Terror of the Zygons


The final complete story to be released in the Doctor Who DVD range, I have to admit that this is one of my personal favourites. A cracking SF/horror yarn with a very British sensibility and a lively pace, it also brings us one of the series mostly fondly remembered one-shot monsters – the Zygons. Well I say one-shot but last year saw them finally return as the secondary villains in the anniversary story Day of the Doctors * and it’s a testament to their inspired design that they only needed a minimum of updating.

In the North Sea, oil rigs are being mysteriously destroyed. The Brigadier summons the Doctor, Sarah and Harry back to Earth to investigate. To their amazement they soon find evidence that the culprit might be the legendary Loch Ness monster! The Doctor suspects that some other intelligence must be behind the attacks and he’s right. The Zygons, a desperate race of shape-changing aliens, are secretly planning to conquer the world through acts of terrorism.

Terror of the Zygons is a marvellous example of the Doctor Who formula. It has the classic thread of the Doctor investigating a strange mystery, discovering aliens and then a well laid third act twist that sends the story off in a new direction. It opened Tom Baker’s second season and marked the beginning of the fondly remembered ‘gothic era’, where producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes shamelessly raided Hollywood’s back catalogue for inspiration. However this story doesn’t really have a particular movie precedent in the way that say Pyramids of Mars homages the Mummy genre. It starts as a giant monster movie, evidence building up of a dinosaur-like monster, but the appearance of the shape-changing Zygons sends it into the alien duplicate genre of 50’s films like It Came From Outer Space. With its use of the green muddy moors, eccentric characters and the terribly British UNIT, it frequently feels like the kind of off-beat British SF film that Hammer or Amicus could have made in the late 60’s, sharing a double bill with Fiend Without a Face or Scream and Scream Again.

The Zygons have a lot more personality than the average alien menace. “How I long to free myself from this abomination of a body!” bitches one of them to her friend. John Woodnutt is wonderful as their leader Broton because he adds so much dry Scots humour into him when in his human guise. He even twirls his umbrella when departing his spaceship. As well as their disturbing appearance, a mixture of octopus and foetus, their hoarse whispering voices are equally memorable. Their shapechanging effect is quite stylish, using a similar method to that which created the old title sequence. The show was ahead of its time in its depiction of organic technology too, years before H.R. Giger’s art and Alien made the concept popular. For many the Loch Ness monster, or Skarasen, is a less successful creation, but I rather like it. It’s certainly better that the scaly stars of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and its pursuit of the Doctor across the moors is a great sequence, thanks to the gurgling roar and a sudden unexpected moment of stop motion animation amongst the puppetry. Only the attack on London disappoints, realised with a quick bit of chromakey video effect, it’s a long way from the climactic scene it should be.

Tom Baker performance is flying by this time. He’s a man of action but with an off-beat style. He’s frequently funny but it is not so much quips as just the energy he puts into lines like, “Teeth are very serious things Mr Huckle!” or “Maybe it emits some kind of primitive mating call?” Whilst Jon Pertwee’s Doctor felt very much at home with UNIT, no matter what he claimed, Tom Baker’s Doctor is restless, happy to help the Brigadier in an emergency, but very much an alien in a human world. Elisabeth Sladen is particularly good in this one too. Warm, funny and pretty, she seems to enjoy working with Nicholas Courtney and John Levene again. Sarah Jane even does some actual journalistic work for once. It’s also sad to see Harry Sullivan leave the TARDIS in this episode. Maybe Ian Marter’s role as the action man had been supplanted by Baker, but he made Harry such a likeable, down to earth fall guy and the three of them are one of my favourite TARDIS line-ups.

I’ve already hinted that this story has something of a horror bent and there are several effective shocks. Probably the most chilling is a scene where a Zygon disguised as Harry attacks Sarah in a barn, a scene that could easily fit into a more adult programme and it’s doubtful whether it would filmed like that in today’s show. All the cliffhangers are excellent too, especially the first with Sarah’s scream merging with the sting of the closing music. Speaking of music, this story is one of only two to feature the work of multi-award winning composer Geoffrey Burgon, the man responsible for soundtracks such as Brideshead Revisited and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. His work here is one of the series’ eeriest pieces, recognisably Scottish but not clichéd.

Fairly uniquely, this DVD comes with the option to watch a “director’s cut” version of episode one, containing a lovely deleted scene of the TARDIS landing, and Sarah and Harry wondering where they are.

There’s an excellent selection of extras on the second disc. Kicking off we have a decent Making Of documentary – Scotch Mist in Sussex, which benefits from producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s good memory. This was a technically demanding story and the programme celebrates the ingenuity of the BBC team in creating the Zygons and their organic technology, as well as realising Scotland in the cheaper location of Sussex. Most of the same contributors from the documentary also turn up on the commentary, which is unusually production side biased. It features Production Unit Manager George Gallacio, writer Robert Banks-Stewart, Dick Mills of the Radiophonic Workshop, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and make-up artist Sylvia James.

Remembering Douglas Camfield celebrates the life and work of one of the best directors to work on the show. All of Douglas Camfield’s stories have a dynamism and pace to them that belies there television origins. He loved adventure stories, and apart from Doctor Who he directed several excellent period swashbucklers and many crime shows like The Sweeny and Shoestring. Here, co-workers remember his energy and the way he ran his productions with military efficiency. He even proposed two intriguing Doctor Who storylines, and it is a shame that neither materialised.

I’ve mentioned this before in other reviews, but it now seems very odd the way that when companion actresses left original Doctor Who, they generally either disappeared or went back into fairly low profile work, whereas today’s ex-companions depart with the cache to headline at least one major TV vehicle, or more often than not head to the USA. These days, having a recognisable face is considered an asset, but in the Seventies it seemed many television producers regarded typecasting as a real problem, especially for women. Even Elisabeth Sladen, after playing one of the most popular companions in the series, followed that up with a succession of low budget daytime presenting gigs. This DVD contains a typical example, a schools programme called “Merry Go Round” in which Ms Sladen presents a report on an oil rig in the best Blue Peter tradition. Wearing a sou’wester not dissimilar to one that Sarah Jane had, it’s easy to think of her doing this film in her fictional journalist persona.

Not one but two Doctor Who Stories are included, one on Tom Baker and another on Elisabeth Sladen. Both extras have been edited from the extended interviews recorded for the 40th anniversary documentary The Story of Doctor Who. They are both entertaining, although both actors rely on familiar anecdotes that many long term fans will have heard before. Tom Baker circa 1975 also appears in a clip from local news show South Today, fielding some dumb questions from a reporter.

The UNIT Family – Part 3 concludes an examination of the UNIT stories with a look at the post-Pertwee era. To me it was something of a missed opportunity to see how UNIT changed with the times, because it concentrated mostly on the Brigadier. The interesting updating that occurred in their last full story “Battlefield”, introducing a more international team and new technology, are not mentioned for example. Neither is their increasing role as a secret organisation, covering up alien activity.

Explore the menus on the second disc and you’ll also find two worthwhile DVD easter eggs. There are also the traditional but still impressive regular features: a photo gallery, Radio Times listings PDF and information subtitles.

Terror of the Zygons has been released twice on video, once on laser disc, and twice on DVD but this is the definitive version of a classic Doctor Who story.

 

* And since this review was written, also in their own two-part story The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion.

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