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Saturday Night Satan

And now, fun for all the family as we take a look at Satanism in popular culture. I must give credit where it’s due and say that this particular rehash of old ideas is a response to the latest post from my friend Jamie, whose series of blog posts on the connections she sees between her faith and her favourite TV show are unfailingly thoughtful and interesting.

I’ve frequently alluded to the fact that one member of my immediate family stopped watching Doctor Who a few years ago on the grounds of its so-called occult content. As I’ve always said, typical Doctor Who is about as genuinely occult as a typical episode of Scooby Doo – but the show has incorporated occult-themed imagery into a number of stories through most of its history, just as it’s taken visual and narrative cues from any number of sources over the years.

The first thing one has to say is that it is, on the face of it, extraordinary that a popular family drama on a mainstream channel should make open use of Satanic themes. Some may argue that this simply reflects the decline of moral standards in British culture, but the fact is that in recent years the show’s become rather more careful, on the whole, when incorporating this kind of material.

Join me now as we take a brief tour of Doctor Who‘s gallery of Satan lookalikes and wannabes. Before we begin, I should mention that none of these come from the series’ black and white days, when it was really a very different animal and presented antagonists in quite a different way. The early and mid 80s also finds Devil-a-likes thin on the ground, possibly due to the show going a bit more hard SF-ish at that point. Here they are in order of, er, Satan-ism.

(Just bubbling under are the half-man, half-budgie, all-troublesome Kronos from 1972’s The Time Monster, Fenric from 1989’s The Curse of Fenric, an elemental fragment of pure evil from the dawn of time, and the Fendahl from 1978’s Image of the Fendahl, an extraterrestrial incarnation of death with an unexplained affinity for pentagrams. An honourable mention must also go to Scratchman from the unmade 1970s Doctor Who movie script.)

Counting down, in at number (of the beast) 6 is Sutekh the Destroyer, from 1975’s Pyramids of Mars, created by Robert Holmes, Paddy Russell and Gabriel Woolf. Sutekh hails from the planet Phaester Osiris and came to Earth where he was immortalised as the Egyptian god of chaos. Sutekh’s agenda is the obliteration of all other life, motivated by some kind of paranoid psychosis. Despite being arguably one of the most memorable and certainly the most powerful opponent the Doctor has ever faced, he comes in rather low on our list. This is really because he’s a figure from Egyptian rather than Judeo-Christian mythology, with his Devilish credentials essentially limited to the fact that the Doctor in passing refers to the fact he also goes by the name of Satan. This doesn’t stop him being the main villain in one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever told, and he has cast a justifiably long shadow as we’ll soon see.

In at 5 is Omega, whom some long-term Who fans may consider a surprising inclusion. Created by Bob Baker, Dave Martin, Lenny Mayne and Stephen Thorne for the 1973 story The Three Doctors, Omega neither resembles the traditional Devil, nor does his story include any occult imagery. However, in terms of the character’s conception, it’s hard not to see Omega as Who-world’s equivalent of the fallen angel Lucifer, cast down and imprisoned in a hellish netherworld as a result of his own hubris. ‘I should have been a God!’ is possibly his most famous line, which I think makes his roots entirely clear. (Given he’s a marginally sympathetic character it’s not surprising this angle was played down.)

At number 4 we have the only genuine demon on our list, the Destroyer from 1989’s Battlefield, created by Ben Aaronovitch, Michael Kerrigan and Marek Anton. This is one of the tiny number of Doctor Who stories to feature supernatural elements without any attempt to give them an SF rationale. The main villain of this story is another dimension’s analogue of Morgan le Fay (the whole story is rather Arthurian in tone), and to back her up in the climax she summons the Destroyer, who certainly seems to be exactly what he appears to be: he claims to be from Hell, can be repelled by magic circles, and is vulnerable to silver bullets. The fact remains that he’s repeatedly referred to as a demon rather than the Devil, and he’s basically an uber-henchman, otherwise he’d be higher up the list.

Crashing in at number 3 we find the Black Guardian, portrayed by Valentine Dyall, and first appearing on-screen in 1979’s The Armageddon Factor, written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin and directed by Michael Hayes. He earns his spot by being, to date, the ultimate force for darkness and chaos in the Doctor’s universe. His counterpart, the White Guardian, is essentially presented as being God (he’s the only being the Doctor is unquestioningly deferent towards), which makes the Black Guardian’s identity fairly self-evident. More specifically he is presented as the great tempter, set on corrupting the soul of the Doctor’s untrustworthy associate Turlough (and get a little revenge along the way). He never actually does much, but he’s memorable when he does appear. Many of the attributes of the character, along with some actual lines of his dialogue, live on nowadays in the form of the Trickster from SJA (I initially thought the Trickster actually was the Black Guardian until his ignorance of the Doctor became clear).

The revived series finally presents a candidate at number 2, in the form of the Beast from The Satan Pit, created by Matt Jones, James Strong and Gabriel Woolf. Uniquely, the Beast claims to actually be the Devil of myth, and predate the universe, which the Doctor is automatically reluctant to go with. But he’s certainly a wily customer, even if he never quite explains how his son ended up wedged into a time rift in Cardiff (in the Torchwood episode End of Days). Stepping back from the narrative for a moment, it’s clear that the Beast is a new riff on a number of characters from the original run. Chief amongst these is Sutekh, a previous example of an imprisoned superfiend – the conscious nature of this connection is made obvious by the decision to cast the same actor in both roles. Also referred to are the legends of the home planet of the character who stands at number 1 as the all-around most Satanic figure in the entirety of Doctor Who.

Yes, it’s Azal from 1971’s The Daemons. Just look at the guy. He’s not actually a demon, but a native of the planet Daemos. Despite this, his name is derived from that of the mythological figure Azazel (the Jewish analogue of Satan), and the story makes clear he’s a key figure in occult texts from many human cultures. The story draws massively on Satanist imagery, with the Master leading a Black Mass in a church crypt to summon up the creature (clearly a key moment for the Master as he recalls it when his Yana identity crumbles in Utopia). Interestingly, Azal isn’t actually evil, just utterly amoral, and is as happy to give his power to the Doctor as the Master. In some ways it’s an odd choice to build a character up as the Devil and then not make him wholly malevolent, but it’s a sign of the moral sophistication Barry Letts in particularly brought to the series.

That said, all of the figures on our list are the result of different and interesting creative choices on the part of the production teams responsible. Fantasy series like Doctor Who do tend to deal with themes like good and evil rather more directly than others, so it’s not really surprising that the programme-makers should have felt the need to create an incarnation of pure evil on more than one occasion. The differences between their conceptions are quite illuminating when it comes to their ambitions for the series.

For example, Sutekh is just the most memorable iteration of what’s basically a stock character in Tom Baker’s first three series: the crippled supervillain seeking a return to his former power – other examples include Morbius, Magnus Greel and the Master himself. The Beast, on the other hand, is there to embody the story’s theme of the unknown and the (possibly) unknowable, and how an arch-rationalist like the Doctor deals with a possibly-supernatural creature. Azal represents not pure evil, but the dangers of power without responsibility or compassion.

It’s clear, I hope, that when the programme has used the Devil as the model for a story’s antagonist it hasn’t been done gratuitously or thoughtlessly, but to suit whatever story they were trying to tell, and as a part of the series’ wider presentation of evil in general. (But that’s a wider topic, for another time (perhaps).) The thought that’s obviously gone into most of these characters perhaps explains why the stories in which they appear include some of the most memorable the series has produced.

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