Television

Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 8 - "The Zygon Inversion"

Craig Owen Jones

In an episode big on dramatic revelations, the biggest was Jenna Coleman’s extraordinary performance as Clara Oswald.


Doctor Who

Airtime: Saturdays, 8:15pm
Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Jemma Redgrave, Ingrid Oliver
Subtitle: Series 9, Episode 8 - "The Zygon Inversion"
Network: BBC
Air date: 2015-11-07
Amazon

After last week’s decidedly uneven "The Zygon Invasion", my hopes were not high for the second in this two-part story; they were further dampened by the discovery that the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) escaped from an aeroplane all set to be blown up by a missile last week by the simple expedient of leaping out of it. From then on, however, "The Zygon Inversion" never failed to impress, delivering a quite exceptional conclusion to this story of alien invasion and stolen identities.

In an episode big on dramatic revelations, however, the biggest -- how sad that it should be such a revelation -- was Jenna Coleman’s extraordinary performance as Clara Oswald.

It feels like it has taken three years for Clara to become the companion Doctor Who fans hoped she would be. When she was introduced to our screens in "Asylum of the Daleks", the opener to Matt Smith’s final season as the Doctor, some promising character notes were in evidence: strong-willed, resourceful, and thoughtful; she seemed like a breath of fresh air after the sometimes cloying melodrama of Amy Pond’s (Karen Gillan) tenure as companion. However, before long it became clear that there was little else behind that persona. Last season, during which we paid multiple visits to Clara’s workplace, the Coal Hill School, rectified matters a little, but on the whole the character has felt undercooked, lacking in depth, and poorly written.

Coleman’s performance has likewise varied. Always competent, at her best she has brought a certain spunkiness and authority to the role, effectively differentiating Clara from her predecessors. At her worst, however, she has delivered performances that, although not exactly phoned in, have been noticeably lacking in roundedness, based around reactions to the moment rather than the situation. A lot of this has to do with the wretched nature of some of the material she has been lumbered with: episodes such as "The Rings of Akhaten" (2013), in which Clara rose a "space-bike" in a sequence unlikely to have excited even the most biddable young viewer, hardly inspired confidence, and the inexcusably inconsistent character development would take the wind from any actor’s sails. When on song, however, Coleman’s chemistry with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor has quietly served to anchor his time in the role.

In "The Zygon Inversion", Coleman shines. Clara’s Zygon doppelganger Bonnie is the focus of the first half of the episode, holding Clara as a sort of psychic hostage. Bonnie gets more than she bargained for, though, as Clara fights back, calling her bluff with the sort of brazen presumption that is normally the preserve of the Doctor. Coleman’s portrayal of Clara here is compelling enough, but the really impressive work comes in the form of her performance as Bonnie. Subtle differences in body language and delivery lend the character malice, with Coleman’s performance eerily resembling that of Kristanna Loken as the Terminatrix in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003).

In the meantime, audition sessions for the role of replacement to Clara continue. The latest candidate is Osgood (Ingrid Oliver), first introduced to our screens in "The Day Of The Doctor" (2013) and seemingly killed off in last season’s "Death In Heaven". Here she exudes a newfound confidence, a consequence of her link with a Zygon. Indeed, who is it that appears on screen: a Zygon or a human? Writers Steven Moffat and Peter Harness wisely embrace the ambiguity; indeed, they amass a great big pile of it, squirrel-like, and bury it for safe-keeping against the plot of later, as-yet unwritten episodes. Such is life in Doctor Who’s boxset era.

The non sequiturs of last week’s installment were glossed over as the episode reached its conclusion, the tensest of standoffs between UNIT supremo Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jenna Redgrave) and Bonnie. Given Doctor Who’s frequent cleaving to sexist characterisations in its early days, it was refreshing to see women (all right, a woman and a Zygon in female human form) as the two major players. One or two plot twists were somewhat telegraphed, but the vast majority of the episode was spent in breathless wonder at the drama unfolding on the screen.

The references to the show’s past -- providing flashes of colour for the average viewer, and lending the episode textural depth for the fan -- were delightful and effortless. When the words "five rounds rapid" left Redgrave’s mouth -- the usual order of her father, the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), to his soldiers when faced with alien enemies during his stint on the show in the 1970s -- my heart skipped a beat. It felt like a homecoming for a character whose hawkishness has so distinguished her from the essentially defensive posture of her predecessors. Add to Redgrave, Coleman, and Oliver’s standout performances some neat direction from Daniel Nettheim, and the whole added up to indispensable viewing.

There remains the increasingly pressing question of Clara’ fate. In the end, Osgood turned down an invite to accompany the Doctor on his future travels, so the position of future companion remains unfilled. One gets the impression that, perhaps, the decision has not yet been made: showrunner Steven Moffat is nothing if not one renowned for keeping his options open. Maisie Williams' "Me", introduced earlier in the season, may yet prevail, but Ingrid Oliver’s knockout performance here puts her squarely in the mix. Even if she remains a character in the periphery of the show, this episode will surely stand for years to come as a highlight of the Capaldi era, and a reminder that, after ten years on our screens, the new era of Doctor Who is still capable of producing drama of the highest quality.

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