Villain Countdown No. 1 – The Cybermen

As readers will have worked out by logical deduction (very fitting for this particular foe) there can only be one candidate for top villain in my countdown – the villainous silver menaces from Mondas. Immediately of course we step into a wave of controversy. Unlike the Daleks who (bar the horrific but mercifully short-lived ‘new-paradigm’) have largely remained the same, the Cybermen have constantly evolved during their time on the show – in truth partly due to the fact that it’s significantly easier to create more modern designs with modern modern materials! The consequence however is that fans tend to only like ‘their’ Cybermen – whether the incarnation they first encountered, or the incarnation they most like.

So let’s start with the abstract rather than the specific. The Cybermen are genuinely frightening – unlike the Daleks, who are a little pantomime with their battle cries and pedantic in their reasoning, the Cybermen are usually portrayed as coldly logical – Daleks are motivated by hate, where Cybermen are motivated by reason, devoid of any kind of emotion. They frighten us because it is so shockingly unhuman, and yet so eerily akin to what humans become when they suppress any kind of emotion or moral conscience. As humanity progresses even further in technical skill, it is not difficult to imagine humanity choosing to upgrade itself – Rise of the Cybermen was scarily accurate in that regard.

The pity is, that they ought to be unstoppable – in actual fact, I greatly enjoyed Nightmare in Silver because it returned that sense of ominous doom to Cybermen. In a weird way, we do not feel afraid of an utter madman, however powerful, because being unhinged there is the possibility they might do something foolish. The coldly rational Cybermen do everything with a reason, and will not do something without a reason – which will include killing you if there is no need to keep you alive.

The last reason is personal to myself, but I would be curious to see if it is true for anybody else. None of the other villains in Doctor Who give me nightmares – and that includes some pretty bad-ass dudes like Sutekh the Destroyer. One of my occasional recurring nightmares is to be caught in Tomb of the Cybermen – not necessarily in the ice tombs of Telos, but certainly in an enclosed environment, with no means of escape, and the Cybermen slowly but purposefully coming after those trapped inside. Is my preference for this enemy coloured by my appreciation of that serial? Perhaps, but I was equally thrilled by The Tenth Planet, and The Moonbase, and The Invasion. Even the slightly unhinged Cybermen from Revenge of the Cybermen onwards still evoke a strong sense of dread. Properly used, there is no recurring enemy to beat them.

Villain Countdown No. 2 – The Daleks

Everyone remembers their first Doctor Who, and as I acknowledged at the start, for me it was an absolute corker of a story that got me hooked – Genesis of the Daleks. I hesitate to say that it was the Daleks wot won it, but I did spend the next six months avidly drawing Daleks, a habit I haven’t quite grown out of …

Daleks

I think there is a real danger in overthinking the Daleks. For whatever reason their unique shape, their staccato voices and militaristic way of life are weirdly endearing – they are the enemies you want to appear. I don’t quite buy into Steven Moffat’s conviction that the Daleks have lost their fear factor because ‘You know that they are going to lose.’ I instead think, as with the Cybermen, they lost their fear factor when they stopped being the story, instead being subservient to a master (like Davros) or part of a bigger plot (like in The Time of the Doctor). Into the Dalek was a perfect example that the Dalek concept, untethered and untamed, still captures the imagination.

So why are they only number 2 in my countdown? I think it is because for all of the positives (and they have relatively fewer dud stories compared to my most favoured villains) they are like my drawing – slightly comical. Yes, I remember well the thrill of terror when I first watched Genesis of the Daleks, and enjoy with enthusiasm when one lone Dalek in the eponymous New Series episode single handedly takes out an entire base. But the Daleks aren’t really scary – they have a certain thrill that makes you appreciate and enjoy any adventure they appear in, provided they are well used, but scared … not really.

For a feared foe, we need to tune into my final villain review …

The mysterious non reply of the BBC

And so the epic odyssey of Doctor Who’s missing episodes rumbles on! Last week Eddie McGuigan from Outpost Skaro broke the sad (but sadly not unexpected) news that The Underwater Menace DVD has been indefinitely postponed … AGAIN.

This news was very intriguing, as I had only a week or so ago received a ‘non-reply’ reply to an email I had sent to the BBC asking whether they wanted to take up any of my ingenious ideas for future DVD releases. The reply (with my original message below) is as follows:

DVD-News

I hadn’t planned to share the email, wanting to give BBC Worldwide the benefit of the doubt, and worried that it’s the likes of me posting information that discourages them from being forthcoming! But with the cancellation of The Underwater Menace, I suddenly feel much more inclined to start asking questions. And the most straightforward question is why are the BBC being so evasive? It takes five seconds to type either “There will be no future releases. Full stop. End of.” or “We cannot confirm any future releases.” As Hercules Poirot notes in one Agatha Christie novel, a character stating the conditional “If I had been …” rather than outright denial or confirmation gives one pause to think, “Why not a straightforward denial?” That they are ‘trying to obtain an update’ suggests that there is something in the pipeline, but that nobody seems to know what it is, or perhaps if they are allowed to tell anybody!

In light of the latest cancelled release (which if you read the Twitter roll from earlier, seems to be outside of the control of BBC Worldwide) it is strange that the BBC want to acknowledge the email (and I shall await their reply with interest!) but seem to have their hands tied. It makes me wonder what the background details may be … I have resigned myself to the death of the omnirumour, but it may be possible that there are strong leads for a select number of serials. Or it may be that there is internal politicking between different branches of the BBC. Or it may simply be an inelegant fob off!

This is why it is evident the the omnirumour has morphed into the zombierumour – not alive enough to be useful, but not dead enough to allow the BBC to get on with plugging the gaps or producing new material to complement the classic DVD range. In any event, we can only continue to pester the BBC, and patiently hope that eventually something will happen.

The Madness of Missy

The BBC has confirmed that Michelle Gomez is returning to play the character I am stubbornly continuing to refer to as ‘The Master.’

Leaving the issue of cross-gender regeneration to one side, my main gripe with Gomez’ portrayal of the Master was the utter insanity she brought to the role, leaving one struggling to see any continuity from the late great Roger Delgado. This view has softened somewhat with the grudging admission that John Simm played the character with an equal insanity, albeit somewhat dulled down in The End of Time.

But that led me to ponder something as I grumped about today’s news story on the bus to work. In my other life I’m politically active, and one of the themes that most interests me is the difference between how the two traditional wings of politics view human nature. The left, on the whole, believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity, and that the ills we face in this life are principally due to corrupt systems – if a person is bad, it is not by their choice. The right, on the whole, take a Hobbesian view that humanity is corrupt by its very nature, and systems only ever reflect that fundamental corruption – if a person is bad, it is by their own choice.

We’re all very aware that the creative types at the BBC are not shy of working their personal convictions into their works (which is questionable for a publicly funded broadcaster …) – and I was struck by the great efforts made to emphasise the Master’s insanity – and moreover that his (or now, her) actions are because of this insanity rather than some personal choice – hence the shock when the Tenth Doctor realises the drumbeat in the Master’s head is physically real. As if to ram home the point, Simm’s Master’s (almost) final words, were to roar at the Time Lord High Council: “You did this to me!”

Except, let’s be honest, that’s wholly unsatisfying.

Patrick Troughton is universally and deservedly recognised for his deep portrayal of the Doctor – and his famous speech from The Moonbase shows us why:

“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.”

There is something within us as the viewer that resonates with the idea that there is such a thing as evil, and a choice. Delgado’s Master was palpably frightening because it gave a glimpse into what the Doctor we know and love would be like if he lost his moral compass. The Cybermen (in their truest form) are frightening because we see us in them, not like Cyber-Danny or Cyber-Brig (basically humanity in mech-suits) but rather humanity removing all fundamental goodness. And of course the Daleks were a vivid reminder of humanity’s flirtation with fascism – viewers growing up who remembered the war had no difficulty believing in the concept of evil.

As I pondered on this, I have now reached the point of wondering whether the famously left-liberal leaning BBC have allowed their philosophy to inform their writing. If we examine our own hearts, we quite like the idea of the Master not being responsible for his own actions – that the responsibility lies with the Time Lords, he cannot help being bad, and somehow if he were ‘fixed’ he’d be just as good as the Doctor. All of us prefer the idea that someone or something else is to blame for when we get it wrong. Except this philosophy is very much the philosophical equivalent of a security blanket – far from empowering humanity, it dehumanises us by taking away the one thing within our power – the power to choose.

What resonates with the viewer? It was when the Doctor threw the command of the Cyber-army to Danny, not because he was a good man, but because he made the choice. It was when the War Doctor decided to end the Time War because it had to be done; when the Doctor put his own life at risk to save Peri in The Caves of Androzani; the countless times the Doctor and his companions have resisted evil against overwhelming odds, because it was the right thing to do. What resonates with the viewer? It was Tom Baker holding two wires in Genesis of the Daleks and pondering ‘Have I the right?’ He recognised it was his choice, and therefore his responsibility to live with the actions.

I may yet overcome my reservations about a female Master, but end this madness! Allow the Master to be evil because she has chosen to be, as Delgado once did, rather evil from compunction as the new producers have been so determined to do.

Villain Countdown No. 3 – The Master

I have a huge amount of appreciation for the Master: when Derek Jacobi said that iconic line in Utopia it was with good reason that I, along with thousands of other fans, had tangible goosebumps. Because what we most fear in the Master is what he represents – an intriguing glimpse into what the Doctor would be like if he didn’t try to be a good man. And for every excellent episode he does not disappoint. The original and best, Roger Delgado, is utterly sublime in The Daemons, and such is his skill in the role that even in relatively unlikeable stories such as The Time Monster, his charm and his chemistry with Jon Pertwee make the story worth watching.

And of course, as a Timelord the Master shares that great benefit of the Doctor – to recast the actor at will. I will skim over the obvious elephant in the room (Missy) to say simply that I think while most Masters pale in comparison to Delgado, they also get an unfair deal. Anthony Ainley was very good in Logopolis, and I think mainly hindered by direction from John Nathan Turner to play the role like Delgado (including the rubbish beard) and massively camped up. Eric Roberts’ realisation of the role wasn’t actually that bad, and fit with the theme of the movie, while John Sim only suffered from the crime of being asked to mimic my most hated of Doctors – if he had played the role more like Sam Tyler and less like David Tennant I would have been much happier! But what a missed opportunity – Derek Jacobi would have been majestic as the Master, if only he had been allowed to remain for longer.

Oddly enough, I really enjoy the two ‘decayed’ versions of the Master portrayed by Peter Pratt and Geoffrey Beevers – even if the makeup for Beevers could have done with some radical improvement. If the BBC come to their senses and admit that ‘Missy’ was a mistake, I would love to see a reprise of this version of the Master. In the commentary for The Keeper of Traken, Beevers explores the idea that the Master relies on guile and charm to achieve his nefarious ends – there was something shockingly amazing when he is deprived of his mask and forced to be crudely cruel.

So I hugely enjoy the Master – but of the three best recurring enemies he is last and least. Phrased positively, it is because of the quality of the enemies above him – he is in very good company! Phrased negatively – for all of the good episodes, there are too many misses – many of them I have already reviewed! Where he ought to be used as an impact villain, he’s too often used like the Hooded Claw from The Perils of Penelope Pitstop – a perfect pantomime villain. And for that reason, he sadly gets marked down ..

Villain Countdown No. 4 – The Sontarans

A while back I commented on a series of villains that I felt had been woefully underused – one of which were the Rutans. Their eternal adversaries, the Sontarans, are a foe that oddly enough have suffered in reputation from reappearing in stories subsequent to their debut. There is no doubt, Kevin Lindsay is excellent as Linx in The Time Warrior, and equally sinister in The Sontaran Experiment (although I confess I personally didn’t enjoy the story that much) – but the drama of a lone Sontaran didn’t really carry over that well into The Invasion of Time or The Two Doctors – in the latter it is difficult to escape the conclusion that they were mainly included to deal with any military might required.

Which is a huge pity, because their potential was very well explored in Series 4 of the new series, even if the execution was awfully hammed up, and then subsequently ruined by Strax joining the Paternoster comedy trio. There is something quite intriguing about a race who are bred for the glorification and execution of war, absolutely cunning military strategists and yet possessed of a childish delight in watching any kind of warfare. “Nasty, brutish and short” is the rather excellent description Pertwee’s Doctor bestows upon this race. Which is why it is galling when they are reduced to the playthings of another power, or treated as light comic relief – they deserve a proper war-zone style narrative to get their teeth into. Which is strange, because their two most successful stories centre on lone operatives …

I’d dearly love to see a new series story that features a full scale battle between Sontarans and Rutans, not least to see how the Doctor would react (as in The Doctor’s Daughter) when it is not evident that there is a ‘good’ side or a ‘bad’ side. But then these militaristic clones need to be let off the leash to threaten and menace as they deserve to. An equally intriguing story would be a Sontaran general isolated from his troops and raising a human army to fight – for the character story of what so motivates Sontarans to their glorification of war. In any event – they are worthy recurring foes, but of course not in the same league as the top three …

Villain Countdown No. 5 – The Black Guardian

All together now: “He’s got a deaaaaaaaaad birrrrrrrd! On his head!”

Ahem. Let us skip past the elephant in the room of why the supreme being of all darkness in the universe wears a hat with a stuffed raven, and instead ask why the Black Guardian is a pretty bad-ass recuring bad-guy. In actual fact, I would say that 99% of why he made such a grim and threatening spectre was due to the excellent portral of the character by Valentine Dyall. He had exactly the voice you would want for a powerful force of darkness, evil and chaos – a voice that will not only leave you behind the sofa, but trembling in fear that he’s someone still behind you.

And this isn’t bad given that he only appears in the final ten minutes of The Armageddon Factor for his introduction, but the testimony to his character is that he undoubtedly makes his presence felt. So much so that when he makes his reappearance in Mawdryn Undead your skin crawls any time the music changes into a menacing key and his Guardianess makes an unholy apprearance. So much of this is due to excellent acting and that voice.

I emphasise this, because actually the rest of the Guardian is a bit of a let-down. I think he was much better realised in The Armageddon Factor when the producers cunningly dressed Dyall in white, and then inverted the negatives to produce the ‘Black’ Guardian – it is a deeply disturbing effect, and therefore very effective! The resultant drab attire he is given for Season 20 just doesn’t cut it somehow, nor the protestations that he cannot be seen to be acting in determining to dispose of the Doctor.

The Daleks get a bit of a bad rep for being all shout and no substance. The Black Guardian could equally be accused of being all scare and no senseless. Which is why it would be great to bring him (and his equally etheral friend the White Guardian) back in a future series of Doctor Who. Christopher Lee would be an obvious choice but for his advancing years – but then he if he would be up for it, oh what a Black Guardian he would make …