Sunday, November 1, 2015

Defy The Paradigm, Fall To It In "The Zygon Invasion!"

The Good: Good performances, Good set-up
The Bad: Character interpretations, Plot turns typical
The Basics: "The Zygon Invasion" starts with so much potential before becoming just another Doctor Who invasion story.

Often, before I sit down to review something that is part of a long-running series, I find myself writing about where the work is before specific component I am reviewing. So, when I sit to write a review of something like an episode of Star Trek or something from the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Doctor Who, I try to purge myself first of an preconceptions I might have in advance. In the case of Doctor Who the show has hit something of a conceptual wall for me. Before watching the episode entitled "The Zygon Invasion," I started to think about how many episodes the series has done devoted to attacks on Earth and invasions.

Seriously, writers and producers of Doctor Who, I get that you want to make the show something people care about and it's hard to write shows that make people care about other worlds more than their homeworld - especially when viewers have the sense that they'll never see a specific alien planet again - but Doctor Who invasion storylines are becoming incredibly tired. Every couple weeks an alien race or evil mastermind invades Earth and tries to take it over only to be thwarted by The Doctor and whatever Companion he has at the time. But here are the things about that: 1. There are billions of habitable planets in the known universe; at some point all of these idiotic Doctor Who villains have got to hear about The Doctor saving Earth and figure "there are easier places to conquer than that place where we and everybody else fails every single time!," and 2. In the quest to make an "alien invasion of the week" storyline work, the writers have gotten particularly lazy of late in Doctor Who, failing to make a compelling reason for why the aliens have to have Earth specifically. Say what you will about "Partners In Crime," but he episode made sense - the Adipose needed a nursery planet filled with fat, so they made a subtle invasion to spawn the next generation.

"The Zygon Invasion," then, is burdened from the start with making the viewer care outside the novelty of the return of beloved characters Osgood - who was killed off in "Death In Heaven" (reviewed here!) - and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart. The episode heavily references the 50th Anniversary Special "The Day Of The Doctor" and it is virtually impossible to discuss "The Zygon Invasion" without some references to that. The name is something of a misnomer; the episode focuses on the consequences of attempting a peaceful resettlement on Earth for the alien Zygons and a splinter faction that breaks the peace. It makes for a more compelling story than the average alien invasion. . . at least at the outset.

After a recall of the peace treaty worked out with the Zygons with the help of the three Doctors, Osgood and the duplicate of Osgood makes a video recording to detail elements of the treaty should the peace break. As part of the treaty, twenty million Zygons were allowed to settle on Earth and take human form on the condition that they live out their lives in peace. The Osgoods mention a device left by The Doctor as a failsafe should the peace ever be broken and it is clear that both the Zygons and humans are worried about the actions of lone rogues who might make things worse for the rest of the world. Flashing to the present, Osgood flees a Zygon attack long enough to contact The Doctor and let him know the nightmare scenario has begun. The Doctor stakes out the Zygon leaders on Earth before finding out that they intend to deal with the rogue elements on their own. Moments later, the Zygon rogues kidnap the Zygons who are in human form and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart of U.N.I.T. learns that Osgood has been captured and that the identities and locations of the twenty million Zygons on Earth have been exposed.

Clara and The Doctor visit the Zygon polyp on Earth when the Zygons contact U.N.I.T. With the Zygon High Command murdered, the leaders of the splinter group demand that the Zygons on Earth be allowed to live in the open. While The Doctor travels to the U.N.I.T. base in Turmezistan, Clara discovers a Zygon base underneath her apartment complex. In Turmezistan, U.N.I.T. troops encounter people they recognize who claim to be hostages who have been replaced by Zygons back in the U.K. The Doctor finds Osgood there and learns the new rules for how the Zygons are able to operate on Earth (they no longer need to keep the humans they replicate alive after they get all their backstory from them). Working on the three fronts, The Doctor and his associates attempt to stop a full Zygon conquest of Earth.

"The Zygon Invasion" manages to turn the standard invasion story on its head pretty effectively until near the end. The invasion has already happened and the story is much more involved with characters wrestling with the insidious nature of shapeshifters living on Earth. The Zygons are presented as a diverse race in "The Zygon Invasion," which is not something Doctor Who frequently does. Most of the alien races The Doctor encounters are either individuals or treated as representative of their entire race. There is a political schism in the Zygons that reads as very realistic in "The Zygon Invasion."

Unfortunately, "The Zygon Invasion" degenerates into exactly what its potential seeks to undermine. The Zygons become yet another alien invasion force without distinction or a unique characterization. Their "need" for Earth is not explored in any compelling way and the show degenerates into a particularly straightforward shapeshifter story.

That said, "The Zygon Invasion" makes humans into utter morons all of a sudden. If the aliens in Doctor Who are frequently treated as idiotic for continuing to attack Earth for no specific reason ("The Zygon Invasion" does not make any sort of compelling argument for why the Zygon splinter faction can't or won't just leave Earth for another planet where they can live happily out in the own), the main characters of Doctor Who rather abruptly turn into similar idiots. Kate Lethbridge-Stewart journeys to Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico by herself and The Doctor flies off without any known quantities to Turmezistan. Clara comes closest to being smart by palling around with a U.N.I.T. commander.

Smart shows tend to make a basic protocol for uncovering shapeshifters. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Adversary" (reviewed here!) Dr. Bashir comes up with a blood test for shapeshifters, which allows them a decent initial safeguard. Even that episode falls down a little in that the hunt for a lone shapeshifter has people pairing off. The buddy system is good, but ideal shapeshift protocol would be making a test, confirming humans and sending units of four out (people sleep in pairs with an overlap where all four are awake for eight hours). That's solid tactical thinking, at least for the start of an invasion involving shapeshifters. Doctor Who's U.N.I.T., which is supposed to be a military organization designed to combat alien threats has no clear protocol in "The Zygon Invasion" and thus comes across as ineffective, pointless, and - at its worst - stupid.

All that said, the climax of "The Zygon Invasion" gives viewers some hope for fans of Doctor Who who have been trying to reconcile issues from Peter Capaldi's first season. The episode "Listen" (reviewed here!) created a storytelling knot that Doctor Who fans have been trying to reconcile since "Death In Heaven." Clara and Danny Pink have descendants and his death in "Death In Heaven" has left viewers waiting for the other shoe to drop. Viewers have been waiting for the explanation of how Clara and Danny could have spawned a line that would lead to Orson - waiting for the retcon or the announcement that Clara is pregnant. "The Zygon Invasion" allows viewers the first glimpse of real hope in the idea that a Zygon replicant of Danny Pink was killed and that Danny might be alive in a Zygon containment facility somewhere.

Viewers who are so engaged, though, are likely to be disappointed by "The Zygon Invasion" in that it characterizes Peter Capaldi's version of The Doctor as less-than the David Tennant version of The Doctor. Doctor Who has done replicants, back in "The Sontaran Stratagem" and The Doctor's reaction throughout "The Poison Sky" is troublingly different.

That said, the performances in "The Zygon Invasion" are all good. Ingrid Oliver once again makes Osgood interesting and watchable. Jemma Redgrave returns as Kate, but does not seem nearly as efficient or professional. The character defects are unexplainable given how Redgrave once again slips into the role. Peter Capaldi is fine as The Doctor, but it is Jenna Coleman who has the performance of the episode, though it comes late enough in the episode that it can't be discussed in the review.

Ultimately, the episode is initially engaging before becoming utterly typical, which is a bit of a disappointment for those still sticking with Doctor Who.

For other works with shapeshifters, please check out my reviews of:
"The Search, Part II" - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"Who Is Harrison Wells?" - The Flash
"Colony" - The X-Files

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Ninth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the sophomore season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!


For more Doctor Who reviews, please check out my Doctor Who Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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