This was another odd episode of Doctor Who, a show which seems to be trying to reinvent itself not through radical change but through stylistic drift. Last year, Doctor Who had some insane experiments, but this year it’s just doing a slew of two-parters about the Doctor stumbling through messes of his own creation.
Spoilers! Lots of spoilers!
This one, “The Zygon Inversion,” is especially strange, even by this year’s standards, because of the thing toward the end where the Doctor suddenly reveals that there have been 15 (!) previous incidents where the ceasefire between humans and Zygons has broken down. That reveal changes the whole nature of what we’ve just been watching, from “unprecedented catastrophe” to “routine maintenance.” (It’s, of course, possible that the Doctor is joking or exaggerating, something he does tend to do.)
Given how much death and devastation we’ve seen in this ceasefire, it’s sort of insane that this is just sort of a regular event that everybody marks in their calendar. “Oh, the ceasefire with the 20 million Zygons has broken down. Must be Tuesday.”
But it’s also fascinating that the Doctor’s go-to solution for restoring the ceasefire is the “Osgood Boxes,” plural, which is basically another crazy mind game. Back in “The Day of the Doctor,” the Zygon ceasefire started with a weird thought experiment (along the lines of John Rawls), and now it’s restored using another, even stranger, one.
This time around, it’s a thought experiment that’s meant to replicate the experience of war, and also to bring the possible outcomes (positive and negative) to the foreground instead of leaving them off in the murky distance. Each party in the conflict, human and Zygon, gets her own Osgood Box, and each box has two buttons: One button gives you exactly what you want, the other gives you the worst possible outcome. And you have no way of knowing which is which.
So for the humans, it’s death to the Zygons courtesy of Harry Sullivan, Genocidal Maniac, or else death to the humans via nuclear bomb. For the Zygons, it’s having all the Zygons trapped in Zygon form for up to an hour (so they can’t hide among us, and are forced to fight for their independence alongside the rebels) or else all the Zygons trapped in human form forever.
The point being that when you go to war, you should prepare for the worst as well as the best.
And this ceasefire means so much to the Doctor that he’s willing to let untold havoc happen on a regular basis, and engage in somewhat outlandish mind games, just to have it stand.
The rest of this season has been about the Doctor making mistakes (not saving Davros, going back in time and becoming a ghost, turning Ashildr immortal) and then having to cope with them. Instead, this is about the Doctor making an idealistic choice, that he never regrets, and which he pays a high cost to reaffirm.
If this second half of the Zygon two-parter has one flaw, it’s the reliance on Clara Oswald. The whole plot of the episode relies on Bonnie, the Zygon leader who’s impersonating Clara, having a miraculous change of heart. She’s dead set on genoicdal war, even if the Zygons can’t possibly hope to win—until the Doctor finally gets through to her with his thought experiments and blisteringly wonderful speeches. Then Bonnie has such a total reversal of her viewpoint that the Doctor chooses not to erase her memory the way he does Kate Lethbridge-Stewart’s.
It’s just barely believable that the Doctor’s force of personality would be enough to sway Bonnie to the side of peace—but the episode wants us to believe that it was actually psychic contact with Clara that made the difference.
Unfortunately, the actual episode doesn’t really back that up. The big device this time around is that Bonnie is keeping Clara alive in her pod, because she needs to be able to get information from Clara. But as long as Clara and her Zygon duplicate are psychically linked, Clara can exert some mental influence over Bonnie. That’s how she’s able to make Bonnie miss the Doctor’s airplane, and then hesitate with the second shot, so the Doctor and Osgood are able to escape. Clara also feeds the Doctor info by having her Zygon double wink at him.
But Clara is still trapped inside her pod, and sees the world as just a sort of nightmarish apartment where she gets to see the outside world as if through a television screen. And because Clara and Bonnie are physically linked, their heartbeats are the same, meaning they can never lie to each other. (If you believe that heart rate is a reliable indicator of truth or falsehood, which... the jury’s out.)
But the notion that just being connected to Clara Oswald turns Bonnie into a better person—because Bonnie has gone looking for answers in Clara’s brain and gotten lost in there, as the Doctor hints—doesn’t really seem to be born out by what we see on screen, unless I’m forgetting something. It’s more that this was another episode where Clara was sidelined (this time, to be replaced by a Zygon duplicate), and the show made a valiant attempt to give her a central role in the resolution of the plot.
In fact, after the Zygon two-parter, I’m even more confused about where we’re going with Clara, especially given that we’re in the home stretch of her tenure as the Doctor’s companion. The key moment this time around seems to be when the Doctor thinks Clara is dead, and is totally shattered until he realizes she’s alive—he later says it was the longest month of his life. After all the stuff with Ashildr reminding him of Clara’s mortality and his freakout over her apparent death in the Davros episode, I have a feeling the Doctor’s fear of Clara’s eventual death will be a key theme of some sort.
Also, since we keep getting the “hybrid” thing over and over again—completely with what are starting to look like red herrings before we find the actual hybrid—I’m going to climb out on a limb and say that the hybrid is probably Clara. Just because nine times out of ten when this show has a huge mystery, the answer to the mystery is either the Doctor or his companion. Clara’s going to do something that turns her into a hybrid-y thing, and the Doctor will have to deal with it.
Apart from the Doctor’s determination not to let anybody else become a war criminal after the terrible things he (almost) did in the Time War, the most interesting part of the episode is Osgood, and how she represents the essence of the Zygon-human peace.
Osgood believes so strongly in this assimilation, she refuses to say whether she’s human or Zygon . Even the Doctor keeps pressing Osgood to find out the truth, because he clearly thinks there’s a meaningful difference. But Osgood seems to believe that by maintaining the ambiguity, she can force people to confront the fact that an assimilated Zygon is no different than a human.
This time around, it’s much clearer that the vast majority of Zygons living on Earth just want to be absorbed into human society, and don’t want to stand out or make waves. We meet that one guy who’s a normal human, until Bonnie zaps him and forces him to become a Zygon again, against his will. He’s horrified and grief-stricken because he can’t go back to his human life, and ends up committing suicide, in a terribly sad moment.
Nobody, even Bonnie prior to her change of heart, ever quite points out that the price of peace in this scenario is the elimination of Zygon cultural identity. The Zygons, more than any immigrants in history, have to give up everything they are in order to fit in, and this is portrayed almost entirely as a good thing. (And to the extent that this two-parter has a political point, it seems to be that immigrants deserve acceptance as long as they’re willing to conform to their host culture absolutely. At the very least, this episode does make a much stronger effort to show both sides of the conflict, Bonnie and Kate, as unreasonable and motivated by fear and hatred.)
In the end, Bonnie’s been won over so much that she becomes a second Osgood. (At which point, it’s possible that both Osgoods are actually Zygons, since we never know the truth about the “first” Osgood in this story.)
Basically, this episode is entirely worthwhile just for Peter Capaldi’s performance. He packs in so much anger and grief and fierceness that he makes that long scene in a small room, with the two Osgood boxes, feel like a huge special effects sequence. This has been true of several Who episodes lately—basically, Capaldi is carrying the entire show now, and Steven Moffat and company have decided that if they give Capaldi good enough material and let him talk for long uninterrupted stretches, that’ll be enough to make for a pretty great piece of television. The thing is, they’re right. But I’m not 100 percent sure if “a series of electrifying Peter Capaldi monologues” is enough to be an entire TV show in the long term. For now, though, it’s working.