What would you do if any of your friends or family could be a shapeshifting alien who wants to kill you and your species? What would you do if you were a shapeshifter whose homeworld was destroyed and who just wanted to blend into an alien society and live peacefully, but you knew if your true identity was ever revealed to the xenophobic inhabitants of that alien world you would surely be shunned, persecuted, and likely killed? These questions drive the conflict in Doctor Who’s “The Zygon Invasion” and its sequel “The Zygon Inversion.” This brilliant two-part episode explores such contemporary (and in some ways timeless) issues as terrorism, immigration, xenophobia, and war. It features witty writing, breathtaking acting, and a villain whose plan and motivations actually make sense (something a bit too rare in Doctor Who). This two-parter is the highlight of an above average season, which has yet to have a bad episode but also has yet to have a standout one. “The Zygon Inversion” in particular is the best episode of Capaldi’s Doctor thus far and undoubtedly one of the top ten episodes of Nu Who.
In the 50th anniversary Doctor Who special, we learned that 20 million shapeshifting Zygons lost their homeworld and want Earth to be it’s replacement. The Doctor forced the humans and Zygons to make the perfect peace agreement by temporarily wiping their memories so no one could remember if they were human or Zygon while they negotiated the ceasefire. In “The Zygon Invasion”, we learn that the terms of that deal resulted in the Zygons taking on the form of humans and assimilating into society. Now, that perfect truce is breaking down.
As the first Nu Who story to focus on the Zygons, this story shows that the Zygons can be one of the most intriguing Doctor Who monsters, in part because they’re not all monsters. Unlike the Daleks or the Cybermen, who are invariably portrayed as united in their evilness, the “bad” Zygons in this story are just a radical faction of an otherwise nonviolent race. As the Doctor points out, “This is a splinter group. The rest of the Zygons, the vast majority — they want to live in peace. You start bombing them, you’ll radicalise the lot. That’s exactly what the splinter group wants.” The radical Zygons use media to spread fear. To propagate panic among humans, they post a video on the Internet of a disguised Zygon returning to its true form. The radical splinter group also sends out a video of themselves murdering other Zygons who are not aligned with their cause. Sound familiar? This storyline, along with a few others, lifts Doctor Who into the class of science fiction that not only entertains but also makes poignant commentary on the contemporary geopolitical situation. This story certainly makes you watch, but more importantly, it makes you think.
Yet more complexly, even the “bad” Zygons have understandable motives. The “radical” faction is just a group of young Zygons who don’t want to assimilate into human culture and hide their true identity—hence their name “Truth or Consequences.” Frustrated by the necessity of retaining human form, this faction argues: “Our rights were violated. We demand the right to be ourselves.” They feel trapped between a desire to retain and express their Zygon identities and a fear for their safety if they are revealed as aliens to xenophobic humans, with a less than pristine history of persecuting outsiders and minorities.
You cannot fully appreciate an actor’s abilities until you’ve seen him or her play disparate roles. Rarely is this possible within a single show or film, which is part of what makes this episode a real treat. (Spoiler!) Thanks to the Zygons’ shapeshifting abilities, we get to see the excellent Jenna Coleman play Clara as well as a villainous Zygon named Bonnie. While we’ve complemented Coleman before, we never truly realized how good of an actor she is until watching this episode. After watching Coleman play the lovable Clara for three years, we assumed it would be difficult for her to convincingly play a villain, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. Her facial transformation from Clara’s warm smile to Bonnie’s malicious but determined eyes is striking. Particularly impressive are scenes in which Bonnie and Clara are the only characters. Coleman must have been acting in front of a green screen, but you’d never guess it from the way Clara and Bonnie respond to and interact with each other. It’s really a pity we may not see more of Bonnie in the future. Her character is so fascinating she practically deserves her own series.
Even with Coleman’s memorable performance as Bonnie and Clara, Capaldi steals the show. Though he is wonderful throughout both episodes, somehow weaving together humor and seriousness and delivering the golden writing perfectly, his most powerful moment is his five-minute anti-war speech delivered to Bonnie and Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), who each have their fingers on potential weapons of mass destruction, ready to destroy the other’s race. Like the rest of Capaldi’s performance, it weaves in bits of humor, like an imitation of the game show host Hughie Green. But that humor paradoxically adds to the gravitas of the speech rather than take away from it. To the Doctor, someone who is 2000 years old and has witnessed countless cultures and conflicts, people with their fingers on the triggers of weapons of mass destruction seem as foolish as gamblers on game shows. Not only does this speech condemn war and violence, an important message in today’s world to be sure, it conveys who the Doctor is and how he sees the world. He talks to Bonnie as if she is a child having a tantrum, revealing how immature and shortsighted she is simply by asking her what she will do after killing all the humans, and how she will protect her revolution from the next one.
But not only do we get this unexpected glimpse into how the Doctor perceives the world, we learn more about his experiences in the Time War: “I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you could ever imagine. And when I close my eyes . . . I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count! And do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight . . . till it burns your hand, and you say this . . . No one else will ever have to live like this! No one else will have to feel this pain! Not on my watch!” The combination of the writing and Capaldi’s acting perfectly conveys the Doctor’s pain, regret, and anguish over his actions in the Time War, a pain he’s lived with for hundreds of years, a pain that ultimately drives him to prevent others from suffering the same fate. This is a defining moment for Capaldi’s Doctor. After this speech, we understand who the Doctor really is, and he is Peter Capaldi.
This episode is the highlight of an exceptional season.