Posts Tagged ‘Natural History of Evil’

In the last instalment of Natural History of Evil I looked at Season 32 and concluded that the central conflict between Good and Evil which has been the narrative motor for most Doctor Who since the early years of the programme was now much less in evidence than it had been in the past. Episodes about machinery running out of control, and the ethical crises arising from this, were now much more common, and while there were still clearly-defined villains and monsters in nearly every episode, the main attraction and central idea of the episodes were not necessarily rooted in the conflict between the protagonists and antagonists, but instead in increasingly convoluted and self-referential plotlines. I expressed curiosity as to whether this trend would continue into Season 33 and the associated episodes – even though we had been promised that the arc-intensive Season 32 was a one-off and not to be repeated.

Well, how did things actually work out? What is the crux of Doctor Who‘s storytelling these days, and how does it handle its monsters and villains – especially the recurring variety?

I suppose we must start by looking at The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, an episode I’m afraid I can summon up virtually no enthusiasm for, largely because the plot is so insipid. There is a storyline about the industrialised destruction of the environment, but little sense of moral outrage about this – and the characters who embody this are comic relief, not intended as a credible threat. Instead, we get a peculiar mixture of spectacle and sentimentality, all sluiced over with imagery from both traditional Christmases and the works of C.S. Lewis (who, one is tempted to assume, died in protest rather than share his lifetime with Doctor Who). This is a Christmas story with too much Christmas and not enough story.

One notable thing about Season 32 is that returning villains are thinner on the ground than in any other series since the revival – the only full-scale appearance by an old enemy is by the Cybermen (as wonky a threat as ever), and the writer of this story has admitted he only included them because nobody else was using a big-name monster that year.

In comparison, in just six episodes of Season 33 we have seen practically all the big names back – with most of the others promised in the balance of the season: Daleks, Weeping Angels, Sontarans and Silurians (although Strax and Vastra have both to some extent transcended their races, as I’ve mentioned earlier), with Cybermen due some time this year.

In previous parts of this series I have suggested that the recurring big-name monsters of the original series often constituted a ‘shorthand for evil’ – using the Daleks or Cybermen saved writers from having to come up with a new concept or motivation for an antagonist.

However, these days the classic monsters have become genuinely iconic, and their use now often taps into this – rather than being used as a shorthand for evil per se, they are deployed to ensure a particular episode draws attention and is perceived as of greater importance than the norm. This certainly seems to be the case with The Angels Take Manhattan, the return of the Weeping Angels just upping the ante (and expectations) in episode already primed to grab people’s attention. The way the series operates now, it would feel wrong for a companion to depart following a battle with a ‘new’ enemy.

Possibly the use of the Daleks in Asylum of the Daleks was designed to ensure people were lured in to enjoy the surprise appearance of Jenna-Louise Coleman – the inevitable ‘the new companion is a Dalek’ headlines may have been lurking at the back of Moffat’s mind, as well. At least the episode attempts to do something new with the Daleks and their culture, even if that means riding roughshod over existing continuity, plot coherence, and common sense.

The surprise return of the Great Intelligence in The Snowmen is not quite the same as the other classic revivals of recent years – for one thing, the Intelligence’s appearance is a surprise, not the main publicity hook for the story, and for another, one doesn’t need to be aware that it is a recurring enemy for the story to work. It is, and this is not especially appropriate for a Christmas episode, an Easter egg. The episode works quite well on its own terms, with a plausible (if not exactly nuanced) villain and some interesting monsters.

There was another bona fide villain in the shape of Solomon from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. As I said when I was talking about this episode at the time, the fact that there was a genuine, unequivocal villain in this story was one of the main reasons I enjoyed it as much as I did. Not a villain to add to the list of all-time series greats, by any means, but a properly malevolent embodied presence for the Doctor to take on, and rare enough these days. Of course, if we’re going to talk about the series’ approach to evil and morality, we should probably touch on the controversy surrounding the episode’s denouement and Solomon’s demise: hoist by his own petard in the classic style, Solomon found himself blown up, with the Doctor choosing to leave him to his fate rather than save him.

He may be small fry, but there's not much else around these days.

He may be small fry, but there’s not much else around these days.

There was a significant response arguing that this was too callous and brutal an act on the Doctor’s part, and that he would never leave anyone to their death, no matter how evil they were. I’m not sure where this idea comes from: possibly the modern audience has been seduced by the lovely-fluffy-boffin approach of Matt Smith, and the romantic-hero persona of David Tennant, because the main conception of the Doctor for the course of much of the series has been that this is a man who, when it all kicks off, is utterly ruthless in putting his enemies down: there are countless examples of this, including several from the new series (the death of Cassandra in End of the World being just one). That he usually does so without picking up a weapon himself is one of the things that makes him so interesting as a character, but he’s never been presented as any kind of pacifist.

This naturally leads us on to A Town Called Mercy, in which we do see the Doctor picking up a weapon and getting into a bit of a tizzy when facing a war criminal. A bit like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’s ‘Team TARDIS’, this in one of those ideas which works in the context of the episode but feels a bit at odds with the series’ usual style – Kahler-Jex isn’t a very nice man, but he’s not quite (for example) Davros, whom the Doctor has showed every sign of being unable to kill in cold blood. The best one can say is that the Doctor’s hostility towards Jex is understandable, but his utter fury seems very out of character.

Then again, this whole episode seems to be playing by subtly different rules – most of the time Doctor Who operates in terms of Good and Evil, with perhaps the occasional carefully deployed shade of grey. A Town Called Mercy seems to have wandered over into the Star Trek universe – it wouldn’t take a massive rewrite for this to be an inconspicuous Trek episode – with its knotty moral problems, redemptive (and predictable) self-sacrifice, and general sense of its own profundity. At the time this was my favourite episode of the season, mainly because the plot actually makes sense and it has some kind of weight to it, but at the same time it’s the least like traditional Doctor Who.

Then again, with the exception of The Snowmen none of these episodes felt much like my kind of Doctor WhoAsylum of the Daleks is a gimmicky spectacle which doesn’t even make sense on its own terms, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a silly romp (again, slightly gimmicky), A Town Called Mercy we’ve just discussed, The Power of Three is a deliberate attempt at format-busting to which the putative A-plot is very secondary, and The Angels Take Manhattan is all about the convolutions of its own tangled timelines and how they conspire to generate an appropriately melodramatic climax.

In all cases the opposition between the Doctor and that week’s enemy is either not the main focus of the episode, or shares that position with whichever gimmick is being employed. This is less a series about moral conflict, and more one about playing with ideas and elements of characterisation and the format.

However, The Snowmen goes a long way to redress this problem, if indeed that’s how you perceive: probably why I like it much more than any of the other recent episodes. One would hope that in this anniversary year the series would be looking to respect its heritage, roots and traditions, and that the improvements of The Snowmen are the first sign of this. We will find out soon enough, I expect.

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Another year gone by, and (as has become a bit of a tradition) another look at the last twelve months on the blog. Hey, if nothing else it helps to break up the endless flow of film reviews and Doctor Who-related cobblers, right?

Speaking personally, this has been a slightly odd year – the diploma course which really defined the first half of the year for me concluded moderately well, though not quite as well as I’d hoped, and as for the second half… My summer job felt like a bit of a slog for the first time since I started doing it, while throughout this Autumn I’ve felt my relationship with my rest-of-the-year employer growing increasingly strained. Added to this, since the diploma finished I’ve been without a medium-to-long-term goal for the first time since 2006, and it feels like I’ve been drifting and lacking in focus ever since. I’m increasingly realising that I need to keep pushing and challenging myself if I’m not going to lapse into self-absorption and melancholia. As I lead a fairly solitary life, something which I’ve realised is unlikely ever to change, this sort of thing is a constant concern anyway. It’s good to stay self-aware, I suppose.


Anyway, there were just under 10,000 views of this blog in 2012, which sounds nice but I’ve no idea how it compares to anyone else’s. Naive old fool, I thought I was doing okay with 35 followers after two years, before a friend chirpily informed me that her company’s blog had picked up 250 followers after a week. Over a thousand of those visits all came on the same day, mainly as a result of the Mail on Sunday‘s website publicising my piece on Peter Hitchens and Howard Marks’ debate on drugs laws (oh, the shame, the shame). Obviously I need to write more positive things about Hitchens so he links to me again, and just hope people stick around for the Hammer horror reviews. Well, I’m sure a worse plan is conceivable.


The Hitchens thing was the biggest draw of the year by far, with the bulk of the rest of the top five being bankers from 2011 – the final instalment of the original run of Natural History of Evil continues to pack ’em in, along with that silly piece about Lacey Banghard and her two great assets (her Christian name and surname, of course). The only 2012 piece to make the list was… the review of 2011 (sigh), mainly, I suspect, because it also talks about Miss Banghard. I suspect a pattern has been established.

A rare photo of Lacey Banghard where her face is the most prominent element.

A rare photo of Lacey Banghard where her face is the most prominent element.

Bringing up the rear was another hardy perennial, the review of The Viking Queen. I am completely stumped as to why this keeps pulling in the readers week after week after week – there isn’t, so far as I can tell, anything accidentally suggestive in there that could confuse a search engine, nor is this a notable cult film. Why are so many people reading this one post and ignoring much better-written material completely? I must confess I’m starting to get mildly irritated by it.


The bulk of what I’ve written this year has been film reviews, as usual. I thought the overall quality was higher than in 2011, but with fewer really outstanding individual films – the best things I saw at the cinema this year were Lawrence of Arabia (from 1962), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (from 1943) and RoboCop (from 1987). Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, as there were still some great movies being released – Chronicle, The Cabin in the Woods, The Raid and The Imposter all turned out to be off-the-radar hits, while there were some quality blockbusters too – The Avengers was better than it really had any right to be, while The Dark Knight Rises, though not Christopher Nolan at the absolute top of his game, was still hugely impressive and deeply satisfying. Despite all that, if I had to name my favourite film from 2012 it would probably be Searching for Sugar Man. An extremely difficult call though.


I think I’ve gone on in quite enough detail about my issues with the Autumn’s crop of Doctor Who, especially as the Christmas show has given me hope that a new and much more impressive approach may be in the offing. Obviously 2013 will be a massive year for all of us who love Doctor Who – expectations are enormous, and it’s difficult to imagine quite how the custodians of the show and the BBC will be able to meet them all.

In the end surprisingly little wargaming or serious uke-playing happened this year, mainly because for a large chunk of the Autumn I was either on holiday abroad or in the grip of one of those emotional entanglements which has occasionally complicated my life prior to this point. A shame, because the wargaming and uke-playing would at least have given me material for a worthwhile post or four.

 Expectations for 2013 are guarded, currently: if I can work solidly and feel like I am making some sort of professional progress, and continue to be a good friend and family member to those around me, I will be happy, regardless of whether I can afford a holiday, or World War Z is any good. Although it would be nice to finally get a WFB army painted before 9th Edition appears on the horizon. We shall see.

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The nice people at WordPress, ever concerned with disseminating this nonsense to the widest possible audience, sent me a lovely email telling me what my most popular outpourings have been over the last year and recommending I should ‘consider writing again on these topics’.

Well, try as I might I can’t think of a new angle on the glandular page 3 marvel Lacey Banghard so I suppose I’ll have to fall back on my other big draw from years gone by – wittering on about Doctor Who bad guys. To be honest I was going to do this anyway, but, you know: sometimes it takes a little nudge.

To recap: at the end of 2010 I began a series of pieces looking at the changing nature and role of antagonists on the show, and argued that here was as clear an indication as any other of the increasing sophistication of the series as the decades passed. In the initial run I covered everything up to the end of Season 31 – has anything significant occurred in the 18 months since?

Well, I feel obliged to open this look at Series 32 and associated bits by quoting Piers ‘plague victim in the radiation ward’ Wenger, to wit ‘there will be no returning monsters this year’. While it’s true that this is the first series since the revival not to have the reinvention of a 60s or 70s monster as a significant element (unless you really want to stretch a point by counting the Cybermats), this is plainly nonsense given that he’s talking about a series featuring appearances by Ood, Sontarans, Silurians, Cybermen, Judoon, a Dalek…

On the other hand, with the exception of the Cybermen none of them were major antagonists in the stories in which they appeared. The reason for their inclusion is very much in tune with the thinking of recent years – recurring monsters appearing not as a shorthand for evil, but to make it quite clear that this particular story has Significance. Most of the monsters on the list up the page are in one or other of the series finales, to provide added Gosh – the Cybermen’s typically underwhelming outing in Closing Time was added to the script to give a bit more gravity to the Doctor’s (supposedly) final battle prior to his (ahem) death.

(The appearance of the Ood in The Doctor’s Wife doesn’t fit this pattern, admittedly, but then it was apparently a cost-cutting measure. It worked for me, at least, and didn’t feel intrusive or obvious.)

With the appearances of old enemies restricted, whichever way you look at it, the roles of antagonists were taken by exciting new alien races like… er… and here we come to what’s developing to be one of the distinctive features of Moffat-era Who: he’s not that interested in inventing new aliens per se. Not alien aliens at least – some of the monsters may be described as aliens in passing, but this is really just putting an SF fig leaf on what are rather more archetypal fear-figures.

Series 32 is strong on nautical spirits, doppelgangers, minotaurs and haunted wardrobes – all creatures of fantasy or fairy tale, given an SF rationale (of varying degrees of credibility, admittedly). This shouldn’t really be a surprise given that ‘it’s going to be like a dark fairy tale’ was basically how Moffat introduced the Matt Smith era when asked how it would be distinctive. Even the series’ most prominent aliens appear inspired by folklore more than traditional SF – derived from the greys of UFO mythology, they are unnamed and strangely nebulous.

I thought up a very witty caption but for some reason I appear to have forgotten it. Hey ho.

This fits them rather well for a season with the most complicated relationship with the concept of evil to date. Writing about Davies-era Who I commented upon its notable lack of actual villains – something which has continued in Season 32. Automated alien machinery is key to the plots of Curse of the Black Spot, The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex, while a hardware glitch of a different kind initiates the plot of The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People. Of course, it’s not quite as radical as that – in addition to the Cybermen returning, the leader of the gangers proves to be a traditional raving maniac, and Neil Gaiman’s love letter to Doctor Who features a terrifically well-conceived and performed villain in the form of the House.

However, all of the above are from the ‘stand alone’ episodes of the series. When the likes of us discuss Series 32 in the years and decades to come, we’re going to be talking about it in terms of the overall plot just as Season 16 is remembered for the Key to Time storyline. And what’s notable about this arc is how vaguely defined the ostensible antagonists are.

We know what the Silence’s objective is (getting rid of the Doctor) but we’ve still only the vaguest idea why. We don’t know their origin, their history or any wider ambitions they may possess. They are largely ciphers – a brilliant visual and a striking schtick, but very little else. In this they are rather like the Weeping Angels and various other recent monsters. Our only clue is their vague afiliation with the Church, as depicted in A Good Man Goes To War. Writing about this episode I saw it as the series finally coming out openly in favour of rationality and in opposition to religious dogma. (No-one else has discussed it in these terms, so maybe that’s just me reading too much into it.)

It seems to me, however, that the story of the season isn’t really about the Doctor taking on the Silence, or vice versa – it’s about the problems resulting from the incredibly convoluted temporal relationships the Doctor finds himself entangled in with respect to both his opponents and those closest to him, compounded by the (ahem) inevitable fact of his impending (ahem) death. The series isn’t really about the Doctor fighting an enemy, but attempting to solve a rather abstract (and, although I hesitate to say so, wholly contrived) metaphysical problem.

Does this mean that the series is operating in a moral vacuum? Well, not quite – Frances Barber’s panto villain turn as the Silence’s housekeeper makes it quite clear who we are supposed to be rooting for, especially considering the treatment meted out to Pond in the first half of the season. That said, the Doctor has become a more elusive and slippery figure than he has been in decades – he lies, as we’re endlessly reminded, he cheats. (The promise that this year we would see what happens when the Doctor gets really, really angry turned out to have a pay-off that was, at best, peculiar – apparently he blows up a load of relatively innocent onlookers and then goes to ridiculous lengths to avoid hurting anyone directly responsible. Hmm.) Of late, he’s also afflicted with self-doubt to an unusual degree – and given we still don’t quite know what the Silence’s beef with him is, it could well be they are justified in seeing him as a legitimate menace.

There are more questions than answers here, of course. The most recent season has been a very atypical one, as everyone involved is at pains to stress. So we will have to see whether this fragmenting of the series’ narrative focus, so that conflict between good and evil is only one element alongside SF-derived metaphysical and emotional crises, is now the default shape of the series, or just a fluke of this very odd season. My personal suspicion leans towards the former – what we’re seeing is the latest development of trends away from traditional villain and evil which have been in progress for a few years.

We are promised great things in the course of the next couple of years, although at the time of writing not a single detail has been disclosed. Whether the plans of Moffat and the BBC will continue to develop the series’ conflicts in new and even more baffling directions, or return it to a more recognisable form, we have yet to see. The future is this way.

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If the complete history of Doctor Who is written – something which I sincerely doubt will ever happen – then the astonishing renaissance of the series’ fortunes in the middle 2000s will surely receive much attention. The programme went from being an ex-TV series (albeit one with a strong grasp on the public’s affection), continuing in at least three different media (each the subject of its own fierce cult following), to something vibrant and focussed and vastly successful in the mainstream. And this seemed to happen virtually overnight.

While some commentators at the time praised Russell T Davies for his bold new 21st Century take on the series, as time has gone by it’s become clear that Davies’s real genius was not how much he changed but how much he didn’t. Davies’s prominent inclusion of minority sexual politics and incorporation of a wider supporting cast (the ‘soap opera’ element which is so widely reviled) are relatively small potatoes compared to the fact that the revived programme basically has the same format, the same values, and takes place in the same continuity as the original.

Tellingly, it’s the series of the Seventies that the makers of the most recent seasons seem to have taken as their template – and an era which, incidentally, was unafraid to include surprising political themes of its own, and had a larger regular cast than at any other time in the original run. When 21st century Who pays a homage to the old show, it’s most commonly to an episode first broadcast in the Seventies.

However, in one area the revived programme is strikingly different from the pattern that had evolved in the original series by that point. As I’ve argued in the earlier parts of this series, by the Seventies the stories Doctor Who told revolved around villainous antagonists, with monsters a key but secondary feature of the programme. One thing you can’t say about the Russell T Davies years is that they are particularly abundant in villains.

Instead there are many stories where the antagonists are basically just monsters – sometimes with a spokesperson, such as the Gelth, or with basic personalities of their own, such as the Slitheen. The BBC stipulated that the new series contain as many monsters as possible, but it seems they had no such requirements in terms of villainous characters. There are still villains, but in smaller numbers than for years.

Davies has spoken of his uneasiness when it comes to the inclusion of out-and-out, wholly malevolent villains in his scripts, feeling it to be simplistic and unsatisfying to a modern audience. When villains do appear, the story is careful to give them a plausible motivation – usually financial, in the case of the Eccleston season’s bad guys. Particularly interesting in this context is the episode Boom Town, which (in addition to being cheap to make) exists solely to explore the motivation of a pre-existing villain and the ethics of the Doctor’s relationship with her. In the end Margaret Slitheen never quite gains the audience’s sympathy, and the episode is more about the light it sheds on the Doctor’s character (he’s unequivocally in favour of the death penalty, which I personally find startling), but it’s still a thoughtful piece almost inconceivable in the original run of the show.

As the crowd shrieked, Margaret Slitheen proceeded to take it all off.

Given this relative paucity of villains, there’s a new trend towards a type of story where the circumstance in which the Doctor finds himself is an antagonist of sorts (said circumstance usually involving some kind of monster, admittedly). Thus the nature of time is largely responsible for the (somewhat incomprehensible) predicament central to Father’s Day, while technology running out of control causes the problems of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and The Girl in the Fireplace.

As the series goes on more traditional villains do start to appear more regularly, some more successful than others. Mr Finch is arguably the revived show’s first power-hungry megalomaniac, but his success is mostly a matter of performance, not writing. From the same season, Lumic is basically just a karaoke version of a certain rather better known wheelchair-bound creator. Later on, though, the Doctor has such effective foils as Professor Lazarus and Son-of-Mine (even if Lazarus spends much of his time as a CGI scorpion and Son-of-Mine likes to keep his family around him).

One key element of the new series, which manages to be essentially new and wholly backward-looking at the same time – a neat trick – is its attitude to recurring monsters. It’s interesting to jump a time-track and consider how the new series would have developed had the BBC been unable to secure the use of the Daleks, as seemed likely until mid-2004. Davies has already admitted that in this event the Eccleston series would probably have concluded with Cybermen besieging the Game Station, but beyond the issue of individual stories, there is the fact that the return of a different classic enemy was a core element of all the seasons the writer oversaw.

This is possibly a result of the way each season is now conceived, with an overall plot building to a dramatic finale. Every such finale to date has featured a returning opponent – on four occasions out of five, the Daleks have been central – and it’s starting to look as if, in the case of the really big name monsters, they are being used not as a shorthand for evil but as a shorthand for significance.

Overall, the big name enemies have been revived successfully. As time goes by the Daleks possibly suffer from overexposure and the demands of the ongoing storyline, but at least none of their stories are actually boring. The Cybermen probably come off worst of the big three, with a shiny new look not really compensating for their origin and nature being fundamentally reconceived, and their generally being pushed into the background of their stories by other monsters and villains. On the other hand, the Sontarans are spectacularly updated in a way which opens up exciting new areas for them, while still being wholly faithful to their original stories. (Admittedly, much of this is undermined by the events of The Poison Sky, wherein it is revealed that the Sontarans’ reputation as the greatest warriors in the universe appears to be founded on them taking on enemies who can’t shoot back.)

When the Master makes his inevitable return it is very much in line with the way the character was presented in other media in the missing years – most obviously in the way Davies attempts to give him at least some kind of coherent motivation. Prior attempts had varied from the dubiously personal – embittered, after the Doctor mucked up one of his experiments (Flashback, in DWM) – to the somewhat clichéd – corrupted by his own desire for power, that he might do more to improve the universe (The Dark Path novel) – to the broodingly cosmic – the youthful Master was betrayed by the youthful Doctor and forced to become a disciple of Death incarnate (the Big Finish audio Master) – possibly that should be ‘broodingly cosmic and slightly convoluted’.

As usual, Davies opts to paint with a broad brush and has the Master as a general-purpose nutter, driven insane by his exposure to the Time Vortex as a boy. Fan metaphysicists can have a lot of fun trying to work out, given that ‘the drums’ plaguing the character were retroactively placed there via time travel at a point quite late in his life, whether this origin still holds true for the character in the older stories. It’s a moot point, anyway. I would argue that the success of the character upon his initial return is at least as much due to the performers involved as to the script – while Utopia is one of the best episodes the revived series has produced, and The Sound of Drums has its moments, Last of the Time Lords is a bit creaky in all sorts of places. Davies makes up for all this when he revives the character in The End of Time – I would argue that the presentation of the Master here is the most satisfying element of the story, as the character has a depth and presence almost never previously seen. The climactic sequence of the Doctor and the Master, each unable to see the other be killed, uniting to repel the Time Lords is a summation of both characters and their relationship that has seldom been equalled at any point in the series.

One more reason to use a digital watch…

Beyond the big names, the revived series has also shown a willingness to revive other successful monsters – and even unsuccessful ones on occasion. Davies has said that the decision to launch the series with the Autons was based solely on their appropriateness for that particular story, but – in addition to increasing the sense of the series returning to its Seventies roots – it also reaffirms the programme’s commitment to its history. The return of the Macra smacks of ‘oh well, why not?’ Return visits by the Ood and Cassandra are in the classic tradition of successful opponents making a swift reappearance (although the Ood are rapidly building up an impressive list of appearances which shows no sign of stopping).

The presence of the revived show’s spin-offs presents some odd new avenues for monsters to recur in: the Cyberwoman episode of Torchwood isn’t quite as much fun as it sounds, while the Slitheen have carved out a rather successful niche for themselves as the ‘house monsters’ on The Sarah Jane Adventures. (Other aliens have crossed over between Torchwood and SJA without appearing in the parent show.) What we’ve yet to see is a classic series enemy returning directly to one of the spin-offs, though we’ve come close: the Trickster – a regular villain on SJA, and mentioned in Turn Left – is suspiciously similar in agenda and dialogue to the Black Guardian, while Mandragora  was all set to return directly to SJA until the script demanded too many divergences from the original concept.

This is a little disappointing for old-school fans, but at least it proves that the programme-makers are putting the stories first, rather than simply wheeling out old enemies for nostalgia value (the recent episode The Lodger was for some time going to be a sequel to Meglos). New show-runner Steven Moffat has always been ambivalent at best when it comes to discussing the return of old enemies, mainly due to the fact this usually involved revisiting old ground.

That said, the most recent season has stuck quite closely to the formula established by the Davies era, with an overarching narrative and returns from classic enemies and successful recent creations. (It’s exceedingly doubtful that things will continue in this vein: the first season after a major change of personnel has never been very indicative of what will follow.) Moffat continues to be a little villain-averse: The Beast Below revolves around a basic misunderstanding between human and alien, and while The Pandorica Opens presents a pleasing panoply of old enemies working in concert, all but the Daleks are banished from the concluding episode of the story.

Interestingly, the latest revamps of both the Daleks and the Silurians have been unpopular, both being a little too iconoclastic for the tastes of many fans. And while the Silurian two-parter is virtually a smaller-scale remake of the original story, Victory of the Daleks really just appears to be an exercise in housekeeping, rebooting the Daleks back to being a ubiquitous and ongoing menace as they were in the mid-Seventies.

The production team were infuriated when yet another Dalek redesign proved unpopular.

How soon the next appearance of the Daleks will be is another matter. It has been announced that the 2011 series will feature no returning monsters or villains whatsoever – the first time this has happened since 1978, and only the fourth time in the history of the series it has been done. (That said, the presence in the trailer for the upcoming series features yet another Ood, suggesting the definitions of what constitutes a monster have been surreptitiously rewritten.)

One shouldn’t get too hung up on things like this, as it seems likely that reappearances by classic foes will continue to be part of the fabric of the series, just as the kind of stories the series tells are utterly dependent on monsters and villains to work. New enemies and old are part of the grammar of the series – in a very real sense they are necessary evils.

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The new producer of Doctor Who at the beginning of the 1980s, John Nathan-Turner, appears to have had one main objective over and above simply making a successful TV show: to strengthen the particular identity of the series, both visually and as a narrative. (One could probably speculate as to why an untested and possibly insecure producer would choose to make arguably the most arbitrary and radical changes in the look and style of the series yet seen, but that’s really beyond the scope of our subject matter.) One of the ways he chose to achieve this was by increasing the level of connection between individual stories: characters casually (or not so casually) refer to the events of the previous week’s story, occasionally retain the same costume apparently for months on end, and so on.

Another and more significant one was to reintroduce a regular recurring nemesis for the Doctor, in the form of the Master. The Master’s return was unheralded at the time, but enormously popular with organised fandom of the time, whose support Nathan-Turner was keen to cultivate (his predecessor, Graham Williams, having been given a particularly rough ride). What worked once might work again, and given that new Doctor Peter Davison had grown up watching the Patrick Troughton  seasons and had particularly fond memories of the Cybermen, the choice of the next classic foe to be revived was clear…

These days, with the annual reappearance of a classic foe virtually a tradition, it’s easy to forget what a radical innovation Earthshock was on its 1982 broadcast. Monsters had been recurring throughout the run of the series, but, with the exception of the Daleks, never more than two or three years after their last appearance. The only precedent to the return of the Cybermen after such a long absence was, possibly significantly, Revenge of the Cybermen.  Seven years separate The Invasion from Revenge; another seven separate Revenge and Earthshock.

The Cybermen hit the comeback trail.

More significant than this, though, is the fact that Earthshock isn’t written by Gerry Davis or Kit Pedler, the creators of the Cybermen. Prior to this point, in the vast majority of cases recurring monsters had been scripted by their creators – Terry Nation wrote most of the Dalek stories, Davis or Pedler most of the Cybermen stories, Brian Hayles all of the Ice Warrior stories, and so on. Earthshock marks a minor watershed in that from this point on, the classic monsters are routinely farmed out to other writers.

And, of course, the number of stories featuring recurring monsters and villains undergoes an explosion from this point on. After Earthshock, the majority of stories feature a returning antagonist of some kind – between Earthshock in 1982 and Warriors of the Deep in 1984, every single story features at least one old enemy.

This kind of run isn’t utterly unprecedented – something similar occurs, albeit on a much smaller scale, between Terror of the Autons in 1971 and The Sea Devils in 1972, a run of nine stories – but what distinguishes the Eighties monster boom is that, except for the Daleks, none of the returnees in the early Seventies were more than three years old (and the main beneficiary, the Master, was a new character). In the Eighties, on the other hand, monsters from anything up to thirteen years earlier are unceremoniously resurrected. (And had the twenty-third season gone ahead as originally planned, a villain unseen for twenty years would have reappeared.)

Not all the Eighties returns are actually bad stories: Earthshock, despite a few narrative non sequiturs, is still a terrifically effective action adventure, while Snakedance has its moments (admittedly the monster here is less than a year old) and the much later Remembrance of the Daleks revamps the entire series to great effect. But very often it just seems that the return of an old monster is the whole raison d’etre for a story, and the storytelling is frequently poor. Most crucially, some of these stories depend on the viewer having a detailed knowledge of events from decades previously – the worst offender, on every level, being Attack of the Cybermen. This 1985 story manages to simultaneously be a sequel to the previous year’s Resurrection of the Daleks, 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen and 1966’s The Tenth Planet. It also manages to sideline the Doctor for most of the story and focuses instead on the rather morally dubious character of Lytton, a mercenary whose ethics are basically up for sale.

This shift towards moral ambiguity is another of the distinguishing features of mid-Eighties Doctor Who. Script editor Eric Saward appears to have had something of a fixation with grim, gun-toting hard men and they appear in all of his scripts. When the Fifth Doctor departs and Saward has a hand in creating his successor, he even tries to make the Doctor into a grim-faced hard man – and although the traditions of the character more-or-less frustrate this, the Sixth Doctor is more callous and abrasive than any since the First in his very early days. In most of the stories of his first season he engages in fisticuffs, proves himself handy with a gun, or both. The harshness of this characterisation, coupled with the impenetrability of some of the stories and a general upswing in the violence of the programme, led to a collapse in viewing figures and a suspension from which the programme would not fully recover for two decades.

When not indulging its fixation with old monsters, early and mid-Eighties Doctor Who is still capable of creating a good new opponent. Mostly these are monsters. The Terileptils, who like the Sontarans are mainly embodied by a single individual, utilise the series’ first animatronic mask, while the Tractators – rather like the story in which they appear – have an odd, Hartnellish quality to them.

 With the Master, the Black Guardian and Omega all popping up, new villains don’t get much of a look in – amongst the few exceptions are the Rani and the Valeyard, who are both really just new versions of the Master anyway, and despite their quality they’re made slightly absurd by the fact they co-villain with him on their debuts. There’s also a trend towards villains who tend towards the sympathetic, or are supposed to seem that way – into this category we have to put Lytton and Sharaz Jek.

Sharaz Jek's Rorshach costume was a bit of a failure.

While Jek is arguably one of the finest characters to be created in this era of the series, he’s hardly an original one – just the latest incarnation of someone Robert Holmes has been writing on-and-off since 1968 – the crippled genius, trapped underground and forced to work through proxies to achieve his return to power. It’s a lineage that starts with the Krotons and goes on to include Sutekh, Greel, and the Master himself.  And the fact that he is one of the more sympathetic characters in the story in which he appears only goes to emphasise how clouded the series’ ethics have become by this point.

More definitely malevolent is Sil, a genuine example of concept, costume and performance coming together to create something very special. Sil is a villain very much of his time, a not-particularly-subtle parody of grasping venality. Actor Nabil Shaban brings much more to the part than his unique physicality, too, and while writer Philip Martin’s psychology might also prove fruitful grounds for analysis (all his Doctor Who stories feature female characters going through some graphically unpleasant transformation) the result is a villain who more than deserves his return appearance.  

The brilliant Nabil Shaban as Sil.

When Eric Saward eventually departs the series, it heralds what’s as close to a root-and-branch rethink of how it operates as any in its history. Prior to the arrival of Andrew Cartmel as script editor, the Doctor is generally presented as a traveller first and a righter of wrongs second – he doesn’t go looking for trouble.

The Seventh Doctor Cartmel and Sylvester McCoy eventually created is different. He’s a man on a mission to clean up the universe, settle old scores, and help his companion lay her own ghosts. He almost never travels at random and goes out of his way to lay elaborate traps for his opponents. Cartmel’s own left-wing politics visibly influence the stories – most obviously, there’s a gleeful parody of Margaret Thatcher and her regime in The Happiness Patrol, but harsh criticism of market-driven cultures and the forces of conservatism (on an almost metaphorical level) are a running theme in the second and third McCoy seasons.

Of course, if you’ve got a character as powerful as the Doctor going out of his way to take on an opponent, you need to reassure the audience that his target deserves it, and one of the ways that the Cartmel stories do this is by bringing back the classic monsters. In this case their use as an established icon of evil makes perfect sense.  The Daleks prosper enormously under this approach, largely shedding Davros for the first time in over a decade and benefiting from relatively lavish production values – even if they’re still somewhat in thrall to the earlier Saward stories and the convoluted Dalek civil war storyline they introduced. The Cybermen suffer in comparison, partly due to an attempt to depict them as fascists (which surely fundamentally misunderstand the creatures), but mainly because the story in question is an inferior retread of the one the Daleks were in only a short time before.

The Master’s eventual return in the very final story of the original run is slightly different. First and foremost, Survival is a very good vehicle for the character. For most of the Eighties the Master is at his most embarrassing, a cackling, disguise-loving, silly-plan-concocting goon, but Survival (sticking the Master up a tree and making him howl at the moon notwithstanding) restores some dignity to the character, even if he is more than ever an agent of chaos for its own sake. However he was originally there to further Cartmel’s agenda for the series, which by this time is intent on firmly reimagining the Doctor as a mythic and enigmatic figure with vast powers. In the script, the Master recoils in mystified horror from the Doctor in the climax, realising his old enemy is no longer simply a Time Lord, but other concerns – primarily the dawning realisation that this might be the last story for a very long time – led to a rewrite.

It’s the Master who turns up to plague the Doctor in the American TV movie in 1996, but this is mainly because the producers wanted to include a classic opponent and the Master was the cheapest for a number of reasons. He’s back in full cackling supervillain mode, sadly: Eric Roberts’ lack of knowledge of the character combine with an odd and seemingly unplanned borrowing of iconography from The Terminator to produce a Master who’s really the classic foe in name only. Not for the first time, the series’ treatment of its villain provides a useful shorthand for its own status, as the TV movie is as close to being Doctor Who in name only as it has ever been.

Many people felt that the same might be true for the revived series which debuted in 2005. The reality turned out to be quite different – despite the fact that the series’ approach to monsters and villains, both original and classic, was something rather new, as we’ll see in the final part of this series.

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Doctor Who is a series which fundamentally revolves around the clash between good and evil, although the conflict isn’t always quite so baldly stated as that. And it wasn’t always thus: in the very beginning, the series’ educational remit theoretically took precedence over action and adventure storylines. As the series enthusiastically embraced the new adventure-centred format, however, monsters and villainy became central to the programme’s stories.

The presentation of this evolved along with the rest of the series, of course. Monsters and evil were initially more or less indistinguishable. Alien monsters would routinely appear and attack the human race (or a close lookalike), simply because that was what alien monsters did. As time went by, a desire to present a more complex storyline led to a greater reliance on villainous characters capable of participating in serious debate with the Doctor and his associates.

True moral sophistication starts to appear in the early Seventies: there are numerous instances of stories where the monsters are not necessarily hostile, where good and evil are not fixed and absolute things, and humans are as capable of terrible deeds as anyone else.

This is essentially the thrust of what I’ve argued in the previous instalments of this series, and I recap it here simply to emphasise that throughout this process evil is almost always presented as an external threat: the worst thing that a Dalek or Ice Warrior is capable of doing is killing you. The early part of the Fourth Doctor’s tenure changes the stakes, as stories start to focus on the evil and the monstrous as something contagious, capable of infecting and destroying even someone previously virtuous.

Incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes deliberately took this approach, not necessarily because of a particular fondness for it but because they felt it suited the strengths of the series: knowing how (ahem) variable the series’ special effects were liable to be, they thought it best to concentrate on stories which owed their success to the acting skills of the performers involved.

When bubble-wrap attacks... Commander Noah has a bad day in The Ark in Space.

This new approach first appears in the Holmes-scripted Ark in Space, with Commander Noah’s infection by the alien Wirrn and his subsequent metamorphosis. It’s strong stuff after the almost-cosy material of many Pertwee stories and a sign of things to come. The rest of the first Tom Baker season is a bit of an oddity, mainly in its preoccupation with classic monsters.

The Tom Baker years are not a vintage period if you’re a recurring monster. The early seasons in particular make use of a different kind of shorthand for images of evil, drawn not from earlier Doctor Who but from literary and cinematic iconography. The re-use of the image of the patch-work monster, the crawling severed hand, the walking Mummy and the masked villain in the basement of a theatre are all very familiar when they appear in well-regarded Fourth Doctor stories, but they’re from classic Gothic horror sources – then again, the stories themselves draw all kinds of narrative cues from these tales.

This use of a different set of images and a different set of storytelling values means that the use of classic Doctor Who monsters is more or less abandoned. Apart from reappearances by the big three in the first season, and the Master’s return in the dying days of the era, it’s really a bit of a wasteland for them.  Certainly, the Master and the Sontarans do pop up on Gallifrey at different times, but the Master is re-imagined so as to be unrecognisable, and the Sontarans are basically there in an extended cameo to prop up a story written in a crisis. The Daleks make one of their by-now irregular returns five years into the Fourth Doctor’s time, but it’s not quite vintage stuff – and, crucially, they’re no longer alone by this point.

Dalek creator Terry Nation’s initial script proposal for the first Baker season was rejected, on the grounds that he’d already sold a near-duplicate to the programme on a number of previous occasions, and the suggestion to explore the origins of the Daleks apparently came from Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, who were overseeing the early stages of the production. By all accounts Robert Holmes had a lot of input into the development of what became Genesis of the Daleks, and this is entirely believable given the sophistication of the story.

Genesis isn’t really a Dalek story at all, in that the Daleks as we know them don’t truly appear until the closing scenes of the story. Prior to this they are effectively goons backing up the story’s villain – but what a villain… On a very basic level, Davros is clearly a mouthpiece character for the Daleks in exactly the same way that Mavic Chen was ten years earlier, and while he does indulge himself in some traditional ranting and raving at various points in the story, he’s also capable of a level of moral debate with the Doctor that’s previously unheard of. We’re allowed access to Davros’ thought-processes: his contempt for democracy and consensus, his opinion that what others see as virtue is really only weakness. The Doctor and the Master never really discuss ethics in any real detail, but one of the characteristics of Davros that recurs again and again is his ability to put the Doctor on the back foot by attacking his moral code – repeatedly (and possibly accurately) accusing him of being too craven to do his own dirty work, something one could never accuse Davros himself of.

Someone asks Davros how much tonic he wants with his gin.

The prominence of Davros as a villain is one of the things that’s representative of the early Baker years as a whole. The rise to prominence of villains over monsters only accelerates in this period: the first Cyberleader appears in the story after Davros, and the Zygons are led by their very articulate warlord, while the following season is stuffed with such memorable creations as Marcus Scarman, Sutekh, Solon and Harrison Chase. At the same time, many of the stories continue with the themes of possession and bodily transformation first explored in The Ark in Space (most obviously The Seeds of Doom).

There are still occasional appearances by groups of monsters – the Servitors of Pyramids of Mars, for example, and The Robots of Death themselves – but almost without exception they’re there as muscle for a strong central villain. The lone villain is very much the standard opposition at this point. On the whole the series’ approach is highly successful, but this was to prove a mixed blessing: the more visceral and personal presentation of evil, coupled with a slightly more explicit depiction of violence, led to a series of complaints which resulted in Hinchcliffe being transferred to a different series and a general edict from the BBC to tone things down.

In the seasons that followed there is indeed a dropping-off in the number of stories with a possession or body-horror element (though a few still slip through the net early on). The change of style is a gradual one, and the series doesn’t really abandon the focus on villains at all. Only one recurring villain is minted in this period, the Black Guardian, and he only gets about five minutes of screen time. Nevertheless there are plenty of other memorable characters – Scaroth, Adrasta, the Captain, Grendel – and what’s telling is how carefully their motivation and characters are incorporated into the story. There’s no hint of a motiveless, cackling evildoer here like the Master, with the exception of the Guardian himself – who’s basically introduced as evil and chaos incarnate, pretty much the Devil himself,  and given which it’s very nearly justified.

Monsters continue to appear in most of the stories, but apart from a rather over-ambitious flirtation with really colossal beasts in The Power of Kroll and The Creature from the Pit, they tend to be gangs of mutes (literally so in The Armageddon Factor).

Anyone for takoyaki? The most flatulent beast in the universe goes on the offensive in The Power of Kroll.

This focus on villains, with monsters still a definite but secondary part of the format, is essentially what the programme maintained for the rest of its original run. That’s not to say that things continued unchanged on into the Eighties and beyond, and the modern programme has its own very distinct approach in this area. One story in particular, quite early in the Fifth Doctor’s tenure, was to exert a tremendous influence on the series throughout the decade to follow, and arguably shape the destiny of the programme more than any other.

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The late Barry Letts, when interviewed, would recall the first script decision he ever made as producer of Doctor Who. The story in question climaxed with a group of aliens being ruthlessly eliminated by the Doctor’s allies in the military, without his knowledge. When he eventually became aware of their actions, the Doctor railed against them, saying there was so much science and technology the human race could have acquired from the creatures.

Letts objected to this, arguing that the Doctor should be motivated by moral concerns, not scientific curiosity or self-interest. And the story-as-broadcast (Doctor Who and the Silurians) takes this approach, with the Doctor condemning what he sees as the slaughter of a whole intelligent species. It sets the tone for an era of the programme where moral issues (fictitious or derived from the real world) are never far away.

Stories are more willing to tackle issues such as racism and pollution, while the assumption in the Troughton years that the monsters are always the bad guys is abandoned very early on: a number of stories feature human or humanoid villains set on exterminating or manipulating relatively innocent alien creatures. This type of story debuts in The Ambassadors of Death but recurs in The Mutants and Carnival of Monsters. There are even the first suggestions that whether a person is good or evil is the result of their environment and upbringing, not their essential nature – a theme explored most clearly in Inferno, with its fascist alternative-world counterparts to most of the regular cast. The series is clearly growing up.

Given all this, it’s therefore rather perplexing that the Third Doctor’s era is probably remembered best of all for its introduction of the most one-dimensional antagonist in the programme’s history. I refer, of course, to the Master, who first appears in the second Pertwee season (the first over which Letts had full creative control).

The Doctor demands to know just how the Master sabotaged his spag bol recipe.

The Master is always given good lines and Roger Delgado’s performance in the role is a constant delight, but he’s a figure from a cartoon. We don’t learn why he’s evil or even what his ultimate objective actually is. His aim varies from story to story: sometimes he wants to conquer Earth, sometimes he’s after control of a Plot Device of Ultimate Power. At one point he even turns up working as a hired gun for the Daleks (disappointingly, we never learn what his end of the deal is).

In short, he’s practically the definitive example of a recurring antagonist – he’s evil because he’s evil, which spares the writers from having to come up with a motivation in some of their more outrageous plotlines. Here and later, the character is generally rather more engaging when he’s on the back foot and is trying to extricate himself from trouble – whether that trouble is being incarcerated, or undergoing some drastic physical deterioration. He’s certainly more believable in this kind of story.

Looking ahead for a moment, it’s notable but not that surprising that the Master dropped out of sight rather, when the show was taken off the air. Simply because it was now primarily a series of novels rather than TV episodes, Doctor Who in the 90s became a rather more complex and layered beast, and the Master as originally conceived was a bit of an embarrassment and difficult to incorporate into the kind of stories then in vogue. It’s interesting that most of the Master stories which do appear at this time incorporate some kind of attempt to give him a plausible motivation, much Russell T Davies clearly felt obliged to do in the character’s eventual return to the screen.   

For all of the Master’s flaws as a character, the fact remains that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks chose to make the main recurring foe of their time on the programme a villain rather than a monster. They could have chosen to bring back the Autons in a new iteration every series, but instead they went for someone with whom the Doctor and the other characters could interact with in a much more articulate way. So there’s a sense in which the presence of the Master does reflect the growing sophistication they brought to the series.

The Master dominates the landscape of the Pertwee years when it comes  to villainy and evil-doing, but as his role is scaled down in the later seasons (a sad necessity following Roger Delgado’s passing, but the character was only planned to make one further appearance anyway), other villains do get a moment to shine. Memorable amongst them are Omega, an almost-sympathetic, quietly Lucifer-esque figure, and Mr Stevens from The Green Death.

As mentioned earlier, the Third Doctor’s stories are quite strong when it comes to human bad guys. First amongst them is General Carrington from Ambassadors of Death, but the line extends to include Stahlman, the Marshal of Solos, Stevens, the cabal at the heart of Operation Golden Age, and – perhaps most interestingly – Lupton from Planet of the Spiders.

Lupton shows the Doctor round his joke shop.

Lupton is practically the antithesis of the Master: an ordinary human with no particular powers or special faculties, in theory he should barely be able to challenge the Doctor at all. He’s given virtually no back-story on screen, but the novelisation depicts him as a former salesman whose ambitions for himself have been frustrated. Initially trying to find himself, instead he settles for the pursuit of power, in alliance with the Metebelis Spiders. John Dearth’s performance as Lupton is everything that Delgado’s as the Master isn’t: he’s intense, bitter, and driven. The message of this and all the other stories I’ve mentioned is that evil is not the sole province of super-villains and alien creatures: the petty flaws of normal humans can have terrible consequences too.

Many of these villains are also somewhat sympathetic, particularly when they’re written by Malcolm Hulke. Hulke is effectively the show’s chief writer for the whole of this period and while his stories do occasionally include the Master, they’re much more about the evil of actions than evil personalities: Hulke’s bad guys often border on the sympathetic, and even when they’re not they have believable motivations. He’s even entrusted with writing the story where one of the Doctor’s friends makes a serious moral error (for the best of reasons) and allies himself with the enemy. Hulke lets his personal politics and general distrust of authority and capitalism show on a fairly regular basis, but not to the point where they’re detrimental to his stories.

These days Hulke is probably best known as the creator of the Silurians (despite the fact that, unforgivably, he didn’t receive a credit on the most recent story to feature them). On their initial appearance the Silurians are a very different kind of monster: they have individual personalities and prejudices, and argue amongst themselves in a way it’s impossible to imagine any of the great Sixties monsters doing. Their agenda is also quite understandable, and despite the genocidal hostility that quickly develops between them and the humans the Doctor remains as neutral as he can in the conflict, only trying to bring about peace between the two races. (They’re somewhat dumbed-down in all subsequent appearances, but the same pattern holds true.)

A couple of the Sixties monsters do reappear in the series during this period. Firstly and most obviously, the Daleks return after a five year gap, quite simply because they’re an icon of the series, but it’s clear that the programme is struggling to find things for them to do. They’re in the background for most of Day of the Daleks, Planet of the Daleks is a tedious rehash of several of the Sixties stories, and Death to the Daleks quickly abandons its ‘unarmed Daleks’ gimmick in favour of an efficient, but hardly inspirational runaround.

Much more interesting is the way the return of the Ice Warriors is handled. The costume design is a good one, and the creatures have a couple of neat gimmicks, but in the Sixties they’re not much more than identikit alien invaders. The enviable reputation they enjoy is surely almost entirely down to their appearance in The Curse of Peladon (although the fact that, of all the iconic monsters, they alone managed to evade a substandard Eighties revamp may also be significant). The idea of a sympathetic monster wasn’t entirely new to the series by this point, but the possibility of a previously-adversarial race reforming and becoming the Doctor’s allies was. Even the Doctor refuses to consider the possibility that the Ice Warriors aren’t behind all the trouble on Peladon until well into the story. There’s another small landmark in this story when the Ice Lord Izlyr (played by Alan Bennion, a man responsible for several of the greatest masked performances in Doctor Who) actually starts making very dry jokes – something else that would have been unthinkable in the Sixties.

There are a number of other impressive monsters in the Pertwee stories, but none of them are really what you’d call villainous: the Ogrons are leg-men for the Daleks and the Master, the Drashigs are just animals, and the Draconians and Solos Mutants are both actually sympathetic. The era’s other main creation is the Sontarans, who first appear in The Time Warrior.

The Sontarans reproduce by cloning and spend a lot of time polishing their helmets.

That said, describing it in quite those terms is a little misleading. We don’t get to see the Sontarans out in force until 1978: their first couple of stories revolve around a single warrior operating alone. Linx is the story’s villain as well as its monster – the lines between the two are finally starting to blur. He has much more personality than even the chattiest Dalek or Cyberman and is quite happy to go temporarily off-mission in order to enjoy himself in a small local war. The Sontarans may have the lack of individuality of the Daleks and Cybermen, and a suggestion of their cyborg nature, but they don’t function in quite the same way in a story: you can write a story with a Sontaran as the main character in a way you can’t with a normal Dalek or Cyberman, as the writers of the early DWM back-up comic strips quickly realised.

Despite this, I’ve always thought that the Sontarans have stumbled backwards into their position as arguably the third great Doctor Who monster. Their initial, rapid return was the result of budgetary concerns as much as anything, while their return in The Invasion of Time was mainly due to another script falling through. But with three appearances behind you, you’re into the premier league of recurring monsters, and the sheer volume of appearances they’ve racked up since, mostly in other media, means that there they remain for good or ill.

The ascendancy of the villain would continue into the mid 1970s and beyond, but with the Master off the scene and the programme’s core audience increasing in age as well as size, changes of a different kind were afoot with the arrival of the Fourth Doctor. Very early on in his tenure he would encounter the only real challenger to the Master for the title of the programme’s greatest recurring villain – and I’ll be writing about that in the next instalment.

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‘There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.’

 So speaks the Second Doctor, early on in his tenure, and it’s as good a summation as one could wish of what the series is actually about at this point. (Rather fittingly, in his final story it’s virtually reprised, when he describes some of the ‘terrible things’ at his trial before the Time Lords – ‘these evils I have fought,’ he declares.)

The recasting of the Doctor coincides – and it really does seem to be a coincidence, one suspects it would have occurred even had William Hartnell been able to continue in the role – with one of the biggest changes in format in the series’ history. The decision to abandon the purely historical story transforms the programme into an unbroken series of SF adventures. It’s fair to say that on the whole this does dumb Doctor Who down somewhat: you have to search hard to find a Troughton story with a more than the most cursory attempt at any kind of moral ambiguity.

Instead, stories revolve around the monsters to an unparalleled degree. Uniquely, all the iconic Doctor Who monsters have met the Second Doctor (even if the Sontarans had to wait until one of his return engagements), and several of them first appeared during this period. Without exception they are a thorough-going bad lot with only armageddon on their minds, and many of the stories they appear in are surprisingly formulaic if set down on paper: the research station or other isolated outpost under siege from assorted nasties appears consistently throughout the Second Doctor’s first two seasons. The settings and plot details are generally inventive and original enough to hide this, though, and the final season does venture into new territory in a number of ways.

Fans of the band were delighted when the original line-up reformed for their latest tour.

While the Daleks were unique in their status as recurring monsters during the First Doctor’s tenure, it sometimes seems that every half-successful new creation of the Troughton years gets wheeled out again for an encore performance. The Yeti and the Ice Warriors make two appearances each (a projected third Yeti story was abandoned), while even the Quarks were anticipated to make a string of stories. Both the Yeti and Ice Warrior sequels take the monsters into a new (and perhaps not entirely coherent) setting, which if nothing else prevents the accusation of the production team treading water.

This sudden boom in the number of recurring enemies doesn’t occur until after the Daleks are off the scene – wiping themselves out in a genocidal civil war on-screen, heading to the States to try and land their own series in real life. However, before they depart they do appear in two of the most remarkable recurring-monster stories ever made.

In the first part of this series I suggested that a recurring monster eventually becomes a kind of narrative short-cut, a short-hand for evil. You don’t have to come up with a background or motivation for the Daleks every time they appear, in order to justify their latest nefarious scheme: everyone already knows they’re the bad guy. For this reason most recurring-monster stories aren’t actually about the monster.

Power of the Daleks and Evil of the Daleks are different. These two stories genuinely are about the Daleks, specifically about the differences between them and humans. Evil of the Daleks, which treats this theme in a mythic, almost totemic fashion, generally gets more attention, but I much prefer Power of the Daleks. The Daleks are at their most fascinating here – deprived of their usual tactic of simply killing everything in sight, they are manipulative and devious, but beyond this David Whitaker’s script makes it clear that they are both bemused and fascinated by the behaviour of the humans they are briefly dependent on: ‘Why do human beings kill human beings?’ enquires a clearly baffled Dalek at one point. The psychology of the creatures has never been explored in such depth in any other story.  

With the Daleks off-screen the position of top-dog amongst the monsters is assumed by the Cybermen, who by this point have adopted the quasi-robotic look they retain to this day. The Daleks and Cybermen clearly hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but beyond this and the obvious differences in their appearance, they are tellingly similar: both appear to be robots but are actually cyborgs, both personify on some level something perceived as a threat by the audience at the time (Nazism and/or nuclear conflict for the Daleks, dehumanising medicine and technology for the Cybermen), and part of the terror of both of them is their lack of individual identity.

It’s a little unclear whether the Cybermen were genuinely conceived of as a replacement for the Daleks: but they are only the second monster to recur and do so quite rapidly. Of their five 60s appearances, the first four adhere closely to the base-under-siege formula, with the twist that Tomb of the Cybermen reverses the usual way of things and features a remote Cyberman outpost being (unwittingly) infiltrated by humans. Tomb is also the first Cyberman story to really explore the concept of the monsters in any depth: there are some passing references to Cyber-conversion in the earlier stories but this is the first time the process occurs in the course of a story – but even here it happens to a fairly minor character who was never much more than a mute cipher in the first place. The kind of explicit horror the concept is loaded with was still really too strong for a 60s audience.

The only other time it gets referred to is in the final Troughton Cyberman story, which is a different sort of animal. The Invasion abandons formula in favour of a contemporary and urban action-adventure, which, despite revolving around the Cybermen attempting to invade contemporary Earth, keeps them in the background for most of the narrative. When they appear in force, there are some stunning images, most famously of them on the steps near St Paul’s Cathedral, but for most of the story the focus is firmly on their human collaborator, Tobias Vaughn.

The Doctor and Vaughn discuss what he's just built with his meccano set.

Vaughn is, of course, played by Kevin Stoney, who is essentially consolidating his place in the ranks of Doctor Who villains here, having already portrayed Mavic Chen in The Daleks’ Master Plan a few years earlier. As I’ve already suggested, Chen’s role in the story is to give evil a more interesting and human face, and it’s hard not to see Vaughn as essentially a reprise of the character in a different setting. Chen and Vaughn both plan to betray the human race and then dispense with their alien allies. One is a politician and the other a tycoon, but they’re both megalomaniacs above all else.

The focus on the monsters in the Troughton period means that strong villains are rather thin on the ground. One notable exception is Salamander from The Enemy of the World – a slightly incongruous attempt at a fusion of SF and a political thriller, mainly remembered for the central conceit of the villain being a double of the Doctor. It’s a good gimmick, not least because it means you get an actor of Patrick Troughton’s abilities to play your bad guy, but the story itself is a bit forgettable. Equally lacking in that elusive villain X-factor are the Dominators, whose characters are rather less well-rounded than their shoulder-pads, the original Master from The Mind Robber (not the Doctor’s most celebrated nemesis but a rather more eccentric creation), and Caven and Dervish from The Space Pirates.

Things look up considerably in the very final Second Doctor story, however. Though lacking in a traditional monster, The War Games does possess a selection of rather effective villains. There’s a bit of narrative baton-passing in the course of the story as they squabble and take it in turns to take the spotlight, but Edward Brayshaw’s War Chief and Philip Madoc’s War Lord are both memorable in their own way.  Brayshaw’s rather flamboyant performance style doesn’t detract from his role as the first true Time Lord villain in the series (a rather more restrained and credible one than most of his successors) while Madoc’s ferociously underplayed turn as a bearded, black-clad psychopath was clearly deeply influential as well. Either character could justifiably claim to be the prototype for the Master, but in truth there’s a little of both of them in him.

Nothing projects a sense of evil like exotic facial hair. (I didn't colourise the photo. Sorry.)

Troughton’s final year on the show sees the programme makers clearly looking for a new direction and a new way of doing business, and it’s not surprising that the stories they chose to build on in the following seasons were the most creatively successful ones. The Invasion donated its contemporary setting to the new format, as well as a few minor characters. But, along with The War Games, it also seems to have proven that a well-conceived, well-performed villain was just as capable of carrying a story as any of the iconic monsters.

Certainly, in the years that followed iconic monsters would be much thinner on the ground, while villains – and one villain in particular – would become almost ubiquitous. This is the source of a paradox which lies at the heart of the way the Third Doctor’s antagonists are presented, and which I’ll be writing about next time.

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Conflict is the heart of drama, whether it’s the tale of one man battling against the world or a family struggling to get along together. Despite this, most mainstream entertainment shies away from what I’d describe as abstract conflict. They don’t talk a lot about Good and Evil on Spooks, or (I’d imagine) any of the CSI shows. In fact I would say that if you hear someone talking about Good and Evil at all in a TV series, it’ll be a fantasy series.

Possibly this is a result of Western culture in general having reached a stage where people are generally deeply uncomfortable when it comes to talking about moral absolutes in real-world terms. (It’s interesting that Star Trek, one of the most right-on of TV shows, barely uses the terms at all – then again it purports to be proper SF, rather than fantasy.)

You can have quite an entertaining row with someone over whether Doctor Who is a fantasy or an SF series, but I think one of the magic bullets which settle the issue is the fact that it does talk about Good and Evil in fairly straightforward terms. Having said that, the way in which the series handles its antagonists – and the nature of those antagonists – has changed over the decades in a fashion which I find both interesting and illuminating, and says a lot about the evolution of the show.

So I’m going to be writing about that here. This opening instalment is just going to cover the First Doctor’s years on the programme, when the rules of Doctor Who were still up for grabs, often very visibly so.

Very early Doctor Who is a vastly different beast from the show we know today, often unrecognisably so – and not just in terms of production values, but also in the very substance of the storytelling. The series’ godfather, Sydney Newman, famously forbade the use of ‘Bug Eyed Monsters’, feeling they epitomised the worst of B-movie SF, and threw a right strop when he saw the scripts featuring the series’ first monsters (more on whom later).  However, he seems to have been quite happy with the inclusion of villains, and the first series does feature a few memorable examples.

Kal - not the greatest villain the Doctor's ever faced on-screen, but certainly the first.

However, the antagonist of the very first story, Kal, is fairly undistinguished and doesn’t exactly linger in the memory. He’s no more than a power-hungry thug whose ambitions don’t extend beyond ruling a tribe of primitive humans. What does make the story interesting and almost unique in the series is its presentation of the Doctor as an aloof, unreliable and deeply morally suspect figure.

The Doctor’s reputation as an unimpeachable figure of utter goodness is fairly well-established these days, aided no doubt by the way he was presented during David Tennant’s tenure. It conveniently overlooks his willingness to contrive lethal deathtraps for those he find himself in conflict with, and his occasional excursions into direct physical conflict. However, none of this quite matches the moment in the first story where the Doctor appears to contemplate euthanizing a wounded man simply because he’s slowing down the Doctor’s latest escape attempt. (‘Euthanizing‘ in this case means ‘beating to death with a rock’.)

It’s startling now, but in context it seems entirely in character. The Doctor in the first year of the programme begins as a hostile and manipulative figure, who over the course of the series mellows considerably. The fact remains that it’s Barbara and especially Ian who carry a lot of the narrative in addition to being the audience’s identification. The stories don’t really revolve around the time travellers attempting to right any wrongs they encounter, but simply their desire to depart the scene as rapidly and discreetly as possible. If they find themselves involved in moral conflicts, it’s not out of choice.

Possibly because of this, there’s a greater degree of sophistication in many of the very early stories than you might expect. While there are some clear-cut and hissable bad guys (Tegana from Marco Polo being arguably the show’s first great villain, and the vicious Voord from The Keys of Marinus the first lousy monster), The Aztecs has things to say about cultural values, and a villain who on the face of things actually wins, while The Sensorites is very much ahead of its time in presenting a far-from-clear-cut conflict between humans and aliens with different factions on both sides. But perhaps most surprising of all is the initial presentation of the programme’s most iconic antagonists.

The Daleks as depicted in their first appearance are not quite the utterly irredeemable force for evil we have come to know and love. The story revolves around the conflict between the Daleks (a race dependent on a polluted environment to survive) and the Thals (who require a cleaner world in order to live). Clearly only one group can triumph. The travellers only get involved because the Daleks have stolen a vital TARDIS component and they can’t retrieve it without Thal help. It’s true that the script loads the dice rather against the Daleks – they’re shrill and aggressive and ugly, where the Thals are calm and attractive and pacific – but the Daleks only decide to undertake the total extermination of the Thals when it becomes clear the Thals’ own anti-radiation drugs won’t work for them.

Still building up to true supervillainy at this point...

It’s possible that this is due to a residue in the script of the original ending, in which a third race intervenes and the Thal-Dalek conflict is brought to an amicable conclusion with the two factions peacefully sharing Skaro. Even so, the Daleks do come across very strongly as the bad guys in the story-as-broadcast, and the success of the story not only established monsters as a key element of the series’ format but also the Daleks as icons within the series as a whole.

When the Daleks did return, early in the second season, it’s a landmark moment for a number of reasons. In many ways, this is the first example of Doctor Who as we know it. Upon learning of the Dalek presence on a devastated Earth, the Doctor declares his determination to defeat them – there’s no reason given why he should feel so strongly about this, other than that the plot demands it. At once he becomes a much simpler and more accessible figure for doing it.

The Daleks are different, too: their status as a metaphor for Nazism is as explicit here as it ever gets. They demonstrate an ambition to conquer everything in sight that was wholly absent from their original appearance and doesn’t really tally with what we learned about them there. Just as the Doctor is heroic solely because the story demands it, so the Daleks are evil for the same reason.

I think this is rather fundamental to the whole concept of recurring monsters in Doctor Who. It’s relatively easy to come up with a good monster – all you need is a striking design, ideally coupled to an original concept or gimmick. Coming up with a good recurring monster is much more tricky: you either have to keep coming up with new spins or angles on the original idea, or just use the monster as an iconic presence – as a kind of shorthand for evil, leaving the story free to focus on other things. The first choice is almost impossible to sustain for more than a couple of stories at most. Nearly all the stories featuring the great recurring monsters follow the second path.

The other two First Doctor stories to feature the Daleks show this rather well, both basically relying on a picaresque chase-narrative to sustain audience interest. It’s arguably rather lazy storytelling, and The Chase in particular is towards the bottom of the pile of Hartnell SF-themed adventures. But the Daleks cast a long shadow and ‘the monster’ has become a part of the show’s format by this point. The programme-makers are still quite capable of playing with this, though: The Rescue features a monster that isn’t quite what it appears to be, while Galaxy Four is an unsubtle attempt at subverting the idea that the monstrous-seeming must always be evil. Most of the other successful ‘monster’ stories owe this to some other innovation of setting or plot, though: a good monster design alone isn’t enough to carry a story.

Sophistication is still slightly more common in the historical stories, however, possibly due to the absence of the need to include monsters. There’s a rather even-handed presentation of civilisations in conflict in The Crusade, and a grim depiction of religious intolerance in The Massacre. As time goes on, though, the historicals enter more the realm of literary pastiche, with slightly disappointing results in this area. Some of the villains are memorable, but they’re hardly well-rounded.

The same can be said for the handful of striking villains who appear in the First Doctor’s SF-themed stories. Claiming the prize as first villain to recur is the Meddling Monk, who’s mischievous rather than actually evil. That said, he’s still the first in a long line of characters to follow one of the Doctor Who archetypes: the renegade Time Lord (even if he’s never referred to as such on screen). There’s also the Celestial Toymaker, a surprisingly well-remembered and popular character given the quality of the story he appears in. Most interestingly in terms of future significance is Mavic Chen, arguably the only villain to actually share a story with the Daleks, prior to Davros many years later.

Perhaps in Chen one can perceive the programme makers realising the shortcomings of the Daleks as characters (you can’t really write very lengthy dialogue scenes between them, and any all-Dalek scenes basically devolve to one of them giving orders and the others agreeing to carry them out) and introducing a character with a little more depth to increase the scripts’ options.  If so, this is arguably the first step down a long road the series would only properly begin to explore in the 1970s.

I really like this design and won't be taking cheap shots in this caption. So there.

Before that, of course, there were many more monster-centric stories to be told, and a number of other classic monsters to be minted. The first of these were of course the Cybermen, in the final First Doctor story. What’s a little odd about The Tenth Planet is that while the Cybermen have a striking appearance (arguably moreso in this first outing than in any other) and a thought-through concept and back-story, it doesn’t actually inform the plot in any way. The nature and concept of the Cybermen isn’t really relevant – you could rewrite the story to feature a totally alien planet drifting in from deep space, inhabited by ferocious energy-draining duvets or sponge-cakes, and the story would need only minor rewrites. The Cybermen are clearly a good idea looking for the right story to appear in. The Tenth Planet is not that story, but they would find it the following year, when a new Doctor and a new approach would change the series’ presentation of its antagonists forever.

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