TV Peter Fucking Capaldi. With a title like The Zygon Inversion, Peter Harness’s The Zygon Inversion seemed like an unlikely moment for the current incumbent to give what’s arguably his greatest piece of acting for the series, given the preceding episode’s action and adventure whizziness and the trailers and preview clips which suggested this would be companion orientated instalment. Yet here we all are, and I can tell it’s we all because I’ve looked at Twitter making its hyperbolic statements about how this might well the best performance an actor in the central role has given and even that he’s the best Doctor ever.
Clearly I’m going to indicate that we shouldn’t be too hasty and that almost every actor who's wandered through the TARDIS has been labelled as such at some point and that not enough people have heard the McGann audios to really properly judge, but I will say that it this is one of those moment we fans live for and crave, why we’ll sit through the rot which might otherwise be released under this title across the various media, why we’ll even watch whole seasons worth of episodes which rub us up the wrong way full of episodes we dislike intensely. This. The synergy between an actor at the top of his game and a script feeding him poetry.
Typically, you’d spend a review working up towards talking about this sort of climax but let’s just bask for a moment. This near closing scene is ten minutes long, beginning just over half an hour into the episode so as predicted by many last week, as with most two-parters in the revival, after a zippy opening instalment, everything slows, the shot length increases and the implications of the given set up are played out, the writer’s thoughts and fingers stroking the textures of his idea. It’s the same pattern we saw in World War Three and The Forest of the Dead and Flesh and Stone.
After making some fairly direct comparisons with the current situation in the middle east last week, this episode and the Doctor’s speech in particular, fittingly given the weekend, broadens out to encompass a wider discussion of the implications of war. In its simplest terms, even in ideological circumstances, its tit for tat and requires the two sides to decide that actually they’d be better off not killing each other for a change no matter the original apparent causes and whatnot. This isn’t mutually assured destruction. This is deciding not to have weapons in the first place because you don’t need to use them. Jeremy Corbyn would be pleased with the central message of the episode.
Hopelessly optimistic, to be sure and expects the more irrational side to lay down their arms, usually in conflicts were both parties believe the other to be the irrational one. Plus even if the two of you decide not blow each other up, there’ll always tend to be an opportunistic third party who thinks you’re both mad and you’ll be exploded anyway. In this way, the Doctor’s essentially Fenchurch in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, “the girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth (who) suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place.” Then boom.
In other words, this philosophical Milgram experiment might work against a warmongering Zygon but probably won’t against empire-builders which is presumably why the Doctor hasn’t ever attempted this tactic with the Daleks and decided Hitler was best left locked in a closet. But like I said, bless the writers and notice its Harness and Steven Moffat who have their names on this script, for at least putting the words in the Doctor’s mouth and then showing us the potential results if they were enacted. If nothing else it might halt the escalation of the war of the buttons in schools or which channel to watch on a Saturday night.
Peter Fucking Capaldi. Part of the job of an actor is to show the results of a past which they themselves didn’t experience but in Doctor Who the challenge is somewhat greater because the audience has often watched another actor experience them. In here, we can see the faces of all three of the chaps who stood around the moment in the eyes of Capaldi and once again in this series, in a way which simply wasn’t the case last year, we can entirely believe that the man emotionally gesticulating here is the same one who didn’t press that particular big red button but then believed he did and then experienced the guilt of destroying his own race.
But when Capaldi’s handed the Bafta for the series, let’s not forget there are other people in this scene. Jemma Redgrave feels sidelined but really she’s held back in order to give the moment when Kate closes the box resonance and herald the closing beats of the piece. When she apologises, Redgrave says it in full knowledge of its import; her character’s father never apologised for anything or cared all that much about disappointing the Doctor. If the story has a legacy for her character, it’s in once more delineating her from her heritage, to show that she’s not simply fulfilling a narrative function carried over from earlier series.
Mainly it’s Jenna Coleman who’s being ignored a bit when she has the difficult job of not only presenting someone who’s a subtly evil version of the character she already plays but also in a way which doesn’t gesture towards panto (in a way available to Annette Badland in Boomtown) but which still hints at the alien figure underneath. Next time you watch, notice how the realisation of what Bonnie is capable of and then what she’s actually capable of wash over her face as elements of the real Clara’s personality become more expressively recognisable at just the moment when the Doctor indicates that’s how he knows he’s getting through.
Some on the aforementioned social network have questioned why, despite all of this, the Doctor is perfectly fine for twenty million Zygons to be living secretly on Earth and for the government to be covering up the fact. But isn’t this his plan for the Silurians from Cold Blood in action? Hasn’t his approach always been that his quite happy for aliens and Terrans to co-exist peacefully only really forming the oncoming storm when one side, usually the former, decides they want the place for themselves? Back in The Unquiet Dead, before he discovered their true nature, he was quite happy for the Gelth to inhabit the deceased even against Rose’s objections.
Much of the rest of the episode is about getting the Doctor in that room in order to give this speech although this pan-national redo of The Android Invasion with Zygons offered some delights along the way notably as the Time Lord and Osgood fled the remains of the crash, even if neither of them stop to wonder about the fate of the other people on the plane (presumably the Doctor was able to save her because she was the only other person in proximity). The sinister police officers continues the Pertweean reverberations from last week though it’ll presumably be the downing of the plane itself being shown right no which’ll attract the ire of the BBC’s foes even though there’s not a lot that could have been done to edit the piece ala Robots of Sherwood.
Osgood’s alive! Of course she is. For all that happens in the McGann audios in relation to Zygons keeping their shape after their original dies, it was never entirely convincing that the human version died at Missy’s hand. But it’s good that even when the Doctor isn’t there, the show won’t confirm or deny which is the “real” one. As far as they’re concerned they’re both real. Expect a jaw dropping moment in the future when the Bonnie version pops back into her Zygon shape signalling that the human version has gone. Perhaps it’ll be Missy who does the deed, wanting to finish the job she thought she’d already finished.
It's also important to notice that this is only the character's third proper television appearance and yet she feels just as much a part of the series as the Paternoster Gang or River or Bernice or any of the Doctor's other friends. Ingrid Oliver's performance has also changed across the three episodes from somewhat giddy, but strong, fan girl in The Day of the Doctor to the slightly reserved expert who appears here. On a textual level, I've no idea what the TARDIS business was about but it feels like it's supposed to have significance in the way that random bits of dialogue often do. Perhaps its just a throw away, perhaps it has greater import. Speaking of which ...
What of Clara? Four episodes to go and she’s still around. What did the Doctor mean when he says it was the longest month of his life? As I pondered the other week, has the Doctor already seen her death somehow, in The Magician’s Apprentice even and the version he’s currently travelling with is from earlier in her timeline? At some point will he drop her off, much as he did with River Song, knowing full well it’ll be for the last time as the younger version of himself, the one he already remembers, takes her into his TARDIS and to her certain death? Will there be other pieces of dialogue from earlier in the season with some extraordinary double meaning?
Either way, Harness and Moffat have almost managed to make up for the whole Kill The Moon debarkle, the latter giving every indication that he saw how he’d nudged the character in an unpleasant direction and remembered what it is why like about him. More and more, season eight feels like an aberration, a storytelling experiment gone wrong on a similar scale to the Divergent Universe arc in the McGann audios and the whole of the Sixth Doctor television tenure, which is something I think I may have said before but in the wake of The Zygon Inversion feels like it needs repeating. If only more people were still watching it on broadcast.