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 …

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 …

32 – Planet of Evil

This adventure caused me no small amount of confusion when my dad first bought the video. At that stage in my young life, the only Tom Baker adventure I had seen was the 1993 repeat of Genesis of the Daleks. So when I saw the good Doctor and Sarah Jane on my parents’ TV screen, I mistakenly concluded that this was the same adventure I had seen before – an impression that did not take long to be corrected!

Planet of Evil is an exceedingly clever story, which does not really feature a monster in the traditional sense. It is definitely of the same ilk as historic base-under-seige stories, as first a planetary expedition, and then the rescue ship come under the attack of an unknown and malevolent force. When the Doctor and Sarah respond to a distress signal on Zeta Minor, they are initially blamed for the death of the expedition by the lone survivor, Professor Sorenson. As the story plays out, it is revealed that Zeta Minor is on the very edge of two universes – the universe of matter, and the universe of anti-matter. As Sorenson becomes infected by the anti-matter, the Doctor has to find a way to return all of the anti-matter specimens to Zeta Minor before the rescue team are pulled into the anti-matter universe.

While I admit this largely went over my head as a child, I adored the plot when I was old enough to appreciate it! As with many Doctor Who adventures that I best love, it combines a straightforward plot with clever twists, great characters, and of course the indomitable presence of the Doctor! Season 13 is quite rightly held in very high regard by fans, with the on-screen chemistry between Baker and Sladen exceptional, paired with exceedingly strong stories. Planet of Evil is a fine example of this at work.

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Planet of Evil is available to download on the BBC Store for £6.99

Next time: A lost classic set in the London Underground, incredibly rescued in 2013 …

34 – The Pirate Planet

The second episode of the Key to Time season is very much a marmite taste to Doctor Who fans – but whether you love it or hate it, you are in agreement that the reason why is that it’s a comical performance that verges on pantomime. While the preceding story The Ribos Operation is very much hit and miss (and more miss than hit), by The Pirate Planet you can very evidently see the fingerprints of Douglas Adams at work in Doctor Who, with his humour and narrative style much more evident. I personally greatly enjoy Adam’s offbeat and sardonic humour, which perhaps explains why I enjoy this story, one of only three Doctor Who stories penned by Adams himself.

Seeking the second segment of the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana land seeking the planet Calufrax, instead landing on Zanak – which for whatever reason is occupying the exact point in space and time that Calufrax ought to be. The planet is under the rule of the tyrannical Captain, a cyborg who is every inch a blustering pirate captain, waited upon by the fastidious Mr Fibuli. As the TARDIS crew seek to discover where Calufrax has gone, they realise that the Captain is nothing more than a puppet for the planet’s presumed dead former Queen, Xanxia. Xanxia established Zanak as able to transfer instantly across space to engulf whole planets, robbing them of their mineral wealth, and enabling her to hold back death and attempt to create a new corporeal form. The Doctor and Romana find themselves in a race to stop the demented Queen before Zanak cannibalises their next target: Earth!

While there are many outstanding performances, it is Bruce Purchase as the Captain who either makes or breaks this story for the viewer. Loud, bombastic and every inch a pirate stereotype, you will either rebel at the caricature, or else embrace it warmly as you realise that the Captain himself is putting on a front, hoping to usurp Xanxia. Baker and Tamm make good use of the humour provided by Adams – indeed I would say this is one of Tamm’s strongest performances in the role, getting a better balance between helpless damsel (The Power of Kroll) and overbearing know-it-all (The Ribos Operation).

This story may not be universally loved, but I principally enjoy it for a good straightforward story, and plenty of simple laughs. I cannot think of an occasion when I have watched this story, and not been cheered up by the end of it; which I think is just about the best compliment you can pay to any television material!

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The Pirate Planet
is available to download from the BBC Store for £4.99

Next time: Before Sarah Jane Smith met Davros, she met his villanous creations …

38 – State of Decay

This was an adventure that really had to grow on me, but really has grown on me. Easily the best adventure of the E-Space trilogy in Tom Baker’s final season, it is also quite possibly the darkest and most sinister adventure to ever feature in the entire classic run. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed it better with age than as a young teenager – easily impressionable, there was something very unsettling about the Gothic horror of the villains of the story.

As readers of the Full Circle review will recall, the Doctor and Romana have managed to get trapped in an alternative universe, and are striving to work out how to return to N-Space. In this adventure they land on an earth like world, where the servile population live in a world were technology is forbidden, and three lords rule over them with an awe inspiring terror. The Doctor soon discovers that the planet is the resting place of the last great Vampire, a fearsome race that the Time Lords only just succeeded in defeating in a Great war. The three lords ruling over the planet, Zargo, Aukon and Camilla are in fact the original commanders of an earth colonist ship, sucked through a CVE like the TARDIS crew themselves, and transformed into vampires through the influence of the dormant Great Vampire. The population meanwhile are the descendants of the original colonists, shaped by generations of fear into cowed obedience.

That one paragraph gives you a pretty full flavour of how dark the story is. The incidental score and production decisions belie the shoestring budget the programme was on, and create a constantly unsettling feeling of tension and dread. In a demonstration of just how great his acting powers are, Tom Baker holds the audience enthralled as he searches the TARDIS databanks for records of the Great Vampire, and reads that any Time Lord finding the surviving vampire should do everything in their power to stop it, even forsaking their life. Shudder at your leisure …

State of Decay is a superb adventure in the best legacy of science fiction. Like all good Doctor Who it is well paced and engaging, even if some of the acting by the supporting cast occasionally veers towards Planet of the Spiders levels. Even the usually challenging Adric makes a worthwhile contribution to the story, albeit already beginning to display signs of the petulance that would make his character difficult to love. There is really only one qualification to this story, which is the dark and horrific themes throughout. Suitably prepared, you will definitely enjoy the story, but it’s not one for the kids (much like Image of the Fendahl) and perhaps best watched with the lights on …

39 – The Face of Evil

This was a story I was itching to get my hands on for a very long time, not least due to the very positive recommendations of others who rated the story very highly. When I eventually did get my hands on the DVD it certainly did not disappoint, and deservedly took a very high slot in my most enjoyed episodes of Doctor Who.

The adventure is noteworthy as the debut episode for Louise Jameson as Leela, and she immediately impresses as the bold and fearless warrior of the Sevateem. Having seen almost all of Leela’s adventures before this one it felt exceedingly strange to finish by watching her first story. It is a testament to how well Jameson played the part that her debut doesn’t disappoint even to one used to Leela’s performances in Doctor Who. It is also a potent reminder that, magisterial though Tom Baker was in many other ways, he definitely needed a wingman to complement him. We can be thankful that the producers won that particular argument and ensured the long term replacement of Liz Sladen with Louise Jameson.

The story itself is wonderfully layered and intriguing, and at no point over the four episodes feels pedestrian. Rather uniquely in the annals of Doctor Who, it doesn’t really have a villain of the piece. While a mad computer called Xoanon has manipulated two sections of colonists (The ‘Sevateem’, originally ‘Survey Team’ and the ‘Tesh’, originally ‘Technicians’) into a constant conflict, the computer is not like the evil BOSS from The Green Death, instead acting as it is because its programme had been unintentionally corrupted – of all people, by the Doctor! The story therefore feels much more like a ‘Howdunnit’ than a ‘Whodunnit’ and is extremely satisfying to watch unfold.

Season 14 is one of the real high points of the history of Doctor Who, with not a single bad story in it. Philip Hinchcliffe was yet to receive his marching orders for the strong Gothic Horror feel of the programme, which means that stories like The Face of Evil were given free reign to tell good robust stories. This adventure combines all of the elements that make for an excellent Doctor Who – great story, great cast, great Doctor and companion, and great little moments to cherish in the dialogue. In that regard, The Face of Evil is definitely a story that fans of the series should strongly consider when choosing a starting point for new fans to discover Doctor Who for the first time!

40 – The Brain of Morbius

While the missing episodes trail continues to give no hints of what may be to come, we resume the episode countdown with a tale full of Gothic Horror. Arriving on the planet Karn (which would later gain fame for the Eighth Doctor 50th anniversary prequel The Night of the Doctor) the Doctor and Sarah happen upon the lair of mad scientist Solon. It transpires that the Time Lords have sent the Doctor to this planet having discovered that Morbius, a Time Lord of extraordinary evil, had survived his execution at the hands of the Time Lords, and hired Solon to place his brain into a new body. Owing to the isolated location of Karn, Solon is reduced to forcing spaceships to crash land on the planet, and cannibalising the survivors to create a body in the style of Frankenstein’s monster.

As you can tell from this short summary, the story does not make for cheerful viewing! It is a magisterial story, with sufficient extra interest brought from the surrounding cast – Solon’s servant Condo, and the Sisterhood of Karn – a secret society of women who worship the ‘Eternal Flame’ – a flame that creates an elixir delivering eternal life. It also creates an interesting look into the Doctor’s back story – at the end we see the Doctor challenge Morbius to a ‘mind-bending’ contest, in which we see each of the Doctor’s past incarnations appear one after another. After William Hartnell, eight more faces appear. Opinion is divided as to whether these are past incarnations of the Doctor (which subsequent episodes, especially The Deadly Assassin and The Time of the Doctor would seem to refute) or of Morbius. Suffice to say that considerable discussion and speculation was aroused when this was first shown!

In contrast to The Seeds of Doom I actually don’t find the grimness of The Brain of Morbius too much to bear. Perhaps it is because of the light relief from Condo; or that Baker himself is more devil-may-care than his more serious mindset in Seeds; it could even be that Seeds suffers from having six episodes of unrelenting grim, whereas this adventure is somewhat more contained. In any event, I have always enjoyed this adventure from the moment dad bought in on VHS, and it is a definite highlight in a season of exceptional stories.