The first half of Peter Harness’ Zygon two-parter was a muscular beast that, by comparison with its forty-year-old cousin, felt as bulked up as the eponymous creatures do in their 21st century makeover. Terror of the Zygons teetered between being terrifying and rather quaint, its legend built almost as much upon its portrayal of the small world in which the would-be invasion takes place as it does the brilliant design of the creatures themselves, whereas The Zygon Invasion goes global in service of A Very Important Story, and in spite of Nicholas Briggs’ excellent John Woodnutt impersonation, the secondary characterisation is pared back almost to the bone in order to ensure the message comes first. Even the characteristic humour of current Doctor Who is largely sidelined in order not to undermine Harness’ point – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Peter Capaldi’s guitar-toting Doctor, now fully embracing his new lease of regenerations, continues to be an absolute charm, however.
Harness has taken the Zygons’ rather clichéd shape-changing ability and used it as the foundation for a political story of the kind we were more used to seeing when Jon Pertwee was in the role, the parallels with the current radicalisation of Muslims being so overt they barely required forcing home; the author’s only explicit comment on the situation being the Doctor’s assertion that violence begets conversion, thus allowing for a very Doctor Who take on what might otherwise have felt most unlike Doctor Who in both tone and content – although it’s entirely probable that, like Inferno and The Caves of Androzani before it, the story’s exceptional nature might see it doing exceptionally in the end-of-series polls. This is a Doctor Who story that’s about something, after all; modern Doctor Who stories rarely exist without expressing themselves around a wider point, but it’s equally rare that that point is one that’s quite as robust as it is here. Furthermore in writing this, and equally in proving himself capable of scripting Doctor Who on a scale but to a budget, Peter Harness has signalled himself as perhaps the natural eventual successor to Steven Moffat.
Although it worked as a sequel to the Zygon sub-plot in The Day of the Doctor, knowledge of that episode – despite the flashback in the pre-titles sequence – was no more necessary to the viewers’ enjoyment of The Zygon Invasion than a knowledge of current world affairs; in both instances an understanding of where the story came from might have enhanced your appreciation of it, but just like Steven Moffat’s Series 9 opening two-parter, the episode itself was quite strong enough to fully hold the attention if you hadn’t seen the stories it was ostensibly a sequel to. In spite of fan expectation, Harness’ story wasn’t set before Death in Heaven – which would have allowed for both Osgoods to be present and correct; television doesn’t generally tolerate time-hopping through its main characters’ pasts (certainly not Saturday night BBC1 telly, at any rate), and to do so would have required copious reminders both of the events of last year and of how this story had managed to bypass those events. Making that the central conceit would have undermined the main thrust of Harness’ point. Rather, Osgood’s appearance is allowed to become a natural and even fundamental ingredient that lets the plot get on with telling itself; good to see the potential cop-out “Osgood lives!” realisation very quickly undermined by an altogether more ambiguous alternative.
Not everything quite works. The scene where Hitchley confronts a double of his mother on the church steps (neatly prefigured just moments before) might have felt slightly less redundant had we been given a reason to care about any of the characters, or had it snapped together as efficiently as much of the rest of the episode. But with Peter Harness juggling three different plots in three separate countries, director Daniel Nettheim had so many plates to keep spinning it’s a wonder The Zygon Invasion felt as coherent as it did – albeit this consistency being partly a consequence of Harness streamlining his elements. Australian Nettheim has a twenty-year career taking in Whitechapel and Line of Duty (his previous Doctor Who experience being on the antipodean K9 redevelopment), and the grading and tone this episode placed it firmly in the American tradition of 24 or Alias. Doctor Who is certainly growing up under Peter Capaldi, but in a similar way that it did under Philip Hinchcliffe. The plots are only more “adult” in their presentation and the specific elements that are included, on the peripheries of what are still interesting and absorbing but nonetheless fundamentally silly storylines about alien invasions and characters with the ability to live forever. Harness’ story is a spiritual cousin to the likes of The Seeds of Doom, managing to embrace some very grown-up ingredients without outgrowing its core audience. Its Invasion of the Body Snatchers references – specific to Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version – being yet another reminder of Doctor Who’s undoubted golden years.
Clara Oswald was also back in the centre of our attention this week, after half a series in which she’s often felt superfluous – so much so that we didn’t even miss her in the last episode until the moment she turned up in the TARDIS at the end. Jenna Coleman’s acting has never been in question, although it has faltered once or twice this year on occasions when her character has felt particularly surplus to requirements, but here she gave a performance that was perhaps her best ever; the scene when the audience registers what “Clara” has really been up to fractionally before the other characters do ranking alongside Davros’ grin in The Witch’s Familiar as one of Series 9’s most chilling and brilliant moments, entirely thanks to the actor playing it. Like Harry Sullivan in Terror of the Zygons, alluded to in this week’s dialogue, or a possessed Sarah Jane Smith in any number of Robert Holmes-era stories, the realisation that a much-loved character isn’t who we think they are comes as a body blow regardless of how the plot has pointed us in its direction.
This is also possibly the first time since Helen Raynor’s Series 4 Sontaran story that UNIT has been quite so central to the action, with both Jemma Redgrave and Jaye Griffiths being given meaty stuff to deliver after their cameo appearance earlier in the series. The cast list for the closing instalment is probably best avoided given their apparent fates at the end of this week’s episode, and the lack of a next time trailer was a definite blessing. Ingrid Oliver’s Osgood would seem to be being held back for the second half, though; her presence here was overwhelming and the character was perhaps even being treated with a certain amount of reverence – almost entirely due to the actress’ deserved popularity, in all likelihood – signalling that although she was somewhat secondary to the other characters in the mechanics of the plot this week, she will undoubtedly be fundamental to its resolution.
The Zygon Invasion, particularly with yet another clumsily overt reference to the concept of hybrids (there hasn’t been a single episode since Moffat’s opener that hasn’t dealt in the subject, making the need to actually acknowledge the conceit less imperative), might well exist in that mid-season hinterland wherein it’s more of a red herring as to the series arc’s eventual destination than in it is a direct clue. Had it been placed prior to Death in Heaven, we might have been being directed towards the manner of Clara’s eventual departure in a number of potential ways; as things stand this is essentially this year’s The Almost People, lots of smoke around this series’ central themes, but with it remaining to be seen how much fire. Unquestionably this is a far superior offering to Matthew Graham’s Series 6 story, and if the second half continues to be as impressive and surprising as the first, a definite contender for the best of the year.