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11 March 2014 @ 07:49 pm
The Randomizer: Terror of the Zygons  
If there's one thing this randomised journey has convinced me of, it's that the Tom Baker years under Philip Hinchcliffe really do live up to their reputation. The memory does not cheat. Though, having said that, I think the Graham Williams era that follows it is also standing up to early 21st Century viewing remarkably well.

Despite its reputation for cheap sets and effects, I happen to feel that Doctor Who often does remarkably well with very little. It's not up to the standards of Sapphire and Steel which could make someone shining a torch on the floor mind-numbingly frightening but I still think it often does a very creditable job on very limited resources. That is why it is so striking when a Doctor Who monster really does go wrong. The Skarasen (the eponymous Zygons' tame Loch Ness Monster) is one of these occasions. It's hard to put a finger on what makes it seem quite so ludicrous but I suspect it is a combination of primitive CSO and primitive animatronics. There is nothing quite like an obvious model rolling a fake eye while badly "photoshopped" against the skyline to make something look very cheap indeed. Interestingly CSO is also being used for the Zygon transformations where it works a lot better. A lesson, perhaps, in understanding the limitations of your special effect techniques.

So the Loch Ness Monster is a big failure here. However that doesn't really detract from the story much. This is partly because the Loch Ness Monster is actually the secondary monster with the Zygons placed front and centre. While these are men in rubber suits (and as obviously men in rubber suits as most of the monsters of this era) it was, at least, a well understood special effect and they stand up pretty well. On the script front, they are mostly rubbish at impersonating people however. This contrasts strongly with their more recent appearance in the 50th anniversary special where it is almost impossible to tell them apart from the original. Here, with the exception of Broton, they blunder around in a largely ham-fisted fashion, and are quickly spotted as impostors. However, I think the "gothic horror" traditions the story is drawing on gain more from Zygon clones that are obviously "not right" in some way than it would from the more playful "who is who" games that the 50th anniversary special was playing.

Still, these Zygons, wouldn't have stood a chance at impersonating Elizabeth I… or Kate Lethbridge-Stewart.

Written at the height of the North Sea Oil discovery boom, it is interesting to see Doctor Who attempt some element of topicality - though it is also interesting to see how this is wedded to the standard tropes of Philip Hinchcliffe's tenure - stately homes and horror themes. It creates a strange juxtaposition of modernity with Victoriana especially now North Sea Oil is topical but for completely different reasons. Hinchcliffe's era also stands out for its more robust approach to violence than a lot of Doctor Who. I was interested how startling the Zygon!Harry's attack on Sarah with a pitchfork remains - a moment when Doctor Who oversteps some invisible boundary and becomes more graphically violent than the audience expects. I wondered whether it was the direction, in which Harry thrusts the pitchfork directly at the camera that makes this so striking. It's not like Doctor Who hasn't regularly featured peasant extras waving weapons. However this particular instance appears much more serious than an extra waving a pitchfork around in a half-hearted fashion.

While The Seeds of Doom is the last UNIT story of this era, this is the last story with the UNIT "family" of the Brigadier, Doctor, Sergeant Benton, Sarah and Harry. It's not a bad send off. Where UNIT are mostly an off-stage deus ex machina in Seeds, here they play a more intrinsic part in the story, although a lot of their role remains a framing device to get the Doctor into the story, and thereafter to act as handy back-up when needed. However the familiar faces, and their greater on-screen presence makes this feel much more like a "UNIT story" than Seeds of Doom.

This is another solid story. It's not the best of the Hinchcliffe era by some margin, but it would have been a stand-out in many other seasons of Doctor Who. It gains from solid acting, solid direction, and a script which understands the parameters within which it is working. Even it's Achilles Heel - the Skarasen - does not greatly distract from the whole. There is a sense that everyone involved is taking their job seriously, something often lacking in Doctor Who, and the result is that everything feels that bit more professional.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/112180.html.