Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons
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This review contains some plot spoilers.
Scotland. Something is attacking oil rigs in the North Sea. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry return to Earth as the Brigadier and UNIT investigate...
This DVD is something of a landmark release, in that it is the final complete serial to be released on disc. That of course has recently been overshadowed by a certain recent announcement, the results of which have been released for your viewing pleasure already on Itunes and will be out on DVD in November and February. So let's still give it its due as the final complete serial still existing on its original broadcast tapes, which it is and no doubt always be, in time for the Doctor's belated return match with the Zygons, in time for the fiftieth anniversary. The series of DVD releases is nearing its end, other than the possibility of further special editions, and if we pray maybe some more rediscovered lost episodes. It's been a long journey. You will find reviews of the majority of Classic Who releases here at The Digital Fix.
Written by Robert Banks Stewart and directed by Douglas Camfield, Terror of the Zygons was originally broadcast between 30 August and 20 September 1975, the first serial of Season Thirteen. This was Tom Baker's second season as the Doctor, Elisabeth Sladen's third as Sarah Jane, Philip Hinchcliffe's and Robert Holmes's second as producer and script editor. This particular serial is significant, not because of particular quality (I'd put it high in the second rank, personally, as it doesn't surpass certain stories in this season, the previous one and the next) but because it displays a show both hitting its stride and also in transition.
Hinchliffe and Holmes's predecessors, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had inherited the set up of the Doctor's exile on Earth and his work with UNIT and as soon as they could began to enable the Doctor to roam in time and space again. That is a process by now nearing its end. This is the last serial for a while to feature the Brigadier as Nicholas Courtney was not available for The Android Invasion and The Seeds of Doom, the latter being the final UNIT story for some while. He wouldn't return until Peter Davison's era and Mawdryn Undead.
Also in the process of being phased out were John Levene's RSM (formally Sergeant) Benton and Ian Marter's Harry Sullivan. Harry had been used as a companion during the previous season, there to take on the action sequences in case an older actor was cast as the Fourth Doctor, similar to the role that Ian (William Russell) played opposite William Hartnell's First Doctor. However, Tom Baker, a physically imposing forty-year-old, was more than capable of handling such derring-do and Harry became surplus to requirements. Harry and Benton would make their final appearances in The Android Invasion. In Zygons Harry and the later serial Benton as well, get to show some acting chops in playing darker variations on their roles. In the present serial a Zygon shapeshifts into Harry and threatens Sarah before meeting a nasty end, in the type of violent scene, pushing at the edges of a PG rating, that pitched the show to older children. That also didn't sit well with clean-up-TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who had Who in her sights. She was to gain a victory, and the show was never the same again, a story told in my review of The Deadly Assassin.
As for Zygons itself, the Scottishery is almost as overdetermined as the Welshery was in The Green Death, despite a Scottish writer and two genuine Scots in the cast. However, West Sussex stands in for Scotland ably enough, given that the budget didn't stretch to a location shoot actually north of the border. The atmospheric music is by Geoffrey Burgon, one of two Who serials he scored. Burgon was something of a leftfield choice by Camfield, who had heard his score on the previous year's Ghost Story for Christmas, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. Burgon's second and final Who was The Seeds of Doom, also directed by Camfield, before he became better known for film work and for the distinctive music on television for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Brideshead Revisited. I refer you to the Seeds of Doom DVD for an interview with Burgon, recorded before his death in 2010.
Terror of the Zygons is pacily directed by Camfield, and the regulars are all on good form. John Woodnutt is a persuasive villain, both in human guise as the Duke of Forgill and inside a Zygon costume. There is good modelwork of oil rigs (North Sea Oil being very much a current theme in the mid-Seventies, as witness a 1975 BBC series called Oil Strike North which your correspondent watched at the time – never repeated and not on DVD, but surviving complete in the archives) which belies the usual cliché of Who wobbly sets. There are as many miracles of effect work done on poverty budgets...which leads us to the serial's greatest shortcoming, the realisation of The Skarasen, the Zygons' pet monster. The CSO wasn't convincing in 1975 and it looks even worse on a 2013 set.
At the time, Doctor Who was entering one of its greatest periods, both in overall quality and in audience numbers. It wouldn't last, as we know, but at the time the show was a vital part of a BBC1 Saturday evening, typically nestled between the football results on the teleprinter and the Basil Brush Show. Zygons isn't the greatest Who but it's a good one, as the DVD range nears its close.
Terror of the Zygons is released in a two-disc edition. Disc One is encoded for Regions 2 and 4, Disc Two for Region 2 only. Both discs have audio-descriptive menu options.
The serial was made in the usual combination of 16mm film for exteriors, 625-line PAL videotape for studio work. All four episodes survive on their original two-inch quad videotapes, and their restoration is well up to the usual standards for this range. It will never be a reference disc, but this is as good as this material will probably ever look. The aspect ratio is the intended 1.33:1.
The soundtrack is mono, as per the original broadcast, but there are two other options as well. One has an isolated score. The other is a remix into Dolby Digital 5.1. I'm not going to suggest this is essential, but as the original mono is present – which it is – I'm not going to complain either. This remix is certainly quite tastefully done, with some notable separations of sound effects and the subwoofer helping out on occasion. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available for all episodes and extras except for the commentaries. The ever-useful information subtitles are this time the work of Martin Wiggins.
The original version of Episode One had an additional scene where the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry arrived in an invisible TARDIS. However, due to a lighting change, the use of a split screen became rather too obvious so the scene was deleted before broadcast. However, if you select “Episode 1 Director's Cut” from the menu, you can play the serial with this scene included – and with information subtitles and commentary over it as well.
The commentary is moderated this time by Mark Ayres, This begins with production unit manager George Gallacio, writer Robert Banks Stewart and sounds designer Dick Mills. Philip Hinchcliffe joins them for Episode Two, Gallacio and Mills sit out Episode Three and make-up designer Sylvia James joins in, then Banks Stewart says goodbye and Gallacio and Mills come back for the final episode. This is a good commentary, ably moderated by Ayres, with everyone able to say their piece.
“Scotch Mist in Suffolk” (31:25) is the making-of documentary. It follows the usual form of a series of interviews leading us through the serial from inception to completion. The serial was commissioned from Robert Banks Stewart before Philip Hinchcliffe came on board, though Scottish-born Banks Stewart was attracted to the idea of writing a Loch Ness Monster story for Who. Other interviewees include TV historian Simon Farquhar. designer Nigel Curzon, visual effects assistant Steve Bowman, John Levene, John Woodnutt makes an appearance from a 1993 interview as does costume designer James Acheson from 1999. There is also a tribute to the production assistant Edwina Craze, who died in 1999.
“Remembering Douglas Camfield” (30:04) is the profile of the late director, widely reckoned as one of the best directors the show ever had. This featurette covers his life and career from the beginning to his premature death, aged just fifty-two. There are tributes from Robert Banks Stewart (who employed Camfield on his own show Shoestring), his former assistant Graeme Harper, to become a notable director himself, Peter Purves, John Levene, Celia Imrie, and Camfield's son Joggs. After being an assistant on the very first Who serial, he was promoted to direct the final episode of Planet of Giants. He continued to work for Who and other shows and single plays until his death.
“The UNIT Family – Part Three” (26:28) is the final instalment of this series covering the use of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce. Terrance Dicks and (in archive footage) Barry Letts are frank about having to phase UNIT out, however much the set-up benefited the show: the aim was always to get the Doctor back into time and space again. UNIT was phased out during producer Philip Hinchcliffe's watch. The featurette also deals with the Brigadier's return after retirement as a maths teacher in Mawdryn Undead, his teaming with the Second Doctor in The Five Doctors and Battlefield, where he was almost killed off.
“Doctor Who Stories” is a series of anecdotes from a past regular, based on interviews done in 2003. On this disc we get two for the price of one, with Tom Baker (22:56) and Elisabeth Sladen (19:46). Baker talks about how he was cast by Barry Letts, and soon came into the charge of Philip Hinchcliffe, before going on to later producers Graham Williams and John Nathan-Turner. He describes Elisabeth Sladen as the Pearl White of Doctor Who and expresses a wish to come back to the show as a villain. Michael Wisher (regular Dalek voice and the first and best incarnation of Davros) turns out have been funny because of having seemingly no sense of humour. He spends more on his first three years than the later four. He jokes that the cliffhanger that preoccupies him most at his time of life is if there is life after death. Baker has a reputation as a raconteur, though sometimes prone to relate the legend rather than the unadorned facts, and he's on good form here. Sladen and Baker bonded partly because they were both Liverpudlians, She reveals that crew members did rather rude things with the Sarah doll that the Giant Robot held in its hand. Sladen talks about her life in the show and beyond, not just in the spin-off K9 and Company and the then possibility of the show's return.
“Merry-Go-Round – The Fuel Fishers” (19:40) is a children's programme featuring Sarah Jane...or rather Elisabeth Sladen as herself, though she seems to be channelling the character somewhat. Who knows how much of one was in the other? There's an odd scene at the beginning where we get her voiceover relating her nervousness as she takes off in a plane on her way to a North Sea oil rig, and gives us a tour of its workings.
Next up is an extract from the BBC's regional magazine South Today (3:11), where Tom Baker is interviewed during the location shoot on Climping Beach, West Sussex. This versatile location, incidentally, had previously stood in for an Australian beach in The Enemy of the World, which we will soon be able to see again for the first time since its original broadcast.
Also on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (5:09), set to Geoffrey Burgon's score, and a trailer for The Moonbase, out in January. The usual Radio Times listings, in PDF form, also include a long article on the Loch Ness Monster by Anthony Haden-Guest, graced with a colour illustration of Tom Baker. You may note that John Woodnutt is credited in two of the episodes as Broton rather than just the Duke of Forgill, which is not the case on screen.
There are two Easter Eggs on Disc Two. On the first menu page, click left from “Remembering Douglas Camfield” and you will find a brief, comic trailer featuring Tom Baker (0:37). On the second page, click left from “South Today” and you will find the unrestored, very grainy and scratched, version of the deleted scene from Episode One (1:49), complete with leader countdown at the start. This fades from colour to greenish monochrome towards the end.
This way to the Digital Fix Doctor Who: 50th Anniversary Podcast, featuring Rob Bayley, Mike Sutton, John White and myself.