Tag Archives: Zygons

Terror of the Zygons

7 Jan

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013. See also: Class 4G

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BBCDVD3482 UK Zygons DVD-sc6-1You have to feel sorry for Broton, Warlord of the Zygons. There he is, quietly minding his own business in his cosy home-from-home in the Scottish Highlands, when some seriously antisocial neighbours move in just along the glen: a stinking great oil company, no less. For hundreds of years, Broton and his wee clan have led a peaceful sort of life at the bottom of Loch Ness – entirely self-sufficient thanks their big underwater space cow – and then all of a sudden the neighbourhood goes to pot with this constant banging and clanging and drilling. Broton, as you might imagine, is furious. His family is furious. Even the big underwater space cow is furious. And then comes even worse news for our poor Warlord – there’s been a disaster back where he comes from, and now all his long-lost relatives are coming to stay! It’s terribly fussing. What is he going to do?

What Broton does next is the story of Terror of the Zygons. However, even after four thrill-packed episodes, some key questions go frustratingly unanswered. What the heck has Broton been up to for all those centuries? When did he learn to drive a car? What exactly do Zygons smell of? And how do you milk a Loch Ness Monster? (Actually – we can answer that last one straight away. Carefully.)

While there may be a handful of Doctor Who adventures more widely and wildly adored than this one, there can surely be no finer single episode of Doctor Who than Part One of Terror of the Zygons. It is 24 minutes of perfection, a Platonic Ideal of Doctor Who-ness. You wouldn’t niggle with a single note or nuance of it. The script bubbles with intrigue and fun. The performances are perfectly pitched. The direction – from virtuoso Douglas Camfield – is in a class all its own.

The Brigadier has tugged upon the final, fraying thread of the Doctor’s cosmic leash, and brought him back down to Earth with a bump. Our hero may be delighted to find himself in Scotland, but he’s sorely aggrieved to discover there’s work to be done. Three North Sea oil rigs have been destroyed by an unknown force, and UNIT has been called in to investigate. Our briefing for this crisis – tidily scripted, smartly played – allows each of our lead characters to be absolutely themselves. While Mr Huckle of the Hibernian Oil Company bemoans the loss of millions of pounds, the Brigadier immediately insists that the loss of hundreds of lives is his greater concern. Mention of oil puts the Doctor in a foul mood – trendily fuming about mankind’s reliance on “a mineral slime” – but he snaps straight back to his own good nature when the Brigadier sharply asks of him: “Do you want more men to die?” Sarah, the journalist, is equally true to herself, and sets about interviewing the locals. And Harry, the medic, is off to the infirmary on the hunt for clinical clues. Meanwhile, alien eyes observe our gang’s every move, and alien voices hiss the most wonderful load of old cobblers. “Diastelic reading seven-oh-three,” says one. “Increase the sonic core tone by three remars!” replies another. Everything is so perfectly gorgeous, it makes you want to kiss someone.

The twists of this tale are now so familiar to us – aliens, the Loch Ness Monster – that it’s easy to forget how subtly the story tries to misdirect us at the start. Is this a tale of ghosts and ghouls? Is it even, as the close-up of those brutish eyes and the full moon behind that first collapsing rig might seem to suggest, a tale of werewolves? The first episode tingles with the uncanny as pub landlord Angus McRanald – blessed with ‘second sight’ – tells the story of “a foreigner from the Black Isle” who went missing on Tulloch Moor, or “the Jameson boys”; one of whom disappeared, while his brother was found “two days later… aff his heid! His eyes – his eyes were terrible to see!” It’s pure whimsy, but played and directed with sublime conviction. Elisabeth Sladen is especially good as Sarah here – wide-eyed as she’s slowly drawn in by the ghost story, but then shaking herself out of her reverie with a pragmatic: “Evil spirits don’t destroy oil rigs!”

Doctor Who has always sought to strike a balance between horror and humour. Generally, the scares and the jokes take turns, and that rollercoaster of tone generates the show’s essential manic energy. And at its very best, Doctor Who can seamlessly pitch-bend silly to serious and back again, while standing perfectly still and staring you straight in the eye. “Might as well forget about security in Tulloch,” shouts a flippant Sarah over the sound of Angus’s bagpipes. “The landlord here’s got second sight!” With perfect comic timing, the bagpipes abruptly stop. But then the Doctor, velvet and sepulchral: “You know what he was playing? Flowers of the Forest. A lament for the dead.” The fact that Tom Baker himself wrote that line gives some clue as to how deeply everyone cared about the work they were doing. This kind of grown-up wit smoulders all the way through Terror of the Zygons.

Doctor Who’s greatest episode ends, as it must, with one of Doctor Who’s greatest cliffhangers. It’s another directorial masterpiece: the track-in, the whirl, the crash-zoom and that terrifying, sucking ‘honk’ as a Zygon bears down on Sarah. What an entrance!

zygons_3776It’s entirely self-evident that the Zygons are the most beautifully realized monsters in the history of Doctor Who, but it’s surely worth lingering for a moment to consider why they work so well. They feel so alive: fleshy, bloated and throbbing with alien juices, like something that has really grown, and is still growing. Many monster costumes are ruined by their one-size-fits-all bagginess, but the skin of a Zygon is stretched painfully taut across its ribs and back. And the devil is surely in the detail: the hundreds of ulcerous tubules blistering the shoulders and hips; the natural symmetry of the lines of the bigger, barnacle-like growths that extend four ways from the crown of the head over the backbone and sternum, and along the arms and legs; the thick veins that fill fat fingers. Praise is of course due to costume designer James Acheson, but the real star is surely sculptor John Friedlander, for whom the creatures must have been a labour of love – a love which shows in every grotesque protuberance.

But good looks can only get you so far in this life. The other secret of the Zygons’ success is that Broton, their leader, is gifted with such a deft yet boisterous performance from actor John Woodnutt. He plays the creature in both its natural form and its human disguise as the la-di-da Duke of Forgill, and each is a total delight.

Like all great Doctor Who villains, Duke Broton is absolutely convinced that he’s the hero of his story, and that everyone around has been gathered merely to pay homage to his genius and wit. This essential snootiness and condescension mean that Broton is also – again like all the best Doctor Who villains – quite breathtakingly camp. For a Duke, he really is a proper old queen. As such, he effortlessly passes another key qualifying test for a place in the first division of Doctor Who villainy, and that is this: how easy are they to imagine as a judge on The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent? Broton, Davros, Harrison Chase, Trau Morgus, Mrs Gillyflower… you can immediately picture any of them passing withering comment on a parade of chirping idiots and clumsy hoofers. Harrison Chase would roll his eyes disdainfully and steeple his black-gloved hands. Mrs Gillyflower would rant and rave and reduce ’em to tears. Davros would idly tap his middle finger next to a big red button marked ‘Total destruction’. Morgus would deliver his putdowns to his own private camera, to one side of the judges’ desk. Our Duke of Forgill would purse his lips, smile an insincere smile, and then tell some poor wannabe from Wolverhampton that she’s totally, utterly unhinged, must be, and that he loathes her abomination of a body. And this kind of approach, one dares suggest, is something that Doctor Who might think a little more about today. The best Doctor Who has the best villains, and the modern series could surely trade a few ‘broken spring’ stories for a few more outrageously self-regarding blackguards who pass the X Factor judge test.

p01d6gsyBroton’s finest moment comes when he sets out from the Zygon spaceship to pose as Forgill at the World Energy Conference in London – an attack on which will spearhead his conquest of the Earth. “When phase two is completed, I shall broadcast my demands to the world,” he says – at which point he pops on a bowler hat and merrily spins an umbrella. Now hold on just one second. We know that the Zygons can morph into a copy of a human in their custody, and that clothes somehow come as part of the magic. But the real Duke doesn’t have a bowler hat, so Broton must have packed one specially. Now that is class. For all his contempt for “puny humans”, there’s a definite feeling that Broton finds greater pleasure in being a Scottish Laird than he does in being a Zygon Warlord. He’s quite brilliant at it, especially when deploying stinging sarcasm in the face of the Doctor’s theories about the Loch Ness Monster  (“Aliens? With wireless sets?”). Broton may be stepping up for the conquest of the Earth, but you feel he’d be much happier just busying about Inverness-shire, roamin’ the gloamin’ in his Range Rover, offering people lifts if he likes them, and pretending to get their names wrong if he doesn’t. After all, the Zygons have been stranded on Earth for hundreds of years, and a secret passage leads from their ship under Loch Ness to the Duke’s antique bookcase, so just how many successive incumbents of Forgill Castle has Broton impersonated? “My family has served this country for seven centuries,” says the Duke at the start of our story. Later we discover that this was Broton talking – but might he still be telling the truth, and speaking of himself and his Zygon crew? They’ve been around for about seven centuries too, and, as they all suckle the lactic fluid of their pet Skarasen, might they not be an actual family? So if the Doctor seems somewhat laid back during this adventure, perhaps it’s because he has Duke Broton sussed right from the start. When our faux Forgill drives away from the Fox Inn in Part One, the Doctor looks contemplatively after him. Later, his voice is loaded with sarcasm when he says “Your Grace”. Clearly the Doctor is onto him. But what gave it away? Well, while the Zygons may be adept at changing their shape, how good are they at changing their smell? This Duke of Forgill probably stinks of fish and stale monster milk, but everyone’s simply too polite to mention it.

While Broton is reasonably competent, his other Zygons let the side down by getting almost everything wrong. They’re certainly nowhere near as good at pretending to be humans. They fail to kill our heroes on several occasions, and when Broton leaves them in charge of their ship, barely five minutes pass before the Doctor blows it up. (There’s a hilarious moment when the Doctor activates the Zygon fire alarm and all the Zygons troop out like schoolchildren. Do they have regular drills? Are they trotting off to ‘Muster Point C’? They really are a deliciously gormless bunch.)

But what the other Zygon-humans may lack in brains, they make up for in pure monstrosity. This is one story that certainly lives up to the lurid promise of its title. The Zygon version of Sister Lamont lingers long in the memory of every viewer: blood stickily clotting on her arm, her head cocked and gimlet-eyed, like a carrion bird poised to rip into its prey. “It’s just a scratch,” she says, so softly, before bludgeoning a man with a rock. More terrifying yet is the sequence where Sarah pursues the Zygon version of Harry. Truly, Douglas Camfield’s direction of this story – and of these filmed location scenes in particular – takes the breath away. It’s pure British folk horror: Sarah’s breath frosting as she runs through a wide and bleak landscape of denuded trees and thick ruts of mud. Crows caw behind that wonderful incidental music, as the wistful flutes of Part One gives way to driving strings and urgent clarinet. And then we’re with Zygon-Harry in the barn, as he drives his pitchfork right down the camera lens – straight at us. You’d take an instinctive step back from the TV if you weren’t already sitting down. In his wide shot, Camfield fleetingly establishes thick wooden spikes jagging upward from the floor of the barn. He can’t show the Zygon actually impaled on a stake, but he can suggest it to our subconscious. And then there’s that terrible, primal, echoing ‘moo’ as the creature dies. It’s a moo that sums up Terror of the Zygons in miniature: grotesque, strangely mournful, beautifully judged, and totally unforgettable.

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DVD Extras

Not only is this two-disc set a celebration of one of Doctor Who’s greatest adventures, it’s also a tribute to the skill, imagination and astonishing hard work of the Doctor Who Restoration Team and many of their fellow travellers – the people whose talents have made this DVD range a triumph from first to last. There’s something of a party atmosphere to this release; a loud, lusty and well-earned last hurrah. Terror of the Zygons was long planned to be the last complete twentieth-century Doctor Who serial released on DVD. However, the gods of good fortune have heard our prayers and intervened, meaning that that position will instead be claimed – and hopefully only for a short time – by The Enemy of the World. And here’s a thing… The location filming for Episode 1 of The Enemy of the World took place at Climping Beach in West Sussex. And the only other time this location was used by Doctor Who was for Terror of the Zygons. One is left breathless by the glorious, exquisite timing of it all.

For Zygons, sound guru Mark Ayres has contrived – by some staggering witchcraft – to offer us not only an ‘isolated score’ audio track (and what a score!) but also a 5.1 surround mix. How is this even possible? Maybe we shouldn’t ask. Like staring into the burning heart of the TARDIS, the minds of mere mortals are not built to know such ineffable power.

Producer Ed Stradling provides our behind-the-scenes documentaries. This is right and proper, as Stradling has been behind the majority of the most creative films in the range; he set the standard for others to beat way back on the Earthshock DVD, ten bloomin’ years ago. Here, as then, Stradling deploys a fan commentator to join the dots and act as de facto narrator, so we can all wrinkle our noses and say: “Well, what does he know about it?” The so-called ‘experts’ on Earthshock, whoever they were, have long since been lost to history, so here we have TV Historian Simon Farquhar, who peers sullenly out from under his fringe like Princess Di in her interview with Martin Bashir. ‘TV Historian’ sounds like a cool job, but sadly they don’t teach it in every school. What a shame. Instead of an afternoon of PE, the Fridays of childhood would have been greatly enlivened by double Quatermass followed by an energetic half-hour of Applied Dennis Potter.

The production documentary is a laudably thorough affair. Writer Robert Banks Stewart makes for particularly charming company. “I was fascinated by the idea that either the Loch Ness Monster existed, or it didn’t,” he tells us, so he’s clearly a man who likes to keep all bases covered. As the story behind this story unfolds, even a mere photograph of long-dead script editor and all-time No.1 hero Robert Holmes, with a pipe clamped between his teeth like Hemingway or Tolkien, prompts one to list the limbs that might be cheerfully traded for a chance to spend an hour in his company, learning the most secret alchemy of Doctor Who.

The highlight of the ‘extras’ disc is the outstanding Remembering Douglas Camfield, also from Ed Stradling. It’s a robust and fitting tribute to the great man, placing his Doctor Who work in the context of a hugely successful TV career. Camfield’s son Joggs and actress Celia Imrie (a star of Camfield’s 1981 Scottish sci-fi horror serial The Nightmare Man, scripted by Robert Holmes and notably Zygonesque in atmosphere) pay moving tribute to a man who they loved very much, and who clearly loved them greatly in return. Imrie recalls how, while shots were being set up on location, Camfield would play the ocarina – a particularly haunting instrument. So it’s no surprise that the director brought in Geoffrey Burgon to provide his fluting scores for Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom, rather than settling for, well… shall we say the more robust charms of Dudley Simpson.

Two gems from the BBC archive capture Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen at their most beautiful. Baker is interviewed, on location for Terror of the Zygons, by the local news programme South Today, and he’s magnificently detached and aloof as the presenter prattles on. He impishly remarks that taking the role of the Doctor means he can no longer enjoy his “bachelor benders” – though he was hardly a stranger to the Colony Room or the Coach and Horses as his years with the show played out. When asked about the episode he’s filming, Baker says that he’s come to this Sussex beach “to make something inventive and agreeable” – which is as charming a mission statement for Doctor Who as any you’ll hear.

Elisabeth Sladen is the host of Merry-Go-Round: The Fuel Fishers – a children’s educational show from 1977, in which we learn how oil rigs work. So evocative of The Sontaran Experiment is her canary yellow raincoat, and so characteristically earnest Sladen’s approach, that it’s almost like a little lost adventure for Sarah Jane Smith. As she flies out across the North Sea by helicopter, Sladen has to react to her own pre-recorded ‘thinks’ track, and we’re reminded of the truth, the fun, and the utter conviction she brought to her performance as Sarah. No one ever believed the magic more.

Joining this curtain call of Doctor Who DVD master craftsmen is Martin Wiggins, who provides a typically majestic set of ‘info text’ subtitles, full of wit, wisdom and whimsy. With Wiggins as our guide, Terror of the Zygons comes to life in all kinds of new ways; not least with the revelation that John Woodnutt would pass the time between takes in the studio by tap-dancing on his mark – in full Broton costume. One prays that the raw studio footage turns up one day.

ian_lis2However, it’s another lost wonder which proves the final great coup of this DVD, and indeed of the whole range, as a long-missing scene of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arriving in Scotland is restored to us. And how perfectly magical it is to see them together once more, out on location and gathered around their wonderful, tumbledown, potting-shed TARDIS – all so young and handsome and eager for adventure. And it’s surely a perfectly-timed opportunity to admire the manifold skills of the Restoration Team – and colourist Stuart Humphreys – who painstakingly pieced this lost gem together from scattered remnants.

When Terror of the Zygons was first released on VHS videocassette back in 1988, it was edited and chopped down to an omnibus. Now, on DVD, it’s bigger and more beautiful than ever. And if that isn’t a fitting tribute to the dedication, talent and sheer willpower of Doctor Who fans, then I don’t know what is. So let’s celebrate.

After all, it’s our birthday too.

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