Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Who A'Ween: Cryptids, Monsters, And Legendary Creatures In 'Doctor Who'

Writer's note: This particular blog entry was patched together, must like Frankenstein's Monster, over a period of time. For several days, I had suffered from debilitating stomach flu, and was only able to write sporadically, if it all. Thus, if some of the narrative appears disjointed at times, please factor in, it was written at various times through a period of almost two weeks. Thanks, hope you enjoy it, and Happy Halloween!

For a television series such as 'Doctor Who', based on the premise of a time traveling alien who encounters and opposes all manner of devious and demonic monsters, the idea of utilizing classic monsters as antagonists 'should' have been a slam-dunk. After all, the modest budgets allocated each season were stretched to their limits in creating new and unique alien monsters every week; why not present home-grown versions of classic cryptids such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Dracula, etc.? Not only would it save valuable exposition, as the vast majority of the viewing audience were no doubt familiar on 'some' level with these legendary creatures, but the design work was, essentially, already done for the production team, as the basic visual framework for these characters existed within the public mind already. On paper, then, it is odd that more stories involving these creatures were not pitched, and even odder that there was such a relatively small amount of appearances that did make it to the screen.

Notwithstanding rights and clearance issues concerning some creatures, another benefit was that many of them simply were not owned by any one company or person; as variations on mythical beings, most of them existed in the public domain, free to the world to use and adapt to their liking. The public domain usage of vampires in general, for example, and certain elements of the classic 'Dracula' story, have after all led to a proliferation of appearances by vampiric characters within pop culture, most especially in the last ten years. Similarly, the tragic story of the Frankenstein's Monster, itself a variation of the ancient Jewish characters of Golems, has fallen within public domain usage, with the exception of the Universal Picture's trademarked depiction of the character (which also is in effect for their version of the Dracula character). Again, the sheer number of legendary, mysterious characters with built-in mannerisms, backstory, powers and weaknesses, would, on the surface, seem very attractive and easily exploitable. Yet, the proof is on the screen; despite its nature as an action-adventure series designed to appeal to the whole family, 'Doctor Who' did not often tackle monsters from folklore and myth that would have been familiar 'to' many family members comprising the audience.

One of the reasons for this may lie in its initial creator, Sydney Newman. While North American television series tended to defer to their creators and respect their edicts, in England it was a different story; as the Head Of Series And Serials at the BBC, Newman merely got the ball rolling, and while he created the initial framework of the series, he did so merely as one of the many functions of his job and without the desire for publicity or residuals. Everything he created was instantly the BBC's ownership without question; as such, Newman was, like everyone who worked on 'Doctor Who', a 'hired hand' who did not supplement their income in any shape or form. Therefore, he was free in a sense to lay the groundwork without concern for financial success, and his motivation was to ensure the quality of his work was up to a high standard, as it was his good name as a creator and producer and not the effect on his pocketbook that was on the line. As someone who infused the series with a definite desire to 'educate and entertain', emphasis on the former, Newman made it clear that the Doctor would be facing scientifically plausible alien creatures, not mythic creatures culled from superstition.

There need be no better examples of Newman's preference for 'science-based characters' than the Cybermen. Their co-creator, Kit Pedlar, was an actual doctor and scientist who was inspired to co-create the soul-less beings over fears that artifical hearts, pacemakers and the like may lead, one day, to replacing all that was 'human' about the race with cold, mechanical steel and unfeeling robotics. This perfectly sums up Newman's desire for scientific reality as the basis for drama in 'Doctor Who'.

There is also Newman's often-repeated demand that there be no 'bug eyed monsters' in 'Doctor Who'. While not specifically targeting the types of fantasy and paranormal-based creatures that ghosts, goblins, Bigfoot, and Nessie were, this meant, at least in its early years, that 'Doctor Who', a scientist, encountered 'monsters' made from science, not fantasy. Even the Daleks, cited as the creatures that instantly put 'Doctor Who' the series on its head and cemented it as a renewable series for the BBC, had their origins as radiation-soaked beings now encased within mobile travel units. Nothing mythical about them.

Yet, as the series progressed through the years, and the Doctor battled a (pardon the pun) 'who's who' of science-based monsters and adversaries, this restriction, imposed upon the series by its creator and carried forward by its initial producers, gradually became relaxed, primarily due to the changing nature of audience tastes. After all, as much as the Daleks were instantly a hit, numerous long-running, mult-part episodes featuring them made even the children, their ardent fans, weary. The series had exploited the Daleks to a mutual absolute maximum. Running parallel to this was, of course, their creator Terry Nation's attempts to further exploit them in everything from licensed merchandise to a pitch to the ABC Network in the U.S for their own series, which never happened. The follow-up, the Cybermen, while a definite second to the Daleks in terms of popularity right to this very day, simply didn't resonate with the audience in precisely the ways in which the Daleks did. Simply put, by the Second Doctor's era, fresh blood was needed.

From the Second Doctor's era, which is now considered to be the 'golden age' in terms of monsters, 'Doctor Who' as a series had grown and matured and shaken off its rigid guidelines. The Doctor was no longer simply a curious wanderer in space and time, and no longer was portrayed strictly as a scientist; now, he was an impish jokester, and this broadening of the main character fed into his chosen monsters; where once the adversaries consisted of twisted scientific experiments gone wrong, now there was room to incorporate those who were more obviously monstrous, and more obviously based upon Earth-based creatures from legend.

From that point, while it never forgot its roots totally as a series meant to educate, and while there would be hundreds more monsters, aliens, and adversaries presented that fit the basic mould of scientifically plausible beings, the door had been opened for the inclusion of creatures that did not need to have been created in a mad scientist's lab in order to scare children and get them running behind the sofa. Below are the stories that presented variations on creatures that the viewers may expect to find knocking on their doors demanding candy every Halloween.

'The Chase' (1st Doctor): One of the many Dalek-centric episodes from the classic Hartnell era, season two's 'The Chase' is, to borrow a quote from Ben Arronovitch, writer of 'Rememberance Of The Daleks', "a story that seems as if the writer simply presented a series of ideas he had while in the bath". True, this loose collection of stories, in which the running theme is simply that of the Doctor and his companions on a romp through time and space attempting to avoid a Dalek death squad with orders to (what else) exterminate them on sight, isn't very good, and is one of the stories in which it is evident the exploiting of the Daleks was truly underway, as, in order to make the plot work the Daleks were given their own time machine called a 'Dardis' in the script, though thankfully not on screen!

Suddenly, adversaries that were trapped on their own world and which the Doctor had beat by simply cutting off their source of mobility throughout Skaro, now were equally matched to him and had command over all of time...and yet, they chose to immediately engage in a protracted chase, instead of exploiting this new-found ability to alter time itself and, perhaps, wipe the Doctor from history. Regardless of its ludicrous nature, this story also is notable for featuring the first true appearance of recognizable, legendary also immediately 'sends them up' and plays them for laughs.

In episode three, while first causing the crew of the legendary 'lost ship', the 'Marie Celeste', to jump overboard on the sight of Daleks slipping and sliding across her bow (nope, I'm not kidding), the Doctor quickly escapes those dastardly Daleks once more, and jumps the TARDIS forward in a fake 'haunted house' within a Disneyland-style theme park, the Festival Of Ghana, in the year 1996.  There, they encounter watered-down Universal Pictures' versions of both Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster. Again, I'm not kidding. It gets worse.

While no-doubt in stressful, high-alert status after several quick getaways from Daleks, the Doctor and his companions are then scared by the (obviously robotic) Dracula and Frankenstein's Monsters, which look, walk, and talk (or more appropriately, grunt) exactly as you would expect they would.

'Doctor Who' then becomes, for an episode, 'Scooby Doo', featuring madcap hall-way running, including running in and out of doors and closets, and eventually all culminating in a humorous conclusion: somehow, while the Doctor can't seem to stop the relentless Dalek death squad, Dracula and Frankenstein can!

They, uhm...well, they use the power of their, uh, robotic elements to create this weird force field which, for reasons fans are 'still' waiting for, causes the Daleks to be repelled, giving the Doctor and company the chance to once again give them the slip. Yep. SO not kidding.

Clearly, if this episode is 'any' indication, 'Doctor Who' is not a series in which one could expect to find the Wolfman, at least not played straight. Anarchist-type monks, yes. Giant ant-like Zarbi, yes. Heck, even an adventure that is essentially 'Honey, I Shrunk The Kids' 40 years or so before the movie, was played straight. But Dracula? Frankenstein's Monster? That stuff's for kids, and they aren't real. Unless we need them to save the day and defeat the Daleks for us...

That, essentially, sums up the way it was for classic monsters within the Hartnell era. But, as we have read, the times, they were a'changin'...

'The Abominable Snowmen' (2nd Doctor): It took time, but by Patrick Troughton's second season, it was clear definite changes had been made not only to the character of the Doctor, but to the nature of his adversaries, as well. With the restrictions on creatures specifically with science-based origins relaxed, producers tentatively delved into the realm of true monsters, and presented a story in which the Doctor encounters the legendary Abominable Snowman, the Tibetan equivalent of Canada's Sasquatch and Bigfoot from the United States.

Dialog within the episode indicates that the Doctor is well aware of these creatures’ existence and he considers them shy and timid. This being 'Doctor Who', of course, it is immediately established that there are in fact 'two' types of Snowmen; real, and robotic versions, in order to satisfy critics of either approach.

Though producers at the time desperately casted about for a replacement arch nemesis for the Doctor, as Terry Nation by this point had withdrawn the Daleks from BBC usage, the remote location of the Snowmen and establishing that they were themselves of animal intelligence and presented little threat naturally without being controlled by others precluded them from contention.

Audiences took well to them, indicating that 'Doctor Who' was on the right track in terms of introducing 'real world' monsters and they returned in 'The Web Of Fear'. While quite notable for being one of the few creatures to have been afforded more than a one-off appearance, this episode is considerably more important within Whoniverse circles for its first appearance of Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge-Stewart, and as a blueprint for the later U.N.I.T, Earth-bound stories of Pertwee's era.

It is worth pointing out that, to further degrade these creatures’ own menace as adversaries, the Great Intelligence simply inhabits the robotic versions instead of the real ones (though many of the same costumes were used). Nevertheless, 'testing the waters' with mythic monsters had produced two outstanding episodes in one season, a real thumbs-up to the producers and writers for expanding the Whoniverse to now include all manner of ghosts, goblins, and things that go bump in the night.

'The Daemons' (3rd Doctor): An Earth-based Doctor such as Jon Pertwee was bound to encounter all manner of Earth-based monsters. When not battling evil industrialists, corrupt politicians, and the odd Auton outbreak, this Doctor fought perhaps, the most evil mythic monster ever created, the Devil himself!

The Roman Catholic character known as 'the Devil', often depicted with horns, bat-like wings, forked tongue, and generally crimson in color, was, according to believers of Christianity in its many variations, the source for all the 'evil' in the world.

Of course, because this is science fiction, because it's meant for family viewing, and because, well, the BBC simply didn't want to rock the boat with those who felt it was somehow blasphemous to depict the alien Timelord battling the Christian 'Devil', the character is named Azal in the story, though as a concession to viewers not so close-minded, the Doctor also conveniently explains that Azal's race, the Daemons, have visited Earth in pre-history and, basically, are the inspiration 'for' the Christian 'Devil' of myth and faith. A case of having their cake and eating it too! 
This story is considered among the greatest in 'Doctor Who' history by fans and by those who worked on it. Clearly, including not just creatures from the paranormal realms but those from religion and ancient myth were fair game, and by the Third Doctor's era, the drift away from Sydney Newman's original contention of 'no bug eyed monsters' was well underway.

As the remainder of the Pertwee era melted away, the familiar 'family viewing' trappings made their departure as well. As quickly as time and propriety could allow, newly appointed series producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes eagerly wrote out the various UNIT soldiers, and re-set their new Doctor, now played by Tom Baker, on a path back out to the stars.

They intentionally infused their era, widely now considered 'the' greatest in series history, with what Tom Baker called 'an alchemy' of borrowed themes from various sources. Everything from pop culture of the mid-1970's, especially tongue-in-cheek political references, cropped up in some form. If ever there was a time in which folklore, myth, and legendary creatures would be used as source material, it was during this period, especially considering the success of the Hammer horror film studios, a major source of inspiration for the 'Doctor Who' production team.

After dispatching Cybermen and Daleks in his debut season, the 4th Doctor went up against one of the United Kingdom's must enduring cryptids in his second, the Loch Ness Monster. 'Terror Of The Zygons' not only brought back the Brigadier and saw the departure of Harry Sullivan as a companion, it provided a story that would have made Sydney Newman proud, plausibly 'explaining' the Loch Ness Monster as one of a number of cyborg brought to Earth and controlled by the Zygons. Without their signal device to control it, which the Doctor causes the being, called a Skarasen, to devour, it returned to the 'only home it's ever known', according to the Doctor: Loch Ness.

For all the science and wizardry on display in the story, which is essentially window-dressing in order to provide the 'science-based' explanation that some segments of fans prefer and to which Newman and others insisted upon, it is worth nothing that, when Target Books published the novelization, they labelled it as 'Doctor Who And The Loch Ness Monster'! With the famous 'Nessie' now dealt with, and with the story garnering acclaim and high ratings, the Hinchcliffe/Holmes team now felt emboldened to introduce even more well-known creatures, and what better source to draw upon than the classic Universal Pictures' horror icon, the Mummy?

Unlike the mild lampooning Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster received in 'The Chase', however, 'Pyramids Of Mars', like 'Terror Of The Zygons', treated the legendary creature with respect and dignity.  It is a story dripping with Egyptian motifs, revealing that the famous god Horus was in reality the conqueror Sutekh's brother and valiantly fought to defeat him on behalf of their people, the Osirians.

Of course, Sutekh isn't dead, and it falls to the Doctor to defeat him once and for all, which he does, imprisoning him in a time corridor that he cannot escape within his lifetime. Another classic that holds up to this day, 'Pyramids Of Mars' expanded the mythic monster count to two within the same season, proof positive that, when it came to things that go bump in the night, perceptions had changed and the door was opened for them to appear in 'Doctor Who' with open arms.

It didn't take long for the next creature to show up. Within a matter of weeks, the fans who kneeled before the might of Sutekh now found themselves treated to the return of Frankenstein's Monster...only this time, it would be less obvious that Mary Shelly's 'modern Prometheus' creature was the direct inspiration for 'The Brain Of Morbius'. Like Frankenstein's Monster itself, it was a patch-work of different sources formed into one.

The original story was written by Terrance Dicks, who had borrowed from himself in naming the planet in which the action takes place Karn, as it was in his 1974 stage play 'Doctor Who And The Daleks In Seven Keys To Doomsday'. Dicks turned in his completed scripts, then took a much needed holiday, and was unavailable when script editor Robert Holmes and director Christopher Barry required several alterations to be made.

As a result, Dick's original intention for the Frakenstein-like monster that lurches around in the story to be given more prevalence as the 'main baddy' is watered down, and the result is that nobody seems to notice the obvious solution of using the Doctor's head to hold Morbius' brain, something Dicks had intended from the start.

The story itself, re-written extensively by Robert Holmes, is heavily reminiscent of the screen versions of 'Frankenstein' rather than the original novel, another element that Dicks had intended to be the reverse; in the finished story, the monster is ungainly and lumbering, as the Universal Picture's version was, Solon fulfills both the 'mad scientist' role as well as that of the bumbling Igor-type manservant at times, and the windswept-castle, crashes of thunder and lightning, and overall dank atmosphere all harken back to the film version.

When Dicks discovered the depth of the changes made to his story without his approval, he demanded to have his name removed, resulting in his insistence in the pen name being 'bland' therefore, 'The Brain Of Morbius' is credited to 'Robin Bland'!

While other stories would feature Oriental mysticism ('Talons Of Weng-Chiang') and Druidic and cult behaviour ('The Stones Of Blood'), the influx of legendary creatures reached its peak in the season numbered with the supernaturally-imbued 13. While half-hearted attempts to present characters drawn from cults, witchcraft, and the like were scattered about as noted in the above stories and others, it would not be until season 18, and 'State Of Decay', that a true legendary monster would be presented once again front-and-center. And this monster is, perhaps, the most famous of all: Dracula.

Vampirism was, and remains, an extremely fertile source of inspiration for writers of all genres. By its very nature, it can be adapted to fit into virtually all formats, from science fiction, fantasy, and drama, to thriller, erotica, and comedy. The fascination with undead creatures that require the blood of living beings in order to maintain their immortality remains as powerfully compelling as source material as Dracula's hypnotic stare itself. 'Doctor Who' was no different, and in Tom Baker's final season, the Doctor did battle with the ancient enemy of mankind...err, Timelords!

'State Of Decay' presented the Doctor trapped in the smaller universe of E-Space, as, indeed, did the preceding story, 'Full Circle', and the following story, 'Warrior's Gate', comprising a mini 'E-Space Trilogy' within season 18. Here, the Doctor discovers the 'Great One', as the villagers of the unnamed planet have dubbed the creature that dwells in the tower and for whom the other lesser vampires, 'The Three Who Rule', do its bidding.

The Doctor reveals that the Great Vampires were ancient blood enemies of the Timelords, and each TARDIS was programmed with special instructions from Rassilon himself to hunt down and destroy the King Vampire without fail. Rassilon had commissioned great fleets of bow ships, armed with giant spears to impale the creatures, in order to vanquish this great and evil menace to Gallifrey and all other living things. Naturally, it is the Doctor who fulfills Rassilon's wishes and manages to impale the creature at the moment of its awakening, severing the link with the Three Who Rule, who then crumbles to dust.

An interesting side-note is that this story was quickly commissioned and written by Terrance Dicks, after the BBC big-wigs at the time forced the late abandonment of another story he had written, also about vampires but more closely connected to the Dracula mythos, entitled 'The Witch Lords'. The feeling at the time was that, as the BBC was in post-production on a very expensive and prestigious version of  'Dracula' they intended to transmit, a 'Doctor Who' story that also featured the character would be seen as satirical.

As was often the case, what the production team of ‘Doctor Who' were often able to present with a miniscule budget often rivalled much larger budgeted films and TV series. The BBC worried that viewers may actually be more impressed with the less-is-more 'The Witch Lords', and pulled the plug on it. Clearly, poor Terrance Dicks seemed to have 'the' worst luck when it came to writing monster stories for 'Doctor Who', if this and 'The Brain Of Morbius' was any indication!

By the arrival of John Nathan-Turner as producer, the glitzy 1980's stories became much more akin to the 'Battlestar: Galactica', 'Space: 1999', and 'Buck Rogers' series that competed against 'Doctor Who' for science fiction audiences; Dracula, witches, warlocks, and the like were discarded in favour of laser battles, alien monsters, and stories that took place in deep space, where nobody could hear a Yeti scream. While the Davison era would not feature any recognizable cryptids, in Colin Baker's brief era, an old friend of the Doctor's made a surprising appearance: the Loch Ness Monster! Well...kinda..

'Timelash', which competes to this day for the award for 'worst episode in series history', nevertheless has the distinction of presenting a SECOND Loch Ness Monster, with attendant origin story. In a story that already featured future 'War Of The Worlds' author H.G Wells as a character, the creature called the Borad, a hybrid Karfelon/Morlox, had taken over the planet, and, naturally, the Doctor wasn't having any of that.

Stuff happens, yadda, yadda, yadda, the Doctor gives the Borad, who had banished political enemies to the 'timelash' device, a time corridor to Scotland, Earth, in 1173AD, a taste of its own (bad) medicine, and there you go...two different versions of the 'origin' of the Loch Ness Monster.

But then again, there's at 'least' two different versions of Atlantis within the Whoniverse, so let's just forget it all happened, shall we? Trust me, avoid the episode unless you feel like you 'should' be punished for something...though a future 'Whostorian Death Zone' match pitting the Borad against the Skarasen ought to garner some support, what do you think?

The final legendary creature to appear within the classic series did so in the final season itself. Season 27's 'Curse Of Fenric', itself a rare gem from the usually silly and inept Sylvester McCoy era, presented, once again, vampire-like beings.

And once again, the 'big boss' vampire, this time called Fenric, is an ancient enemy of the Timelords, or, rather, one in particular; the Doctor. Along with his legion of Haemovores, long-nailed, fanged, vampiric types, Fenric sets out on a bloody revenge plan for the Doctor's imprisoning him within a flask.

While once again not a 'true' vampire in the traditional sense, Fenric's command of his 'wolves' harkened back to Dracula's similar hypnotic stare and limited mental powers, and, of course, the Haemevores themselves make excellent vampiric thralls.

That'll do it for a brief look at the creatures of the night as they are presented within 'Doctor Who'. If there's any that you feel I missed or wish to make a case for inclusion on this list, please feel free to message me, and, of course, have a happy and safe Halloween!

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