Many years ago, I went to see X2. My abiding memory of the evening – aside from the realisation that Nightcrawler was the most awesome character in the history of comic books – was a deep sense of sadness that they’d killed Jean Grey. This was before I went away and read the Phoenix storyline, whereupon everything made sense, insofar as it ever does within the multi-layered and thoroughly confusing Marvel multiverse.
But what sets the second X-Men movie apart isn’t the blazing action sequences, or the stupid foreshadowing with Pyro, or its refreshingly forgiving take on contemporary Christianity. It’s the fact that it’s two parts social commentary to one part superhero flick. The X-Men are shunned and feared for their differences, distrusted and ostracised by society owing to the actions of a few: the fact that this was released fairly soon after 9/11 was not a coincidence. Later, the mutants are analogised with closeted homosexuality: in a notable second act scene, Bobby Drake effectively comes out to his parents, who ask “Have you tried…not being a mutant?”
Peter Harness’s 2014 Doctor Who episode was ‘Kill The Moon’. It was an episode I hated, partly because of the slapping but largely because of what it eventually became, as opposed to how it started. It was an initially terrifying horror story that slapped on an abortion message in the last twenty minutes, which was a colossal misfire – one that Harness avoids with ‘The Zygon Invasion’ by putting the political drama front and centre from the very opening image.
Because ‘Zygon’ is a tale of two societies that are struggling to get along. The nods to ‘Day of the Doctor’ come thick and fast – indeed, this story acts as a direct sequel – and the repercussions of the Doctors’ actions in that story become alarmingly clear right from the outset. The upshot is that twenty million Zygons have come to live in England, assimilating so as not to frighten the locals. An uneasy peace has existed for a while, but it’s now apparent that many Zygons are angered by what they see as extraneous pressure to adopt British values at the cost of their own cultural identity. This in turn has led to splinter factions operating terrorist activities out of a mountain base in a fictional Baltic state, to which the anticipated UNIT response is to bomb the shit out of all of them. It’s left to the Doctor to explain that the very activities of the rogue Zygon factions are intended to promote distrust and fear and paranoia, even though – as one particularly militant colonel explains to the Doctor halfway through – “It’s not paranoia if it’s real”.
This is possibly the most outright political commentary in Doctor Who since Russell T Davies’ Massive Weapons of Destruction, but it would be churlish to criticise Harness for being somewhat heavy-handed, because it’s no worse than most of the Pertwee era. Indeed, UNIT’s gung-ho tendencies in this story are a clear and presumably deliberate echo of the ‘shoot first, interrogate the corpse’ approach that the Third Doctor despised. It’s just that much of the social commentary of Pertwee’s stories has been lost in translation, particularly when viewed by a modern audience, which has no idea of historical context, layered symbolism or political leanings of the writers unless its members watch the documentaries. (Biblical parables, incidentally, work in much the same way – a contemporary audience will see them as interesting stories with a moral or theological point, but the intended audience of Hebrew farmers and fishermen would have understood a great many subtleties and references therein that we tend to miss.)
‘Invasion’ is a story that preaches, then, although it is sensible enough to include the viewpoints of both sides and garner some audience sympathy for both the assimilated Zygons and the trigger-happy military. Is this a story that works best in the UK, given the current climate? Perhaps, although countries facing similar immigration issues and terrorist threats would undoubtedly empathise. Immigration may be this year’s political hot potato, but the notion of welcoming strangers and expecting them to learn the language and ditch the hijab goes back to the Israelites in Egypt and probably before that. This is a story for our time, but also for all time – that said its prediction of the crisis in Syria is eerily uncanny.
None of this would matter if the episode were all moral handwringing and no story, but that’s not the case. If anything, ‘Invasion’ suffers from having a little too much story (which compensates in a way for ‘The Woman Who Lived’, in which there was no discernible story at all). After the setup, everyone goes their separate ways: Kate Stewart heads to a ghost town in New Mexico (featuring ACTUAL TUMBLEWEED), the Doctor goes to the former Soviet Union to rescue Osgood, and Clara nips back to her flat to pick up some things. Or does she…?
The notion of doppelgangers works most effectively when it’s applied to the show’s main characters, and in this case the victim turns out to be the one person we thought we could trust. Viewers who have seen ‘Terror of the Zygons’, of course, will recall the moment in which the Zygon copy of Harry Sullivan attacks Sarah Jane in a hay barn. In that story the ruse was noticeable almost immediately – here, Harness allows us to spend almost an entire episode in the company of the Zygon Clara before giving away the secret, which turns out to be the game-changer, rather than the cliffhanger. With Kate Stewart similarly incapacitated, the stage is set for a fiery part two, although Harness sensibly keeps the stakes comparatively low, with the Doctor facing certain death aboard his private jet.
The script is chock full of references – subtle and otherwise. The Doctor has an early conversation with two children in a playground that faintly resemble the Grady twins in The Shining (and, in a refreshing twist, the two girls do actually turn out to be Zygons, thus avoiding the stock comedy scene where the schoolchildren are grossed out by the creepy old man). The scene in the lift has been done to death, but here it recalls similar moments in both ‘Paradise Towers’ and ‘Night Terrors’. And there is a wry nod to the UNIT dating controversy when Kate Stewart reminisces that ‘Terror of the Zygons’ took place in the “seventies or eighties”.
Not everything works. A scene in which the UNIT soldiers are greeted with Zygons posing as captured relatives may ostensibly recall Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Third Expedition’ (among other things) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t excruciating to watch. The dead remains that the Doctor and Colonel find in the church look like enormous cat hairballs. The narrative is occasionally head-scratchingly baffling, and while there’s absolutely no way to avoid this, the notion of previously trustworthy characters turning out to be alien duplicates is starting to feel tired, simply because Doctor Who’s done it so much. On the other hand, the Zygons are frightening for perhaps the first time in the show’s history, transformations occurring largely off camera (presumably for budgeting reasons) while the phallic monstrosities are shot from below, towering over their intended victims with menacing leers.
On balance, ‘Invasion’ succeeds far more than it fails. It may all go south next week, of course: this series of Doctor Who has been, quite literally, a game of two halves, containing stories that are half great and half lacklustre. Unnecessary time travel trickery ruined ‘Under The Lake’ / ‘Before the Flood’, while more recently a superficial, enjoyable Viking story was paired with a dreary interchange on the nature of immortality that – rather like the space-bound Ashildr – wound up going precisely nowhere. But if nothing else we have a decent, proper Zygon story, decently acted, glossily produced and directed with flair. And just for once, the most underused monsters in the canon are given full backstage passes, rather than sharing the limelight with John Hurt before being relegated to the sidelines in the final twenty minutes. Irrespective of flaws – and whatever happens in a week’s time – this was a high point.