5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE ZYGON INVASION/THE ZYGON INVERSION
Zygons, Zygons, Zygons. They hold a special place in our hearts, because despite all the techy developments in CGI and that over the past few decades, they manage in the new series to look exactly as horrifically rubbery as they did in the old one. How Doctor Who is that?
And these episodes also see the return of another old favourite. The fans love Osgood for her geeky one-of-usness; that kind of meta doesn't really float our boats, but we do love Ingrid Oliver's performance, so we were happy that she, or at least a version of her, was back.
So what's it about? Well, what's it's really BLOOF sorry, the BLARG we were trying to say WHUMPF honestly, it's enough to make you give up. That much transparently-veiled allegory hitting you repeatedly in the face makes it difficult to even think straight. In a season of on the nose writing, this is the on-nosiest ever. Splinter cells. Videos. "Some radicalisation, some revolution in the younger brood." Jokes about benefits. And on and on.
For us, this is the bad part. Does it all have to be this thumpingly obvious? There's a long tradition of allegory in Doctor Who, but while some of it's been broad on occasion, none of it's leapt up and tattooed itself on your eyeballs quite this blatantly.
And it's not just the political allegory that's spelled out, either. There's very little subtlety in the points made about war and violence. You will be astonished to learn, for example, that while it's simple-pimple to drop a bomb on the head of Random Stranger, it's a totally different thing when they look like your family. Hold the press!
What's more, some of these points are made by utilising an excessive degree of dumbness. Take the heart-tugging scene by the church, for example. The UNIT soldiers prove their exemplary military cred by standing out in the open, with zero cover, in front of the church, while Malcolm and Nicola skulk round the back by themselves. Out comes Mum, and despite her obvious dodging of the soldier's questions, not to mention the explicit orders of his commander, he and all his buds troop maddeningly off to their doom while the entire audience shouts at the screen. It's a shame, because if they'd backed off a bit the scene would have been vastly stronger. In their zeal to push their point, they've ended up making it too stupid for the emotion to push its way through.
Fiercely annoying. Yet beyond this stuff, we like this episode. It really doesn't feel much like Doctor Who in many places, and that's great: different is good. It's tense, it's gripping, and we completely bought into it. We were annoyed to get to the end and have to wait to find out what happened next. Considering how many Doctor Who episodes we've greeted the end of recently with sighs of relief, this is verging on a miracle.
One of the giant plus points of the episode is the number of stellar performances. It's particularly obvious on a second viewing what a great job Jenna Coleman does of sneakily being Bonnie when nobody knows it yet: in fact, so much flashes across her face, especially when no other character is looking at her, that it makes you want to smack yourself in the head for missing her transformation the first time through. (The second time through, we also enjoyed watching Clara cross-question Kate about how many troops they have, where their weapons are and where they keep them. Nice.) Jemma Redgrave and Jaye Griffiths are reliably excellent in UNIT, as is the wonderful Rebecca Front: we only wish she'd been given a more pivotal part, as she sells her dedicated UNIT officer like it's going out of style.
Like we said, it doesn't feel much like Doctor Who a lot of the time, and that's partly because the Doctor is peripheral to the story. While he does boss UNIT around a bit, it's mostly about watching them and Clara do their stuff. He is, you might say, a passenger. Ahahaha.
The location shooting adds a lot, letting a bit of air into the story. It patently isn't the real Truth Or Consequences, and they were overegging yet again with that tumbleweed, but it's nice all the same. (Hugo Kessler writes to tell us that those aren't tumbleweeds, they're the remains of the local residents. In which case, that's a really clever, um, inversion of the cliche and we love it.) "Turmezistan" is fun, too, even though to the careful observer it looks suspiciously like Trenzalore.
Of course, how good a first episode is isn't really apparent until you see the other half. It's all very well setting stuff up, but it's got to be paid off with a zing if the thing's going to work as a whole. So how did that go?
There are enormous gushes of love out there for The Zygon Inversion. From us, not quite as much as that.
"Butbutbut!" we hear you splutter. "This is one of the all-time classics! Also, THE SPEECH!"
Yes, the speech is great, so let's start there. What's astonishing about it is Peter Capaldi's performance. What can we say about it that isn't totally obvious? Without a doubt, this is his defining moment as the Doctor thus far. His Doctor has been inconsistently written, but given the opportunity and a head of steam, just look at what Peter Capaldi can do. We can't imagine that there are many doubters left after this.
But it takes more than one speech to make an episode. Don't get us wrong, we think it's good. Even very good. But it has some problems that concern us. So what have we got?
It's a great start, with Clara waking up in her befreaked flat. It isn't particularly original, but we're complete suckers for that kind of thing and they do a good job with it. It's the little details, like the black toothpaste, which are particularly appealing. And we love the way she moves the TV to spoil Bonnie's aim - although we don't know how it works, it’s a really fresh idea.
Meanwhile an innocent Zygon gets a house call from Bonnie. He wants nothing more than to live in peace in his new home (the allegory here is about as glancingly subtle as it was in the previous episode), but sadly for him Bonnie has decided to unmask the 20 million Zygons one Zygon at a time. (Why is she doing this again? Wouldn't it be easier to just upload a video of her own Zygon self than go to the trouble of seeking out some random?) We're not sure why she has her Evil Villain supercilious smirk on during this, because aren't they on the same side? Oh well. One quick zap and he's semi-Zygoned, a condition which appears, horrifically, to stick Cheerios to your face. Mysteriously, the estate yoof gaze at his Cheerios impassively: why do all the other people in these scenes look like extras from Village Of The Damned? We thought there was some strange subplot going on that had been abandoned midstream, and to be honest we're still none the wiser. We think they're meant to be Bad Zygons, but if so, why beat up another Zygon, and why look zombified?
Back with Clara, who's thrilled to spot that two parachutes escaped the burning plane. Hurray! Everybody's safe! Er, no, actually. What about the aircrew and the Zygon? Just as happened the last time the Doctor escaped a crashing plane, nobody mentions this or seems to care about it. Including, unforgivably, the Doctor. (Oh yes, and did we mention parachutes? The cabin's pressurised: how did they get the door open?)
Then there's a lovely two-hander in which Ingrid Oliver takes Osgood way further than the caricature Who nerd she started with. The Doctor's concern about Clara means that Osgood has to do all the Doctoring, and it's a nice touch as we know she's such a fan she's reasoning as he would if he were on his game. While we're normally not fans of companions outthinking the Doctor, his preoccupation lets this squeak by, and it's a great scene.
The Doctor attempts to chat to a pair of cops who are as blank as the people from the estate earlier. Although he's President Of The World (ugh), and presumably would be known as such, he has the psychic paper out and identifies himself as Dr John Disco. Not sure what he's trying to achieve from this conversation in any case; also, what the? Together with another pair of Mr Pods, the cops block the road and start walking blankly yet menacingly towards the Doctor with the blistering pace of a couple of snails out for a Sunday stroll. Whyyyyy? They're Zygons, presumably, but again, why the zombification? It doesn't make any sense.
While the Doctor's driving (a sight we haven't seen for quite a while), Clara and Bonnie are seeing what's on TV. This is a tour de force from Jenna Coleman, and we completely believe in Bonnie as an entity entirely separate from Clara, so go her. Bonnie says to Clara, "I do like being you, Clara. Everyone just waves you on past", but who's she talking about? According to her, she has UNIT under her control anyway, and if she didn't, wouldn't the wavers have noticed her being trailed by a giant pod with another Clara in it?
And whoa, two boxes. The logic of all of this is murky to say the least. The Osgoods keep the peace, because…? They're the only ones who know what's in the boxes? That's not true, because the Doctor knows too, and how does that keep the peace anyway? They're guarding them? What, personally? Not very high tech, is it? Or is it their job to tell people under interrogation that they exist? That would make some sense - if it weren't for the fact that anybody interrogating them would have to know there was something to interrogate them about in the first place.
And while we're scratching our heads - why the secrecy about there being two boxes? What difference does it make? And why does the Doctor initially lie to Bonnie about what the box does? Again, what difference does that make?
Then the Doctor explains what the two sets of buttons are for. In the red box, one releases Harry Sullivan's Zygon-peeling gas (we're guessing that the reason they kept banging on about how it turned Zygons inside out was so they could get away with the "Inversion" title, which they had clearly fallen in love with). The other releases a nuclear warhead. OK. But why should Kate press either of them? Needless to say she doesn't want to detonate the nuke, but she doesn't need the gas either. Even if all the Zygons are unmasked, they're too outnumbered to win a war against humans. So what's in it for her? Sure, it might be more convenient to off them all in one go, but not so much so that you'd take a 50/50 chance of blowing up London.
As for Bonnie, she's complaining about the way the Zygons have been treated, but we don't get that either. She says they've been treated like cattle - but haven't they just been allowed to get on with their own lives among humans?
Then the Doctor starts cross-questioning Bonnie about her plans. She says she wants war, and he tells her she's close to getting what she wants. Which is true if the Zygons get outed, sure. But the Doctor then starts talking about how she envisages a brave new world with a Zygon homeland. The thing is, though, that Bonnie isn't that kind of fanatic. Instead, she's already made it perfectly clear that she understands that if the Zygons are outed they will lose, but that she doesn't care if every single one is slaughtered as a result - because that's better, in her eyes, than them continuing to live as they are. It's not about moving towards something - a Zygon homeland, Zygons being able to live in their real shape amongst humans, Zygons taking over the Earth, whatever. Instead, she wants to move away from something: Zygons having less than full autonomy.
So the Doctor saying that she doesn't know what she wants is flat-out wrong. He's correct that she hasn't envisaged the shape of a brave new world, because that's not her goal. All she cares about is Zygons not being oppressed. Whether the effort to free them results in total subjugation of Earth or in the death of every Zygon, she isn’t fussed. That's not what's important to her.
Then The Speech. See above, although we would add that we do wish they'd left all of it unscored. Murray Gold's bucket o' slush creeping in partway through cheapened the whole thing. And we think it also takes something away from it when you know he's done it fifteen times before. He wasn't clear if that was in a row or on fifteen separate occasions, but either way, the raw emotion loses something when you discover it's actually pretty well-rehearsed.
Persuaded, Bonnie walks away. They earned this: the Doctor has made Bonnie think about a future beyond a revolution, and it's reasonable that she could be convinced by that speech that the game wasn't worth the candle. We do wonder, however, how she's going to explain her change of heart to the others. We suspect the most likely scenario is that they'd conclude she'd been compromised, remove her from any type of command and barrel on with their previous plans. After all, they haven't had the benefit of the Doctor's rhetoric. Maybe that's why this peace thing has fallen over fifteen times before: pehaps he's working his way down the Zygon hierarchy until all that's left is the guy who brings the doughnuts.
And we also wonder why the Doctor gives the credit for Bonnie changing her mind to Clara. Clara's fought her, sure, but only to stop her from trying to kill the Doctor and to sneakily send a text. It's not as if they've been debating the pros and cons of warfare. Maybe it's the sheer proximity of Clara's mind he's talking about, but that's a little weak for us.
The Doctor invites Osgood into the TARDIS. You could see it coming a mile off but it was still infuriating: she refuses, turning down her heart's desire so she can go back to her box-watching duties. Can we say for the squillionth time: TIME MACHINE! As Osgood should perfectly well be able to work out for herself, she could racket round the universe all she likes, then return to the same point in time, boxes never remaining unwatched. Annoying.
The Zygon Inversion has lots of great things in it, and we'd be the first to acknowledge that. Nevertheless, it has some serious flaws. The pace, which was tightly controlled and cracking along in the previous episode, flags in this. It's an entirely different animal from the first, too, and given that it's presented as essentially one story chopped in half, that's arguably a problem. We can't believe that Rebecca Front doesn't even make it onto the screen after being one of the best things in the previous episode (man, they waste guest stars on this series). The metaphor, continuing on from the previous episode, is too in your face. And the ghostly subplot, with the mysteriously blank Zygons, is just weird.
Worst of all, however, are the lapses in logic. If you're crafting a heavyweight emotional moment, it's a good idea to build it on a firm foundation. Otherwise, you run the risk of the audience, rather than being bowled by your rhetorical showpiece, instead going "But wait a minute…". As a result, some of the power the episode should have had is stripped away. It's a shame. While they're good, a little lighter hand with the allegory and a little more attention to detail and these episodes would have been truly spectacular.
I KNOW HOW THIS LOOKS
The biggest unsolved mystery in this is how the Doctor managed to get away with talking to two little girls in a playground without being arrested. Especially after he chases them up onto the climbing frame.
IT WAS YOUR TURN TO DRAG HER
Why didn't the Zygons take Osgood with them when they left the church?
A HAIRY SITUATION
Were the, er, remains, which looked like the floor of Dr Frankenstein's barbershop, meant to be quite that funny?
ACTION BY HAVOC
How utterly crap are UNIT in this? First, the drone operator refuses to carry out her orders and nobody even says anything. Second, that thing with standing out in the open outside the church and again ignoring orders when they went in. Third, when Jac is shrieking that it's a trap, they don't even try and shoot their way out; they just stand there waiting to be turned into an order of fried hair. Sigh.
I MIGHT NEED A TISSUE
How adorable is it that on a military mission and accompanied by guys with serious guns, Jac takes her handbag with her?
Bonnie? Our guess it's a backhanded tribute to Bonnie Langford, although if so, we can't imagine she's feeling very flattered.
As Clara attacks the wall revealed behind her living room curtains, it visibly bends. Rubber Zygons and bendy walls! Aw, just like the good old days.
Didn't we see the same device of having a big discussion at the end about whether to kill things in Kill The Moon? And that was by…oh.
Kate was human all along. So how does she know where Clara's pod used to be?
WHO ARE YOU?
Sorry, but the Doctor mindwiping Kate without her permission is extremely creepy. EXTREMELY CREEPY.
BAD OR MISSING DATA
"There are twenty million Zygons! And most of the data was with…her." ONE PERSON had all the data? For the location of twenty million potentially hostile aliens? See "How crap is UNIT?" above.
The squishy, glurpy Zygon command centre reminds us a lot of Cylon technology. Cylons were nonhumans in human form too. Hmm. As for "You operate it by titivating the fronds" - pure genius.
I REPRESSED IT
Osgood says "I don't think I've ever seen you smile before,", but she's wrong, as on the plane the Doctor smiled at her as he started his interrogation.
There's a Mire helmet very prominently displayed in the Black Archive.
After Kill The Moon, Peter Harness caught a lot of stick for having the Doctor abandon Clara and Earth to make their own decision. (We thought it was great. Others did not.) In this, same situation, but this time the Doctor has his hand on the lever at all times, because he's going to repeat the box thing until the humans and Zygons get it right. And repeat it again when necessary. So with the speech and all, it looks like he's persuading them, but in reality he's giving them no other option.