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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Doctor Who blogging: “The Zygon Invasion”


[previous: “The Woman Who Lived”]

warning: spoilers!

See? This is what happens. Just when I’ve lost almost all hope for my show — this show that has been so important to me for so long — we get an episode like this one. “The Zygon Invasion” is incredibly good science fiction storytelling. Incredibly good Doctor Who. It’s got a sense of the show’s and the characters’ long history without being pedantic or obvious about it. It’s got global scope, which is pretty key for a story about aliens who want to take over the planet (the New Mexico stuff was actually shot in the Canary Islands, but still: it didn’t look like Wales). It’s got genuinely surprising twists. It’s clever — and, more importantly, truly SFnal — in its retconning (how is a dead character still alive? there were actually two of her!). Unlike the show’s recent sense of humor, it’s funny without being goofy. Like how this:


clearly seemed to be setting up the Doctor to have wrongly targeted a couple of cute little girls for a Time Lord scolding… except he wasn’t wrong, and they really were Zygon leaders. And they put him in his place.

In some bits, it’s more than one of those things at the same time: When Kate tells “Clara,” “There was an attempted Zygon invasion before, ’70s, ’80s,” that’s not only a reference to an actual story from the classic era (1975’s “Terror of the Zygons”), it’s also a reference to the messed-up time scale those stories operate under (they were produced in the 1970s, but sometimes characters state that they’re living in the 1980s, which becomes a problem when the episodes produced in the 1980s were also set in the 1980s) as well as picking up the fans’ way of retconning a solution to that (we just pretend the ’70s stories were set in the ’70s after all, maybe, or everyone was just confused). That’s meta-funny.

This isn’t a perfect episode, by any means. But its flaws are easily ignorable, because they do not affect the overall impact of the story or because they make up for other flaws… like how, if Clara had been a consistent character across her tenure on the series, we might have caught on instantly that she had been replaced by a Zygon. That doesn’t excuse how Clara has been written all along, but it did at least render that twist a real surprise.

What makes this episode work so well in the larger sense is how smartly and with such contemporary awareness it’s written. This is a fresh take on the idea of “alien invasion,” not just for Doctor Who but almost for all televisual SF: the big bad aliens aren’t all of one ideological block… which becomes really important when in comes the unspoken undercurrent that this is often a distinction that we humans fail to grant even to other blocks of humans. And that’s because here, the Zygons’ settlement and assimilation into Earth — mostly U.K. — culture is a metaphor for immigration… and in particular, for the U.K., a metaphor for the immigration and assimilation of Muslims. Not that there haven’t been non-Anglo Muslims living in the U.K. since forever, of course, but it’s been extra hot-button since 9/11 and the U.K.’s alliance with the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the subsequent upheaval in the Middle East. It’s been a huge news story and overall general worry recently in the U.K., how many young Muslims who have grown up in the U.K. have decided to go off to Syria and fight for ISIS. This episode confronts that directly with its “radicalization” of the “younger brood” of Zygons who do not want to have to hide their identities and don’t want to assimilate. It’s difficult not to have some sympathy with their panic and paranoia as they worry about what will happen once humans discover who they really are. Obviously, these radicalized Zygons are doing bad things, but the Doctor’s insistence on talking rather than violence is clearly not only the best way forward here, but also a startling bit of political commentary on how badly the real world has dealt with similar situations.

Now we wait and see whether humanity takes the Doctor’s advice and tries to communicate with the radical Zygons, or whether it’s bomb away… which will surely only make things even worse.

I’m actually looking forward to seeing how this is resolved, and how well the metaphor holds. But whatever happens, this episode alone will remain a high point for the show in recent years.

Random thoughts on “The Zygon Invasion”:

• Oh, Osgood, really?


The question marks? Gosh, she’s a really big fan of the Doctor. Even the Doctor himself is now appalled by that.

• Ah, so Osgood is a “hybrid,” is she? Is she part of that Time Lord prophecy?

• Every single significant speaking role here — apart from the Doctor, and unless we also count the soldier who refuses to fire on his “mom” — is played by a woman:



Also including Osgood and the little girls, too, of course.

That is so amazing. So. Amazing.

• Great quotes:

“Isn’t there a solution that doesn’t involve bombing everyone?… You start bombing them, you’ll radicalize the lot.” –the Doctor

“This is your country. Protect it from the scary monsters. And also from the Zygons.” –the Doctor to Clara and Jac

[next: “The Zygon Inversion”]

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