Thursday, 31 May 2012

DW50 Countdown: The Fourth Doctor (Part Two)

This month I'm amending my original statement to watch and review usually fan-forgotten episodes of Doctor Who to watching and reviewing a fan-favourite Doctor Who. The reason behind this is that not everyone who reads my blog will not be familiar (or interested enough - fraid I'm not with you there) to read about random Who stories but will hopefully want to read about some of the all-time greats! So, without further ado please proceed to my review of the tantalising 'Terror of the Zygons'...

Doctor Who in Scotland. It doesn't happen enough. Fans of the revived series will be familiar with the werewolf/ Queen Victoria episode Tooth and Claw which made great use of a spooky Scottish house. But the only other time is this story. And given how successful the setting is in this episode it's surprising there are not several more. The Scottish Highlands, thoroughly atmospheric in every creepy way, in Terror are among the best settings for a Doctor Who story ever. Factor in the only appearance of classic Who monsters, the Zygons, and the return of UNIT and you have one of the greats.
From the start the pace of this story is well done. We get some good model shots of an unseen Loch Ness Monster destroying an oil rig, Benton and the Brigadier calling the Doctor from Scotland and the TARDIS dropping off its inhabitants - including Doctor in fetching Scottish beret, Eleven would be proud of himself - just in time to meet a creepy local resident all in 10-15 minutes. And, as this is Doctor Who, we still get room for laughs and touching moments. You'll chuckle along with Sarah Jane upon spotting the Brig in a kilt and then enjoy one of the stand-out moments of the serial; The Doctor is complaining about being brought back to Earth and refuses to listen to any of the Brig's reasons, instead sulkily draping himself over a couch, hat covering his face. Then the Brig asks him; 'Do want others to die?' The Doctor lifts his beret up to reveal a sheepish grin and he promises he will help. It's a small scene in scale but one that perfectly demonstrates the Doctor and the Brig's complex friendship. Soon after the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry - our intrepid adventurers - are off investigating. And in no time at all, come across a Zygon...
Yes, I really couldn't hold off talking about the Zygons any further. They're quite simply one of the best executed creatures ever in the show. They are directed extremely skillfully throughout. In the first two episodes there's a lot of shadowed close-ups on Broton, the Zygon Warlord's piercing eyes and strange hands operating controls, accompanied by an impressive score. Like everything else in the story, it builds the sense of unease and anticipation in the viewer up and up until the big reveal. Thankfully, when that reveal comes it does not disappoint.  But top marks go to the designer who created their sucker-filled, barnacled, embryonic look. For a child, the Zygons must have a similar effect as the Daleks as they both have chillingly inhuman shapes. What's more, their ship is as equally well-designed with its coral-like control panel which must surely have been a huge influence on the look for the Ninth/Tenth Doctor's TARDIS. They also have an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers-type trick in that they can copy the form of humans to impersonate them... meaning you can never be sure who's really a Zygon and who isn't. Great stuff. What's more they're not only evil but pompous and arrogant as shown in this quote:
Zygon (to Harry): This is a Body Print - a Zygon device no doubt far beyond your understanding.'
It is a surprise they have never reappeared. As David Tennant's favourite monsters it was most likely they would return during his time but who knows in the future...
Apart from the great aliens and lashings of atmosphere, what lifts this story is also reliably good performances all round. Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) is, of course, brilliant with that constant twinkle in his eye while John Levene is his fun sturdy self as Benton. However our real stars are the three-part TARDIS team. Split up for a sufficient portion of the tale they all get a slice of the action. Elisabeth Sladen, as Sarah Jane, enjoys herself immensely doing some independent investigating and shines with the talent that made her own recent show - in which she does just that - work so well. Tom Baker is also the captivating, charismatic leading man. He's the Fourth Doctor all over here. A stand-out scene being the inevitable moment when the Doctor meets the bad alien who proceeds to tell him his plan. This one though is cheekily acted and well-scripted. For instance, after Broton tells him a plan for world domination, the Doctor quips: 'I must say you think big. Isn't the Earth a bit large for just six of you?' It's a great moment that just gently makes fun of the usually-ignored fact that the show didn't have the funds to make loads of costumes. However, special plaudits go to Ian Marter in his last regular appearance as Harry Sullivan. Always endearingly bluff and brave, Marter is often overlooked in the great pantheon of Doctor Who companions but he's one of my favourites. Here he gets to act his socks off as Zygon Harry who, in another excellently atmospheric scene, chases Sarah through a barn. There's a great bit of acting from Sladen here as Sarah's reaction to finding out Harry has been turned evil is something akin to heartbreak - showing how much she cared for him. Its a shame there isn't further exploration of this.
Overall, it's really good writing all round. Even if Part Four literally loses the plot as it leaves the Highlands for the rubbery-looking Loch Ness Monster's assault on London, the first few episodes are scripted with great care and skill. Scattered throughout are great gags that many Who writers at the time would have left out. One such favourite is the Brig being on the phone to a 'madam' prime minister - before Maggie Thatcher was around. So consistently good is the writing that when I came across one jarring, techno-babbly line that are two-a-penny in many classic Who I was sure there was a joke hidden in there somewhere but failed to find one. Why don't you have a go:
Zygon: 'I underestimated his intelligence, but he underestimated the power of organic crystallography!'
Hmm, it's just a bad line , isn't it?
On the whole though, nearly everything works in this story. Snappy direction, strong performances, great atmosphere All of it comes together to form a well-told creepy story that still greatly entertains today.

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