Let me get an unpopular opinion out of the way first. I don’t like the Zygons very much. I consider shapeshifting in science fiction to be lazy, and I always thought the Axos did the whole organic tech bit much better. When the Zygons were brought back for the 50th anniversary, they got in the way more than they contributed to the story, and apparently we’re just going to forget about them needing to feed on giant cyber-dino teat-milk. It’s hard to be scary when you look like a walking turd without dental coverage. I’m not a fan, is what I’m trying to say.
Even so, there’s no doubt that this is probably the absolute best the Zygons could ever be, and that Doctor Who has gone out of its way to make a solid point about the world we live in. Following the events of “The Day of The Doctor,” UNIT helped resettle 20 million Zygons on Earth in human form. The peace treaty was personified by the two Osgoods, with neither of them revealing who was the human and who was the Zygon. When Missy murdered one of the Osgoods, the peace began to break down and the remaining Osgood went into exile. Now, a radical splinter group of Zygons are intent on starting a war for dominance of the Earth.
The actions of the Zygons and the manner in which The Doctor deals with them are obviously heavily influenced by the rise of radical Islamic terrorist groups, right down to the splinter group sending videos of prisoners forced to read manifestos and others being executed. The Doctor constantly reminds UNIT that the vast majority of the Zygons want only to live in peace as the military-minded Kate Stewart talks of bombing and using a weapon that will unravel Zygon DNA.
This sort of contemporary commentary on television is always dicey, and Doctor Who rarely delves into it. For the most part, “The Zygon Invasion” confines itself to two ideas that are indeed worth keeping in mind as my country continues a war that is almost old enough to drive. The first is its constant reminder that on the other side of every drone strike and special operation is a human face. The Zygons use their ability to mimic the loved ones of those who would attack them as a devious psychological defense mechanism. Sadly, too often in this world we don’t allow the face of collateral damage to deter us as it does UNIT.
The second is more subtle. If you’re potentially surrounded by an enemy indistinguishable from people who are not your enemy, then your only hope is in trust. The Zygon high command fails to keep the humans informed of the increasingly radicalized segments of their populations, eventually losing control and paying for it with their own lives. The humans as well fail to enlist Zygon help in dealing with the radicals and are continuously out-thought at every turn. Adherence to ridiculous binaries on both sides catapults the planet to war.
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One of the reasons “The Zygon Invasion” succeeds is that Peter Harness turned in a really, really good script. I was cringing when his name came up because the last time we saw him was “Kill the Moon” and…no. Just no. Here, though, he’s succeeded in crafting an adventure that manages to be both traditionally frightening in places and culturally significant in its message. It’s also the first UNIT story of the Kate Stewart era that really feels like an old-school UNIT story.
Then again, there was still Harness’s weird obsession with possibly aborting newborns that might be dangerous in this episode just like in “Kill the Moon.” It’s one of the odder motifs I’ve seen in television writing.
In the end, though, the episode belongs to Ingrid Oliver as Osgood. She is both an objective to be rescued and in many ways the avatar of everything that goes on. Oliver remains adorable, appearing in the episode in three different outfits inspired by previous Doctors (aside: The First Doctor portrait in the UNIT safe house was a nice touch). Even as Osgood serves as a kind of personification of Who-fandom, she also comes alive as a remarkable character. Her dedication to her dead doppelgänger is heartbreaking and touching, and the way she interacts with The Doctor is probably the most realistic and sincere manner that anyone ever has. The fangirl is gone after all she’s seen, but it’s made her kinder and less naive instead of cold. Osgood is soul.
As with the rest of this season, we’ll have to wait for next week to see how it all works out, but I can safely say that for once in Doctor Who history, I wasn’t bored by the Zygons. They scared me, they surprised me and they made me think. If nothing else, the Zygons gave us Osgood back, and that alone is reason to applaud their return.