It’s odd, the motifs that keep cropping up in Season 13 despite different directors and writers. Here, Styggron has a screen very similar to Sutekh’s that he uses when communicating with Crayford (it’s even shot at a similar angle), and a hidden camera in the pub, just like Broton. Perhaps it’s a natural approach when the show is moving away from armies of monsters to more well-characterised lead villains, hiding away in their secret lairs.
I’m not sure there’s any episode of Doctor Who that’s so disastrously undermined by its title. It’s as if Barry Letts took the brouhaha over Invasion [of the Dinosaurs] – Part One so seriously that this goes in entirely the opposite direction, revealing exactly what’s going on before the first line of dialogue is spoken. Why they went with a spoiler rather than the more evocative The Enemy Within, or even the prosaic The Kraals is a bigger mystery than what’s left when the central conundrum has its legs kicked from under it so brutally.
The Doctor’s confrontation with Sutekh is one of the greats. It has some similarities to the third Doctor’s encounter with the Great One: in both cases seeing our hero mentally dominated and manipulated like a puppet by the monster is immensely unsettling. Beyond that, Robert Holmes takes the opportunity to expand Time Lord mythology: just as Gallifrey was casually dropped into The Time Warrior, here the Constellation of Kasterborous is thrown in. In future seasons it seems like everyone has heard of the place. Here, Sutekh needs the galactic coordinates to realise the Doctor is a Time Lord. He’s not very impressed: ‘The Time Lords are a perfidious species’ gives us a clear hint that they aren’t the paternalistic gods implied by The War Games: barely godlike at all, in fact, and certainly to be looked down on by the other godlike beings. It’s foreshadowing further developments this season and next, and a nice bit of Holmes iconoclasm.
The Doctor is at his most brooding in this episode, showing no patience with Laurence Scarman’s pathetic attempts to appeal to his brother (just an ‘animated human cadaver’ the Doctor tells him brusquely), and even losing his sense of humour with Sarah, who accuses him of being inhuman. Later, he pushes Laurence’s corpse aside dismissively. This runs the risk of making him unlikeable, except the show’s already spent a season establishing his credentials and the scale of the threat here is immense: Sarah’s concern over one man’s death is brushed aside: ‘Four men, Sarah. Five, if you include Professor Scarman himself, and they’re merely the first of millions unless Sutekh is stopped.’
For such an iconic serial there’s not an awful lot of story here: the Doctor continues to share fragments of a backstory he already knows, while we’re left to try to piece together the bigger picture, but the essentials boil down to Sutekh ‘destroyed his own planet, Phaester Osiris, and left a trail of havoc across half the galaxy. Horus and the rest of the Osirans must have finally cornered him on Earth.’ In some respects this is Pertwee-style ancient gods stuff, but that just makes the differences even more marked. This is nothing like the sugar-rush whimsy of The Time Monster, and is more macabre than The Dæmons. Instead of big-budget Action by HAVOC the show’s now spending its (presumably smaller, thanks to 1970s inflation) budget on impressively detailed sets, and aiming for creeping dread.
Considered, as it was intended, as the opening episode of Season 13, the TARDIS scene makes a lot of sense – the Doctor is unveiled in his new coat, inside the TARDIS for the first time. Sarah Jane is reintroduced, giving us a twirl in Victoria’s dress. She makes a few facetious jokes while the Doctor broods because he’s fed up of being a galactic yo-yo. He mentions his age for the first time since, coincidentally, he told Victoria at the start of The Tomb of the Cybermen (maybe the dress really has thrown him) and delivers the poster quote ‘I walk in eternity.’
This is an underwhelming conclusion to a story that started with such spooky promise. Somewhere along the way, an ‘icy suction’ (as Sarah describes it) descends and all the atmosphere disperses until we’re left with Prentis Hancock wildly gesticulating while Freddie Jaeger gurns inside a Top of the Pops disco effect. The simplicity of the central idea – Sorenson has taken something from Zeta Minor, and its guardian is hunting him down to get it back – is lost. It’s hard to even understand what’s meant to be going on in this episode, and even harder to care about it.
There’s a last gasp of Pertwee-era psychedelia when the Doctor plunges into the anti-matter void (which trips him into a Pertwee-style coma). It’s the equivalent of the slo-mo troll battle in The Three Doctors. The rest of this is far less ethereal; the menace absolutely tangible. Presumably some of this is due to the influence of Robert Holmes – at least the character of De Haan, a grumbling working man, absolutely feels like a Holmes type, as does the joke about Morelli’s funeral (‘Morestran Orthodox’). The horror here comes from people doing awful things: Sorenson, obsessed by his own genius, has allowed himself to be contaminated by the planet, transforming into a cross between a werewolf and Professor Stahlman. Salamar is just frightened and out of his depth, desperate to escape Zeta Minor, and willing to bury the Doctor and Sarah Jane alive in the vacuum of space.
There’s a thing that Tom Baker does as the Doctor where suddenly the flippancy stops and he snarls the lines, low and furious, to suggest that behind the façade of facetious eccentricity there’s a serious intelligence. It crops up most notably in The Pirate Planet – ‘You ask me to appreciate it?’ – and often in Big Finish, but the first obvious example is in this episode, where the line ‘Get back! Didn’t you learn anything?’ is practically spat in a Morestran crewman’s face.
25 episodes into the Tom Baker years and we finally get to see the fourth Doctor inside the TARDIS (still beating Pertwee’s 39-episode wait, unless you agree it’s the flock-wallpaper desktop theme in The Ambassadors of Death). He plays it like an attentive chef, skipping round the console and peering at different buttons, coaxing the Ship to its destination as if piloting it is more an art than a science. Elsewhere, Baker plays this very oddly – he’s quite relaxed with Sarah Jane, but when he meets the Morestran crew he goes wide eyed, standing in the background boggling a lot which means he’s the centre of attention even when he’s not. Or maybe he’s just seen what Prentis Hancock is doing on the next set.