Doctor Who #404: Terror of the Zygons Part 1

"The Doctor, he looks likes a man who might see around a few corners himself."
TECHNICAL SPECS: Still unavailable on DVD (sheesh, even the never-completed Shada will be out on DVD before Zygons), I've had to use an Internet source. First aired Aug.30 1975, starting the new season mere months after the last one ended.

IN THIS ONE... Oil rigs in Scotland are being destroyed and the Doctor is called in. The Brig in a kilt. A sniper gets Harry. Big teeth are cast.

REVIEW: I wasn't equipped to "get" how the Welsh were stereotyped in The Green Death, but it's harder to miss that the Scotland represented in Terror of the Zygons is, to put it charitably, an iconic and not a real one. People with variable R-rolling accents longing for haggis, playing bagpipes, warning people not to go out on the moor... Even the Doctor and the Brigadier dress as Scotsmen, reverting to their usual garb once the joke is done. And it IS played as a joke. Sarah giggles at the Brigadier's kilt, takes shots at the landlord's superstitious stories, and sends up in the accent when she answer's the inn's phone. It's Lis Sladen, so she makes it all feel very naturalistic, and it's nice to see Sarah Jane on the offensive, using her investigative skills, but the production has the same contempt for "the country" that The Green Death and The Daemons had, its inhabitants gullible bumpkins or creepy xenophobes, one and all. Since Doctor Who's had a Highlander companion, they miss a trick by not mentioning Jamie in some way. The piper could have been a McCrimmon, or the Doctor's clothes could have been left in the TARDIS. Ah well.

While this Scotland isn't taken very seriously, and there's a sense of fun to the family reunion, everything else is quite serious. The Doctor, for example, is a lot more sober than usual. Initially, he's a little peeved the Brig would use his emergency telegraph to summon him about one of these energy crisis stories. He's obviously done with that, and barring any alien invasion, he's not willing to keep bailing Britain out every time work stops on some polluting power plant or other. But the oil rigs ARE being attacked by something, shall we say, alien (good model shots there). Something with huge teeth. If you're not adding Loch Ness Monster to the Scottish clichés at this point, you're doing it wrong. (I'm kind of glad Doctor Who never came to Canada in this era, as I'm not sure how I would feel about a story filled with Mounties, igloos, and country bumpkins with bad accents being extra polite and drinking maple syrup from the bottle. Only the latter is part of my own experience.) And then Harry gets shot by a sniper, which is about as serious as things can get, and despite the monsters, the scariest scene in the episode. The music, both diegetic and non-diegetic, knows not to send things up too. The bagpipes play a lament for the dead (they also tend to stop dramatically or comically, but that's second sight for you), and Geoffrey Burgon's incidental music is properly haunting.

The eponymous monsters are barely seen, but make a strong impression. The carbuncled and suction cupped Zygons are a good design, but that's not it as we hardly see them. It's their bio-technology and fascinates and disgusts. The scene in which they guide their pet monster to a rig, edited in a series of dissolves, showing hands fondling strange protuberances, makes them more alien than any culture we've seen in a while. They also seem to have a shape-shifting ability, creepy body snatchers that then hang around the village as dukes and nurses. It's the same basic effect the sniper has. A paranoid atmosphere in which our heroes can't guess where the next attack will be coming from.

- Though the setting is an almost absurdly traditional idea of Scotland, the production has loads of atmosphere, an intriguing new monster and terrifyingly dark plot elements.


Anonymous said...

I guess it's a good thing the production team never saw this, or the Doctor would have come to the US decades ago:

The Doctor all eating hot dish and trying to contain his extroverted nature.

Hey, do you get Mummers at Christmas? Mummers freak me the hell out.

Siskoid said...

They almost went to Louisiana for The Two Doctors, but it didn't work out. Cannibals in New Orleans.

No, we don't have mummers, or panto, or puddings, all those things that make Britain seem particularly exotic to us.

Anonymous said...

I thought Mummers were Newfoundlandly, figured they might carry over to New Brunswick. Shrug.

Siskoid said...

Googled it, and wow, that IS creepy. Had never heard of it before though. NB doesn't have them.

d said...

We have Mummers here in Philly but they're mostly drunk Italian-Americans in sequins and feathers.

Siskoid said...

And it's a thing in Game of Thrones.


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