Doctor Who – “Terror of the Zygons”

Returning to Earth, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive in the Scottish Highlands to investigate the mysterious destruction of several oil rigs in the North Sea.

Local superstition speaks of a deadly threat that lurks in the mists on Tulloch Moor, but the truth is even more disturbing; the legendary Loch Ness Monster is a terrifying cyborg beast which is controlled by the Zygons, an advanced alien race who are desperate to ensure their own survival, at any cost…

Tom Baker is the Doctor in Terror of the Zygons.

X X X X X

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Harry Sullivan – Ian Marter
Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart – Nicholas Courtney
RSM Benton – John Levene
Duke of Forgill/Broton – John Woodnutt
Sister Lamont – Lillias Walker
The Caber – Robert Russell
Angus – Angus Lennie
Huckle – Tony Sibbald
Munro – Hugh Martin
Radio Operator – Bruce Wightman
Corporal – Bernard G. High
Soldier – Peter Symonds
Zygon – Keith Ashley
Zygon – Ronald Gough

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Writer: Robert Banks Stewart
Director: Douglas Camfield
Original Broadcast: 30 August – 20 September 1975

Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cmj12piWog

X X X X X

Terror of the Zygons serves to both kick off Tom Baker’s second season as the Fourth Doctor while also closing the book on the UNIT era of the Third Doctor and is everything about classic Doctor Who distilled into a single serial. Silly looking aliens that also serve as intriguing protagonists. Special effects that both help and hinder the overall story. Tom Baker as the Doctor in word and deed. A female companion in constant peril. A lot of running around. A disused Welsh quarry. And somehow, thanks to some fine directing, production work and an memorable alien menace, it all clicks together to form a solid and memorable story.

After the events of Revenge of the Cybermen, the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah Jane find themselves called to the moors of Scotland by the Brigadier. UNIT is currently investigating the destruction of several oil rigs in the North Sea by a force strong enough to completely demolish the structures in a manner of minutes. While the Doctor navigates local politics, Harry and Sarah run afoul of a strange alien force – one who can assume the shape of their victims and have plans for the destruction of humanity, with the aide of a creature of Scottish mythology…

I’m honestly surprised to find that it took Doctor Who almost twelve years to tell a story involving the Loch Ness monster. Inspired by the global interest in the mythical monster that swept the world in the 1960’s Robert Banks Stewart started out penning a serial called Loch Ness/The Loch Ness Monster/The Secret of the Loch/The Secret of Loch Ness/Secret of Loch Ness, but as the script writing process progressed, Philip Hinchcliffe suggested a change in both the story’s focus and the story’s title. In order to work around the special effects limitations of showing the Loch Ness Monster (called the Skarasen), Stewart rewrote the script with the hostile aliens as the central foes, and as such the story was renamed Terror of the Zygons. This was definitely for the best, as the Skarasen’s SFX were easily the weakest part of the episode while the biotechnology of the Zygons was one of its most interesting features. The change allowed Stewart to ground the script with a sense of realism, but one has to first realizes that from the very beginning of the story, this script is as Scottish as all hell. Aside from the moorish filming location (Scotland by way of West Sussex), we’ve got a small Scottish village with bagpipe music playing over the first 30 seconds of dialogue, accents a plenty, an innkeeper with “second sight,” Scottish nobility with a manservant literally nicknamed “Caber,” and even the Brigadier himself in a kilt (no surprise as his name IS “Lethbridge-Stewart”). There’s a also a hint of current 1970’s events as well; Terror of the Zygons aired the very month the first barrels of North Sea crude oil were pumped from several new oil rigs dotting the coast, causing tensions between the longtime fishing industry and the booming oil business. The story itself is very basic – an alien race has infiltrated a small Scottish village with the overall goal of conquering the entire Earth via humanity’s total destruction. There are a few moments of action, a few moments of humor, some good cliffhangers including a smash bang one in the first episode that reveals a Zygon in all its front-suckered glory, and a satisfying conclusion with a moment tacked on that brings it down slightly. If one were to look at just the script, Terror of the Zygons would probably fall squarely in the middle in terms of quality – some good moments, a few bad ones, but nothing that would make it stand out overall.

What makes this story special is primarily the production work by the staff. Director Douglas Camfield and cameraman Peter Hall both do a superb job in presenting the action. Camfield keeps the Zygons hidden away during the first episode, with close-ups of their claws and eyes adding to the mystery until the big reveal during its cliffhanger, while Hall does a great job keeping everything and everyone in shot, especially during the “running around” scenes that UNIT and the Doctor do so well. Camfield also makes more mundane moments, such as a conversation between Benton and Angus being intercut with closeups of the Zygons spying on them. The true standout moment is during the second episode, where Harry’s alien duplicate is hunting Sarah Jane through the hayloft of a barn. For a few moments, Terror of the Zygons goes the route of Peeping Tom as Camfield shoots the nail-biting scene like a tense slasher movie.

In many ways, Terror of the Zygons serves as the swan song for the UNIT era. During the Third Doctor era, many an adventure focused from the Doctor’s time with the international organization as their scientific adviser. Although UNIT would feature in several other Fourth Doctor stories, this serial serves as the final regular appearance for both Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and John Levane as Sergeant Benton. Philip Hinchcliffe decided that UNIT’s presence meant less time on-screen for the Doctor and wanted to focus more on Tom Baker’s larger than life persona. Perhaps realizing that this was the proverbial end of the road both men are in fine form here, with Benton being the everyman soldier who does as ordered and does it very well and the Brigadier as the officer who does what he does for Queen and Country, including doing everything he can to steer the Doctor on track towards the destruction of the oil rigs (“(Harry) will be fine. He just needs time.” “Yes, well, time is the last thing we have, Doctor. Another rig’s just been destroyed.”). We would see Benton one more time in The Android Invasion, but this is truly his final story, while the Brigadier would pop up in The Mawdryn Undead, The Five Doctors, and Battlefield as well as a handful of Big Finish audios.

Terror of the Zygons would also be Harry Sullivan’s last story as companion (aside from a throw-away appearance in The Android Invasion). The writers and Hinchcliffe had originally expected an older actor to be cast at the Fourth Doctor and picked Ian Marter as someone who could take on the majority of the physical work. With Baker able to handle his own stunts, Hinchcliffe went against the advice of script editor Robert Holmes and wrote Harry out at the end of this story. While this did give us the absolutely classic Four/Sarah Jane dynamic that defined Tom Baker’s run, it’s a bit of a shame because I enjoyed Harry’s time on the show. Ian Marter nailed the quintessential old-school British man, and for all the talk of him being an imbecile during his time in the TARDIS, Harry was capable (smashing the Zygon console to save the Doctor in the third episode), brave (assisting a fallen oil rig survivor while under rifle fire) and determined to do the right thing, as well as being absolutely demonic during his scene in the barn. In the end, Harry was a fine one-season companion, and I’m bummed that we didn’t get a few Big Finish audios with him as Ian Marter passed away from diabetic complications in 1986.

I’ve joked that Sarah Jane often seems to be the damsel in distress, from her kidnapping in Robot to her constant state of despair in The Ark in Space, but this has been mixed with moments of leadership and bravery as seen in Genesis of the Daleks. Terror of the Zygons sees Sarah as both captive (locked in a compression chamber) as heroine (rescuing Harry from the heart of the Zygon’s ship). But also seen an inquisitive Sarah Jane as she investigates the Duke’s records, as well as…well, Elisabeth Sladen being “cute” as Sarah Jane sticks her tongue out at the Duke behind his back in a nice moment of charm. Sarah Jane’s turn her helps set the stage for her upcoming time as Four’s lone companion, and it’s a very bright future indeed for the duo.

The second season of Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor was where the Fourth Doctor was truly established. His larger than life onscreen presence was one of the reasons that UNIT and Harry Sullivan were written out, to ensure as much screen time for Baker as possible. Baker’s Doctor is much more alien than his predecessor, having to be convinced by the Brigadier that the destruction of the oil rigs should be of vital interest to him. There’s also a very creepy scene (well shot by Camfield) where the Doctor hypnotizes Sarah to slow her breathing down that adds to the Doctor’s aura of mystery. What Baker really sells are the Doctor’s sudden mood swings and his on-purpose overreaction to the simplest of comments (Duke – “I do believe your serious.” Doctor – “OH, YES, VERRRRRRY”), going from deadly serious to flippant and jaunty in a moment’s notice (You can’t rule the world in hiding. You have to come out on to the balcony sometimes to wave a tentacle – if you’ll pardon the expression!”) without any effort on his part. The Doctor’s brilliance is on display as he single-handedly sets the Zygon’s ship to explode, after a moment where he uses his own body to channel an electrical current to short-circuit a doorway (and it’s here that viewers get a first hand listen at Baker’s loud screaming that will continue throughout his tenure) as well as giving a hint of his physicality during his final confrontation with Broton.



The weak point of Terror of the Zygons is easily the Skarensen model. The Loch Ness Monster was supposed to be the central focus of the story, but the special effects just…weren’t very good. In Robot, the Chroma Key inserts of the Robot didn’t take away from the plot itself, but here the Skarensen is just so off-putting that it distracts from the overall story. The climax of the story, where the creature swims up the Thames and attacked a gathering of politicians, is done via the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry starring off-camera, with a few inserts and a lot of piped in screaming, before the Skarensen swims away, and that’s the end of it.

The titular Zygons themselves are easily the high point. Despite only appearing in this story during the classical era, the Zygons made enough of an impression on viewers and fans to have made numerous appearances in the expanded media, as well as playing a key part in the 50th anniversary story The Day of the Doctor. The Zygons’ home planet was destroyed by an unknown catasrophe (later clarified at the Time War), and a colony fleet is on the way to Earth to turn it into their new homeworld, utilizing their ability to shapeshift in order to The Zygons’ plot is a little silly (destroying oil rigs? Six Zygons using the Loch Ness Monster to convince the world to surrender to their awe-inspiring might?) but there’s no denying just how gruesome they look.

James Acheson did a wonderful job creating the costume, crafting a unique looking creature that simply oozes with what I can only describe as “biology.” What could have been a silly costume is enhanced by the prominent pyramid/cone shaped head and the multitude of suckers adorning their body. The set designers go one step further by infusing their technology with a biological element – a lot of arteries and veins, knobs overflowing with skin and muscle and bone…the control panel actually made me queasy a few times while watching this episode, not because it was disgusting, but because it was disturbing and VERY well done. It all added to the Zygons’ uniqueness, added by the performance of John Woodnutt, who acted in several Who episodes as well as numerous other science-fiction series, as the Zygon leader Broton. While Broton is your standard alien warlord who refuses to admit he’s been beaten, Woodnutt adds a level of menace that shines through the costume and makeup. The Zygon’s shapeshifting effects are well done for the era, adding a level of paranoia to the proceedings as the viewer doesn’t quite know who is a Zygon and who isn’t (Sister Lamont’s murder of Angus the innkeeper is another well done and incredibly terrifying scene, kudos to Angus’ actor for his small but memorable part).

Cygnia – I wanted to take a few moments to deal with the season premiere tonight before approaching this classic episode.  I’m not spoiling anything, don’t worry.

MOTHER[BLEEP]ING [BLEEP]SUCKING SON OF AN UNNAMED WHORE!

*ahem*

Now that that’s out of the way, “Terror of the Zygons” was an episode that really stuck with me growing up, mainly because I am of Scottish heritage.  So, kilts and Loch Ness?  I’m all over that!  But it was the Zygons themselves that had that impact, even though they only appeared once during the classic series (fun fact: there was supposed to be a Zygon in the lost episode “Shada”!).  They were insidious, hissing and wet, like poisonous mushrooms growing in the rot.  And they could take the form of us — hiding in plain sight!  That’s a pretty primal fear, coming from the same company that gave us green-tinted bubblewrap.

And then Moffat had to hike his leg up and pee on everything in his attempt to mark every story in “Who” as his.  But I digress…

Other scenes that stuck with me: Zygon!Harry trying skewer Sarah Jane with a pitchfork, saying nothing.  The beacon stuck to the Doctor, calling out for the Skarasen to eat him.  And the Doctor hypnotizing Sarah Jane to survive the compression chamber (Cobi’s right — that WAS pretty damn creepy).

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Sting of the Zygons” by Stephen Cole and featuring the Tenth Doctor and Martha.  Very cool book and a nice twist reminiscent of early Fantastic Four with the Skrulls.  Seek it out if you get the chance!

Random Thoughts

Doctor – “Oil an emergency? Huh! It’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent upon a mineral slime just doesn’t make sense. Now, the energising of hydrogen…”

  • While filming the escape from the Zygon’s ship, the crew placed the model of the ship almost directly in front of the camera and placed the actors on the other side of the quarry, where the truck they were jumping out of was hidden by the model. Very well done.
  • Sarah grabbing the UNIT phone as it rings before sheepishly handing it over to Benton.

Sarah – “How do I know you’re not a Zygon?”
Harry – “Come on, old girl.”
Sarah – *relieved*

  • As I said before, this story is simply as Scottish as [BLEEP].

Cobi’s SynopsisTerror of the Zygons is a solid story all-around, with good acting, good production values, a good script with a handful of memorable moments and an alien menace that makes an immediate and lasting impression.

Next up – The Doctor and Sarah answer an intergalatic distress call that takes them to a far flung planet at the edge of the universe…

Tom Baker is the Doctor in…Planet of Evil.

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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