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 …

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 …

35 – The Mind of Evil

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!

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The Mind of Evil is available to download on the BBC Store for £9.99

Next Time: Set your multi-loop stabiliser for Douglas Adams’ first Doctor Who adventure

36 – The Three Doctors

Back in 1973, a bright spark at the BBC suddenly realised that Doctor Who had reached a significant milestone – its tenth season. To mark the occasion, the producers took the bold step to write a story featuring every one of the Doctor’s incarnations, and the resulting story was entitled exactly what it was: The Three Doctors.

Of all the ‘multi-doctor’ stories, I believe that this one is the best. Unlike The Five Doctors it is not overly self-referential, instead telling quite a good story; unlike The Two Doctors it is clear and cohesive, and reasonably well told! It has to be said that, in my view, it is the participation of the Doctor’s first three incarnations in one story that makes what might have been a quite ordinary U.N.I.T. adventure into a truly great one, and one that is a pleasure to enjoy.

At the beginning of this story the Doctor is still trapped on earth; but having found a variety of different ways to circumvent the BBC’s restriction (or rather, dressing up in different ways sending the Doctor off on missions for the Timelords) the BBC finally gave up and decided it was time to let the Doctor off his leash. The narrative device to restore the Doctor’s freedom was for Gallifrey itself to come under attack from an unknown source, requiring the help of the Doctor to overcome it. When it transpires he requires the assistance of another Timelord, the High Council decide there is only one other person they can spare – the Doctor’s past self!

The villain of the piece is one of the original Timelords – a chap called Omega who harnessed the power of a star near Gallifrey, creating the conditions in which the Timelords would be able to travel in time. He himself was thought lost in the resultant supernova, but had in fact been sucked into a parallel anti-matter universe. The force of his will enables the world to exist, but he cannot escape it without someone else willing it to exist. He is therefore seized of two purposes – to destroy the Timelords (who he felt abandoned him) and to bring to himself another Timelord to take his place and enable him to return to the matter universe.

The Three Doctors does require you to shrug your shoulders and go along for the ride – but it is an extremely enjoyable ride! The scenes between Pertwee and Troughton are genuinely funny rather than forced, leaving it only a pity that Hartnell was so unwell that he could not participate as fully as one otherwise would have hoped, appearing instead in pre-recorded scenes from the TARDIS monitor. It also feels like the beginning of the end for the U.N.I.T. family – at the end of this story the Doctor is given his freedom by the Timelords in gratitude for defeating Omega. As The Brigadier and Benton depart to ‘mop things up’ while the Doctor prepares the TARDIS for take-off, one rather senses that the dismemberment of the U.N.I.T. family, which would start in the season finale The Green Death was already taking place.

The Three Doctors is by no means the most complicated Doctor Who you will ever watch – but it is good fun, easy to follow, and features some extremely enjoyable acting – not least from the three leading men. As the Brigadier famously remarks: “Wonderful chaps. All of them.”

Next time: A savage introduction to a new companion, facing against a schizophrenic computer

43 – The Ambassadors of Death

Ask most fans to name their favourite serial from Season 7, and the two most likely candidates would be Inferno or Spearhead from Space. It is a testament to the quality of Jon Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor that the other two stories are also absolute humdingers. The Ambassadors of Death is perhaps even more unusual than The Silurians because it should not have been a success. Where Silurians was specifically written for Pertwee, Ambassadors of Death was originally written to feature the Second Doctor with Jamie and Zoe, and suffered innumerable rewrites and production problems. Somehow, despite these issues, the BBC managed to turn out a thrilling and classic adventure.

The story centres around a rescue attempt to bring back lost astronauts from Mars Probe Seven. The rescue capsule returns to earth, but it transpires that the three suited beings inside are not the original astronauts, but alien ambassadors. The Doctor and UNIT have to discover why the ambassadors have come, where the original astronauts are being held, and why their efforts to reconcile earth and the alien powers have been hindered thus far.

We must recognise that a lot is going on in this story, in no small part due to the continual re-writing of the script. Despite this, and perhaps because the story runs to seven episodes, it works astonishingly well. Thread one is the Doctor trying to understand the alien intelligence communicating with UNIT, being continually set back by internal saboteurs. The second thread is the ambition of the head of the saboteurs, namely to hold on to the ambassadors to provoke an interplanetary conflict. On top of that there is a third thread – that the hired muscle employed by the saboteur is keen to use the alien ambassadors to serve his own criminal schemes. The interplay between the three should not work, but amazingly it does.

Perhaps the key reason it works is the character of Reegan, the villain’s hired muscle. Rather like Scorby from The Seeds of Doom, Reegan is amoral, resourceful, and quite cheerfully looking out for his own interests. Every moment that he arranges new sabotage, or engineers a break in, you cannot help but admire his audacity, and it’s the strength of this character that ties the different threads in the story together. The other characters also play their roles superbly, including the highly under-rated Caroline John as Liz Shaw.

This was one of the very last Pertwee DVDs I purchased, not by choice, but because its release was delayed many times as the BBC looked to restore the colour to the surviving black and white prints. While it is occasionally noticable, it certainly does not detract from a story I was very much looking forward to, and certainly not disappointed by. As with all seven part stories, you may well be advised to break the viewing into smaller chunks – but you will thoroughly enjoy the tale that is told!

49 – Robot

I think this one may surprise some readers. While Tom Baker’s first adventure is certainly enjoyable, is it really more of a classic compared to stories like Remembrance of the Daleks or The Seeds of Doom?

It was certainly a bolt from the blue when first broadcast. Jon Pertwee had been Doctor for five seasons – at that point the longest any actor had portrayed the Timelord. After a lengthy period the BBC elected on the then unknown Baker to become the fourth Doctor. A shot in the dark perhaps, but Baker establishes himself as a tour de force within seconds of the episode beginning. It’s Baker’s debut more than anything else that makes a good story a great story. Whether the comic moments (including a memorable scene in which it takes the Doctor four goes to choose an appropriate outfit) to the sublime, it is an utter joy to see Baker establish himself in the role.

The story itself is relatively straightforward fare, and bears strong continuity marks to the Pertwee era – in this instance it’s a technocratic think tank with strong fascist tendencies that is using the titular Robot (or, as in the TARGET Novelisation, the ‘Giant Robot’) to perpetrate the crimes required to sieze control of the world. It’s not a very complicated plot by any means – in any other season it wouldn’t be a disappointing story, but nor would it be noteworthy.

Which brings us back to a simple premise – enjoyment. I thoroughly enjoyed Matt Smith’s debut story The Eleventh Hour – a combination of an enjoyable story with a likeable; crazy … yet brilliant Doctor. And Robot is very similar in my estimation. While Genesis of the Daleks will always be my first Baker adventure, and Logopolis will be forever tinged with the sadness of Baker leaving the role, Robot has all of the fun of a new beginning. Add into the mix Harry and Sarah as one of the best TARDIS crews ever, and you can see why this understated four parter is such an enjoyable and appreciated adventure!

50 – The Sea Devils

We have reached the heady echelons of the top 50 in the countdown! Along the way we have already reviewed some superb stories, all worthy of challenging for the top 50. By now, we are getting into some of my best enjoyed stories, and kick off with a classic Jon Pertwee adventure. As regular readers will recall, Roger Delgado’s Master appeared in every story of Season 8 – a decision I am not entirely persuaded was the best, especially for The Claws of Axos and Colony in Space. So it was something of a relief to discover that Delgado did not make his return until the middle of Season 9 – and oh what a return!

After their last encounter in Season 8 finale The Daemons, the Master was sent to a high security prison. We find the Doctor and Jo visiting the Master in prison, to discover that nearby oil rigs have been attacked by a presence unknown. Investing the disturbance, they discover that the Master has hoodwinked the Prison Warden into believing he can prevent an incursion by enemy agents. Meanwhile, the Master has made contact with the titular ‘Sea Devils’ – ocean based cousins of the Silurians from the eponymous episode who bear a distinct resemblance to sea-turtles in humanoid form. His plan is very simple – to escape his imprisonment, and in so doing to help the Sea Devils destroy humankind.

Compared to their later appearance in Warriors of the Deep, the Sea Devils make for a very effective foil – certainly untrustworthy and prepared to be vicious, but also (as with their Silurian cousins) displaying the distinct impression of being an intelligent and civilised race, no worse than humanity in their viciousness. Other guest characters put in a very respectable showing, not least Naval Captain Hart who plays the equivalent role of the Brigadier in this story. A special mention also goes to the submarine crew for their scenes spent kidnapped by the Sea Devils – but especially to the BBC effects’ crew, who mistakenly managed to recreate a British nuclear submarine propeller by sheer co-incidence, and had a call from British intelligence asking where they had received the information from!

But the reason this serial is so high, as with many of Pertwee’s stories, is the personal interaction between Pertwee and Delgado. Whether their sword fight in the episode 2 cliffhanger, or the moment when Pertwee cheerfully informs Delgado “It may interest you to know, that I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow” (“You’ve done what?!“) – every moment they spend jousting on the screen is absolutely wonderful. Couple that to a genuinely good story, and you have vintage and enjoyable Doctor Who. Highly commended!