BBC One, Saturday 31st October 2015. Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Ingrid Oliver, Jemma Redgrave, Rebecca Front, Jaye Griffiths. Written by Peter Harness, Directed by Daniel Nettheim. Reviewed by Sean Alexander.
Once upon a time...there were Three Doctors, Two Osgoods and One Peace Treaty
Irrespective of whether your politics come with a capitalised P or not, you’re probably a long-term Doctor Who fan because of its subversive nature. If your own political awakening came from the likes of Malcolm Hulke, Robert Holmes or Andrew Cartmel (probably the only man to profess a desire to bring down the British government as a job clincher) it’s safe to say the show that first set out its soapbox stall during the socio-political upheaval of the 1960s has always attracted the more militant minded, and politically aware, sections of the viewing audience.
Which works both for and against ‘The Zygon Invasion’, Peter Harness’ sophomore entry that (like last year’s ‘Kill the Moon’) uses its sci-fi trappings to examine fundamental issues of morality and human fear. But where the abortion metaphor of the moon laying its apocalyptic egg had to be looked for, the current world climate of radicalised extremists, migrant exodus and pre-emptive distrust and paranoia is here barely disguised; hiding in plain sight much as the 20 million Zygon doubles have been doing since the peace treaty that was all but glossed over during the celebratory finale of 2013’s ‘The Day of the Doctor’.
It’s great to see the show once again engaging with its inner polemic, but it just seems to me that Peter Harness has almost been instructed to make his Zygons-as-immigrants subtext as plain and obvious as ‘Kill the Moon’s embryocide wasn’t. Case in point: do we really need to have the Zygon training camp - wherein all those impressionable young Zygotes are being radicalised - based in a middle eastern country? Or even have the fascistic Walsh be so gung-ho and militant as to scream with Starship Troopers levels of xenophobia? Surely Doctor Who - a show that once made a story about gay pride couched in a copyright infringing liquorice monster remember - is capable of more subtlety than that. There’s much to laud in ‘The Zygon Invasion’, but its apparent mandate to crack an acorn with a sledgehammer, sadly, isn’t one of them.
So, for the Islamic Fundamentalism 101 class we’re given, in turn, Osgood being forced to deliver a hostage message as propaganda speech; homemade videos of political executions as a statement of intent, and the Doctor pointing out the obvious – namely, that to focus on a minority splinter group at the price of radicalising an entire species is never a great idea. ‘The Zygon Invasion’ does have that almost supernatural poignancy in that its broadcast comes in the same week former Prime Minister Tony Blair sort-of-admits-to-perhaps-maybe contributing to the rise of Islamic State by playing such a key role in the West’s ‘War on Terror’, and the looming albatross of the Chilcot report once again raising its much-delayed head above the media parapet. You can’t buy publicity like that. I wonder how many were in fact struck by the cutting satire of the piece, seeing as this was more an investigation enacted by chainsaw than laser scalpel.
What does work – and not for the first or (you suspect) last time this series – is in the matter-of-fact highlighting of the ramifications of the Doctor’s runaway lifestyle, a modus operandi increasingly based on consequences and collateral damage. That peace treaty does seem to be more of a wishy-washy liberalised concept of utopian peace than it would ever resemble something sanctioned by the UN, and perhaps the Doctor’s biggest fault is in believing too much of humanity at times. Not for the first time have the Doctor’s clay feet been alluded to this year, and there are several occasions where the story’s political mandate comes perilously close to realism over cosmopolitanism. Walsh’s fear that her emotionally blackmailed platoon are walking into a trap being as much a vindication of her right-wing politics as it is an indictment of her own sense of morality.
Back in 1975, when ‘Terror of the Zygons’ still ploughed a rich vein of Commies-under-the-bed, Cold War paranoia the nearest genre touchstone for all this was the novel ‘Who Goes There?’, or rather its more palatable form the post-McCarthy Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (itself remade by Philip Kaufman for the dehumanised existential world of the late 1970s). And of course evil double stories have become something of a trope not just of Doctor Who but science fiction allegory at large – so as well as being treated to yet another variation on the doppelganger motif (Jenna Coleman getting her chance to play a more playful and steely-eyed Clara) the very nature of ‘The Zygon Invasion’s paranoiac remit demands scene after scene of transformative revelation, recycling its own season nine theme of the friend in the enemy, the enemy in the friend. Elsewhere Harness is very much getting posterior splinters from all his fence-sitting, preaching both for nations to retain their cultural diversity irrespective of geography (clearly drawing inspiration from the modern day proliferation of mosques and burkha-wearing women in our towns and cities) as well as the need to prevent such differences escalating into ethnic and racial antagonism; something which Osgood’s living embodiment of the fragile peace treaty was supposed to prevent.
But the biggest praise I can lavish on ‘The Zygon Invasion’ is that it’s far better and more conscience-minded than the similarly themed but largely played for laughs ‘Aliens of London’. Where Russell T Davies’ subtext of MPs hiding alien monsters who can train ‘Mass Weapons of Destruction’ within 15 seconds was polemic-lite, Harness instead goes for the jugular with (if anything) extremist results, fittingly so for an episode that preaches caution about tarring the many with the same brush as the vocalised few. This is Doctor Who desperately trying to ape the urban thriller meme of the likes of 24, with its lexicon of neutralised, radicalised pre-emptive buzzwords. Of course it doesn’t come even close, but then for a show that will always gain more resonance from showing the tortured reality of being emotionally blackmailed by enemies wearing the faces of familial loved ones, I guess that’s one failure we can all learn to live with.
While it might occasionally seem to be appealing to the tunnel-vision politics of the average Daily Mail reader, with its simplified approach to topical events, ‘The Zygon Invasion’ should be applauded for instilling Doctor Who once again with a socio-political conscience that treats cultural diversity and political security with equal balance. It’s not going to win any awards for subtlety but if it gets people talking about issues all too clouded by media agendas and political chicanery, then this is one invasion well worth surrendering to.
Next Time – the enemy of my enemy is my friend