• 5th November 2015 • Review by Ben Paddon •
“Contemporary.” If you’re a long-time fan of Doctor Who you’ve read that word associated with its revival a billion-billion times by now, in articles praising the show’s return, its aesthetic, its writing.
You’ve probably read that word a billion-billion times more since “The Zygon Invasion” aired this past Saturday. People are tripping over themselves to rant and rave about just how thoroughly modern the episode was, and rightly so. With heady subjects like immigration, integration, radicalization and domestic terrorism (not to mention a delightful jab at the expense of the BNP, probably) Doctor Who has never felt more modern in the decade since it returned to our screens than it did on Saturday. Indeed, I don’t think in the show’s entire 52-year history that it has tackled such a thoroughly of-the-moment issue with this level of clarity and bravery, though not for want of trying in the 80s (bad luck, “The Happiness Patrol”).
Almost everything about the show felt fundamentally different this week. There are shots and sequences in “The Zygon Invasion” that made this feel like one of the better episodes of Torchwood. In fact there were moments when I thought that this must be what watching Homeland is like, only I’ve never watched Homeland because even if they decided to introduce great big rubber aliens covered in suckers it wouldn’t be even half as good.
This is, at its core, a dark and nuanced episode – the kind of episode that presents the Zygons as more or less living in peace with humanity, albeit surreptitiously, save for a radicalized group who have more or less already conquered Britain. The kind of episode that has Kate Stewart pull up to a town in New Mexico, USA, complete with stereotypical tumbleweed rolling by, before revealing that the Zygons now have the ability to kill people by – no, but yes! – reducing them into shapeless masses which look not unlike tumbleweeds. The kind of episode that reveals that Clara had been replaced by a Zygon duplicate about ten minutes in having essentially lied to us about what had happened in the scene as we originally saw, and totally gets away with it.
That’s not to say that the show has lost its sense of humor. Far from it – there are some wonderful, light, fun moments throughout this episode, ranging from the Doctor’s quip about “poncing about” in his presidential plane to the leaders of the Zygon race disguising themselves as school children. The Doctor is as light as he is dark here, cracking jokes in one moment before ordering UNIT soldiers to kill as few people as possible in the next.
Much has been made about the long-announced return of Osgood in this episode – is she the original or the Zygon? – and the show neatly shuts down the question not just by having Osgood refuse to answer it, but by making that itself a part of the narrative. Exactly how that pays off, and indeed whether or not it’s actually important or just a red herring, will have to wait until “The Zygon Inversion”, but it brilliantly builds upon all that hybrid talk that has underscored this year’s series so far. If we get to episode twelve and it turns out to have been an elaborate ad campaign for the 2016 Prius I’ll be very upset.
Look at how much I’ve said without even addressing the fact that this is a sequel to the 50th anniversary special. Aside from a sort of pseudo “previously” at the beginning of the episode it barely seems to care, and quite right too. As nice as it is to see the more earthbound events of “The Day of the Doctor” revisited and addressed, the fact that this is a sequel is largely inconsequential.
What is important, though, is the way the story has been told. Any bugger can write a story about a malicious alien intent on conquering the Earth, but this is a story with layers, depth, with a message. This is a story that has something to say, even if it’s not particularly subtle about it at times.
So far, series 9 has proven to be the show’s strongest since Matt Smith’s debut all the way back in can-you-believe-2010-was-five-years-ago. Whether or not that streak continues largely depends on how good “Inversion” is this weekend. But with such a crackling start, it’s hard to imagine what they could do to fumble the landing.