Some writing groups I’m in often return to ideas about anthropomorphism and what it means for writers. Almost all aliens we see are humans with traits removed or magnified. Vulcans of Star Trek: basically human + heightened rationality. Daleks: remove empathy + hate & shove in metal box. Cybers: remove emotion and personal identifiers + assimilationist drives. Avatar: taller, bluer, nature spirit eco-warrior humans with tails. The Alien from the Alien franchise: Space Dinosaur + weaponised mothering/breeding instinct. Then there is the Alien’s diametric opposite in the alien for kids, Jar Jar Binks: Space Dinosaur + awful baby language + clichéd attempt at Caribbean culture (even if this has been denied by the actor and film maker).
In Doctor Who we also have other kinds of aliens, the Vashta Nerada, the Gelth, the quite effective unnamed two-dimensional aliens in Flatline, the ‘vampire fish’ of Venice, the unnamed and the unseen home world species from Blink, even the ridiculous Slitheen. These aliens are literally us, or become us. They use our voices and technology, and they drive and change our bodies (dead or alive). They make humans enemies of ourselves (which, if you think about it, doesn’t take much. Humans do this every day). They are the best worst kind of Other, because in clothing themselves in humanity, they demonstrate our inhumanity to each other.
This kind of monster is apt for Halloween too, when many people are spending time being something else. For fun, or treats, or other reasons.
With this series The Doctor returns to redress the Zygon mess from the end of The Day of the Doctor in the Zygon Invasion and the Zygon Inversion. Zygons are probably not my favourite big bad. Yet they are typically the big bad Steven Moffat is interested in. In their ‘true form’ they are as Other as any ‘Monster’ of the week, but more usually, they mirror whatever form they want. Thus, yet again: they are the alien within showing humans at war with themselves. They demonstrate how when we fail to know ourselves, we are our greatest enemy.
How typical too that the dead but clearly not as dead as we thought Osgood returns in some form to help us examine questions of who we are and what we want and how we change and where such changes lead us.
Zygons are after all, another the physical embodiment of physical, emotional and psychological changes we are all capable of making and in fact do make as we grow up. They are unlovely and to some scary, just as change often is. They also symbolise actors, who take on many roles yet remain themselves, as well as storytellers or writers, who ‘speak with many voices’, and those who swan about with one face while making yourselves another (to quote Hamlet).