Doctor Who gave us more of a trick than a treat with The Zygon Invasion (S9E07)
For me, this is the first time this series that a first episode of a two-parter hasn’t set the bar particularly high for the conclusion to come. In fact, I really hope this turns the whole convention on its head and next week’s “The Zygon Inversion” retrospectively manages to salvage something from this dull, frustrating set-up.
When the Doctor is summoned back to Earth by a message from Osgood, he learns that the peace treaty he coerced humanity and the Zygons into during “The Day Of The Doctor” is breaking down. Determined to prevent the situation spiralling out of control, he links up again with UNIT but is the last of the Time Lords too late to save the day?
Despite a plot which metaphorically cuts right to the heart of the issues dominating the news agenda of the day, “The Zygon Invasion” struggles to do anything worthwhile or meaningful with it. ‘Operation Double’, the Zygon peace treaty and the risks of it breaking down taps into the very current issue of refugees, migrants and the tabloid hyperbole about inviting the big bad wolf to move into your house of bricks. Unfortunately, there’s no ambiguity in the story’s portrayal of the Zygon’s threat so unless the episode’s moral intention was to shore up Daily Mail readers opinions it seriously misses the mark. It may want to present a complex and morally grey critique of global geopolitics but reducing every Zygon we encounter to a snarling, slobbering monster hardly helps.
The Zygons’ defining properties provide “Doctor Who” with the opportunity to explore any number of contemporary hot button issues from the safe and privileged position of science fiction. From integration and social paranoia to questions of gender and sexuality self-identification versus social conventions and expectations, the Zygons are a goldmine of allegory and parable so it’s a shame to see them wasted in banal fare such as this.
Another pioneering aspect of the recent “Doctor Who” has been the reconstitution of UNIT with a predominantly female command structure. Out in full force again in this episode, none of UNIT’s senior personnel cover themselves in glory. Every single critical decision is questionable at best from the utter collapse of the chain of command in the Turmezistani village (which looks a lot like the town of Christmas on Trenzalor by the way) to Kate Stewart, the Head of UNIT, deciding to go alone to a foreign country into a known Zygon stronghold.
Perhaps most egregiously of all, the Doctor doesn’t seem to be taking things very seriously at all, preferring to lecture, philosophise and snipe rather than get stuck in. Why take the plane to Turmezistan instead of the TARDIS? Narrative convenience, indicative of the lazy writing that plagues this episode. In a story which should be nerve-shreddingly overloaded with “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers”-style paranoia, the ‘surprise’ revelations of Zygon duplicates are so telegraphed and so easy to spot in advance you start to wonder why UNIT is having such difficulty. Especially when Zygon hijacked technology is prone to conspicuous oozing. Are we really to believe there is no test to see whether someone is a Zygon or human (asking questions only your mum wold know the answer to will apparently suffice)? Why aren’t senior officers routinely tested in any event? Has nobody in UNIT seen “The Thing”?
The small flicker of interest that remains is that it’s difficult to see how the Doctor is going to get himself. Not the surface-to-air missile which was headed his way at the cliff-hanger which will no doubt be hand waived away (I’d be surprised if the President Of The World’s personal airliner didn’t have anti-missile countermeasures) but the huge problem of 20 million potentially hostile Zygons dispersed around the globe. Is this the Doctor’s no-win scenario? His Kobyashi Maru? If so, it’s one of his own making. He’s done the exact opposite of Captain Kirk.
Production-wise, the story’s insistence on trying to appear globetrotting strains the series’ budget somewhat. There’s something hollow and ineffective in filming in the UK and applying lens filters to the footage to make it seem foreign and exotic, a problem which also dogs Sky 1’s “You, Me And The Apocalypse”. The monster make-up is great but I’m less convinced by Zygon weapons turning people into short-circuiting hairballs and the “Doctor Who” nerd in me is wondering where on Earth they’re getting enough Skarasen lactic fluid to sustain a population of 20 million?
The guest cast do what they can with their badly written characters (the usually great Rebecca Front is particularly short changed) and while it’s nice to see Osgood again, the story’s coy refusal to confirm whether the Zygon or Human one was killed raises the spectre that Moffat’s ‘nobody dies’ trope is back.
The clumsy shoe-horning in of the season’s ‘hybrid’ theme at the last minute isn’t enough to raise the import of the episode and it leaves the second part with everything to do to salvage an adventure which wants to be a “Doctor Who” version of “24” but barely manages to hold your interest for fifty minutes.