ROBERT BANKS STEWART
LOCH NESS, THE SECRET OF THE LOCH & THE SECRET OF LOCH NESS
'TERROR OF THE ZYGONS' DVD (BBCDVD3482) RELEASED IN SEPTEMBER 2013;
OR 'THE FOURTH DOCTOR TIME CAPSULE' LIMITED EDITION MULTI-MEDIA BOX SET (BBCDVD3800) RELEASED IN JULY 2013.
Answering the Brigadier's space / time telegraph, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive in the village of Tulloch, near Loch Ness. A series of attacks have taken place on local oil rigs, and many are blaming the legendary monster. The Doctor discovers the creature to be the Skarasen - cyborg pet of invading aliens the Zygons. Their own planet having been destroyed and their spaceship crippled, these deadly shape-shifters are now intent upon taking control of the planet Earth.
30TH AUGUST 1975 - 20TH SEPTEMBER 1975
I was fascinated by the “Zygon gambit with the Loch Ness monster” long before I ever saw Terror of the Zygons, thanks to a now quarter-century-old Sylvester McCoy soliloquy that set it up on a pedestal alongside the “Yeti in the underground”. And, having seen Robert Banks Stewart’s Scots serial half a dozen times since, I’m still just as spellbound by it, and still just as sure that it belongs on the same lofty plane as the recently-discovered Web of Fear. This may be Tom Baker’s final story to appear on DVD, but that’s no reflection on its quality. Indeed, the old adage about saving the best ’til last has seldom been more appropriate.
It’s quite surprising, really, that it took Doctor Who twelve years to pit its titular Time Lord against the legendary Loch Ness monster, but far less so that, when that fateful meeting did come, the series would offer its viewers something far from the many pedestrian monster hunts seen elsewhere. Indeed, the monster itself – the ‘Skarasen’ cyborg – is almost incidental to the plot, despite its domination of the story’s novelisation’s sensational title. This is a story that’s actually about oil, about bodysnatchers, about Zygons.
One of the reasons that I think that the Zygons work so well is because they play on that age-old fear of people not being who they appear to be. Doctor Who has used this gimmick time and again, before and since, but I still don’t think that it’s ever been used better than it is here. Take Harry Sullivan, for example - there is a slight nuance of difference that soon blossoms into a gaping chasm between the mild-mannered, almost apologetically Oxbridge, time-travelling UNIT CMO and his cold and steely doppelganger. John Woodnutt’s turn as the villain of the piece is even more impressive – the Duke of Forgill, with his cruel posh Scots timbre, could have been a credible antagonist as himself, which only serves to make his unmasking as the sibilant Broton even more surprising. The real terror of the Zygons isn’t a close-to-the-bone, skull-grazing bullet, but the fact that they could be anybody – a companion, a nurse, even a dour duke – and, of course, they invariably are.
The Avengers-inspired action is also kind to the regulars, particularly the Brigadier who finds himself suddenly, and amusingly, Scottish despite his quintessential Englishness. The idea of him chasing alien bodysnatchers in a kilt is almost as silly as him getting dressed down by a female prime minister on the telephone in a famous flourish of production team prescience. Lis Sladen’s Sarah, meanwhile, is at not only at her investigative best in the story, but perhaps her personal best too. Lovely little pieces of business like her sticking her tongue out at Caber, or her light-hearted mocking of the camp landlord’s supposed second sight, demonstrate precisely why the character was so loved, and is now so missed.
And then we come to Mr Baker himself, who, despite the bravura performances of veterans and guest stars, owns this story from its first deleted scene to its final broadcast one. Seasons 13 and 14 are commonly viewed as the zenith of his reign, and - until Russell T Davies came along, at least - thus the zenith of the series, and such opinions are built on performances like these. The Doctor’s bad moods, his mania; his brilliance. Sometimes it’s hard to see where Baker ends and the Doctor begins, but at this stage in his tenure Philip Hinchcliffe was firmly holding the reigns and squeezing the very best out of him. Terror of the Zygons is a prime example of Baker under control; none of your Season 17 silliness.
The DVD’s commentary track certainly misses the presence of the usually-bombastic Tom Baker, or someone similarly mischievous, particularly as regular moderator and consummate compère Toby Hadoke must’ve taken the day off when it was recorded, leaving the Restoration Team’s Mark Ayres to deputise. Fortunately what Ayres lacks in showmanship, he more than makes up for in knowledge, but inevitably the track is much more sober and reserved than those that we’ve become accustomed to recently.
Above: Doctor Who Stories from ten years ago
Baker is on hand though to share over twenty minutes’ worth of his
Doctor Who stories, which include a penchant for American
hot-flavoured pizzas reportedly borne of the Zygons, as well as a veiled,
tabloid-fuelling pitch for a role as a villain in RTD’s then-nascent new
series. The late Lis Sladen also weighs in with more of her ten-year-old
tales originally recorded for The Story of Doctor Who and, like
Baker, her anecdotes inexorably progress towards talk of the series’
impending revival and her views on it. It’s fascinating to hear her
discuss her hopes and fears for the show, particularly now that we know
how it would go on to cement her legacy with a whole new generation of
children. As soon as my little one is old enough, she’s getting fed a
staple diet of Sarah Jane Adventures.
Philip Hinchliffe - the man
who broke up The UNIT Family
The final instalment of The UNIT Family is probably the most interesting of the trilogy as it delves deeper behind the scenes than either of its predecessors did and covers a fascinating period in any event. From the start of the family’s breaking up, which began with the untimely death of Master actor Roger Delgado and continued with Katy Manning’s departure soon afterwards, through Mike “Thin and Sensitive” Yates’ treachery and the Season 13 phasing out of the UNIT regulars, all the way to the near-future-shattering Mawdryn Undead and new generation’s Battlefield, this programme covers it all. Terrance Dicks, with his usual irreverent candour, talks about the conflict that he had to wrestle with every season as he weighed his inherent dislike of the Earthbound formula against his love of UNIT personnel and the actors who played them. Barry Letts, meanwhile, holds his hands up to not recognising the preposterousness of the conceit that a top-secret paramilitary organisation would allow a journalist not just within its walls, but within its confidence. Perhaps most interesting of all though is the ever-eccentric John Levene, who describes the differences between the warm and welcoming Tom Baker that he met on the set of Robot, and the decidedly aloof figure that he’d cross paths with again a year later.
Above: Tom Baker on keeping fit and the avoidance of “bachelor benders”
man behind the fourth Doctor is anything but aloof though as he is
interviewed on location in the second disc’s short South Today
clip, in which he discusses keeping fit and the avoidance of “bachelor
benders” now that he’s always on the telly. Meanwhile his co-star takes us
on a tour of an oil rig in a complete 1977 episode of Merry-Go-Round,
tying in nicely with Zygons’ ecological theme. I’m usually quick to
dismiss such tenuous ephemera, but I can’t here as I genuinely learned
lots of fascinating facts about oil rigs. It seems that Merry-Go-Round
was the Nina and the Neurons of its day.
Above: The time capsule that travelled two months back in time - but what does it contain...?
Overall then, the Terror of the Zygons DVD serves its story well, acknowledging its significance as both an era-ending, and more importantly, golden era-launching adventure, while at the same time not pulling its punches when it comes to trouble on set, be it technical or personal. I don’t know whether there are plans afoot to revisit any further fourth Doctor adventures on DVD, as everything from 2004’s Pyramids of Mars onwards has been complemented pretty comprehensively (except perhaps Fang Rock…), but if not, Terror of the Zygons sees Baker’s turbulent Time Lord out on a high, blithely underestimating the power of organic crystallography all the way.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2007, 2013
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
When is now? Spearhead from Space is set shortly after the Cyberman invasion depicted in The Invasion, which in turn is set four years after The Web of Fear. One school of thought places The Invasion in or around 1975, in line with its Radio Times billing, dialogue in both stories, and the production team’s original intention, with the ensuing UNIT stories following shortly afterwards. However, such a placement is at odds with novels such as Who Killed Kennedy, which suggest that the Auton invasion occurred in 1970, when the serial was first broadcast.
The duration of the Doctor’s employment with UNIT has never been determined. We know that, from the Time Lord’s perspective, he was on the organisation’s payroll for the entirety of his third incarnation, but how much time passed for UNIT is another matter entirely. Indeed, as so succinctly demonstrated by Colony in Space’s bookends, the Doctor could disappear off into time and space only to rematerialise a few seconds later. This effectively allows for years’ worth of adventures taking place within a few seconds of UNIT time.
Most people generally infer that around six years passed for UNIT between Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom, broadly in line with how many years had passed for viewers, but this is difficult to reconcile with “classic” UNIT dating, which is predicated upon The Web of Fear taking place in 1971 (as set out above), because Mawdryn Undead made it explicit that the Brigadier retired from active service in 1976.
Assuming that the Brigadier did not retire until late 1976, all the UNIT stories between Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom (in which the Brigadier is last referred to being in active service) must therefore take place within the space of, at best, two calendar years, meaning that this story is set in late 1976 - a few years’ prior to Thatcher’s reign as prime minister.
However, in order for this theory to even come closing to holding up, we’d have to swallow the premise that the Brigadier did not retire until very late in 1976; the Whoniverse elected Thatcher a good few years faster than we did; the events of Seasons 7 to 13 occurred within two years, despite being broadcast over six; and that Sarah Jane Smith’s throwaway “1980” line in Pyramids of Mars was exactly that – a throwaway line, perhaps even rounding up on her part.
Please see the UNIT Dating Dossier for further information.
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