This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
9.7 The Zygon Invasion
“Did you just call yourself Doctor Disco?”
[Review has been updated to correct two factual errors. Apologies!]
It’s a while since a Doctor Who story needed to start with a bit of an exposition dump, but The Zygon Invasion is as dense an opening chapter of an adventure as we’ve seen in some time.
As the prologue demonstrates, this is a story that picks up from crumbs left behind in the wonderful Day Of The Doctor. And then it jumps, still pre-credits, to explain why Ingrid Oliver’s Osgood is still alive.
After all, we saw her brutally slain by Missy at the end of series 8, and yet it’s been known for some time that Oliver would be back. It is, of course, the ecosystem modern television exists in, whereby secrets are hard to keep (and sites like this don’t always help, I’m very aware of that). But I’m old enough to remember Cybermen crashing through the wall in Earthshock and nearly jumping out of my seat with glee. It’s good to see her back, but it would have been even better were it a surprise.
That said, surprises were held back. As we later learn, Osgood is the latest character to be a “hybrid” this series, which is clearly a running theme. Davros first started talking about hybrids in The Witch’s Familiar, and then Sam Swift in The Woman Who Lived became one. What’s with all the hybrids? What’s going on? The answers remain to be seen. And by the end of The Zygon Invasion, quite a few more questions had been posed too.
“I’ve got question mark underpants” “Makes you wonder what the question is”
It’s not just good to have Ingrid Oliver back in Doctor Who, then. The Zygon Invasion also has an extra treat. For the beloved (by me, at least) Zygons return for their first full-on story since they debuted in Terror Of The Zygons. Sure, they were in Day Of The Doctor, but there was a lot going on there. Here, the focus is firmly on them. 20 million of them, in fact, as it turns out they’ve – Invasion Of The Body Snatchers style – been living amongst us all this time.
That’s the biggest narrative hurdle than the jam-packed The Zygon Invasion has to jump. We’re not quite at the stage of Doc Brown with the board in Back To The Future Part II, but this episode double, and arguably triple-bags the notion that a peace treaty was once brokered, allowing Zygons to live on earth. Tons of them. A plan that clearly could never go wrong.
After all, the plan also involves a junior school as the base of operations for the Zygons – who agreed this accord? – and the sacrifice of human beings. British human beings. With failsafes in place, and peace and harmony secured post-Day Of The Doctor, the world is clearly all well and good.
No wonder there’s a need for a ‘Nightmare Scenario’ codename.
Naturally, this means UNIT is involved in it all – welcome back Kate Stewart! – as there’s something of a Zygon NOC list here. A catalogue of every Zygon on earth, although the ins and outs of how that list is put together and monitored are beyond my puny human brain. At one stage, it takes the Doctor a minute or two to chat to two young kids who only he realises are Zygons. The rest of us have no chance.
In comes another ingredient, too. After taking a back seat for a week or two, Jenna Coleman’s Clara is back with abundance here. This, too, may just be where we get to see just how she’s going to depart the series. By the end of the episode, she’s been cloned, is going by the name Bonnie (it’s unclear if there’s significance to that, or if someone wanted to tip their hat to Bonnie Langford), and is shooting the Doctor out of the sky. Bonnie/Clara becomes the kind of badass foe who can get closest to the Time Lord and do the most damage. Which she duly does.
Which leaves the Doctor with a soon-to-be-doomed plane to escape – where’s Missy with her plane-freezing powers when you need her? – and UNIT all but wiped out.
Thus, whilst we get a part-standard Doctor Who cliffhanger – we know he’s not going to die – that leaves the bigger question as to where this all leaves Clara. Or Bonnie. Or both.
There are further little questions that pop up, after all. There’s a moment just near the half way point of the story where she says she needs to swing by home and pick some things up. What things? No idea, but it is cue for a Halloween-style horror lift. A really creepy one too, with ooze bursting out of the control panel. Turns out the Zygons quite like lifts.
Furthermore, luring the Doctor and UNIT to New Mexico seems in part to be about getting them away from Clara/Bonnie (I’m going with Clonnie from this point on, as it nearly spells clone and I quite liked that). The Zygons clearly see Clonnie as being of strategic importance, and with the Doctor and Kate comfortably sidelined elsewhere, she can do her damage.
And as we’re speculating, are we going to find out that there’s been more to Clara – or indeed Clonnie – this series all along than has met the eye? It’s not clear yet, but there are hints that might be the case this week.
It’s certainly Peter Capaldi’s Doctor who takes more of a back seat for most of the episode, arguably for the first time this series. He still gets his guitar out, of course.
“Don’t kill me because I can’t remember”
Underpinning all of this, writer Peter Harness – returning after last year’s Kill The Moon – thankfully proves an adept juggler of balls.
There’s no slow build-up here, as The Zygon Invasion gets cracking quickly and only occasionally pauses for breath. Every now and then there’s a sense of having to hang on and go with it, but that’s a small price for the ambition and scale of the episode.
There’s a very real sense that this is a global story, not least when it turns into a western in the town of Truth Or Consequences (Clara is bang on the money here, by the way: it is a real town in New Mexico, named after a TV show).
It’s in ‘Turmezistan’ that we get the best scene. With UNIT troops surrounding a church, out come the innocent-looking citizens of the town. Are they Zygons or not? That’s the dramatic conundrum you get with shapeshifting aliens, and Harness plays it beautifully. It’s cold, hard science fiction, with a deadly edge, and it stuck in my head long after the credits rolled. Rarely have the Zygons been as sinister to watch. Huge credit there too to debut Who director Daniel Nettheim, who balances the shifting styles of the episode with confidence.
One further thing that The Zygon Invasion proves: the Zygons remain an outright uncomfortable Doctor Who foe. My children were utterly creeped out, and I can’t help thinking that it’s a mix of terrific design, as well as a way of speaking and snarling that can’t help but get under the skin. It helps too that the Zygons haven’t been over-exposed over the years due to their relatively few appearances, and Harness is careful not to overplay them.
The Zygon Invasion flashed by in seemingly double quick time, and that’s very much to its credit. Given the fact that it’s the first of a two parter, it seems far more dependent on a successful conclusion that the last two openers. But in terms of what it gets through in 45 minutes, it’s an easy, very Doctor Who-style episode to commend.
There are more questions to resolve, of course. What caused the Nightmare Scenario? The rogue Zygons have clearly been planning this for some time – have they been threaded in, quietly, through the Doctor Who stories we’ve been watching over the past two years? Furthermore, this one clearly hinges on a strong conclusion to make the build up work. The Zygon Invasion doesn’t feel standalone in that sense.
It’s an entertaining, enjoyable, spooky and occasionally bumpy treat though, that I liked a lot. One with plenty to say politically too, bubbling not far under the surface. Count me amongst those eagerly awaiting part two.
Good series this, so far.
Here’s our review of last week’s episode, The Woman Who Lived.