This week’s Doctor Who review looks at the Zygon Invasion – doubles, replicas, and one of the biggest cliffhangers. What more could you want?
It’s certainly a fast-paced episode and Peter Capaldi’s performances just get better and better every week. He manages to make this bumbling mid-life crisis Doctor into perhaps one of the best incarnations of the character ever. The shabby clothes, the sunglasses, and the electric guitar and now giving himself ‘cool’ nicknames (such as ‘Doctor Disco) all speak of an older man trying to recapture his youth.
Jenna Coleman returns and gives a very chilling performance. I worry about how the audience is being led to perceive Clara as she has been remarkably absent from a lot of this series, yet when she has appeared it has rarely been in a very positive light. Last year we got a lot of moralising from her, a lot of her standing up to the Doctor and challenging his ends-justify-the-means stances. This year, she is becoming the very thing she criticised. I like this direction (as it is a nice foil to the Doctor’s character arc which seems to be on the opposite trajectory) but still feel apprehensive.
Was Clara built up as enough of a likable character before that now giving her a lot of negative screen presence is going to pay off? I’m not sure she was. I never actively disliked Clara per-se, but I think her characterisation has been so all over the map that it’s been hard to pin down exactly what to think of her until now when there is finally some consistency. Alas, that this consistency is in her downward spiral into the morally questionable.
This week’s episode sees a return of the Zygons. Shapeshifters who take the form of humans and try to blend into new cultures. But some are sick of hiding, sick of pretending to be something they are not, and sick of being forced to take a disguise just to survive. That was, I felt, the heart of the story, the part I wanted to know more about. I wanted to hear it from the Zygon point of view, to really get to know their struggle which we didn’t really hear much about until very near the end.
There are an awful lot of political allegories going on here and they’re almost as stark as those from the 2005 story Aliens of London / World War Three. Much of the rhetoric and discourse surrounding immigration, Islam, and far right reactions to them, are used here. This was a cause of some discomfort as the Zygons seemed to be acting as a stand in for such marginalised groups and were not, I didn’t feel, given much in the way of positive imagery. For all the Doctor’s insistence that the violence was due to a splinter faction, we were not shown peaceful Zygons and we were not allowed to see much beyond Osgood’s experience of being a possible double and some creepy children who were unceremoniously killed about half way through.
This leaves a very one-sided situation where the Zygons become the ‘other’, they become the big bad that must be stopped at all costs. Unlike the situation we have often seen with the Silurians, there is very little attempt on the part of the writers to show us any kind of diversity amongst them. I find this worrying if the allegory to immigration and Islam is what we are supposed to take away from this as it leaves the message very much on the side of ‘they’re all evil’ with only the tiniest token gesture to the situation being more complex. This was greatly troubling, but I hope it is something we will see resolved in the second part.
Beginning the episode with flashbacks to the Fiftieth Anniversary special, brought up something that I had been wondering about ever since we’d seen it. How did that whole Zygon peace negotiation work out? Why hadn’t we heard anything about it? Why did it just disappear, remain unspoken and unseen ever since? Unless I missed something, of course, I don’t think there were any hints as to what had been going on behind the scenes with this situation. This leaves the episode with an awful lot to do in the way of establishing the threat and scale of danger.
This could work in the show’s favour in some ways. It leaves the door a lot more open to casual viewers who are dropped into an episode, not needing to have watched the last two seasons back to back to be able to understand what’s going on. However, for those of us who do watch the show every week, it does leave me with the feeling that the world the show creates is missing some grounding, some consistent realism, or some sense of the characters and situations having a real impact. A vast settling of alien beings would leave marks and traces and you would expect the people in the know to comment on them. Or for it to be brought up even in passing. The DW universe, like any secondary world, needs these little elements of world-building to make it feel lived-in. Like it is something you can imagine being real, rather than feeling like a stage on which the stories take place.
Doctor Who has always had an occasionally inconsistent continuity, but it strikes me that it is much better to give the audience the impression that you are at least trying to be consistent. That you are making the effort. Once you remove narrative and in-world consistency, it can become a show where anything can happen, not in a good way, but in the way where the story is completely incomprehensible. Justifying continuity mistakes is a fun fan activity, but if there’s a feeling that the writers don’t even care any more, such activities can feel more like a chore than a hobby in my experience.
Anyway, the story itself is incredibly nerve-wracking. The Zygon costumes are brilliantly realised, the music is on point, and the twists and turns of the episode kept me from looking at my watch. There are some real laugh out loud moments, especially when the Doctor accepts his role as ‘president of the world’, not for the power or authority, but because he likes getting to swan about in a big plane. That was a moment that made me want to shake hands with the writer as the ‘president of the world’ thing had always irked me a bit.
Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart gave one of her best performances yet. Facing off against Capaldi she very much holds her own and doesn’t let him have his way without a fight, very much like the Brig of old. Ingrid Oliver (Osgood) continues to grow on me and I find myself more and more intrigued by her. I remember being a bit annoyed that her possible Zygon status was not even mentioned during her last appearance (Death in Heaven) but I am glad we are getting some real depth now.
Next week we shall see how the Doctor gets himself out of the pickle he’s gotten into.