Terror of the Zygons Review

Reading Time Approx: 4 minutes

Terror of the Zygons is a significant story for a number of reasons, not least of which being it was the last regular appearance of both the Brigadier and Harry Sullivan. Personally I consider it the send off for UNIT as a whole, although I suppose you could argue for The Android Invasion, if you must. It also features Zygons for the first time and it’s surprising to me that they didn’t appear again in Classic Who being such a distinctive design and having so much potential.

You can always tell when 70s Who is supposed to be set outside of the home counties and London because we’re suddenly subjected to a morass of local yokels and stereotypes. In the first episode alone we get the Doctor wearing tartan, the bagpipes playing and everyone laughing at the Brigadier wearing a kilt because… man wearing a dress! The 70s were not an enlightened time, be glad if you did not have to live through them like I did. Its also really obvious that this story did not actually set foot in Scotland for filming, budgets no doubt. The Welsh were treated no better with The Green Death though so I guess it’s not personal. And the English wonder why we hate them.

Let’s put that aside though and look at the story. By the standards of 70s Who this one is pretty tightly paced without too much egregious filler. Each episode advances the overall story with some efficiency and the Zygon’s shape changing ability is used to good effect. I wouldn’t claim that it really breaks any new ground, but it takes the classic elements of a story and gives me something that keeps my attention.

It’s interesting to watch the Brigadier and UNIT interact with the as it happens so few times. You might think that a structure created for a previous Doctor would struggle when faced with a very different personality, but it works just as well. Which makes sense if you think that UNIT and the Brigadier were originally created to work with the 2nd Doctor, not the 3rd. It’s a flexible set up which is why it has endured for so long.

I suppose I should talk about the Skarasen a little. Certainly by modern standards it doesn’t look great, the initial sequences are several steps up from the Dinosaurs in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, but the stop motion is pretty jerky and the integration into the rest of the scenes is jarring. Unfortunately the depiction of it in the final part of the story is right back to Invasion of the Dinosaurs puppet level. Also, is it just me or with those big eyes is the Skarasen more cute than terrifying? In the end, as with most old Doctor Who, you have to be willing to go along with the story rather than obsess over visual fidelity.

The real villains of course are the Zygons and what a wonderful design they are. Yes, it’s still a man in a rubber suit and yes at times those suits seem a little unwieldy, but it’s a really good design and very memorable. It works particularly well in closeup as the merging of the actor’s face and the suit is good and the actors are able to get some evil expressions on their faces. Additionally, a lot of thought seems to have gone into the Zygon’s biological machinery and interfaces. That’s an idea you see a lot more now, but was pretty unusual 50 years ago.

There aren’t too many twists and turns in this story as the villain of the piece mostly lays out his plan early on and then it takes a while for the Doctor and UNIT to catch up and respond to it but it is nice to see so many characters behaving competently. During the Pertwee era for example the Brigadier’s character became increasingly buffoonish, stubbornly refusing to believe in things that clearly by this point he ought to just accept. However, in his final regular appearance we get the old, competent, Brigadier again. One who largely trusts the Doctor even if he expresses reservations and who’s tactical behavior makes sense in the situation. While I wish we’d seen more of the UNIT family, this was a strong way to go out.

Harry and Sarah Jane for the most part behave quite sensibly too and the whole story has a satisfying and consistent internal logic to it, even when at points it is obvious that things are happening mainly to set up a 4 part episode structure. I do question why the Zygons keep a self-destruct system on their ship that is so easily accessible though!

To call this well done but not challenging Doctor Who seems like damning with faint praise, but it’s also fairly accurate. I could probably spin you a story about how the Zygons and their shape changing represent societal pressure to fit in and how people rebel against that, but I don’t believe that was really a read that was intended for the story. It’s just fun, and fun is undervalued. I’d definitely put this one in the comfort watch category.

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