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.
It’s hardly wall-to-wall action, instead the episode has a steady-as-she-goes pace that brings in the serial to a satisfactory climax. The front half builds the tension as UNIT wait for the Zygons to make their move – having escaped Loch Ness the ship (and the Skarasen) are heading south. Meanwhile, the Doctor manages to get the truth out of Broton: the Zygon refugee fleet is on its way to Earth, and before it arrives Broton’s crew plan to take over the planet and Zygorform it with human slave labour.
This one, I think, tends to be a little bit undervalued in comparison to some of the other Philip Hinchliffe masterpieces. It lacks the conscious significance of Genesis of the Daleks or The Deadly Assassin, or the Hammer Gothic flair of Pyramids of Mars. And none of those has the reputation of the Skarasen to contend with. But it’s the most solidly constructed and brilliantly executed fourth Doctor serial to date. The third episode has no sag, and twists the story in a direction we probably didn’t see coming – it’s not often the cliffhanger involves the baddies flying away.
The Zygons are properly unveiled and they’re very impressive: the decision to build out the heads but leave the actor’s eyes and mouth largely visible makes it easier to distinguish them as characters rather than a whole host of rubbery aliens like the Silurians or Sea Devils (whose MO, shapeshifting aside, the Zygons have appropriated). But beyond the costumes, there’s a concerted effort by all departments to make them a coherent design, from the sets, which reflect the suckers on the costumes, through the props, which look like the products of the same culture, and even the voices, which sound phlegmy – moist and sticky as the Zygons generally seem to be. It’s a shame the exterior of their ship looks too smooth and metal – otherwise this is as good as Axos.