Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Terror of the Zygons"

Aired Aug 30 - Sept 20, 1975

4 Episodes

Story 80

Written by: Robert Banks Stewart

Directed by: Douglas Camfield


Returning to Earth after receiving an emergency message from the Brigadier, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry find themselves on the Scottish moors, aiding UNIT in their investigation of a series of attacks on North Sea oil rigs. The Doctor soon uncovers that the attacks are part of an invasion plan of the alien Zygons, shape-shifters whose spaceship lies at the bottom of Loch Ness. Their own planet having been destroyed, the Zygons are using a huge cybernetic beast called the Skarasen to destroy the rigs and their shape-shifting abilities to impersonate local citizens. Their leader, Broton, has assumed the identity of the Duke of Forgill, using the laird's position and power to further their plans.

The Doctor manages to free the Zygons' prisoners and destroy their ship, however Broton escapes in disguise as the Duke. He heads to London where the Duke has been invited to an Energy Conference attended by political leaders. There, the Skarasen will attack and the Zygons will begin their invasion. 

Though UNIT shoots and kills Broton, the day is only saved once the Doctor manages to force the Skarasen to eat the homing device that is forcing it to attack. Once without its influence, the creatures swims harmlessly back into Loch Ness. The Doctor and Sarah head off in the TARDIS, this time without Harry, who elects to stay behind.


Over time, Terror of the Zygons has gained a substantial reputation among fans, who often hail it as one of the best stories of Season 13. While I'd say it's certainly one of the best directed and performed stories of the Season, I would say that the script itself is pretty pedestrian and familiar, with a plan from the villains that makes little sense and a wandering focus. One moment it's all doppelgängers on the Scottish moors, the next it's world energy and the Loch Ness Monster. I'd never call the scripts bad at all, in fact they're fairly enjoyable, but the story just doesn't zing as much as I remember it zinging from past viewings.

In fact, upon this watch, I was struck by how all of the energy and pace and brilliance of the story comes from Douglas Camfield's directorial choices. Always one of the best directors of the classic series, Camfield was a master of pacing and structure, staging top notch action sequences while knowing how to build a scene to a climax through editing. He was skilled at helping actors craft a cohesive performance, as evidenced by how, when faced with the scripts as written, he had the actors break into small groups to punch up the dialogue to clarify characters and sharpen focus. 

The cliffhanger to episode one is among the best in the series' history, the sequence where the Zygon Harry attacks Sarah with a pitchfork is terrifying, and the scene where the Doctor hypnotizes Sarah into not needing the breathe is ethereal and unsettling. Camfield, a lover of all things military, rehabilitates UNIT back into an effective force after years of buffoonery. He only stumbles in the effects surrounding the Skarasen, but from what I've learned this was largely unavoidable.The designer of the puppet over-promised, the stop-motion never worked properly, but Camfield and Hinchcliffe wisely adapted and limited views of the monster as much as possible, even making the decision to rename the story from The Loch Ness Monster in an attempt to downplay its role and lower expectations. 

The design of the Zygons is justly lauded, Nigel Curzon's set design and the make-up work of John Friedlander and Sylvia James combining to delver one of the most effective and scary alien races in the history of the programme. With their embryo-meets-octopus organic look, the Zygons are one of the very few monsters that look just as effective and real today as  when they debuted.

Of course, this story also marked the end of Nicholas Courtney's semi-regular status in the series. It's a nice return to form for the Brigadier, where he is funny and warmly teased without being utterly incompetent. Courtney would not appear in the series for seven years, and as far as swan songs go, it's a lovely one.

In the end, even with a script that is perfectly serviceable, it's the superb direction and production values that give Terror of the Zygons its punch.

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