This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
9.8 The Zygon Inversion
“Who’s going to make the violins?”
I spent a sentence or two in my reaction to last week’s Doctor Who, The Zygon Invasion, arguing that for this one to work, the closing chapter really had to catch everything that writer Peter Harness had thrown into the air. He certainly threw enough up there, after all, in his world-trotting opener.
I was a bit wary, because earlier in the series, I really loved Under The Lake an awful lot, and felt Before The Flood, for instance, didn’t quite match the same standard. Very good, but slightly below its excellent opener.
In the case of The Zygon Inversion, however, I’m calling this one a triumph. I really, really liked it a lot. No, sod it: I think it’s an outstanding, bold, ambitious, brilliant, gripping piece of television. A testament to what Doctor Who can do, that many of its contemporaries over the year can’t get within pissing distance of.
Never let anyone tell you that sci-fi, fantasy, so-called children’s programmes and their ilk belong in a nice little box away from the mainstream. Doctor Who has just blasted a 45 minute lesson in tolerance, the state of the world, war and the futility of conflict straight into people’s living rooms while The X-Factor was on the other side.
I really can’t applaud this enough.
“Totally and radically driving in space”
I’m going to jump to the two centerpiece scenes for me, and then come back round to talk about the rest of The Zygon Inversion.
And the first is the utterly dominating sequence, where Peter Capaldi out-Peter Capaldis everyone on the entire planet. If you’re like me, there are still goosebumps on your arm.
Because as his speech continues, and continues, and continues, it’s as if the world stops still.
Thus, with Kate and Bonnie both in possession of Osgood boxes that they believe hold the necessary tools for war, the Doctor starts talking. Nearly ten minutes later, he’s still talking. And if you weren’t listening at the start, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen by the end.
This, I’d argue, is the best work the already-excellent Peter Capaldi has done in Doctor Who to date. “There are safeguards beyond safeguards. I did this on a very important for me”, he says, launching into the impassioned speech, using nothing more than words to try and prevent the end of the world.
Two opposing forces – represented by Bonnie and Kate – with boxes and buttons in front of them to cause mass devastation. And the Doctor simply has to talk them out of it.
Capaldi throws everything at this. He switches tone, accent and verocity with a staggeringly precise degree of control. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and every time Kate or Bonnie entered the conversation, I was practically counting the seconds until the Doctor retorted. “This is not a game, Kate”, he suddenly roars. And roar is surely the world.
It doesn’t matter that the boxes are empty, ultimately. Because the Doctor wins out using pure intelligence, reason, and argument.
“This is a scale model of war. Every war ever fought, right there in front of you”
It’s the pinnacle of what writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat have done here. They’ve taken the second part of a very big story, and at the point everyone’s supposed to come together in a big fight, they talk instead. Granted, it’s Capaldi talking. But still: rather than building up to an SFX-dominated smash-up, The Zygon Inversion keeps narrowing in on what actually matters.
Two-parters, as a rule, aren’t supposed to do this. The quieter stuff tends to happen in part one, the loud pay-off in part two. But the inversion of the title could easily refer to this story’s structure itself. This is a part two where the cast is smaller, the scale is smaller, the number of speaking roles is smaller, the jokes are cut back (although not entirely: I’d be fascinated to see the Doctor’s browser history), the number of locations is smaller. And yet the stakes feel sky-high.
Underpinning this, of course, is what the episode is also talking about.
Whether you regard what the two Zygons stories have been saying as subtext or front and centre, it’s 90 minutes of television that’s achingly relevant. That’s allowing massive, important things to be broached, and abjectly refusing to dumb them down.
What’s more, the more I think about the ending, the more unsettling it is. I’m talking about the casual moment where the Doctor says it’s the 15th time he’s had the same argument to keep the Zygon peace treaty in tact. That this basically happens seemingly all the time, we just never usually get to see it.
There’s a superb episode of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, 33, that gets across the relentlessness and the repetition of war, in science fiction clothes. For my money, The Zygon Inversion eclipses even that.
All sides of the conflict are relatable. Their positions are understandable. It’s the fact that it feels so real and normal that makes it feel so quietly chilling.
Meanwhile, some people sang songs on the other side. At a point where the BBC is seemingly under relentless attack, this is what a licence fee buys you. Karaoke is free, as long as you’re happy to watch the John Lewis advert. Ambitious Saturday night drama has to be paid for.
“You’re all the same you screaming kids, you know that?”
There’s another major scene that doesn’t deserve to be overlooked in amidst the showering of praise heading Capaldi’s way. And it’s another patient sequence, as Clara and Bonnie – Clonnie! – interrogate one another.
What I like about this is that firstly, it’s Jenna Coleman’s best work of the series to date. It’s the best thing she’s been given to do, certainly, but that notwithstanding, she knocks it out of the park.
I’ve struggled with the character of Clara this series, in truth, but she’s excellent here, reacting against herself, and convincingly getting across a difficult scene. Also, I like how Harness and Moffat continually shift the balance of power in the conversation.
At first, then, Clara is cocky. But then the excellent moment where Clonnie starts monitoring her pulse is ingenious. The dynamic of the chat instantly changes, and changes again later on as Clara turns this to her advantage. The Doctor’s greatest advantage has always been his intelligence, and in this scene, this is where Clara has best followed that herself.
These, for me, were the two standout moments. And in truth, when The Zygon Inversion began, I was a little worried. I feared it’d cheated its way out of its cliffhanger, as the surface to air missile being aimed by Clonnie was aiming directly for the Doctor’s plane. There’s no way that could be avoided, right?
Well, cut to the inside of a Zygon pod – with some clever inversions of its own within – that looks distinctly like Clara’s bedroom. There’s even something of a nod to Repo Man in there. It snuck itself out of a tight corner, and from that point on, The Zygon Inversion gathered its momentum. It didn’t look back one.
Perhaps there are one or two things not entirely clear: which Osgood is which? Are they both Zygons? Is it Clara’s strength of character that’s ultimately allowed her to resist, and ultimately save the Doctor? Is it right that the show leans on that? There’s debate and discussion to be had there, certainly.
There’s also plenty left in the locker to explore at a later date, because the more I think about it, nothing is actually resolved as such. People have died, battles have been fought, just so all the pieces can effectively be reassembled back in the board in the same place we found them at the start.
But then that’s the point.
I accept that some people don’t want strong political messages in their Doctor Who, and some also prefer its subtexts to be more undercover than they were here. But I’m not one of them. Doctor Who has an almost unrivalled ability to talk to a broad audience, right across the world, about whatever it wants to talk about.
Tonight, I think it did just that.
See you next week, Basil.
Our review of last week’s episode, The Zygon Invasion, is here.