This review contains spoilers.
It’s aptly named, is Terror of the Zygons. Its opening episode is a slow-build towards one gloriously unexpected shock moment. Even now, when you know it’s coming, it’s a brilliant moment of jarring editing. A sudden reveal, a scream, a zoom into a shadowy monstrous face, cue credits. You don’t quite have time to process it before its over.
That’s after some enjoyably ripe Hammer horror scene-setting in the north-east of Scotland. Tales of ancient horror are spun to incredulous newcomers, and we occasionally cut away to ineffable alien eyes. Most formidable of all, of course, is Tom Baker. Here he’s in prime unnerving form amidst a lot of competition. Perhaps there was a competition between him, Lillias Walker and Robert Russell. That would certainly explain a lot.
In his penultimate story, Ian Marter (as Harry Sullivan) isn’t given a lot to do (spending most of his time captured by the Zygons) but he does nail his confrontation with Sarah in the barn, and the Brigadier is largely a straight man (save for some business involving kilts at the start). Lis Sladen’s rarely better as Sarah Jane Smith; playful, impudent, caring and resourceful.
Dougie Camfield, a director famed for his meticulous planning, makes the most of the set pieces. What could have been an average action-romp is elevated to a collection of nightmarish images. The Zygons are a brilliantly realised monster, their faces craggy and demonic (enhanced by excellent lighting in their underwater base). It’s a shame that they are rather good at contriving to lose from a position of strength, more so than most Doctor Who monsters are.
The problems with Terror of the Zygons is its script, with plotholes and occasionally perfunctory dialogue. There are too many ‘and then…’ moments, rather than ‘and so…’ ones. The set pieces are tense, atmospheric and memorable, but they do have the effect of weakening the villains by making them look careless – if they weren’t, our heroes wouldn’t escape – and this unfortunately is exacerbated by the Doctor’s hilarious mocking of them. The Zygon leader then broadcasts his instructions to the rest of the ship, including the Doctor’s cell. The Doctor then uses the information to save the day, and then the Zygons think he’s dead (which, to be fair, he probably should be) based on a glance at his body. It’s obviously been a while. Slow clap for Broton, anyone?
Also the effects for its other monster are not as impressive as the titular one. The Skarasen puppet serves to tell the story, but it is far from convincing. You’ve got to say though, that explaining the Loch Ness Monster as an alien creature is a lovely idea (so good they used it twice). The model work elsewhere is exceptionally good, however (the tricks used are detailed on the bonus features). This is mainly a brilliantly constructed piece of television, with the production and acting raising the script to something above average.
An extra scene, recently recovered, can be watched as part of an extended episode one. It’s been cleaned (and recoloured by Stuart ‘Babelcolour’ Humphries). It’s an almost definitive ‘lovely little scene’, only cut originally for practical reasons of picture quality rather than narrative ones.
There are Production Subtitles. These are so consistently excellent that it feels almost unfair to simply say that they are at the usual standard, but they are. We’ve been spoiled, frankly. Interestingly, we discover from these that Douglas Camfield sent his actors to the pub to work on scenes they felt needed a lift, explaining the sense of fun that pervades the menace throughout.
The commentary, moderated by Mark Ayres, involves Production Unit Manager George Gallacio, writer Robert Banks-Stewart, and Dick Mills of the Radiophonic workshop. Banks-Stewart, gregarious, scatter-brained and chatty, initially dominates. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe (always engaging) joins for episode two, and attempts to bring Gallacio and Mills into the conversation more, though this is unsuccessful. Make up artist Sylvia James joins for the final two episodes, and it becomes more of an ensemble piece. With the lack of surviving actors it’s a dry commentary, good-natured but not begging to be revisited.
The very thorough making of – the splendidly named Scotch Mist in Sussex – confirms the brilliance working behind the scenes on Zygons. The documentary features a few unfamiliar members of the production crew, it’s great to see them talking with understandable pride about the problems and solutions they found. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s talent really becomes clear here, bringing in the right people for the job and encouraging them to do better.
Remembering Douglas Camfield is an in-depth look at the late, great director. Featuring rarely seen behind-the-scenes shots and personal photographs, it charts his career from directing film inserts during the first Doctor Who story to a James Mason-starring adapation of Ivanhoe in 1982. Amidst the fond ‘You had to be there’ style anecdotes (and a brief Wogan interview on location for Beau Jest) the most interesting aspects of his career are those away from Doctor Who, and you’re left with an impression of a man who not only knew how to make great television, but how to have fun while doing it.
There’s also part three of The Unit Family, featuring the unique enthusiasm of Sergeant Benton actor John Levene. Levene lacks the confidence of Richard Franklin, who to this day protests that Captain Mike Yates was not a traitor. It’s a good sign though, that the actors are invested in those characters so many years later. Focusing on UNIT from series twelve through to Battlefield (presumably they won’t be documenting the new series version), it ends as it should, with the reflections of Nicholas Courtney.
There are interviews from a 2003 Doctor Who documentary with Tom Baker and Lis Sladen. Baker on a lucid day is still like an Edward Lear poem made flesh. His interviews may tread over familiar material, but it’s Tom Baker. He could recite the events of the worst day of your life and make it funny. Elisabeth Sladen relates anecdotes, including some about K9 and Company, cheerily, and there are clips of her from School Reunion added into her comments about the (then recently announced) new series.
Merry-Go-Round: The Fuel Fishers features Sladen presenting a featurette about oil as part of the Broadcast for Schools shows. Compared with some of the non-fiction features on these DVDs, this one communicates the facts much more effectively than most. Also it features Sladen leaning back against a stanchion, as if to say ‘Hello you. I’m on an oil rig.’
There’s also a clip of Tom Baker being interviewed on South Today by a Partridge-esque journalist. Baker alternately sounds bored and then mentions going on benders, presumably deciding to have some fun by being inappropriate.
Overall, though there are numerous extras, each feature is patchy. It’s not that anything on here is poor, but only the Tom Baker interview and Making Of sustain interest throughout.
Terror of the Zygons comes out on DVD on Monday the 30th of September. Order it at the BBC Shop, here.
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