‘Doctor Who’ spoiler-free review: ‘The Zygon Invasion’

Now, this is a Part 1!

With many of the two-parters this season, the trick has been to tell a story that pivots at the halfway point, flipping and somersaulting over the viewer’s expectations. With ‘The Zygon Invasion’, however, the watchword is very much ‘scale’.

Since the events of 2013’s ‘The Day of the Doctor’, Zygons are among us, and it’s an opportunity to tell a story that’s less about the invasion itself, and more about the pandemic of fear and paranoia that follows it. Terrorist splinter groups release video death threats. There are concerns about ‘radicalisation’ and questions about who, and who not, to trust…

So has Doctor Who abandoned the campery in favour of something more satirical, even polemical?

To an extent, yes. There’s an awful lot in this episode that’s traditional Doctor Who. What’s not traditional, however, is the presentation.

For a start, none of this looks like Wales. With a script that veers from London to New Mexico to the fictional Turmezistan (originally Azerbaijan), there’s a particular pressure on the production team to deliver visuals that are both convincing and differentiated; but full credit to the set design, foreign location filming and, yes, even ubiquitous picture grading: it works.

Doctor Who 9 osgood The Zygon Invasion

As UNIT personnel run through the streets of a New Mexican outpost town, Murray Gold gives in to his inner Ennio Morricone to deliver a soundtrack full of skulking, twanging menace.

Director Daniel Nettheim knows how to deliver on the low-energy moments too. It’s palpably Doctor Who, but tonally shot through with the creeping paranoia of an X-Files conspiracy episode.

One scene, set on the steps of a church and elevated by two excellent small guest performances, feels as near-the-knuckle as Doctor Who should ever go, and yet there’s no question that both episode and show are better for being able to accommodate scenes like it.

There’s an authenticity too in hearing genuine American accents onscreen: like someone throwing open the windows after years of dodgy ‘Noo Yoik’ substitutes (sorry, Tallulah, we love you really). American actors Todd Kramer, Gretchen Egolf and Jill Winternitz may not be household names, but their performances all go a long way to effecting the world-building.

Doctor Who the Zygon invasion

In this, as with much else in the episode, we’re mindful to celebrate what the episode doesn’t do. One early scene, set in a children’s playground, plays out in exactly the opposite way that you’re led to expect – the opposite way, certainly, that it would have played in one of Matt Smith’s quirkier adventures.

For an episode that is all about global threat, what’s impressive here is the restraint.

Even the Zygons themselves – suitably impressive, although not gifted enough transformation scenes for our liking – are treated as much as an idea as a blobby, lurid threat. Sure, they come with gunk if you want it, but also with two nifty new abilities: one physical and one psychological.

Doctor Who 9 Zygons

That’s not to say that this is a perfect episode. It’s possible that you’ll be a bit confused at points if you’re not familiar with ‘The Day of the Doctor’, while the political subtext may be slightly heavy-handed for some.

Overall, though, you’d be wise to push these niggles aside, because, like so much else this season, what ‘The Zygon Invasion’ is is assured: a slice of Doctor Who that, thrillingly, chooses to tell a traditional story in a stylish, cinematic and, above all, refreshing way.

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Airs at 8.15pm on Saturday 31 October 2015 on BBC One.

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  • Yet another good one? This is an unprecedentedly strong season! We’ve come a long way since Abzorbaloffs and Isoluses. Kill The Mo(r)on was indescribably bad but if Love & Monsters can be written by the same man as Midnight then we shouldn’t hold anything against Peter Harness. I’m hoping he will impress me. Could it be that The Zygon Invasion will be my best birthday present this year?

    • Zoltán Buka

      You comment under every article with your terrible “moron” pun.

      • Not my pun, I’ve borrowed it from someone else.

      • Your point being…?

        • Zoltán Buka

          It’s boring.

          • Oh don’t I excite you? Bless.

        • Matthew Hewitt

          I thought Kill the Moon was excellent. The ending may well be a stretch (even by Doctor Who standards) but that doesn’t prevent the rest of the episode being highly effective and gripping. Having said that, I found the image of the moon breaking up and the creature flying away rather lovely and I suspect fewer people would have had a problem with it if it had been a parasite threatening to devour the earth – even though the principle is basically the same. For me, the only disappointing Capaldi episode to date was the Robin Hood one and even that was average rather than bad.

          • bubcus

            Kill the Moon was nearly Kill the Franchise for me.

          • Matthew Hewitt

            On what basis, though? As a piece of television it works on most levels, which is more than I could say for at least a dozen other modern Doctor Who stories. I still maintain that had the creature been a threat that needed vanquishing in the traditional manner, nobody would have batted an eyelid. And Doctor Who isn’t a ‘Franchise’.

  • Luigi Iannelli

    Guess i have to leave all my expectations to see a cgi redesign skarasen,though…