The closing story of Jon Pertwee’s debut season is one of the finest pieces of fiction ever produced, not only for the story concept, but also for the peerless delivery of a very clever idea. Parallel universes are not a new concept by any means, and in 2017 might almost be considered old hat. Inferno however is one of the very best examples of using a parallel universe to make a good story into a great story – and the amazing thing is, that if the BBC hadn’t been facing financial pressures, it might not have happened …
As covered in last week’s blog, Doctor Who was headed towards an uncertain future in 1969. The show’s popularity had been waning over time, and lead actor Patrick Troughton was giving firm indications that he had little desire to stay on board for a fourth season as the Doctor. Into this mix, the decision was taken to trial a style of adventure that was to shape the next five seasons of Doctor Who; an adventure set not in the far reaches of space, the past, or the future, but on contemporary earth.
Roundly pilloried for its ambitious use of CGI, The Green Death is one of the finest adventures to feature in the U.N.I.T era of Doctor Who, and in many ways marks the beginning of the end of that era. As with many of the Doctor’s adventures of that time, the focus is on an earthbound activity that has potentially catastrophic implications for the planet. Interestingly, this story is very akin to Season 7 finale Inferno, in that there is no alien menace in this adventure, only the ‘enemy’ of human greed and ambition.
I was six years old when I discovered Doctor Who. Like most six year olds who discover Doctor Who, my first thought after discovering there were MORE stories was to want to see every possible Dalek adventure. So when I saw that the Day of the Daleks VHS cover was plastered with Daleks, I simply had to see it! I recall being disappointed at the time at how little the titular Daleks featured in the adventure, but still really enjoying the adventure. 25 years on, it’s still a firm favourite with many reasons to enjoy this four part story.
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!
Next time: I introduce a three-part special of reviews …
By 2014 I was tantalisingly close to completing my Doctor Who DVD collection. Notwithstanding the agonising over whether to buy the DVDs with currently missing material (The Moonbase for example) a few stories remained, not least this one. And while it was kept until last, it was certainly one of the best!
First of all, let me share why such an excellent adventure was off the shelves for so long. Not only did the BBC get rid of the original broadcast tapes for the Hartnell and Troughton eras, Jon Pertwee’s era was also badly affected. While his entire era survives, certain of his stories only survived in broadcast quality in black and white – examples including Terror of the Autons, The Daemons, and The Ambassadors of Death. For most, they were able to procure low grade colour versions, which could be combined with the high resolution black and white prints to produce something approximating the original broadcast tape – the Destruction of Time website has a good account of this process.
The Mind of Evil is somewhat unique however, in that no colour footage at all survives of the story. To recover the original colour, the BBC had to use an ingenious process called “Chroma Dot Recovery.” In short – when the BBC converted the original broadcast tapes to black and white film to sell overseas, little dots (the aforementioned chroma dots) were included, indicating what the original colour had been. Using this information, the producers were able (at length and great expense) to recreate the original colour, as they had done for the Ambassadors of Death – a video showing how this process was used for Dad’s Army can be watched here.
So far so good. Except episode one doesn’t have any chroma dots! As Richard Molesworth would explain in Wiped! the dots were due to a mistake in the process of creating the film, and for the first episode the BBC technicians had processed the film properly – leaving no dots! For us in the 21st century, the only way we are now able to enjoy this episode in colour is thanks to the reconstruction team who painstakingly coloured in EVERY SINGLE FRAME of the 25 minute episode. With that in view, the greatest miracle is that they were able to produce the DVD at all!
Once complete and colourised however, the story is far from a disappointment, and is a real highlight of the U.N.I.T. Era of Doctor Who. The Doctor and Jo travel to Stangmoor Prison to watch a ruthless criminal be processed by the ‘Keller Machine’, a device supposedly able to deprive individuals of their most evil impulses. The Doctor suspects all is not well, and he is right to do so – for his old enemy the Master is at work in the background. The machine is in fact an alien creature that targets the worst impulses of those who come into contact with it and imbibes them. The Master proposes using the device to seize control of the prison, then to use the inmates to steal a highly destructive weapon from U.N.I.T (it must be acknowledged that this story is not Captain Yates or Sergeant Benton’s finest hour …)
Convoluted though the plot perhaps is, as ever it is the principle stars that make the story a joy. Delgado and Pertwee shine in every scene, especially where they face one another, and Katy Manning very quickly shakes off the damsel in distress stereotype of Terror of the Autons, being active and assertive. And of course, who can forget the wonderful moment in episode five where the Brigadier infiltrates the prison, dressed in civvies and affecting a Cockney accent …
You may reach the end and ask one pertinent questions: why is the Master trying to start World War 3? Why seize control of the prison in such a convoluted manner? How come Benton and Yates are the only people not murdered by the convicts? To pick on these quibbles however is to rob yourself of the enjoyment of an excellent, gripping, and entertaining drama. It may have been the Pertwee story I waited longest for, but the wait was certainly worth it!
Next Time: Set your multi-loop stabiliser for Douglas Adams’ first Doctor Who adventure