“TERROR OF THE ZYGONS” – Season 13, Serial 1, Story 80 – Written by Robert Banks Stewart; Directed by Douglas Camfield – It’s the start of Tom Baker’s second season and the end of the line for poor Harry Sullivan. The crew is off to Scotland when the Brigadier calls in the Doctor to help with some weird goings on at some oil rigs. It’s the debut of the Zygons, who want to capture the world’s supply of haggis. Or conquer the world. I forget. The Zygons are pretty cool, though. Because They’re Big, They’re Orange, They Have Suction Cups On Their Head, And They Shapeshift. Yeah, They Got Cool There At The End, Didn’t They?
Season 13 of DOCTOR WHO opens with a very solid serial with a very annoying soundtrack.
I can’t think of any other serial that I’ve seen that has a more annoying set of background noises. What there is of a score is standard, but, my God, the bagpipes and alarms and whatnot is like an orchestra of power drills being shoved into my skull. The characters even note how loud and obnoxious these sounds are, and just to make sure we don’t think they’re lying, the Beeb’s techs have jacked the audio through the roof.
That’s a small complaint in an otherwise good serial. The Brigadier has called the Doctor in to investigate a mystery in Scotland, and it’s the kind of slightly spooky, slightly foreboding set-up that will blossom as this season moves along. We open with some of those spooky sounds rattling around an oil rig, which proceeds to slide into the sea.
Robert Banks Stewart’s script does an excellent job balancing everything off, so right after we get the foreboding opening, the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry hitch a ride into town in a semi-comical scene. Clearly, Tom Baker is already perfectly at home inside the TARDIS (and yeah, I know, we don’t get to see much of the interi- oh hell, look, it’s a turn of a phrase, deal with it) and he manages to convey a purposeful sense of misdirection better than any of his predecessors. Patrick Troughton could do the “I’m not thinking what you think I’m thinking” bit with aplomb, but Baker has a certain way of conveying the idea that his mind is operating on multiple levels that’s truly a joy to watch.
The real star of ZYGONS for me, though, is Sarah Jane. It’s her energy that keeps the serial’s momentum going forward, allowing Baker to chew scenery while he figures out the mystery. At the start of ZYGONS, Sarah is bubbly and quite happy to be along for the ride. While there’s no romantic connection between her and the Doctor, there is a very real sense of life being a big joke that only the two of them share. There’s nothing wrong with having a deadly serious serial every now and then, but if every week is dour and depressing it gets old. Sarah Jane does an excellent job providing the right sort of balance for ZYGONS. She’s bouncy and joyous at the start, giving the story a nice lift. This makes her the perfect person to answer the phone when the call comes in that Harry has been shot.
Harry getting shot exemplifies the other thing Stewart’s script does a good job with in ZYGONS. No, not shooting Harry. I’m talking about how Stewart gives everyone something distinct to do. That’s always a struggle in these serials. We watch them, in part, because we like to see the Doctor interacting with his Companions, but if they are eternally joined at the hip they can stumble all over one another. We’ve seen that with Harry since he’s come aboard – whenever he’s teamed with the Doctor, he feels largely unnecessary, yet whenever he’s off on his own, that’s screen time that could be going to the Doctor.
It’s been tough going for Harry. I think Ian Marter has done a very good job with the role he’s been given, but he was cast with the idea of the BBC going with an older Doctor, meaning it would be up to him to handle a lot of the physical action. Tom Baker is perfectly capable of doing his own running around, so Harry is often best utilized being away from the Doctor.
But then his screen time is screen time that could be going to Sarah Jane.
It’s a no win situation, really, made even tougher when UNIT is around like they are in ZYGONS. For most people, I would imagine, Harry’s popularity ranks behind the Doctor, Sarah Jane, the Brigadier, and maybe even Sergeant Benton.
Critically, Stewart’s script gives Harry something unique to do, having him first get shot and then become a captive of the Zygons. Deep in the narrative, the Zygons use their shapeshifting to impersonate Harry, which leads to a (Not Really) Harry confrontation with Sarah.
I like how ZYGONS manages to mix both the alien menace with the human mythology of the Loch Ness Monster, as they use the creature to cause some problems. There’s also a great castle sequence that sees Sarah complaining how she gets stuck doing the boring investigate work (an odd complaint from a journalist) but then she quickly finds a secret tunnel and she’s off exploring, forcing herself back into being an active participant in the narrative.
The Zygons are rather cool villains that could use a New Who makeover. They’re definitely from the Rubber Suited Monster genus, and it’s a bit odd to see them lumbering around, talking in raspy whispers when they are, you know, shape changers. How about shifting those vocal chords, at least, so we can understand you? I slammed the Zygons a bit (in a good-natured way) on Twitter last night about this stylistic choice from the DOCTOR WHO production office. I get that this is a kid’s show and so you want to reinforce the idea that these characters are alien by giving them funny voices, but it gets old. It’s also not sending a very good message to kids (and this is a kids show, as we’re constantly reminded) that bad guys not only look different but talk different. Now, sure, there’s not a lot of giant orange, suction-cup covered, whispering aliens walking around London, but the Doctor and his Companions tend to look a bit like the viewers and the bad guys tend to look like Halloween costumes.
I’d love to see the Zygons comes back, though. Personally, I think they’d make a perfect villain for the 50th Anniversary season, as their ability to alter their appearance would be the perfect rationale for why all the previous Doctors now look like very old men – the narrative could chalk it up to a Zygon messing with the Eleventh Doctor’s head. (Of course, that’s not the way I’d do it – as anyone who’s been forced to listen to me prattle on about how I’d do the 50th Anniversary, I’ve long held that I would reveal that the Master has been kidnapping each of the Doctors from the past and imprisoning them inside an asylum, forcing them all to grow old inside a TARDIS. Eleven shows up and there’s a big round room with doors labeled I through XII, and each of them opens to reveal a new part of the TARDIS that the Doctor must explore with his aged former self. But, you know, Moffat’s probably got a few ideas, too.) You wouldn’t want the Zygons to get all Skrull-like because Russell T. Davies already sort of did that with the Farting Aliens, but one shapeshifting alien operative on Earth? Yeah, that’d be awesome.
All of that’s for the future. In the past, we’ve got this nice little four-part serial from 1975. I wish there was more done with the Brigadier, but I always wish there was more done with the Brigadier. The cast works exceedingly well together and the script keeps everything moving (both narratively and emotionally), making TERROR OF THE ZYGONS a really solid, if not particularly unique, serial.