Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 422: Terror of the Zygons, Episode Two
One of the things that the Philip Hinchcliffe years of Doctor Who are known for is the interest television campaigner Mary Whitehouse took in the programme. I’d imagine that many of my readers will be familiar with Mrs Whitehouse, but for the benefit of those who aren’t: Durung the 1960s, 70s, and 80s (and to a lesser extent, the 90s), Mary Whitehouse fronted a number of organisations who companied for better moral standards on British TV. She took a particular interest in things which she felt were unsuitable for broadcast, and at this point in the programme’s history, Doctor Who became one of her highest profile targets.
She described Genesis of the Daleks as ‘teatime brutality for tots’, and took especial dislike of the cliffhanger to The Deadly Assassin where the Doctor’s head is being held in water. In her autobiography, Elisabeth Sladen jokes that when Mary Whitehouse took an interest in your programme, you knew that you’d made the big time. Generally, Who fans mock her criticisms of the programme these days, but the BBC at the time did take note, and her complaints were part of the reason that Graham Williams was brought in to produce the series from Season 15, being asked specifically to tone down the violence.
And, it has to be said when watching episodes like this one, she did have a point! There’s a sequence in today’s instalment where the Zygon-Harry hides in a barn while being pursued by Sarah Jane. Once she’s close enough to spot him, he gently picks up a pitchfork... and then starts launching it at her, trying to impale her! The subject matter itself is already quite dark for a programme going out in this time slot, but Camfield’s directing really takes it up to the next level. During the attack, every shot of Harry is taken from Sarah’s point of view, so we watch as Ian Marter gives perhaps hisbest ever performance, sneering towards us while forcing the weapon forward.
Even the shots leading up to this one, where Harry peers out from between bails of hay, are laced with a kind of sinister feeling that I’m just not used to from Doctor Who. I’ve been commenting since The Ark in Space that the programme is taking on a darker, more frightening tone, but this is perhaps the best example that we’ve seen of that. Don’t get me wrong - it’s very well directed and acted, and it wouldn’t be out of place in an adult drama or a horror film, but it does feel very wrong to place in a programme going out early on a Saturday evening. As my friend Nick put it; you wouldn’t get away with that sequence on television today!
Something that I do approve of, though, is the design of the Zygons and their ship. In yesterday’s episode, we were treated to several close ups of their eyes and their hands, but today we get to see them in full as they move around their spaceship. I spent so much time during The Ark in Space talking about how well everything worked together on the design side, but I think that the work they’ve put into all the Zygon elements trumps even that. They look right in this setting, and even in those tight close-up shots, the costumes work very well.
Purely by chance, a few weeks ago I watched the episode of Doctor Who Confidential where David Tennant takes control and interviews people about their relationship with the series. At one point, his question is turned back on him and he’s asked which is his favourite Doctor Who monster:
”The one that I loved - and they've never been seen since - is the Zygons. The organic sliminess of them. It just didn't look like a person. This incredible design with a face that's all little and scrunched up, and this huge domed head, and these suckers... It's just a brilliant design.”
It’s hard not to simply repeat that over and over while I talk about the creatures, because he’s right - it is a brilliant design. I’m really pleased that he’s actually been able to work with them now, too, during The Day of the Doctor, because after he’d said this (the episode of Confidential was from Series Three), it seemed a shame that he’d never had the chance. My first experience of the Zygons came with a Tenth Doctor novel (The Sting of the Zygons), and I always thought that would be the closest he ever got to them!
One thing I’m less sure about, sadly, is the Zygons’ pet Skarasen. It’s always been considered the weak link in this story, and I’m not sure yet what to make of it. When it first appeared, swimming past their space ship, I was willing to say that it didn’t look too bad, but then as the story goes on and we get gradually more and more shots of the creature close up... something just doesn’t work about it. I’m not even entirely sure what I’m not liking, but there’s something in there.
We get a few lovely moments (at one stage, we see a shot of the creature move its foot forward, and it’s quite unexpected!), but then sometimes... oh, I don’t know. I’m hoping that as the story goes on, appearances of the creature will be kept to a minimum, with only the very best shots being used. With everything else doing so well, it would be a real shame for this to drag it down.