Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Terror of the Zygons written by Robert Banks-Stewart and directed by Douglas Camfield

This story in a nutshell: Oil rigs are being smashed, doppelgangers are more dangerous than ever and there is a spaceship hidden beneath Loch Ness...

Teeth and Curls: Wow, what a transformation between Revenge of the Cybermen (where Tom seemed a little wobbly and unsure in the role) and this. By all accounts he received some feedback on his performance in the first season and flew off the handle at the comments (according to an interview with Nicholas Courtney). It seems to have put him in a massive grump and what materializes is the brooding, menacing fourth Doctor of seasons thirteen and fourteen. Perhaps the definitive fourth Doctor for most. He storms in on he Brigadier dressed up for the occasion, demanding answers and making a mockery of his investigation so far. The softly softly approach of the latter Pertwee tales has long past. It takes the Brigadier to remind him that men have died for him to stop being so curt and fatuous and get on with the job at hand. This is the story where Baker starts using his eyes as a weapon, several scenes feature him staring boggle eyed off camera, alien, unknowable thoughts racing through his head. Watch as the Doctor reveals his theory that the Prince Charlie oil rig has been torn apart by a set of giant molars that can chew through steel as easily as paper, he looks as terrifying and ominous as any of the villains he has ever faced. Rather than sympathising with Sarah when the air is sucked out of the room he tells her to shut up and save her breath. When he hypnotises her, the Doctor is the most frighteningly alien thing in this story. You can see everything coming together for Tom Baker's Doctor in the final episode as he shares moments of sarcasm and intensity with Broton. Suddenly this Doctor can mock his enemies and turn on a sixpence to absolute horror in a second. The switch of moods is effortless. The Doctor seems to blow the shit out of the Zygon spaceship because that is the way he rolls these days. And what an explosion it is.

Investigative Journalist: Is there anything more glorious than seeing the Doctor, Sarah and Harry walking out of the TARDIS? With this team you are guaranteed a good time, some fun banter and sense of camaraderie that you don't see with every set of regulars. It's especially nice that we have another minute of two of fresh material from the trio that has been unearthed and slipped back into the story on the DVD. You can see precisely why Sarah made such an excellent journalist, coaxing ghost stories out of Angus, grafting in front of a typewriter when she could be travelling through time and space and generally asking a lot of questions throughout the adventure and poking her nose in where it is not wanted. It almost gets her killed several times but that just makes the story all the more exciting for us. Watch the giggles between the Doctor an Sarah at the Brigadier's expense, there is such a depth of friendship between these two. There are too many times when I love Sarah Jane Smith during her tenure that it would take me a day or so to list them all but they can be epitomised in her scenes at the castle where she dumped by the Doctor and forced to rifle through dusty shelves. She's sardonic, witty, insightful, inquisitive and displays bags of personality. These could be the most tedious of scenes but with Sarah on the case that was never on the books (poking her tongue out at Caber is glorious). Even better are her moments with Harry; affectionate, hilarious and natural.

I Say: What a shame for Harry to depart on the story that gives him some of his best material. Whilst I wouldn't do anything to change the period that the Doctor and Sarah spent alone (there are few runs for a Doctor/companion team than match what takes place between Planet of Evil - The Hand of Fear), I do wish we could have enjoyed some more time with Harry all the same. The bumbling fool of The Ark in Space has all but vanished and he has been replaced with a thoroughly reliable, professional, good-humoured chap to look after the Doctor and Sarah. Back on Earth (he hasn't been home since Robot) his skills as a Doctor are useful again and he gets straight back to work as though he had never been away. After playing the bumbling simpleton for a year, who knew that Ian Marter had it in him to turn Harry into such a threatening character? It makes you wonder that we might have been denied a lot of the potential of this actor when he can deliver something this terrorizing when called upon. I was sad to see him go but his departure does seem like something of an anti-climax. When an irritating little squit like Adric can gain immortality with a death that put him in the history books it seems unfair that Harry should depart with a quick one liner and then return a few stories later for an even more ignominious departure in The Android Invasion.

Chap with Wings: Proud of his Scottish heritage, the Brigadier sports a very fetching kilt. Under Camfield's watchful eye the bumbling, comical figure from Planet of the Spiders and Robot is gone and replaced once again with an assured, authoritative figure. Whilst it is always nice to see Courtney playing the part with a twinkle in his eye we haven't seen him this focussed and confident since The Daemons (with the exceptional of The Green Death, possibly). Just as Harry is about to get to the truth of what has happened to the rig he is shot and left for dead by the Caber, a shocking act that really highlights the difference between Letts' and Hinchliffe's approach. Under the previous administration it would have been made perfectly clear that Harry was okay but with a scalp wound leaking blood we are left hanging as to the nature of his fate. His reaction to an off screen Zygon is one of horror and hysteria - it is a great moment because we have yet to see one of the creatures and this truly suggests they are a grisly sight. I love the Brig sympathising with the Duke over his scepticism, it reminds us of how far he has come in his time on the show. His stiff upper lip in the face of the (female) Prime Minister is another golden moment for the character. Nick Courtney wasn't always given the best of material to play but he made the most of every single moment on the show. I'm pleased that in his last regular appearance he was treated to such wonderful scenes.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Oil an emergency, hah! It's about time you realised that reliance on a chemical slime just doesn't make sense!'
'It suddenly came at us and smashed the rig to pieces...'
'You have to come out on the balcony and wave a tentacle, if you'll pardon the expression.'

The Good:
*   I was very struck by the quality of the modelwork in this story, especially during the dynamic opening sequence where the oil rig is smashed to pieces by an unknown aggressor. The shot of the rig blowing against the silhouette of the moon is especially dramatic. Douglas Camfield knows how to drag you into the action and just over a minute into the story I am already hooked.
*   Proof if ever it was needed that parts of Scotland look very much like parts of the rest of Britain as Camfield shoots his story in parts of Sussex and it convincingly doubles for it. He's renowned for his exceptional location work (stories such as The Invasion and Inferno are given a huge boost thanks to his action on film) and Terror of the Zygons might be the best example yet of the atmosphere and filmic scale that Camfield can bring to a shoot. Shots of the rig worker being washed ashore are very effective; the sun glistening on the sea as at gathers around the victim, stumbling to his feet as he tries to make it to the shore. The sequence where Harry discovers him and is shot down by the Caber takes place almost entirely without dialogue, expertly told through visuals. The pace and realism that Hinchcliffe wanted to bring to the show is in full swing now, we haven't witnessed action sequences quite this graphic and well paced since Inferno (tellingly Camfield's last stint on the show although to be fair season seven is full of gripping action).
*   It is not so much subverting cliché when Camfield takes some well worn material and makes it work. It's more like watching a magician at work, treating the material so seriously that something as corny as Angus telling an old wife's tale of missing boys on the moor becomes chilling, especially when it is intercut with shots of a Zygon's eyes observing their conversation. Camfield can build an atmosphere like no other and he can toss in all kinds of clichés to pull it off.
*   In another directors hands the Zygons spaceship would still be an exciting piece of design work but filmed without it care its organic detail would be wasted. Camfield wastes no time getting up close on the fleshy technology, featuring cross fades of the creatures fondling the protuberances and revealing that we have never seen anything like this pulsing, breathing equipment before. The veins that run through the scanner screen are novel too. It feels like the designer and the director are completely in sync with each other and know exactly what look they are going for with the Zygons and their spaceship. There have been impressive monster costumes in Doctor Who before (the Mutants, the Draconians) but we've never seen anything quite like the Zygons before. So bizarre looking and yet so scary, they are a unique creation and it astonishes me that it took as long as it did for them to make a return appearance. Such attention to detail is evident; the veins threading through the skin, a segmented face, fluid glistening on the flesh, pustules and suckers that spread the length of their body. Not only is the design superb but the direction adds so much to their effect, the whispering voices in particular going against what you might expect from a creature this grotesque. Their raison d'etre, the fact that they can steal your identity and infiltrate your life, is especially chilling and used to menacing effect throughout the story. You don't know who you can trust when anybody could be a Zygon replica. The icing on the cake (this shows you how spectacular the creatures are realised because the performance is often what sells the aliens in Doctor Who, it is rarely the finishing touch on something so perfectly brought to life) is John Woodnut's stunning turn as Broton, not a bog standard alien character but a character in his own right. He's petulant, sinister, humorous, aggressive, twisted and thoughtful. The Zygons really are as good as it gets when it comes to Doctor Who monsters.

*   I have mentioned before that there are individual episodes of Doctor Who that can be held up as an example of the show at it's absolute best, even when the story at large has some faults. The Invasion seven. Inferno six. The Daemons four. Caves of Androzani four. Terror of the Zygons episode one can be comfortably added to that list; thick with atmosphere and chills, a great mystery, the introduction of shocking aliens and packed to the gills with great characters and dialogue (it is also before the Skarasen turns up and reminds us this good old Doctor Who). You will not see a better example of how to build to a cliffhanger in this person than the Zygon assault on Sarah and Harry at the cliffhanger.
* Hauntingly evocative and eerily beautiful, we have never heard anything quite like Geoffrey Burgeon's score before. Listen to the screaming stings as Harry attacks Sarah with a fork or the violin plucks as the Skarasen emerges over the moors. I have the soundtrack to Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom (also by Burgeon) and have listened to it ad nauseum and wept for the fact that he never had the chance to score any more stories beyond Camfield's participation (or lack of) in the show.

The Bad: The Skarasen has come in for a lot of flack in the past but the truth of the matter is that there are far worse Doctor Who monsters out there. It is simply that highlighted against the success of the rest of the production it fails to meet the same standards. As a stop motion creature it does everything it is supposed to do. The problem is that whilst they had a success in the cinema before the advent of more impressive visual effects, stop motion animation isn't a particularly convincing method of realising a titanic creature like the Skarasen. Douglas Camfield uses lots of techniques to try and make the cumbersome lummox of a dinosaur work, including POV shots, melding the animation with live action and CSO but he is fighting against some pretty ropey animation in the first place and cannot overcome the odds. I dread to think how this would have looked in the hands of a lesser director. It is a good thing that Broton is on the rampage in the final set piece at the Energy Conference otherwise we would be relying on the glove puppet Skarasen popping his head up the Thames in a particularly unimpressive climax.

The Shallow Bit: Check out Ian Marter's arse as he climbs the ladder in the barn. Phewie!

Result: Terror of the Zygons was the first Doctor Who story to seriously frighten me. I first became a fan at six years old when my friend Paul who lived two doors down started telling me a lot of the backstory of this insanely exciting show. The first video I had bought for my by my mother was Death to the Daleks (another reason it holds such an affectionate place in my heart despite being a bit rubbish in places) but the next was Terror of the Zygons. I can still remember watching it sitting on the carpet at my mums feet as she fell asleep in the chair on a winters night - it was the afternoon and it was dark early. I devoured all four episodes, alone and terrified and riveted to the spot. I had never been allowed to watch anything quite like it before, something this terrifying and bizarre. Moments that stood out for me as being particularly terrorizing were: Sister Lamont and her crazy eyes and the dark blood that runs down her arm, Harry's murderous eyes as he waits in the darkness of the barn to skewer Sarah, the intense weirdness of the Zygon technology being fondled and groped by sticky, webbed hands, Tom Baker's sibilant performance as he hypnotises Sarah, the swivelling deer eyes watching all in the pub, that insidious feeling that nobody can be trusted, the dying shriek of the UNIT soldier who is strangled to death at the conference and Tom Baker's piercing scream as he is electrocuted. Even the Skarasen's snapping jaws and unearthly roars were intimidating to an eight year old. Doctor Who had been handed to me as a show with so much potential but never in a million years did I imagine it could be so fearsome. It went from a mild curiosity to an addiction across these four episodes and I was soon begging for more videos (and despite the extortionate price, my mum soon relented). I wanted to capture that feeling of terror and that I was doing something naughty watching the show again and found across the Hinchcliffe years in particular that that hunger was satisfied. Some Doctor Who fans will tell you that this story is a load of old wank, comprised of hoary old clichés and stereotypes but for that eight year old boy it was the gateway to world of so much excitement and terror. Even as an adult as I pick apart the production and story there is a manifest of things to enjoy; terrific dialogue, warm interaction between the characters, a stunningly atmospheric score, ample evocative location work, shock moments, effective model work and a great cast of regulars. If you were looking for the quintessentially excellent Doctor Who story, I think you might have found it. It even has a rubbish monster thrown in too which in some strange way makes a very good story absolutely perfect: 10/10


Cynical Classicist said...

First Classic Story me and my brother see. I should probably see it again after 10 years. I will probably find a lot to mock, but it was a great watch.

Jonathan said...

Where did Nick Courtney make this claim?

Paul said...

Watched it for the first time in years - still a truly great story from a truly great era: the scene in the barn with Doctor Who 'doing' Hammer House of Horror remains stunning and one of the great moments of 70s Doctor Who.

Martin Hudecek said...

I like this story but it only comes 4th in the season after Seeds, Pyramids, and Morbius. I did see the original VHS once perhaps, but it had minimal effect on me compared to Robots of Death and Five Doctors.
The Zygons are very very good monsters and just as with the Ice Warriors' first story, they all have their own personality and look.
Baker is now totally in his stride - with the first full production block completed in his long Doctor Who career. A fine story for the Brigadier to go out on, but the plot is a little weak in places compared to the other stories I mentioned.

Martin Hudecek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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David Pirtle said...

I agree with Martin that this is only the fourth-best story of the season, which just goes to show how amazing this season is. One of the highest points in the show's history.