4 – Pyramids of Mars

Weirdly, number four in my classic Doctor Who countdown comes an adventure that I took a little while to warm to as a child, quite possibly because it is very much the epitome of the Philip Hinchcliffe gothic horror era of Doctor Who, and features a rather high body count. It is a sign of how much I now enjoy the adventure, that when I travelled recently to visit my family, this was the adventure I chose to sit down to watch with my dad – and we both enjoyed every minute of it!

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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 …

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 …

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.

51 – The Seeds of Doom

There had to be one story that just missed out on it’s place in the top 50 – and this Tom Baker adventure which concluded his second season as the Fourth Doctor earns that dubious honour. Which is an unfair accolade, because The Seeds of Doom really is a sensational story.

Set towards the end of the UNIT era, the Doctor is summoned back after a research team in the Antarctic discover a seed hidden in the snow. It opens, and infects one of the researchers in the station, who begins to transform into a plant-like organism. The emergency would be contained, but for the intervention of the wealthy Harrison Chase, an individual with a disturbing affinity for plant life. He sends his hired muscle, a resourceful chap named Scorby, to recover the seed for examination in his laboratory. While the original seed is now empty, it transpires that there was a second seed hidden in the snow.

The plant creature in the Antarctic is killed after Scorby rigs the base with explosives, and so the Doctor and Sarah chase him to Chase’s estate in England. It is discovered that the seeds are in fact alien lifeforms – Krynoids – who are completely inimical to all flesh creatures. After the Krynoid infects another human and begins the transformation process anew, the Doctor has to quickly figure out how to stop the Krynoid from turning all plant life against humanity.

As I say – this is a superb Doctor Who adventure. The plot is intelligent and well paced. Every cast appearance is well weighted – whether the eerily dispassionate Chase; the amoral adventurer Scorby; or the delightfully dotty Mrs Ducat. Baker himself is at the very height of his powers, and Season 12 deservedly has a reputation as one of the very best in the show’s history. Scorby in particular deserves praise, sitting alongside Regan (from The Ambassadors of Death) as a highly successful villain – intelligent, enterprising, resourceful, and with a clear idea of what he wants to get in life and how he’s going to get it.

Why then is it no higher? Well, as with several other adventures (Remembrance of the Daleks is a prime example) it suffers from no other crime than the generally outstanding quality of Doctor Who in general. It is no worse than many of the stories above it, and would sit comfortably alongside stories in the top ten.

The reason it sits so low then, is that the story is unrelentingly grim. Brilliant, yes. But you do feel afterwards like you want to spend the afternoon in a sunny garden with a puppy. Parts of the story are quite edgy – Harrison Chase for example cheerfully feeds anyone opposed to him into a grinder that is used to feed his compost heaps. Even the odd mirthful moment provided by Mrs Ducat cannot balance the hard edge of the story. It doesn’t make it a bad story … just one that I think I would have enjoyed better if there had been a few lighter moments.

108 – The Android Invasion

This Tom Baker story is a prime candidate for the strangest story ever attempted. Strange because it contains some interesting aspects that could have worked quite well – androids impersonating real life people, an astronaut tricked into betraying his own kind, and an alien race committed to destroying the earth through a hideous virus. It’s pretty standard fare for Doctor Who.

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