After the breezy shenanigans of the previous episodes, Doctor Who gets back to its bold, brilliant best this week with a high-stakes adventure as series nine’s fourth two-parter, kicking-off with The Zygon Invasion, picks up the story of the human/Zygon peace treaty we saw negotiated in The Day of the Doctor.
The two races have been living quietly amongst each other since then, but when Time Lord-appointed peacekeeper Osgood is kidnapped by a rogue gang of Zygons the truce verges on collapse and its left to the Doctor, Clara and UNIT to frantically try to contain the situation before it becomes a “nightmare scenario”.
Peter Harness’s first Who story, last year’s Kill the Moon, may have split the fanbase with its science-defying Moon egg, but his return to pen this latest two-parter is a resounding triumph.
The Zygon Invasion eschews time paradoxes and comedy cameos to deliver an old school invasion story infused with a conspiracy thriller vibe as the plot hinges on some highly controversial political issues. It’s edgy, fearless, relentlessly paced and magnificently entertaining. In short, it’s vintage Doctor Who.
Directed by Daniel Nattheim, the episode is cinematic in scope. The plot zips around several locations and characters across the world and stages numerous military scale battle sequences to show the marauding magnitude of the Zygon outbreak.
Such an action-packed, globe-trotting adventure may put you in mind of a Bond movie, but the story is actually closer in tone to the grittier Bourne series as the Zygon’s ability to impersonate humans causes everyone to doubt who they can really trust.
This dense air of paranoia is used to chilling effect in one standout scene which sees a UNIT soldier instructed to execute a Zygon posing as his mother. It’s an impossible situation that raises the question of how do you know who to believe when no one is quite what they seem?
The military play a large role in the action so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to find a deeply political message running through the plot. With a Zygon splinter cell radicalising youths and mounting a rapid invasion from their base in the Middle East while Britain frets over the millions of their kind hiding on its shores, it’s impossible not to be reminded of ISIS and the on-going migrant crisis.
The show has previously dabbled in political issues – touching on the likes of Hitler and the abortion debate – but never on such an overt note. How much you enjoy this message will likely depend on your own political leanings, but at least you can’t say a show about a time-travelling alien isn’t topical.
Though this week’s episode sees Clara return to the thick of the action, it’s interesting to note she isn’t paired with the Doctor. Instead the Time Lord joins forces with UNIT colonel Walsh, played by Peter Capaldi’s former The Thick of It co-star Rebecca Front.
It’s with this new dynamic that most of the political preaching can be found as these two superb performers butt heads over the best way to handle the growing Zygon threat. Unsurprisingly, Walsh’s plan to blow up everything in sight doesn’t sit too well the Doctor’s attempts to broker peace.
For all the soapbox grandstanding, though, Harness deserves credit for depicting war-hungry Walsh with sympathy, showing how losing soldiers to frequent Zygon attacks has convinced Walsh of the emotional need to eradicate the danger by force.
Clara, meanwhile, is teamed with UNIT newcomer Jac (Jaye Griffiths) for an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style mission to investigate some strange goings on underneath London. At first this new duo lacks any kind of spark with both Griffiths and Coleman giving reserved performances. Of course, it all turns out to be a sly piece of misdirection, setting us up for a stunning twist as Clara is unveiled as a Zygon doppelgänger called Bonny.
Coleman really throws herself into playing this cold, Machiavellian version of her character, pasting her face with a calculating smirk, and I for one can’t wait to see Bonny explored in greater depth next week.
The big question obviously concerns the return of everyone’s favourite fangirl, Osgood. Last seen being cruelly vaporised by Missy in Death in Heaven, fans have been itching to know how she survived. No clear cut answers are offered here as we’re kept in the dark about whether she is the real Osgood or a Zygon imposter.
This mystery gives the character a more intriguing edge – she’s essentially Schrödinger’s doppelgänger, carrying on the theme of Hybrid’s that has foreshadowed the series – and it allows Ingrid Oliver to give a more layered performance as Osgood appears to be the only one capable of understanding both sides of the conflict.
As well as maintaining a steady hand on the sprawling spectacle, Nettheim also earns praise for making the Zygons genuinely scary. While Harness tries to make the oversized verrucas more of a threat by introducing the idea they can zap humans into electrified tumbleweed, it’s Nettheim who finds a more disturbing angle, teasing their reveal in the creepy underground scenes as the monsters lurk in the dark waiting to pounce.
Yet, for all the full-throttle action, the actual storyline is disappointingly thin. Harness spends so much time building an intense mystery he leaves his characters unexplored – especially Kate Stewart, who starts strong but quickly fades. The result inevitably feels like a drawn-out setup for next week’s concluding part.
Thank the stars, then, that the episode ends on a proper sense of jeopardy with a three-way cliff-hanger leaving Stewart cornered, Clara unconscious and the Doctor seemingly about to be blown to itsy bitsy pieces in the sky.
If the rollercoaster tension of this episode can be maintained whilst also packing in enough answers and character exploration to provide a satisfying conclusion, then next week’s The Zygon Inversion could be one of the best Doctor Who episodes yet.
Click here to watch Doctor Who: The Zygon Invasion on BBC iPlayer