Doctor Who XXXV/9.7: The Zygon Invasion

Art, of course, by Stuart Manning

Art, of course, by Stuart Manning

Random thoughts rather than anything structured:

There’s a theme emerging from the middle part of this season: the eclipse of Clara Oswald. Jenna Coleman has had some great scenes this year, and when I first wrote here that Clara had been sidelined it absolutely wasn’t true. Perhaps it’s that Clara is no longer an ingénue, but an experienced time traveller who gains her own companions but who more often than not ‘runs’ plotlines not directly associated with the Doctor. Consequently she felt set aside from the main action for Before the Flood, was overshadowed for some of The Girl Who Died once she’d helped establish Ashildr, and was almost entirely absent from The Woman Who Lived. Both Clara and Jenna Coleman remain central to this series, but in The Zygon Invasion Clara’s absence becomes a problem, first for the Doctor when Clara doesn’t pick up the phone, and then for the audience as they realise that the grammar of this episode, with its narrative jump cuts, has provided ample opportunity for Clara to be replaced by a Zygon. For most of the episode the character fulfilling Clara’s role, though slightly more clipped, more arrogant and with a disregard for life, behaves much as the viewers might expect the Doctor-like Clara seen emerging in Before the Flood and The Girl Who Died to behave Is the audience is meant to think that Clara’s life is growing away from the Doctor’s, earlier indications to the contrary?

The Zygon Invasion is an episode which shows off its roots. The pre-credits sequence at first seems calculated less to introduce viewers to concepts and characters they might not have known, and instead play with the form of the flashback and the expectations of viewers with strong memories of The Day of the Doctor. While it might make fans of a certain vintage who consider themselves media-savvy wince, given that story’s popularity and reception it seems a reasonable gamble to have taken. The Doctor is introduced playing ‘Amazing Grace’, another performance of which (with bagpipes) accompanies a scene of alien pods being unloaded in the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It might also remind fans of Grace Holloway, the woman who brought to an end the life of the seventh Doctor but was nevertheless saved by the eighth; perhaps there will be story elements here which will make the Doctor wish he could turn back time. While it’s probably just a case of enjoying a good relationship with the Ministry of Defence and knowing that a flexible location is available, the use of Sennybridge Training Area for the Zygon-occupied village in Turmezistan, with its reminder of the town of Christmas and the Doctor’s regeneration into his present form might be point towards the Doctor’s own identity crisis (as the eponym of hybrid forms – ‘Doctor Disco’ and ‘Doctor Funkenstein’) and the greater ones both exhibited and suffered by the Zygons. The blonde junior school girls who turn out to be the Zygon high command have something of the Midwich Cuckoos about them too.

The awkwardness of ‘Turmezistan’ reminds me that while the episode was entertaining and polished it was built upon rough allegorizing. Perhaps to achieve anything in a time of shrill confrontationalism and entrenched positions, a politics of which group might be sacrificed for the interest of the many, taking familiar phrases from news coverage of contemporary conflicts and placing them in the context of Doctor-versus-monsters. The Zygon Invasion picks up one of the challenges left by The Woman Who Lived; what happens to the situations from which the Doctor runs away. Here, the Doctor is visibly trying to stop one of his earlier fixes unravelling. We are placed as close as we can be to the Doctor attempting to sort out a real world issue, but the parallels can’t be exact. Nevertheless, painting the Zygons as the ‘Brits’ who occupy a town in New Mexico, or (though not specifically identified as British) in Turmezistan, offers a multitude of comparisons, both with the British state and its antagonists as well as non-combatants, and more thought, for good or ill, seems to have gone into this aspect of the script than the weapons of mass destruction jokes thrown into Aliens of London by Russell T Davies at his most auteurish.

There’s perhaps a cynicism underlying current Doctor Who, too, or at least a lack of the starry-eyed idealism of golden ages which I disliked ten years ago. Long-term viewers with encyclopedic knowledge of the series must be expected to think that the UNIT scientist who developed a biological weapon to use against the Zygons at Porton Down was Harry Sullivan. While fans have understandably been outraged at the idea that one of the Doctor’s companions could enable genocide, it’s not as if the Doctor has entirely avoided this himself (the Master’s observation at the Doctor’s elimination of the Sea Devils in the novelisation of The Sea Devils points this out) and allowing Harry both to do his job and potentially feel a need for revenge on the Zygons who kidnapped him and stole his form in order to harm his friends is an acceptable character development. We can’t exclude the possibility that he turned himself and his invention in to the Doctor, either…

The Zygon Invasion kept its pace going and maintained tension, largely by implanting theatre within theatre. Bonnie’s luring of Jac with what turned out to be a similar but elaborated strategy to that which she had used earlier to ensnare Clara, and the question of whether the police officer in Truth or Consequences or Kate would turn out to be the Zygon – for drama demanded that one of them had to be – spread seeds of doubt and expectations (not met, yet at least) of double bluff. My main regret at the realisation is that the story can’t quite be told on the scale it demands – almost everywhere is deserted, though the great set piece Zygon underground base saw a suitably large number of Zygons face a mob of UNIT troops, though we didn’t see them actually fight. The largely off-screen Zygon transformation scenes also drew attention to the care with which the effects budget now has to be spent. I have, at least, no clue as to how the Doctor will escape what seems to be certain death, unless he, Osgood and their blood-orange chum (and sorry, script, Zygons aren’t to my mind ‘blobby’ as ‘suckery’, and compared to their 1975 predecessors there aren’t quite enough suckers or ulcers or whatever the technical term is on their bodies) are actually on another plane altogether. I’m not greatly keen on this president-of-the-world stuff, even if its repetition probably means it is going somewhere within the twelfth Doctor’s arc. So, I like this episode but with reservations!

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Posted on 1 November 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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