There are basically two major types of Doctor Who stories: 1) The Doctor protects the status quo from some outside disruption. 2) The Doctor finds a terrible status quo, and overturns it. But then there are outliers, where the “status quo” is in itself a lot more complicated.

Way back when io9 launched in early 2008, we charted the percentage of “Doctor upsets the status quo” stories, year by year. Among other things, we found that Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were the Doctors most likely to overthrow regimes, and—not surprisingly—the more time the Doctor spent on present-day Earth, the more concerned he was with preserving the existing order.

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But tonight’s episode, “The Zygon Invasion,” is something a bit different. It’s a story in which the “status quo” is really, really weird—even though it ostensibly takes place in present-day Earth. And it’s hard to tell what exactly would constitute a happy resolution of this situation.

In fact, the situation in “Zygon Invasion” is starting to look like a no-win situation, and it’s basically of the Doctor’s making.

Back in “The Day of the Doctor,” the anniversary special, the Doctor handled an impending Zygon invasion of Earth in the middle of dealing with his long-buried trauma from another no-win situation: the Time War. The Doctor was reunited with two of his past selves, including the past Doctor who actually set off the weapon that destroyed the Time Lords and the Daleks. Handling the Zygon problem was just sort of a distraction in the middle of undoing the Doctor’s biggest mistake, but the solution that the Doctors came up with was very much a tribute to lateral thinking.

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The Doctors forced the humans, and the Zygons impersonating them, to negotiate without knowing if they were Zygon or human. (At the time, we referred to this as a sort of Rawlsian “veil of ignorance.”) The point was that there’s always another way—hence the Doctor didn’t have to accept the necessity of committing genocide against his own people as well as the Daleks.

Now, at last, we find out just what those Rawlsian negotiations led to... and it’s pretty radical. Some 20 million Zygons came to live on Earth, disguised as humans, and UNIT and the Zygon High Command have been policing this treaty ever since.

This is sort of an unsustainable situation, because the moment anybody sees what the Zygons actually look like, paranoia will set in. Anybody could be a shapechanging alien with a lethal stinger, and you won’t know until it’s too late.

Pity the Gelth!

Back in the first season of the revamped show, the Doctor seriously considered inviting a whole army of the alien Gelth to come and reanimate dead humans in “The Unquiet Dead.” Rose was appalled by the idea of infesting Victorian England with alien ghosts, because that’s not what happened in the history she knows—but the Doctor insisted that it was all up for grabs, and everything can be changed. It was only when the Gelth turned out to be assholes that the Doctor changed his mind.

So now, the Doctor has engineered another situation that threatens to break the whole map of human history, in the name of justice and fairness.

The Zygons, settling among us, are somewhat like immigrants—a parallel that’s actually highlighted a few times in this episode. And the Doctor seems to believe that just because Earth is “our” world doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have to share it if the need arises. It’s sort of the inverse of the sort of story you usually get with the Silurians and Sea Devils, who actually did “own” this planet before humans appeared.

Anyway, the Zygon peace predictably breaks down—in the small town of Truth and Consquences, NM, a single Zygon child loses control of its form and is spotted, and this turns into an all-out panic. UNIT’s Osgood is caught in the middle of the violence and mayhem (as seen at the start of the episode) and winds up being captured by the Zygons. And when Kate Lethbridge-Stewart visits Truth and Consequences, she discovers that tons of humans have been killed and put into dumpsters, with a Zygon sentry (disguised as a human police officer) marking her out as the next victim.

And soon, this leads to a full-on Zygon uprising, with the younger Zygons turning against their leaders, the Zygon High Command (who look like a pair of schoolgirls) and killing them. The Zygon rebels want to show their true faces, instead of having to hide, and they’re inciting all the Zygons who have assimilated into human society to join them. Yup, they want to let Zygons be Zygons. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

And as Clara and Jac, another UNIT operative, investigate, they discover that the Zygon scheme has advanced way more than anybody realizes. Over the past year, the Zygons have been replacing all the humans in London, until the whole city is basically Zygons. (Does this mean the Danny Pink who was killed was a Zygon? Food for thought.) And in fact, Clara herself is actually a Zygon imposter, who leads Jac and a bunch of UNIT troops into a trap and nearly tricks them into killing the real Clara.

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The Doctor and a UNIT commander go to Turmezistan, where the Zygons have taken over an entire village and turned it into a base of operations. There, they discover the Zygons have gotten a lot better at mindfuckery—they can actually pluck the image of your loved one out of your head, and become that person, without ever needing their actual body to make a copy from. This is how they thwart first an airstrike and then a full ground assault—because nobody is willing to shoot creatures who look just like family members and loved ones.

The Doctor manages to rescue Osgood from Turmezistan, but is unable to save UNIT troops from being slaughered. And when he flies back to England in his “President of the Earth” jet, with Osgood and a Zygon prisoner, Zygon!Clara shows up with a rocket launcher and shoots the plane down.

So again, it’s really hard to imagine a happy ending for this one. One possible outcome is the 20 million Zygons being slaughtered, leaving the human race happy and untouched. Another outcome could be the Zygons getting resettled somewhere else, or forced to “forget” that they’re Zygons permanently and irrevocably. But it’s hard to see how this can end in some way that doesn’t involve upheaval and suffering, because this story is dealing with tricky issues of immigration, colonization, and most of all assimilation. The Zygons have tried and failed to assimilate into human culture, and now it’s all-out war.

A few important details:

What’s in the Osgood Box?

At the start of the episode, Osgood and her Zygon duplicate speak together on a video, and they show off something the Doctor left them, called the “Osgood Box.” This is some kind of safeguard, in case the peace with the Zygons breaks down. But what’s in the box?

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The two Osgoods are a living embodiment of this peace between human and Zygons. One is human and one is Zygon, but nobody knows which is which—and they refuse to say. They’re almost like “hybrids,” as the Doctor points out—bringing back the notion that the Doctor is destined to create some kind of hybrid of two warrior races that will create a huge catastrophe, as mentioned by Davros in the season opener.

But alas, one of the two Osgoods was murdered by Missy in last year’s season finale, so there’s only one left and she’s gone off the deep end somewhat. She fled UNIT and went looking for answers in New Mexico, which is where she was captured by the Zygons.

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The notion that Osgood is half-human and half-Zygon is an interesting one, but it’s also interesting that she can only maintain this ambiguity while appearing completely human.

The Doctor says he admires her, but that he believes the sole remaining Osgood is the human one—because she wouldn’t be able to maintain her Osgood form without access to the original pattern. That’s when Osgood claims the Zygons have upgraded their abilities, and can now assume someone’s form without access to their actual body. (And yet, the Zygons are keeping Clara alive, even though they tell Doctor that she’s dead.)

Harry Sullivan is an Imbecile!

Back in the one and only Zygon story on classic Doctor Who, the Doctor’s sometime companion Harry Sullivan gets captured and duplicated by the Zygons. This apparently leaves him with a bit of a vendetta, because in this episode we find out that Harry has done some experiments and created a lethal gas that causes Zygons to turn inside out. UNIT was keeping this gas stored, just in case... but someone with a TARDIS broke in and stole all of it. (We assume it’s the Doctor, but what if it was Missy?)

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In any case, the lethal anti-Zygon gas is mentioned often enough that it’s probably going to turn out to be important. It could even be inside the Osgood Box.

But no matter what, the Fourth Doctor has been proven right yet again:

What’s going on with Clara?

Yeah, yeah, she’s been replaced by a Zygon. That happens about one-third of the way through the episode, after she realizes her neighbors have been replaced by Zygons and sees them nabbing their still-human child. But something else is going on with Clara.

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But her behavior when she’s ostensibly regular human Clara, is just odd. The Doctor keeps calling her with increasing levels of worry in his voice, and she blows him off. At one point, she has 127 missed calls from “Doctor Disco.” (Later, the Doctor decides to call himself “Doctor Funkenstein.” I approve.)

There’s no explanation of what Clara’s been up to, or why Clara—who had previously been a total adventure junkie who couldn’t wait to hear from the Doctor—was ignoring his calls. Could it have something to do with Ashildr, aka Lady Me, whom the Doctor saw stalking Clara last week? That could be interesting.

After all, nothing would prove Ashildr’s point about the Doctor’s tendency to “fix” problems and then disappear, more than this situation, in which the Doctor engineered a whole alien infiltration and then vanished. Right?


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books.Follow her on Twitter, and email her.