[This is a review of Doctor Who season 9, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
Science fiction is certainly one of the best genres from which present-day concerns can be addressed in a way that makes them palatable and understandable. Because it can make a distinct correlation and still move beyond the confines of the reader or viewer's reality, it is a storytelling method that often eschews the need for pontification or the tendency to make surface-level observations that state the obvious nature of a problem without having any insight into the issue beyond "it's bad".
Exploring concepts from the threat of nuclear annihilation to racism to cultural, class, and gender inequality, and more, science fiction can find entertainment in its exploration of an idea and still be challenging in how it presents said examination. Mostly, though, the genre succeeds when it does so without forgetting the goal of storytelling is to move beyond a mere statement of the facts and to offer a discernable level of understanding and empathy. And so, it's no surprise, then, that one of the biggest science fiction television shows in the world would try its hand at a story with surprisingly current issues at its core.
And yet, despite its status as perhaps the preeminent science fiction series on television, Doctor Who isn't really known for tackling current events in such deliberate fashion. That's not to say the series never has; it's just that such topical issues are often buried a little more beneath the surface than they are in 'The Zygon Invasion,' which has its fingers on several hot buttons; namely, ISIS, the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration, and the war on terror.
The episode, written by Peter Harness – who delivered last season's 'Kill the Moon' and every episode of the delightful 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell' miniseries from earlier this year – equates Earth's tenuous peace with the Zygons with the abovementioned issues. Early on, the hour easily draws a line from current events to a surreptitious invasion by the polyp-y villains, erecting the scaffolding upon which the episode will explore the moral compromises of the war on terror and the difficulty of fighting an enemy that often conceals itself within the population.
It is obvious without being too obvious, which is a difficult line to walk, regardless the advantages of working within the realm of speculative fiction. And even when 'The Zygon Invasion' stumbles, splitting the Doctor from Clara, and sending Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) off to the US to see what's going on in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, it still manages to find a compelling thread in the mystery of the pending invasion. More interesting, however, is the question of what is an appropriate response to said invasion, from not only the Doctor but also the military, who is, in this particular instance, quick to send in the drones on a bombing campaign.
While the Doctor is off in search of the surviving Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) – the other one having been killed by Missy late last season – and the apparent source of the rebellious faction of Zygon radicals, the episode makes its most out-and-out comment on current day conflicts by playing with the Zygon's ability to assume other forms, thereby putting a human face on enemy combatants who would otherwise be seen as alien. This is maybe the episode's most successful attempt to make a deeper point about the goings-on in the Middle East and in Syria, commenting on the tendency to dehumanize both enemy combatants and civilian casualties, while also pointing out the inherent dangers for those charged with confronting said conflict head on.
Much of what 'The Zygon Invasion' alludes to is so unconcealed it's often difficult to overlook the fact these elements are really just there to strengthen a run-of-the-mill alien invasion story, and give it a foothold in something more concrete than simple global domination. And yet, the blatancy of the content will likely resonate on many different levels, depending on how much or how little the viewer wants to believe Doctor Who has something to say on real-world situations. And therein lies the true benefit of using speculative fiction as a sounding board: it acts a filter for discussion on current events rather than a bullhorn through which one solely bellows facts.
Still, the episode falls victim to the same thing so many Doctor Who episodes this season have: the hour is all build-up to a cliffhanger to be resolved the following week. While this method of storytelling allows for a larger canvas on which to paint its narratives, the series hasn't quite figured out how to make the first hour feel like a full episode and also offer the viewer incentive to tune in next week. Although there have been exceptions, like 'The Girl Who Died' and 'The Woman Who Lived,' the season has been filled with too many installments that rely entirely on their second half to fulfill the requirements of being an episode.
That isn't to say there aren't intriguing elements on display. The episode does offer a welcomed level of nuanced with regard to the Zygons, demonstrating the danger of a radicalized faction casting a pernicious shadow over an entire culture. Moreover, there is the question of which Osgood is the surviving Osgood, as she refuses to answer the Doctor's inquiry of what species she began life as. Then, of course, there is the twist that Clara was replaced by a Zygon hell bent on taking the Doctor out of the equation. As far as twists go, it's handled fairly well, with only a few hints becoming more obvious in hindsight. But at the same time, the twist has little bearing on the episode itself. Instead, the moment it is revealed Clara is an imposter, it becomes clear next week's plot is being revealed as well.
Despite the issues that come from it being an obvious two-parter, 'The Zygon Invasion' at least works as another solid demonstration of how speculative fiction can successfully use a discussion of present-day events to ground a much more fantastical storyline.
Doctor Who continues next Saturday with 'The Zygon Inversion' @9pm on BBC America. Check out a preview below:
Photos: BBC Worldwide Limited