When we heard that Peter Harness was going to be writing the Zygon two-parter this year, there was a lump in most Whovians’ throats. Which Peter Harness would show up for writing duty? ‘The moon’s an egg’ Peter (It’s really, truly not as bad as you remember it being – go back and watch it with hindsight), or ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ Peter (it’s really as flawless as you thought it was. Watch it again and again until you die)?
Much would depend on the answer, because in the season which started with a two-part re-writing of the history of Davros (no pressure), the Zygon Invasion/Inversion would be a sequel to both the practically untouchable original Terror of the Zygons and the least important thread of the Fiftieth Anniversary special.
No pressure on the poor man, then. He only ran the risk of never-ending calumny from Who fans everywhere, that’s all.
In answer to the important question, it’s Peerless Peter who’s shown up for duty this time round – and we don’t just mean Capaldi.
Starting with a re-cap of all the important bits of the Zygon arc from The Day Of The Doctor (it tells you all you need to know that these highlights fit into just a couple of minutes), the action unfolds with the big hits and the creeping paranoid tension of a big-budget terrorist disaster movie, but done in a very Who way (the leading Zygons on the planet being two seven year-old girls, for instance).
Everything about this episode was better than the Zygon thread in Day Of The Doctor – firstly of course it put the Zygons front and centre, rather than shunting them off to the sidelines the storytelling. More importantly, it addressed a central concern of even Terror of the Zygons. When Tom Baker’s Doctor asks the Zygon Chief Scientist, Broton, what he intends to do with the Earth once he’s conquered it, he makes a fundamental point – “Isn’t it rather large for just the six of you?” The scale of The Zygon Invasion is massive – firstly, when there need to be, there are screenfulls of the big red rubbery things covered in suckers, making them appear a credible threat, but secondly and more importantly, it feels, in terms of the location shooting, as though this really is a worldwide crisis. Classic Doctor Who of course was never lacking in ambition or imagination – Dalek Invasion of Earth…via…erm…Bedfordshire, anyone – but the joy about New Who is that it can realise the imagination of writers with a budget and on a scale that feels both modern and epic. And that’s exactly what The Zygon Invasion does.
The tone of the episode is prickly with threat and paranoia – early on, you start squinting at the screen, thinking “human or Zygon?,” looking at everyone with suspicion, even those going all the way up the chain – Osgood and Kate included. And the idea that, to quote Steven Moffat and Peter Harness, the Zygons are learning how we make war on each other to wage war on all of us is a poignant stab at the certainties of some in the western world that things like wars on ‘terror’ have absolute rights and wrongs. Certainly, it becomes clear fairly early on that these are not our Seventies Zygons – they are evolving and learning new abilities (a bit of classic retconning from Osgood puts paid to the certainty about Zygons needing to keep the human alive to maintain the body-print), which they use to mess with the minds of the human soldiers – could you bomb someone who can look like your husband, wife, son, mother? The social point of course being that they’re someone’s husband, wife, son or mother – just because they’re not yours doesn’t make it right to kill them for a difference of opinion. It’s a point undermined almost immediately, when those who show compassion are vapourised or stolen by the enemy.
There’s a more sophisticated social point at work too – the actions of a small group aiming to provoke retaliation and incite radicalization of the masses. This was Who about as political as it ever gets, and walking a thin, dangerous, complicated line of reference to our real world. A line made all the more thin and dangerous on the day a plane crashed to the ground in Sinai, with one radical cell claiming responsibility for bringing it down (timing is often tricky in Who, and the cliff-hanger ending will be better with a year of hindsight than it is on this unfortunate day).
There’s a gloriously retro feel to the design in this episode – the Zygons in The Day Of The Doctor were mostly hiding or on the move, but here there’s an old-style frond-titivating Zygon computer. Punch the air and all hail Seventies madness. What’s more, the whispering Zygon voices are more in evidence here than they were in the Fiftieth Anniversary story, a consequence of them having very much more to say. Punch the air again.
The weird-business-in-lifts sub-plot is a little peculiar and smacks a little of Closing Time, but one thing it does is allow for the building of enough questions to hook us right the way through into the next episode – what the hell is actually going on, with the captured human originals? Why not simply kill them and take their places? What’s the strategy for the invasion? Clearly the Zygons have learned that they need to neutralize UNIT, and go about it efficiently, and they’ve been infiltrating the UK over the course of the last year, in preparation to launch the war for self-determination – again, Who at its most political, the Zygons acting as potential avatars for those who reject the idea of Western capitalist democracy on its march towards world conquest – but the tension builds with question after question, leading to an insatiable hunger to know exactly what the hell goes down in The Zygon Inversion.
The cast in this episode is top notch, adding the same kind of reality to the fear and the and it’s a particular delight to see Rebecca Front and Peter Capaldi trading lines again, her character, Walsh, being a new kind of UNIT officer – one who doesn’t particularly roll over for a tummy tickle at the Doctor’s command. Todd Kramer’s Hitchley’s a great portrayal too, and we really hope we haven’t seen the last of Jaye Griffiths’ Jac either, despite what sound like some convincing ‘being destroyed’ noises – she was stepping neatly into Osgood’s place as Kate’s second-in-command, and to lose two such lieutenants would make Kate seem a touch careless, given that her dad fought through much of the most intense alien-battling business of his career with both Yates and Benton by his side.
Series 9 has so far delivered higher-quality storytelling than many previous series, and with The Zygon Invasion, it’s more than recovered from the blip of The Woman Who Lived. It’s going to be an awfully long week until The Zygon Inversion, and the episode will go down in Who history as ‘the New Who one where the Zygons were done right.’
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk