Truth be told, I was not optimistic about “They Zygon Inversion.” Not because its predecessor, “The Zygon Invasion,” was bad by any stretch, but rather because it felt like a familiar set-up. And though there are plenty of familiar elements strewn throughout the hour, it’s how co-writers Steven Moffat and Peter Harness lay them out and push them to their intense extremes that make this episode work as a powerful, thematic extension to last week’s entry.
Certainly one of the big surprises lies in how brilliantly the show makes use of Jenna Coleman, particularly since this season has either had her overshadowed by guest stars (Missy, Davros, Ashildr) or absent altogether (The Woman Who Lived). Here, she embodies both her regular role, and “Bonnie” with great aplomb. The episode opens with non-Zygon Clara waking up in her flat only to instantly sense that something is amiss (my favorite bit—the toothpaste reads simply “this is toothpaste” and emerges as black sludge). Hearing The Doctor’s disembodied voice, she goes to the TV and watches as “Bonnie” aims the bazooka at The Doctor’s plane. By pushing the TV to the side, Clara manages to make Bonnie miss her first shot. Apparently, because Bonnie still requires a sort of psychic link in order to maintain her form, Clara is able to exert some control over her Zygon counterpart’s actions, however minimal. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to disrupt Bonnie’s second shot, which demolishes the aircraft.
Of course, The Doctor and Osgood escape via some good old fashioned G.I. Joe-parachuting. With Osgood’s glasses broken, The Doctor loans her his sonic sunglasses (“isn’t that a bit pointless… like a visual hearing aid?” she says, as if voicing concerns of all the anti-sonic sunglasses viewers out there). After a Facetiming session with Bonnie, in which Clara gives away the location of her pod/cell via a few coordinated winks, the two learn that the villainous Zygon is after the “Osgood box,” a mysterious device that has the ability to either prevent war or start a war. Exactly what it is, or how it works is known only to The Doctor, Clara and Osgood.
What is clear, however, is Bonnie’s (and, by extension, the Zygon splinter cell’s) ultimate goal—to instigate a war between the Zygons and humans. In order to bring this about, she wants all the hidden Zygons to reveal themselves, thus spreading fear and paranoia throughout the Earth. Her first unfortunate victim is a middle-aged man who she forces to revert back to his Zygon form in a scene of intense body horror not seen since the infamous “gas mask” scene back in Season One’s “The Empty Child.” When The Doctor and Osgood find him later in the episode, he is dismayed at not being able to return to his normal, happy life and proceeds to kills himself.
Meanwhile, in a brilliantly conceived sequence that really makes use of the “live feed” element, Bonnie interrogates Clara about the location of The Osgood Box by checking their synced heartbeats in order to determine whether or not she’s lying. Clara tells her the location and function of the box—it apparently boasts the ability to unmask all 20 million Zygons on Earth for an hour—but maintains that Bonnie will want her alive when she finds the box. And so, Bonnie arrives to find that there are two boxes—one red and one blue. According to The Doctor, one contains a button that will unmask the Zygons, while the other contains a button that will wipe the entire race from the face of the Earth. Which is which? When Bonnie threatens Clara’s life, The Doctor claims that the blue box is the one she wants. Bonnie then opens the box to discover yet another twist—each box has two buttons labeled, respectively, “Truth” and “Consequence.”
Soon, The Doctor arrives at the “box room” along with Osgood and Kate Stewart (who survived her encounter with the Zygon in America). It’s here that The Doctor reveals the nature of each of the buttons—with the red box, one button will destroy the Zygons, while the other will detonate all of London; with the blue box, one button will unmask the Zygons while the other will trap them in their human forms forever.
It’s in this final stretch that the episode reveals its true colors. Much like the Peter Harness-scripted “Kill the Moon” from last year, the hour boils down to what amounts to a civics lesson from The Doctor. Normally, I would mean that as a criticism, but—as delivered by Peter Capaldi in what will no doubt go down as one of his finest moments as The Doctor—this lengthy monologue manages to succinctly characterize The Doctor’s anti-war stance in a way that’s both powerful and timely. Here, The Doctor points out that the rogue Zygons are “not superior to people who were cruel to [them]” rather they are just a bunch of “new cruel people” who will keep the destructive wheel of cruelty and hatred spinning. “The only way that people can live in peace is if they are prepared to forgive,” The Doctor proclaims.
When both Bonnie and Kate refuse to back down, The Doctor doubles down on his stance about the futility of war. “It’s always the same,” he says. “When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who’s going to die—you don’t know whose children are going to scream and burn, how many hearts will be broken, how many lives shattered, how much blood will spill until everybody does what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning—sit down and talk!”
Some may very well find this final scene didactic and heavy-handed. Between the writing and Capaldi’s righteous fury, however, I personally see it as a barnburner of the highest order. This becomes especially apparent in the last segment where The Doctor stops talking in generalities about war and the cycle of violence, and gets more intimate and personal by talking about the time he made a similar decision to press a button and commit mass genocide in the final days of The Time War (as seen in “Day of the Doctor”). “When I close my eyes, I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count,” he explains. “And do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight, until it burns your hand and you say this, ‘No one else will ever have to live like this, no one else will have to feel this pain—not on my watch!’”
Moved by his words, both Kate and Bonnie stand down, but not before Bonnie recognizes that there was nothing in the boxes to begin with. Just buttons. In what amounts to a final cosmic joke, The Doctor says they’ve been in this position 15 times before and erases Kate’s memory. The story ends with Bonnie now taking the form of a second Osgood, leaving all the more confusion about which Osgood is which.
“The Zygon Inversion” deserves major props for taking a seemingly standard aliens-invade plotline (even with the added resonance of the War on Terror) and turning it, essentially, into a treatise about war and its ultimate uselessness. While I’m not sure that everything about the plotting is sound (Bonnie changing into Osgood perhaps ties things up a bit too neatly), it’s a firm reminder of how lucky we are that an actor of Peter Capaldi’s caliber has taken the titular role and so thoroughly made it his own. Perhaps more impressively, the episode reminds audiences of how, despite several missteps with her character, Clara can still serve as an effective companion, and that the relationship between her and The Doctor has only strengthened with time. All the better for Moffat and Co. to stab us in the gut with her inevitable departure, I suppose.