Terror of the Zygons

Written by:
Robert Banks Stewart
Directed by: Douglas Camfield
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1975
Video Availability: Try sendit.com

A weird first episode this, as it lasts less than thirty seconds. Featuring some bizarre humour for the series including Tom talking direct to the audience, it seems to concern the Doctor going to the cinema.
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Terror of the Zygons is everything that season 13 was all about. While all were - generally - good, strong stories, they were also hopelessly shallow. Taking the season as a whole, then it becomes very much the "monster of the week" show, and is only a step up from the Pertwee era by virtue of the fact that it was better made.

This only becomes a problem when you watch the season as a complete entity (and the Restoration Team suggested it to the BBC as the first UK DVD boxset), but as individual pieces then they're all superbly entertaining. Well, apart from Planet of Evil and The Android Invasion, obviously.

Featuring more Scottish patronage than you can shake a caber at, it opens with a man using a radio transmitter to request more haggis. Really. Next, we learn that the Brigadier has some Scottish ancestry to go with his Italian Uncle Mario from The Ghosts of N-Space. Nicholas Courtney complained that Tom wasn't as friendly with him making this one as he was during Robot. Yet he should be thankful for this story, as it finally restores the Brigadier and UNIT's dignity. He's still a light entertainment Sergeant Major, but at least his organisation is credible once more.

Here's where the story shouldn't work but does: the Zygons. The idea of five-foot monsters coloured bright orange is the sort of thing that should plummet to Gel Guards levels of credibility, though for some reason they become one of the most frightening monsters ever seen in the series. The upped level of gore and violence helps, though it's never gratuitous as it would be in the mid 80s. Saturation is a terrible thing, but Hinchcliffe always seems to get it right.

Tom's on top form and Lis has greatly improved for what will be a one companion season. Famously this was intended to be a six-part finale to season 12, with Harry leaving, redundant by Baker's youth. With production held up, it becomes season 13's four-part opener, and Ian Marter's boredom is palpable. Harry had some great rapport with Tom's Doctor (their greatest story together being Genesis) and Marter is far better in the role than he's given credit for. Yet you can tell he can't wait to get out here, and his leaving scene is less "Goodbye, Doctor", more "Okay, then, see you, whatever." Weakest acting though comes from Tony Sibbald who is positively stinky as Mr. Huckle. (And how hurtfully ironic for him to have a surname like that, considering he's as bald as a coot).

The only season 13 story with anything approaching a subtext is the intertextual antics of Morbius, but is the scene where Harry's shot on the beach a clever homage to Get Carter? After all, it'd be less than four years old when this was made. Although I bought the unedited video release of this story some time ago, this is actually the first time I've watched it. One of the fun things about the edited versions were playing "guess where the cliffhanger was". Sometimes you'd get it wrong, but here there was no mistaking it - one of Who's scariest-ever scenes where a Zygon is seen in full for the first time. Yikes!
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Considering this story is nearly thirty years old now, it contains an amazing pace and urgency. I note on the end credits that it was helmed by Douglas Camfield, surely one of the best ever directors on the series?

The Zygons really are quite disturbing, you know. I think it's because even though they're obviously men in suits (well, not obviously, but, you know, they have to be) the heads are wider, the face just a small part of the head. It's eerie and unsettling, while Tom hypnotising Sarah so she can hold her breath is just as alien and weird.

John Levene wasn't a trained actor but usually gets through on earnest personality. He seems unusually wooden here, or is it just unease with Tom's Doctor and the upped ante of the supporting cast? After all, if you've been in the same story as Jenny Laird you'd look good too.

This is all so well made and well lit, and if you look at it in context (it comes just a year after the hugely tatty seasons 10 and 11) then it makes you appreciate it all the more. The Zygon death scene here is suitably graphic and disturbing, surely giving the younger end of the audience more than a few scares. When I was playing the "guess the cliffhanger" game I actually thought that would be it, but it comes too early. Instead, we enter the end credits with a shot of the stop motion Skarasen. Never mind - this is still an absolute superb entertainment.
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Fans of accidental spitting may like to check out the line 1'29m in, where the Zygons claim "we have lost visual contact." As Broton gets to the word "lost" a big lump of phlegm flies out of his mouth. Talking of lumps of phlegm, then the Skarasen takes the story into the realms of quaint nostalgia rather than something that still holds up to modern values, but think how bad it would have been under the Letts administration.

It's a shame, though, because until now I had Terror as verging on classic status. Yet as shallow as it may be, the Forgill Castle is so unconvincing as real - both inside and out - that you can't take it seriously. The moving eye on the deer scene is also far sillier than it should be.

Thankfully, the Zygons are again played with some dedication, and invoke a slight sexual subtext. The fact that they resemble embryos is always trotted out, but their intense rubbing of their organic machinery also disturbs, as does the mouth shape of the Zygon underling. Actually, it's finally hit me - the underling is miming to the actor's voice, unlike John Woodnutt who actually plays Broton. So that the mismatch between mouth and words creates an unconsciously unnerving effect. Compare this to, say, The Seeds of Death, where a lip synching Ice Warrior would be shot on ludicrous close-up. Look out too for the very realistic-looking blood on the nurse's arm, a serious step up from the usual quota of implied violence.

It's notable that Harry hardly gets to be in this episode. It's a shame really, because for his last story he scarcely features, though this does add greater credence to the validity of a Doctor/Sarah teaming. Speaking of Sarah, then on this occasion I definitely would. Shame about the dull cliffhanger though - I never guessed that on movie format.
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I really do think this story stands up, and stands up hugely. I can handle cheapness, but not tattiness. Most of the later Jon Pertwee episodes, for example, just look tacky. While not all of the effects here are first rate, such as the transformation of the Zygons, they're so striking and original that they work wonders. There's a real sense of vibrancy in this one, with vibrant reds, oranges and greens, yet it's also darkly lit when it needs to be, and horrifyingly done.

I used to take this story less seriously because it's so throwaway. How can you regard a story as a classic when it features a comic book stereotyping of a race and doesn't have anything to say? Yet maybe this is Who as it should be - just a solidly made scary tale for 14 year olds.

This is the one with the jokes, of course - Tom apologising to the Zygons for talking about tentacles, and reasoning that "isn't it a bit large for just about six of you?" There's a quarry featuring as a quarry, a female Prime Minister and "very good… almost impressive… but why bother?" Sadly, it all ends with an explosion, very Pertwee. Maybe the scale of the plot downplays the threat of the Zygons - seeing them kill gradually is fine, but wanting to take over the entire world is a stretch. To this end, they enlist the Skarasen, and yes, the bit where it rises above the Thames is a little naff, but nowhere near as bad as they say. A lesser story would be sunk by the Skarasen, Broton's half suit showing and ending on a cheap Scottish joke. But Terror is no lesser story, and Broton's attacking noises are genuinely terrifying even to me as an adult. I was going to end this review by saying that even Dudley was on a good day, though true to the rule that if you hear decent music in a 70s Who story it's one that Simpson never worked on, then Geoffrey Burgon gets the credit.
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You know, this one improves every single time I see it, and I'm tempted to say it's a classic. Ah, sod it - it's a classic.
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