"Zygons – big red rubbery things covered in suckers."That line, from Matt Smith’s Doctor, is shorthand for what people remember about one of Doctor Who’s great, until-recently-one-shot monsters. But once you’ve seen Terror of the Zygons, it stays with you for all sorts of reasons. It’s no secret that the story of the Loch Ness Monster and its alien masters was one of David Tennant’s favourites as a boy, and that he campaigned to have the Zygons return during his era in the Tardis (finally, tangentially, getting his wish for the 50th anniversary story, Day of the Doctor).
In one of those perfect storms of storytelling, performance and visual design that evvvery now and again, Doctor Who pulled off with a sublime skill during the Classic era, Terror of the Zygons has practically everything you could wish for in a Tom Baker story.
Back in 1975, it was probably even more impressive on first viewing – the opening story of Tom Baker’s second season, and having battled Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, giant insects known as Wirrn and an even more giant robot in his first handful of stories, it would be a season that featured no old favourites, but which took brand new monsters and villains – and made practically all of them the stuff of absolutely classic Who, though none of them would return at all during the rest of the Classic era. This was the season of anti-matter monsters, of deadly mummy-robots, of rhino-faced numpties with android English villages, of Morbius the renegade Time-Lord with the pick-n-mix body, and of the seeds of creepy house-devouring doom. Not only is there no truly naff story among the lot of them, there’s hardly, if we’re honest, a duff scene among the lot of them – and this killer season of Doctor Who was kicked off and given its momentum by Terror of the Zygons.
Scripting duties went to Robert Banks Stewart, who blended misty moors, spirit legends and the irresistible charm of explaining away the Loch Ness Monster with some very contemporary concerns – the importance of North Sea oil, the tensions it caused between Scotland and the government in Westminster, and, as the Doctor points out, the environmental concerns that came with dependence and economic enslavement to a mineral slime. On that strong thematic bed, Banks Stewart overlaid a good healthy slab of body-snatching fun, with the Zygons being able to perfectly imitate the body-prints of people they captured and kept alive. And then there was the Zygons themselves. They fought shy of some of the more obvious sci-fi clichés: they were orange, rather than trademark alien green. They looked like they’d been grown at the bottom of the sea, all calamari and suckers, rather than the spacefaring expedients of battle armour or scales. And far from the screeching hysteria of the Daleks or the stompy electronica of the Cybermen, they whissssspered practically everything. But beyond that, the language they used, both between themselves and to others, gave the Zygons a feeling of being a real culture, who just happened to be there when we chose to start looking at them, rather than a race who’d been specially created to be villains of the week. They were big red rubbery things covered in suckers, yes, but they also depended on the lactic fluid of a Skarasen for food, and their sun had exploded, meaning they had no option but to make another home for themselves. They weren’t evil as such – just desperate, aggressive and trying to be independent.
Oh and did we mention the look? As alien costumes went, yes, they were clearly people in suits – but what suits! The Zygon costumes gave you every incentive to suspend your disbelief in the production process and go with the idea of their alien reality. Certainly, they looked like nothing else that had come before them, which was key in establishing them as a unique alien.
On top of all this potential greatness – a sound script that had layers of mystery, a creepy body-snatching arc and a fantastic alien menace intent on using the Loch Ness Monster to take over the world – there was Tom Baker. Ohhhh was there Tom Baker. Season 12 had seen him hit the ground absolutely running, establishing the thousand ways in which this new regenerated Doctor was different from the urbane semi-aristocrat of his third incarnation, but in Terror of the Zygons, he really seems to have settled into his body and his role, and he is absolutely radiant. The childlike ‘Look what I did’ smile when he finds the road in the opening minutes of the story; the beaming, sudden, out-of-nowhere enthusiasm of ‘Where do we start?’; the flippancy in the face of power that he’d displayed against the Cybermen gaining a playful air when talking to Broton, the Zygon’s chief scientist – asking, when the plan to conquer the Earth is explained to him, ‘Isn’t it a bit big for just the six of you?’ This was a performance that wasn’t just trying to be the Doctor, but trying to be the definitive Doctor for those who tuned in to watch it. It’s the sort of performance that in retrospect makes people forget that when Baker had come into the role just one season previously, it was Jon Pertwee’s version that was regarded as utterly definitive of who the Doctor was.
Again, it was the combination of writing, performance and design that made Terror of the Zygons practically perfect – perfect for the audience of children watching it in 1975, perfect in their memories going forward, and to be fair, still pretty perfect on rewatching today, some forty years later. In essence, it’s the kind of story that explains all you need to know about why Doctor Who is such an extraordinary show, and why it’s lasted so long. Pick any other show you care to out of a TV line-up from 1975, and see if can still be timeless, and enjoyable as drama to this day. Getting just about everything right is an insurance against time and viewer-evolution, and Terror of the Zygons succeeds in achieving precisely that. Would it be just sliiiightly better with a CGI Skarasen? Yes, probably. But unlike some other epic dinosaur fails in the show’s history (and the epic snake-fail that was yet to come in Kinda), the Skarasen doesn’t entirely break the believability of the story – enough good work has gone into Terror of the Zygons to let you go with it.
As Season 13 opened, Terror was also the final nail in the coffin of The Way Things Had Been for much of Jon Pertwee’s time. The UNIT family, the modern Earth-bound storylines were giving way to more alien world as backgrounds for storytelling, just as Jon Pertwee’s most human of Doctors had given way to the beaming, goggle-eyed explosion of hair and scarf that was Tom Baker’s interpretation of the benevolent alien. There would be brushes with UNIT again, and certainly stories set on Earth, but Terror of the Zygons, first story of Season 13, completed a job that had begun in Robot, first story of Season 12 – the separation of the Doctor from the UNIT family and its cosy, almost sit-com environment. The universe of time and space awaited this still new bohemian, wandering Doctor. When the Brigadier and Harry Sullivan take the more reliable route back to London, the days of the Fourth Doctor’s association with UNIT were all but over.
It’s telling that of all the Classic Who aliens to be revived in New Who, only the Zygons and the Macra had previously been one-shot creations. The Macra, which were actually quite a good and creepy creation in their original story, were de-evolved and something of a throwaway in Gridlock, used largely for their physicality as giant crabs. The Zygons were enough of a thrill for the fans to warrant being brought in as the ostensible main villains in the fiftieth anniversary story. That tells you something about their legacy among Who fans. They weren’t handled all that well, becoming louder, sharper-toothed, snarly villains rather than their previous sibilant, whispering selves, and their story-arc was pretty much abandoned two-thirds of the way through in favour of the Time War shenanigans. When they return in Series 9 for their third shot, let’s hope they’re taken a little more back to basics, because Terror of the Zygons still works today as well as it did in 1975. It would be wonderful to think that a 2015 Zygon story would still be thrilling the socks of Doctor Who fans in 2055.
After all, Terror of the Zygons probably still will be.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk