Terror of the ZygonsBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After Season Twelve ending on a sour note, Season Thirteen gets off to a great start with 'Terror of the Zygons'. After the shoddiness of 'Revenge of the Cybermen', 'Terror of the Zygons' succeeds on almost every count, boasting great location work, cracking monsters, fine acting and a first rate script. 

Firstly, the Zygons themselves are excellent. Their costumes are amongst the series' best efforts, their sucker-covered embryo appearance being visually striking and rather disturbing. Good costumes alone however do not a decent monster make, and the Zygons benefit from a script that portrays them as ruthless, capable warriors armed with a novel but effective weapon on the form of the Skarasen. Their sibilant voices are suitably threatening, and the implication that they are equipped with stings (it is never confirmed in the script, but the way their victims scream when strangled suggests that they are suffering severe agony) makes them physically formidable. Further enhancing the success of the Zygons is the strong visual design of their spaceship interior, its organic appearance making it look authentically alien and fitting in with the visual appearance of the Zygons to make them look perfectly at home inside it. The fleshy controls are so unusual for Doctor Who that they can't help but be distinctive, and it makes a refreshing change to see a spaceship interior that isn't all polished metal and featureless corridors. The script also helps to contribute the success of the Zygons through its attention to detail; several Zygons aside from Broton are referred to by name, and throwaway remarks about "organic crystallography" and "dynacon thrusts" (amongst others) subtly reinforce that these creatures are using technology not known to this planet. The fact that these references are mentioned briefly and in passing somehow ensures that they don't sound like technobabble. Attention to detail is very important to the success of this story, from the deafening effect of the Zygon spaceship taking off from beneath the Loch, to the sight of the fluid rising ominously in the self-destructor in Episode Four. 

Another key factor in the success of the Zygons is John Woodnutt's superb performance as Broton in both his Zygon form and in his guise as the Duke of Forgill. Woodnutt, who previously appeared as the confused Hibbert in 'Spearhead From Space' and as the Draconian Emperor in 'Frontier in Space', is very, very good here, imbuing Broton with real menace, but also making him an actual character rather just a generic villain. As the Duke, Broton is required to pose as a human, and during the scenes in the castle in Episode Three, it is possible to forget that he's really a bigheaded green and orange alien warlord, as he displays dry wit and quiet courtesy, but he retains an air of menace as he keeps a cold, calculating gaze on his visitors at all times. As a Zygon, he's a threatening presence, glaring balefully from beneath large brows and hissing malevolently as he arrogantly boasts of Zygon supremacy to first Harry and later the Doctor. But he also has moments of real motivation; his announcement to Harry that he can never return home is matter-of-fact, but briefly stirs sympathy, before he flatly states that he intends to conquer Earth instead. He agrees with the Doctor's point that conquering Earth will be rather difficult for just a handful of Zygons, but adds that although it will be challenging it will not be impossible, which suggests that he has carefully considered his plans, rather than just decided to seize supreme power for the sake of it in a moment of megalomania. His defiant last words, as he grunts "the Skarasen will destroy you all", indicate a refusal to just give up even in the face of overwhelming odds, which I find strangely impressive even though he is trying to wreak havoc with a big puppet. 

John Woodnutt is not the only actor to put in a good performance in 'Terror of the Zygons' (although whilst I'm still on the subject, his performance as the real Duke of Forgill is further credit to his talents, possessing a warmth and good humour absent in Broton's impersonation). Angus Lennie is great as Angus McRanald, the local landlord who remains sceptical of UNIT's and Sarah's claims about monsters and aliens with bugs until the Zygon posing as Sister Lamont kills him. In truth, Lennie's performance is very similar to his performance as Storr in 'The Ice Warriors', but he's so right for the role that I don't really care if he's typecast or just playing himself, or simply doing a very good job. As with the Zygons, he benefits from the attention to detail in Robert Banks Stewart's scripts, and although his talk of second sight and knowing all the local gossip isn't remotely important to the plot, it adds some nice characterisation. Huckle too is well acted and characterised, Tony Sibbald providing a much better American accent that previous actors have done in Doctor Who! His performance nicely conveys Huckle's anger and distress at the loss of so many of his men and is, again, an example of the attention to characterisation that makes 'Terror of the Zygons' work so well. 

The regulars all benefit greatly from the script too. Tom Baker is superb, and it is impressive to see the Doctor's mood changes as he becomes involved in mystery of the rigs' destruction. Initially sullen and moody at having been summoned by the Brigadier to solve a problem relating to fuel, he's brought around by the Brigadier's sharp retort of "you don't want any more people to die?" which not only again nicely highlights the Doctor's sense of moral obligation to help people, but also serves as a reminder of how well the Brigadier knows him. As the story progresses, the Doctor gives an impression that he is enjoying himself, even when being chased across Tullock Moor by the Skarasen, admiring the creature as it stomps away in Episode Three. His scenes with Broton are great, as he casually belittles his enemy with lines like "Very good, very good. Almost impressive!" and "You can't rule the world in hiding. You've got to come out on to the balcony sometimes and wave a tentacle!" In addition, I also like the fact that this doesn't at all rile Broton, despite the Doctor's best efforts. I also like the Doctor's attitude towards the Skarasen; he has no qualms about blowing up the Zygon spaceship with them on board, but seems quite happy to let the monster go home (not, admittedly, that there is much else he could have done about it), since it was its masters who were responsible for it destroying the rigs and since it is basically a dumb animal that isn't really to blame. The unusual concept of the huge reptilian monster being allowed to go home and relax at the end of the story is rather endearing. Oh, and I love the Doctor's Scottish costume in Episode One!

Sarah and Harry also get plenty to do. Sarah's investigative skills are put to work in Episodes One and Three, and in addition she shows her usual mixture of curiosity and courage in following the tunnel in Forgill Castle down into the Zygon spaceship and rescuing Harry in the process. Mind you, points are deducted for her dithering on the cellar steps in Episode Four when the Doctor tells her to fetch the Brigadier. Harry also proves his value here. This is Harry's last story as a regular, and it's a shame to see him go, especially since his last ever appearance in the television series is in a story almost as bad as 'Revenge of the Cybermen', but at least he gets a last decent showing here. As well as getting another chance to put his medical skills to good use in Episode One, it is also Harry who first meets Broton, and learns about the Zygons, and although the Doctor doesn't actually find this out, Harry saves his life at the beginning of Episode Three, his interference with the Zygon controls releasing the trionic activator from the Doctor's hand just as the Skarasen attacks. Harry's last scene in the story, as he stands beside the Brigadier in full military uniform and politely but respectfully declines another trip in the TARDIS is a somehow very appropriate departure for him. In addition, Ian Marter gets to show off his acting skills by briefly playing a villain, which he does rather well; the nasty, sneering Zygon Harry is markedly different from the real Harry and the murderous look on his face as he attacks Sarah with a pitchfork is alarmingly convincing. 

'Terror of the Zygons' also marks the last appearance of the Brigadier for a good many years, and the last decent appearance of Benton and UNIT. As in 'Robot', the Brigadier retains some of his old credibility, or at the very least some of his old charm, and most crucially seems suitably commanding when he's organizing the attack on the Zygon ship in Episode Three and the hunt for the Zygons in Episode Four. The Brigadier is the subject of some wit, most notably his "Asleep? Impossible. I was on duty" line in Episode Two, but the story manages to incorporate this without making him the buffoon of 'The Three Doctors'. And in his last semi-regular story, it is worth noting that he finally meets a non-bullet proof alien menace, something he wished for in 'Robot', as he shoots Broton at the end. Benton too comes over well, ever likeable and ever reliable. I particularly like his "Why are you whispering?" scene with the Doctor in Episode Two.

Production-wise, 'Terror of the Zygons' is magnificent. The location work is superb, and although it wasn't filmed in Scotland it looks very authentic. The impressive incidental score helps to create this impression too. The Skarasen is of course the story's greatest limitation, but Douglas Camfield's careful direction means we only get very brief glimpses of it for the most part, save for the cringe-worthy shot of it rising out of the Thames at the end. Generally, the direction is very good, and the multiple fading shots of the Zygons' hands as they manipulate the controls on board their ship in Episode One are worthy of special mention. Overall, 'Terror of the Zygons' is a superb Doctor Who story and perfect start to the season.

FILTER: - Television - Series 23 - Sixth Doctor