Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians, Ice Warriors and Sontarans. Foe after foe, Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies have breathed life back into the legendary monsters of Classic Who. It is as if the writers, both life-long fans, are raiding their own toy boxes, as they resuscitate the Doctor’s enemies of old, one after another.
In order for Doctor Who to survive, the show has had to change and evolve. Monsters too, as the showrunners have attempted to make them interesting and relevant for the new generations.
The controversial idea that I would like to throw out there is that both Moffat and Davies have overstepped the mark in their adjustments and tweaks to classic foes. Have the monsters almost become comedy “Carry On” versions of their former selves?
Let’s start with the Sontarans and point the finger at Strax. Undeniably a most popular character and a massive hit amongst younger viewers, he has arguably made Robert Holmes’ once great warrior race come across as ridiculous. Reduced, as Strax is, to comedy butler status and mocked continuously as a potato head, can we now take the Sontarans seriously? Just look at the pair of “non-Strax” Sontarans in “The Time of the Doctor”. Moffat was forced to play the diminutive duo for laughs, so firmly are the Sontarans fixed in the viewing public’s psyche as comedy villains. Scripting the Sontarans this way seems tacit admission on the part of the production crew of the caricatures that the once feared warriors of Sontar have now become.
What of the Silurians, now almost always associated with Madame Vastra? Malcolm Hulke probably never envisaged that one of his creations would become a criminal-chomping Victorian detective aided and abetted by her human lover. Yet Vastra, as a proud and noble being, does not really damage the Silurians’ reputation as a whole – her sometimes extravagant behaviour is not entirely in disaccordance with what we would expect of a highly advanced and evolved race. The problem is this. Now that we have met such a colourful and exuberant Silurian, doesn’t it make all those other ones, buried underneath the earth, with their age-old plan to reconquer our planet, seem a little boring? Vastra’s very existence makes it difficult for old-school Silurians to return in their more customary staid and sober guise. It could, however, be argued that these reptilian foes had already run their natural course in the Classic Series and Vastra was the only way forward.
How about the Ice Warriors? In ‘Cold War’ the Eleventh Doctor met one of noble stock, Grand Marshal Skaldak. The monster’s perfect design and warrior-like behaviour were in perfect harmony with that of his predecessors from the Classic Series. Nu-Who had notched up another success. This monster was scary. But then he took off his helmet! In that grand reveal, in that moment of madness, all the mystery of the character, not to mention that of his race, went down the plug hole. The alien underneath was pathetic and weedy. The only hope now for a future successful return of the popular Martian warriors is that if those embarassing scenes from ‘Cold War’ can be banished to the darkest depths of our memory. Just as we conveniently forget that the Doctor is half-human on his mother’s side, a selective memory can again prove useful here!
The Cybermen have appeared in countless stories since Doctor Who returned to our screens. Their most successful appearance was probably their first in ‘Rise of the Cybermen/ Age of Steel’. Imaginatively and convincingly redesigned, they marched imposingly and impressively back into the show. Some may not have approved of the fact that they are actually alternative-dimension Cybermen and not the real Mondasian ones, but far worse was still to come…
Embarassingly, the Daleks made mincemeat of the Cybermen in ‘Doomsday’ and gave Cyber street-cred an unnecessary bashing. It would have been much wiser if Daleks and Cybermen had not been able to outwit each other, thus leaving honour intact on both sides.
‘The Next Doctor’ gave us the shockingly shaggy and silly Cybershades. We also witnessed the Doctor fight off the Cybermen with only a sword. The gigantic Cyberking then embarassed one and all, by stomping all over Victorian London like the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. ‘A Good Man Goes to War’ showed a mere companion, Rory dressed as a Roman, blowing up a whole Cyberfleet in a short pre-credits sequence and ‘Closing Time’ regaled us with Cybermats bearing comedy gnashing teeth.
More recent outings, however, have given us cause for optimism. “Nightmare in Silver” attempted to make the Cybermen scary again by giving them new powers and the ability to upgrade. “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” showed the true body horror of what Cybermen actually are. But these Cybermen are only Missy’s creation. Are they alone enough to save the Doctor’s silver foes’ reputation, after their previous ignominy In Nu-Who?
And we nearly forgot ‘Handles’. Moffat wisely killed off the loveable Cyberhead. Many would have loved to see this popular creation continue as a new K9-like companion, but the damage to the Cybermen’s reputation would have been irreparable.
Let us conclude with the Daleks. 2005’s “Dalek” relaunched the metallic mutants in style. Powerful, modern, evil and frightening, we knew that Doctor Who was truly back, when his arch-enemies made their long-awaited reappearance. Arguably, no Dalek story since then has ever matched Robert Shearman’s tale. But even the Daleks have had their “moments”.
In possibly the greatest mistake committed by Nu-Who, it was in “Victory of the Daleks” that the gargantuan misstep was revealed to the world. Colourful and fat-bottomed, embarassingly redesigned Daleks emerged from the mist. In what should have been an imaginative revisiting of sixties movie Daleks, we were now faced with silly Tellytubby versions of the foe.
Fortunately “Asylum of the Daleks” made amends, by reminding us of all the other successful versions of the pepperpots over the years, including the arguably most successful redesign – the Special Weapons Dalek.
Do dangers lie ahead for the Daleks? Perhaps yes. The survival of that ‘good’ Dalek, Rusty, from “Into the Dalek” represents a risk for our scary salt-shakers. If he should reappear, the story will have to be sensitively handled. If a Dalek is perceived as being good, likeable or simply on the Doctor’s side, this might threaten the credibility and menace of their race as a whole. Fans wouldn’t want Rusty to do to the Daleks, what Strax has done to the Sontarans. I doubt, however, that the estate of Terry Nation would allow it.
In conclusion, it is the Sontarans and Cybermen who have arguably fared worse in Nu-Who. Less so, the Silurians and the Ice Warriors. The Daleks, for the moment, have had a near escape. Here’s hoping that in future we will not have to bear any comedy versions of the Autons or the Zygons!
Though we have already witnessed an Ood on the loo, I wonder what the Great Moff would make of it, if any of his successors ever introduced a laugh-a-minute or loveable Silent or Weeping Angel.
What a carry on that would be!