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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Terror of the Zygons originally aired in 1975.

Right, let’s see what other damage we can do. Anybody know what this is?

I haven’t the faintest idea.

You tell us.

I will. It’s a self-destructor, and it works like this.

– the Doctor demonstrates to the Duke and Lamont that you don’t ask a question without knowing the answer

Terror of the Zygons is a strange beast. Tom Baker’s first season was bookended by two relics from the Jon Pertwee era. Robot was essentially a Pertwee-era invasion story where the only real difference was Tom Baker’s larger-than-life performance; Revenge of the Cybermen had been commissioned by Barry Letts and felt more like a Pertwee-era space story than anything Hinchcliffe and Holmes would produce.

In contrast, Terror of the Zygons is very definitely an episode of Doctor Who produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes. It kicks off one of the show’s strongest seasons, and plays into many of the recurring themes of the era. There are fallen gods and body horror and a sense of the Doctor as a bohemian who won’t be bound by society’s rule. And yet, at the same time, there’s also a sense that Terror of the Zygons is derived from the same basic structure of Pertwee-era invasion story.

In short, Terror of the Zygons feels like it straddles two very different eras of the show, and provides an opportunity for the show to very definitely transform from one form into another.

Let Zygons be Zygons...

Let Zygons be Zygons…

Of course, Hinchcliffe and Holmes had already made their mark on Doctor Who. Audiences tuning in to Tom Baker’s second season already had a reasonable idea of what to expect, even if they weren’t necessarily sure of the quantities that they might expect it in. Hinchcliffe and Holmes had taken over in the second story of the previous season, and had worked quite hard to put some distance between their version of the show and the version produced by Barry Letts.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes’ very first story, The Ark in Space, is the perfect embodiment of the aesthetic that the duo would bring to Doctor Who. It is ranked among the best stories that the show ever produced. Genesis of the Daleks is similarly well-loved by fans and casual viewers alike. However, despite these triumphs, there’s a sense that Tom Baker’s first season as still a little uncertain; that it was still trying to find its way. So you ended up with episodes like The Sontaran Experiment and Revenge of the Cybermen, which seemed like the work of people still figuring out what they wanted to do with Doctor Who.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

Now that the teething problems were over, it felt like an appropriate time to circle back around and to tie off loose ends from the Pertwee era. If Tom Baker’s first season is book-ended by what feel like left-overs from the Jon Pertwee era, his second season is bookended by two rather clear attempts at contrast. As much as Terror of the Zygons follows the same standard structure of a Pertwee-era alien invasion story, it’s very clearly the product of a different stage in the show’s evolution.

U.N.I.T. would reappear in The Seeds of Doom, but it’s fitting that Terror of the Zygons would be the last appearance of the Brigadier until Mawdryn Undead seven years later. This is very much a “goodbye to all of that” story, with the intent being to pick apart and deconstruct the narrative conventions of the Pertwee era while outlining the bolder ambitions of the current era. While Terror of the Zygons features memorable monsters and iconic creature designs, and has made quite an impression, the story is predicated on how small the scale of this whole crisis must seem.

Closing the circle...

Closing the circle…

Tom Baker’s Doctor was never going to fill the gap left by Jon Pertwee. Even Robot made that clear, as Baker proceeded to chew the scenery and completely dominate his introductory story. The Fourth Doctor was never going to be satisfied to hold down a job as U.N.I.T.’s scientific advisor, even if The Sontaran Stratagem reveals that he was too disorganised to file the proper paperwork to leave. Baker disappeared into the TARDIS at the end of Robot and is only returning to Earth now.

Even after his exile officially ended, the Third Doctor very much established Earth as his base of operations, returning home between adventures. Invasion of the Dinosaurs suggested that maybe the Third Doctor shouldn’t leave the planet unattended so readily, with the character returning home to find London in the middle of a crisis. In contrast, the Tom Baker’s first season made it quite clear that the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry were not returning to home base between adventures. The tight continuity of the season made it quite clear that it was one big chain of adventures taking them as far away from Earth as possible.

Sarah Jane really got suckered into this one...

Sarah Jane really got suckered into this one…

So it’s no surprise that the Fourth Doctor is rather indignant at being “summoned” back to Earth by U.N.I.T. “Brigadier, why have you called me back?” he demands. “I hope you’ve got a very good reason.” There’s no friendly banter, no big grin for an old friend. The Doctor very much resents that anybody can summon him anywhere, let alone for something as minor as a silly alien invasion. “When I left the psionic beam with you, Brigadier,” he explains, “I said it was only to be used in an emergency.”

When the Doctor points out that this is an emergency, the Doctor is dismissive. “Oil an emergency?” he repeats. “Huh! It’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent upon a mineral slime just doesn’t make sense.” The Third Doctor would undoubtedly have made some sort of similar snide comment, but softened it with a pause or a wink or a smile. The Fourth Doctor is very clearly frustrated by this whole situation.

A fried circuit...

A fried circuit…

It doesn’t help that the Zygon invasion is just a little bit pathetic. Sure, they talk a good game. Terror of the Zygons doesn’t turn the Zygons into an out-and-out joke. They actually look pretty impressive, to the point where even David Tennant has noted they hold up well:

I mean, there were some really brilliant designs, the Zygons are case in point, they managed to make it not look like a human being, they had these huge coned heads and they made the faces small and scrunched up, and they did things. I mean, I was talking to Neil Gorton who does the prosthetics on our show, who designed a lot of our monsters, and he was saying that were we to do the Zygons again there’s not much to do, it’s a perfect bit of design. The technology of these things was a lot more primitive then, just because it was thirty years ago, and you couldn’t really better what they came up with, and I think that’s a testament to the talent of the people who are making the show now, and were making the show then.

The Zygons made enough of an impression that they’ve managed to become a significant part of Doctor Who lore based on a single on-screen appearance. They got their own fan-made direct-to-video feature while Doctor Who was cancelled. They got name-checked in The Power of Three. They appear in The Day of the Doctor.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

And they have a pretty impressive gimmick. The notion of projecting the image of a human being to disguise themselves is standard science-fiction fare, but they also have Nessie on-side. In terms of alien invasions, using the Loch Ness Monster is quite an impressive invasion technique. It’s so impressive that Sarah Jane proudly mentions it during School Reunion. So the Zygons have a lot going for them, out of the gate. They might be the most impressive Pertwee era monster that never appeared in the Pertwee era.

And yet, despite all that, they are incredibly pathetic. In keeping with the themes of the Hinchcliffe era, the Zygons are presented as fallen gods. They are the last survivors of a dying world, recouping in the darkness and growing in strength. It’s a recurring theme in the Hinchcliffe era. In The Brain of Morbius, we meet the Time Lord Morbius long after his fall from grace. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is built around a fugitive of some horrific future war.

Break on through to the other side...

Break on through to the other side…

“Centuries ago, by your time scale, our craft was damaged,” the Zygons explain to Harry. “We landed here to await rescue. Recently we learned our world was destroyed in a stellar explosion. We can never return.” Their plan is simple. “So now we must make this planet ours.” It’s a nice hook for an alien invasion, and it’s quite telling that this “fallen god” back story would become a staple of the revived Doctor Who, with Earth becoming the last refuge for all manner of dispossessed alien invaders. Indeed, the Time War even made the Doctor something of a fallen “lonely” god.

However, while Morbius and Grell are terrifying and formidable enemies, the Zygons are… not. As much as they might have a similar back story to some of the more impressive adversaries that will cross paths with the Doctor, the Zygons are a weak relic of a dead world. “You admire our technology, human?” Broton asks the Doctor. The Doctor replies, “Well, I’m not human, and I’ve seen better.” When Broton shows off his new body, the Doctor isn’t blown away. “Very good, very good. Almost impressive. But why bother?” The Doctor actually deals with the Zygon threat with remarkable ease, once he figures out what is going on.

Shining a little light on the situation...

Shining a little light on the situation…

Still, the Zygons are more than just a bunch of easily-defeated aliens. Terror of the Zygons seems to be having a great deal of fun at the expense of the Pertwee era in introducing these monsters. The Zygons’ end goal is fairly simple; they want to rule the world. It’s the execution and motivation that Terror of the Zygons mercilessly lays into. even Harry Sullivan, who is hardly the most knowledgeable member of the TARDIS crew when it comes to alien invasions, can’t help but find their methods a little… quirky.

When the Zygons show off their fantastic Loch Ness Monster cyborg, Harry is understandably a little curious. “How did you bring that creature to the Earth?” he asks. “As an embryo,” Broton replies. “The Skarasen is our life source. We Zygons depend upon it its lactic fluid for survival.” That is a little disgusting. It also makes the plan to use the the creature as the herald of an alien invasion seem a bit… reckless. “Mammals?” Harry asks. “If that’s thing’s destroyed, then you die too.”

Last time working as a U.N.I.T....

Last time working as a U.N.I.T….

The Zygons dismiss Harry’s concerns with the standard bad guy boasting, but it still seems an incredible risk to take for an alien species on the verge of extinction. It makes very little sense, when there are dozens of other ways that the Zygons could leverage global power without risking the creature they rely upon for food. And that’s if they absolutely had to conquer the planet, and couldn’t just get the refugee fleet to swing by and pick them up.

While Harry points out the flaw in the Zygons’ methods, the Doctor seems to have had quite enough of silly alien invasion plans. He spends a significant portion of the episode mocking Broton’s plans for world domination. When the Zygons engage in their stealthy shenanigans, the Doctor jokes, “You’ve been hiding too long, Broton. It’s become a habit.” When Broton takes offence, as you would if you’d put so much effort into taking over the planet, the Doctor explains, “I thought the plan was to conquer the world.”

A darker Doctor...

A darker Doctor…

“The plan has not changed,” Broton bluntly states, missing the irony of desperately struggling to maintain secrecy while planning to send the Loch Ness Monster up the Thames to assassinate the Prime Minister. After all, that sort of attack makes it quite difficult to remain in the shadows. “But you can’t rule a world in hiding,” the Doctor explains. “You’ve got to come out onto the balcony sometimes and wave a tentacle, if you’ll pardon the expression.” It’s a hilarious image, and it immediately demonstrates just how silly so many Pertwee-era invasion stories actually are.

More than that, the Doctor points out the absurdity of treating “alien invasion” as a stock story type on the budget of Doctor Who. “And what are you going to do with it when you’ve got it?” he asks about the planet. “Isn’t it a bit large for just about six of you?” Broton naturally explains that there are more Zygons coming. They just, you know, aren’t here right now. And there’s no point waiting until you have strength in numbers or something. Broton generally manages to respond to the Doctor’s criticisms of his grand plan, but they aren’t necessarily convincing.

Never too far afield...

Never too far afield…

Appropriately enough, the episode climaxes with the discovery of the Zygons in “a disused quarry”, which is perhaps the most obvious evidence that Terror of the Zygons is having a bit of fun with the standard Doctor Who alien invasion model. The Zygons frequently use terminology like “Earth miles” and spout nonsensical dialogue like “I underestimated his intelligence, but he underestimated the power of organic crystallography.”

There are other references to storytelling conventions of the Pertwee era. The Scottish setting feels like a self-aware mirror to the condescending portrayal of Wales in The Green Death. The Scottish characters and surroundings are consciously exaggerated. “Here in Tullock we don’t need any clever contraptions to tell us what people are up to,” McRanald boasts between sessions practising his bagpipes. “Everybody knows everybody else’s business. It’s a matter of principle.”

Forward march!

Forward march!

While The Green Death probably took its attempt to portray working-class Wales a bit too seriously, Terror of the Zygons is more interested in having fun with the Scottish setting. The Brigadier wears a kilt. The opening episode assures us that we are in Scotland by having the sound of bagpipes blaring. Nessie appears. There’s a lot of talk about “mists” and “moors” and various other stereotypical Scottish stuff.

And there’s even a sense that Terror of the Zygons is playing with the earnestness of the energy politics of the Pertwee era. Alternate energy sources and the economy built around existing fuels served as recurring themes during the Pertwee era of the show, as it tried to engage with contemporary concerns and the politics of the time. Terror of the Zygons throws in a few references to the world’s dependency on oil and even suggests that the Prime Minister is attending “the Fourth International Energy Conference”, “a meeting of crucial importance.”

Baker looks pretty baked...

Baker looks pretty baked…

To be fair, none of this feels especially mean-spirited. There’s none of the vitriol that the show would offer in later stories like The Greatest Show in the Galaxy or The Two Doctors. There’s actually a strange sort of affection for the conventions of the Pertwee era, even as the show tries to explain why it is trying to move away from those storytelling conventions. There’s a reason that Terror of the Zygons is held up as one of Doctor Who‘s best alien invasion stories. Beneath the wry sense of humour and the willingness to laugh at the clichés, it’s still a well-executed story.

Terror of the Zygons is a great little story, even if it’s an attempt to explain why the show is moving firmly away from the template laid out by the Pertwee era. In a way, it would have been a more comfortable fit for the end of Baker’s first season instead of the start of his second, but – either way – the intent is clear. Something new is coming.

You might be interested in our reviews of the thirteenth season of the classic television show:

One Response

  1. Reblogged this on KFJDesign and commented:
    An interesting read, particularly for those who are a fan of Doctor Who, like me!

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