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Doctor Who: The Zygon Inversion (Review)

“I wouldn’t even let you get talking like you always do. Bullet between the eyes. First thing.”

“Again, thank you.”

“Twelve times, if necessary.”

“Yes, well, why limit yourself? You’ve really thought this through.”

“I’m a big fan.”

– Osgood and the Doctor plan an invasion (planet well, even)

It seems rather odd to think that The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion are the most conventional two-parter of the season to this point. In terms of structure and plot, the two episodes bleed quite neatly into one another. There is no temporal shift like the shifts that divide Under the Lake and Before the Flood or The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived. There is no sharp tonal shift like the shift that divides The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.

In terms of format, The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion are very much a classic two-parter without any significant structural sleight of hand. The themes and characters remain consistent, details set up in The Zygon Invasion pay off in The Zygon Inversion. This is very much a two-parter in the mould of the Davies era, where it feels like the story is split over two forty-five minute slots because there is simply too much material to handle in a single episode. It is very interesting, given how the earlier episodes tended to play with the form.

"... or you can take the mystery box..."

“… or you can take the mystery box…”

Of course, The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion are also very good on their own terms. They are the standout episodes of the season to this point. They comprise one of the most satisfying two-parters of the Moffat era, if not the entire revival. There are times when the Moffat era can get a little lost in formal ambition, but The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion work because they are simply a good story well told. The lack of structural hijinks or narrative experimentation allows for a story that is ambitious on its own terms.

The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion are a fantastic piece of work for the show.

"Seeking companion. Must enjoy long walks on the beach. And in eternity."

“Seeking companion. Must enjoy long walks on the beach. And in eternity.”

The Zygon Inversion picks up exactly where The Zygon Invasion left off. There is a minimum amount of narrative trickery involved in the storytelling. Even the episode plays fair in how it addresses the cliffhanger; the resolutions are not the result of any “timey wimey” hijinks, the escape not excused through a re-write of what occurred on screen. In fact, The Zygon Inversion exploits the editing of the cliffhanger to The Zygon Invasion to provide its characters with a way out.

The cliffhanger of The Zygon Inversion deliberately avoided showing the missile hitting the plane. This was not a conscientious decision made in light of recent tragedies, but a conscious storytelling decision that allowed for a resolution. Similarly, Kate Stewart escapes death simply by shooting the Zygon immediately following the cut at the climax of The Zygon Invasion. Given the storytelling contortions employed by The Witch’s Familiar or Before the Flood to write around their cliffhangers, these are very straightforward resolutions.

Monstrously evil...

Monstrously evil…

Then again, it seems like the script to The Zygon Inversion is being quite candid. In order for the climax of the episode to work, the script needs a show of good faith. The confrontation in the Black Archive relies on a series of betrayals and double crosses, bluffs and bold-faced lies. All of these twists and revelations are properly set-up and clearly in-character, but the episode recognises that they still need to carry weight. The straight-forward resolution to the cliffhanger serves to prove to the audience that the talky climax is not a trick or a turn.

Most obviously, it is not a reset button. The climax of The Zygon Inversion finds the Doctor trapped in an argument with Bonnie and Kate in the Black Archive. Bonnie and Kate are holding doomsday weapons, while the Doctor tries to talk them back from the edge. He negotiates with them, appealing to their reason. Over the course of the conversation, it becomes clear that any number of premises underpinning the face-off are false. The doomsday weapons are not really doomsday weapons. The Doctor wipes Kate’s memory. They’ve all been here before.

Channelling her inner courage...

Channelling her inner courage…

It would be very easy for this resolution to come across as cheap or trite. After all, erasing a character’s memory often seems like a lazy way to wrap up an awkward plot. Similarly, revealing that the big mysterious buttons actually don’t do anything runs the risk of completely erasing any hint of tension. More than that, confirming that the Doctor has been here at least fifteen times might trivialise the horror of what is happening. If the Doctor has played out this drama so many times, why should the audience care about this one time? All the pieces will go back in place.

The Zygon Inversion is not so much straightforward as it is candid. If the episode engaged in narrative trickery like The Witch’s Familiar or Before the Flood, the audience would respond to the climax with cynicism. Instead, The Zygon Inversion is very careful to keep things simple and (mostly) linear. The dead are not magically resurrected at the end of the hour. Jac’s murder at the climax of The Zygon Invasion is not conveniently undone. Her blood is still on Bonnie’s hands. The Doctor knows it; Clara knows it; Osgood knows it; Bonnie knows it.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

The climax to The Zygon Inversion has to strike a very careful balance. The Doctor has been through this process quite a few times without destroying the world, so it could easily strip away any real sense of stakes. However, the fact that the Doctor has been through all of this before makes it even more tense and even more anxious. Contrary to how it might seem, peace is never easy to maintain. It requires constant work and exists in a state of constant crisis. The reveal that the Doctor has done this fifteen times is terrifying rather than reassuring.

The Zygon Invasion attracted a great deal of attention for its central metaphor, for tackling issues related to immigration and radicalisation with a candour that was surprising for a family television show. In many ways, the metaphor at the heart of The Zygon Invasion was stunningly specific. The imagery consciously evoked the Islamic State, from the video of a hostage reading a statement to on-camera executions to the denouncement of others as traitors to the use of drone warfare to the weight put on the word “radicalisation.”

Bonnie voyage...

Bonnie voyage…

The biggest shift between The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion is the decision to render that central metaphor more broadly. If The Zygon Invasion was about a very specific conflict, The Zygon Inversion broadens that example out to engage with the larger idea of conflict. The Zygon Invasion begins by evoking the Islamic State, while The Zygon Inversion climaxes with a bunch of characters standing around debating moral philosophy over two strange-looking boxes. It is a very clever narrative trick, one that grants the story considerable allegorical power.

Kate and Bonnie obviously represent the West and Islamic State. But as the argument continues, they could just as easily represent Protestants and Catholics in North Ireland or Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Each of those conflicts obviously has its own specific context and history, but there are similarities that might be drawn. Narratives suggest themselves, comparisons that some of those parties even eagerly invite. The Doctor does not engage with the particulars of this specific conflict, he argues in generalities.

The Doctor needs to screen his calls better...

The Doctor needs to screen his calls better…

That is not to suggest that characterisation is lost or obscured in all of this. The themes of identity and self are carried over from The Zygon Invasion. Although the Doctor makes general statements about conflict, the episode emphasises the importance of the specific individual. In dealing with the Doctor, Bonnie insists upon her own name. “Stop calling my Zygella. My name is Bonnie.” Later the Doctor asks Osgood, “Human or Zygon?” She responds, simply, “Me.” If the personal can be political, The Zygon Inversion suggests that the personal can be political.

The climax of The Zygon Inversion is delightfully clever. All of the reveals make perfect sense, given what the audience knows of the context and the actors involved. Bonnie is shocked to discover that there are in fact two Osgood boxes. “Two boxes,” the Doctor explains. “Two Osgoods. Operation Double.” Those numbers are then squared – the double is doubled – when it is revealed that there are two buttons inside each box. It seems like the Doctor is setting an example from game theory, but it feels perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the episode.

I'm gonna get you, sucker...

I’m gonna get you, sucker…

The revelation that the boxes are useless is pretty bold; it runs the risk of undercutting the tension of the episode, given the energy expended in trying to reach this point. However, it is very much in keeping with the philosophy of the Moffat era. The Doctor could not murder all those children on Gallifrey; the same logic applies to the Zygons on Earth or the population of London. The threats posed by the boxes would kill countless innocents and countless children. Even the Tenth Doctor would balk at that sort of threat. The Eleventh or Twelfth would not conceive of it.

So the Doctor talks. That is the secret of the Doctor, as the Moffat era has repeatedly suggested. The Moffat era is fascinated with narrative and storytelling, and has emphasised the Doctor’s ability to essentially talk his way out of any situation. By the time the Doctor has opened his mouth, most of his adversaries have already lost. As a professional fangirl, Osgood understands this. Were Osgood to launch a plan to conquer the planet, she understands that the trick would be to kill the Doctor before he can begin talking.

Black (Archive) art...

Black (Archive) art…

It is a sequence that could easily seem cloying or manipulative. After all, it is very easy to propose “stop fighting” as a general solution to just about any global conflict without reference to the specifics. However, having spent so much of The Zygon Invasion developing the specifics of the conflict gives weight to the climax of The Zygon Inversion. Bonnie and her allies have succinctly summarised their position in a way that makes sense, so it doesn’t feel like a straw man when the Doctor asks “what is it that you actually want?” or “what then?”

The fact that Bonnie has been developed and her positioned outlined means that those questions sting more rather than less. Bonnie wants her people to be free to live in their Zygon form, but to what comes after that? What happens to the people who don’t want to live in their Zygon form? What of those who accept compromise? What of those who think that Bonnie’s position is not radical enough? “How are you going to protect your glorious revolution from the next one?” the Doctor wonders, the question every succesful revolutionary must face.

Love/Kate.

Love/Kate.

This is great “first principles” rhetoric, but it works because so much time was building a specific and recognisable case. The Doctor evokes the Time War in his discussion of the conflict, but the Time War has always felt too abstract to work as a proper metaphor for perpetual war; as much as those who fight might want to believe that their adversaries are a mass of inhuman genocidal monsters powered by hatred, the reality is often more complicated. Often, both sides in a conflict have sympathetic motivations and understandable goals; that does not justify it.

The climax of The Zygon Inversion plays as a thought experiment, war rendered as a metaphor across a table in an empty room. Presenting Kate and Bonnie with two boxes with two buttons, the Doctor declares, “This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought, right there in front of you.” There is an endearing level of abstraction to the whole process, suggesting that perhaps all wars are ultimately the same war. The causes and motivations might be different, but the basic questions remain the same.

(Black) archival footage...

(Black) archival footage…

The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion reinforce their meditations on the cyclic nature of violence through their connection to The Day of the Doctor. The show has presented the Time War as perhaps the most archetypal and primal of conflicts, a war in heaven that rippled across the face of reality. The Day of the Doctor suggested that the destruction of the Zygon homeworld mentioned in Terror of the Zygons was itself a result of the Time War; the implication seems to be that many cosmic horrors of the Hinchcliffe era were manifestations of that trauma.

These forms of violence and hatred are not necessarily linear, they are cyclical. One of the great ironies of The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion is the idea that the peace created on the day that the Doctor refused to deploy “the Moment” has come a full circle. Even the Doctor acknowledges the similarities between the situation he faced in The Day of the Doctor and the situation that Bonnie is facing now. “There was another box,” he explains. “I was going to press another button.”

"Look, this worked out much better for you than it did for Brad Pitt..."

“Look, this worked out much better for you than it did for Brad Pitt…”

Indeed, the climax allows the Doctor to put his own riff on the philosophy of Game of Thrones, touching on the Hobbesian suggestion that humanity is trapped in a state of perpetual conflict with itself – that war and the quest for power are constants of the human condition, just changing form over the years and through the centuries. “Nobody wins for long,” the Doctor reflects, channelling his inner Tyrion Lancaster. “The wheel just keeps on turning.” Of course, Game of Thrones just literalised that wheel and put it in the opening credits.

Of course, The Zygon Inversion ends with a reversion to the status quo. The twenty million Zygons are still living among mankind in disguise. There are practical reasons for this, of course. Doctor Who has always been wary of creating a modern-day Earth that is too radically different from the world familiar to viewers, to the point that Steven Moffat devoted a considerable stretch of his first season to erasing a lot of the baggage created by his predecessor. It is simple storytelling ettiquette, a clear attempt to avoid clutter going forward.

"Police, help us."

“Police, help us.”

The climax of the episode, of course, makes this return to the status quo the point of the exercise. Peace is not a stable status quo, no matter how easy Star Trek might make it look. The Zygon Inversion suggests that even a world that looks peaceful and tranquil is constantly hovering over the edge of the abyss, ready to tip over into chaos and war at the worst possible moment. Maintaining a peace is in many ways harder than preparing for war. As the Doctor points out, war just serves to postpone the inevitable conversation.

There is still a potentially awkward subtext to The Zygon Inversion, whereby Bonnie’s (perfectly understandable) desire to be able to live in her own Zygon form is brushed aside. One of the more interesting aspects of The Zygon Invasion was a willingness to engage with Bonnie’s belief that Zygons should not have to disguise themselves and hide among mankind. The world should be willing to let Zygons be Zygons, in a turn of phrase that “Doctor Puntastic” would readily endorse.

"Grrr! You're  tiger!"

“Grrr! You’re tiger!”

“It’s not fair,” Bonnie advises the Doctor. And she is entirely correct. It is not fair that Zygons should be forced to pass as human in order to enjoy a peaceful decision. However, as the events in Truth or Consequences demonstrated, mankind is not quite ready to embrace twenty-million shape-shifting aliens. The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion both suggest that the reason that the Zygons are the ones to break the cease-fire is because humanity does not even know about it. As Kate Stewart expained in The Zygon Invasion, it is above top secret.

There is an element of paternalism to all this. The Zygon Inversion is well aware of this. When Kate criticises the Doctor for presuming to confiscate her chemical weapons, the Doctor responds, “Daddy knows best.” The Doctor is presented as a stern father figure, imposing his own sense of right and wrong upon both humanity and the Zygons. Although he repeatedly admonishes Bonnie as a child throwing a tantrum, he treats Kate Stewart in a very similar manner.

Casting some shade...

Casting some shade…

“You are responsible for all of the violence, all of the suffering,” Bonnie accuses the Doctor at one point. “You engineered this situation, Doctor. This is your fault.” This is not an accusation; this is not a cause for angst or soul-searching. This is a statement of fact. The Doctor imposed his own terms upon mankind and the Zygons, because he decided that they could not be trusted to negotiate the peace on their own. There is a sense that this is an act of ego. “I did this on a very important day for me, and this cease-fire will stand.”

The Zygon Inversion acknowledges these points, but is not uncomfortable with them. There is a sense that the episode genuinely believes that mankind cannot be trusted with this sort of knowledge. For all that the resolution of the crisis might favour the establishment, the point is repeatedly made that the Doctor is perhaps more disappointed in the establishment than he is with the Zygons. He is frustrated when Kate Stewart resorts to a gun to solve her problems. “Why does peace-keeping alway involve killing?” he laments.

This (ar)chives with what we know of him...

This (ar)chives with what we know of him…

At the end of the episode, it is made clear that Kate Stewart cannot be trusted with the knowledge that the boxes are empty. The Doctor remarks that they have been through this fifteen times; it might be a joke, but it suggests that Kate simply never learns from her mistakes. The Doctor his able to trust Bonnie with that knowledge and insight, but he cannot trust Kate. The suggestion seems to be that the Doctor is able to negotiate better with Zygon radicals than with his former U.N.I.T. employers.

As such, the resolution of The Zygon Inversion takes on a rather different tone. Zygons deciding to pass is not a comment on assimilation or conformity, but is instead a condemnation of mankind’s close-mindedness. It marks a return to the idea suggested by Madame Vastra in Deep Breath that her veil is not a comment upon her own appearance, but a judgment on those to whom it would matter. Osgood’s promise to reveal herself as human or Zygon when the question no longer matters mirrors the disappearance of the veil in Deep Breath.

Wait... what happened to the Zygon on the plane? I guess he exploded onto the scene...

Wait… what happened to the Zygon on the plane? I guess he exploded onto the scene…

The climax of The Zygon Inversion is a fantastic scene, even beyond that clever philosophical shift from specifics to abstract. Peter Harness and Steven Moffat very cleverly centre the scene around Peter Capaldi and Jenna Louise Coleman. Capaldi is given some incredible material to work with, basically holding centre stage for about ten full minutes of the episode ranting and raving about everything from the human condition to the horrors of the Time War. It is a lot to put on an actor, and Capaldi carries it off.

It is a fantastic actor showcase, if only because it demonstrates Capaldi’s versatility. It is hard to imagine any other lead carrying all of the speech, although previous actors could have carried sections of it. Christopher Eccleston would have done great work explaining the horror of the screams that he can still hear; David Tennant would have laid down some moral righteousness while demanding to know what Bonnie actually wants; Tom Baker would have aloofly dismissed the Zygons as children throwing a tantrum.

Caving to pressure...

Caving to pressure…

However, it takes a lot to pull all of those different tonal shifts (and an American gameshow host!) into a single performance. Capaldi is jaw-drappingly good in the role. He perfectly balances the scenery-chewing larger-than-life presence that made Baker or Tennant so iconic and influential with the nuance and depth that made Eccleston and Davison so fantastic. It helps that Capaldi is clearly loving the role, with a lot of the show carried through his manic energy and undeniable enthusiasm.

Capaldi is not the only regular in fantastic form. Jenna Louise Coleman does great work as both Bonnie and Clara. While having Bonnie adopt Clara’s form initially seemed like the perfect opportunity to allow Jenna Louise Coleman her own “Salamander” or “Mister Clever” performance, it also meant that the production team could be entirely comfortable with the actor squaring off against Capaldi at the climax. The Zygon Inversion is much less interested in the character of Kate Stewart than it is in the character of Bonnie.

Working like a well-oiled U.N.I.T...

Working like a well-oiled U.N.I.T…

The sequences of Clara trapped inside her own mind hark back to Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. The idea of Clara essentially watching the plot as a television show is a device that Moffat employed throughout that two-parter, serving as an affectionate nod towards the experience of watching Doctor Who. In particular, the use of static and the fact that she seems to perceive an edited version of events suggests that Clara is parsing the events as a television show rather than a live feed.

Of course, Clara’s experience of her reality through a screen harks back to the drone pilots featured in The Zygon Invasion. In fact, The Zygon Inversion acknowledges this in the introductory scene; Clara is essentially trying to remote control her body which is trying to deploy a long-range weapon at a target visible on the screen. It is a nice visual motif, adding a unique flavour to an admittedly familiar set-up. Jenna Louise Coleman does great work, squaring off against herself.

A Bonnie lass...

A Bonnie lass…

The scene between Clara and Bonnie is intriguing; the attempt to determine whether Clara is lying by listening to her heart beat is very clever. It also ties back to Clara’s characterisation during the eighth season. “The one thing you and I can never do is lie to each other,” Bonnie boasts. This would seem to be based upon a misunderstanding of Clara’s character. As she points out here, Clara is a veteran liar. Across the eighth season, she lies to both the Doctor and to Danny about various important things; the show has also suggested that Clara is as guilty of lying to herself.

Clara has repeatedly been characterised as a woman with serious issues around honesty. When Danny is confronted by the Doctor in The Caretaker, Clara’s first instinct is to lie to him. In The Zygon Invasion, Clara admits to reading all the Trivial Pursuit questions so that she can win. A lot of Clara’s confidence and assertiveness is implied to be bluster, whether posing as the Doctor in Death in Heaven or imitating his style in The Girl Who Died. Clara is so good at lying, it makes sense that she should be able to lie to herself. (Even if they are mainly lies of omission.)

Dialing it back...

Dialing it back…

Isolating Clara from the Doctor allows Osgood to slip into the role traditionally occupied by the companion. The ninth season seems fascinated by this idea of temporary companions. Osgood ends the episode ready to confront any threat that might arise. When the Doctor offers to take her travelling, Osgood responds, “I’ve got a couple of boxes to keep an eye on. And a world to keep safe.” It is a sentiment that feels very familiar. Ashildr offered a similar sentiment at the end of The Woman Who Lived.

There is a recurring sense that the Doctor is reshaping people in his image, leaving heroes in his wake. The show has touched on this idea before, most notably in The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End. However, the ninth season makes a point to focus on the legacy left upon the Earth by the Doctor. It is a surprisingly sweet idea, suggesting that good deeds might be self-perpetuating; the Doctor inspires and encourages heroism. People like Ashildr and Osgood are perfectly capable of looking after the world in the absence of the Doctor.

Stewart-ing the world to safety...

Stewart-ing the world to safety…

The ninth season has repeatedly touched upon the Doctor’s tendency to run. Davros wondered aloud about it in The Witch’s Familiar, while the Ashildr yearned to do something similar in The Woman Who Lived. This recurring fascination with the heroes left behind in the Doctor’s wake feels like a response to stock criticisms about how the Doctor operates. The Doctor is constantly running away from responsibility and consequences, allowing things like Bad Wolf and The Sound of Drums to happen.

The ninth season instead suggests that he has outsourced it, entrusting the care of the planet to resourceful and well-meaning individuals with a more invested interest in particular situations. It is a clever way of allowing the show to have its cake and eat it, in keeping with other shrewd decisions during the Moffat era like allowing companions to maintain jobs and personal lives outside of their time on the TARDIS with the Doctor. (That’s the “Totally and Radically Driving in Space”, solving the “Dimension”/“Dimensions” confusion.)

No need tog et bent out of shape...

No need to get bent out of shape…

The Zygon Inversion is a classic, and a high water mark for this creative team. It is easily the best of the season, but it also stacks up well in an even broader context.

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4 Responses

  1. Neat review.

    I have to admit I liked the episode (and indeed the two parter) far, far less than you did but I agree about the strengths, particularly the acting from Coleman who can often be little more than a knowing smirk on this show. She was great here.

    That said I found the show profoundly… well offensive is the wrong word but maybe distateful? Some of those reasons I articulated last week, and for me they are still troubling and I think the show increased the moral unease I had last time. As you said before the show is never subtle about it politics but it sometimes backs (accidently) into endorsing some quite right wing (or maybe statist is a better word) views: a near endorsement of MAD, which even in the real world depends on a huge degree of bluff, the enforcement by outside decree of a terrible, terrible ‘peace’ and the assumption that those in the know, know far better than the mere plebians. I like Osgood in her first few appearances but somehow moral exactitude has left her arrogant and charmless.

    • Fair points, but the show always assumes that the Doctor has a highly evolve moral sense, if not the strongest common sense. While the show acknowledges this (“Daddy knows best”) I think it stops short of entirely embracing the idea that “those in the know” are inherently morally superior. After all, the Doctor opts to wipe Kate’s memory because she never learns anything from the experience. (It’s arguably a reasonable justification for keeping the Zygons secret. If Kate cannot be trusted with this, even with her years of experience, how will normal people react?)

      • That’s fair.

        Speaking of Kate, I do sometimes wonder if they make her a little too incompetent.

      • I’m also not entirely fond of the performance, which I think is oddly naturalistic for a major character in a show that routinely features shape-shifters and super computers. I think I get what Redgrave is trying for (“another day at the office”), but it doesn’t always work for me. But I did like I better at the climax of The Zygon Inversion more than anywhere else. Her matter of fact “we can’t forget that” was delivered brilliantly, for maximum unintended irony.

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