|So complete is Terror of the Zygons’s appropriation of
the Pertwee era that it even includes a dodgy giant lizard
in honor of Malcolm Hulke.
It’s August 30, 1975. The Stylistics are at number one with “Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love),” one of the many Philadelphia soul songs to chart in the UK and not the US. They are unseated by Rod Stewart with “Sailing,” which is not the more famous bad Christopher Cross song, but really, it’s not like that justifies anything. It still lasts the remaining three weeks of this story. KC and the Sunshine Band, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Roger Whittaker, and Mike Batt with New Edition all also chart.
In the only two months since Doctor Who was last on our screens, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle between the US and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the deadliest motorway accident in UK history, a referendum resulting in the UK staying in the European Community, and the release of the Rockefeller Commission’s report that concluded and made public at least some of just how evil the CIA had been being lately. This was the first of three major studies into the CIA in about a two year period that began to scratch the surface of how upsettingly bad things were with the CIA. Most of these revelations were strenuously opposed by officials in the Ford administration, most notably some guy named Donald Rumsfeld, whose political career was surely brought to an end by such a brazen attempt to cover up staggering abuses of power. There’s also the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation shoot-out, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, and the sentencing of the Birmingham Six
While during this story’s transmission, the IRA bombs the London Hilton, Rembrandt’s Night Watch is slashed up by a vandal, and, though the second attempt happens two days after this story’s finale, the two and a half weeks in which everybody tries to kill Gerald Ford take place.
It has, you may notice, been a short break since Revenge of the Cybermen. This is where Doctor Who moves to the third of its five major transmission schedules. Originally the show ran basically from the end of summer to the beginning of summer, occupying 40 weeks of the schedule. Then, when the episode count got cut to 26 with the switch to color, it became a roughly Christmas to summer run. Now, in order to deal with what everyone at the BBC is assuming is going to be the juggernaut of Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999, Doctor Who is moving to a Fall through Spring run with a break for Christmas – a run, I should note, that is widely tipped as what Moffat’s era is going to switch over to starting in 2012.
But since this was a move done to compete with an ITV show, this move is the only time Doctor Who has jumped around the calendar by shortening the gap between seasons instead of by lengthening it. And the first consequence of that is that Terror of the Zygons, which was supposed to close out Season 12, instead got pushed forward to lead of Season 13. This is not entirely to Terror of the Zygons’ advantage. The story is very obviously, as all of the Hinchcliffe-contributed stories in Season 12 basically were, about breaking from the past of Doctor Who. And in this regard, Terror of the Zygons performs a necessary function, because frankly, UNIT was enough of a major (and enjoyable) part of what Doctor Who was from 1970-74 that it couldn’t just be dropped with Robot and never seen again.
But equally clearly, the “correct” structure here is to end Season 12 with the last nostalgia piece and then start Season 13 off with the no-more-nostalgia approach that basically guides the rest of the Hinchcliffe era. Instead there’s a slight sense with Terror of the Zygons that we’re just sort of stalling for time. On the other hand, given that there was a massive sense of that with Revenge of the Cybermen, this is still progress. And it’s equally true that moving Terror of the Zygons away from Revenge of the Cybermen probably softened the sense that the show has no ideas beyond redoing its old ideas that might have set in from an uninterrupted sixteen-week run from The Sontaran Experiment to this. Either way, ultimately tapering UNIT off within the series instead of pulling the plug abruptly is the right call, and the necessities of scheduling made this the only way to do it.
Anyway, for every person who views Terror of the Zygons as a frustrating retread there are two or three more who view it as one of the best stories ever. This is a bona fide classic. Which isn’t surprising – it’s got enough Pertwee DNA to appeal to the Pertwee-era fans, but is still unmistakably a Baker story. A best-of-both-worlds approach like that is always going to win fans, particularly when it’s got a solid director and a well-done villain. So I admit that I came to this one with no small amount of curiosity.
See, going into the Hinchcliffe era for the blog, there were only three stories in the whole era that I hadn’t either seen completely or read the novelization of – a rate that nothing else prior to the 80s (where I have, I believe, seen every single episode, though that doesn’t mean I paid attention for all of them) manages. One of these – The Android Invasion – is not exactly surprising, given that it didn’t have an early video release and is not particularly well-loved. But the other two are both massive classics, and one of them was Terror of the Zygons. (The other, to spare people guessing, is actually Talons) There’s nothing much to this – I had the tape, but somehow never got around to watching it, and the one time I tried I got distracted, lost the plot, and gave up.
So this is one of my two opportunities to be genuinely surprised by a classic Hinchcliffe-era story and to make sure fond memories of decrepit armchairs and adjusting the tracking on my VCR aren’t getting in the way of my being fair to stories. And my God. Terror of the Zygons is SO much better than the classic fans make it out to be. This is a thing of utter beauty.
Essentially, what is going on in Terror of the Zygons is that the show is offering a brutally honest critique of the Pertwee/UNIT era and its conventions. The lynchpin of this critique is the same thing that it was in Robot
: Tom Baker. But whereas Robot was written as an ultra-traditional and frankly overly cautious UNIT piece, Terror of the Zygons is clearly written with the rampage of Bakerian charisma that will inevitably occur firmly and unequivocally in mind. Whereas before it was mostly Baker’s emphatically enthusiastic acting that just upstaged UNIT, here the entire script seems to contribute to that. Baker is given scenes in which to mock the continual UNIT/Pertwee-era obsession with energy sources. And he’s clearly irritated at the Brigadier with wasting his time on an issue this small. The overwhelming sense is that the Doctor has come to conclude that UNIT is just a bit rubbish, and that dealing with one planet in one time period’s supplies of mineral slime is just not a sensible use of the Doctor’s time, little yet a sensible regular gig for him.
Were this restricted purely to turning UNIT into objects of mockery, it would seem mostly to be a kind of mean-spirited expansion of some beloved characters. But oddly, Terror of the Zygons avoids the critique that it’s mean-spirited by being so utterly and ruthlessly complete in its takedown of the Pertwee era that nothing comes out any more singed than anything else. The Doctor is equally ruthless in mocking the Zygons and their plan, leading to some of the best dialogue of the story. He’s similarly dismissive of the Duke of Forgill’s authority and class, a shot that comes tantalizingly close to mocking the class structure that Pertwee’s entire characterization depended on his incongruous performance of. Pertwee may have subverted the class structure by being a drag version of the upper class dandy, but the drag style of subversion still basically validates the underlying social structure. Baker, on the other hand, seems to have no time for or interest in the entire social structure. He doesn’t care about British class politics enough to impersonate them except as overt mockery.
But it’s the Zygons that really end up making this story. Miles and Wood, who I haven’t had cause to castigate for a while now, get this one appallingly wrong by complaining that the Zygons are undeveloped and flat monsters saved by good design. While it’s true that the designers on this hit it out of the park, complaining that the Zygons are underdeveloped misses the central and hilarious joke of the story. Consider the fact that Broton and the Duke of Forgill are both played by John Woodnutt. This makes sense, given that for the bulk of the story the Duke of Forgill is actually being impersonated by the Zygons. But notably, absolutely no effort is made by Woodnutt (who is a very solid actor) to have Broton and Forgill act the same way. Broton is a fairly static, hissing Doctor Who monster, whereas Forgill, when he’s in malevolent mode, is a Bond villain. Crucially, Forgill also doesn’t act quite the same in his false and real forms. In other words it’s clear that the Bond Villain aspect of Broton-as-Forgill is just a facade. Broton appears to seriously believe that in order to conquer the Earth, he needs to dress up like a James Bond villain.
Thought of this way, the Zygons’ entire scheme makes sense. Because otherwise, quite frankly, using the giant cyborg sea monster that they depend on the lactic fluid of to attack oil rigs and then an energy conference as a way of taking over the Earth has to be called a strange and dangerously stupid scheme even by the standards of Doctor Who monsters. It’s one of the few schemes that one can imagine calling in the Cybermen and the Master in on as consultants and getting the answer “well, it’s a bit overly complicated, isn’t it?” But the flip side is that it’s entirely sensible if you assume that the Zygons learned everything they know about conquering the Earth by watching Pertwee-era Doctor Who stories. Certainly it helps explain why they attack an energy conference, which is possibly the archetypal thing for aliens to attack in the Pertwee era – it’s a futuristic energy installation and an international conference!
It’s particularly strange for Lawrence Miles to miss this, as it’s delightfully close to where he ends up going with the Remote in Interference
. (Or, if you prefer the hostile and more critical angle, it’s strange for him to miss this given that he shamelessly ripped it off in Interference.) But it makes sense, given how much the Zygons’ scheme is a collage of Pertwee standards done with the same not-quite-right style that characterized his drag action hero
. Scotland gets treated with the same cavalier stereotyping that previously plagued Wales
, but this time it has a tongue-in-cheek feel as opposed to a callous-condescension-towards-struggling-mineworkers feel (helped significantly, it must be said, by the fact that there are multiple actual Scotsmen working on this, giving it a feel of loving parody more akin to Torchwood’s take on Wales than The Green Death’s). There’s a whiff of Von Dannikenism to the idea that the Loch Ness Monster has an alien cause, but the actual explanation – squid people living in Loch Ness and drinking it’s lactic fluid – is utterly insane. Von Dannikenism here becomes less something that’s cool in and of itself as an excuse for absurd contrasts so that the show can do an evil alien duplicates werewolf story about the Loch Ness Monster and have it come off.
Which is also to say that we’re firmly in postmodernist territory again, with the basic dynamic of juxtaposition that has always been a part of Doctor Who being ramped up to eleven. Before the juxtaposition worked in one of two ways – either putting ordinary people in strange circumstances where they don’t belong, as the show did to start
, or by dropping the Doctor into an existing genre and watching him run wild
. This is by far the furthest the show has gone to date with the genre mashup, in which elements of multiple genres are laid together. (The previous major experiments with this having mostly been Robert Holmes)
This is, of course, a natural extension of those earlier juxtapositions. The juxtaposition has been the basic narrative building block of Doctor Who since the first shot
. But the nature of the juxtapositions have evolved from juxtaposing Doctor Who with something else to using Doctor Who as an occasion to bring together disparate existing genres. So in this story we have mysterious monsters in the highlands, doppelgängers, and a traditional alien invasion all co-existing. And then on top of that we get a Doctor who is even more mercurial and anarchic than Troughton was – who does not merely skulk on the edges of scenes, but who regularly stands in odd places while dominating the frame, remapping entire spaces around himself. What this means is that the Doctor ends up providing a sort of running commentary on the absurdity of things.
The most obvious instance of this, of course, is Baker’s hilarious fondling of the rather suggestive-looking Zygon controls. But Baker also, in this story and others, displays an amazing talent for pulling a somewhat inscrutable and puzzled expression when he’s doing a reaction shot to a dodgy effect, as if he’s vaguely appalled by it as well. Which is helpful given that the Skarasen is a disaster. But it’s also an interesting updating of Troughton’s old tendency to look out of television screens. Baker has a similar power to defy and control he medium. Not only does he make frequent eye contact with the camera that emulates Troughton’s peering, but he also reverses it, seeming to look at things within the narrative with the perspective of someone outside the narrative. Troughton’s Doctor was in some ways the audience’s agent inside the narrative, but Baker’s is nobody’s agent – a force that stalks the liminal space between audience and narrative, commenting freely on both.
But the real thing to notice is how much of this goes well beyond the superficial. The Pertwee tropes being used aren’t being mocked for the easy reasons. This isn’t a parody of Pertwee. It’s a critique. The Pertwee tropes are being mocked for their poor understanding of 1970s Britain – whether it be their poor handling of rural culture, their appalling misunderstanding of global politics, or just their sense of scale. The one or two really good zings in Robot like the Doctor’s suggesting that the nuclear launch codes for the US, Russia, and China had to be left with the UK because otherwise they’d be in foreign hands aren’t just cute grace notes here – they’re the entire point of the story. This is a story about the fundamental absurdity of aliens using the Loch Ness Monster to attack Margaret Thatcher (and they explicitly do attack Thatcher as opposed to, say, Harold Wilson). The entire story is about how utterly stupid the story is. It is, in effect, a snide comment about the lousy politics of the Pertwee era, and by dint of that ends up being the most successful political commentary of the UNIT era. But what’s truly amazing is that all of this is done lovingly. The show goes out of its way to have this story not only be a scathing critique of the UNIT era but to also be the best UNIT story in memory.
Although David Maloney has for the most part seized the crown of being Doctor Who’s most accomplished visual stylist from Douglas Camfield, having him back behind the camera is still a major improvement over anyone else available. The UNIT members are solid as ever, with Courtney proving adept at positioning the Brigadier both as a thick object of ridicule and as a noble man who is at times horrified by the things he sees in his world. The designers are, as previously stated, fantastic. And for all of Pertwee’s reputation as the physical Doctor, the fact of the matter is that Baker is actually far better than he was at scenes of running around, giving an amped up and visceral feel to the action scenes that the Pertwee era hasn’t had since Action by Havoc was still a novelty. (It’s also worth making the off-handed suggestion that the common image of an alien grabbing Baker’s shoulders and him collapsing in pain – what I shall henceforth call Baker’s Backrubs of Doom – is a parody of Venusian Aikido)
The production values are, in other words, equalling or bettering past UNIT stories, making the undermining of them all the more effective because the story is so scrupulously playing fair. Not every Hinchcliffe story will be this well-made, and they turn out not to always have to be in order to work, but given the sheer sacredness of the cow being slaughtered here, everyone had to bring their A-game, and they did. This is a story that was either going to be an enduring classic or a mean-spirited train wreck. Mediocrity was never in the cards for it. And with everybody making sure to capture the appeal of UNIT stories as vividly as they express their critique of it, it landed solidly on “classic.” Which, notably, means that for this production block of five stories, three of them were unambiguously classics.
The only thing that can really be called a major flaw is the decision to write Harry out. Despite his reappearance in The Android Invasion and his lengthy career of writing some of the best Target novelizations, this is where Ian Marter’s involvement with televised Doctor Who basically reaches its endpoint, and it’s a massive pity. Between the added flexibility given to splitting up companions to follow different plotlines and Marter’s genius comic timing and repartee with both Sladen and Baker, having Harry around has dramatically improved every story he’s appeared in. Holmes, apparently, fought for his retention, but Hinchcliffe, in a decision he later came to regret, ordered him written out anyway. But his importance to the development of Doctor Who is crucial anyway. He is, in effect, the missing link between Ian and Rory in the understanding of the reluctant male companion, and it is utterly fantastic. (And Moffat has cited the Doctor/Sarah/Harry crew as his inspiration for bringing Rory on as a regular.) This is, unfortunately, his weakest story since Robot, and you can virtually feel the character slowly slipping from companion to a character on the level of Benton, even going back into uniform partway through the story. But all the same, hats off to the late and very great Ian Marter.