One interpretation of The Doctor as a character is The Lonely God, a being far above humanity and even his fellow Time Lords who uses companionship in order to determine how he will shape the universe. It was semi-begun back in Sylvester McCoy’s run and expanded on greatly by David Tennant, but no one has ever done it better than Peter Capaldi in “The Zygon Inversion.”
The heart of the episode is built around war in the 21st century. The tensions between the Zygons and the humans mirror contemporary terrorism both in its hidden manner and in how keen we are to deal with it using righteous overkill. Inside every Zygon is a literal scaly monster with the ability to snuff out life instantly. They are always armed and they could be anyone and anywhere. It’s prime breeding ground for paranoia.
So it comes down to The Doctor to try and get two races to see reason, to be that messiah that descends from on-high and explain using parables and parlor tricks how not to be a murdering set of bastards. His task is made even harder by the fact that humanity is represented by Kate Stewart, a trusted friend and heir to the Brigadier’s legacy who nonetheless has an itchy trigger finger, while the Zygons are led by one named Bonnie assuming the form of Clara. In essence the argument The Doctor ends up having is like trying to heal a rift between two people he deeply loves.
Capaldi plays this to the hilt. The tense showdown in UNIT’s Black Archive over the Osgood Box final sanction device will surely go down in the show’s history as an iconic moment. He delivers an anti-war tirade that should be required viewing for all future elected leaders. It’s a painful, earnest rumination on forgiveness and trust that Capaldi infuses with both frustration and affection, pleading with Bonnie to believe him because he has been there. The shadow of the War Doctor is still being cast, and it’s clear that the Twelfth Doctor remembers both killing all his own people and later saving them. He has become as close to a god of war as it may be possible, and all he wants is for someone to learn from his mistakes.
Capaldi is great, but Jenna Coleman as Bonnie is not a performance that should be overlooked. Coleman is so good you honestly forget about Clara completely even though she’s standing in the same room. Bonnie is a terribly conflicted character that now sees a war she cannot possibly win as the only out for her. She believes herself unforgivable for her actions thus far and at this point is pretty much seeking the military version of suicide by cop. She’s also willing to take every other member of her race down with her as casualty to her ideology and guilt.
It’s a story that plays out constantly in the conflicts we see around the modern world. People start hurling murder machines at each other and then they hit a hospital instead. Then it all escalates as each side has to keep finding a reason why the fighting is important enough to justify the fallout. It gets worse and worse until, as The Doctor says, eventually both sides have to do what they could have done in the beginning: talk.
Leaving aside what was simply a brilliant political plot, there were even more things to love. Osgood continues to be one of the finest additions to the show, and I was particularly happy to see her throw in a few Eighth Doctor costume bits in her eternal cosplay. There was also a riveting scene with Nicholas Asbury as a Zygon who has lost his ability to shapeshift that Bonnie is trying to use as a spark for war. Asbury is heartbroken by the transformation as he only wanted to live in peace on his new home and feels there’s no going back. Though it’s fairly brief it serves as the perfect counterpoint to Bonnie’s militarism and puts an ironically human face on the victims of war. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that Asbury’s partial-Zygon form more resembles a burn victim than an alien.
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There was at least one element that was a little eye-rolling. Clara has ended up trapped in some sort of inner-mind realm at least five times by my count. She does it so much that I’m not sure it isn’t a superpower. Her battle against Bonnie from inside the Zygon pod is great, but sticking Clara in a dream and making her fight her way out is an oddly specific trope that keeps appearing over and over again. It’s not bad, but it’s a weird go-to.
Honestly I don’t think there’s been a more perfect two-parter since “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances,” and both adventures have echoes of the Ninth Doctor’s joyous cry of, “Just this once everybody lives!” The downside of “The Zygon Invasion / Inversion” of course is that everybody doesn’t live. Hundreds die. There were casualties, both human and Zygon. Lives were lost, and a great deal of them were innocent, even children.
The Doctor sees all that, and rather than judge humanity or Zygonity as unworthy he muses out loud that but by the grace of Clara Oswald there went he. The Lonely God Victorious.