15 January 2016

Robert Banks Stewart

Robert Banks Stewart, who has died aged 84, is best known for creating both Bergerac and Shoestring, a couple of inventive crime dramas but we Doctor Who fans hold him in high regard for his two classic stories `Terror of the Zygons” and `Seeds of Doom`. They also happen to two of my all time favourite stories which I recall enraptured a whole generation when first shown in the 1975 -76 season which must rank as the overall most consistently good season in the series’ history. Both manage to conjure up a slightly different take on the series than the other stories that season. Robert Banks Stewart seemed eager to push the show into a harder world with storylines that grew from everyday preoccupations of the time. He put a spin on old ideas- and sometimes the best Doctor Who does that- be they the Loch Ness Monster or plants taking over. Because they were largely made by the same team they are similar in production values and drawn together by Geoffrey Burgon’s elegant fluid scores. By way of a little tribute, here’s a piece I recently penned for an upcoming project about `Terror of the Zygons` though I should point out I love `Seeds of Doom` equally! 
 10 Brilliant Things about Terror of the Zygons

`Terror of the Zygons` is dimming Saturday nights, that astounding piece of Frank Bellamy artwork in Radio Times and the shock of the first appearance of a Zygon at the end of episode one. It’s quintessential Doctor Who from 1975 the point where the already popular series became just that bit more sophisticated, just that little bit more interesting. `Terror` is the changeover story; the first one where Philip Hinchcliffe had total control (earlier stories were wholly or partially inherited) and it comes across as something fresh and new. No wonder they saved it for the autumn even though it was originally conceived as the season 12 closer. Imagine this being shown in June! It’s been reviewed a zillion times but here’s ten great things that lie at the heart of this perfect story.
1. Geoffrey Burgon’s music plays a far more narrative role than was normal for the series in those days. Its presence not only helps establish the location but supports individual charatcers in a far more subtle way than everyone having their own theme. Sometimes the music almost seaps over the speech but always you feel this is delienerate
2. The Zygons are one of the best realised aliens we saw in the original series. A grotesque cross between a seahorse and a foetus, they are stunning especially in their debut moment when a Zygon appears in the hallway where Sarah is on the phone and her scream and the weird noise the Zygon makes mixes with the closing musical sting. Once we see them in their base, fondling their organic console, and talking in whispery tones about their “dyastellic readings” they seem so completely alien.
3. The fact it wasn’t even filmed in Scotland yet you never believe it could be anywhere else. The odd bagpipe, the cosy interior of the pub, the rugged landscape, a kilt here and there and some highland motifs in the incidental music- it’s enough to convince us. 

4. The brooding Doctor in one of Tom Baker’s most intense performances in the role. Settled by now you can see he is starting to explore the wider parameters of the Doctor. He emphasises his apart-ness, his alien qualities in a manner that kicked against his predecessors. The Third Doctor for example had been very human in his behaviour despite his alien knowledge. By `Zygons` Baker and the writers are asserting the Doctor’s differences from rather than similarities to us. In this story he is dismissive of many human attributes and adopts a true outsider’s pose. He seems to delight in pointing out the oncoming threat- “the sea may be quiet but it’s rarely empty” yet there is still a wicked humour in there too. 
5. Sarah Jane’s behaviour. Robert Banks Stewart makes Sarah even more intelligently human to balance the Doctor’s darkness. Her wry comments at times are very Doctorish- perhaps she’s picked this up from him- yet she can still become the girl in danger when needed. Witness her superb transformation from the silly “Hello, Fox Inn” with which she answers the phone to her shocked “Harry’s been shot”.
6. Harry Sullivan. They really should have kept him on for longer. As a comic foil for the Doctor and a chatty friend for Srah he is invaluable. At least Ian Marter gets a good send off particularly when he totally convinces as the duplicate Harry weilding a pitchfork at Sarah
7. Scary Sister Lamont- She is even spookier than the Zygons!
8. The great John Woodnutt- Two roles here; the bitter but twinkly Duke of Forgill whether bemoaning the loss of his employees or suddenly remembering he’s the President of the Scottish Energy Commission and the nasty Broton.
9. The fact it is a story that makes a virtue from its simplicity - a bunch of aliens stranded on Earth plan to make the planet their own using their part cyborg creature lurking in Loch Ness. That’s the plot really. Within that though it’s the small things that count. `Terror` possesses a forensic attention to detail that convince you every step of the way.
10. Re-watchability. I think I’ve seen this story more than any other Doctor Who and never tired of it. I’m not the sort of person who watches the series a lot these days but once in a while this story is just the most perfect thing to view again. Within minutes I’m transported back to 1975 and the story has lost none of its power. 

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