“Take my word for it, dear, there are ancient mysteries here. Evil spirits haunt Tulloch Moor.” – Angus
With a new season, the show gets back on form with a sleeper story that was not particularly well remembered by fans of the time and only later recognized for a very well-done gem of the Tom Baker years. I would say the first striking thing about this episode viewing it in order is how much of a darker mood and adult tone it carries than the seasons before. The deaths are just a bit more frightening, the threat of the villains just a bit more serious, the use of force just a bit more brute. This new and more adult direction would come to be a hallmark of the new production crew of Tom Baker’s earlier period.
The story itself is also very well written—the plot unveils itself at just the right pace with a good dose of dry humor. There are several interesting elements as it not only introduces a new kind of villain but pulls in historical myth, interesting sci-fi ideas (the extreme, almost grotesque, organic nature of the Zygon technology especially), and there is a good use of location as our heroes tramp about the moors as well as some good model shots like the underwater space ship. There is even some clever misdirection as the innkeeper’s second sight (both mentioned and even possibly demonstrated) ends up playing no role in the plot at all.
The heart of the story are the characters of the Zygons themselves, a criminally underused villain that did not get the recognition they deserved until the show’s 50th anniversary when they were brought back to face the tenth and eleventh Doctors. The designers went all out to create full-bodied costumes that really work–the neckless puffy heads and noduled skin create a definite alieness while the blending in of actual eyes and mouths of the actors keeps the appearance very realistic.
The Doctor, Sarah, and even Harry are all in great form. We start to see a bit more edge to the Doctor as he’s working out situations but also much more of his characteristic broad grin and witty repartee when facing down a villain. The writer was very smart to have the lead Zygon revert to the human form of the Duke just prior to their dialogue because the two of them being so civil and gentlemanly at each other is just a great scene. Sarah Jane is more cheeky and fun than ever (love her cute tongue stick out as the Duke walks away!), and we start to see Harry’s medical expertise take more of the fore in his last story. It’s also great to see UNIT back for a last hurrah. Just like the rest of the story, they are a bit more serious than before and the more realistic soldierly straight-to-business attitude suits them well.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
I’ve seen and read the novelization of this story many times over, but it was still a jump scare to see what seemed to be a dead body from the rig suddenly jerk to life on the shore. I was honestly trying to remember it was a half-dead Zygon or if the story had a zombie element to it that I’d forgotten! Of course, it turns out that the poor radio operator had just managed to hang on to a last glimmer of life. It’s all the more shocking therefore when the mysterious bearded Scotsman raises the sights of his gun at Harry and him and we see the poor man twitch in death at the crack of the rifle. There’s little fantasy violence in this scene; it really does feel like two men being shot down point blank.
- Female prime minister (a bit of Doctor Who forecasting)
- The Brigadier in a kilt!
[I had not realized that this story does refer to the other fleeing Zygons as refugees just as they would be shown to be in their appearance decades later in the show. This is a nice and unexpected piece of continuity. They weren’t supposed to arrive for a century or so, but I guess we can assume they had their arrival sped up to arrive in the 2000s. The later stories don’t account for their need to feed off the milk of the Scarasen though, so I guess we’ll assume that their noted requirement of it was due to lack of other options at the time rather than biological.]
The main reason this story was not well-received at the time is the horrible shots of the Scarasen puppet. (Doctor Who is just not good at dinosaur-like creatures.) It’s such a shame that this one effects failure gave the story such a bad rap since so much of it is quite above average otherwise.