DOCTOR WHO: “The Zygon Invasion”

It’s midnight on Halloween — do YOU know if your kids aren’t actually Zygons?

I’m the President of the World. I’m here to rescue people and generally establish happiness all over the place.

–The Doctor

They look like us, but they’re not us.

At least, that’s the central theme of a bevy of Red Scare-era horror stories, from Invaders From Mars to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Invasion of — well, you get the idea. How better to encapsulate the notion that anyone you know or love could be a Communist than to use shape-shifting aliens? The first Zygon serial in Who‘s history, “The Terror of the Zygons,” debuted in 1975, and though the era of McCarthyism had long since passed in America, the world was still feeling its echoes. But no matter what decade you’re in, as Clara points out this week, middle-aged people “always think the world is coming to an end.” And in the Zygons, the threat is indeed red.

Most of the Doctor’s greatest enemies are still more or less one-note. It’s hard to pull deeper meaning out of cries of “Exterminate!” or “Delete!”, though Moffat has certainly tried. The Zygons at least are allowed longer stretches of dialogue, so it was interesting that they never appeared in the modern incarnation of Who until the 50th Anniversary Special. But even then, that episode was less notable for its use of the Zygons than the Tumblr-baiting thrill of having David Tennant and Matt Smith on screen at the same time. Despite their thematic underpinnings and slightly more expressive physiology, they’re still kind of dull. They lumber, they hiss, they zap their victims into little piles of hair, then take their place to save the show some money on effects. What else can be done with them?

The answer to that comes from Peter Harness, who last season wrote the (somewhat polarizing) “Kill the Moon“: pick up the dangling threads from “Day of the Doctor” and follow them to their logical conclusion. I had actually forgotten the Doctor had essentially forced UNIT to allow assimilation of the planet-less Zygons, and we learn here that they’ve gone on to practically double the population of the United Kingdom overnight. (A ludicrously impractical plan, of course, but the Doctor gets some blame for that for how he basically dumped this problem in UNIT’s lap and left.) Unfortunately, however, some of the refugees have more nefarious motives, and launch a series of terrorist attacks to reshape the world the way they want it.

Nope, no real-world parallels here.

Through the first half of “The Zygon Invasion” the pace is rushed, even disorienting — especially for the first half of a two-parter. How busy must the second hour be to justify the breakneck pace of the first? No sooner has one of the Osgoods been kidnapped that the Doctor is interrogating pre-teen girls on a playground (who happen to be the Zygon high command), then minutes later is at UNIT headquarters having made 127 unanswered calls to Clara. The stakes are quickly laid out: a certain “blobby faction” within the Zygon population is kidnapping humans to use as hosts while they expand their influence. This splinter group demands the right to live as their true sucker-cupped selves out in the open, and will disintegrate anyone who gets in their way.

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UNIT’s response, as it always is, is to bomb everyone, which the Doctor rightfully says will bring the more moderate Zygons over to the hardliners’ side. It’s hard to get invested in them, or worry for Kate as she drives out alone to the unfortunately (but accurately) named Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, or mourn her (likely) death. Every time UNIT makes it into the show, they’re either incompetent, bloodthirsty, or just plain wrong. First they want back some nerve gas that the Doctor apparently stole that they say will turn the Zygons inside out (this came up so many times you know it’ll factor into next week, “The Zygon Inversion“), then their supposedly elite special forces unit is lured into a building without a word of protest by Zygons pretending to be their families, even though everyone knows it’s a trap. Come on, guys.

Harness uses a lot of parallel action in his story, which is relatively unusual for Who where the Doctor tends to appear in almost every scene. Instead, we cross-cut between the Doctor in Turmezistan (again…really? Why not “Carjackistan?”), Kate in New Mexico, and an unusually take-charge Clara back in London. After spending the first third of the episode AWOL, she launches back to center stage with Jenna Coleman finally having the chance to play Dark Clara. I was ready to knock the episode for fabricating a reason to get Clara and Jac back at her apartment and into that elevator, but the legitimately surprising reveal that Clara was never actually Clara brushed that aside. That said, I’m not sure Coleman was given much direction beyond “walk straighter” and “stare harder,” which is Play the Evil Version of Yourself 101.

One of the more interesting story ideas (because it wasn’t “The Doctor Thinks Clara is Dead, Again”) is the case of Osgood, the fan-favorite Doctor cosplayer played by Ingrid Oliver. If she remembers whether she’s human or Zygon, she’s not letting on (though the Doctor believes it’s the former), because she felt enough of a sisterly bond with Other Osgood (who died last season) to speak for both races. Obviously, she and her mysterious box are the key to any kind of peaceful resolution with the radical Zygon fringe. But Oliver is always charming in her Baker Scarf, and this time she added McCoy’s question-mark collar to her ensemble. For a character who seemed to be introduced only as a nerdy audience stand-in, I appreciate her having a real role to play and some pathos to deliver. Assuming she survives that rocket Zygon Clara launched at their plane, anyway.

All in all, it was a solid if unspectacular first half. Following last week’s “The Woman Who Lived” was always going to be a challenge, and if this ends up being a more by-the-numbers midseason breather, that may not be all bad.

Wibbly-Wobbly Stuff:

  • Okay, hang on a second. I’ve been meaning to talk about Capaldi more specifically. His Twelfth Doctor debuted as a more professorial type, with that fancy waistcoat and his chalkboard. A bit daffy, sure, but nothing close to the guitar-shredding, Ray-Ban wearing, frizzy haired crazy uncle “Doctor Disco” he is now. What led to the change? Is Moffat just reacting to what Capaldi brings to the role? I don’t mind the changes in and of themselves (well, except the “sonic sunglasses” — still hate those), but some explanation would be nice.
  • And since Capaldi On Guitar seems to be a regular thing: this week, “Amazing Grace.” Wait, what? Really? Are we supposed to read into that? Is the Doctor lost, or found?
  • How do we know we’re in New Mexico? There’s a literal tumbleweed crossing the street. Kind of a waste of your travel budget, BBC.
  • “I memorize Trivial Pursuit questions so I would…win.” Clara and I have something in common. Or, at least Zygon Clara and I do.
  • Hat-tip to our Chase Branch for reminding me about the Red Scare parallels, because I am nothing if not a just and fair editor.


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