‘Doctor Who’ Review: ‘The Zygon Inversion’ Is Peter Capaldi’s Finest Hour as The Doctor
Recap and review of Doctor Who – Series 9 Episode 8 – The Zygon Inversion:
Peter Capaldi is making his stamp on Doctor Who, shaking off a division eighth series and really hitting his stride in the ninth. But “The Zygon Inversion” represents the pinnacle of his portrayal of The Doctor so far. In many ways, this is his finest hour as The Doctor, as Capaldi’s performance reaches back into The Doctor’s history and brings back the pathos of a man who’s seen countless horrors, and won’t let those horrors manifest again. Not on his watch.
Naturally, the show had a bit of a tall order following up the fun, sci-fi horror trappings of the first part of this two-parter. “The Zygon Invasion” was a campy good time, and which is partially why an episode like this was such a risk. “The Zygon Inversion” marked a drastically altered tone, away from the spirit of adventure and chaos, and more towards pathos and emotional anguish. It’d be jarring if it weren’t so compelling. I mean, yeah, the first half of the episode isn’t particularly great or anything, but I thought it showed us a couple of things that helped the overall depiction of the respective characters: 1) Clara (Jenna Coleman) is shown to be clever and resourceful when she discovers that she can manipulate Bonnie from the pod, essentially controlling the Zygon imposter’s body from afar. 2) Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) is as firm about her identity here as she was last week, noting that it really doesn’t matter if she’s the Zygon or the human Osgood. She’s the peace itself, only writ small. Her ideal is a world in which people don’t ask that question anymore, because, ideally, they don’t care about the answer. It’s almost a parallel to the LGBT movement, with the goal that sexual orientation stops mattering when faced with the opportunity to treat everyone as equals. It’s all very engaging stuff to explore, and it dovetailed into a second half that was arguably among the strongest of the season so far.
The story of the episode centers around the mystery of the Osgood Box. It’s apparently capable of ending the conflict between humans and Zygons, but Bonnie wants to know how. She assumes the Osgood Box is so named because only Osgood can access it. However, in a wonderful twist, we learn that the real reason for its name is that there are two identical versions of the boxes, not unlike the two Osgoods. As The Doctor explains, the boxes themselves are a microcosm for war. Within the box are two buttons labeled “Truth” and “Consequences”. The red box, designated for humanity, will either release a gas that kills all Zygons, or it will detonate a nuclear bomb below London, killing everyone in the city. The blue box, designated for the Zygons, will either reveal their true form to the world (thus accomplishing Bonnie’s goal of creating a worldwide panic) or cause the Zygons to lose their ability to transform, thus locking them in their human bodies forever. After a while, it becomes apparent that nothing is in either box. But that doesn’t really matter, because the boxes still accomplish the goal of ending (or, rather, preventing) the war and reestablishing the ceasefire between humans and Zygons. And it’s all owed to a particularly powerful speech on the part of The Doctor.
The Doctor knows the toll that war can take: nevermind when he believed he’d erased his entire species from existence, or the time Clara stopped him from making that choice again, there’s also the time he nearly destroyed the Daleks in their figurative cradle, as the Fourth Doctor nearly exterminated their race in “Genesis of the Daleks”. Here, The Doctor references the countless he’s killed, and how their screams still haunt him to this day. And, in a stirring parable for modern warfare, he notes that the people doing the decision-making never seem to realize, ahead of time, just what kind of death and destruction their choices will cause. The Doctor compares Bonnie to a petulant child who doesn’t know what she wants, and he’s ultimately right. She’s more in love with the idea of revolution than with the pragmatics of what comes after. By the same token, Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), the decider for the human side of the equation, seems uncharacteristically vindictive in her eagerness to take down the Zygons and potentially doom humanity. Sure, it’ll be a pretty one-sided war, since humans outnumber the Zygons by several billion, but the fact of the matter is that even one-sided wars cause untold chaos and tragedy.
“You have no idea who’s going to die! You don’t know whose children are going to scraem and burn! How many hearts will be broken. How many lives shattered! How much blood will spill until everyone does what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning — SIT DOWN AND TALK!”
He’s essentially cutting out the horrific middleman of warfare, and getting right to the peace treaty. And in making the argument, Capaldi delivers his most passionate performance. Even when he’s not roaring his condemnations and pleas, you can still see the pain fiercely emblazoned upon his eyes. This is a man who will stop at nothing to make sure no other race experiences the type of wars he’s experienced. This is a man who will do whatever it takes for peace.
“You call this a war? This funny little thing? This is not a war! I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know! I did worse things than you could ever imagine! And when I close my eyes, I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count! And you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight. Until it burns your hand. And you say this, ‘No one else will EVER have to live like this! No one else will ever have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!'”
Ultimately, The Doctor’s argument comes down to simple forgiveness. “The only way any one can live in peace is if they’re prepared to forgive,” he tells Bonnie, before poignantly forgiving her for everything she’s done, in what might be the most poignant moment of this season so far. It’s a turning point for Bonnie, who realizes now that she’s capable of wiping the slate clean, that her revolution isn’t worth losing whatever soul she has. One of the ongoing themes of this season has been that life is precious. ALL life. Whether mortal humans, immortal Viking girls, Zygons, Daleks, or seemingly-doomed scientists at the bottom of the ocean. Life is worth preserving. Capaldi hammers that point home with this speech, which is a setpiece in itself. It’s almost as if The Doctor is directly chiding us, trying to teach us a lesson, to see the futility of war, and to embrace reason, acceptance, and forgiveness. It’s a towering moment from a man who is fast becoming one of the finest Doctors we could have asked for (although time will tell, ironically, where he fits into the overall rankings, I suppose. But he’s really been on a roll this season, and I think Capaldi could be one of the best Doctors of the modern era by the end of his run).
I would be remiss if I also didn’t single out Coleman, who does a wonderful job distinguishing the identical Claras and giving them both distinctive, unique portrayals. We can see the confidence and certainty in our Clara when she’s teasing Bonnie from inside the pod. And we can see the anger, the hatred, and the fear in Bonnie’s eyes throughout. She wants the Zygons to be free from what she perceives to be their subjugation, and feels it is her duty to be their liberator, whether other Zygons want it or not. When The Doctor’s speech finally gets through to her, we see the change in her personality simply through her expressive eyes, and the way her body language subtly shifts from defensiveness to vulnerability. It’s a wonderful performance, and a great cap on the Bonnie character, who ultimately decides to defend the human-Zygon peace by adopting the identity of the second Osgood.
The story is wrapped up in a neat little bow, and I actually like that this is a story we could potentially come back to, checking in on the peace between the two races, and how it’s helped interspecies politics on Earth. If nothing else, I doubt this is the last we’ll see of the Osgoods. But even if we don’t come back to this story, I feel the overall narrative of the season is stronger for having had it. “The Zygon Inversion” is classic Doctor Who, and it’s anchored by a terrific performance from its two leads. Ultimately, even without the whimsical sense of adventure, this was more than enough to make for a great Doctor Who story.
But what did you think of Doctor Who, “The Zygon Inversion”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Doctor Who, read our review of last week’s terrific “The Zygon Invasion”!