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‘Dread Loch Horrorday’

Terror of the Zygons

Video Review by Alistair Hughes

A few issues ago, I reviewed State of Decay, and suggested that it was an atmospheric and involving story, which had unfortunately become infamous for its badly realised ‘grand finale’ effects sequence. The same could be said for Terror of the Zygons, but similarities between the two stories doesn't end there. The ‘Who-ising’ of popular mythical creatures had been a characteristic of the series long before the vampire legend was addressed in State of Decay - and the Loch Ness Monster receives this treatment in Terror of the Zygons.

The ever-dependable Douglas Camfield was to make a long-awaited directorial return to the series for this story, and consequently, Terror of the Zygons looks great, even though the script offers very little in the way of innovation.

Despite its failings, one area where the story is generally acknowledged to have succeeded is in the superb presentation of an alien race - the Zygons. Although this was to be their only appearance, they became an enduring icon of the Fourth Doctor's era, and another triumph for costume and makeup.

“When the Romans first came to northern Scotland in the first century A.D., they found the Highlands occupied by fierce, tattoo-covered tribes they called the Picts, or painted people. From the carved, standing stones still found in the region around Loch Ness, it is clear the Picts were fascinated by animals, and careful to render them with great fidelity. All the animals depicted on the Pictish stones are lifelike and easily recognisable - all but one. The exception is a strange beast with an elongated muzzle and flippers instead of feet. This Pictish beast is the earliest known evidence for an idea that has held sway in the Scottish Highlands for at least 1,500 years - that Loch Ness is home to a mysterious aquatic animal.”
(Stephen Lyons, Birth of a Legend).

In 1975, public interest in the Loch Ness Monster had reached a new height.

Dr Robert Rines, President of the Academy of Applied Science, Boston, had the biggest breakthrough of his long scientific search for Nessie when a set of close-up underwater photographs were taken which caused a worldwide sensation.

Earlier images captured by Dr. Rines had shown a close-up of a remarkable flipper-like object in the murky depths of Loch Ness, (giving the suddenly respectable Nessie a scientific classification: Nessiteras Rhomboteryx) but these new pictures really captured everyone's imagination.

They apparently showed the head and body of one of the Loch creatures in remarkable detail and when news of the pictures leaked out towards the end of that year, it caused such excitement that proper scientific discussion and possible resolution could never be conducted.

Although it's highly unlikely that this sensation had any direct bearing on the production of Terror of the Zygons, this real-life pinnacle of interest in the phenomenon was a timely quirk of fate for the original broadcast of the Season 13 opener.

The myth of the Yeti had been very popularly addressed in Doctor Who in the sixties, and the production team of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes would go on to adapt a myriad of established horror and science fiction themes for their own tenure on the show. Elements from Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Phantom of the Opera, and even Day of the Triffids were all to make an appearance soon enough, but first up was a useful home-grown legend with intriguing basis in fact - Nessie.

Wisely, however, (possibly with the wobbly ghost of Invasion of the Dinosaurs still haunting them) the production team decided to shift the emphasis of their story away from the giant monster, and onto the conveniently humanoid Zygons.

I'd venture that the Drashigs were the never-equaled peak of the programme's attempt at giant creatures. Possibly the fact that Drashigs don't have easily recognisable eyes helps give the creatures the illusion of great size, whereas the Skarasen fell into the trap of too-large peepers, giving it an inescapably puppy-ish sort of air.

With Nessie comes not only a suitable monster for the Doctor to face, but a wealth of associated history and culture. The script states that the Zygon craft has rested at the bottom of the Loch for centuries, which certainly tallies with existing literature on the long history of Monster sightings. Mention of Loch Ness also conjures up images of bagpipe-playing villagers, misty, heather-strewn moors, a dour Highland Laird resident in a gloomy ancestral castle, and compulsory wearing of the kilt. Robert Banks Stewart seems to delight in delivering this ‘tourist fodder’, but perhaps because of his own Scottish blood and Douglas Camfield's similar connections, the treatment of the Scots never descends to the patronising depiction of the Welsh in The Green Death.

Although some compromises are made, of course. John Woodnutt mentioned in a convention appearance that he played the character of the Duke with a Scottish accent reluctantly, as he felt certain that a man of Forgill's social standing would have received an English education, and accent, in real life.

As vampires were adapted in Season 18 to become a threat of galactic proportions, demystified and made very much real in the context of Doctor Who, Nessie is also given an appropriate make-over. The Eioch Uisge (water horse) of Highland legend has now become the Skarasen, a partially cybernetic, alien nourishment-providing, living weapon of terrible power.

It's possible to extend the comparison with State of Decay still further. Terror of the Zygons saw the departure of the first regular male companion in several years - while Dick's vampire story saw the arrival of the next new regular male companion, again the first in several years,

Mention should be made here of Donald Cotton's final submission to the programme, the unmade Season 6 story, Herdsmen of Venus. The story was apparently based around the revelation that the Loch Ness Monster was in fact an alien ‘cattle beast’ farmed by Venusians. This point is very intriguing considering that the Skarasen itself is a form of domesticated creature - farmed by the Zygons for its lactic secretions - ‘milk’ in other words!

“Waves without wind, fish without fin... a floating island.”
(Notes from Blaen's Atlas 1635)

This serial is often considered a gem, but on closer analysis the plot is really rather mediocre. The concept of a handful of lurid, shape-shifting aliens who want to take over the world with their pet monster is hardly an original, or thought-provoking one. And the fact these they insist on spelling out their plan so obviously and spout dialogue like (recite in a ‘Highland’ accent for full comic effect) - “Soon, we can revert to our true form...” “Good, how I loathe this abomination of a body!” - very nearly places this serial with the worst that pulp science fiction can offer.

As mentioned previously, the atmospheric setting helps distinguish this story, but what really elevates it is the taut and memorable direction - indicating that it sometimes doesn't matter what tale you tell, it's the delivery that counts!

Skarasen aside, the model work, from the collapsing oilrig in the opening moments to the superb shots of the Zygon craft, are astonishingly good. In fact, the spaceship shots would not look out of place among anything that the programme was able to achieve in its last, technologically advanced years.

Apart from visual effects, there are many strikingly shot sequences that stay in the mind. In particular the disturbingly surreal beach sequences which culminate in the brutal shooting of Harry and the washed-ashore Rig worker. Creepily memorable is the shot of the ‘Zygon Harry’, crouched silently in the shadows of the barn as it waits to kill Sarah - and the truly shocking first glimpses of the gaping-mouthed creatures in their true form.

The relative cosiness of the previous Doctor's era seems well and truly put to rest in this story.

Outstanding performances are gained from everyone involved. Tom Baker has rarely seemed more alien - his disconcerting staring into the distance and then thinking aloud with his eyes closed rides rough-shod over any human conception of conversation etiquette, in fact the Fourth Doctor's characteristic impatience with Homo Sapiens really starts to come to the fore in these scenes. His later hypnotism of Sarah is genuinely creepy, and the agonising sacrifice he makes just to try to send a signal from the Zygon ship brings home yet again that the comfortable ‘mother hen’ figure of his previous incarnation is long gone.

Elisabeth Sladen shines, her character seeming to be the only one who can really relate to the Doctor - it seems very apt that they leave Earth together, without Harry, at the end of this story. Beyond just being ‘the companion’ we also see Sarah as a ‘Lois Lane-style’ heroine, actively pursuing trouble, and writing it all up for her newspaper.

It's good to see the Brigadier's military tactics have some degree of success in this story, flushing out the Zygon ship and saving the Doctor from Broton. Even if Courtney's character never would never quite shake off the ‘figure of fun’ image which he gradually gained during the latter Pertwee years.

Abundant location filming is always a sweetener, and Camfield does a good job recreating Invernesshire in Southern England - even if the thatched cottages are a little anachronistic. Marvel at how much atmosphere he manages to convey simply by zooming in on a section of dark and stormy sea and overlaying the ominous sound of the Skarasen homing device on the soundtrack - it seems a shame that the beast had to be seen at all. That said, however, the fleeting glimpse of stop motion animation as the Skarasen pursues the Doctor across Tullock Moor is wonderfully nostalgic of those Ray Harryhausen Sinbad epics...

“You admire our technology, human?”
“Well, I'm not human, and I've seen better.”
“Better than this..?”
“Very good - almost impressive!”

(The Doctor and Broton, Part 4)

The other main feature that makes this story very special is the Zygons.

Drawing upon the human foetus as inspiration for the appearance of an alien creature is an audacious move, and perhaps even in slightly questionable taste, but it certainly pays off. It seems that Robert Banks Stewart originally imagined his stories' villains as simply reptilian, and the costume and makeup departments devised the pre-birth appearance, but I had always assumed the creatures name was derived from ‘zygote’: the earliest cellular stage of the formation of a foetus.

The Zygons join the Draconians in that special category of wonderfully-realised alien races who strangely only appeared in the programme once. Credit to designer John Friedlander for his stunning design of both creatures cannot be denied, but it's interesting to speculate on how much recognition should also go to actor John Woodnutt - given that he played the leader of both alien races.

Appearance aside, their harsh whispering voices compliment the creature's otherworldly malevolence perfectly, as does their bizarrely-lit environment. Organic technology becomes all the rage once again, but thankfully toned down a little from the glitzy excesses of Axos.

The scene where the UNIT troops catch a glimpse of a Zygon creature moving quickly through the trees irresistibly recalls the famous ‘Bigfoot’ film from the late sixties, shakily depicting another famous myth hurriedly moving through a forest. This visual link seems to somehow further the credibility of these sadly never-to-be-reprised creations.

“Now the Monster... was lying hid in the bottom of the river (Ness); but perceiving that the water above was disturbed by him who was crossing, suddenly emerged, and ... rushed up with a great roar and open mouth.”
(St Adaman, Biography of St Colomba, AD 565)

Terror of the Zygons was the opener of the first season entirely under the control of ‘dream-team’ Hinchcliffe and Holmes. They clearly had very definite ideas on where they wanted to take the programme, and wasted no time in doing so. Terror of the Zygons sees the beginnings of a deceptively large amount of change.

This was to be the end of the Brigadier's long, if sporadic, association with the programme for a very long time. With his departure, UNIT was fast disappearing also, finally to be phased-out altogether at the end of this season. Harry was gone and contemporary Earth itself was almost to disappear in the Doctor's life. After a procession of the Time Lord's most popular foes in the previous two seasons, even familiar monsters were never to reappear during Hinchcliffe's tenure.

The viewers were about to be cast adrift from the familiar environs and characters whom they'd grown accustomed to over the past few years, and steered into considerably less friendly waters.

Terror of the Zygons manages to demonstrate, despite a rather standard script and a couple of technical failings, that the emphasis was now upon atmosphere, drama and horror.

The scraping sound of sofas being pulled back out from living room walls all over Britain must have been music to the ears of the new production team...

This item appeared in TSV 60 (June 2000).

Index nodes: Terror of the Zygons