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.
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.
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.)
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.
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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