There’s an age-old adage in Doctor Who fandom, most often credited to 1980s screenwriter Ben Aaronovitch: “Talent borrows, genius steals, and Doctor Who gets it off the back of a truck, no questions asked.” It’s meant to symbolize the show’s brazen yet endearing, lifting of story ideas from all over genre fiction over the years. But sometimes, it’s also about the show’s ability to look back into its own history and gussy up old ideas.
With the recent tragic passing of their creator, Robert Banks Stewart, I wanted to revisit the story that introduced the Zygons—a serial that wholly encapsulates everything that makes Doctor Who, well, Doctor Who. If there was ever a story in the show’s long, long history that showcases its strengths, its weaknesses, and its weirdness, it’s Terror of the Zygons.
The first story of Tom Baker’s second season as The Doctor in 1975, Terror takes place in Banks Stewart’s native Scotland (it’s jam-packed with comical sterotyping, its first line featuring a mention of haggis, its last a joke about the mean nature of Scots), and sees The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and soon-to-be-exiting companion Harry called upon by UNIT to investigate mysterious attacks on North Sea Oil rigs. They soon discover the people responsible for the attacks are in fact aliens: The Zygons, shapeshifters infiltrating the local human community and disguising themselves, priming for a move to take over the world.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Terror of the Zygons was at a crossroads for Doctor Who at the time—it was the era of the Third Doctor’s exile on Earth, and UNIT was on the way out. Terror acted as its death knell. The presence of the Brigadier and his soldiers was familiar ground for the show, but Tom Baker’s Doctor interacting with them gives it an alien twist. He mocks UNIT and humanity for its reliance on oil in such a way that wouldn’t be out of place coming from Jon Pertwee, but there’s an ethereal, foreign bent to Baker’s insults that are distinctly more threatening than playful, a sign of a Doctor who’s just about done with hanging around being someone’s science-y lapdog. Even with the spookiness that would later define the 1976-1977 seasons of the show, Terror feels blatantly like one last hurrah for the format the show had in the early half of the 1970s, before it moved on to pastures new.
Then there’s the Zygons themselves. They’re cut from the same cloth as so many “aliens walk among us” villains, both outside of Doctor Who (Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is an obvious touchstone) and within it (the Autons and Axons from the Pertwee era instantly spring to mind). But despite not really bringing anything new to the table as sneaky alien infiltrators—they are about as “monster of the week” that you can get in that regard, and it’s unsurprising that they never returned to the show during its classic era—they’re stunningly realized.
The costume design and the set design of the Zygon lair are incredibly well done, creepy and organic and wonderfully bizarre. The first reveal of the creatures at the end of the first episode is iconic, and for a good reason; director Dougie Camfield framed it petrifyingly perfectly. It’s a moment of true horror and shock as Harry wails in horror at the transforming monster before him, before the full reveal of the Zygon grabbing Sarah Jane shrieks into the show’s end credits. They even get to be surprisingly murderous for Doctor Who aliens, offing several members of the supporting cast in grisly manners. If the UNIT-era was getting a send off here, the horrific undertones of the Zygons themselves were a look to the future of the show under Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, where the series got progressively into Gothic horror.
Strangely, even in the stories’ more poorly-executed moments, Terror is still thoroughly committed to embracing past Doctor Who tropes. Zygon leader Broton’s first encounter with Harry in the second episode leads to him spilling his guts about the history of Zygons, how their shapeshifting works, and how he wants to take over the world in a scene so full of droll infodumping that not even Dougie Camfield’s otherwise excellent direction can save it—and a moment that’s ripped from countless other villains in the show, from The Master to the Daleks.
When the Zygons are spurred into pushing their plans to rule the world into action, the more interesting aspects of their design (that they’re meant to be sneaky, patient infiltrators, not just overtly evil monsters) get lost for a classic, but thematically unjustified bit of Doctor Who alien attack scenes between the creatures and UNIT that once again, wouldn’t be out of place in any Jon Pertwee story.
And yes, the Skarasen—the monster that’s behind the Loch Ness legends, and is in fact the Zygon’s cyborg bodyguard/food source—is a practical effect so laughably dire it’s hard to imagine that it comes from the same story as the excellently-realized Zygons:
It’s right up there with the Taran Wood Beast and the original Mara as one of the least-threatening creatures in Doctor Who history. But as bad as it is, you can’t help but almost love the Skarasen as it goes about stomping on hapless UNIT soldiers—a dodgy monster is part of the charm of classic Doctor Who, and while no means intentional at the time, looking back, it’s taken on a sort of retro charm that works... in a certain way.
Terror is, ultimately a lot like its titular aliens. There’s a chameleon-esque element to it as Banks Stewart gleefully picks moments and ideas and beats from Doctor Who’s past for it to transform into, and weaves them into something that, is, in hindsight, a “greatest (and not so great) hits of Doctor Who” checklist. Exactly the sum of its parts—and all those parts familiar to Doctor Who already—but executed so well in terms of its production and direction (Skarasen aside) that, at times, it rises above the familiarity.
It’s a love letter to the show’s then-recent past and a sign of its increasingly creepy future. It’s even, in a few places, a little bit rubbish. It embraces all of those things becomes a sort of Ur-Doctor Who tale, representative of everything the series was, and could be. What makes Terror of the Zygons remarkable to watch all these years later is that it reveals just how much Robert Banks Stewart understood the show, even in his first attempt at writing for it. He managed to encapsulate everything that Doctor Who was about, for better or for worse, into a single story—something that’s still admirable and enjoyable to watch, all these years later.