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