Writer: Peter Harness and Steven Moffat.
Director: Daniel Nettheim.
Main Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Ingrid Oliver, Jemma Redgrave.
Hello Whovians! Following last week’s terribly tense tale and chilling cliffhanger (alliteration’s awfully appealing, eh?), we pick up this week with an Earth at war! The Zygon separatists are scheming away and with Clara, Kate and even the Doctor seemingly taken care of, where can things go this week? Let’s find out, I suppose! This is ‘The Zygon Inversion’!
[WARNING: POSSIBLE MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!]
After the obligatory “last time” recap, the episode puts one more into Series 9’s ever-increasing collection of incredibly memorable opening sequences. We open to Clara, who’s evidently not having too good a time given that she’s immersed in a Zygon pod. Or…is she? She wakes up, comfortable in bed, but instantly realises that something is very wrong. The display of her alarm clock is inverted for a moment, her toothpaste (helpfully labelled ‘this is toothpaste’) is a strange black substance…something’s not right. She hears the Doctor’s voice communicating with her, and subsequently her own voice informing the Doctor that “Clara’s dead”. Her TV set resolves into a first-person view of somebody looking down the sights of a missile launcher, and Clara realises that she is certainly not in her apartment but rather inside the mind of her Zygon duplicate due to their shared link (drawing on her experiences from ‘Last Christmas’ to tell if she’s dreaming, incidentally!). Said Zygon duplicate, despite Clara’s best efforts, fires the missile, and Clara watches as the Doctor’s plane is blown to pieces…
The pacing of the opening is very tense and its use of subtle horror elements makes it very eerie altogether, and that’s a vibe that ‘The Zygon Inversion’ echoes throughout. The Zygon invasion has already happened in full force, we know that due to last week’s episode, and now the villains are practically in control already. This story continues its predecessor’s trend of having a couple of concurrent plotlines running alongside each other; a Clara-centric plot and one focused around the Doctor and Osgood, though the two link up quite quickly as the episode goes on. The episode’s extremely tightly scripted, very commendably so, and everything is tied together nicely in a way that requires no suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part; it all turns out thoroughly satisfying. The strong thriller elements from ‘The Zygon Invasion’ are still present in no small quantity, too, with one rather on-the-nose reference to Bond that got quite a chuckle out of me. Indeed, we even see the Doctor doing a spot of carjacking and attempting to drive (he can do it just about as well as he pilots the TARDIS, to nobody’s surprise), though there’s less globetrotting this time around.
It feels significantly busier than its first part, all that said. With all the set-up out of the way, writer Peter Harness (with some contribution by showrunner Steven Moffat) is free to explore the consequences of the situation he’s scripted: a shadowy civil war taking place beneath our streets, where the lines between combatant and non-combatant become increasingly blurred. Once again, the parallels to ongoing real-world events are fairly obvious, though the added subtlety in this week’s episode makes it all the more horrifying in my opinion. Last week showed us the effects that humanity’s prejudices have had on the Zygons; this week shows us the effects that the Zygons themselves have had on their own kind. The splinter group led by Clara’s double are a rather cruel bunch and no mistake, with one particularly grim scene that will have any viewer feeling quite a bit of sympathy for the sucker-covered shapechangers. There isn’t a lot of levity in this episode at all, it’s quite consistently on the darker side of things. It’s an interesting move for Doctor Who, as the show typically balances its less pleasant moments against quite a lot of humour, but that’s not to be found in this tale. It is, as Osgood stated last time, the nightmare scenario for either Earth or Zygon (or both).
With that we’ll move onto the cast, and this week we’re going to do it in reverse order! It’ll be for emphasis, you’ll see when we get there. We’ll open with UNIT’s representatives, and who better to start with than Kate Stewart, as played by Jemma Redgrave? UNIT’s chief officer was, entirely unsurprisingly, not defeated by the Zygons in the last episode (that’s not even a spoiler, it’s eminently obvious) and is busy taking charge of things in her usual manner. Redgrave’s performance is at her angriest and sternest as Stewart protects her planet, and the audience has no problem believing she might have been able to do it entirely by herself (though perhaps with a touch more bloodshed than hoped). After a sudden bout of incompetence earlier on this series, Kate’s back on form (with a beautifully touching throwback to her dear old dad to boot).
Ingrid Oliver as perennial favourite Osgood has quite a bit more to do in this tale. Finally, we see hints of a companion-Doctor dynamic between the two, and Harness very cleverly uses the character as a mouthpiece for the fans once again (a fitting niche for her). I suspect quite a lot of people will enjoy the diatribe on the sonic sunglasses, for one! The impact that she’s made on the Doctor is fairly obvious and their scenes together are frequently quite touching, her long-standing study of him granting her some fairly unique insight into him at any given moment. It’s also nice to see, after first being attacked by Zygons in 2013 and subsequently evaporated by the Master, some scenes of Osgood holding her own.
Next, we’ll move onto Jenna Coleman, who is pulling double duty in this episode as both Clara Oswald and Clara’s Zygon duplicate (and main villain) Bonnie! Coleman‘s performance is an extremely strong one, to the point where I can’t quite decide who she’s playing better: Clara or Bonnie. I’m leaning in favour of Bonnie presently, partially because it’s a new character but mostly because Coleman plays a rather excellent villain. Seeing Capaldi and Coleman playing off against each other in such an outright manner is quite a treat indeed, and it’s honestly a shame we didn’t see more of it. The real star scene for her, however, is the first one between Clara and Bonnie, where the sheer nuance of Coleman‘s two performances is honestly enough to briefly make you forget that they’re the same person.
All of these are wonderful, but perhaps more than ever this season, the real star of the show (quite literally, too) is Peter Capaldi. Capaldi‘s acting chops are well on-record, easily one of the finest to play the Doctor in terms of sheer talent, but ‘The Zygon Inversion’ features what is easily his standout performance to date (and that is saying something). In a long, heartfelt, impassioned scene which I will not go too deeply into for fear of spoilers, the Twelfth Doctor finally shows us the vulnerability his Doctor has been hiding so far. Capaldi’s performance touches every note that the Doctor should: his sadness, his unimaginable anger, his bitterness, and above all else his indomitable belief that things can be made better, no matter how lacking in hope things may be.
It’s a scene that will likely draw misty eyes at the very least from any viewer as this more guarded, careful Doctor finally cuts loose in the most human and unreserved of ways. I think in years to come when Capaldi has moved on from the role, this will be the scene people look back on as, if not his defining moment, then very close to it. For the first time, this Doctor finally lets his guard down in an open, honest statement about the burdens he bears internally and the scarred state of his mind. The entire scene is full to bursting with raw, poignant emotion, written and acted to utter perfection. It genuinely couldn’t have been done any better, and I’ll go down on record right now as saying that it’s one of the finest scenes in all of Doctor Who. It’s stunning, and it’s enough to make this episode instantly the most memorable of Series 9 thus far. This is more than Capaldi‘s Doctor at his absolute finest; this is the Doctor at his finest.
All in all, ‘The Zygon Inversion’ is a very well-written and capable episode of Doctor Who, engaging throughout (bar a couple of minor issues some people will doubtfully have with Bonnie at the end, but I’ll say no more).
A very good story, made stellar by one thoroughly perfect scene.
Do join us next time for quite an interesting story! It’s Series 9’s only standalone episode (we assume), and it’s Doctor Who‘s first foray into the world of found footage! It’s ‘Sleep No More’…