There are certain tropes of classic Doctor Who stories. These include people in rubber suits acting out the part of aliens, poor special effects, companions staying somewhere “safe” that turns out to be dangerous, and the attempt to explain legends we all know. Doctor Who‘s “Terror of the Zygons” has all of those elements, and uses them to fine effect.
The story finds fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, early in his stint as the Gallifreyan Time Lord, with companions Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter). UNIT has called them back to Earth so that they can investigate the destruction of oil rigs in the Scottish Highlands. As it turns out, the issues are caused by a beast controlled by an alien race, the Zygons. The Zygons are on Earth because their home world was destroyed and they have decided that our planet would make a great new home (and, yes, that’s another classic Who trope – aliens colonizing our planet). That legend that they’re explaining here? The Loch Ness Monster.
Okay, so “Terror of the Zygons” is a completely formulaic Who story, but the formula exists because it works, and it certainly works (again) here. The Zygon suits are actually fantastic looking things, and the work done to alter the voices of the monsters is great. The sets, too, may be vaguely foolish, but there is a certain comfort to the low-fi nature of the original series.
Baker remains my favorite Doctor from the original series and despite this being relatively early in his run—”Zygons” was originally broadcast in late summer of 1975 with Baker having started in 1974 and playing the character until 1981—he is in fine form. Those who came before and after Baker all have wonderful things going for them, but there is something mischievous, angry, and yet still humorous about Baker’s interpretation that I just love. Sarah Jane as well, perhaps because she returned for the new series, is a favorite companion of mine, further helping my feelings towards the episode.
Honestly, what doesn’t work for me, and one of the issues that I have with so much of the Pertwee years, is that the story takes place on Earth, during the present day (or what was the present day when they filmed). There are, obviously, monetary advantages to filming in Earth on the present day as opposed to making up sets, but with all of space and time available, it sometimes feels a little disappointing to see them here and now – surely there’s something far more interesting out there in the universe.
As with other classic Who series, one of the best things the DVD set has going for it is the special features. Not only is there the regular making-of featurettes and looks at various people involved with the series over the years, but the disc also includes a closer look at UNIT (actually, it’s the third part in a running series on UNIT), and Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen offering up “Doctor Who Stories.” Essentially, each of these feature the actor in question reminiscing about their time on the series and some of the work they did. While Sladen’s is simply engrossing, Baker’s is utterly hysterical. He was, it seems (and he intimates), not always the easiest fellow to work with on set, and his acknowledgment of some of the issues is terribly amusing.
As with many Doctor Who tales, I do not think that, necessarily, “Terror of the Zygons” serves as a terribly good entry point for a new viewer, but those who are already familiar with the general ebb and flow of stories and characters will find a lot to like. The effects used to create the Loch Ness monster are really rather poor, even in comparison to other classic Who stories, comparisons could be made to Harryhausen (and are in the bonus features), but they are not terribly favorable comparisons.
It should also be noted that the Zygons are due to return in a week for the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, “Day of the Doctor,” making this the absolute perfect way to catch up on the aliens prior to the new special.