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Doctor Who (Classic): “Terror Of The Zygons”

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“Terror Of The Zygons” (season 13, episodes 1-4. Originally broadcast Aug. 30-Sept. 20, 1975.)

It seems a little strange to suggest that the problem with “Terror Of The Zygons”—a story in which shapeshifting octopoid aliens feed off the milk of a cyborg Loch Ness Monster—is that it’s overly formulaic. But on a show like Doctor Who, where you expect to see some new weird and strange creature every week, the difference between a good story and a great one is whether or not the story surprises you in other ways. And this one takes the easy route, relying on formula and narrative shortcuts when it could have gone for something a little more groundbreaking. There’s nothing wrong with this, exactly, but by design, it’s not challenging in the way great art (or simply more ambitious Doctor Who) is. It’s only meant to be an entertaining diversion.


That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable formula. I certainly liked this one immensely when I was a kid, and for all the same reasons I liked it then, I still think it’s a lot of fun. But watching it again (thanks to the newly released DVD), it’s hard to ignore the faults that weigh it down.

Praise first, then: The cast, for one thing, can hardly be beat. You’ve got two of Doctor Who’s most charismatic leads in Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the moody, mercurial Fourth Doctor and plucky journalist Sarah Jane Smith, backed by the always-reliable Nicholas Courtney and Ian Marter as the Brigadier and brave but bumbling Harry Sullivan. There’s a lighthearted Scottish flavor to the story—set at Loch Ness, though filmed in Wales—that lands on the right side of kitsch. (I like to imagine that writer Robert Banks Stewart, a Scot himself, was making a joke about stereotypical perceptions of his people in the opening scene, in which a Scotsman on an oil rig asks for haggis, and in response, the entire structure is destroyed.)

And there’s the Zygons. It’s not difficult to understand why they were remembered well enough to be brought back after a nearly 40-year absence to be the featured alien menace in “The Day Of The Doctor.” Just look at them: Orange and weirdly bulbous and quasi-tentacled, they’re a wonderfully surreal triumph of Doctor Who visual design, stretching the limitations on what you can do on a low budget. They’re not flawless: A close eye will easily pick out things like the fact that their “feet” are just boots spraypainted orange. But, like the Yeti in “The Web Of Fear,” they hit that same sweet spot of scary yet somewhat absurd that makes a classic Doctor Who villain: They might give you nightmares, but won’t make you need counseling.

The action sequences are also in good hands, handled by director Douglas Camfield with his usual aplomb, with two particularly effective scenes: The shock ending of episode one where we see a Zygon for the first time, and the Hitchcockian moment when Harry’s alien duplicate tries to kill Sarah with a pitchfork.


“Terror Of The Zygons” opened the Fourth Doctor’s second season with a return to a story more typical of the Third Doctor. Instead of exploring unknown regions of deep space and the far future as he’d done all through season 12, the Doctor is called back to present-day Britain to investigate a series of deadly wrecks of oceanic oil-rigs with his old comrades the Brigadier and the anti-alien taskforce UNIT. Returning to the old Jon Pertwee stomping grounds wasn’t, I think, meant to be an overt commentary on the previous era. But just as Baker’s debut in “Robot” announced that there was a new style to the show by letting the Fourth Doctor’s unfamiliar presence warp the typical narrative of a Third Doctor story, “Terror Of The Zygons” highlighted the differences between Baker’s Doctor and Pertwee’s simply in how he treats the Brigadier’s request for help.

In one way, it’s no different than before: Told the crisis is vital because it involves oil, the Doctor scoffs patronizingly at what he considers provincial Earther attitudes: “It's about time the people who run this planet of yours realized that to be dependent upon a mineral slime just doesn't make sense.” The Third Doctor would probably have made a similar complaint, but the new guy’s attitude is far more distant, and his statement that he hopes the Brigadier “had a very good reason” for calling him sounds almost like a threat. He doesn’t want to be bothered; he doesn’t live here anymore. Although the Third complained, he stayed on Earth anyway, even after he was free to go anywhere he wanted—for two whole seasons, in fact. He did get to travel the universe quite a bit, but he started and ended his journey in the same place: Earth, working for UNIT. The Fourth Doctor had no such sense of attachment or loyalty, leaving the planet for an extended stretch at the first available opportunity, even though UNIT presumably had just as many extraterrestrial threats to combat as before. The real reason for this change was a behind-the-scenes one: The Third Doctor production team liked doing Earthbound stories, but the new Fourth Doctor crew, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, were even more eager to stop doing them and get the show back into space like in the 1960s. But it also helped show how the new Doctor was far less interested in ordinary human concerns than whatever was percolating in his spaceman-Sherlock head. Where the Third Doctor would often argue with people like Huckle, Hibernian Oil’s man in Loch Ness, just to prove his own superiority, the Fourth Doctor can’t be bothered. Until the Brig points out how many have already died, of course—oil companies aren’t worth his time, but he’ll help people.


It’s early in the second episode, when the wounded Harry is kidnapped and brought to meet the Zygon leader, Broton, that the story starts to sag. For one thing, the belligerent and overconfident Broton blabs everything important about the Zygons to Harry almost immediately, for no apparent reason other than that he feels like telling someone. Everything. Their history, their plans, their ability to impersonate humans and, worst of all, that their indestructible secret weapon (what they call the Skarasen and we’d call Nessie) is also their sole source of food. The problem with this is that the audience now knows all kinds of things that the Doctor, Sarah, and the others are in the dark about, leaving not much in the way of surprises and a vague feeling that they should really know all of this already.

Although the Zygons stand apart visually, they never really rise above the level of generic monster-of-the-week otherwise. Broton is, in the end, just another tentacled guy who wants to conquer the world. It’s not a knock against actor John Woodnutt, who gets to stretch out in a triple role as Broton, the false duke Broton’s impersonating, and the real duke he’s kidnapped.


But what we’re told about the Zygons otherwise makes Broton’s behavior inexplicable, a victim of being written as a typical megalomaniac villain when everything else about them suggests that should be out of character. Broton is a posturing bully, but otherwise, the things that define Zygon behavior are subterfuge, camouflage and caution. They’ve been hiding in Loch Ness for hundreds of years, keeping themselves a secret despite a Godzilla-sized pet milkcow via cunning disguise and strategic use of knockout gas to keep the locals from verifying that there really is a Loch Ness Monster. The oil-rig attacks ony happened because they were built right in the monster’s path to its feeding grounds.

Now that Broton into is roused action, he’s determined to move forward as quickly as possible at any cost. It’s not entirely clear why he feels this way, considering what little rush there is otherwise: There are still more centuries until the fleet of refugee Zygons arrives from their destroyed homeworld. Broton’s plan is needlessly risky, stupid and self-destructive. It’s one thing that he has to fight back when the placement of new oil rigs prevents the Skarasen from getting to the ocean; they depend on the monster for their food, so it’s a matter of survival. But why take the next step and try to conquer the world with six Zygons and one giant turtle-bot? It would have made for a more interesting, nuanced story if their potentially sympathetic history had been properly explored, instead of simply making Broton just another thug from outer space. They’re refugees from a stellar explosion that destroyed their own home (retconned in “Day Of The Doctor” to a Time War casualty). The Zygons have endured their share of tragedy, and like the Wirrn, the Silurians, and the Ice Warriors, any opportunity not taken to show their side of things is a missed one. (Which is a reason I like the solution given in “Day Of The Doctor” quite a bit.) Doctor Who has plenty of room for purely evil and unsympathetic villains too, but even the Daleks are more interesting when you can’t entirely dismiss their viewpoint.


Stray observations

• A great Brigadier line: "Asleep? Impossible. I was on duty."

• UNIT’s fadeout from its prior prominence in Doctor Who was sort of the 1970s version of Rose Tyler haunting the series yeras after supposedly leaving for good. “Terror Of The Zygons” is the last time the recognizably “classic” version of UNIT appears, complete with familiar faces like the Brig and Sgt. Benton. It’s also the last significant appearance by Harry Sullivan, who’s perfunctorily written out as a companion with a polite refusal to get into the TARDIS again. Ian Marter came back soon afterwards to play another evil alien duplicate of himself in the anticlimactic “The Android Invasion.”


• The DVD includes an extended cut of episode one that restores the scene in which the TARDIS lands in Scotland. It’s short, but having it back in there is a big improvement in setting the scene and getting the story off on a good pace.

• A couple belated thoughts on “The Day Of The Doctor”: First of all, it’s a cracking good Doctor Who story, and probably my favorite Steven Moffat script since he became showrunner. I’m also glad to see the “last of the Time Lords” thing wiped off the table; the destruction of Gallifrey and the Doctor’s subsequent guilt and loneliness was a great way to restart the show in 2005, but change is the way of Doctor Who. The only thing that should be permanent on this show is the police box.


• Upcoming schedule (biweekly on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central):

• Dec. 21: A look at a Doctor Who that might have been, with 2003’s animated “Scream Of The Shalka,” starring Richard E. Grant as the “Alternative Ninth” Doctor.


• Jan. 4: The First Doctor meets the Cybermen—and becomes the Second Doctor—in “The Tenth Planet.”

• Future reviews should include something from season 15 (“The Horror Of Fang Rock”?) and season 23 (“The Mysterious Planet”), and the upcoming restoration of Patrick Troughton's "The Moonbase."


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