Due to the fact we can’t physically watch and review every classic Doctor Who story before the 50th Anniversary, we have decided to check out two episodes in each Doctor’s era every week until the 50th. This week is the Fourth Doctor’s week, featuring Genesis of the Doctor and The Zygons. For those looking for another good episode to understand the Fourth Doctor, also look at the City of Death.
Terror of the Zygons is the first serial of the 13th season of Doctor Who. It was the last regular appearance by Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan as well as the last regular appearance by Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
Terror of the Zygons is not a hugely influential story in regards to the Fourth Doctor (these include City of Death, The Ark in Space, Logopolis, The Deadly Assassin and The Horns of Nimon). Not that it was a poor story, but others may disagree with the inclusion of this as an example of the Fourth Doctor stories. However, as the Zygons are aliens which will be making an appearance in the 50th Anniversary Special, The Day of the Doctor, it would be beneficial for those unfamiliar with the classic Who stories to familiarise themselves with these aliens.
Going by ratings, we were going to watch Fourth Doctor story City of Death, as noted above. However, Terror of the Zygons is a bit of fun, even if it wasn’t as well received, and in addition, gives new Classic Who viewers like myself a taste of the monsters who will go up against the Doctor(s) in the 50th Anniversary Special.
Set in Scotland, the story begins with the sinking of an oil rig – the third in a month. The Brigadier calls for the Doctor to help, and he’s rightly disgusted with the idea of helping an oil company. However, he becomes intrigued after finding giant teeth marks in the rig wreckage, and he, Sarah Jane and Harry are caught up in the very odd happenings in the small Scottish town. Eventually, it is discovered that the Zygons, who crash-landed on Earth centuries ago, are looking to remake Earth in the image of their now-dead home planet. They have the ability to shape-shift through the use of technology, which means they can be incredibly sneaky, a trait that is further emphasised with their use of bugs to listen and spy on the humans. Also, there’s a Loch Ness Monster which is actually a cyborg. Just casually.
This story is great for Sarah Jane, showcasing her curiousity and investigative abilities, while Harry fares rather less well, even getting shot at one point. The Doctor is much more relaxed in this episode than in Genesis of the Daleks, with his expressive face and giant, popping eyes utilised to the fullest. Perhaps the funniest example of this is when Harry and the Brigadier both decline to travel with him, and he asks Sarah Jane in a very puppy-dog-like manner. The Brigadier and co. also get decent parts, although the unnamed UNIT soldiers drop off quite rapidly. This story involves a fair amount of investigation, and although there is some action, most of the story revolves around deciphering the mystery.
In all honesty, while the Zygons are both intelligent and aggressive, I rarely felt as if they would really win. Of course, this may just be because the costumes, although well done, were still a little funny, and poor old Nessie is so badly green-screened to be ridiculous (although I’m sure they tried their best). While there were some genuinely worrying moments, such as Harry getting shot or Sarah Jane and the Doctor being locked in a compression chamber, in general, the mood of the story was quite light.
It’ll be interesting to see how Steven Moffat brings back these mid-tier Doctor Who monsters, that’s for sure.
Relatively fast paced, with treachery, deceit, a healthy dose of violence, secretive aliens and Loch Ness monster; Terror of the Zygons is still a fun, adventure-filled story, even if it isn’t as influential as other Fourth Doctor stories. With the Brigadier and UNIT still hanging around, the Fourth Doctor still shows his characteristic contempt of authority. From wearing a ridiculous getup and subtly jesting with the Brigadier for his wearing of a kilt (he’s a Stewart after all), to openly mocking the local duke for his stuffy attitude, this Doctor shows no regard for authority figures at all. Unlike Genesis of the Daleks, which was very much about a more subdued emotional Doctor, Terror of the Zygons allows Tom Baker’s characteristic face to adapt numerous facial expressions, such as the bewildered and betrayed look at the end of the serial when nobody wants to travel with him in the TARDIS. His reactions with the companions are also a source of amusement and empathy. He shows extreme concern when Sarah and Harry have been harmed, or when he thinks they are in harm, as well as his adorable interactions with Sarah in the lighter moments and the quaintly amusing patronising he treats Harry with is a source of entertainment. The companions themselves are also enjoyable to watch on their own, as they engage in small adventures without having to rely entirely on the Doctor to save them, which makes for enjoyable viewing.
The bad guys are interesting to a certain degree. Aesthetically, the Zygons are quite spectacular – their ship has a grotesque appeal, as do their large, sucker-covered forms. The only major draw-back was the Loch Ness Monster – it was very difficult to suspend belief for this monster due to the poor graphics. Admittedly, it was still a mid-1970’s cheap BBC science-fiction production, and it cannot be judged too harshly because of this, but even so, the other parts of production were spectacular. The Zygons in the universe also had some interesting attributes that make them an interesting villain. Firstly, they relied heavily on biological weaponry and cyborg machines – their spaceship interior appears almost to be almost a living organism, whilst the exterior has a more metallic feel, and Nessie is in fact a cyborg. Secondly, and more unusually, is the fact that they are mammals, which is something that is not very common in the sci-fi world at all. Thirdly, they are shape shifters, which although admittedly could have been explored further, was still ingenious, albeit a little tired in sci-fi as a concept.
Terror of the Zygons isn’t perhaps the most original of the Fourth Doctor stories. The aliens, whilst being very cool aesthetically, are fairly run-of-the-mill aim, using tried and tested methods. It has a good mix of pathos and comedy, with amusing snide comments clashing with the violence and sinister aims of the Zygons. Again, whilst it may not be the most popular or the most controversial or indeed artistically the best of the Fourth Doctor’s era, Terror of the Zygons is still a very enjoyable serial. It also shows the strength of the Fourth Doctor’s relationships with his companions, especially Sarah Jane. It is also significant as it was the Brigadier’s last regular appearance on the show. Therefore, Terror of the Zygons makes for enjoyable viewing, and is useful to getting an understanding of the character of the Fourth Doctor, at least in the early years.