Doctor Who Project: Terror of the Zygons

That, Doctor, is a kilt.

If ever a story could explain the demise of Doctor Who‘s UNIT era, Robert Banks Stewart’s “Terror of the Zygons” (Story Production Code 4F) fits the bill. This, the penultimate UNIT story, shows just how out of sync the militarism and regimentation of the Brigadier’s bunch has fallen from the frenetic energy and mordant sarcasm of the Fourth Doctor. Where UNIT’s deployment of mortars and bazookas and lots of lads shooting rifles not quite straight added to the visual excitement of the Second and Third Doctor’s adventures, here they just get in the way of the Fourth Doctor’s investigation of the Loch Ness Monster.

Benton's back

Indeed, it’s odd that most Third Doctor UNIT stories did not suffer greatly from the presence of Lethbridge-Stewart, Benton, and Yates, given that regeneration’s incredible disdain for military solutions; the Fourth Doctor, by contrast, shows no great compunction about blowing the beasties up and would seem a better fit in theory. The friction comes much more from stylistic approaches, as well as a tendency towards four episode stories in Tom Baker’s era. In “Terror of the Zygons,” Stewart’s plot spends scant enough time on the shapeshifting Zygons who have hidden in Loch Ness for hundreds of years; the inevitable padding that comes with the Brig telling Benton to call someone on the radio which then fades to location shots of UNIT troops milling about a forest just eats up valuable screen time. One can almost hear the audience groaning for the action to shift back to the Doctor. And, of course, nothing UNIT does actually changes the direction of the plot in the least.

Right from the start, the Doctor shows his irascibility at the Brigadier for summoning him back to Earth for so trifling a matter as the destruction of a few oil platforms off the Scottish coast. Only the siren song of a mystery can get this Doctor interested, and finding tooth prints of an enormous beast in the rig wreckage does the trick. Stewart does a nice job of not mentioning Loch Ness until deep into the second episode, allowing viewers to piece together the appearance of a long-necked prehistoric creature with the Scottish moorland setting before finally springing the connection.

Scarf swap

Doctor Who is often associated with this trick of using an unexplained real-world phenomenon as a plot device, elucidating the incident in the course of advancing the narrative—aliens are almost always responsible—but in truth, this technique dropped off after the first few seasons, the last instance coming in Season Five’s “The Abominable Snowmen.” In this case, the mystery might have been better left unexplained, for the Zygons use the Loch Ness monster as…a milk cow.

Skarasen, Nessie -- all the same to the Zygons

Now, in fairness, the Skarasen, as the Zygons name the creature, hails from the now-destroyed Zygon homeworld, where it traditionally serves to provide nutrients to the sucker-covered aliens. They have augmented it into a cyborg that follows their every command, and they intend to use it to, yes, take over the world. The Zygons on Earth crash landed here centuries prior, and with the destruction of their own planet, they intend to convert Earth to a warmer planet without ice caps, to be more fitting for their own kind who are slowly travelling here in a refugee convoy. The destruction of the oil rigs served as merely a trial run of the Skarasen’s strength, as they intend to attack London to cower humanity into subservience via a show of their power.

The red herring effect of the oil rigs speaks to the broader problem with this story, a problem quite familiar to Doctor Who by now. There’s simply too much going on, and UNIT is a big part of that cacophony. The first two episodes focus on the oil platforms and the gradual revelation of the Zygons as hamfisted shapeshifters; the last two episodes jettison most of that narration, plus several characters who received substantial development, to focus on the Skarasen and the flight (and subsequent destruction) of the Zygon spaceship. Take UNIT out and a good ten to fifteen minutes could be retrieved with which to better develop the Zygons as more than the monsters of the week.

Behold the Zygon

The Zygons do occupy an interesting spot on the show’s alien continuum. They evoke the body horror of the original Cybermen, that jarring sense of the familiar amidst the grotesque, with their squishy organic technology and bodies shaped like a bipedal cephalopod tentacle, but their motivations fall firmly in the bland “conquer Earth because we can” camp of the Daleks and Autons/Nestene. Frequent close-ups of their tentacle-hands manipulating pustulated control panels verges on the obscene. Nuanced and noble Silurians or Ice Warriors, they are not. Their gimmick, besides being some of the least visually appealing creatures to ever appear on the series, comes from their ability to transform themselves into the guise of any creature they make a “body print” of, a process that involves installing the hapless person supplying the “print” into a machine, there to be held captive. Oddly, freeing someone from the machine does not disturb the disguise if it is in use, most likely a technical feature driven by narrative needs.

The shapeshifting works to good effect at the end of the first episode, where a gruff nurse is revealed to be a gruff Zygon who attacks Sarah. Veteran director Douglas Camfield and the actor playing the nurse (Lillias Walker) combine to imbue Sister Lamont with an air of menace that never quite tips its hand—at least until that hand becomes a tentacle. The other instances of shapeshifting, however, drop all pretense of creating a sense of paranoia amongst our heroes. When a Zygon impersonates Harry, it’s obvious to Sarah that there’s something off about him, even if she doesn’t suspect he’s an alien in hiding. The Master in his simple masks pulled off far more convincing feats of visual legerdemain.

Zygon surveillance

Everything about the Zygons is at once larger than life and utterly mundane. For instance, the Doctor discovers a homing beacon in the rig wreckage, used by the Zygons to send the Skarasen on its destructive rampages. They learn that the Doctor has uncovered their device by watching him through a bugged deer head mounted in the pub where UNIT has set up its headquarters. They have plans to take over the planet but spend their time watching over the minutia of events in the sleepy village near the Loch; notably, the camera-equipped piece of taxidermy was installed before UNIT ever showed up. And the desire to prevent the camera from being discovered leads to one of their number being chased (ineffectively, natch) by UNIT. Given that they’re about to unleash a prehistoric creature on London and launch a spaceship out of Loch Ness, one might think a camera being found would rate lower on the list of concerns.

The Zygon Spaceship

If UNIT provides no real solutions to the problems at hand, being ineffective at tracking the spaceship once it takes off and seemingly incapable of conducting a simple cordon search, the Doctor by contrast merely stumbles upon the answer to the Zygons’s proposed reign of terror. Locked up in their ship after being captured, he uses himself to complete a circuit (shades of “The Ark in Space“) to broadcast the ship’s location (in a quarry that is actually a quarry for once) and then points to a mass of organic machinery, declares it a self-destruct mechanism, and destroys the ship with all but one Zygon on board. It’s an unsatisfying bit of Doctor Ex Machina, barely bolstered by the requisite technobabble. As for the other Zygon, UNIT does manage to shoot it dead, but only after it hides a homing beacon in a London gathering of VIPs. The Doctor pulls from his endless pockets the beacon he found earlier and throws it into the Thames. The Skarasen gleefully eats it, then returns to Loch Ness to live out its life as a minor local celebrity.

Nessie in the Thames

Clearly, we’ve past the point of Doctor Who making interesting statements about morality or ethics; even if the Doctor does deplore humanity’s continued pollution of Earth via fossil fuels, he’s not inclined to bemoan the failure of the Zygons to reach out to humanity to make some sort of accommodation, nor is he overly concerned about the loss of life around him. Tom Baker’s Doctor, now in his second season, seems older both physically and mentally than in his first season, with little regard for individual humans despite his fondness for the plucky species as a whole.

His “alienness” from the first season has increased, and with it, the lack of much chemistry with anyone other than Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith. He (the Fourth Doctor, not Tom Baker) simply doesn’t very much like the Brigadier, and Harry and Benton don’t rank much higher in his estimation. When, at the end of the story, he invites them all onto the TARDIS for a lift back to London (or so he claims), he’s utterly unmoved by their demurrals; but when Sarah seems hesitant, he looks, for the first time in the entire story, worried. All smiles, though, when she gamely jumps aboard for more adventures.

Stewart, most likely taking his cues from Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, sprinkles the story with bon mots and humorous asides. Even serious moments get played, ultimately, for a laugh. The show is taking itself far less seriously than in seasons past, perhaps for the best given the strengths of their leading man. There’s a knowing nod at the end of the story where the Brigadier acknowledges that even though a giant monster marauded down the Thames in broad daylight, no one will believe it happened once the politicians explain it away. Given the number of alien invasions Earth (or at least London) has already experienced, it’s as good an explanation as any as to why people are still surprised at seeing a Dalek in Woolworth’s.

A moment of shock

Ian Marter and Elisabeth Sladen effectively trade roles in this one, with Harry captured and put on a narrative shelf while Sarah Jane uses her investigative chops to further the story in several key instances, including discovering the secret passage to the Zygon spaceship behind a trick bookcase. Harry will make one more appearance in the series, three stories hence, and then bow out with the rest of UNIT, and no one, least of all Marter, seems dismayed by the prospect. The pairing of Sarah and Harry never felt quite right; the writers inevitably decreased the profile of one when raising the profile of the other. There simply isn’t enough for them both to do, particularly with a Doctor whose problem solving increasingly relies on finding the right gadget in his pockets and conjuring technological solutions out of thin air.

All smiles

As for the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker looks to have aged somewhat from start of “Robot,” even though this story was shot at the end of the Season Twelve shooting block, the demands of the role and the attendant publicity doubtless taking a toll. Still, he has very much grown into the role, imbuing it with an insouciant style that no other regeneration, past or future, could pull off. The problem of the Fourth Doctor’s alienness remains, insomuch as this Doctor has a standoffish relationship with humanity, or at the very least other people. He’s funny, witty, even charming, but he’s not very likable. It’s fair to say, though, that being in proximity to UNIT and rules and regulations in general bring out the worst aspects of the Fourth Doctor. They’ve just got to go, and soon we’ll be seeing the last of the Brig and the boys—and, thankfully, the last of the Zygons for a long while.

(Previous Story: Revenge of the Cybermen)

(Next Story: Planet of Evil)

Post 83 of the Doctor Who Project

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