Thursday, May 22, 2008

view from the panopticon- terror of the zygons

4/3/08 Terror of the Zygons

Evil spirits don’t destroy oil rigs. –Sarah-Jane Smith

Now this is classic Fourth Doctor stuff. I admit, I never really understood what all the fuss was about as far as the Zygons went (reportedly they’re David Tennant’s favorite old skool monsters, though could that be perhaps because their debut story is set in Scotland?). If location were everything, this story would rock on that virtue alone. Having learned from "The Sontaran Experiment" the importance of filming outside in something other than a gravel quarry, the production team pulls out all the stops to take us to a Scottish manor house, a UNIT base in a Highland village, a moor, a churning sea of oil rigs, and an absolutely inspired underwater base in Loch Ness made of squishing sea-things (I wonder if the Zygons smell like fish?). Here is the Fourth Doctor at the top of his game, Sarah-Jane coming up with half the good ideas, and the Brigadier thrown in for good measure.

With some cheap crack about haggis we immediately set the scene on an oil rig somewhere off the coast of Scotland. There’s a great explosion, even if it is model work, that is rather negated by naff music. Next we see the Doctor—in tam’o’shanter and a plaid scarf—Harry Sullivan—taking theDoctor’s normal scarf for a spin—and Sarah-Jane Smith—borrowing the Doctor’s hat it looks like, and in a drab but highly appropriate ensemble—hitchhiking the Scottish countryside. They hail a ride from a passing car, and I really wanted to know what the driver thought of them.The Brigadier and Benton are arguing over the landlord of the inn they’ve sequestered playing bagpipes; "If he wants to play his pipes, there’s nothing we can do about it." This reminds me of some of the flavor later in the Seventh Doctor story "Battlefield," the whole thing surely inspired "Tooth and Claw," and later I can see where Stephen Cole got his inspiration for Feast of the Drowned, right down to the dour antagonist. And of course, "Horror of Fang Rock" will follow in a couple of seasons.

Harry, the Doctor, and Sarah are happy to see the Brigadier, though Sarah is highly amused: "What’s that?" "It’s a kilt." He is, after all, "from the Clan Stewart." Their chauffeur looks a lot like Stephen Rea, but he’s the landed gentry who’s not very happy with big oil being there in the first place. "Rather medieval in his notions," remarks Sarah. "He has convictions," the Doctor says vaguely. On the beach, it’s among the loveliest location work I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who, until a body washes up. The Doctor’s a bit reluctant to get involved in the whole thing. "Oil, an emergency! It’s about time the people of this planet learned that dependence on a slimy mineral doesn’t make sense." This is a sentiment echoed in "Planet of Evil," and sadly one we are still grappling with. Forward-thinker, that Doctor. The Brigadier finally convinces the Doctor to help. Harry takes a look at autopsy reports; it’s nice to know he’s good for something. Sarah announces she’ll go and talk to the local people, naturally enough because it’s Sarah.

Huckle, the oil liaison, is either American or Canadian, I think the latter, and disappears part-way through. Oil rigs, according to the Brigadier, look like "three-legged spiders in Wellington boots." Huckle explains this is so they won’t be destroyed. At the time the last one was, there was radio blackout and a calm sea. "It may be calm but it’s never empty," says the Doctor ominously. In fact, the Doctor is enormously quotable in this story, which is rather a nice change. Sarah is meanwhile talking to the landlord, who is superstitious ("I’m the seventh son of a seventh son") and chides her for criticizing his "clan chief." He concedes, "He’s a different man after the oil company" came. Irather like this scene, even if it is a bit superfluous, because it gives Sarah a lot of character development. Her wry humor and cheerful, scientific manner offends the inn keeper as he relates the strange happenings that have been going on in the area for centuries. One man actually disappeared in the 1920s—"he left without paying his bill, did he?" Sarah remarks. "There are ancient mysteries here." Sarah concedes there might be, but gives the title quote.

The dead man on the beach resurrects himself—Doctor Who loves zombies—and Harry sees him collapse. The Duke has already warned UNIT that poachers on his property will be shot, and a game keeper takes aim at Harry and the zombie. He shoots the zombie and then Harry, too! I couldn’t believe it. Harry is found, with a scalp wound, and is taken to UNIT hospital to recover. "The landlord here’s got second sight," Sarah says flippantly, and the innkeeper’s bagpipes immediately cease. Hilarious. "He’s playing a lament for the dead," the Doctor says morosely. While Sarah sits byHarry’s bedside, the Doctor announces, "Teeth are very important things, Mr. Huckle." He surmises that a large monster with big teeth has been taking down the oil rigs. Harry is feverish; Sarah rightly doesn’t trust the cold Scottish nurse. It would be quite frightening to see a Zygon in front of you; presumably that’s why Sarah is cowering in a corner of the decompression chamber when the Doctor finds her. You’d think the Doctor would have learned to jam something in the door, but obviously not, as he’s locked in the chamber with Sarah as the air is pumped out. "What was that?" "I don’t know, but it’s not the air conditioning." Sarah chokes; the Doctor shouts, "Shut up and save yourbreath!" The Zygons with their monster-vision are plotting as they drag Harry off to their underwater base. I can’t understand a word they’re saying; they’re worse than the "Tenth Planet" Cybermen. The underwater shots are pretty great, though. If this were Doctor Who in the noughties, the Doctor would give Sarah mouth-to-mouth; as it is, he does some Tibetan meditating and tenderly wakes her up when Benton comes to the rescue.

The Brigadier is gassed and woken up by the Doctor and Benton. "There are times, Doctor, when you talk absolute nonsense." Huckle finds a sea-bauble. There’s a search for Harry. The Doctor says, "Sarah, stay here." She takes the opportunity to rev up the typewriter—well, she’s a writer—as Harry appears and takes the sea-bauble. But is it really Harry? Well, he shoves Sarah against a wall and runs off, so you would kind of think it wasn’t. She and the soldiers chase after him; Harry—oh, you can tell Ian Marter’s enjoying being evil—corners Sarah with a pitchfork before he falls down a haystack and transforms into a Zygon. Harry’s definitely having a bad day—first he gets shot and then dies. Well, not really, but he is spending most of the story stuck in the underwater base—clearly the writers thought Harry’s character had had his day. Another oil rig destroyed. Sarah suggests, "I think we’re being watched." The Doctor concludes that the sea-bauble is "part artefact, part organic." The Brig suggests machine-gunning the thing that’s attacking the oil rigs. "Machine guns might not be enough," announces the Doctor. He decides he will bring it out himself. "But Doctor, we don’t know how fast it moves!" "It doesn’t know how fast I can move." I never thought I’d see the day when the Doctor was driving a Land Rover, but then I never thought I’d see the day the Doctor used a mobile phone. How times have changed! What follows is a superbly-directed chase scene between theDoctor and a dinosaur. However, the most embarrassing part of the whole serial is the dinosaur. Limitations of budget and ‘70s special effects, I’m afraid. I wonder why the Tenth Doctor hasn’t met dinosaurs yet. They could be great post-Jurassic Park (and we can dream that Donna would get eaten by a T-rex).

If you hadn’t figured out by now that we were at Loch Ness, you’re even less clever than I am. (Despite later assertions that the Borad is the Loch Ness monster; I guess it’s getting pretty crowded under there, since isn’t there a third Doctor Who story that claims to solve the mystery?) The landlord dies a grisly death when he tries to de-bug his bar. The Doctor, the Brigadier, and Sarah pay a call on the Duke, who if you hadn’t figured out by now is the leader of the Zygons—well, you’rethicker even than I am. It’s a Gothic Horror paradise in the library, but this time the Doctor doesn’t start licking things. They argue with the Duke about exploding depth charges in Loch Ness, and he derides their credulity. "I’m not a party to any kind of nonsense," the Doctor announces, soberly. He notes that Loch Ness funnels into the Devil’s Punchbowl which connects to a subterranean river. The Brig admits, "Before I joined UNIT, I was highly skeptical about aliens, too." "It takes all sorts to make a galaxy, Your Grace." The Duke allows the depth charges, and the Doctor tells Sarah to stay behind in the library and try to find out anything that will help them. "Can you stop trying to keep me out of things?!" Of course, Sarah’s in the most danger of anyone, but our plucky heroine does her research—"There is no limit to human credulity, Miss Smith"—and sticks her tongue out at the gamekeeper. She finds her way into the underwater base, and after a rather ridiculously long bout with a door, manages to free Harry. The Doctor and the Brig arrive in time to get them out, butthe Doctor disappears into the underwater base in time for the Zygons to capture him. "Destroying oil rigs is just the beginning."

"Oh, I give up, old girl," says wimpy Harry as he and Sarah try to find more out in the library. They have to walk from the castle to UNIT, which leaves Harry peeved. The Brigadier sends off the depth charges, to which the Doctor says, "Sounds like the Brigadier." The Doctor investigates the Zygon technology—"well, I’m not human, and I’ve seen better." His light-hearted impudence in the face of the Zygon leader Brotan’s unsmiling coldness is a delight to watch. "You like asking questions." Asthe Zygons attack again, the Doctor—painfully—shorts out their radio silence so that the Brig can track them. The Brig get a call from the Prime Minister, who is apparently Margaret Thatcher even though she hadn’t been elected yet. Hmmm. The Doctor is still alive, despite the Zygons concluding otherwise, and he jams the door (at last, somebody did) before getting the human doubles of the shape-shifting Zygons out of the ship.

It blows up with all the Zygons in it except Brotan, who is taking his plan to London (as one does). A giant dinosaur then stalks the streets of London—I wonder if Clive from "Rose" was old enough to see this. Despite the Brig’s claim that "it never happened." Brotan is destroyed, and everyone heads back to UNIT HQ in Scotland. The Doctor and Sarah have an appointment in London to keep—"I can be there five minutes ago!" I’m rather surprised that not only does Harry choose to stay behind, but there is no tearful goodbye. Obviously, he and Sarah expect to see each other again soon, but we know better. The Brig also declines a trip. I think this is one of the better endings. The Duke—the real Duke—asks, "Did you have a round-trip ticket?" "Yes, I believe I did." "You should have got a refund, I thought you were a Scotsman." Being partly Scottish, I resemble that remark. LOL.

I feel I had better come clean. Robert Banks Stewart is responsible for my least favorite Fourth Doctor story, "Seeds of Doom." But now I see why he was hired to write that, because of the success of this story. It doesn’t make me think any better of "Seeds of Doom," but I do feel I owe Robert Banks Stewart an apology.

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