Doctor Who – Season 9 Episode 8
“The Zygon Inversion”
Doctor Who rounds off the two part Zygon story with an episode that has some great moments but overall comes across as uneven.
Much of the episode is saved by the excellent performance by Capaldi in his big scene towards the end of the episode but I’ll get back to that later in the review. The episode spends a lot of time meandering along before getting to that point with little of the material feeling exciting or relevant.
There was a subplot around Clara’s Zygon doppelgänger who goes by Bonnie forcing a hidden Zygon to revert to his natural state to prove the point that humans can’t deal with anything different to them. It’s a solid idea to really highlight the prejudice of humanity and show it as a weakness that needs to be overcome but this particular example was so sloppily handled that the message fails to land because no attempt is made to show normal human beings reacting to having an alien in their midst. This is something that the story fails to do generally as there seems to be no humans around most of the time. It’s a shame that such an opportunity to develop the prejudice idea is wasted.
The angle that works was upsetting someone who had happily assimilated himself into another culture by forcing them to be an example of something that they don’t necessarily believe in. The man constantly repeats that he is nobody’s side and simply wants to live on Earth peacefully because it is his home. It is made clear that living with the Zygons is not an option because the environment that he has come from is so toxic to certain members of the race. Like in the first part this is a really good example of how refugees currently seeking an escape from their situation. It’s a very powerful message to show how terrified someone might be to return to that and in some cases would rather die than return. In this example the man kills himself to prevent that choice being made for him when he is forced to return to something that will see him dead anyway.
Clara’s doppelgänger Bonnie firing off a missile to destroy the Doctor’s plane was predictably a bit of a red herring because otherwise there would be no TV show. It was used quite well to introduce the psychic link the Zygon has with the captured person they are duplicating. Clara was able to do small things to attempt to throw off her aim. Ultimately she failed but it was good to see that it was something she was trying out that didn’t quite work. I like when people don’t become obscenely skilled at everything minutes after discovery.
The visualisations of Clara’s awareness being represented by her being in her house and seeing Bonnie’s perspective through the TV was pretty boring. I get that it was used to make it accessible to the audience in a way that would be easy to understand but it just wasn’t all that interesting to look at. It also reminded me of the little girl Cal seeing the library in the same way in the David Tennant story “Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead”. Since Moffat has a writing credit here it is no surprise to see this idea reused. This method gets the point across but it would have been more interesting the imagery had been more Zygon influenced.
It did make room for a really good scene where Bonnie interrogated Clara by looking in the mirror and keeping her finger on her pulse to try and figure out if Clara was lying. This meant that Clara had to work really hard to keep control of her emotions and remain calm long enough to convince Bonnie that she was telling the truth when she wasn’t. Jenna Coleman plays Clara’s determination to keep her pulse even well and it’s easy to see the fear of discovery on her face.
Despite this cool scene this duality doesn’t really go anywhere. After this interrogation scene it is cast aside and forgotten despite having the potential for Clara to influence Bonnie in other ways. I could immediately see ways for Clara to help Bonnie see that humanity isn’t as bad as she was led to believe and attempt to work towards some kind of peaceful resolution.
Jenna Coleman doesn’t do so well at playing Bonnie with a performance that is a little too hammy. I feel that there was too much emphasis placed on making her different to Clara without considering how similar she should be. Jenna Coleman puts on a weird refined accent as Bonnie and there are far too many winks at the camera to suggest just how evil she is supposed to be. There’s no subtlety to the performance and it really doesn’t work.
Osgood serving as the Doctor’s companion for the episode didn’t work for me either. I saw potential in this character to take on that role in prior appearances but the enduring mystery over whether she is the human version or the Zygon version really wasn’t as compelling as the episode needed it to be. There were no real hints either way and the constant references to her not wanting to reveal the truth just got irritating more than anything else. Many of their scenes dragged the episode down with their poor pacing and uninteresting dialogue.
As mentioned above, the scene towards the end where the Doctor talked his way to a resolution was the absolute highlight. Capaldi’s performance was simply stunning as he stood the two representatives in front of the doomsday boxes and encouraged them to think rather than fight. Normally in two parters on any show the climax is an action oriented one and this episode always feels like it’s building to that but to have it result in the Doctor encouraging a problem to be solved through rational discussion was a refreshing conclusion.
The Doctor appeals to everyone’s sense of self preservation by encouraging them to thing about what War really means for them. To his mind it only creates a cycle of more conflict and killing and that is something that he can’t stand for. He uses an emotional example of everything he was forced to do during the Time War and the profound effect that it has had on him psychologically. His mentioning of the screams that he hears every time he closes his eyes is a particularly powerful example. Capaldi plays the Doctor as a man who has seen and caused a lot of pain and suffering in his life which inspires him to make sure that he prevents as many people as possible from turning into what he was forced to become.
Doctor Who has always promoted a broadly pacifist agenda and encouraged viewers to think rather than fight but I don’t think I’ve seen it proclaimed in such a way before. The raw passion and pain in Capaldi’s voice as he pleads with those around him to use their brains is very magnetic and makes this scene essential viewing. Capaldi perfectly shifts tones, accents and imbues his words with the right amount of sarcasm at specific points to highlight how childishly stupid this conflict is. If we had more of this on Doctor Who then the show would be far stronger.
Of course the impassioned speech works and a peaceful resolution of sorts is reached. The fact that the boxes were empty makes a lot of sense and I like the fact that they represent dire consequences of breaching the peace but are ultimately an empty threat. The buttons being labelled “Truth” and “Consequences” proves to be even deeper than initially thought as the truth of their being no real physical deterrent would possibly have the consequence of this entire peace breaking down. The Doctor has faith in people of any race being able to sort out their problems without having to push a button that dooms another group so lets most people keep the fantasy through erasing their memories of that knowledge.
As for the ending scene, I’m getting pretty tired of these hints at death in the final moments of the end of every story. Doctor Who doesn’t develop an arc, it simply reminds you of it.
An uneven episode that is largely elevated by an incredible performance by Peter Capaldi delivering a pacifist message.
The subplot that had Clara’s doppelgänger force a hidden Zygon to revert to his native form in order to prove that humanity are incapable of handling the truth didn’t work as well as intended. There was no real fear shown from any humans and oddly there was a distinct lack of any normal human presence in either of these episodes.
Clara’s psychic link with the Zygon Bonnie who was posing as her created a really cool scene where Bonnie interrogated Clara while checking her own pulse to see if indications of dishonesty could be detected. This meant that Clara really had to concentrate on remaining calm to sell her lies as the truth. Jenna Coleman did a great job showing her fear at being caught.
The imagery surrounding Clara’s influence on Bonnie was a little boring and might have been more interesting if it had been more Zygon influenced. The connection between the two of them didn’t go as far as it could have towards mutual understanding.
Jenna Coleman’s performance as Bonnie didn’t really work very well as she hammed it up a little too much. Her strange accent to show that she was different and winks at the camera to prove how evil she was were all far too on the nose.
Osgood serving as the Doctor’s companion for the episode didn’t work either. The constant references to the mystery over whether she was the human version or the Zygon version completely failed to be as compelling as the story wanted them to be and their scenes together dragged the pacing of the episode.
Capaldi’s performance when the Doctor appealed to everyone’s sense of self preservation was absolutely staggering. He perfectly switched tone, accent and imbues his words with the right amount of sarcasm at key points. The Doctor’s words about how War changes people and relating his own personal experience of the lasting effects of it is very powerfully delivered.
The fact that the boxes are empty and were only ever designed to act as a deterrent makes a lot of sense. The truth of their being no deterrent would create the consequences of an all out War so it’s better that humans and Zygons alike believe that the boxes are harmful. The memory erasure to preserve this idea works really well as a motivator.