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

The alien shapeshifters are back in a suspenseful commentary on real-world crises – and Peter Capaldi triumphs in a soul-searching peace negotiation for our times

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Story 258

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Series 9 – Episodes 7 & 8

Storyline
The shapeshifting Zygons are living in secret among us on modern-day Earth, unknown and unseen… until now! When Osgood is kidnapped by a rogue gang of Zygons, the Doctor, Clara and their Unit colleagues must scatter across the world in a bid to set her free. But will they reach her in time, and can they stop an uprising before it’s too late?

First UK broadcast
Saturday 31 October 2015
Saturday 7 November 2015

Cast
The Doctor – Peter Capaldi
Clara Oswald – Jenna Coleman
Osgood – Ingrid Oliver
Kate – Jemma Redgrave
Jac – Jaye Griffiths
Claudette – Cleopatra Dickens
Jemima – Sasha Dickens
Walsh – Rebecca Front
Little boy – Abhishek Singh
Little boy’s mum – Samila Kularatne
Hitchley – Todd Kramer
Lisa – Jill Winternitz
Norlander – Gretchen Egolf
Hitchley’s mum – Karen Mann
Etoine – Nicholas Asbury
Zygons – Aidan Cook, Tom Wilton, Jack Parker

Crew
Writers – Peter Harness & Steven Moffat
Director – Daniel Nettheim
Producer – Peter Bennett
Music – Murray Gold
Designer – Michael Pickwoad
Executive producers – Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

The Zygon Invasion blog by Patrick Mulkern (first published Saturday 31 October 2015)
★★★★  Doctor Who does Halloween! Well, not quite. This is the first time since 1964 (the fright-lite episode Planet of Giants) that the Time Lord has landed on BBC1 on 31 October, so they’re missing a trick or treat not capitalising on the date and the late timeslot and really putting the frighteners on for an all-out All Hallows’ Eve special. Although it must be said, the Zygons have always been a bloody good monster – perhaps the closest Doctor Who gets to a snarling pumpkin.

It feels like these orange shapeshifting baddies have been around for ever. Amazingly, they’ve only featured twice before – most recently, in the 50th anniversary special in 2013. Otherwise, you have to spool way back 40 years to their rather wonderful debut story, Terror of the Zygons, during Tom Baker’s first full year.

I’m rather envious that, in 1975, Radio Times’s stalwart snapper Don Smith took his son on set to meet the fourth Doctor and his monstrous new opponents. Don wasn’t even taking official Who photographs for RT that day. (None appeared in the magazine and none exist in our archive.) He was simply giving his lad a treat and took a couple of memento shots.

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David Tennant often said the Zygons were his favourite childhood monsters. And I loved to loathe them when I was a child. I’ve suddenly remembered a dear old lady, Miss Belsham, who used to give me piano lessons; she’d extol Strauss and Beethoven, while I retaliated with random flashes from my Doctor Who scrapbook. She had a strong stomach but recoiled at the sight of a 1975 Zygon. “It looks like the most hideous baby,” she observed, gagging.

I suppose they do resemble a deformed embryo, spliced with seahorse DNA, smothered in calamari and dipped in salsa. They were the result of a skilful collaboration between BBC costume designer James Acheson (who later won three Oscars) and prosthetics pioneer John Friedlander (who also sculpted Davros’s mask in ’75). It’s a pleasure to see the Zygons back – largely untouched – in what Steven Moffat describes as “a belter of a global thriller”.

Alien shapeshifters are always a tough sell. You either buy the idea or you don’t. And I struggle. As if by magic, they not only copy our bodies but our hair-styles, vocal patterns and, crucially, our clothes and footwear. Hey presto! Most sci-fi shows indulge in them, from Star Trek to The X-Files, and Doctor Who has offered numerous examples, some even predating the Zygons (eg Chameleons in 1967 and Axons in 1971).

Today’s Zygons no longer operate by “the old rules” of the 70s whereby the original humans had to be kept alive for the imprint to endure. Now they can “pluck loved ones from your memory and wear their faces”. It’s daft but keeps the pace up and opens up more dramatic possibilities.

The basic concept of this two-parter is Steven Moffat’s and he’s gifted it to Peter Harness, one of Doctor Who’s new great finds. Peter wrote last year’s Kill the Moon, which earned a mixed response and was greatly enjoyed by me. He adapted the bizarre Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for BBC1 earlier this year; but perhaps what’s more relevant to this task is that he’s the showrunner of Wallander (the British version starring Kenneth Branagh).

A key preoccupation of Henning Mankell’s Wallander detective novels (set in Sweden) was to show us the way we live now, how ethnic minorities try to rub along with a majority population; he would never demonise migrants or outsiders but humanise them as victims of circumstance, exploited by indigenous criminals. Peter Harness is steeped in all this and it informs his latest Doctor Who.

With its allusions to Isis and direct mentions of radicalisation, terrorist training camps and splinter groups, The Zygon Invasion is the closest Doctor Who has ever dared come to commenting on the woes of the world. It’s brave and may look like a toned-down Spooks or even Homeland, but perhaps its deepest roots lie in Mankell’s Baltic of the 1990s.

Again women are to the fore. Anyone criticising Moffat’s era for misogyny needs an eye test quite frankly. Apart from the Doctor, nearly all the key parts here are female (as they have been throughout this series). I like the notion of Kate Stewart as the late Brigadier’s daughter and head of Unit but, please, couldn’t someone slip Jemma Redgrave a double espresso or a vodka Red Bull? OK, she’s the Harry Pearce of this tale, but is she taking a degree in stoicism?

As Unit operative Jac, lovely Jaye Griffiths enlivens a part that is thinly drawn and has no hinterland, so that we feel for her when she’s tricked and torched. Rebecca Front is off-the-wall casting as the gung-ho Colonel Walsh but it’s good to see her in a frosty dramatic part. She has decades of comedy under her belt, was Peter Capaldi’s sparring partner in The Thick of It, and has come a long way from the “borderline shy/wild” airhead Cherysh in my favourite episode of Ab Fab.

The most interesting character is Zygood – sorry, Osgood. Ingrid Oliver is a sweetheart in the part of the Unit boffin who may or may not be a Zygon. I don’t actually care either way. I’m more intrigued to know: will we ever find out her first name? She’s appeared in three episodes since 2013 and not a sniff of a name. But that’s a Unit tradition. In the 1970s, Sergeant Benton was around for seven years and never had a first name. It was six years and 83 episodes before we discovered that the Brigadier’s name was Alistair. So, way to go, Osgood – if you live that long…

The Zygon Invasion isn’t quite the tense global thriller it’s been touted as. It pootles along with a lot of engaging set-up and a few shudders and moments of suspense. For a long while, the creepiest incident is the 12th Doctor loitering in a children’s playground chatting to two blonde Zygirls with their hair in bunches.

It doesn’t really ramp up the thrills until the final few minutes. All Unit’s bases around the world are “neutralised”. All the heroes are in various states of peril, perhaps dead. And rather fabulously Clara/Zygon fires a missile at the presidential plane with the Doctor aboard. Harness has generated an exciting multiple cliffhanger.

But me being me, what I’m wondering most is: why the hell hasn’t the snarling, tied-up Zygon effected his escape by shape-shifting into a mouse, an earwig or a canary…? He should really have one of those in a pod somewhere!

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The Zygon Inversion blog by Patrick Mulkern (first published Saturday 7 November 2015)
★★★★★  If I seemed stingy last week with my four-star rating, I won’t apologise. I usually overrate and don’t underrate Doctor Who, such is my zeal for the programme. In truth, The Zygon Invasion was probably a four-and-a-half-star production overall but lost a few percentage points for the stiffness of Jemma Redgrave, the general uselessness of Unit and the low-wattage Doctor Who-does-Homeland vibe. And I knew that this follow-up episode was the business, the bigger, tastier cut of meat, as it were.

Redgrave redeems herself in The Zygon Inversion. As Unit leader Kate Stewart, she still tends towards the stoical but starts to feel what’s happening around her. And of course she does get that killer line “Five rounds rapid!” and delivers it with aplomb. A punch-the-air moment for the Doctor Who fan. In case you don’t know, Kate’s dad, the Brigadier, issued the command “Chap with the wings there. Five rounds rapid!” in the 1971 classic The Dæmons. (The now immortal line, written by 70s producer Barry Letts, was almost cut by his script editor Terrance Dicks.)

And Osgood, dear Osgood. Let’s not forget she’s another echo of The Dæmons; she’s named after Sgt Osgood, Unit’s hapless “technical fellow” who fell foul of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in that story. Ingrid Oliver plays her so engagingly. In The Zygon Inversion she’s constantly at the Doctor’s side and entirely wins him over. “You’re a credit to your species,” he says. “Oh, and you should know – I’m a very big fan.”

When offered all of time and space, she has the sense to remain and protect the Earth, but in my mind deserves elevation to the status of companion – even if an intermittent one. And at last we’ve found out her first name. Petronella. The Doctor pretends that his is Basil, then murmurs, “Let’s just stick with what we had.” One of several lines that tickled me.

From his first words (“Any questions?”) as he fumbles with a parachute on the beach, to his final, sobering remark to Clara (“I’ll be the judge of time”), Peter Capaldi is majestic. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve extolled the star of the show. Here he delivers another commanding performance that makes me totally believe in him as the Doctor.

Capaldi’s tour de force is, of course, the Time Lord’s peace negotiation in the Black Archive. An incredible piece of writing and acting. The scene lasts a full ten minutes as the Doctor runs the gamut of emotions in his effort to make Clara/Bonnie/Zygella stand down and “break the cycle” of cruelty and war. The Time Lord and the writers (Peter Harness and Steven Moffat) are wearing their hearts and political colours on their sleeves. It’s wonderful to watch and absorb. Real-world self-appointed “peacemakers” take note.

What’s extra-clever is that the Osgood boxes, which appear ridiculous with their Truth or Consequences buttons and supposed deadly contents, are empty and innocuous. They’re a MacGuffin to focus the drama and change hearts and minds.

Praise for Jenna Coleman, too, who is a cool customer throughout, whether playing Clara or her Zygon double Bonnie. She has many scenes “together”, which are so polished you never think for a moment how tricky they must have been to set up then edit.

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Did you spot the cheeky moment when Bonnie walks past a mirror and the reflection is actually Clara? (They have different clothes and hairdos.) These subtle touches are sometimes what I enjoy most in a production. Small rewards for the attentive. Almost subliminal details. In Clara’s dream-state apartment why is her alarm-clock display upside down? Her toothpaste black not white? Her newspaper’s headlines jumbled? Its front cover a photo of a seahorse? Look no further than the episode title…

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