NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of Doctor Who are present in this review
Doctor Who got… Weird with the start of its latest two-part serial for Series Nine. I don’t mean weird in the sense of the outright bizarre, since this is a season that’s featured immortal Viking girls and undersea ghost hunts, among other things. I mean weird in the sense that the series is now portraying an on-the-nose political allegory, using what’s an otherwise inspired idea about Zygons having a tense peace treaty with humanity to live amongst them in human form.
If you’re just joining the series recently, and happened to have missed the big return of the Zygons in Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary special from 2013, they’re a shapeshifting alien race that essentially look like big humanoid reptiles full of suction cups. They made a single appearance in Classic Who, during Fourth Doctor serial, “Terror of the Zygons”, and despite that lone appearance, they’ve since gone on to become one of the most beloved and memorable alien races in all of Doctor Who lore, hence why they were the big bads in the 50th Anniversary Special, their first in-the-flesh appearance in New Who to boot, excluding mentions by The Doctor in passing during previous episodes.
Having a proper Zygon-centric two-parter in Series Nine is thus also a momentous occasion, particularly when the peace treaty between human and Zygon inevitably breaks down, after a faction of Zygons gets radicalized, and starts demanding that Zygons be allowed to live as their true selves, not as humans. UNIT tries desperately to contain the situation, but after there are casualties, they decide that the only option is to aggressively bomb out the radicals.
This episode also re-introduces Osgood, who was seemingly killed by Missy during the events of the Series Eight finale, “Death in Heaven.” Apparently, that episode actually potentially had the Zygon duplicate of Osgood killed, though there’s some ambiguity over whether the remaining Osgood is the human one, or the Zygon one. This is a potentially interesting idea, especially as the episode opens with the two Osgood’s stating that they’re the symbol of the tenuous peace treaty made between human and Zygon in the wake of the 50th Anniversary Special, though the show breaking the rules of Zygon biology when The Doctor tries to point out that Zygons can’t maintain a body print after the original dies, felt like a cheat. During this conversation, Osgood states that the body print dependence is, “The old rules”, and that Zygons can actually maintain a form, even after the original has died now. Yeah, no, bullshit. That’s a narrative cop-out. It would have been easier, and also more dramatically satisfying, if the show had just admitted that the Zygon duplicate was the one killed by Missy, and that the human Osgood had become so attached to the double that it did indeed feel like losing a sister, which also would have provided the catalyst for hope with human/Zygon relations, which the show fumbles with this pointless guessing game over which Osgood is the one left.
This embodies the problem with “The Zygon Invasion”, which is a solid episode, but noticeably beneath the quality of Series Nine’s other very strong episodes. The show wants to create this tense idea of humans not being able to trust other humans because they could be Zygons, which also leads to the potential collapse of UNIT, as their superiors are either captured or killed, but the episode isn’t exciting enough to make this feel genuinely thrilling. To be fair, the idea does work sometimes, particularly with a standout twist at the end, but for the most part, the episode is too slow-paced to really get any mileage out of this so-called ‘civil war’, especially when the show’s Zygons aren’t disguised nearly as well as the show pretends they are.
Oh, and speaking of ‘civil war’, if you feel like this episode’s storyline sounds very, very familiar to you, chances are, it’s because you’re a Marvel fan, or have at least kept up with the movies in the past year. Another ding against this episode’s plot is that its core concept feels mostly stolen from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a movie that is just over a year old, and did this exact idea far better with the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the inability for S.H.I.E.L.D. to trust agents that could at any time be aiding HYDRA. There are of course some differences, since this is Doctor Who, not the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it wouldn’t be the first time that Doctor Who ripped ideas from other mediums, particularly when the show outright admitted to stealing the Facehugger designs from Alien for the Dream Crabs as recently as the Christmas special last year!
Anyway, UNIT has apparently planned for the breaking down of the ceasefire with the Zygons, and they once again call in The Doctor to assume absolute world authority on Earth, as he did during “Death in Heaven” at the end of last season. Beyond conversations and warnings, it doesn’t feel like The Doctor does very much in this episode, beyond a pretty cool “Amazing Grace” solo on his guitar in the TARDIS anyway. He’s around, sure, but it feels like The Doctor won’t directly influence things, beyond impotently telling UNIT not to bomb the Zygons and radicalize them further, plus impotently telling the Zygons to stand down, until the second half of the story next week.
If anything, Clara got more interesting material, as she continually misses calls from The Doctor, then comes home to find a lost boy in her stairwell. After believing that she’s taken the boy back to his parents, who are clearly Zygons in disguise, she’s then taken off by UNIT to try and help deal with the Zygon situation, going on to discover that hidden Zygon pods are located underneath London.
This is the one area where the human/Zygon confusion really came together well. As UNIT prepares to destroy the Zygon pods, it’s discovered that humans are actually inside them, and one of them even contains Clara! Apparently, “Clara” is actually the disguised Zygon commander, who assumed her form when Clara was knocked out and imprisoned upon returning the boy, with a clever cutaway not showing that part, and actually convincing viewers that Clara was still Clara. It was very clever! Nonetheless, the other UNIT people are killed, and the disguised Clara prepares to shoot a rocket at The Doctor’s plane, which is about to kill The Doctor and Osgood right as the episode ends. It was a strong ending point, and one that hopefully leads to a more consistently superb episode next week.
Sadly, beyond Clara, it felt like every subplot was dragged down too much with pensiveness, political musing and not much of anything being done, even on The Doctor’s end, and this led to an episode that was less interesting than it should have been. Kate Stewart pursues a lead in an old Mexican town that the Zygons point to for whatever reason (we’ll probably find out more next week), and does nothing but bumble around talking to the one surviving cop, who is predictably a Zygon. There’s a whole lot of flirting with the actual scale of the Zygon attack, but it all just feels like a buildup for next week, and not much else. This presents some of the danger of Series Nine wholly consisting of two-parters that the season has commendably avoided so far. If episodes don’t speed out of the gate, the first halves will just feel like filler and tedious establishment before the true excitement happens the following week.
Regardless, “The Zygon Invasion” does enough to get by, but it feels like a speed bump in what’s otherwise been one of the best seasons of New Who to date. It will no doubt lead in to a better episode next week, but for now, this first part feels more like a proof-of-concept, rather than a complete story for the most part. The pieces are all in place for a standout resolution to the large-scale Zygon attack, but it’s unfortunate that, so far, none of it seems to be presenting any real payoff.
- Osgood's return
- Interesting (albeit unoriginal) concept for a Zygon attack
- Great twist with the fake Clara
- Most of the plot is too slow-paced
- Osgood ambiguity is pointless
- The Doctor doesn't seem to do much this week