January 15, 2013

Who50: "Terror of the Zygons"

Who50 counts down to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who by reviewing my favourite episodes and serials over the history of the programme, counting down from #50 to #1. Today, #42: "Terror of the Zygons", a 1975 four-part serial written by Robert Banks Stewart and directed by Douglas Camfield.

Back in the 1990s, Doctor Who Magazine conducted a fascinating experiment in determining whether or not Doctor Who would still appeal to British children. They screened a four-part Doctor Who serial to a classroom of school children, and were happy to discover that - despite the episodes screened being two decades old - the kids enjoyed Doctor Who just fine. The serial they screened was "Terror of the Zygons", which remains one of the best examples of 'typical' Doctor Who that you can possibly find.

The Doctor returns to modern-day Britain at the request of the Brigadier: there's a string of attacks on North Sea oil rigs going on, which lead the Doctor to the Loch Ness Monster and an alien invasion by the shape-changing Zygons. We've got Tom Baker cementing himself in the role of the Doctor (this serial was filmed as part of his first season, but was held back to launch his second), Sarah-Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), UNIT and the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), an alien invasion of the Earth, rubber-suit monsters and doppelgangers. This is, in essence, the Who-iest Doctor Who serial of all time. You can very easily argue that these four episodes are the epicentre of Doctor Who's original series.
"Terror of the Zygons" also marks the end of an era. It's really the last time the Doctor comes to the aid of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT. He will meet Lethbridge-Stewart again, and he'll interact with UNIT again, but for the classic Pertwee-era line-up this is absolutely the last hurrah. We also say goodbye to Harry Sullivan, one of Doctor Who's best and most underrated companions, and set the Doctor and Sarah-Jane off on a year of absolute classic adventures.

At the episode's centre are the Zygons, who stand as probably the most iconic and popular monster ever to appear once in the series. They're astoundingly popular, and yet never returned to the screens for a rematch. It's unfortunate, because they're beautifully designed and wonderfully creepy. In their natural form they are sort of coneheaded blobby red foetus people covered in suckers, but of course they can shape shift as well. I should also mention that John Woodnutt does an awesome job as Broton, the Zygon leader.

This is just a stand-out story. It's not the most inventive serial ever, and it doesn't do things that aren't done in several other stories, but "Terror of the Zygons" is to my mind one of those simple, near-perfect stories. When it finally gets released on DVD later this year, it's one of the best stories with which to introduce new viewers and fans to the original series.


  1. The Zygons are a great concept and I hope we do see them back again. They were used marvellously as an ongoing 'monster' in the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller audio adventures: The Zygon Who Fell To Earth and Death in Blackpool, which take the original concept and look at them in a marvellously nuanced way.

    The Zygon Who Fell To Earth is also notable for Tim Brooke Taylor playing a very earnest and likes-playing-human-a-bit-too-much Zygon.

  2. It's the ship. The ship is class-A super creepy. All those weird organic blobs and knobs and slimy skin-looking walls. Creeped me the fuck out as a kid, and did it all over again as an adult.


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