29 – Terror of the Zygons

Doctor Who meets the Loch Ness Monster. I mean, what nine year old boy wouldn’t want to see that? So you can imagine my frustration that it was a further ten or so years before my dad finally found a VHS copy of Terror of the Zygons in a second-hand bookstore. (Should you ever find yourself in Northern Ireland I highly recommend popping in for a visit!)

What was extraordinary is that despite the excitement of seeing the exciting shape-shifting Zygons, and wanting to see Harry’s last adventure as a Doctor Who regular, it took about three watches for me to appreciate the story. Perhaps it was due to the video itself being extremely worn out, and being an omnibus presentation – I certainly know that I enjoyed the adventure much more when the episode breaks were reintroduced.

The story itself is a wonderful straightforward adventure that Jon Pertwee himself could have played with aplomb. The Doctor is summoned back from his preceding adventure by the Brigadier, who is investigating mysterious attacks on Scottish oil rigs. While the story was originally constructed around the mythology surrounding the Loch Ness Monster, the genius of the story was to have the monster be the cyborg servant of an invading alien force – the titular Zygons. Shape-shifting beings who are able to take on the appearance of others, these aliens would prove so popular they would be brought back, largely at David Tennant’s request, to feature in the fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, before earning their own double-part story in Season 9. The revelation of the Zygon menace at the end of episode one, surely has to rank as one of the greatest cliffhangers in Doctor Who history.

The story features many other pleasing touches – whether it is the Doctor and Brigadier donning Scottish attire, to the performances by the Zygons and their duplicates. The duplicity of the Zygon doubles enables the production team to deliver a combination of pace, suspence, and atmosphere, with an ease that belies its difficulty. At no point does the adventure feel pedestrian, with the only slight drawback being the realisation of the monster; although remembering the production budget of 1970s Doctor Who, the Skarensen is really not that badly presented!

A final note relates to where this story sits within the Tom Baker era. Although filmed and produced with the other stories from Season 12, the story was held back to lead Season 13, enabling the production crew to shift the series’ start from the traditional January slot to September. The story undoubtedly has an uneasy feel as a result; while it feels more akin to Baker’s debut adventure Robot it is also true that Harry plays a much less prominent role compared to other season 12 adventures. I think I prefer to think of Terror of the Zygons as the last story of Season 12; and also that Harry deserved a much better send off than telling the Doctor he preferred to take the train to London!

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Terror of the Zygons
is available to buy on DVD on Amazon

Next time: I introduce a three-part special of reviews …

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30 – The Androids of Tara

This charming adventure is the one adventure during the Key to Time season that has the least to do with the Key to Time, and could most easily be used in any other season. Arriving on the planet of Tara, the Doctor decides to let Romana press ahead with finding the fourth segment of the Key to Time, while he takes a break to do some fishing. The duo become unwillingly pulled into the political machinations of the court of Tara; Romana is captured by the devious Count Grendel, who confuses Romana for the Taran noblelady, Princess Strella. The Doctor meanwhile is accosted by the bodyguard of Prince Reynart, rightful heir to the throne of Tara, who asks him to repair a perfect android copy of himself, intended to be a diversion to distract Grendel.

As you can tell, with a story featuring lookalikes and androids, this story contains more cases of mistaken identity than a Shakespeare farce. Episode two concludes with the Doctor appearing to strike down Romana, when in fact he is striking down an android duplicate of Princess Strella – meaning that the viewer needs to be sharp witted to follow exactly what is happening at any given moment!

It is certainly not the most complicated Doctor Who story in the world, and definitely not the most clever. But it’s enormously good fun, and highly enjoyable to watch! There is something delightfully delicious about Grendel’s ill-disguised political opportunism and Machiavellian plotting, and Peter Jeffrey (who previously appeared in the missing Troughton adventure The Macra Terror as the Pilot) realises the role superbly. Cyril Shaps also breaks with past tradition of his previous Doctor Who appearances, by managing to keep his character alive until the end of the adventure! The rest of the guest cast, while one-dimensional to a certain degree, don’t really need many layers to be enjoyed; although it is amusing that Reynart’s android has slightly more character than Reynart himself, a point referenced in the script!

Baker is just as peerless as you’d expect, and seems to revel in a slightly devil-may-care attitude for this adventure. While K9 also enjoys a starring role and plenty of comic laughs, poor Mary Tamm is slightly reduced to the damsel-in-distress for this adventure. While by no means completely helpless, her role in the story is pretty much get captured, escape, and repeat. Given that so much of the story revolves around pretending to be someone you are not (Tamm played four roles: Romana, Strella, and their respective android doubles) it was perhaps inevitable that they couldn’t give Romana anything other than the role the story demanded.

What can I say? The Androids of Tara is a straightforward story, with a slightly hammed up cast and script, using very familiar themes and motifs. Some fans detest it for all of those reasons. I adore this story for all of those reasons!

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You can buy The Androids of Tara on the BBC Store for £4.99

Next Time: There’s something underhand in Loch Ness …

31 – The Web of Fear

A confession dear readers. When I first compiled my classic Doctor Who countdown list, The Web of Fear was not even on it. It was the summer of 2013, I had almost finished collecting the entire Doctor Who DVD collection, and I ranked only those stories that had I had watched on VHS or DVD (hence The Invasion and The Tenth Planet were included, but The Moonbase was not). That all got knocked for six in October of that year, when we got what was probably the best present to the fans of all in the 50th anniversary year: the return and release of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. Even then, I confess I restrained myself for a while – rumours abounded that the still missing episode 3 of Web had been recovered and would be released with the DVD. We have of course now learned that episode 3 was originally found with the other episodes and taken, but long before then I decided there was no sense in depriving myself of a mostly complete adventure.

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Debate: When did the UNIT era begin?

Recently I enjoyed rewatching one of Patrick Troughton’s very best adventures, The Invasion. An veritable saga of a story ,spanning eight thrilling episodes, the adventure also featured the return of Colonel Leighbridge-Stewart, previously seen in The Web of Fear, and now promoted to the rank he’d be best known for – Brigadier. The adventure also features the first on-screen appearance of U.N.I.T. – the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce; a military grouping set up to investigate (as the Brigadier would say in Spearhead from Space) “the odd; the unexplained; anything on this world … or even beyond it.”

And that got me to pondering a question that I then put to my followers on Twitter:

Intrigued? Allow me to put the case to you for each, not just in my words, but according to those who responded …

Spearhead from Space

For many people, U.N.I.T may have first appeared in The Invasion, but the U.N.I.T. era refers specifically to the time in the show’s history where the Third Doctor served as their scientific advisor, and spent a disproportionate amount of time helping the Brigadier out of scrapes. Through this lens, the U.N.I.T. era began when Jon Pertwee tumbled out of the TARDIS in 1970.

The Invasion

It is beyond dispute that Spearhead from Space is part of the U.N.I.T era; but the majority of fans believe that the era started the previous season when Patrick Troughton helped the Brigadier and the nascent taskforce to repel an invading force of Cybermen. It is well known that The Invasion was in part a trial run for the concepts planned for Season 7 – a longer adventure, set on earth, and with a regular supporting cast across the whole season. While the Doctor may have arrived and escaped in the TARDIS, in many respects it is not that different to many of the stories from the Pertwee era – indeed I theorised that a colourised version would fit in very nicely with the Pertwee era!

The Web of Fear

 

While The Web of Fear is very much a U.N.I.T. style adventure, and also is the first to feature Nicholas Courtney as Leighbridge-Stewart, the majority of fans who responded to the poll did not regard this as the start of the U.N.I.T era, because the Brigadier is heading up the regular army rather than the specialist taskforce. It is arguable that the seeds of The Invasion were first planted in the Web of Fear however, which may be why some fans do feel that this adventure marks the beginning of the Doctor’s association with U.N.I.T.

Other candidates

Nobody who replied felt that The Faceless Ones merited inclusion in the poll, which I had included as a representative for the pre Web of Fear adventures that were clearly set on contemporary earth, rather than a historical or future setting.While The Faceless Ones (as best as we can judge from surviving material) has the hallmarks of a U.N.I.T. adventure, it was correctly pointed out that the first adventure to really embody these criteria was in fact The War Machines. Although definitely not a U.N.I.T adventure, you can certainly spot a common thread running through The War Machines, The Faceless Ones, and The Web of Fear, all leading up to the establishing of U.N.I.T in the Invasion.

The more fascinating response (which I had not anticipated!) was to take a much narrower interpretation of the U.N.I.T era – which would embody the ‘U.N.I.T family’ of the Third Doctor, Jo Grant, The Brigadier, Captain Yates, Sergeant Benton, and Delgado’s Master. This definition would limit the U.N.I.T era to Seasons 8 to 10, and begin with Terror of the Autons. Personally, I think that’s a little on the late side!

Conclusions

Fans clearly seem to agree that an adventure merely being ‘in the style of’ a U.N.I.T adventure is not sufficient grounds to qualify their inclusion in the U.N.I.T era. The Invasion seems to be the compromise point that most fans land on -few dispute that the era is definitely underway by the time Patrick Troughton has regenerated in Jon Pertwee, but are more reticent to allow for the appearance of Alastair Gordon Leighbridge-Stewart as the watershed moment. As one commentator said above, the adventures prior to The Invasion were the groundwork for the U.N.I.T era; The Invasion would then become the foundation stone for the era that began in Season 7.

As usually seems to be the case in Doctor Who fan debates, nobody is either 100 per cent right, nor 100% wrong! And perhaps after all, it’s okay to say that it doesn’t matter exactly where the U.N.I.T era began …