Friday, August 29, 2014

Doctor Who S13 Ep80: Terror Of The Zygons

"Destroy him! Die, Doctor, die!"
"What the devil are they?"
-The Brigadier referring to those terrifying Zygons-
"I gathered we've landed. Where are we?"
-The Doctor-
"You like asking questions."
"Well, it's the only way to learn."
-The Doctor-
"Isn't it a bit large for just about six of you?"
-The Doctor taking the mickey out of the six Zygons' intended planetary takeover (budgets were limited and there was no CGI)-
"Doctor Who is done for love and for the story's sake, rather than for the sake of being flashy and showing how clever we are in space. There's a harder edge to Doctor Who than there is to American science fiction."
-John Leeson (Starlog Magazine #143, p,42) on the not-so-flashy approach to Doctor Who long before the days of Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat-

Terror Of The Zygons more than anything else will be best remembered for those stunning Zygon costumes designed by James Acheson. "It was half embryo, half sort of octopidal sucker textured creature." And not only was it a great-looking alien creation, but it was given a great name to boot with the lead letter Z. Could it get any cooler? Acheson's creations are phenomenal and they are the result of a wildly fertile imagination. It was as if producer Philip Hinchcliffe had staked his claim on the series relinquishing old faces for new ones and new ideas that were entirely of his own making. The Zygons were one of those monster creations that would be forever immortalized.

Oddly, it wasn't until 2013 that the Zygons reared their ugly faces once more. Space:1999's Eagle, Land Of The Lost's Sleestaks and Battlestar Galactica's Cylons are just a handful of creations from the minds of extraordinary creators. And yet, until 2013, the Zygons, made only one appearance on Doctor Who across its heralded existence. What a feat to create something so revered and so well-remembered. Why wouldn't the Zygons return? To have made such an impact and remain such a cult memory it's nothing short of stunning they would all but disappear.

Elsewhere, the Loch Ness Monster creation left little to be desired. Writer Marcus Hearn expressed her dissatisfaction with the same effort that floored fans even back in the day. "The stop-motion animation of the monster itself once more left her feeling that her and her colleagues' hard work had been compromised by the show's special effects." Yes, those effects were bad then and are still painful to behold now. But, like most of these '70s era Doctor Who entries, the cast of Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter managed to elevate the material by sheer force of will, chemistry and good scripting. And let's face it, many of the practical monster effects were extraordinary for their time (the Cybermen, Davros, Daleks, Zygons, you name it).

Unfortunately, despite great effort on those glorious costumes, Doctor Who, Season 13, Episode 80, Terror Of The Zygons, would be the Zygons one and only shot at glory for a long time to come.

More than today's wonderfully witty, technically proficient, and state-of-the-art Who, these vintage era stories and their low budgets, generally speaking, feel distinctly British. It's not to say the new Who series isn't British, but technically speaking the classic Who had the production values and Channel 2 vibe often associated with low budget British television. As kids we were wowed by the creative effort brandished upon each episode's effects. The rubber monsters, high adventure, Sarah Jane and of course, Tom Baker as Doctor Who himself kept us coming back for more each week.

Admittedly though, looking back, it is indeed a bit of a slog to get through these classic adventures. The pacing is an acquired taste and one that I have lost patience for when it comes to the Baker era entries to a good degree. Nevertheless I continue to want to revisit these Fourth Doctor entries as they were indeed my gateway Who drug. I hope to stumble upon a story that truly has me shouting from the top of the Tardis with enthusiasm. But alas I simply cannot divest my energies into the kind of extensive, detailed analysis I attempted for Season Twelve (1974-1975), which I actually finished by the way. Robot, The Ark In Space, The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis Of The Daleks and Revenge Of The Cybermen have all been covered. Hooray! So henceforth, I have reserved most of my commentary to just that - analysis and observations minus plot summations. The story summaries are out there. Not to mention this is Doctor Who. The Doctor + Companions + Monsters = Pure dead, brilliant, good, fun.

But my general assessment of the pacing for the classics is but just one opinion. A recent issue of Doctor Who Magazine (#474) placed Terror Of The Zygons at #14 (up three from #17 in 2009) emphasizing not everyone would feel the same. This is extremely generous. Thus far, if I had to pick my favorite Season Twelve episode it would be The Ark In Space (listed at #22). Robot (#116), The Sontaran Experiment (#140), Genesis Of The Daleks (#3) and Revenge Of The Cybermen (#160) are numbered accordingly. Sadly, these early entries have their problems. Despite retaining classic status in the upper echelons of Wholore, writer James Hoare declared about Terror Of The Zygons "just suck up the silliness and watch it" (SciFiNow #86). That about sums it up really and yet it is beloved. That's also not to suggest that the new Who is above being silly. Like Baker, Eccleston and Tennant are not immune to excessive running. "RUN!" The stories are not averse to excessive flights of fancy. A recent viewing of Tennant's Series Three final episodes featuring The Master (The Sound Of Drums) felt to me like the heights of excess and underscored my lack of affection for Martha Jones as a character. But I digress as those are examinations for another day. The point being there is no Doctor Who averse to the silly. Humor, the fantastical and the silly is certainly a fine line. Getting it just right is where Doctor Who sometimes succeeds brilliantly and sometimes leaves you cringing.

So what will Season Thirteen's stories bring? We shall see. Jelly baby while we watch?

We begin the six stories of Season Thirteen with Terror Of The Zygons.

Terror Of The Zygons is delivered in four parts. Four parts is more than ample to tell a strong, vintage era Doctor Who tale. This season's six parter will be the season finale The Seeds Of Doom and likely could be told in four parts with some judicious editing. In fact, editing would be the operative word for many of these stories, but I suspect the serialized nature played a part in stretching these stories a bit. So we begin.

PART ONE: The first portion quickly establishes the show's homage to the likes of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers meets the Loch Ness Monster with Scotland (filmed in Sussex, England) serving as the perfect back drop for our alternate reality science fiction. The Brigadier with UNIT investigate attacks on oil rigs in the North Sea. An HQ is established in the village of Tullock (also referred to as Tulloch). Aliens called Zygons, led by one dubbed Broton, control the cyborg creature named the Skarasen (also known as the Loch Ness Monster). The Zygon base is Loch Ness. The Brigadier and Benton return for the first time since Robot and for the last time within the tales of the Fourth Doctor. Harry is shot and something smells in the Scottish village of Tulloch. The strongest visual piece for Part One is that truly frightening final moment when the octopi-like arm of a Zygon reaches for Sarah Jane and lunges forward upon her as the end credits music drops. As a kid, I can assure you that Zygon was positively terrifying and with good reason too. As noted earlier, the make-up and prosthetic work is so damn good it could hold its own today. It rivals the already impressive Sontaran work. Though I wished they could have been a bit tighter with the make-up and prosthetic around those mouths. This is a minor quibble and one I never noticed as a child.

PART TWO: Production and set design and the use of red/green lighting for the alien lair of the Zygons is particularly impressive. Even the rubbery mushroom-like controls are a hoot (referred to as organic crystalography). And while the Zygons were a creation of perfection there was its polar opposite in play for Terror Of The Zygons - the Skarasen. The daft-looking glimpse of the cyborg creation that is the Loch Ness Monster, in theory, makes the classic Gamera look positively popping and authentic in appearance. The creative team opted to scrap as much of the Skarasen footage as possible. The whole stop-motion animation concept required time they did not have in making the show and the concept suffered for it. Designer Nigel Curzon noted in Scotch Mist In Sussex (Remembering Terror Of The Zygons), "When you do see it you know you don't think my God this is Ray Harryhausen on a good day, you think they've run out of money." And speaking of alien, Tom Baker as the Doctor is so eccentric and odd that he is truly a natural. As human beings go he was the perfect choice for the good Doctor. Sarah Jane and Baker are in infinitely good form in their roles here too. As an aside, this is why, perhaps, Christopher Eccleston worked so well. He was a little bit weird in appearance, like Baker. This explains my anticipation for the exciting choice of Peter Capaldi for the role of the Doctor in Series Eight. The boyish charms of David Tennant and Matthew Smith have been replaced by an older, veteran-like throwback that recalls the wisdom of the Fourth Doctor of old. Just look at those Capaldi eyes. How can one not be just a little bit excited by his casting. That is an appearance with eyes that have seen it all.

I always did enjoy the film stock utilized for exterior location shooting over the video quality applied for indoor sets. Terror Of The Zygons has a good bit of that on contrast here for Part Two.

One clever and well executed bit in this segment centers on the death of the Harry-cloned Zygon. When Sarah Jane inadvertently manages to mastermind his death the shot of a Zygon dying after a re-transformation is quite effective.

The cliffhanger sees Doctor Who on the run with the Loch Ness Monster bearing down upon him. If not for those poor effects it could have been quite a doozy. Still, as a kid, you damn well loved it. So far, the cliffangers have been excellent for Terror Of The Zygons.

PART THREE:  Tom Baker is in his finest form for the penultimate segment of Terror Of The Zygons infusing a good bit of humor with his performance. Sarah and Harry alert the Doctor and the Brigadier that the aliens have taken residence within the loch. The segment ends with an even more ridiculous effects shot of a poorly designed Zygon spaceship taking flight with the Doctor on board. It's truly abysmal.

PART FOUR: The finale to Terror Of The Zygons pulls out all of the stops with plenty of Zygon coverage. And that Zygon space vessel looks slightly more impressive as a miniature in a landing shot rather than a ship in flight against horrible blue screen.

With the Zygon homeworld destroyed a small contingent of Zygons, which crashed on Earth many years earlier, must prepare Earth, via terraforming, for the arrival of their refugee fleet. They will arrive in "many centuries." Apparently the Zygons haven't mastered space travel or they are in a galaxy far, far away. As terrifying in appearance as they may be they are clearly not the sharpest tools in the alien shed.

The explosive pyrotechnics applied in the final minutes are also notable. Not so impressive are the strange guttural sounds made by an angry Zygon in the final act. It is weird, wacky, wild stuff.

Ultimately catastrophe is avoided at the World Energy Conference in London with the final laughable shot of the Skarasen swimming up the Thames. There is even what appears like a passable homage to the original Gojira (1954). Disaster is curbed and Nessie returns to the Loch from whence it came to continue its enduring legend.

On the critical side of things, The Discontinuity Guide called the entry "clumsy" and that is entirely fair. Doctor Who: The Television Companion noted "for a time it seems that Terror Of The Zygons is to be an almost faultless production. ... In the Lively Arts documentary Whose Doctor Who in 1977, Philip Hinchcliffe made the observation that just a single unsuccessful effect can result in the failure of an entire production." It might seem Terror Of The Zygons is a case in point but truly the effect can be forgiven and never sinks the entire production. By the way, have you seen Robot? Can you name others? Come on now. The vintage era Doctor Who has problems, but most fans of the series always find forgiveness in their hearts.

So the Zygons are intimidating enough and talk a good talk, but was Terror Of The Zygons worth the ungodly wait for arrival on DVD? There is a good bit of humor sprinkled throughout this wildly escapist alien invasion story set on Earth, the first Earth tale since Robot along with the return of Unit. While certainly a memorable enough outing for Doctor Who and fairly beloved by fans, apparently it wasn't enough to treat Zygons with the same kind of respects afforded the Cybermen and the Daleks. The Zygons would not return to Doctor Who again until 2013 for the 50th Anniversary, The Day Of The Doctor (ranked the number one episode in all of Doctor Who in Doctor Who Magazine #474).

In truth, if I'm to be completely honest, it's astounding how far Doctor Who has come, how much it has matured and how much more sophisticated technically the effort has become thanks to resources and audience expectations. As science fiction and good, strong storytelling goes, the new series has it over and above many of the classics in sheer pacing alone. The pacing and excitement often saves sometimes silly ideas today. Some of the old stories suffer from extended scenes in need of judicious editing which detract from the many good ideas. It's unfortunate really. For many reasons though re-watching the Tom Baker years there are certainly things to like about them, the cast often being one of them, but I wouldn't hesitate to defer new viewers to begin straight with the Christopher Eccleston years until a reservoir of patience was in supply. For whatever reason the serialized nature of this classic series back in the day worked wonders for the young mind directly following a hard day at school, but today they are nearly as torturous as the classrooms themselves were way back when.

Regarding the legacy of Doctor Who, Terror Of The Zygons is a notable entry for passing the torch so to speak. Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan would say goodbye. As much as I enjoyed Marter he did play a bit like the third wheel. It would also be farewell to Unit members Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, played by the late Nicholas Courtney, and RSM Benton, played by John Levene. Collectively the Unit was finished. Essentially with screen time being shared by Sladen, Marter, Courtney and Levene the equation meant less screen time for Tom Baker and less Doctor. Something had to give and it did. Today, I sometimes find John Barrowman nearly as distracting as Captain Jack.

Terror Of The Zygons does offer a spiritual changing of the guard officially of sorts - the old for the new. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe noted in Scotch Mist In Sussex that "the writing was on the wall" for the old guard. Hinchcliffe and Baker were messing with a well-established formula when it came to Unit and Terror Of The Zygons would disrupt that expectation permanently. Moving forward for Season Thirteen the focus would finally be centered on the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Even Levene recalled feeling "we were on our way out." He noted Baker was "a force to be reckoned with there was no question" and Doctor Who was to become his show.

Baker, too, is at his cheeky best alternating between the comedic and the dramatic on a dime with perfect timing in his exchanges with the entirety of the cast. Baker was indeed the funniest we had seen him to date and he was coming into his alien own in the role.

I guess in my own little bubble, in the perfect fantasy world, you would love to see Tom Baker transported into the new Doctor Who series today to see what he could have done there. Now that would be nirvana. Though these classics can generally be a bit long-winded fans like myself forgive for those little moments that are truly spectacular. To look at things from another perspective though, the classics do deliver something the new Who doesn't quite have the time for and that is an effort to take a breath and flesh out a given world or society. In many respects, the classics did this better than the new stories.

So these weren't terrible episodes at all. They were filled with great ideas. Unfortunately to call the shape changing Zygons terrors may be a stretch too far. So for all of my pining for Terror Of The Zygons to be released on DVD, well, it wasn't quite as satisfying as I remembered it. But the plethora of extras on these Doctor Who releases are truly to die for and just as entertaining if not more so than the stories themselves at times.

But, as I say about those moments, the final shot of Tom Baker smiling in front of the Tardis is absolute money. It's pure joy to watch and brought back such a flood of good feeling for these originals. Here is the kind of thing that positively brings out the smiles.

The fact is Doctor Who is a massive, lengthy, ongoing and messy universe and there is much to pick upon as much as there is wonderment within for young and old to experience. As a kid, it was all about channeling the adventures of the Doctor - jumping into boxes and utilizing house hallways as escape routes. And there is plenty of that here if you just let go of those critical expectations. It's all about the imagination people. We love Doctor Who - warts and all.

Terror Of the Zygons: B-. Writer: Robert Banks Stewart. Director: Douglas Camfield. Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe.

Coming soon: Planet Of Evil.