Monday, March 02, 2020

I know it is a bit late, but I thought it was about time I reviewed the new Doctor's second season.

13.1 "Terror of the Zygons"


Literally the first line of the story is: "Can you no send a couple of haggises over? The chef disnay ken anything aboot food..." The cast convene in a pub; the Brigadier is wearing a kilt; the landlord won't stop playing the bagpipes. Tom Baker comes on wearing a tartan scarf and a tam-o-shanter. Harry and Sarah are, rather charmingly, wearing his normal scarf and hat.  

The story was, of course, filmed in Sussex. 

If one wanted to defend certain other stories of this era -- stories, for the sake of argument, which make fun of Chinese people -- then this is the context in which to put them. No-one is trying to make a point about Scotland or whip up hatred against the Celts. But we are in a world where TV is made out of stock situations and stock characters. If this is Scotland, then there must be moors, haggis, pipes, mist, lairds and kilts. And Lochs. 

An oil rig is mysteriously destroyed. The local Laird doesn't hold with the idea of drilling for oil, d'ye'ken? The bag-piping landlord holds forth about how naught but bad luck comes to those who venture onto the Moors. A survivor from the oil rig is washed ashore; he is about to tell Harry that the rig was destroyed by a... by a... when he is shot by a man named Caber. In full highland dress. 

Set up, set up, set up: not all of it will pay off as the story proceeds. But this is part of a game we play; every year at this time, when the nights start to draw in. There are first episodes, and there are middle episodes, and there are last episodes. Each has its own unique pleasures.

We think of Doctor Who as being entry-level sci-fi, in direct competition with Space: 1999. But this has more in common with the spooky, "hauntalogical" children's shows of the era; Children of the Stones and Tom's Midnight Garden. Pubs and moors and dark mutterings about the environment and pointed conversations between grown-ups in pubs. No-one drinks. In Children of the Stones, everyone drinks, all the time. It's the language of gothic horror. It starts with a scene from a disaster movie. But it's really about Aliens. It's always really about Aliens. 

Sarah-Jane is interviewing the landlord who talks about his clan chief and not going out on ye moors after dark...and we cut away, and there is a rubbery reptilian claw, and we are watching from the viewpoint of something orange and rubbery with scary eyes. The orange rubbery thing is spying on Sarah and Angus. Through the eyes of the stags-head mounted on the pub wall. 

Was Doctor Who always this weird? Could we tell how silly it was, or were we willfully not looking? When Terror of the Zygons was shown in Australia, a baffled broadcaster dubbed in laugh tracks.

The script is still not really being written with Tom Baker in mind. He is still mostly a Boffin, pouring plaster of paris into the wreckage of the oil rig to establish that it was destroyed by something with giant teeth. The characterization still comes mainly from Baker's facial expressions and from his physical presence. In the offices of the energy company in glowers against a wall; looking incongruous and sinister; like the cover of an annual or a BBC icon. He lies on his back and pretends to be asleep while the Brigadier briefs him about the attacks on the oil rigs. Only when the Brig talks about men being killed does he take the hat away from his face and grin. "When do we start?" 

He's only playing at being a cynic and the Brigadier knows he's only playing. But then Angus is only playing at being Scottish and the Aliens are only playing at being Aliens. Doctor Who, almost for the last time, is a great big silly game. 


There are Aliens. The Aliens want to conquer the earth. The Aliens have bred a gigantic lizard which lives on the moors and eats oil rigs. And the Aliens can shape shift into exact facsimiles of any human captive. This is why the sinister Laird is so sinister.

They are proper Aliens. They find human beings disgusting. They look like giant rubber sea horses with suckers. Their space ship interior is as globuley and rubbery and organic as they are, although the doors are literally made of tin foil. They talk English among themselves and measure distances in earth miles. (This is 1975 and earth miles are increasingly being replaced by earth kilometers.) You might think that the idea of organic technology would be developed in the story; but the designer and the writer don't seem to have talked to each other. The outside of the space ship is just a spaceship. 

Still; the writer cares enough to put in some hand-waves. The giant lizard was transported to earth in embryonic form; the Aliens feed off its "lactic fluid". So: milk eating aliens who's ultimate weapon is a giant reptilian cow. Harry expresses surprise that they are mammals -- one wonders if that was a late ad lib to lampshade an obvious absurdity in the script. It doesn't matter. The Aliens are the point. 

There are cliffhangers. Gas -- Scotch mist, very possibly -- seeps under the doors of the tavern and knocks everyone out. The Doctor and Sarah-Jane are stuck in a decompression chamber while the evil nurse sucks their air away. Sarah-Jane is menaced by an Alien in Harry's form, wielding a pitchfork in a barn. The solutions are uniformly weak. Everyone just kind of wakes up after the nerve gas attack. The Doctor hypnotizes Sarah-Jane so she doesn't need to breathe. Harry somehow breaks his connection with the Alien, which turns back into its original form. And melts. It doesn't matter: the cliffhangers are the point.

By the end of episode 2 a stunt man in a Tom Baker costume is tripping gaily through the heather, pursued by a giant lactating alien lizard. He runs through the moor. He jumps, rather dramatically, off a bank. He stumbles. And we cut away to the monster; part dragon, part dinosaur, part, admittedly, glove puppet. 

The actual physical monster isn't quite as bad as you may have heard. The design is okay; the animation entirely absent. The director avoids putting the model and the actor in a single shot; so we see Tom running away from an unseen monster; and we cut away to close-ups of a giant reptilian head. Last episode was mock Gothic. This episode, while not remotely scary, manages to feel quite nightmarish. A nurse who is not a nurse. A friend trying to kill you with a pitchfork. Running headlong away from a monster you can't see. 

And so we see the point of the Caledonian setting. The Aliens' spaceship is at the bottom of a lake. The glove puppet embryonic milk secreting plesiosaur is the Loch Ness Monster. The aliens have been marooned on earth for hundreds of years. Their own planet has been destroyed. More of them are on the way. That is why they want to conquer the earth. Their giant lizard has been around for hundreds of years too. That is why legends about the monster of Loch Ness go back to medieval times. At least someone cares enough to wave their hands a bit.

There could very well have been a Doctor Who story about the Loch Ness monster. A science team is studying the Loch in an old boat; the boat is attacked by a monster; the monster is chased back to its lair; the lair turns out to be a crashed flying saucer, and then -- surprise reveal -- it's an alien beastie who was brought to earth to give the invading forces a source of dairy produce. And that may, in fact, have been the jumping off point for Terror of the Zygons. But it isn't the story we ended up with. The story we have is not about the Loch Ness Monster. It's a story about some shape-shifting Aliens and their ultimate weapon. Loch Ness is just some tartan window dressing. 


If the BBC was doing, say, the Mayor of Casterbridge or Pride and Prejudice, you kind of needed to see every episode in order for it to make sense. There were no videos or DVDs although admittedly Austen and Hardy's novelizations were pretty good. So there were usually two chances to see each episode: a prime time showing on BBC 1 and a late night repeat on BBC 2. And each week an announcer read out a summary of last week's episode in a posh voice. Doctor Who had no repeats and no "previously..." voice-over. The best you could hope for was a ten word listing in the Radio Times. ("The Doctor is a Zygon captive. Can he avert the terrible threat that faces London?"

So the episodes have to stand alone: and on the whole they do. 

EPISODE 1: Mysterious Scottish stuff happening in Scotland. Final shot provides solution to mystery: it's aliens!

EPISODE 2: There are Aliens in Scotland! Aliens chase and are chased by the Brigadier around Scottish town. People are captured, fall into death traps, and escape.

EPISODE 3: There are still Aliens in Scotland! Aliens continue to chase and be chased by the Brigadier around Scottish town. People continue to be captured, fall into death traps, and escape. 

EPISODE 4: Big science fiction climax, explosions, soldiers. Alien plot to destroy London. Alien plot to destroy London thwarted. 

They certainly hoped that if you watched the Doctor being chased by a glove puppet in Episode 2, you'd want to come back for Episode 3 and find out how he escaped. (Harry gets out of his cell on the Alien spaceship and switches off the glove puppet by remote control.) But if you missed it and came back a week later, you could pick up the thread perfectly well. The Aliens are still being Alien but now the Doctor is their hostage. The vagueness and the perfunctoriness of the Aliens' plan is less a bug than a feature. What is the solution to the mysteries in episode 1? Aliens. Why are the aliens swimming up the Thames towards London? To conquer the world. Why do they want to conquer the world? Because they are Aliens. If you've ever seen Doctor Who before, you don't need a catch-up.

And the Alien plan is really very vague and very perfunctory indeed. They are destroying oil rigs because the employees of the energy company might see the Monster crossing the moor. No, wait a minute, they are actually destroying the oil rigs as a dry run for conquering the world, and as a show of strength. The real plan is to use the Monster to destroy an energy conference in London. Once the Monster destroys the conference than everyone will hand control of the Earth over to the Aliens, and the Aliens will terraform the Earth to suit their requirements. Using humans as slave labour. Obviously. 

The final episode is a 1950s flying saucer B movie run at double speed. Spaceships blow up; soldiers run backwards and forwards and bark urgent messages into field telephones. Bystanders scream; police sirens whine; giant dinosaurs rampage unconvincingly around the city. The Doctor and the chief Alien fight, quite dramatically, in a cellar: the Doctor gets hold of the doohickey which controls the Nessie and she swims peaceably back to Inverness. 

Cleverer people than me have argued that this is an anti-Who story; a repudiation of what has gone before; affectionately putting an end to alien invasions and noble UNIT soldier boys once and for all. I don't believe this for one second. This is just what Doctor Who was like. Tom Baker's hints at self-deprecation don't amount to a full-on deconstruction of the series.

But it is true that Terror of the Zygons is almost the last traditional Doctor Who story. You could have imagined Jon Pertwee or Patrick Troughton or at a pinch William Hartnell playing Invasion of the Body Snatchers in a wee Scotch glen. But next week the Hinchcliff Era will begin in earnest. Doctor Who will start to turn into a new thing; a different thing. Younger fans will scarcely believe the sense of betrayal that the old guard felt at the time; the extent to which Robert Holmes became every fan's bogeyman. But in a sense they were not wrong. This is where the series they grew up with ended. This is where the series most of us grew up with began.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no hardly any political opinions of any kind.

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postodave said...

I grew up with Hartnell. Actually I started with Hartnell. The first Doctor I watched without an adult's hand on the TV button was Troughton. By the time of late Pertwee early Baker my dad would no longer let me watch so my gran got a lot of visits. I can't remember feeling betrayed by the changes as Baker progressed. I could be heard this Sunday shouting out this is awful. I remember reading a review of the third poem in T S Eliots Four Quartets that argued that it was deliberately bad but really good once you understood its place in the overall structure. I always wondered what Eliot made of this backhanded compliment. Perhaps Chibnell is doing the same thing. Perhaps it's like Hey Jude where people took it back to the shop only to be told, 'It's meant to sound like that,'

Gavin Burrows said...

'Tomorrow Never Knows'. And even then you'd need to say "allegedly".

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think the argument is that each of the Four Quartets has a third section which refutes or contradicts the first two -- with the last providing a synthesis. So it would follow that the third of the Quartets would to some extent be an anti-quartet or a self-parody. Up until 1999 it was widely held among Star Wars fans (that is to say, me) that the prequel trilogy would be to the trilogy as A New Hope was to Empire Strikes Back; and that the sequel trilogy would be the original trilogy as Return of the Jedi was to Empire Strikes Back. After Phantom Menace came out this theory was not as widely held. There is no doubt that in the Doctor Who fanzines of the 70s, Baker was largely disliked and Robert Holmes was seen as a betrayer of the old series. Graham Williams and Douglas Adams even more so. Apparently, Jan Vincent Rudski knows that I exist. I had a rotten time and school and this kind of thing is very important to my eleven year old self. What was the question?

Mike Taylor said...

I'm pretty sure I've never seen a Zygons episode until the late-eleventh-Doctor one. I have to say Andrew's write-up is not making me want to go back and remedy that.

This year, a thing has happened that I never thought would happen: not only am I not bothering to write about Doctor Who, I'm not bothering to watch it. We saw the first half of the "Spyfall" two-parter because, hey, it was New Year's Day and why not?, but we've not returned for any of the subsequent episodes. It feels ... weird.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Terror of the Zygons is a perfectly good middle period old Who alien invasion tale, with very good aliens but a very poor dinosaur. Being not the best story in a season which includes Brain of Morbius and Pyramids of Mars is fairly forgivable.

if you ever cared about Doctor Who you probably need to watch the last three episodes in order to have a strong opinion on them.

I suppose I will have to give Uncle Walt £50 for the Mandalorian and Clone Wars, won’t I?

Mike Taylor said...

"If you ever cared about Doctor Who you probably need to watch the last three episodes in order to have a strong opinion on them."

You mean the last three episodes of the current season?

Andrew Rilstone said...

the last three episodes of the current season, I mean, not the last three episodes of the Zygons.

Andrew Rilstone said...

double jinx no returns

Mike Taylor said...

Then I guess I will watch the whole darned thing, to get the context.

Andrew Rilstone said...

There are some decent monster / historical stories in the most recent season — much better than the last one, But it is disfigured by a very silly fannish “arc”. The new Master is good when he is being himself but irritating when he is being Missy.

Gavin Burrows said...

Generally better than the previous season, yes. And yes, that is faint praise. But while the average is higher there is no single episode as good as ‘Demons of the Punjab’, which remains the rose-amid-manure of the Chibnall era.

The… yes it truly is… silly and fannish story arc leads to an even more terrible denouement. Which manages to be fannish and anti-fan at the same time, in that it’s only stuff fans will be bothered by and fans are quite definitely going to be bothered by it. And they were. If the degree of upset has in some cases been excessive, its basis is correct.

But the odd thing with the arc is that some episodes are clearly made to be enjoyed on a moment-to-moment basis, the viewer just taking in the ride and not worrying when it doesn’t turn out to make any sense. (Particularly ‘Praxeus’.)

Last time I saw ‘Terror of the Zygons’ was the first time. I have seen some Hartnell stories more recently. There is one in which he turns into somebody else, you know.

postodave said...

But there is no record of Eliot saying, 'Well done, you spotted my cunning plan.' On the other hand there is no record of him saying, 'What does he mean, 'worshipers of the machine,' is a great line and I really put some top spin on, 'I do not know much about gods.' That bad it's good is an interesting category because creativity is only ever partly calculated. I am mostly the kind of fan who loves it all until clever people tell me how bad it is. So if I do find myself feeling this is really bad, I always suspect I am at last becoming clever.

Anonymous said...

Sacha Dhawan is to John Simm what Colin Baker was to Tom Baker: a talented actor who could make an excellent Doctor/Master were he allowed to create his own interpretation, but forced by the writers into doing a misguided imitation of his predecessor because they were so popular.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Colin a bad Tom? Sacha a bad Michelle? I think I will go and lie down for a bit...