...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Day 2464: DOCTOR WHO: Stink of the Zygons


I hope you all watched part two of Sarah Jane Smith's adventures this week – even if you already watched it the first time! Daddy will be reviewing the second story next week, but in the meanwhile, I have given him some light reading to get though

Spoilers, as ever, may follow…
There's nothing that's intrinsically wrong with this book. Steve Cole, who has written several times for the New Doctor Who books already ("The Monsters Inside", "The Feast of the Drowned" and "The Art of Destruction"), is accomplished as a writer with a relaxed style that generally carries the story along at a reasonable pace. There are the appropriate twists and spills along the way, one or two clever enough to surprise me.

The question really is what's if for?

Visually, the Zygons are very interesting, with their knobbly orange shapes and organic crystallography (i.e. in practice squishy) technology they would be a great addition to the New Series and are often highly placed in "which monster should return" polls. Plus they are a favourite of David Tennant. But as written motivations go, they are your pretty bog-standard "we want to take over the world just because…" invaders.

Of their unique selling points, one – we steal human shapes, you know – has already been nicked by the Slitheen, and the other – we've got a huge aquatic dinosaur, you know – is going to look out of place anywhere OTHER than Loch Ness.

It strikes me that there are at most three interesting stories to be told about the Zygons – one, what actually happened back on their home world (I call it Zygospore, but I don't think anyone else does); two, how did they end up coming to Earth and or what made them stay; and three, what's going to happen in a few centuries' time when the rest of the Zygon fleet turns up? One is essentially a tragic morality tale of global calamity; another is an "…and the Silurians"-like story of advanced aliens trying to survive surrounded by dangerous barbaric humans; the third is "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or, since it's a future with gloomy replicants, "Blade Runner".

What we actually get is just a rerun of "Terror of the Zygons". The setting is shifted to the Lake District and the Laird is swapped for a Lord, but essentially the plot motifs are all the same. Zygon spaceship, last refugees from dying planet, intend to Terraform… well, Zygoform really… the Earth into a swampy new home, look out for the big, scary monster and the bleepy-bleepy control device.

Although the Doctor goes to some trouble to flag up the previous continuity – entirely unnecessary these days when he universally knows everything about every alien he encounters whether or not the audience have ever heard of them – the story makes no effort to segue into the television version.

On telly, Broton, Warlord of the Zygon, claims that his people have been on Earth for Centuries and clearly they've been letting their own Skarasen beast out for a swim as it's been sighted as the famous monster enough times. Several Skarasen sightings going back over a hundred years are mentioned in "Terror of the Zygons". In which case, why do Brelarn Warlord of the Zygons and his Lake Distract lot not notice another Zygon ship on Earth when they arrive? Are Broton and Brelarn just not talking? Why don't their "trilanic activators" attract each other's Skarasen? (Broton uses one to lure the monster from Loch Ness all the way to London, so the Lake District is certainly within range.)

The logical way out of all this would be to make "Sting of the Zygons" a prequel to "Terror of the Zygons". With Brelarn dead, I expected one of his young Zygon-lings to turn out to be junior Broton and we would have him the other survivors up sticks and move to Loch Ness at the end. That might contradict those minor Skarasen sightings, but you could fudge round that.

Alas no. At least there are survivors (unlike in the other failed Zygon novel "The Body Snatchers") but they depart in their space ship with fuel enough for just one trip… not to another planet, as I first thought, but, it turns out, to no further than the north or south poles. Bizarre, given that the Zygons obviously prefer a warm and wet climate (perhaps the Doctor tipped them off about global warming), and again still easily detectible by Broton's lot.

Does any of this matter? Well, it just makes it all seem a bit pointless. The monsters could as easily be the Slitheen or the Rutans, or even the Daleks using Dalek duplicates.

Like the Daleks, Brelarn can't resist trying to combine a desperate survival mission with overthrowing the rulers of the world. Going ahead with a plan to replace Asquith and the British Cabinet while at the same time trying to regain control of your Skarasen is, frankly, barmy. The Zygons are so low on rations – they rely on the Skarasen for food as well as defence – that there are already mutinies breaking out, but Brelarn wants to continue with a complex imposture and assassination ploy. To quote Broton: “You’re utterly unhinged. Must be.”

There's a short-lived interesting set-up question "what could kill a Skarasen?" – yes, there are two of them, just to outdo the TV budget, though "The Body Snatchers" went for several of them rampaging through Victorian London, oh how we forget. Unfortunately, the (much more interesting) idea of getting caught in a cross-fire between two powerful and desperate alien races is quickly ditched, and the answer is no more than "a badly tuned diastellic circuit". One bad headache and BANG-pop dead Skarasen.

In fact, the nuclear-missile-proof monsters never prove to be much of a threat, since the living one remains hidden in the forest until the Doctor gets it under control. It wakes up at the end, growls a bit – okay, it eats Brelarn, but he deserves it by that point – then takes fright at it's dead relative and swims off, never to be seen again. The creature's potential for devastation ought to be the ultimate, unthinkable threat in the story – but then if you let one off the leash in Earth's history it's going to cause so much damage that it would be ludicrous for it not to be remembered. Again, read "The Body Snatchers" if you must.

Oh, and technically this means that – post "Terror of the Zygons" there are now two of them swimming around. Good job the Zygons's reliance on the Skarasen's "lactic fluid" means they must both be ladies, eh.

On a more prosaic level, the Doctor is very well written, recognisably played by David Tennant, even when he isn't the Doctor, if you see what I mean. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor turns out to have the super-power of resistance to the lethal Zygon Sting. ("I'm not human" – yeah, yeah one of these days you'll be poisoned by an aspirin, you know). Heroic guest-child Ian Lunn is pretty well written too, in an Enid Blyton kind of way. Most of the adult characters suffer slightly from the sense that they are slightly trying to be sinister as they are either Zygons disguised as humans or human red-herrings trying to fool you that they might be Zygons. There is, for example, no particular reason why car-and-hunting enthusiast Victor Merridith seems to have a suspicious rendezvous with the wife of missing Sir Albert Morton.

And unfortunately, Martha Jones doesn't entirely spring off the page, either. The wonderfully ebullient, sarcastic, enthusiastic performance of Freema Agyeman, just doesn't entirely come across. To be fair, the book had to be written before the third series aired, so no doubt Stephen was writing from scripts and maybe early sight of "Smith and Jones".

There is slightly too heavy a reliance on quoting the television, too – not just an "Allons-y" and an "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry", but a lot of familiar lines from, unsurprisingly "Terror of the Zygons" too. "Organic crystallography – I'm always underestimating that!" Once again, ha so very ha.

It is a nice pun when the reveal is made that it's all been a con, hence "Sting" of the Zygons. But frankly it's a waste of the set-up, and it's not even that good a con.

It is a nice reveal when it turns out that Zygons can disguise themselves as animals as well as humans, it is subtly clued up – yes, I did spot it, but it was with satisfaction at the pay-off. But again, if the USP of the Zygons is that they are really rather good at impersonating people then the story would do better to focus on the "anyone could be a Zygon" angle. It only really does that once.

So, regrettably, it's another wasted opportunity for the best monsters never to get a comeback story. No one learns anything from this adventure – not the characters and not the readers: at least "Terror of the Zygons" was making a point about the world being a fragile resource and dependence on oil not being so very clever either. It's a romp, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it… but couldn't we expect something a bit more?

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