Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Serial 80: Terror of the Zygons

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companions: Sarah Jane, Harry

Written by: Robert Banks Stewart
Directed by: Douglas Camfield

Background & Significance: Usually when there's a shakeup in Classic Doctor Who there's a slow period of transition as the show moves into its new ethos. You see it in the Hartnell era when Verity Lambert slowly transitioned into John Wells slowly transitioned into Innes Lloyd with some crossover of stories there. Wells's only real contributions were "The Massacre" and "The Ark" ("Myth-Makers" and "Daleks' Master Plan" being Lambert commissioned) while "The Celestial Toymaker" and "The Gunfighters" were more Wellsian than they were Lloydian.

The transition, the weaning, really helps bridge the gap between a giant paradigm shift, and "Terror of the Zygons" is a fantastic bridge between the UNIT era and the Gothic Horror of Hinchcliffe/Holmes.

Written by Robert Banks Stewart in his first of two contributions to Doctor Who, this story features the last appearance by The Brigadier until "Mawdryn Undead" some eightish years later. Stewart's prior credits (or at least the one most influential on this story) included The Avengers, leading Stewart to really focus on writing his Doctor Who like The Avengers. Script Editor Robert Holmes eventually smoothed out the edges caused by this, but it's clear that this is Doctor Who unlike we've seen previously. This is really high on the rural adventure that The Avengers was so known for in the 60s, which is not unwelcome and instead comes across as tremendously exciting and delightfully fresh.

To direct, the production team brought back Douglas Camfield, one of the great Doctor Who directors, for his first contribution to the program since 1970's "Inferno". Unsurprisingly, Camfield was brought back by the tenacity of the script and tailored his style to fit that.

But really, this is the deep wane of the UNIT years. While UNIT is a present in this, it's more than clear that The Doctor has outgrown them and they have no place in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. That doesn't stop them from re-appearing twice more in this season (in "The Android Invasion" and "The Seeds of Doom"), but as you'll see in those stories, their opportunity had long since past and they're very, very faded into the background. The Brigadier isn't in "Android Invasion" and Harry and Benton aren't even in "Seeds of Doom". There were plans to kill The Brigadier off in this story (according to legend, it was even Nicholas Courtney's idea), but Hinchcliffe opted to not kill off one of the programme's main supporting players, which led to the quiet exit of UNIT instead of a bombastic blaze of glory.

In their defense, UNIT had had too many opportunities for the bombastic blaze of glory. Probably best to go quietly.

Oh and this story has the Loch Ness Monster. So if you're ever wondering which one that is, it's this one. This is the one in which Doctor Who does the Loch Ness Monster.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

The key point of this episode where I feel like we’re getting something that’s truly more dangerous than previous UNIT stories we’ve seen is when Harry finds the lone rig survivor (Munro) washed up on shore and before he can interrogate the man, they are both shot.

Now this is Avengers influence. It has to be. Guns being dangerous? That’s not exactly Letts territory, if you ask me. Sure, there were stakes, but never anything quite so elegant as the scene in which Harry and Munro are (for lack of better phrase) hunted. I’ll credit a lot of it to Camfield’s direction: the silence, the cross-cutting, the claustrophobia, the intimacy. And yet I think it’s interesting that Holmes and Hinchcliffe don’t shy away from the moment. As of Harry getting grazed in the head, he is effectively removed from this story and in a way that is… tremendously frightening and unsettling.

See, there’s no TIME to process anything that’s happening. It happens and before you know it, bodies have fallen in a big bad way. It’s much realer and grounded than… anything else.

In fact, there’s a sense of foreboding underlining the entire last half of this. I’ll throw that down to Sister Lamont and perfectly pulling off a possessed character. The first time you watch her she comes off as cold and stiff in the way nurses can sometimes be. And yeah, that’s a little bit weird. But in retrospect it’s a little perverse, isn’t it? Now that we know she is (SPOILERS LOOK AWAY!) a Zygon, her offputting nature is even more dangerous because we SEE it, don’t we? We SEE that she’s wrong and no one else seems to be able to put two and two together and it’s maddening. No. It’s unsettling. They’re in a room with a monster and no matter how much you scream at the TV, the people in the magic light box simply will never ever hear you.

I definitely see the Avengers influence here. It’s all in the way they’re going about a small town investigation. Sarah and Harry fit right into the gumshoeing while The Doctor plays the plucky eccentric and does a damn good job of it (and it’s Tom Baker, of course he does).

But there’s something that I feel translates from The Avengers to this story and it’s something Stewart also brings into “Seeds of Doom”. He focuses a lot on the setting. And this doesn’t quite hold up in the back four episodes of “Seeds of Doom”, but the first two with the setting of Antarctica is really excellent. And this is really kind of a generic small town, isn’t it? It’s not so different than the locale Terry Nation builds into “The Android Invasion” (although that was purposefully generic). Here there’s a bunch of little touches and flairs that sketch out the context and shade in details of this sleepy town near Loch Ness. I love the landlord who plays bagpipes nonstop because he hates that his house has been claimed by UNIT. I love the guy who hunts on the moors.

All these things build in a rich world for the story to play out in. Compare it to “The Green Death”. Aside from the Welsh-bashing/silly accents, there’s nothing about that that’s inherently Welsh, is there? But here it’s totally different.

And it’s all good. Really. I’m struggling because there’s nothing to say, but it really does have everything you want from a Doctor Who. It’s deftly directed. It’s got great scares and intriguing mysteries. It’s great on the character work and drops you right in and expects you to keep up. It’s ballsy, badass, and wonderfully engaging and getting to the very end when the giant Zygon pops out only makes you want to race on and see more of these things. Fantastic work, this is. Fantastic.

Part 2:

In the middle of this episode, Sarah Jane is attacked by Harry Sullivan in what is probably one of the five scariest moments in all of Doctor Who history.

But let’s back up.

One of the things that I notice in the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era of Doctor Who is the liberties with which Holmes takes with The Doctor as a character. My most favorite example that I can think of is “The Power of Kroll” in which The Doctor shrieks like a bird or SOMETHING and manages to shatter glass. Holmes, it seems, was always interested in pushing The Doctor into more interesting and alien directions. It’s he who hypnotizes Sarah Jane in “Hand of Fear” into believing she is Eldrad again. And so here we have a sequence in which The Doctor and Sarah are locked in a decompression chamber and The Doctor hypnotizes her into believing that she doesn’t have to breathe.

As far as plot devices go, this is a strange one, isn’t it? For one thing you can’t really go without breathing no matter what your brain thinks. Oxygen runs out, shit runs out, you’re toast. But The Doctor manages to give her his ability to suspend his motor functions (as he has done before) when necessary to achieve what he needs to.

So this is not a thing I love. It’s not. It’s kinda dumb, but I like the direction it pushes The Doctor. This era is not afraid to do a bunch of interesting things with his character and the show in general to change it up and make it more interesting. It’s this era that uses the Time Lords way more than they get credit for (“Genesis of the Daleks” and “Brain of Morbius”, to say nothing of “The Deadly Assassin”) and I find that it really lends mystery to the show in general.

It’s also in this episode that we learn a lot about the Zygons.

And this, yeah. Okay. This story is incredibly popular, isn’t it? It’s always towards the top of Doctor Who polls and is routinely remembered for its inclusion of The Loch Ness Monster. So it’s deeply iconic. But it also features The Zygons, who are very… popular, and not just because of that whole “Loch Ness” thing. Zygons, as we discover here, are shapeshifters, and can take the form of anyone they capture. It makes them memorable and is used to stunning effect in this episode (as we’ll discuss in a little bit). Other than that, though, it’s all a bit naff, isn’t it? They’re incredibly generic: their planet was destroyed and they’re living on Earth with plans to take it over so it can become the new Zygon Prime. And yeah… how many times have you heard that one?

So there’s not much more to them than “we can shapeshift and us less-than-five Zygons are gonna take over a planet that’s populated with BILLIONS of people.” A little weak sauce.

That said, they mine the hell out of this shapeshifting-aliens-running-amok storyline, don’t they? And it’s all down to the way that Ian “Harry” Marter completely sells the hell out of being possessed by a soulless, evil Zygon. I love the way he takes the Saracen caller without even hardly glancing at Sarah Jane or dialing into that rapport they have. And when he runs out into the township and away it’s with a look of panic and terror that is purely Zygon. There’s an awkwardness to the human form that the Zygon is weirdly compensating for. It’s details like these that make memorable aliens for people to come back to time and again.

But then they go further and have Sarah go after him. I’ll step past the part where Sarah says “let’s split up” to the military guys and the military run off without her because it’s a bro-party or something.

Now, I’ll forgive that, purely because it gets us to pure terror. And I mean pure. There’s nothing like seeing what looks like a deranged and psychopathic Harry pick up a pitchfork and go after Sarah Jane when she comes after him. It’s a terrifying moment, isn’t it? On paper it’s perverse to watch a companion attempt to skewer another, and it goes far beyond your typical “one companion betrays the team” that you might get in general. Stabbing is both violent and personal, and it’s only heightened by Douglas Camfield who excels at this sort of suspense and excitement. It’s deeply memorable and really fantastic.

The rest of this is great. Really excellent. Robert Banks Stewart is fantastic at bringing out the adventure of this story and the big set piece of The Doctor running across the moors and pursued by the Loch Ness Monster is really, really superb and exactly what you want from a story like this. Originally this was supposed to be the Loch Ness Monster on the water and The Doctor trying to escape in a rowboat. This is much more thrilling. Running is total Doctor Who wheelhouse and seeing the water monster trapse about on land manages to (while being a shoddy effect) be perverse and exciting. This thing wants him so bad it will go out of its natural habitat and race to get him. It’s tremendously exciting and the cliffhanger is really effective in its execution.

Part 3:

So in the last episode we got a lot of Zygons. A lot. We learned who they were. We learned their plans. We saw some shapeshifting. We saw some plotting. But there’s a crucial thing missing that I didn’t even realize until we got almost to the end of this episode.

Robert Banks Stewart plays a lot with perspective and dramatic irony. We know of the Zygons because they appeared to Sarah Jane very briefly at the end of episode one. And we see them a lot in episode two because they abducted Harry. And we see them a lot here because Banks Stewart chooses to focus on them for some of the plots so you can understand that the Skaracen’s running away is not a convenient out to keep The Doctor from getting eaten. But there’s a lot of Zygons. We are privy to the landlord getting killed and even towards the end of this episode we get a scene or two that are Zygons-only with none of the human characters with them in the scene.

And yet, it’s not until the VERY end of this episode that The Zygons reveal themselves to the humans. So for the first almost hour of this story, there isn’t a real confrontation and The Doctor doesn’t even come face-to-face with a Zygon until the closing minutes of the episode.

Structurally I quite like this. The story has a built-in tension that comes from the fact that The Doctor and his team can’t seem to make any progress on this stopping-the-aliens front. The Zygons are almost constantly one step ahead of them at every step of the way, and our heroes are so behind that they can’t even get an audience with them (or a knowing audience anyways). It’s delaying a payoff by throwing a bunch of other objects in the way, making the payoff at the end of this episode incredibly much more exciting and cathartic than it would be if it were, say, at the end of episode two.

To make it so you don’t even really notice this is happening, the episode throws everything at the wall so you don’t notice that certain things haven’t happened.

Perhaps the best of this is the “Bigfoot sequence”, in which the Nurse Zygon steals the eyes from a deer mounted on the wall (where the Zygons had bugged the room of UNIT’s temporary HQ and then flees into the woods. UNIT pursues and we get shots and glimpses of her in Zygon form trapsing through the woods in the vein of that old Bigfoot footage everyone reading this knows I’m talking about. From a purely “that’s cool” standpoint, this is super cool. It tickles the homage bone (monster running through the woods) while going for a cool angle of “UNIT in hot pursuit” to drive the story forward. UNIT is hunting a Zygon in the woods. That’s just cool. It just is, and I don’t know why I keep forgetting it happens, because god knows it’s freakin great.

And then there’s the bit where The Doctor, the Brig, and Sarah Jane all head to the local Lord’s house, which is this Gothic mansion full of books and strange ladders. It even has a secret passage which (as we find out at the end of the episode) leads to the Zygon spaceship.

Again, this is Hinchcliffe/Holmes further establishing the visual aesthetic of their era. There never would have been anything like this in the Pertwee era. The closest I think they ever came was “The Daemons”, and even then that was overtly Gothic because it was a refurbished castle. No one actually lives there. Here it’s different. This is someone’s house and it’s believable as someone’s house. Sure, we’re only seeing the one room, and yes, it’s a little sparse. But compare this to Harrison Chase’s mansion in "Seeds of Doom” and you’ll see the similarity. There’s a personality to this that is… missing from the Pertwee era. This place comes with a tone and an aesthetic that just isn’t around in the Pertwee era. The Pertwee era always went for near-futurrism. This at least feels like a place that really exists in the Scottish countryside.

I will, however, question the Lord Zygon’s wisdom as he leaves Sarah Jane looking through books in the room with the bookcase behind which is a secret passage that can only be opened by lifting up the right book. Which is silly? Why in the world would you leave her there to discover what you clearly don’t want her to discover?

But it’s really quite good and quite good at the horror as well. The Bigfoot thing is classic horror (there’s something in the woods) and Sarah Jane investigating the space ship is something a little more haunted housey. Sure, nothing bad happens but there’s still a creepiness to her discovering all of the weird elements of this weird coral ship and rescuing Harry and being afraid that he’s not who he says he is.

And you know what? This is a great story for Tom Baker. He’s on fire here. It’s in the way he’s casually placing his hat on that armor’s head or the way he stands bemused at the Zygon control panel as they prepare to take off the ship. He’s cool, calm, and collected in this story in a way that he does so perfectly. Nothing bothers him, nothing phases him, not yet anyways, and he keeps all of himself close to his chest. All of this makes him mysterious and he’s as enigmatic as ever. Sure, you trust him (he is The Doctor after all) but he’s always challenging us to figure out what it is he’s thinking. We know more than him and yet when we’re around him it feels like we know less, which is clearly untrue.

It’s a great story, this one.

Part 4:

So now we get to the end, I find myself in the same place I was when we discussed this episode on the podcast a year ago: I really don’t have much to say about it.

That’s not to say it’s bad. It’s just not quite discussable. A lot of things happen, but it’s really just a series of “let’s finish this” with about three different endings because the structure bounces to three different things. We have to wrap up the Zygons on the spaceship. And then we have to wrap up the storyline of the Lord Zygon. And then we have to wrap up the storyline of the Loch Ness Monster. All in all it leads to some wonky plotting and a traveling from station to station as we tie up all the loose ends. Ideally, all the storylines would wrap up in one big mashup place. But they can’t have a spaceship in London (too expensive) nor can they have Zygons riding on the Loch Ness monster poaching humans (although that would be rad), so they have to parse it out across the thing.

No, what’s here is excellent. The escape from the self-destructing spaceship is thrilling and the scene in which the Lord Zygon attacks The Doctor and Sarah Jane is really dangerous and fantastic and I have to point out that John Dixon does a fantastic job of lighting the sequence and making it sinister and dangerous despite the fact that it’s basically nondescript save for a few stacks of boxes to add “character”. But Camfield really uses the light to capture the tone of the scene in ways you see few Classic Who stories do. And it’s effective, extremely. It’s so good, in fact, that you don’t even realize that it’s the second of three endings in this episode.

Where it kinda falls apart is the Loch Ness Monster ending, which does have a rubbish bit with a hand puppet, but you know what? I could care less. I really could. The thought of the Loch Ness Monster traipsing through the streets of London is enough to set your imagination wild. Which is fantastic.

I’m still not convinced, though. The Zygons in this story slide by on sheer ethos, not logos. Their design is cool, the coral works. The shapeshifting and body stealing is deeply iconic. And yet, their plan is mostly rubbish. They plan to use the Skaracen to take down the United Nations (which is just Doctor Who physics of a giant monster grafted onto an Avengers plot). And what would that do? It doesn’t really allow them access to stage a wicked coups. I mean, wouldn’t it be more effective to have them body snatch the Prime Minister or something? That seems like a better use of skill sets. They don’t have the numbers for a large scale invasion, so they have to use their brains.

But it’s good. It’s dashing and it’s thrilling. It’s got some great Brigadier moments (him gunning down that Zygon like a bamf is the stuff of legend) and finds itself a quiet sendoff for his character until the next attempt. Unfortunately, you can’t say the same for Harry, who doesn’t really have a good reason for staying. He only chooses to. It’s a little bizarre if you ask me. Maybe if they played it as like “this is my last assignment”, but there isn’t any for that and I know that he does appear in “The Android Invasion”, but it’s still your standard sendoff for a Doctor Who companion: “We just decided that he’s not going to be a companion anymore. Farewell, Doctor!”

And yet, these are minor quibbles, for this episode is pretty great all throughout.

Final Thoughts?: This story is deserving of its reputation, and yet I also feel it is deserving of its "forgottenness".

There's a quality of certain Doctor Who stories in certain eras to be "forgotten gems" and because Classic Who had about six stories per season (roughly) it's always easy to break down the season into a "good half" and a "weaker half".

For this season (which is a very strong season) it breaks down clearly. "Pyramids of Mars", "Brain of Morbius", and "Seeds of Doom" are the stronger half, leaving the other three stories (this, "Planet of Evil", and "The Android Invasion") to be forgotten in light of the strength of the others. "Android Invasion" probably gets the most play of those "weaker" three because it's so atypically weak. But why "Zygons"? Well, sure, it's not as memorable, but why? It has the Loch Ness monster! It has shapeshifting aliens made from bits of coral! But does it have much more than that? Not really. Douglas Camfield's direction is stellar and Robert Banks Stewart's script is quite good, but there's not much to it.

It is, for lack of better terminology, "a romp".

Again, that's not bad. But "romps" are not the stories you remember off the top of your head. Romps are the comfort food that you love to watch but are gone from memory the second you've finished with them. It's why "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" doesn't have the staying power of "The Doctor's Wife." Both are tons of fun, but "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" doesn't really have much of a point outside of the premise. "Pyramids," "Morbius," and "Seeds" (with "Seeds" being the least of these) do something really exciting and spectacular that make them tremendously memorable. It's in the way that they play out. They talk about something cool. They have great character work. They're thematically intricate and interesting. "Zygons" doesn't really do that and while I will say "that's a shame" it still doesn't detract from the fact that I really do quite like this story.

The Zygons themselves are well-played and I have to say they do lend themselves to return times to maybe flesh them out and make them better. The recurring use of Zygons in Big Finish's 8th Doctor Adventures with Lucie Miller is hands down the best use of Zygons I think I've ever seen (or ever will see), and I like that they build off the building blocks of this. But this is just a romp, and it's fine for being a romp. It's a story that I quite look forward to rewatching whenever I have to rewatch it and I find I have a good time in watching it whenever I do. But I also find I don't have much to say about it because there really isn't a whole lot that's here. It's mostly a big action/adventure UNIT story and one of the best UNIT stories that is, and yet it's more than that. It's a really great 4th Doctor story with a great, early performance by Mr. T. Baker over there and the sorta story that you can show fans of the new series in an attempt to get into the old.

And really, sometimes all you need is that comfort food to get you your Doctor Who fix.

Next Time!: 5th Doctor! Nyssa and Tegan! The introduction of Turlough! Reanimated corpses! Trans-temporal madness! And the return of The Brigadier?! TWICE?!?! Next week we kick off our week-long look at The Black Guardian Trilogy with "Mawdryn Undead!" Coming Next Monday!

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