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

If you grew up in the 1970s, at the time of (or possibly earlier than) the last Zygon incursion, there was one thing you knew Doctor Who would deliver every week, and that was body horror.

The post-2005 series has tended to shy away from this to the same extent (aside from Victor Meldrew growing a gas mask out of his face), but it’s back, big time, on Saturday night, in a belter of a sequence that delivers old-style scares alongside new-style sympathy for the alien.

It’s a familiar setting too – a return to locations from 2007’s ‘The Sound of Drums’, as ‘The Zygon Inversion’ chooses to narrow its focus to what passes in Wales for London.

There’s none of the globe-trotting of ‘The Zygon Invasion’ and no Rebecca Front either. Instead, the episode draws on the domestic world-building of the Russell T Davies era to deliver something fearful, uncanny and, above all, modern.

Doctor Who The Zygon Inversion Kate (JEMMA REDGRAVE)

For a self-confessed fan of little shops, we reckon this is the first time the Doctor has actually set foot in a convenience store since Len and Harvey’s grocers in ‘Survival’ – and no, it surely cannot be a spoiler to mention that he’s survived. The resolution to last week’s cliffhanger is clever and well-earned, even if, in one key respect, it echoes a sequence from one of Steven Moffat’s most celebrated stories.

You’ll already know from last week that key to the success of all this is Jenna Coleman as Zygon duplicate, Bonnie. In this episode – and we’re choosing our words delicately here – there are times when both Clara and Bonnie appear in the same scene, and here the success of Jenna’s characterisation of ‘Evil Clara’ is most apparent.

Head coolly tilted, Blackpool accent replaced by something closer to Received Pronunciation, she rarely blinks…

There have been many Doctor Who stories, over the years, that have seen companions possessed, cloned or encountering doubles; but here, Bonnie isn’t just a plot device – she is the drama…

Doctor Who The Zygon Inversion Clara Jenna Coleman

It would be the performance of the episode were it not for one ten-minute sequence – the episode’s pivotal scene, and certain to be its most celebrated – in which Capaldi is gifted the kind of material that elevates Doctor Who from rompy melodrama to television with something to say.

There is one line of dialogue, just one, where the visual metaphor feels laboured; but you are allowed such moments when you’re raising big questions in a way that seeks to be relevant and accessible to all members of the audience – and who better to take the hands of the child audience, guiding them through the big stuff, than Capaldi’s wise, incandescent Doctor?

In this scene, he goes from being Doctor Disco to Dad of the Universe, and not in a way that is cheaply sentimental. ‘The Zygon Inversion’ earns its platform from which to moralise, and it has no greater moral advocate than Capaldi’s Doctor.

Doctor Who The Zygon Inversion Peter Capaldi Twelfth

In this, as in so much else in the episode, what strikes you is how assured it all is. One gag about the Doctor’s name is handled more deftly than the whole of the ‘Doctor Who? Doctor Whooo?’ story arc of 2011-2013, and in the Zygons, we have a monster that, more completely than any we can think of, succeed in being both creatures of menace and creatures of pity.

The result is a concluding episode which, not for the first time this season, exceeds the opening instalment. Readers of my previews will know that I haven’t unequivocally loved every story this year – although I have loved most – but this two-parter is without doubt a palpable hit.

5star

Airs at 8pm on Saturday 7 November 2015 on BBC One.

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  • Chloe

    This is what I want to hear!! Sounds much better than last weeks- though I mostly enjoyed it- and some good material for Jenna to make sure people will miss her. Excited by Capaldi’s ‘doctor moment’ too.. Seems like one hell of an episode!

  • Edward Delingford

    Hardly surprising this is a five star rated episode. It’s already being talked about in hushed tones by reviewers and Who insiders, particularly around scenes with Capaldi which are supposedly going to be something Who fans will still be talking about in years to come with great reverence. I am guessing this is the 10 minute bravura scene alluded to in this review.
    Last week was such a strikingly mature take on a hot button issue surrounded by a brilliantly realised and filmed adventure episode recalling the hey day of Jon Pertwee. I love it when this show takes these kinds of chances and having Peter there to lend real authenticity and authority helps sell the message.
    What an amazing series this has been. With this one, eight diverse yet all highly successful episodes. No run in the show has ever been as great and we still have three guaranteed classics (the two part Moffat penned finale and the Sarah Dollard episode which is meant to be the humdinger) and Mark Gatiss, although I still believe that given the overall excellence of this year, he might just surprise us all. Oh and of course River and 12 snarking to their hearts’ delight at Christmas. What a sensational year it’s been for Who – simply the best thing anywhere on television.

    • Margarethe

      Well Edward, guess what. The first previews of Sleep No More are coming in and apparently it’s gobsmackingly great! I agree with you that given how superb this entire series has been, it would be likely Gatiss would get it right this time. After all he has been working on this for years. I’ve always admired Gatiss and think Crimson Horror was the best of series 7, so I am not surprised he’s finally delivered the masterpiece he’s always had in him. Sounds as though this one is going toIt’s be the best of series, so I am now really excited to see it.

      Yep, looks as though we are going to have that elusive perfect series! Looking forward so much to the Gatiss haters having to eat their words.

      • Daniel O’Neill

        Any links to these previews of Sleep No More?

        • I don’t know what Margarethe is referring to. I’ve looked and can’t find anything. The closest I could find is the promotional statement from Steven Moffat “It wasn’t possible to do such an episode ten years ago, when the show came back, and Mark [Gatiss] has been rewriting it over and over again to make it perfect.”

          • Margarethe

            Twitter accounts which I follow from journos.

          • Cryer

            When Capaldi was asked what his favourite monsters from this series were he said the ones from Gatiss’ episode but he was told he couldn’t name them or say anything more about them….

    • Cryer

      I would say it still isn’t quite up there with seasons 12 and 14 for me (at least it is a long way from the heights reached by those seasons) but I agree that it has been pretty fantastic so far 🙂

      • Leo Trent

        Season 12 had Revenge of The Cybermen. Plus Robot and Sontaran Experiment were hardly classics. obviously the remaining stories are terrific.

        • Cryer

          I meant 13 and 14 🙂

  • Last week left a lot of plot threads hanging and I can’t wait to see how Peter Harness is going to bring them all together. Egg-moon was a horrendous misstep but if this reaches even half the high quality of last week then he’ll have redeemed himself of that. Bring on the Zygons for part two!

    • bar

      You mean, you’re prepared to let Zygons be Z –
      no, I can’t bring myself to say it!

      • [I’m so sick of that damn pun]

  • John McJohnson

    If the Daleks were intended to be like the Nazis and the Zygons are now ISIS what does that make other Who villains like Cybermen and the Master?
    Just something to think about.

    • Cryer

      Don’t Cybermen kinda represent the fear of us becoming too reliant upon technology? That’s what I always thought.

      • Anonymous~

        I was in a discussion yesterday and it occurred to me that Cybermen are essentially the Christian (mainly, but other religious groups also) answer to the argument from evil and suffering. The responses from theists regarding evil are usually that we need free will and without pain there would be no joy.

        Cybermen are drained of emotion and controlled without free will. It’s less of a direct take on what Cybermen are but that’s what I’ll think now. I’d rather not, being an atheist, but it makes sense at least to me.

  • timmy

    I notice Mr Stewart’s had two previews now where he hasn’t tried to thump the ‘Clara’s getting ruthless’ drum which has never fit before, no matter how he tried. Maybe Bonnie has satisfied this need for it he seems to have.

  • bar

    Ok, I’m not wishing my life away – I have too much to do between now and Saturday, but can it be saturday please?
    Maybe my memory’s off, but the 80’s had its fair share of body-horror too – Revelation of the Daleks, vengeance on varos, Frontios, even spectrox poisoning.

    Wise, incandescent, Capaldi. three words which should be followed by the word Bafta. Or maybe they’re saving that for the solo ep.

    • Cryer

      Don’t forget Resurrection of the Daleks, which had people’s faces melting and their fingers falling off as they said “Help me… Help me!”……. that kinda traumatised me as a child…

      • bar

        At least it didn’t ‘stop being fun for you’!

        Seriously though, with CGI and modern sfx, I wonder if kids really do get scared these days the way we did, or are they all so used to how it’s done that it loses any impact at the time, let alone lingering in the memory.

        • Cryer

          Well I was only born in the 90s (got into Doctor Who through VHS tapes) so I did have lots of CGI and stuff as a child. The Star Wars and Lord of the Rings films, video games… etc. But it was classic Doctor Who that I loved the most and was really obsessed with 🙂

          • bar

            It’s a good obsession to have, You have chosen… wisely.

    • Don’t forget those crushed hands from the otherwise-forgettable Attack Of The Cybermen.

    • Edward Delingford

      Think his BAFTA nomination had already been assured by his performances to date and I assumed that it would be the solo effort that would ensure his win next year but it looks as though next week will be the one to guarantee that. Den of Geek are practically falling down kissing Capaldi’s feet in reverence as to the quality of his performance and Doctor Who Online have given this episodes full marks and also single out Capaldi’s astounding performance. I’m a sucker (ha!) for great acting and each week I am just floored by how good Capaldi is. Without sounding as though I am insulting the show, what he is doing each week is really much much too good for a little family show on a Saturday night.

    • Lemmy Koopa

      Or the we-definitely-did-not-rip-this-from-Indiana-Jones scene in Dragonfire.

  • Leo Trent

    As a blog reviewer also allowed previews due to my voluntary work, I found this the weaker of the two halves myself. Still a lot to enjoy and admire.