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For Auld Lang Zygon ...
on 2 April 2014
This splendid, tartan-clad Highland fling marks the end of an era, as the Brigadier leads the UNIT clan into battle against alien foes for one last time. There would be welcome later appearances by some of the cast, but this was the last of the familiar sequence of stories that began with `The Web of Fear' seven years before.
And it's a great story to end on, presented on two feature-packed DVDs, with reels of excellent location filming and action under the direction of Douglas Camfield once more, as with some of the early UNIT stories; top performances from the regular stars and guest cast, atmospheric sets and soundtrack and the best aliens ever to bring their Terror to `Doctor Who'. Oil, and the politics of oil, was never far from the news in the mid 1970s. So when the Zygons decide to make their bid for Earth from their Loch Ness base, oil rigs made a logical, topical first target. Fortunately the government have UNIT to call on, and the Brigadier can send for the Doctor, but the Zygons have a secret weapon of their own ...
Tom Baker plays the Doctor with a perfect otherworldly quality, irascible, playful and heroic as the situation demands. It's good to see Elizabeth Sladen given the chance to show Sarah Jane as the independent investigative reporter, in a typically good performance. Ian Marter wasn't in the series for long but his `Harry Sullivan' matches Frazer Hines `Jamie' as the best male companion, and was unlucky to be written out so soon. John Levene gets a good story as RSM Benton for the last time in the full UNIT setting. (Yes he and Ian Marter were both in `The Android Invasion' and it's not a bad story but is it a real UNIT story?) Nicholas Courtney looks every Scottish syllable of Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, complete with his regimental Stewart kilt. He has a great last story in command and finally meets his "alien menace that is not immune to bullets" as Terrance Dicks' line famously put it.
Leading the fine guest cast is John Woodnutt with a superbly understated performance of villainous determination. He has three roles to play and brings equal assurance to them all, the brilliant Zygon makeup and costume allows the actor to be visible and audible and create a convincing alien Warlord. I assume that everyone now knows the Zygons' special `power' (after seeing the 50th anniversary show) so that won't come as a surprise, but it creates some great plot twists which are still enjoyable even when you know the story well.
Given the budgets of the time, it was never going to be easy to pull off the trick of filming an adventure set in a very specific part of Scotland, when you couldn't afford to go further than the Highlands of Sussex - but most of the time, with skilful filming it works very well, the ancient woodlands, the coast with its dunes and lonely beaches, and the heather moors dotted with pines do resemble the real Tulloch Moor in Strathspey. The only glaring mistake is the large pond and "fish-free reservoir" that stand in, very unconvincingly, for Loch Ness - the use of picture inserts of some genuine Highland scenes was considered and would have helped. And it must have been a shock to Clan McLeod to find Dunvegan Castle photographically transported from Skye to the banks of Loch Ness!
The village of Tulloch (not `Tullock' as the sign on the Fox Inn reads!) could almost be somewhere in the coastal northeast Highlands, though you're unlikely to meet a highlander like Angus Ferguson MacRanald, the bagpipe-playing, doom-foretelling landlord with the feudal clan loyalty and the second sight! The character is nicely played by Angus Lennie as a fictional cousin of the Transylvanian innkeepers that set the scene with their dire warnings in countless horror films. Some of the other Scottish characters seem distinctly odd - "rather medieval in his ideas" says the Brigadier of the Duke of Forgill, who openly threatens to have trespassers shot! (and the story is set around 1980 not 1780!) - but wait a while...
The Highland illusion is strengthened by the excellent sets for the Fox Inn and Forgill Castle with its Scottish Baronial style, and in contrast the Zygon ship is very, very alien and `organic'. The model work is mostly exceptional, the opening sequence with the oil rig, and the Zygon ship still look impressive today. Then there is the `Skarasen' ... this monster does suffer by comparison with modern equivalents, but it's unfair to compare 1975 stop-motion animation on a budget with Hollywood spending millions on CGI. I think it works well, except perhaps for the final scene and that's down to the monster's `expression' - the face doesn't really look savage enough, but then I suppose the cyborg creature isn't savage when left to itself, those controlling it are the monsters.
You'll probably want to navigate to `Special Features' and turn on the `Director's Cut' option to restore a deleted scene of the TARDIS and crew arriving, and to `Audio Options' to select the excellent 5:1 stereo remastered soundtrack. This enhanced sound, combined with the extensive location filming, lifts the story to a new level. Waves crash around the oil rig, the Zygon ship pulses with life and as the Doctor and his companions trudge across Tulloch Moor you can even hear a skylark singing off to the left.
Then drape yourself in a Stewart scarf, find some Highland shortbread and maybe a `wee dram' and raise your Scottish bonnet to the end of an era, for auld lang syne. But happily, like Hogmanay itself, `Terror of the Zygons' also brought in the new - the two best seasons in the history of `Doctor Who' started right here. Five tartan stars!
Thanks for reading, fare ye well ... (As they might say in the TV Highlands!)
NOTE: If you don't know the story already, navigate off the main DVD menu quickly because the background clips include a huge spoiler!
An excellent and comprehensive set of Special Features on Disk 2:
The commentary and production subtitles are very interesting as usual.
`Scotch Mist in Sussex' discusses the making of the show, key participants talking against glowing misty-white backgrounds.
`Remembering Douglas Camfield' describes the life and career of the director both on `Doctor Who' and the many other famous shows he directed.
`The UNIT Family - Part Three' concludes this enjoyable series, from the arrival of Sarah Jane Smith to `Battlefield', as stalwarts of the show share their memories and reflect on the UNIT era. Be sure to watch right to the very end of the credits.
`Doctor Who Stories - Tom Baker' and `Doctor Who Stories - Elizabeth Sladen' were both recorded in 2003. Two great collections of anecdotes from their times in the show, intercut with many clips. The highlight is `Davros' and the paper bag, from Tom Baker, brilliant.
`Merry-Go-Round - The Fuel Fishers' sees Elizabeth Sladen visit a North Sea oil rig for the 1970's schools' TV programme.
Two `Easter eggs'.