The Doctor – a magical time-travelling alien with two hearts (aww!) – is debating a drone strike against a terrorist training camp. “This is a splinter group!” he shouts. “The rest of [them] – the vast majority – want to live in peace. You start bombing them, you’ll radicalise the lot! It’s exactly what the splinter group wants.”
Doctor Who has always flirted with the political. It’s what happens when your hero is a staunch pacifist – one written, by and large, by ‘BBC lefties’. But this week’s The Zygon Invasion, by Steven Moffat and Peter Harness, is not a wink. It is not the Nazis as Daleks, it is not The Happiness Patrol’s parody of Margaret Thatcher, it’s not even Harness’ 2014 episode Kill The Moon, read by some as a debate on abortion. It is Doctor Who, loud and clear, with something to say.
After the events of 2013’s The Day of the Doctor, Earth is now asylum for over 20 million Zygons, classic shape-shifting aliens stranded after the Time War. They live among us in human form – a result of Operation Double, the peace treaty brokered by the Osgoods (Ingrid Oliver) in the 50th anniversary special. But now, with one of the human/Zygon Osgoods dead, the peace has broken down. A minority – “a radicalisation in the younger brood” – have broken off as extremists, seeking to overthrow a planet they believe will never accept them.
They retreat to the fictional country of ‘Turmezistan’, they advance their abilities in a training camp, they kidnap a character and make her read out a statement on video. Save for a soliloquy on water-boarding, or a cameo from Tony Blair, they couldn’t possibly make it clearer: this is Doctor Who’s take on immigration, Islamophobia and – blimey – ISIS. How surreal is that? To hear the word ‘radicalisation’ in Doctor Who? To hear an innocent Zygon plead that, “I just wanted to live here. Why can’t I just live?” To hear the Doctor assert again and again that the extremists don’t speak for the majority.
It isn’t perfect – especially when the message seems to be, ‘blend in or else’ – but simply the fact that this is not the sort of story usually told through a traditionally tea-time family show makes it all the more powerful. Both thematically and tonally, this is unlike anything Doctor Who has done before.
Much like an episode of The X-Files, the whole thing plays as conspiracy thriller – one that riffs off the paranoia of shape-shifting in a way that 1976 serial Terror of the Zygons never did. “Any living thing in this world, including my family and friends, could turn into a Zygon and kill me any second now,” says Rebecca Front’s Colonel Walsh. “It’s not paranoia when it’s real.” A more obvious influence is 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which itself was a response to the Red Scare of communism.
It’s a paranoia that burns throughout – fuelled by urgency rarely felt in Doctor Who. Which is not to say that Doctor Who isn’t usually exciting, but there’s something different about the pace here, which is impressively tense. There’s an astounding bit, for instance, where Unit soldiers are faced with the task of killing Zygons that have taken the form of their family members. It is unmitigatedly bleak, and it knows it. That’s why it stands its ground (“Johnny, you don’t understand”), holding your discomfort until the last possible minute (“it’s not us that are the imposters”), until you yourself begin to question just who it is that you can really trust. (“I forgive you and I love you”).
Oh, and speaking of killer scenes, there’s one near the end of the second instalment in this two-part story, The Zygon Inversion – which I can’t say much about now – that is up there with the greats. Over and over I have played it, marvelling every time at how raw and bold it is. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is Peter Capaldi’s greatest performance as the Doctor so far. His Doctor Moment, if you will – the one he so very much needed. (For obvious reasons, there’s no point talking about other cast members at this stage.)
A lot has been said about Doctor Who recently. About its ratings, about Peter Capaldi, about whether it’s still the same show that fans fell in love with. That’s just Doctor Who fans for you. It’s mostly balls, of course, but not totally.
There’s some legitimate criticism, for example, of plots not making sense, of the show – in general – now being alienating to that most mysterious species, the ‘casual viewer’. All healthy, valid stuff that should not stop being talked about. But for the next two weeks, at least, let’s give it a rest. Let’s rejoice at just how incredible Doctor Who can be; how nine series in, it can still deliver one of its best – and most important – ever stories.
Yes, it really is that good.
The Zygon Invasion starts this Saturday at 8:15pm on BBC1. The Zygon Inversion airs the following Saturday at 8pm