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Terror of the Zygons

Review: Doctor Who – Terror of the Zygons / Cert: PG / Director: Douglas Camfield / Screenplay: Robert Banks Stewart / Starring: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter, Nicholas Courtney, John Levene, John Woodnutt / Release Date: September 30th

1975’s Terror of the Zygons, the first four-part serial from Tom Baker’s second season is, for now, the final complete Doctor Who serial to make its way onto shiny silver disc. Whilst it’s not exactly a case of ‘saving the best till last’, the BBC have at least kept back until (nearly) the end of the DVD range a decent, well-remembered story and lavished it with a generous afternoon’s-worth of quality special features.

Baker had by now bedded nicely into the role, his first season moving him away from his predecessor Jon Pertwee’s role as scientific adviser for paramilitary soldier boys UNIT and recreating the Doctor as a traveller in Space and Time. Yet this serial tears the Doctor back to Earth and sits him rather uncomfortably into just the sort of story the Pertwee era had specialised in: Earth in danger from rubber aliens and the Doctor teaming up with UNIT to see them off. But it’s not the sort of story that suits Baker’s more quixotic personality – the actor himself was keen to dump the whole UNIT set-up and move on – and there’s a definite sense of ennui and ‘seen-it-all-before’ about proceedings and a sense that the series is straining to get away from contemporary Earth and tell more imaginative stories.

But as ‘greatest hits’ packages go, Terror of the Zygons isn’t a bad one and ultimately it’s a final curtain call for a format which served the show well for the previous five years. Summoned back to Earth by the Brigadier (Courtney), the Doctor, Sarah (Sladen) and Harry (Marter) find themselves in Scotland (a shame the resolutely Southern England locations rarely look remotely Scottish) where UNIT are investigating a spate of destructive attacks on oil rigs. Footage excised from the original cut of the travellers arriving in an invisible TARDIS has been reinstated (although the broadcast version is available for completists), graded and coloured to match the episode itself – seventy-odd seconds of previously-unseen Baker/Sladen/Marter footage which pretty much makes this an essential purchase. The Doctor quickly deduces that the attacks are the work of “a monster of frightening size and power” under the control of the Zygons, shape-shifting aliens hiding beneath the waters of Loch Ness in their crippled spaceship.

It’s a slight and occasionally random story, but there’s so much going on in Terror of the Zygons it’s easy to overlook its shortcomings and just revel in the atmospheric production and earnest performances. The Zygons themselves, knobbly bright foetus-like orange creations, remain one of Doctor Who’s most convincing aliens (the cliffhanger to episode one, with Sarah Jane threatened by a Zygon which looms out of the shadows at her is one of the show’s classics), so it’s baffling that it’s taken 38 years for them to make a return appearance. Fans will be hoping that Steven Moffat will be able to treat them with respect for their appearance in the forthcoming Day of the Doctor anniversary episode. Where the Zygons are a triumph, their pet Skarasen (Doctor Who’s first explanation for the Loch Ness Monster) isn’t quite so successful. Realised by crude stop motion animation in a sequence where the Doctor is chased across Tulloch Moor, its reappearance in the final episode as a glove puppet rearing out of the Thames is one of Doctor Who’s more embarrassing, head-slapping moments.

The story itself is full of holes and illogicalities; it’s never properly explained why the Skarasen is destroying the oil rigs and the World Peace Conference gambit in the final episode is a desperate and obvious bit of padding for a story which has suddenly run out of steam. But the chemistry between Baker and Sladen is becoming palpable, Sarah chasing the shape-shifted Zygon/Harry has a satisfactorily grisly outcome and there’s plenty of fun to be had with the inevitable Scottish clichés employed to convince the audience they’re in Scotland when they’re so clearly not. The serial’s cause is helped enormously by the late Douglas Camfield‘s slick no-nonsense direction. At the end of the story, the Doctor and Sarah set off in the TARDIS, leaving Harry and the Brigadier and his UNIT stalwarts behind, pretty much forever. Doctor Who was changing, heading into bold new directions which would take it to new heights of acclaim and popularity. Terror of the Zygons is frothy, lightweight stuff, but it’s a worthy and nostalgic last gasp for a series format and characters the audience had learned to love throughout the early 1970s.

Previously issued as a bare-bones disc in June’s Fourth Doctor Time Capsule (Starburst 392) this 2-disc set is packed with goodies, including a tribute to director Camfield and a slightly elegiac farewell to the UNIT family. Scotch Mist in Sussex looks at the making of the serial, there are archive interviews with Baker and Sladen, South Today sees Baker interviewed on location and The Fuel Fishers is a children’s documentary programme hosted by Sladen exploring the real-life work of oil-riggers. Commentaries, Easter eggs, photo gallery, production subtitles and a 5.1 soundtrack also feature.

Extras: See above

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