How ironic that “The Zygon Invasion” should be broadcast in the same week that Tony Blair issued an apology for the nature of Britain’s participation in the Iraq War in 2003. The former British Prime Minister has apologised for the fact — blindingly obvious in early 2003, as now — that the intelligence used to justify the war was wrong, and also for the consequences of Saddam Hussein’s removal: a failed state and a region horribly destabilised by the rise of extremism. One suspects we may have to wait rather longer for an apology for his riding roughshod over the British public, who protested by the millions in London and elsewhere in early 2003 against going to war. As Blair implied, it is as a direct consequence of the events of 2003 that today’s distressingly commonplace spectacle of hostage videos disseminated by terrorist groups obtains. The symbolism, then, of seeing dear old Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) sitting at a desk, reading from a script, flanked by two massive Zygons with a backdrop of a black flag could not have been any clearer.
But first, the news. “The Zygon Invasion” opens with a hefty infodump, recounting the backstory to the Zygon arrival on Earth in “The Day of the Doctor” (2013), and their continued presence thanks to a peace treaty that set out the shape-shifters’ rights to take on human form and live in peaceful co-existence with homo sapiens. Which would be fine, apart from the fact that a group of Zygons has split away from the whole and is intent on revolution.
Doctor Who has a long history of offering oblique commentaries on the political developments of the time. “The Monster of Peladon” (1972) was a thinly veiled satire on the imminent entry of the United Kingdom into what later became known as the European Union. “Paradise Towers” (1987) and “The Happiness Patrol” (1988) saw Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor battling social unrest in locales that alluded — not always very subtly — to the free market liberalism and I’m-all-right-Jack social values introduced to British society during the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.
The character of Harriet Jones, unexpectedly elevated from backbench MP to Prime Minister during the post-2005 series, can be read either as a grotesque warmongering parody of Tony Blair (at one point, she orders the destruction of a retreating alien spaceship) or Churchillian bulwark against hordes of invading Daleks, depending on which episode you watch and who you listen to. (Those interested in such things should check out the excellent Politics and Law of Doctor Who blog, run by Prof. Danny Nicol of the University of Westminster, which covers many of the above examples in more detail.)
“The Zygon Invasion” sails once more into these waters, with markedly less success. By now, we expect UNIT — once upon a time a morally upstanding global police force, a staple of the Troughton, Pertwee and Baker eras — to be, well, a bit rubbish. But “The Zygon Invasion” takes their ineptness to new levels. Not only do senior officials seem unable to comprehend that bombing the living daylights out of some Zygons may make other Zygons just a little bit hacked off, the infantry they put on the ground have all the intelligence of blocks of wood. Meeting what purports to be his mother during a UNIT raid on the Zygon base, the lead soldier — having already worked out that he is addressing a Zygon in disguise — nonetheless puts down his gun and walks to his doom, as do the rest of his squad members, ignoring a superior’s order in the process. Disbelief, hitherto precariously suspended, plummeted to Earth with a sickening thud, and there it stayed.
There was also a curious moral ambiguity about this episode. It was exceptionally disappointing, for example, that UNIT’s use of military drones for the targeted killing of the Zygons was presented uncritically. Use of these weapons, remember, are currently the subject of a protracted debate at the highest levels of society. The morality of arranging the deaths of tens or even hundreds of people while sitting in front of a computer screen thousands of miles from the battlefield raises deeply troubling questions, to say nothing of the killing of civilians that has often accompanied the targeting of a handful (or even one or two) combatants, and their use in areas where no armed conflict may exist. It’s for reasons such as these that 45 former US military personnel issued an open letter in June this year, speaking against the use of armed drones and calling on their operators to refuse to fly them.
Does it make sense for UNIT to possess drones? Absolutely; most technologically advanced nations do, and it is in keeping with the organisation’s new-found moral ambiguity. But any number of voices could have spoken out against their presence, starting with the Doctor himself. He does not. It’s a surprising omission, given writer Peter Harness’ preoccupation with exploring the contours of moral issues.
Even more surprisingly, the following line is put into the Doctor’s mouth, just before the UNIT raid: “Try to kill as few of them as possible — I need to have someone to negotiate with.” Really? That’s the only reason lives should be spared? Even given the fact that these are rebels we are dealing with, it is a needlessly callous line, highlighting the Doctor’s oddly wayward moral compass in this episode; only minutes earlier, he brimmed with righteous indignation at the now drearily familiar if-it-moves-kill-it approach UNIT has to its job.
Elsewhere, there are moments of high drama. Jenna Coleman, aware that the end for her character is near, jacks up her performance a notch as Clara. The underground scenes are moodily lit and well shot, although the episode as a whole could have done without the frequent use of Dutch angles. The revelation at the end, followed by a well-observed cliffhanger, brought the proceedings to a close on a high. But the splitting of the action between three locales diffuses rather than reinforces the tension, especially as so little happens to Kate (Jenna Redgrave) on her jaunt to look for Zygons in New Mexico; the other subplot involving Clara is strangely lacking in suspense, even though it contains the episode’s principal revelation. Next week’s conclusion, “The Zygon Inversion”, will tell whether this two-parter will add up to more than the sum of its parts.