Sunday, November 20, 2011

Terror of the Zygons

Terror of the Zygons is one of those serials that has a reputation. There are a few of these, the stories that are generally considered classics (or the opposite). Usually, even if the story is flawed, it's clear what makes it great.

But Zygons' popularity seems somewhat inexplicable to me. It's a fun yarn, but the idea that it's one of the all-time-greats of Who - particularly in a season including Pyramids, Morbius, and Seeds of Doom is strange.

 It's a farewell tribute to the Pertwee-era UNIT stories, and suffers all the flaws of those stories to an even greater extent than most of those. On the other hand, though, it does have a couple elements that make it interesting and unusual, and those raise even such a formulaic, unsatisfying plot. Director Douglas Camfield approaches the darker aspects of the story with the stylish gothic horror vision of Hinchcliffe and Holmes, and Tom Baker's take on the Doctor has a fascinating impact on a Pertwee story.

The titular aliens nicely represent the good and bad of the story. Camfield builds up the Zygons superbly. When we first see them, it's nothing more than an extreme close-up around their eyes. Next time, we hear their eerily quiet voices over a surreal montage of them fiddling with their controls. Even when we do see them in full, it's only for brief flashes.

And when they actually show up, they're worthy of the buildup. They look absolutely fantastic - truly one of the best-designed monsters in the history of Who, as beautifully crafted as the Daleks, Eldrad, the dying Master in The Deadly Assassin, and the Weeping Angels.

Then they take Harry on board their ship and start talking, and it all falls to pieces. The Zygons on paper are as unintelligent and generic as they are stunning visually. Harry basically comes in at the beginning of episode two and asks them who they are, where they came from, and what their plan is, and they stand around and tell him everything. And honestly, if they had held this off until the fourth episode, they might have gotten away with such utter rubbish for a plan - see Dalek Invasion of Earth, for example.

But they not only spoil all the mystery and intrigue less than halfway through, but reveal it all to be just another ludicrous take-over-the-world scheme that, even by the standards of a Pertwee-style story, is patently ridiculous. They'll use the Loch Ness Monster - which is, in fact, a cyborb whose lactic fluid the Zygons live on - to take over the world. (Speaking of which, Nessie, unsurprisingly, is a pretty weak effect, but Camfield at least keeps its appearances to a minimum.)

And again, you can have a ludicrous scheme and have it work in Doctor Who. But the villains need some way to be threatening, and from the moment they reveal their plan, the Zygons fail to be threatening or even interesting... and, as a consequence, so does the plot.

Philip Sandifer at his superlative Tardis Eruditorum blog suggests that Terror of the Zygons is, in fact, not a generic, silly runaround, but in fact a brilliant spoof of the generic, silly runarounds of the Pertwee era. Which, given that Holmes script-edited this, I can buy. Holmes would totally take an already ridiculous premise and use it to subtly mock the entire Pertwee era. But while it adds a clever layer underneath the action, it still makes for a pretty so-so adventure on the surface. And while the cleverness adds a bit of fun to the story, it's not enough to raise it out of its ordinariness. On a basic story level, it's more routine than any Pertwee serial.

It certainly doesn't give the characters much to do. Sarah mostly sits in the background of the story or on the side of various scenes. She does get to save Harry from the Zygon ship, and Sladen is marvelous as always (particularly when she hesitates to save Harry because she's not convinced it's really him), but this isn't one of her stronger stories. Nicholas Courtney has a hilarious bit proclaiming the Brigadier's Scottish heritage in the most English way possible, and remains the same remarkably steady straight man for the silliness, but basically just exists in the story to give the Doctor someone to spout exposition to until the closing scenes.  He does get a good bit in the finale, and he and Benton are at least around acting as though they're doing interesting stuff.  And they're not the buffoons they became in a couple of the later stories.  It's not a bad treatment of them; just not a terribly great one, either. 

Worst of all is Harry. Ian Marter always was absolutely marvelous as Harry, mixing with Baker and Sladen perfectly and adding a brilliant comic touch. Here, he does get an effective sequence where a Zygon impersonates Harry, which Marter makes absolutely terrifying. But otherwise, Harry has little to do, other than take advantage of what lame villains the Zygons are by messing with their controls when they basically let him roam around their ship free. He barely appears after the second episode. Which makes his departure at the end of the story an abrupt and unsatisfying end to his character - not the worst companion farewell, but not far from it. Still, Marter brings real conviction to his frustratingly limited role, making every scene count.

There are two things that really make the whole thing work, though, and these two elements are so brilliant they actually make this one of the best UNIT stories. The first is the acting. Even if Sladen, Marter, Courtney, and John Levine don't have much to do, they make every scene shine. The routine script comes completely to life solely through their conviction and humor.

But mostly, it's Tom Baker at his peak. Dropping him in a Pertwee story actually makes the story work far, far better than it has any right to. Pertwee, of course, was an action-centered Doctor, who loved to jump into things and run about in chases and such, generally being a swashbuckling hero; he also loved throwing his charisma and presence around to take his enemies down a notch. But Baker has all of Petwee's charisma and presence just standing in the background of a scene. His Doctor seems to be so much more alien, so much more a force of nature. And even though it's not really his thing, Baker does the action hero stuff much better than Pertwee ever did; watch the way he runs for his life at the end of episode 2 in particular.  And his expected humor works wonders, adding delightful bits where he (rightly) mocks the incompetence of his enemies. ("Very good, very good, almost impressive.")

(This isn't to say Pertwee isn't a great Doctor in his own right - he's spectacular when he has someone to cut his pompous Doctor down to size, and he plays his death scene a touch more effectively than his successor. But the stuff he's best known for? Baker outdoes him handily.)

The second redeeming factor is director Douglas Camfield, without question one of the three greatest directors of classic Who. Taking the Hinchcliffe/Holmes approach toward horror and running with it, he makes the set-pieces riveting. The Doctor and Sarah locked in the decompression chamber is genuinely terrifying. The soft focus, echoing voice, music, careful editing, and Baker's utter alienness make the Doctor's hypnotism of Sarah uniquely mystical. The lighting in the Zygon ship makes it eerily alien.

One scene in particular shines thanks to Camfield's direction - the Zygon-Harry attacking Sarah in a barn. It's a scene we've seen before and since in Who, of a false companion or possessed companion attacking the Doctor or another companion. But Camfield's use of shadow and editing - and his ability to take advantage of what a superb actor Ian Marter is in a way none of the writers did - makes it a masterful work of suspense and horror, a set-piece worth of Hitchcock.

Camfield's genius for set-pieces and visuals and Baker's spectacular Doctorishness raise Zygons above the formulaic goofiness of the script and into the most entertaining and far and away the most thrilling post-Inferno UNIT story. (which, actually, was the last time Camfield worked on Who) In a way, that is itself a pretty powerful skewering of the entire UNIT era - one of its finest works rises to the top simply because it's a little more stylish and a little more Doctorish than most of them.

Even with that in mind, though, it's bewildering that this is considered one of the greatest Who adventures. In a weaker era, that might be understandable. But not only did the last season feature The Ark In Space and Genesis of the Daleks, but this season goes on after Zygons to do Pyramids of Mars, Brain of Morbius, and The Seeds of Doom. And, for all its flaws, Planet of Evil is at the very least a much more interesting story, if not as entertaining.

But it does succeed at delivering solid entertainment. It may be a weak, forgettable story underneath, but it's hard not to have fun when it has this much panache.


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