TV “You're middle-aged, that's what it is. No offence. Everybody middle-aged always thinks the world's about to come to an end. Never does.” Yes, thank you evil Zygon clone of Clara. But you try turning forty-one. All day I’ve been considering the implications. Forty-one’s a weird age. It’s not a milestone like forty and it doesn’t somehow unlock the secret of life, the universe and everything as I expect forty-two to do. You’re just sort of verified as being in your early forties. About the only revelation I’ve had is that my favourite colour’s electric pink after having tried to convince myself for many years, probably because of societal norms, that it’s royal blue. That's resumably why I also love Cath Kidson shops as much as I do even though I have barely a use for any of it.
Today has also brought presents which apart from a Frozen bluray, soundtrack cd and 2016 calendar also included the first Doctor Who episode broadcast on my birthday which I’ve actually been able to watch, not having been in this world in 1964 when Planet of Giants was broadcast. Thankfully Peter Harness’s The Zygon Invasion wasn’t a disappointing end to an otherwise brilliant day, but the first story this year and I think in a few years, which made me gasp on several occasions and had me applauding at the end. Which is why I’m happy to spend the final couple of hours of today writing about it although as we both know, if I didn’t do it now, the results would be even more disastrous than you're about to witness. Best get all of this out now before I’ve really had a chance to think about it.
Bold and necessary opening. Anyone else wonder if there’s a reason why there are all of these reminders of the show’s past, recent and otherwise? It’s potentially necessary here to somewhat explain why there are twenty million Zygons living on Earth for casuals who haven’t rewatched the fiftieth anniversary since it was beamed into our retinas through screens large and small and might wonder why anyone would do such a thing, but every story this year has featured some kind of flashback. At first I thought this was part of the non-celebration of the tenth anniversary of the revival which isn’t happening, except the augmented publicity shot of Bill wiping his glasses from The Celestial Toymaker hanging on the wall in the UNIT Safe House makes it seem as though they’re trying fit every incarnation in somewhere.
Before heading off into the more deliberate discussion of the rest of the episode, let’s consider why this might be. Partly it could be to give Capaldi a more subliminal version of the montage which provided Matt Smith with his entrance in The Eleventh Hour, something he was denied. Or it’s a forward reference to an upcoming episode which explains his cameo in The Day of the Doctor (because Moffat hates loose ends). Or someone in the production team is playing Packham and trying to fit them all in somewhere before the end of the season. Either way, we await the McGann cameo with great interest (and I haven’t entirely disregarded the notion of the actor himself turning up in some capacity). Unless the Doctor’s Amazing Grace solo is an astonishing inside joke.
Anyway, back in the episode, we have an all too rare example now of the television series underpinning its japery with some contemporary real world allegory, in this case religious fundamentalism with direct hits made towards ISIS in particular, the terrorist organisation rather than Sutekh’s sister. If Aliens of London made fun of the apparent intelligence that which led to the war in Iraq, here’s The Zygon Invasion ten years later considering some of the consequences and somehow also commenting on a refugee crisis which hadn’t even gained publicity when the story was in-production. With Spooks and W1A off-air, someone has to do this sort of predictive texting, I suppose.
Given how well regarded the Zygons seem to be amongst the public (and David Tennant) it’s surprising that this only their third proper television appearance, although their spin-off mythology is deep, spanning videos of the kind which aren’t allowed to mention which series they’re based on, novels, audios and comics. Just look at the Datacore entry, through not too closely because there are plenty of spoilers for excellent stories worth tracking down, notably the Eighth Doctor trilogy of which some of tonight’s episode is particular reminiscent especially about how they might integrate into our society. Like the Daleks they’re gifted with an particularly distinctive vocal sound, all gurgling consonant, which even on audio immediately brings to mind their physical form.
With so much of this series being influenced in the 70s show, it shouldn’t be too much of surprise to find Harness channelling Hulke and Holmes, though not having read any pre-publicity, I don’t know the extent to which we’re seeing the writer’s political leanings inhabiting his scripts or if he’s simply utilising this “stuff” to help underpin the drama and place it within a understandable context. Plenty of the dialogue is on the nose though, especially from the Doctor who notes at one stage that if they start bombing even these interlopers it has the potential to radicalise the lot. There is not much here for the Daily Mail to enjoy. “Well you can’t have the United Kingdom. There are already people living there. And they’ll probably think you’ll want to pinch their benefits.” Bdum-tish.
If the episode’s approach to thematic underpinning and actual source material is of the 70s, the structural twist is that in an era which has otherwise attempted to ape the pacing of that era with long scenes filled with lots of dialogue in single locations, this is a story which instead sees a return to the pacier crosscutting and action orientated plotting of earlier period of the revival before the show took a Deep Breath. At one point there’s three whole sub-plots running simultaneous with secondary characters, including, as it turns out, a Zygon officer (albeit in a form which isn’t obvious until the end). If the Capaldi era so far, for the most part, has felt a bit cramped and claustrophobic, this is the show explaining where the budget’s been for half a season demonstrating that it can still look like a feature film if it wants to.
How deliberate are these choices? Who knows, but the effect is startling, luminous. This feels of a piece with the likes of the aforementioned Slitheen fest and the Sontaran showdown from series three, and not just in its use of doppelgangers and one particular in-joke about a certain “controversy”. The Davies era in particular had this kind of inter-seasonal variety within its DNA, with Midnight and Turn Left emerging one after the other and none of which is to say that next week won’t simply be about Twelfth going Jack Bauer on a Zygon for half an hour in the UNIT equivalent of Guantanamo until he’s discovered the location of the real Clara (epic to small being a typical two-parter arrangement in the revival). Perhaps if the change of pace hadn’t been quite so deliberate back in the days of last year many of us might not have felt quite as disorientated (though having the Doctor act like a complete arsehole didn’t help much).
It’s also true that with the exception of the aforementioned axe-habit, the wilder excesses of the Twelfth Doctor are toned down to the point that he’s almost the fabled generic Doctor in places, showing a remarkable amount of courtesy and decency. The story would have worked equally well with the Eleventh Doctor probably although as with Time Heist, it seems strange when he doesn’t intervene to stop the UNIT soldiers from being kidnapped and killed by the Zygons, though it’s also true that geographically he is much further away from them than the poor sod who had his brain eaten. Once again Capaldi seems very happy about this, relaxed and on his game. No wonder he doesn’t seem to be in much hurry to move on having apparently signed for his third season.
The Time Lord's attitude to Osgood’s interesting though, oscillating between wariness and warmth. The treatment of her return is especially well handled, helping to shore up the idea that not all Zygons are evil or at least no less capable of evil than humanity by making the notion of whether the Zygon or human version died at Missy’s hands largely irrelevant (although I think it’s implied that as fans assumed it was the former). Ingrid Oliver continues to impress. Even in her introductory story, a character that pre-publicity indicated was going to be the revival’s equivalent of Whiz-Kid, parodying fans, is instead a love letter to them, to us, and Oliver’s tapped into that, though it’s notable that her adorkableness has sharp edges on this occasion for obvious reasons. The question marks on her lapel have newer resonance.
It’s close to midnight so perhaps I should start closing out but not without mentioning the whole Clara business. The companion substitution here is handle much better here than in either New Earth of The Sontaran Stratagem with elements such as the conversation about Truth or Consequences which previously seemed like a fairly typically explanation for sudden companion insight ala 42 now revealed to be part of the Zygon plan. The critics who simply don’t like Jenna Coleman won’t be convinced by any of her superb work here but the subtlety with which she indicates this different version on a second watch is startling. She’s both Clara and also somehow not. The look she gives on realising that she’s been uncovered is utterly mind bending, right up there with Sarah Clarke’s Nina Myers as she gazes through the security feed in CTU on 24.
Not all of the episode works; some of the points are belaboured and the mechanics of just how all of these Zygons could exist secretly within the population not entirely explained convincingly. But this is the kind of story in which everyone on the production team is engaged, especially Murray Gold, laying in a version of Clara’s theme just before her substitution, notes which go entirely unheard for the rest of the episode. Director Daniel Nettheim (whose previously helmed four episodes of K9!) takes full advantage of wide angle lenses in orbit of the Zygons, entirely unafraid to show us their rubber visages. Then it ends on a really solid cliffhanger. My guess is that Kate's playing fake Clara at her own game and pretending to be a Zygon. Let's see shall we?