Review: Doctor Who – Series 9, Episodes 7 and 8 – The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion

Chris Jordan continues Doctor Who series 9 with the new two-part saga featuring the fan-favorite Zygons.

"Nice Sixth Doctor shirt! You have even more
hipster cred than I do."
Doctor Who's season full of grand-scale two-parters continues with what is arguably its centerpiece story: the long-awaited return of one of its fan-favorite alien races. The Zygons – tentacled shapeshifters written in the paranoia-inducing tradition of The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers – first appeared in one of the original series' most beloved story arcs, Terror of the Zygons starring 4th Doctor Tom Baker. Despite immediately joining the Daleks and Cybermen as one of The Doctor's most popular foes, they never appeared in another episode until the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, and even then they were only the secondary of two parallel plot threads. Now, after 40 years, we finally have a second purely Zygon-focused story arc in The Zygon Invasion/Inversion; after all this build-up, can it live up to the anticipation? While we usually have been covering the new episodes of Doctor Who every weekend, this time we decided to wait and review the whole story arc together, as it is clearly best viewed that way. The Zygon Invasion was intriguing but flawed; clearly more first-act set-up than an episode that could be viewed alone. But when watched as a full-length movie with part 2, Invasion/Inversion proves to be a solid tale with some very effective and relevant themes that gain strength as they build.

After a peace treaty facilitated by The Doctor on behalf of UNIT, Zygon refugees are living alongside humans all over the world, in disguise; immigrants on a galactic scale, who just want to be accepted into their new homeland. Now, an extremist group has formed – a Zygon terrorist cell who wants to break the treaty and take over the Earth – and The Doctor must see if peace is still possible. Right from the beginning, it is clear that this is a very different sort of tale for the aliens: rather than Terror of the Zygons' paranoia-fueled Invasion of the Body Snatchers story, this uses the concept of aliens living among us to explore very relevant social themes. This is Doctor Who as political allegory: a story that is quite clearly about real-world issues of xenophobia, bigotry against immigrants, and the tricky politics of dealing with extremists in the Middle East. The parallels make a lot of sense, and it gives the show an excellent, pretty rare opportunity to directly apply its humanistic philosophy to a situation more familiar than fantastical. But like everything else in the episode, it ends up working very well, but takes some time to gain its footing after a clumsy start.

"We're here for the Zygons And Allies Against
Donald Trump rally."
The Zygon Invasion wants to accomplish a lot; more than 45 minutes of TV can realistically accomplish. It has to fill in the gaps of what the Zygons have been up to since The Day of the Doctor two years ago, it has to create a convincing sociopolitical climate in which they can currently exist, it has to then disrupt that climate in a way that believably mirrors real-world politics of social unrest and terrorism, and it has to lay the groundwork for some plot devices that clearly will be important later. Really, this should have been done slowly throughout the first half of this season; built up as the new normal of life on Earth so that normal merely had to be disrupted at the beginning of this episode. Creating and disrupting this new status quo all in a few minutes makes the first half of The Zygon Invasion feel decidedly choppy and rushed.

Since it doesn't have the luxury of taking its time, it also tries to take a shortcut by driving home its political allegory entirely too hard. Writer Peter Harness should have been a lot more subtle; the theme is pretty clear right from the start, and we would have gotten it regardless. It shows very powerfully a situation in which immigrants are being treated with hatred because of the actions of a small extremist group that they have nothing to do with aside from happening to share an ethnic background; when the script starts screaming “JUST IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, THIS IS ACTUALLY ABOUT CURRENT EVENTS,” it feels almost condescending, as if Harness has zero faith in our ability to recognize subtext. It's a great message, and one that needs to be given; using genres like sci-fi to make viewers realize truths about their fellow humans is a powerful tool of fiction, and one that has potential for genuine social good by letting people see and combat unconscious bigotry. But themes like that have much more emotional resonance if the viewer is allowed to connect the dots on their own and make an emotional discovery; the dots here come too pre-connected.

Fortunately, these initial stumbles do not set the tone for the entire story arc. All of these problems are largely relegated to the opening half of The Zygon Invasion, as it rushes to fit enough content to fill an entire episode. But even then the potential of its story and themes are clear, and once the groundwork is laid out, it catches itself and begins to move forward much more assuredly. By the time the first episode ends, it has overcome its initial problems and turned into quite a good story. This allows part two, last night's The Zygon Inversion, to start strong and only get stronger from there. It still has some flaws, but this time they aren't flaws of theme or pacing, but just some occasion reliance on plot devices to propel the sci-fi half of the story. Thematically, Inversion largely realizes its predecessor's potential, and turns the two-part arc into quite a good one.

"This reminds me of 
playing "Day of the Tentacle"
back in the day..."
As both a sci-fi story about shapeshifters and as a human-rights allegory about refugees and terrorists, The Zygon Inversion works quite well. The Zygons are used to good effect on both counts, and are transformed from the villains of Terror of the Zygons and The Day of the Doctor into a nicely complex cross-section of people with a realistic mix of political good and bad. It's always nice when an alien race is treated with as much complexity as humans. The story also provides some good twists and turns in both its sci-fi and political narrative departments. With the groundwork laid out for this type of story – not alien invasion, but human relations with aliens who are already here – I hope we get more tales of this nature.

The Zygon Invasion/Inversion is certainly aware that it's the first story to be exclusively about these aliens since the Tom Baker era in the 1970s, and accordingly it pays some nice tribute to the show's past. We get nods to that vintage story arc's cast of characters, and some easter eggs that classic-series fans will have a lot of fun with. But crucially, it is not over-reliant on nostalgia or references to the past. This may be the first major UNIT story in which Kate Stewart gets to simply be her own hero without ever mentioning her dad, The Brigadier. This is certainly a good thing: she has always been a strong character in her own right, and it's great to see her moving freely outside the Brig's shadow. Don't get me wrong, I love all the connections the modern UNIT stories make to their classic-series counterparts (and these episodes still have plenty), but Kate is a good enough character that she shouldn't just be treated as “the new series' stand-in for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.” This episode also gives some great material to another returning character, who I honestly did not think we would ever see again... but that's all I should say on that point, so as to avoid spoilers.

Even with its flaws, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion is ultimately quite a good story arc. It reintroduced the Zygons very strongly, and I hope we see them again, if only as part of the show's complex universe. Even if it threatened to falter in the first half, this two-parter continues series nine's impressive chain of strong episodes. It's not as great as either of the previous two two-parters, but that is less a criticism of Invasion/Inversion and more a compliment to how great this series has been. We're over halfway through now, and this is still shaping up to be the best year of Doctor Who since series five.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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