Season 9, Episode 7 “The Zygon Inversion”
Directed by Daniel Nettheim
Written by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Jemma Redgrave, Ingrid Oliver
Air date: Saturday, November 7, 2015
In 1882, an author by the name of Frank R. Stockton wrote a now famous short story called “The Lady, or The Tiger?” In it, a barbaric king decides to mete out justice using trial by ordeal. The accused of crime is placed in an arena with two doors. The accused must open a single door. Behind one, there is a lady that the king decided is an appropriate match for the accused, that accused must marry if the door is opened. Behind the other is a fierce, hungry tiger that will devour the accused if the other choice is made.
That is very much the sort of conundrum that is the presented in Episode 9.7 “The Zygon Inversion” this week on Doctor Who. Does the world end in fire and violence? Or does everyone go on, committed to something different? How do you choose? Which do you choose, the Lady or the tiger?
Steven Moffat is given writer’s credit again this week, and I think it shows. From the initial resolution of the last week’s cliffhanger, which only gives us a little more information than we got last week but still reverses what we knew, to the broader question of the Lady and the tiger and its relation to the human-Zygon treaty negotiated in “The Day Of The Doctor,” we see his fingerprints on more than a few sequences here. This is generally a good thing. Combined with some taught direction from Daniel Nettheim, this episode flows pretty briskly from beginning to end, only loses its focus a little in a few places.
The episode is also driven by some strong performances. Ingrid Oliver builds on a strong performance last week to take her character Osgood up a notch or three. Doctor Who has a long history of either intentionally or unintentionally creating characters that are audience stand-ins. Rose Tyler is an intentional example that most immediately comes to mind. The character of Osgood appears in “The Day Of The Doctor” as little more than a geek cutout, a technically brilliant but slightly awkward asthmatic who felt upstaged by her older sister… who also happened to be wearing a Tom Baker scarf. The scarf struck a chord with Doctor Who fans, who saw her as the first Doctor cosplayer to ever appear on the show. Whether this was the intentional aim or it just happens, who knows?
This week, Ingrid Oliver finally busts Osgood out of the simple cosplayer label by creating a character with some real depth. We got a preview of this at the start of last week’s episode, but she disappears for much of the remainder. We see her as someone who finally feels her sense of purpose and someone who is so much more than just someone who was upstaged by a sibling. Bravo, Ingrid!
Jenna Coleman also turns in a fine performance in a dual role as both Bonnie and Clara. She spends the first part of the episode largely acting opposite herself, which can be difficult to do. Doctor Who has a long history of its principal actors playing dual roles, going back to William Hartnell doing so in “The Massacre Of St. Bartholomew’s Eve” in 1966. Here, we see that she does a credible (if not outstanding) job. Her role as playing two distinct personalities fighting for outward control of a single physical being is a technical acting exercise where she acquits herself admirably. She is less successful in creating a distinct demeanor for Bonnie. Bonnie acts an awful lot like Clara, even after we know that she is actually Bonnie. I don’t believe that’s due to Coleman’s limitations as an actress, however.
The character of Bonnie is one of the places where the episode seems to lose itself in the weeds, however temporarily. She is a conundrum with no back story that is never adequately explained to the script’s detriment. She’s the hardcore committed terrorist. Ok, I get that. Why, as some sort of Zygon splinter fundamentalist, does she insist on being called a human name? She is also the Zygon who undergoes the greatest inversion throughout the episode, and her transformation does not quite ring true given a lack of back story. We understand the Doctor’s role in that transformation because we’ve seen “The Day Of The Doctor,” as we’ve seen almost 10 years of intermittently visiting the theme of the Time War. We’ve haven’t seen much of the story from Bonnie’s end, however. She is the Zygon version of the War Doctor. How did that happen? We never know.
Peter Capaldi shows a lot range this week. He goes from agonizing over the potential for Clara’s loss, to sounding like an American game show announcer. Between the hoodie, the Stratocaster, and the loose, free way that Capaldi is playing the Doctor, I very much like how the character and the portrayal is developing this season. People are blaming lackluster ratings in the UK on the fact that the public has not taken Capaldi’s portrayal into their hearts. If we are talking last season that was all Clara drama and Doctor stiffness, I can see the point. As this season develops, I’m just not getting it. Have people just not gone back to look?
I think the script lets down Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart this week. Maybe it’s how they had to carve up the time available, but Kate doesn’t get a lot to work with. Yes, we see how she manages to survive last week’s cliffhanger. She goes from someone interested in the peace to someone committed to its destruction almost instantaneously. In “The Day Of The Doctor,” pace let that transformation play out. Here, there is no time for that to happen. The script seems to acknowledge it because, unlike some other principals, she is made to forget everything she did anyway. That’s weak.
I think the sum total of the mix is pretty strong. As with a number of the other two-part serials this season, the first part is all flash and bang, and the second comes off more like a stage play. As dramatic structure goes, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We see some fine performances this week, and a few great gags. For source material, one can do far worse than “The Lady, Or The Tiger?” Is it the absolute pinnacle of Doctor Who? No, it isn’t. It’s pretty solid though.