The Zygon Invasion
The Zygon Inversion
The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion

Story No. 282-283 Which one is real?
Production Code Series 9, episodes 7 and 8
Dates October 31 and November 6, 2015

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Peter Harness Directed by Daniel Nettheim
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The Zygon peace accord is failing. The result? Truth or Consequences.


"You said that the last fifteen times" by Hugh Sturgess 28/6/17

It's stories like this and Heaven Sent that inform my judgement that this is an historic high point for Doctor Who. I have no doubt that future generations of fans will look back on The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion in the same way we now look at Doctor Who in the Hinchcliffe or the Cartmel eras. Like the latter, the most painful thing about all this is that it isn't getting the nosebleedingly high ratings it deserves, a product of being put on late against strong opposition. But, for all that it is silly to put Doctor Who on so late it ends post-watershed, the production team are clearly playing that to their advantage. They've been saddled with doing post-watershed Doctor Who, and have resolved to full-bloodedly do it.

That is the overwhelming feeling from this story: full-bloodedness. Its message is nothing radical, even in these days of Trump and Le Pen and Pauline Hanson - namely that war is bad and peaceful co-existence is good - but it's doing it with a passion and a power that leaves it feeling like something monumental. It's uncompromising in its "ripped from the headlines" content. It is making a left-wing statement at a time when the BBC itself is distorting its coverage under pressure from a right-wing government. It has a strong contender for the best Doctor speech in the program's history. And it executes a globe-trotting techno-thriller, political satire and bodysnatcher gothic horror on an obviously tiny budget and does so with verve and swagger. It sets itself a challenge and unquestionably nails it.

This is unashamedly a "political" episode in a way that makes Andrew Cartmel look like Mark Gatiss. It's bursting with issues of the moment, veiled so thinly as to not be veiled at all. The episode doesn't construct an allegory for ISIS and Muslim radicalisation and drone warfare, it basically gives us those things. Truth or Consequences is explicitly described as "radicalised", with a black standard covered in white sigils, who release videos in which they execute their prisoners. They have a training camp that UNIT literally bombs with drones. "They'll think you're trying to pinch their benefits" and the "NO BRITISH NO DOGS" sign are entirely on-the-nose. Virtually the only concession to allegory the story makes is the whole "alien shapeshifters" thing. The episode hews so close to the source material that it's a surprise that the American sequences are set in New Mexico rather than the more well-known anti-immigrant hotbed of Arizona.

I think it's easy to underestimate the bravery of using a beloved national institution to make a transparent political point. The crushing shame is that Doctor Who in 2015 wasn't the biggest show on TV the way it was in 2008 or 2009. Imagine the impact had it been David Tennant screaming at the Zygons and the humans to sit down and talk (in a speech curiously well written for his Doctor). Imagine being the editor of a tabloid hearing the "pinch their benefits" line. The message that responding to defiance with disproportionate violence that carries profound unintended consequences is generally a bad idea may basically be common sense, but it's not common enough to stop the country in which the episode was made from doing just that. The opinion that the West might be in some way culpable for the anger and vengefulness that motivates terrorism is not one that can be voiced in the current boundaries of politics.

So yes, the strongest criticism of the politics of this story, offered up by critics generally hostile to Moffat beyond this story, that the message is an extremely limited liberal one is accurate. That said, a lot of the other examples offered up as evidence of the story's moral failings are just plain wrong. (Note: I have no idea how many people took this view, but you can't have an argument without opponents.) The story inevitably comes down on the side of assimilation, that the Zygons must remain in human form, because the series needs a recognisable present day to return to and the budget of Doctor Who will not stretch to putting a Zygon in the back of every shot of contemporary Britain for evermore. It also makes pretty clear that humanity is too xenophobic to knowingly and happily live beside alien shapeshifters. The Zygon/sheriff's line, "They turned into monsters and came for us!", can be read two ways.

We all agree that Peter Harness, a British subject living in Sweden, does not think immigrants should completely assimilate into the local culture. I get that authorial intention is not necessarily admissible as evidence, but think about the context in which it comes. Can anyone seriously imagine a viewer seeing this story and concluding, "yes, tolerance and peaceful co-existence are great, and violence against dissent is bad - so long as Those People instantly obey"?

Certainly, the story's refusal to deal with this theme is its greatest weakness. The arguments Truth or Consequences offers seem perfectly reasonable - "We demand the right to be ourselves!" - and the language of the Zygons' shape-changing implicitly, well, "normalises" their true selves. Yet the story fails to answer this charge - whether the radical Zygons are justifiably angry about this. The episode puts its thumb on the scales by having the Doctor dismiss them as not necessarily rational, and then as tantrumming children. His casual dismissal of Bonnie's arguments ("So what?") is, on its face, troubling.

I think there are two points to make against this. First, I don't think it is at all clear that the source of the Zygons' radicalisation is being obliged to live as humans. The Zygon Invasion opens with dialogue I have not seen quoted in this context, from one of the Osgoods (whom we can assume to be totally reliable), saying that the Zygons "embed themselves in the local culture" as a survival mechanism. Based on that, there doesn't appear to be anything in their culture or history to make "living in secret" problematic - particularly as the only regular Zygon we see (in the council estate) "just wanted to live" as a human. The proximate cause of the Zygon radicalisation, in New Mexico, relies on social ostracism, unemployment and violence, not cultural annihilation. In real life, we could argue that this is only one Zygon and plenty of others might have a problem, but this isn't real life so imagining what the story doesn't show or imply for us is just making stuff up.

Secondly, the story acknowledges early and often that the situation is far from ideal. The Doctor snappily retorts to Kate's complaint that he left them with "an impossible situation" with the claim that "it's called peace". In the final monologue, he remarks that the human-Zygon peace treaty was achieved on "a very special day" for him (The Day of the Doctor) and he will preserve it. His speech to Bonnie and Kate has the tone of a man utterly tired of the endless cycle of violence and the people who perpetuate it, "cruelty begetting cruelty" and all that. When Bonnie says that it's better to die than live in chains, his argument is that she is neither actually living in chains nor does she have the right to decide that for everyone else. Saying that the story advocates total cultural assimilation by immigrants, even unintentionally, is a wild misreading of the story's conclusion.

The story is constantly problematising the situation. As some have pointed out, Colonel Walsh's paranoia about shapeshifters is right. The Doctor is far more pragmatic in his handling of UNIT than in the Tennant era. Whereas the tenth Doctor was always obliged to offer incredibly ham-handed denunciations of the military, and even Capaldi's Doctor had an annoying anti-soldier theme in Series 8, here he flatly requests that UNIT try not to kill too many of the Zygons in the training camp because he needs someone to talk to. Sullivan's gas is a pitch-black spin on that delightful old duffer Harry (said here to have conducted Mengele-style experiments on "Zygon captives"), and Kate's use of the catchphrase "five rounds rapid" in this context is delightfully dark. Then again, there has always been a deep moral flaw to UNIT. In the second story of the UNIT era, Kate's dad committed genocide without a second thought.

Race war between human and Zygon is obviously not on, and the story can rely on the implied viewer knowing implicitly that the Zygons can't live among the humans as Zygons (for the reasons I mentioned above). The story sets itself the challenge of preserving an imperfect status quo against two equally undesirable alternatives.

This may sound like a shockingly conservative attitude for the series to take, but coming as it does at the end of a decade of neoconservative utopianism gone horrendously wrong in places like the Middle East, advocating for the best of bad options that actually saves lives is not something to be ashamed of. This is, after all, the respectable left-wing argument on Syria. This makes the Doctor's questioning of what Bonnie wants so important. His argument is perfectly solid: if you intend to tear down society because of its flaws, and incidentally kill millions of people in the process, you better have a damn good idea of what you're going to replace it with. Otherwise you're just yearning for apocalypse. Fans with revolutionary sensibilities saw this as a slight to the left, but it equally applies to the boosters of the Iraq War, who focussed on the evil of Saddam and virtues of a democratic Iraq without explaining how they would achieve the latter. (We may recall Christopher Hitchens arguing that recognising Saddam as evil obviated all other arguments against intervention.) In a story that is clearly talking about issues stemming from the Iraq War, a utopian "happily ever after" ending would be wrong.

This is the show adopting a particular genre, the political thriller, but it isn't just dressing up in the genre wholesale for fun. It's going all in, turning Doctor Who, for two weeks, into a genuine political thriller. It never once winks at the audience or mocks, even gently, the conventions of its chosen genre.

I've devoted 1,700 words to politics so far, but the story is asking us to do that. We're meant to be debating the politics and questioning who was right. It doesn't give us a clean, simple answer; in fact, the outcome achieved could be considered pretty crappy. It's great having television that is ambiguous in a solid and not ostentatious sort of way.

The church steps scene in "Turmezistan" (I'm not at all keen on the old "invent a foreign country" lark) is the product of this season's late broadcast. When Doctor Who inevitably returns to a more family-friendly slot, as it should, it will no longer be so willing to do such dark and twisted things as a soldier pointing a gun at his mother as she forgives him for killing her by mistake. The scene is handled brilliantly and has the extra tension that we as genre-savvy viewers know that impersonation stories always have a double-bluff (someone who really is who they look like). I was genuinely half-expecting the soldier to shoot the Zygon imposter in the head and discover she really was his mother. It's an awfully twisted scene, and the off-screen murder of the soldiers, at the hands of their supposed loved ones, is a great conclusion to it.

Capaldi's final monologue is mesmerising. The speech itself is clever, particularly his perfect response to Bonnie's charge that he doesn't understand her situation (basically, "of course I understand war, you moron"). Like the rest of the story, it is not playing it simple. Having the Doctor so cruelly dismiss Bonnie's grievances is risky in terms of preserving the tone, yet it works. The scene is written essentially to give Peter Capaldi a chance to act his head off, and he does so. Of course he does. He's always finding new and unexpected ways to play his lines, not just in this incredible scene but throughout. His facial expressions during the scene at the church steps are fascinating, and as always his comic timing is excellent. Even the "Doctor Disco" and "Dr Funkenstein" gags, which basically come out of nowhere, are saved and made hilarious by his bleak, almost angry deadpan delivery.

Despite my love for Tom Baker's Doctor, I don't think any of the actors who have played the Doctor beat or even really compete with the complexity, the nuance and the skill of Capaldi's performance. Other Doctors are, not unreasonably, painted in bold colours - the crazy one, the ancient child, the funny one - but Capaldi embraces all those qualities in a way that feels as though they are being influenced by him and not the inverse. It's intricately crafted, with almost any moment clearly thought through in detail beforehand. He gives a mannered performance that would be at home on the stage but also seems designed to reward multiple viewings. He's a Doctor for the digital audience. Casting him is surely the best decision Steven Moffat has ever made.

Jenna Coleman gets to play a villain and goes to town on it. While Bonnie is clearly very different to Clara, she nevertheless appears to express the darker elements of Clara's personality: her superiority, her standoffishness, her evident knowledge of her ability to manipulate people with her appearance. She gives Bonnie a nice visual cue, pulling her hair back into a ponytail as soon as she becomes the imposter. It's slightly disappointing that when Clara says she used to memorise Trivial Pursuit cards so she could win, she's really Bonnie, but one can choose to believe that Bonnie plucked a real detail from Clara's mind to justify knowing about Truth or Consequences. Clara's return to the plot, saving the Doctor by throwing off Bonnie's aim, is both a good way to pick up the story from a different place for the second episode and something that fits Clara's character. Ghost-typing a text message to the Doctor without Bonnie's noticing is the sort of thing the ultra-competent Clara would be able to do, when it would feel much more out of character for Amy or other companions.

This is smart, passionate, engaged television. It may be a liberal compromise, but it comes at a time when it is far from safe for the BBC to openly criticise the government. It is a brilliantly written and acted, and most of all it commits completely to the story it is trying to tell. An absolute triumph.