Doctor Who: “The Zygon Inversion” is great, but only if you turn off your brain

“The Zygon Inversion” was not at all what I was expecting, but the more I think about it, the more I think that it’s probably exactly the sort of thematically confused, unsatisfying pablum I ought to expect from this show by now. Frankly, it was just a kind of bizarre episode made all the more frustrating for being technically very good.

We start with getting a different perspective of last week’s cliffhanger. It turns out that, while Clara’s being body-snatched she’s actually trapped in a sort of weird nightmare house where she is somewhat aware of what Zygon-Clara is up to and slightly capable of influencing Zygon-Clara’s actions. Nonetheless, she doesn’t have enough influence to prevent Zygon-Clara from destroying the plane carrying the Doctor and Osgood.

Straight from there, Zygon-Clara goes to destroy the life of, apparently, the first other Zygon she finds. Though he tries to escape, she succeeds in disabling the poor fellow’s ability to shapeshift, forcing him to reveal himself as an alien to a rather unimpressed-looking group of teenagers outside his apartment.

Meanwhile, real Clara is rewinding Zygon-Clara’s memories and sees that two people (Osgood and the Doctor, natch) managed to parachute out of the blown-up aircraft. Cut to Osgood and the Doctor, who have landed on a beach surrounded by wreckage that is curiously devoid of any other people. This sort of glossing over and trivializing of tragedy is both annoyingly characteristic of the show and rather at odds with the pacifist message of this episode in particular. The Doctor may profess all he likes that he doesn’t like this sort of thing, but his silence here is telling. He’s more concerned with Osgood’s broken glasses than with anyone else who might have been on the crashed plane.

Speaking of Osgood, I’ve never much liked her, but I found myself falling a bit in love with her this week, perhaps precisely because she’s such an unusual and slightly irritating character. I still can’t stand her silly costumes, but I love how much thought she’s clearly put into the idea of how she would go about trying to take over the world. It’s also worth noting that Osgood and her strict insistence on not revealing whether she is human or Zygon is possibly the single thing in this whole two-parter that makes proper sense. Goodness knows, the new mythology introduced here, with the Zygon pods and their needing a “live feed” to what’s in Clara’s brain (because apparently the Zygon’s aren’t just shapeshifters now) is more than a little silly.

Elsewhere, Zygon-Clara thinks she’s found the Osgood box, a device that will supposedly end the cease-fire, but instead she’s only got a laptop with a pretty mocking video telling her that she hasn’t got the box at all. She soon receives a call from the Doctor, during which he tips her off to Clara having the information that Bonne (Zygon-Clara’s real name, it turns out) wants.

This leads into another scene of weird and nonsensical lore-expansion as Bonnie goes to Clara’s pod to interrogate her. Bonnie is able to psychically link with Clara to chat, and we learn that even their heartbeats are linked, so they can’t lie to each other. Clara tells Bonnie about the Osgood box, although it’s pretty obvious that Clara is telling the truth very cleverly, and Bonnie sets off (with Clara’s pod in tow) to find the box for real.

In the meantime, Osgood and the Doctor go searching for the Zygon that Bonnie forcibly revealed after video of the incident has gone viral. They manage to find him, hiding a shop and completely devastated by his affliction. In a powerfully affecting scene, they confront the unmasked Zygon only to have him kill himself right before their eyes. Unfortunately, we’re not given much time to be affected by this turn of events because that’s when Zygon-Kate and a couple of Zygon-UNIT officers show up to take Osgood and the Doctor to the Zygon command center where Clara’s pod was stored. By the time they get there, Clara’s pod is gone and Bonnie has discovered the problem with the Osgood box—there’s two of it. In a tense scene, we learn that Zygon-Kate is actually real Kate, which is good (although it begs the question of how Bonnie didn’t know that Kate wasn’t a Zygon all this time), but also quickly compounds the problem. The Doctor, Osgood, and Kate rush off to where Bonnie is, where Kate immediately tries to figure out how to use the second box.

The last fifteen minutes of the episode are dominated by what is essentially one long, impassioned monologue by the Doctor as he talks us through this standoff. Peter Capaldi is absolutely at his best here, and the monologue itself is well-written, but it pretty much completely ignores the crux of the matter that was supposedly at hand last week—the desire of at least some of the Zygons to live openly among humans without having to hide their true selves, which led them to some regrettable and ill-advisedly radical and violent actions—in favor of addressing an altogether different issue. Namely, the general destructiveness of war and the ultimate futility and counterproductivity of violence as a way of resolving disagreements.

It’s a great speech, as far as it goes, and certainly Capaldi’s performance is superb, but it feels disconnected from and insensible of the underlying issues, and the return to the status quo at the end of the episode is profoundly unsatisfying as it solves nothing. The truth is, if you think about it much at all, the speech doesn’t go very far at all, and on rewatching it to write this, I was struck by the degree to which the Doctor entirely ignores the quite legitimate concerns and anger and fear of both Bonnie and Kate. Instead of actually engaging with the two women, the Doctor berates and shames them into compliance with his wishes by insulting and infantilizing them in turn.

Earlier in the episode, the Doctor quipped to Bonnie that he is old enough to be her messiah. This seemed like a weird thing to say (not least because he wouldn’t be Bonnie’s messiah, what with her not being human), and it becomes plain to see by the end of this scene that the Doctor has some very strange and inflated ideas of himself. I’m not quite ready yet to call it a messiah complex, but it’s decidedly odd and unfortunately grating, mostly because the Doctor seems absolutely incapable here of empathizing with or even granting basic respect to either Kate or Bonnie, although most of his ire seems to be reserved for the Zygon woman.

It’s downright uncomfortable to watch as he shouts Bonnie down, refuses to call her by her chosen name, and belittles her, only to then turn around and condescendingly offer her forgiveness for the things that she’s done. The spiritual connotations here are very clear, and unpleasant. They are also, so far, unexamined, and the overall tone of the episode is that the Doctor is the hero of this story.

In the midst of the Doctor’s rant, Bonnie accuses him of creating an untenable situation with his original peace agreement, which she insists is unfair to the Zygons—and it is unfair. In response, the Doctor denies any responsibility for the problems and blames Bonnie for the current impasse. The thing is, Bonnie is right. The terms of the peace agreement, like the terms of many agreements throughout history, may have been the best short term solution to an immediate problem, but they clearly are not perfect. While Bonnie’s argument that the Zygons have been treated “like cattle” doesn’t hold much water, and in fact seems to have been written to purposefully portray the character as unreasonable and even hysterical, the basic complaints introduced in “The Zygon Invasion” last week—in short, that the Zygons wanted to be free to be their authentic selves—were not unreasonable at all. It’s only by almost entirely refusing to engage with this reality that the Doctor is able to be seen as the voice of reason, and in the end Bonnie’s complaints are swept aside as she becomes a new Osgood dedicated to keeping the peace. The Doctor has succeeded in browbeating her into capitulation to the point where she gives up her own identity and adopts one that is shaped around creepy worship of the Doctor.

Needless to say, the messaging here is confused at best. Personally, I find it all a little creepily sinister. Most of all, though, I find it to be predictably reflective of Steven Moffat’s own uncritical fanboy views of the Doctor. Unfortunately, Steven Moffat’s dedication to Doctor Who doesn’t extend to preserving the things that have made the show such a long-running institution, and the biggest problem that I have with this episode, aside from the oddly religio-fascist messaging, is Moffat’s willingness to abandon canon and reshape it to suit his immediate needs with no thought to the long-term viability of the changes that he makes.

I think what annoys me the most about the type of expansions of Doctor Who lore that we’ve seen in these last two episodes is that they are so mystical in nature. This is another thing that is highly characteristic of the Moffat era, but I just don’t like it at all. The show has never shied away from dabbling in metaphysics, and there is no doubt that Doctor Who has always been more accurately categorized as fantasy than science fiction, but still.

Moffat era Who seems increasingly content to leave its own questions unanswered and is getting more and more concerned with what kind of stories and developments might be “cool” and less and less concerned with what actually makes sense within the Doctor Who universe. While I don’t have the history with or attachment to the Zygons that I did to, say, the Weeping Angels, the devolution of the Zygons into overly mystical absurdity is following a somewhat similar trajectory as the Angels’ decline.

Much of the show, even when it did deal with ghosts and monsters and mythological creatures, was about exploring more science fictional explanations for those various phenomena, with very few things ever being explained away by seemingly magical things. Here, we have magical-seeming explanations presented unquestioned and used for what seems to be pure storytelling convenience. Something that Steven Moffat seems to have never learned is that creativity is often about working within existing constraints (such as established lore in a shared universe, for example) in order to tell a great story. Instead, Moffat is far too quick to discard parts of canon that he finds inconvenient and change things however he likes in order to tell the stories that he wants to tell, regardless of basic sense-making and completely heedless of the history of the show or the work of people who came before him.

Unfortunately, this also ends up being disrespectful of the audience. It toys with audience expectations and discounts our intelligence in a way that highlights to me that Steven Moffat truly does view the rest of fandom (i.e. every fan who isn’t Steven Moffat) with complete and total disdain.

“The Zygon Inversion” might be a great episode, but only if you don’t think about it at all. I, for one, miss the days when this wasn’t the best I had to say about this show.

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