldiers act as a monolithic entity. To a certain extent, they're supposed to. They're soldiers and they're supposed to obey orders—which would be fine if they were actually obeying orders, but they're not. Hitchley (another name many people are likely to forget—I had to look it up—because we never get to know him) decides to ignore his orders and the rest follow along with him. I can understand them being hesitant to shoot people who look like their family members; I can even understand them refusing to shoot. But all of them following along into what is very likely a trap? The scene would have worked better if a few of them had stayed outside—not willing to shoot, but also not trusting enough to follow. It would show some individuality of character. What would work even better than that is if we got to know Hitchley a little, learn how and why his men trust him implicitly and thus why they would all follow him into the church even though he's disobeying a direct order.

Then there's Kate Stewart who heads off to Truth or Consequences apparently without any back-up. Now, it's entirely possible she does have back-up that she's keeping out of sight to work to some sort of plan. I suspect that she is not killed at the end and the Kate reporting in to Bonnie is not a Zygon double, but in fact the real Kate Stewart. Still, it's a huge risk on her part to walk into town on her own, out in the open where she could easily be killed. It's strange that she doesn't take at least a couple soldiers with her—but then, it almost seems like there aren't any soldiers to take with her.

She comments earlier that UNIT doesn't have a lot of personnel. Normally, they can call in additional help from the regular army, but the situation in this case is too sensitive. That said, surely UNIT has some permanent personnel in North America? Even if she doesn't call any of them in, it seems odd that the Zygons would consider removing just her as neutralizing all of UNIT in North America. What happened to the UNIT headquarters in New York we saw in “The Stolen Earth”?

Of course, maybe Kate is just working to a long plan. When she tells Clara about the lack of personnel, Clara has already been replaced by a Zygon. Perhaps Kate isn't telling the entire truth in order to put the Zygons off their guard. This does require that she already know Clara has been duplicated, but it seems clear to me that the Doctor doesn't fall for Clara's Trivial Pursuit explanation for knowing about Truth or Consequences, so perhaps he warns Kate. But then, why does Kate not warn Jac? It also means Bonnie (the Zygon disguised as Clara) is rather gullible.

Or maybe I'm just over-analysing things here and I should really just wait for the next episode. Possibly.

I mentioned earlier that Jenna Coleman does a good job of playing evil Bonnie. While this is certainly true and I think that Clara's capture and substitution are cleverly handled and revealed in the episode, I am concerned that this sidelines Clara once again. Considering this is her final series, I'm finding it very odd that Clara has had virtually nothing to do. She has even been almost completely absent from the last two episodes (the real Clara, that is). It's an odd way to build up to her departure.

The Doctor's characterisation also continues to be inconsistent. I brought this up a couple episodes ago and it's continuing to bother me. In Series 8, I could easily describe Peter Capaldi's Doctor. I'm not sure I can do that anymore. It's not that he's not the same—characters should develop and change, even the Doctor. It's that he hasn't changed consistently.

The Doctor is also strangely inactive in “The Zygon Invasion”. He heads off to Turmezistan (a fictional place, even though Truth or Consequences is real) to work with UNIT there, but beyond a lecture or two to Colonel Walsh, he doesn't do a lot. He doesn't even try to interfere during the church scene which results in the deaths of a bunch of UNIT soldiers, and I really can't say why. The Doctor has let people die before in order to achieve other motives (see “Before the Flood”), but that's certainly not clear here. Does letting the soldiers die help him find Osgood at all? Well, the Zygons do mysteriously vanish after killing the UNIT soldiers, so maybe... Alas, it just doesn't ring true and is all rather jarring. And the Doctor stalking a couple of children in a playground is a bit on the creepy side, even if the children turn out to be the Zygon High Command.

All that said, I do like “The Zygon Invasion”. It succeeds in the big picture quite well, and there are a number of little touches to it that I really like as well. It's great to see so many roles for women. I love Osgood and the Doctor bantering about question marks and his question mark underpants. The portrait of the first Doctor in UNIT HQ is another nice touch. I'm not convinced Harry Sullivan, who was a Doctor, would actually develop a deadly nerve gas, but it's still a nice little nod to a past character that doesn't detract from the viewing experience for people not familiar with him.

I look forward to watching “The Zygon Inversion” and then re-evaluating my thoughts for the story as a whole.

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