The Zygon InversionBookmark and Share

Saturday, 7 November 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Paul Hudecek

Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman,
Ingrid Oliver and Jemma Redgrave,

WITH  Nicholas Asbury, Aidan Cook, Tom Wilton, and Jack Parker

Written by: Peter Harness and Steven Moffat,
Directed by Daniel Nettheim,

Executive Producers: Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin
Transmitted BBC 1 on 7th November 2015

This Review Contains Plot Spoilers

"You are not superior to people cruel to you... The only way anyone could live in peace is if they are prepared to forgive."

The Doctor confronting the 'wrong' Clara.

 

The Doctor and Osgood are once again in big trouble on the Presidential plane. Where before the threat came from a Missy/Cybermen takeover plot, this time round there is another race of alien beings that closely resemble one another - except when using their baffling duplication abilities.

Somewhat uncomfortably at the time of transmission we have had a recent airline tragedy with some alleged links to terror. This story does partly cover some of the same general issues and themes. It is more likely to resonate with parents and other relatives of the target children audience, and this should not distract the BBC from making any major changes to what is ultimately a thrilling and thought-provoking escapist form of TV entertainment.

Firstly I must firmly point out how brilliantly capable Peter Capaldi is in this new episode.  His performance has been rarely better - if ever - than here. His onscreen alter-ego did have the somewhat tired routine of letting UNIT prop him up as his own private fighting force, but still did well last week. Now the Doctor emerges from the metaphorical shadows and is decidedly more proactive, causing a potentially explosive situation to resolve itself in the best possible manner.

This time he still has to work with UNIT, but shows his anger at their methods. The daughter of his late friend Alistair is the prime recipient. He wants the pacifist route but Kate Stewart quite firmly wants to veto that, due to the 'peace failing already'. Because the Doctor must now finally resolve the mess that his previous selves were partly responsible for, and show some wit and resourcefulness, we really get behind the main man with real verve. His final solution to the crisis is as gripping as any. (even if I find the method a touch labored, as I will discuss further on). It also manages very well to show his haunted state concerning the Time War still looms large. This also works on a subtle level as another good tie-in to the Twelfth Doctor's first (fleeting) onscreen appearance, when he appeared from his then-future lifecycle to help the other Doctors save Gallifrey.

Yet I was always expecting the acting chops from our lead performer, and now that the higher-ups have ironed out the wrinkles that seemed to alienate some viewers, he is really firing on all cylinders. Hopefully Capaldi has at least two further full series within him. He really appears to stutter and has unstable body language when trying to convince the two clashing forces to stand down, making this an utterly authentic portrayal. We see an alien being who has taken on many 'normal human' mannerisms and idiosyncrasies such is his attachment to this world. The use of a game show host imitation, complete with a Southern American accent, is wonderful to witness.

Jenna Coleman's acting is barely inferior to her co-star. There is a good stretch where the real Clara is forced to try and stop her evil imposter from causing devastation, as she sees through the Zygon's eyes on a 'TV set in her flat'. Later on there is a pretty good translation of the script's attempt to find some eventual redemption for the Zygon imposter. We had an evil companion before on modern Doctor Who with a specially bred Martha clone courtesy of the marauding Sontarans, but the evil Bonnie is a cut above; with no disrespect to Freema Agyeman's efforts.

Coleman is really a strong and engaging actor, and will be much missed by me. The present series is doing very well to tease the manner of her exit, and it is best to leave fans wanting more, even if she really gels very well with Capaldi. But what about this story's other assistant for the Doctor?

With UNIT boffin Osgood rescued and helping the doctor throughout the concluding part, this is another instance of the pseudo-companion dynamic. They have a wonderful rapport, and the more annoying fan-girl side of Osgood is firmly placed to one side, allowing for a very sincere and well-characterized participant to the pacey storyline. It also is a welcome device despite dating back almost to the very beginning of the classic series, when used in (the mostly missing) Troughton story The Faceless Ones.

What helps make this latest use of a stand-in assistant quite strong is the 'dual Osgood effect', with them often chiming in at the same time when they speak. The recorded video message and how it is presented in a frame in present action is also commendable and gives Ingrid Oliver a great platform to expand on the rather more two-dimensional character she began with in 2013. The mystery over whether this sweet bespectacled lady is really a Zygon replacement or not is a nice touch in these episodes. First it seems there really is a hybrid process, so only half the original perished in Death in Heaven. But then more dialogue seems to suggest that Missy did indeed kill the original human after all. It is tempting to assume that a Zygon would somehow be more stoic knowing it was in a lethal situation. Regardless, this episode's co-writer Steven Moffat wants to spin this out in his usual fashion: open-ended character paths being a typical feature in his vision of the show.

The new direction for the plot with humans being threatened with being turned into Zygons and losing their sanity and sense of identity is promising. However I feel it could really have been explored a bit more and to greater effect. We do get a very moving scene where the Doctor tries his utmost to prevent the newly created Zygon from destroying himself, but has to live with his powers of persuasion not being enough this time round. But ultimately this new wrinkle to the plot does not really tie in well with the main objective of the splinter group to secure the Osgood box and so opt for an effective genocide of the humans that they so resent.

The climactic section where it is potentially left to humanity to cause genocidal disaster as much as the rebel Zygons is the ultimate lynchpin of this two-part story. Whilst some quarters will no doubt rave about this extended finale to the story, I am a little less sure. It certainly feels quite dramatic, but once we sense there may well be no actual weapon there, and the boxes were actually empty and so only stand for symbolic threat, it all just feels like a bit of a cheat. The Doctor did not have to worry unduly when leaving this pair of objects behind, whereas he did have to manage the potential threats of the Hand of Omega and the Nemesis statue when previously sporting a strong Scottish burr. It is also kind of predictable and seems to be revealed as a new twist in terms of how everyone reacts, whereas viewers may not be quite so dumbfounded,

Later on we have a pretty good coda to the story. Having Osgood forego a proper stint as companion on the TARDIS so that she can help UNIT protect the Earth, and keep the peace that seems to have been forged here is more than acceptable. Also the Torchwood spin-off series established the wealth of threats that the Doctor simply cannot (and in some circumstance  should not) deal with. Yet having the line about the boxes as safeguards continuing to need a guardian somehow feels like a ret-con justification for such a phony plot 'MacGuffin'. 

And as stated last week, the splinter group leader who so casually steals the form of our beloved Clara really did some terrible things. She may be forgiven by the Doctor, but is it his place to be so obliging on behalf of all the victims and their loved ones? The way he was prepared to give in to Clara last year over Danny's macabre fate at the hands of Missy established a seeming precedent, but maybe the Doctor is more of a hypocrite than we have come to expect. If it is not someone he directly knows who suffers, than it is not quite the same situation apparently.

The justification the writers give is that Clara gets inside her head. But Bonnie's core personality still was responsible for murder and causing terror, and that is just brushed aside in the final minutes by her conveniently taking on warmer empathic and sympathetic qualities. Even if I did find the smooth survival of this enemy acceptable, then her eventual assumption of the 'missing' Osgood twin is still pretty forced, and seems like an excuse to prolong a visual gimmick. No dispute can be made that the original concept of the twin Osgoods dearly loving one another was a fine way to hook different audiences into the early sections of Invasion, but did Inversion need to prolong this still further?

I do like the 'credit to both species' line, but it would have worked better if there was a different Zygon involved who was firmly on the side of Earth, or had become a turn cloak. Given all the promise with The Day of the Doctor setting up a suitably complex scenario - which this new story is taking its roots from - I do feel just a touch deflated at how things materialise ultimately.

More positively this story has given fan favourite Kate a better role. She is clearly having to make difficult decisions and realise that the Doctor is not always the one who can ultimately affect both the Earth's and humanity's future. The UNIT chief shows some good impersonation of what was assumed to be yet another Zygon clone, and we are wrong footed in an enjoyable fashion. (One nit-pick remains in that the rebel Zygons would know that someone is still just human rather than replicated). I also have sometimes felt there was not quite enough on paper to justify Kate's continued presence on the show, but this story has changed that stance in welcome fashion. We get a nice nostalgia quote in "Five Rounds Rapid", which echoes her father from the celebrated Pertwee story The Daemons. That line though is not played for any humour and shows her defiance against the softer approach her Time Lord ally prefers. And it is understandable given her learning of the brutal slaughter of the UNIT team, as so emotionally described to her by the fake Colonel Walsh.

Also, having less new characters involved in the action is perhaps not a bad thing as we get more focus on the regulars and pre-established recurring characters. As documented elsewhere, writer Peter Harness was at pains to provide good strong roles for female characters. Clara, Kate, Osgood and the apparently deceased Jac all have made this a story to inspire young girls to lofty heights in adult life. On the other hand, there may have been potential for some interesting scenes that could take place around the world, and which was one of the reasons I personally liked The End of Time. So it is a possible missed opportunity not to have some memorable cameo roles that show the far-reaching peril that can be unleashed. 

This episode bears a co-writer credit for showrunner Steven Moffat. As we know, he so often produces the most outstanding episodes, but he can also yield some more unremarkable efforts. Such is the change in quantity since his last script for the Tenth Doctor era, there is a corresponding change in consistency that reminds me of Russell T Davies' efforts. That brings me to another echo from the past. I am not quite sure how welcome is the whole conceit of Clara being trapped in 'her flat', as it clearly feels a bit like a recycling of the abstract concept seen in Forest of the Dead. Yes, it has some direct impact on the action but in a way which feels perhaps more interesting than believable: we witness the effect of a misfiring anti-aircraft weapon, and Bonnie sending a text explaining her human counterpart is still there to the Doctor/Osgood duo. In immediate dramatic terms though it remains watchable and well-presented, and it is better to have some balancing of the two Claras screen-time which was unavoidable given last week's important twist. Also it is necessary to provide strong material for Coleman this late on in the series, as virtually all reports are saying she will never return as an active companion after 2015.

Production values again are as good as fans and casual viewers have any right to expect, even if the actual plot is seemingly a lot smaller-scale this episode. The world's safety may be at stake, but the focus on events in England makes the overall story feel a touch less engrossing than in the set-up. But much of the direction by Daniel Nettheim is again strong. The scene where the Doctor talks to Bonnie having just survived her deadly attack on him could have been dull, but mixes in video phone call zooms, reverse zooms of people walking, and alternating perspectives. The gripping moments as Etoine suffers his 'infection' are also very well-helmed. However not much really could be done with the overly long confrontation scene with Kate Stewart and the fake Clara as they listen to the Doctor's grand speech. It is a darkly-lit chamber with few noticeable features, and even the design of the boxes fails to offer much scope for visual flair with the cameras.

Music is less remarkable in this one, with perhaps rather more subtle themes for the trapped 'real Clara' sections. The dearth of perilous action in comparison to Part One results in perhaps the blandest score from Gold so far this year, even if I found his The Girl Who Died effort to be weaker. But this latest story has many other hooks both in spirit and in visuals to make an impact, and be a competent component of a run that is more consistent than (the still very enjoyable) Series Eight. 

Overall this two parter is pretty solid. A lot was promised in Invasion, and this conclusion manages to work reasonably well. I would put the story in current third place after the excellent opening two stories, and clearly ahead of the (loosely linked) Maisie Williams multi-episode affair. It deserves to be remembered fondly, and to hook in new young fans via repeat showings, and commercial releases (possibly in the form of presents). And the Doctor may have had his goofy moments in the opening section that was Episode Seven but comes good and then some this time round.

But when push comes to shove, I think I will continue to re-watch and enjoy the Tom Baker tale that started the whole Zygon mythos in the first place; Terror of the Zygons was always going to be a tough act to follow. Notwithstanding my own tastes, Series Nine continues to showcase just how confident is the Peter Capaldi cycle of the enduring twin-hearted Doctor.