Thursday, December 29, 2016

TV Review: Doctor Who- Terror of the Zygons (Se13St01)

tom baker zygons
More than thirty years ago I was lucky enough to have the remaining (at the time) episodes of the Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee and Tom Baker years of Doctor Who broadcast every week in order on Saturday or Sunday nights.

While others may have had only the Target novelization to help them imagine the first appearance of the Daleks or the Master, I was lucky enough to see them on the small screen at least once (mainly if I could not beg my parents for a VHS tape to record the ones I was missing on).

Through this I learned an appreciation for the past Doctors the way many fans in the eighties could not, but although I would constantly read about how scary the Daleks or Ice Warriors were in their heyday in Doctor Who Magazine or books like A Celebration, I thought they looked rather tame, although I loved them all.

However, if one era of Doctor Who gave me the heebie jeebies and made me have nightmares, it was Philip Hinchcliffe 's run as producer, which started when Tom Baker replaced Jon Pertwee as the Doctor in 1974.

Hinchcliffe had Barry Letts staying on with him for a short time as a sort of executive producer to show him the ropes in Tom Baker's first series on the show and new script editor Robert Holmes also had leftover script commissions to work with from the previous regimes larder.

Despite the inexperience on the part of Hinchcliffe and the amount of 'overflow' from the previous era, change could be seen on the horizon.

Tales like Genesis of the Daleks had taken a darker hue then the earthbound UNIT years of the erly seventies; focus had shifted from “James Bond” inspired action orientated adventure to something quite a bit heavier and painted with much darker tones.

When Hinchcliffe and Holmes took the reins full time at the start of the thirteenth season, the series took and even more pronounced shift in tone and direction.

terror of the zygons
The Hinchcliffe era had a way of taking classic horror and suspense tales such as Frankenstein ( The Brain of Morbius), body doubles (The Android Invasion) and gigantic (thankfully non 'atomic') alien monstrosities ( The Seeds of Doom) and applying them to the Doctor Who formula.

Terror of the Zygons was no different as it took one of our own real world urban legends, the Loch Ness Monster and placed 'Nessie' right into the mix of the Doctor Who universe.

The script was written by Robert Banks Stewart, who despite approaching Doctor Who in a similar writing style as The Avengers, which he had worked on previously (leading to some rewrites of his initial script), also wanted to bring the Doctor to Scotland for an adventure.

The mystery of strange creatures being reported in Loch Ness seemed an easy fit to mix the two together into something much larger. Much, much larger in fact.

What came about from this mixture of fictional location, urban legend and the efforts of a very talented and fresh team behind the series made Terror of the Zygons one of the most beloved stories of the Tom baker era if not the entire twenty-six year run of 'classic' Doctor Who.

The reasons behind this love affair are many, but one definite positive this adventure has is that the Zygons, especially for their time, are a very well designed monster. They still have enough 'Human' in their facial structure to show emotion and the rest of the design, although a bit stiff, is convincing enough to give anyone a bit of a shiver.

Another great aspect of the Zygons is their voices, which are barely a raspy whisper. It's almost as if on the Zygon home planet it is forbidden to talk above a certain volume or perhaps the Earth's atmosphere gave Commander Broton and Co. a really bad case of sore throat. Regardless of the reason, it was a nice change to see a monster that did not go about screaming like a naked man in a street shouting about the end of the world (I'm looking at you Daleks).

The only other monster voices from Doctor Who that comes close to being this creepy in my opinion are the original sing song voices of the Cybermen from The Tenth Planet or the excellent voice over work done for the Beast in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit in series two of the revised run of the series.

doctor who terror of the zygons scottish fourth doctor scarf
Set design, location camera work and lighting also play a large part in this serial's popularity as despite Essex filling in for Scotland, the shots have a real feeling of atmosphere and weight, and the camera work gives it a tone of a horror film or a murder/mystery tale.

The Zygon's spacecraft has a wonderful organic feel to it, with the control panels of the craft being quite unique compared to the dials, switches and buttons we are accustomed to. This is augmented by the great lighting which gives the excellent design of both the Zygons and their ship to instantly feel more believable to the viewer.

One trapping in visual science fiction is being limited to our own views in how technology works for us and then almost subconsciously using this pattern in fictional alien technological designs. Terror the Zygons bucked this trend nicely. Especially for it's time.

The Zygons may look like they are molesting giant pepperoni pizzas when they are at the controls, but it is still more convincing then a few meters, dials and a keyboard from a typewriter stuck to a table or wall.

Another aspect that must be talked about is how Robert Banks Stewart's original story concept focused more on the Skarasen/Loch Ness Monster itself, which Hinchcliffe felt gave the other actors less of a threat to actually confront and communicate with, so the Zygons were moved front and center.

Terror of the Zygons is also a noteworthy serial in another way, as it is the last time we see Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier until Mawdryn Undead in 1983 (plans were to have him appear in The Android Invasion later on in the season but Courtney was unavailable due to other work).

UNIT and it's military culture had been one of the main thrust of changes made at the start of the Jon Pertwee era in 1970, both for creative and monetary reasons. The change in direction allowed Doctor Who to once again fend off cancellation and find a new lease on life.

terror of the zygons doctor who
For those raised on a diet of Venusian Karate, the Doctor being exiled to Earth and five rounds rapid, this was the UNIT era's last proper dance. The distance from one er to another is even felt in the story itself in the Doctor's annoyance at being called back to Earth over what seems to be a petty issue over obsolete fossil fuels. If the third Doctor made his home on Earth, the fourth Doctor surely wanted no part of staying in one place for too long.

It is also the last appearance by the late Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan, a role that although well executed by Marter became redundant when the fourth Doctor was played by a younger actor who could do his own running and other physical actions. Harry Sullivan was created in case the fourth Doctor was played by an older actor who could not be as physical, much like Ian Chesterton was with the first Doctor when the series first began.

The team of the fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry Sullivan will always be among my favorite TARDIS crews, especially the dynamic that existed between the Doctor and Harry, which sometimes showed the Doctor putting Harry down a bit but at others being very glad he had come along for the journey.

Milestones and great visuals are of course nothing without a good script to place them in and Terror of the Zygons hits on all fronts.

The best scenes are those that feature the confrontation between the Doctor and Zygon commander Broton in episode four. By this time Tom Baker had taken everyone by surprise with his interpretation of the Doctor, and this script like many from his seven year reign as the bohemian Timelord really gave Tom a chance to showcase his whimsical madness.

The isolation of the oil rigs at night and the seclusion of a small Scottish village are enhanced by the memorable performances by all involved and really showcase what Doctor Who can be when you allow it to be just a little bit scary and a bit more geared towards giving adults a fright or two along with the kiddies.

As with Doctor Who of any era there is a balance of comedic elements as well, and a few of the funnier bits in Terror of the Zygons revolves around the Scottish theme, from the Doctor and Brigadier giving their outfits Scottish flair to a well meant 'Scots joke' at the very end of the adventure.

The Zygon plot for world domination seems a bit dim (as does hanging about in paintings for centuries to emerge when the planet has a better technological and military understanding, but I digress, maybe Zygons are just not the brightest things in the cosmos), but it is a small niggle among a bunch of well executed ideas.

Of course, this season and the rest of the Hinchcliffe era are when Tom Baker is in his prime and everything just seems to click for much of the collaboration between the two, giving us in my opnion some of the best televised stories this franchise has ever seen.

More interesting in hindsight is that after decades of being ignored at least on televised Doctor Who despite fans shouting for them to return, the monsters finally emerged again for the fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor and are slated to possibly appear again in series nine in the Fall of 2015. I can't help but think of that fleet of Zygon survivors from a destroyed world, heading slowly towards Earth...

Terror of the Zygons will probably always remain one of the most well loved examples of Doctor Who from it's era and it is well deserved praise. It is no surprise that a serial created with such a stellar collection of artists both behind and in front of the cameras would shine...even through the mysterious mists coming off the loch and rolling across the moor.

-Thomas Spychalski

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