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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67 – Revenge of the Cybermen

Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor was simply stellar. Not merely a breath of fresh air after Jon Pertwee had spent five years in the role, Baker was blessed with excellent companions in Sarah-Jane and Harry, and a strong set of stories.

The season concluded with this four-part story, which revisited the sets used for the second story from that Season, Ark in Space – mostly as a BBC cost-saving measure. This is a rare instance of the practice working well, as the TARDIS team arrive fresh from their adventures in Genesis of the Daleks to participate in a story that harks back to the base-under-seige style stories of the Troughton era.

Space Station Nerva is apparently afflicted with a plague, leaving only four crew surviving. In actual fact, there is a subtle game going on whereby the villianous Professor Kellman has the appearance of helping the Cybermen to destroy the Planet Volga – the fabled ‘planet of gold.’ In actual fact, Kellman is working for a faction of the Volgans, under the superbly aloof David Collings as Vorus, who aim to lure the last surviving Cybermen to the beacon and then destroy them with a rocket.

Into this predictably chaotic situation step the Doctor, Harry and Sarah – who as with much of the season become victims of circumstance and are involved because they have no choice – having arrived by Time Ring (a necessary plot device for the preceding story) they have to wait for the TARDIS to show up so that they can escape. Which turns out not to be so easy when Kellman tries to use a Cybermat to kill Sarah. Or when the Cybermen show up and attach a bomb of substantive power to the Doctor’s back.

Often this is not the best loved serial of Season 12 – indeed it is felt to be the weakest in the season, not least as the Cybermen don’t quite carry the same cold calculating menace that they had in previous serials (it certainly ruined it for me to learn that the Cyber Leader was portrated by Christopher Robbie, the chap who played the Karkus in The Mind Robber). I disagree on the whole, not just because I don’t really rate The Sontaran Experiment, but also because I think Revenge of the Cybermen is a largely fun and harmless jaunt, provided one overlooks the obvious plot-holes. It ticks along at a steady pace, with good incidental music, and a cast you have great empathy for.

This was a story I adored watching as a child on VHS, and still enjoy on DVD as a grown up. It may not be the greatest story in the world, but on the whole I think it deserves a better reputation than fans have credited it with!

The best ever TARDIS crew? It’s almost too close to call …

In my previous post I began to consider what makes for a good TARDIS crew (by which I mean the Doctor traveling with at least two companions) and reduced it down to two candidates for best – the Season 5 crew of the Second Doctor with Victoria and Jamie, and the Season 12 crew of the Fourth Doctor with Sarah-Jane and Harry. So far, we had learned that three was too many for a TARDIS crew, and there was something too unlikeable about the Tegan/Turlough combination to make them endearing to the viewer.

So why do I think the Season 5 and 12 crews are candidates for the best? Well, let’s clear away some pertinent commonalities to begin with – both seasons feature largely excellent stories, so the crew are given strong content to work with. In this regard, the recovery of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear are hugely significant, as they have allowed a new generation of fans to appreciate the excellence of Season 5’s stories. Without them, Sarah-Jane and Harry would be the runaway winners of best TARDIS crew.

It’s also abundantly clear that the chemistry between the main actors is excellent. The friendship between Pat, Frazer and Deborah is evident in the way they conduct themselves on set, and the same is true for Tom, Elisabeth and Ian – they make a natural team and it increased the empathy the viewer has for the crew. I would go so far as to say, with each there is the sense that you would want to join as the fourth member of the crew, such is the bonhomie. It could be argued that a similar feelgood factor existed within the U.N.I.T. family – oh for a story that featured the Doctor taking Jo, the Brigadier, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton on a TARDIS adventure …

A curious commonality is between Jamie and Harry. They’re both quick witted, keen to learn, brave, and immensely likeable  – but also just a little bit daft! I think this helps facilitate good story telling – they’re just silly enough not to be on the same level as the Doctor, but not so silly that you spend all your time rolling your eyes at their stupidity (not thinking of any particular companions …) They play the perfect foil in fact to the Doctor being suitably different, and being apt to get themselves into trouble. Their likeability also cannot be overstated – it’s easy to imagine being friends with both of them and their role as occasional comic relief is equally important for adding fun to their stories.

Intriguingly, the biggest difference is between Sarah-Jane and Victoria. As we well know, Deborah Watling left the series largely because she tired (justifiably) of being asked to look pretty and scream into the camera. In contrast, Elisabeth Sladen built upon the culture change that had been slowly taking place since Deborah left of allowing for a more assertive companion – and was arguably the first to truly break free of the ‘get into trouble and scream’ genre of female companion. Despite this significant difference however, there is the similarity that they are both fond of the Doctor, believe him incapable of looking after himself, and apt to be the voice of reason in the TARDIS trio. It is perhaps fair to say that if we leave background production values (and social attitudes) to one side, each is the product of their background – Victoria had a very comfortable background as a Victorian lady whereas Sarah-Jane is a modern day journalist, used to having to make her own way.

Despite that, both work in a way that Wendy Padbury just didn’t as Zoe. It’s worth considering the Season 6 crew, which is the nearest in common to these two crews across the original 26 seasons. Yes, it is a pertinent fact that Pat and Fraser knew they were leaving the show, which undoubtedly had an impact.  But it seems that the TARDIS crew works best when none of the companions are on the same level as the Doctor – I think largely because we are meant to identify with the companion and experience the show through them. We have greater empathy when Victoria ventures into the Underground tunnels alone to find the Doctor despite her evident fear and reluctance … with Sarah-Jane when she encourages her fellow prisoners to escape. When Zoe uses her mathematical skill to prevent the Cyber-invasion on the other hand … there’s a slight air (rightly or wrongly) of ‘too-clever-by-half.’

There is another TARDIS crew (disputedly given how few stories it featured in) that could have come close to matching the crews above – the short-lived combination of the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan. Again, one senses the right combination of good chemistry between the actors, a sensible companion and a brave companion, and not too many companions. Interestingly, Nyssa is definitely a very intelligent companion, but she doesn’t quite jar on the viewer to the same extent that Zoe did, while Tegan (devoid of Adric winding her up) works well as the more brash companion. This combination is let down hugely by two factors – at two and a half stories, they didn’t really have a meaningful run as a TARDIS crew; and (more crucially) the stories involved aren’t the strongest.

But which is the best crew ever? I pondered this as I watched both Season 5 (as much of it as survives) and Season 12, and found it tricky to assess. Every story is exceptionally crafted, and I have huge fondness for both crews – it is very sad that we cannot see what the combination of Jamie and Victoria was like in Evil of the Daleks, The Abominable Snowmen, or Fury from the Deep. I’m tempted to say that even if they were found it would not influence my choice, as we have a pretty good impression of what both crews were like. On balance, at the moment, the Season 12 crew edge it – simply because the chemistry between the three is so good. But it is so close, that if more Season 5 material was recovered, I might just change my mind. It really is that close …

Thinking about TARDIS crews …

The TARDIS hasn’t had a crew for a long time. It has usually had the Doctor plus one companion, but very rarely has it had a crew – by which I mean the Doctor plus at least two companions. Of course, there are two people we can blame for this:

Jon Pertwee, who insisted that he wanted his doctor to be an ‘action’ hero (thus negating the need for an active male companion) and …
Adric, who made the Davison era ‘crowded TARDIS’ experience so miserable that JNT became convinced that Peri was a good step forward (er …)

And yet, I found myself reflecting that some of the episodes I have enjoyed best have been enjoyable principally because of the interaction between the members of the TARDIS crew. And so (tomorrow) I will be facing off the two TARDIS crews that I think are the prime contenders for ‘best TARDIS crew’ – but first I wished to pay tribute to those crews who didn’t make the cut …

We simply cannot know …
Steven and Vicki
Steven and Dodo
Ben and Polly (and Jamie)
Sadly, we just do not know how good these TARDIS crews where (although with Dodo we can begin to make an educated and despairing guess …) I have enjoyed Steven’s performances in every story that has survived featuring him as a main companion (sadly, that’s just The Time Meddler; The Ark and The Gunfighters) and would really enjoy the opportunity to see how he got on with Vicki and Dodo over a longer period. I have a slight suspicion that his three stories with Vicki would far surpass his four stories alongside Dodo.
As I remarked previously in my review of The War Machines, I wish more material of Ben and Polly survived, as they seemed to make for a good team – in the very least alongside William Hartnell’s Doctor. Having now watched The Moonbase DVD release, the jury is out as to whether they made such a good team with Patrick Troughton, especially after Jamie joined the TARDIS crew.
As it is … for these TARDIS crews we simply don’t know …

Please. In the name of Heaven. Stop.
Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan
As the extras feature ‘Crowded TARDIS’ on the Castrovalva DVD points out – this crew was too heavy by one member. In Arc of Infinity we see that Nyssa would have made a great solo companion to the Fifth Doctor. Adric arguably aquits himself quite well in Keeper of Traken, and Tegan was exceptional in Kinda. Which one should have gone? I wouldn’t like to choose, but suffice to say three of them was too many.

Close … but no cigar
Jamie and Zoe
Ian, Barbara and Susan/Vicki
Tegan and Turlough
Firstly (as you have noticed) I am counting Ian and Barbara’s time as one, since Susan and Vicki effectively played the same role in the TARDIS crew. Vicki was probably a more fun companion than Susan, but Susan certainly had more mystery – making them both an even match. Ian and Barbara certainly made for an excellent crew alongside Hartnell’s Doctor – but again there is a sense that they didn’t need a pretty young companion just to get into trouble.
Tegan and Turlough meanwhile are an interesting proposition – right numbers (finally) for the Fifth Doctor, but the chemistry doesn’t quite work. One suspects this is partially because one never quite learns to trust (or love) Turlough, and Tegan’s character was perhaps too abrasive alongside that ambiguous character. Could have worked … not sure it did.
Meanwhile, I have made Jamie and Zoe distinct from Jamie and Victoria. I was struck watching Seasons 5 and 6 that Zoe does make a big difference to the crew – as the Doctor says in The Krotons – “That’s the trouble with Zoe – she’s too smart for her own good.” It made for a jolly crew under Captain Pat … but not quite a happy ship. This is a theme I will revisit in due course …

Which leaves … the contenders

As you have by now deduced, that leaves two contenders – the Season 5 crew of Jamie and Victoria, and the Season 12 crew of Sarah-Jane and Harry. Which one wins? Tune in tomorrow to find out …

(The eagle-eyed will have observed that some ‘crews’ didn’t make the cut. These include Steven and Katarina/Sara; The U.N.I.T family; Romana and Adric; Tegan and Nyssa; Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough; and counting K9 as a crew member. This is principally because the ‘crew’ existed for so short a time that it is hard to count them with the crews above)