01 November 2015

Doctor Who: Invasion of the Zygons

Since its return in 2005, a number of foes from Doctor Who's twentieth-century incarnation have made high-profile returns - from the Daleks and Cybermen to the Silurians and Sontarans. All four of these races have taken starring roles in the Peter Capaldi era, which is still only just over a year old.

For my money, the reappearance of the Zygons, this week's extra-terrestrial baddies, is easily the most accomplished re-introduction of Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner. The shapeshifters last appeared in fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor two years ago, when a peace was negotiated between UNIT's top players and their Zygon duplicates.

Peter Harness picks up the story in 2015 and the result is quite easily the most arresting and instantly engaging episode in quite some time. He cleverly uses a lot of topical issues and takes tensions currently bubbling under in Britain to extremes. It doesn't take a genius to see the parallels between this and the arrival of increasing numbers of immigrants in this country - something which I, like the Doctor and thus the episode, won't be taking a stance on here - with Harness even slipping a sly joke about our benefits system.

The soundest aspect of this episode is its central conceit: the Zygons are already here. This is more of an uprising than an invasion and thus is one of the scarier plots of recent times. It plays heavily on the fact that anyone could be a Zygon, and anyone could 'turn' at any moment. That said, this strand isn't entirely consistent. Sometimes it plays as if the viewer is supposed to question whether the character is the one we think they are, and sometimes the presentation seems to be more metaphorical, as if we are supposed to read a real-world meaning about some kind of uprising.

The masterstroke of Peter Harness' writing has to be personifying this in the form of Osgood. There was much speculation prior to broadcast about how the character - who we saw killed by Moffat's reimagination of the Master just short of a year ago - would be appearing once more this year. To this reviewer, at least, there seemed to be two obvious options. Either this story would be set before 2014's Dark Water and Death in Heaven (and tie in with Kate Stewart's throwaway comment about the Doctor having had a haircut) or one of the Osgoods (the human or the Zygon) would have survived. And indeed, the latter would seem to be the case.

Harness completely gets the transition Capaldi's Doctor has undergone since his last episode - the stunning Kill the Moon - as well. Here, he frequently refers to his 'friends' and asks Osgood directly what species she is - neither things which the Doctor of 2014 would have given a damn about. And it's pleasing to see Osgood maintain to him that it doesn't matter, which is what sums up this episode so perfectly. All of this bluster and the war which seems to be breaking out across three continents is made to look quite petty against this backdrop, but it's no less impressive or affecting.

It was inevitable that in this story one of the three main protagonists - the Doctor, Clara or Kate - would turn out to be a Zygon. The inherent Osgood uncertainty leads to a new ability for the Zygons; they no longer require the original to be alive to generate a copy. This adds another dimension to things, especially with the apparent murder of the human versions of Clara, Jac and Kate. I think only the second of those will actually turn out to be dead but it's still a gutsy move for the show.

Bringing an impressive look to the whole thing is newcomer Daniel Nettheim, who's recently helmed hit series like Glue, Humans and Line of Duty. Although some of the shots (surely deliberately off-kilter) look like they haven't quite set the tripod up right, there's so much in here that works brilliantly, from smooth dollies to impressive aerial shots. After just one episode, I'm already hoping that Nettheim doesn't fall victim to the considerable turnover of directors Doctor Who seems to be going through at the moment. Also on the production side of things, it's another impressive score from Murray Gold but for the third episode in a row it didn't really seem to fit with the finished episode at all. Perhaps the clearest example is the scene where the UNIT soldier is being ordered to kill his mother and the soundtrack suggests a joyous reunion, not the gritty realism Nettheim's pictures convey.

In conclusion, this is one of the strongest episodes for years. It's something of a coincidence that reviewers on this site have all landed stories they've really enjoyed, as I know the episodes we've not written are those we've not liked so much. For me though, Invasion of the Zygons is agonisingly close to perfect. It does have its flaws - Clara's relative scarcity coming off the back of two light episodes for her is a little frustrating and Kate still rubs me up the wrong way - but they don't detract from my overall view of the story so far. It's also really pleasing to see an 'urban thriller' so clearly dominated by women - Kate, Osgood, Jac, Clara, Colonel Walsh and even the two little girls - and it handled in such an offhand manner. Harness also uses the Zygons in a really intelligent way, and not just as a gimmick. This episode leaves me with only one regret; I really wish they'd gone with Harness' working title of The World of the Enemy.

Paradoxically claustrophobic and epic, I struggle to see how the rest of this series could better this.

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