Doctor Who@50: The Monster Show

An on-going series of thematic essays exploring the icons of Doctor Who during its 50th year

The Monster Show

The theory goes that it was the Daleks’ first appearance at Christmas 1963 that turned Doctor Who from the hoped for educational journey through time and space into a monster show that set out to frighten kids (in a friendly way). However, a closer look at the evidence shows that it took a few years for the transition to “monster show” to fully take hold, a concept that reached its full flowering in Patrick Troughton’s second year as the Second Doctor.

Daleks1Following The Daleks, Doctor Who mostly spent the next couple of years alternating historical epics (Marco Polo) with far out space stories (The Keys of Marinus), with history as a backdrop for adventure still prevalent in the second year (The Romans, The Crusades, even The Time Meddler). However, the monsters (besides the Daleks) were beginning to creep towards the front of the screen, with The Web Planet unleashing a (fairly unconvincing) menagerie of insect life-forms. The War Machines simply presented viewers with Earthbound, square Daleks…

Then came the Cybermen, but before they could be fully explored William Hartnell was gone and Patrick Troughton had arrived as a fresh-faced, impish Doctor. He encountered the Daleks twice in his first year (they’d featured so far in five stories in four years, not including cameos). The Cybermen were back in The Moonbase, and The Macra Terror attempted to pass off some giant crabs as a fearsome foe. And that was it, a series seriously lacking in genuinely menacing monsters.

Then came the 1967-1968 season, the show’s fifth year on air. Innes Lloyd and Peter Bryant were producing, with Bryant also script editor for most of the stories. It must have come as shock to viewers to find that their series was now monster-packed, with season five featuring the menacing Cybermen twice (opening and closing the season), the brand new, lumbering Yeti (again, twice), and another new monster in the eponymous The Ice Warriors. The only exception was the human drama of The Enemy of the World… even Fury from the Deep featured malevolent seaweed.

Tomb1What were the reasons for this new approach? One was clearly budgetary: re-using monster costumes (even if the Cybermen’s look altered between stories), locations and sets meant that the series scant resources could be stretched further.  The show was also beginning to harden into a formula, the so-called “base under siege” format that was again aimed at maximising on-screen impact from the money available. No longer was Doctor Who quite as weird and strange as it had been during much of the William Hartnell period. Now it was becoming (for better or ill) a “monster of the week” show, a version of the Universal monster movies (popular on TV in the 1960s) but with bespoke Doctor Who creatures. But what creatures…

The Moonbase had done much to develop the Cybermen from their basic showing in The Tenth Planet, although they were mainly handled as a shadowy menace until the final episode. Season five’s opener, The Tomb of the Cybermen, really fleshed them out, giving them a motivation for their zeal for conversion. It may have drawn inspiration from the Universal movie The Mummy, but The Tomb of the Cybermen mixed archaeology with freaky space monsters. Sleeping in their tombs, the Cybermen are apparently no longer a threat. However, Kleig—who has funded the expedition—and his Brotherhood of Logicians are driven by an ulterior motive: they hope to find allies to their cause in the Cybermen, if they can revive them. Troughton’s Doctor here shows a manipulative trait seen most often in Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. He seems content to let the human party go about their business, even though he clearly realises the danger that awaits them if the silver giants are brought back to life. These Cybermen are not merely monsters, but the remnants of a tragic race whose history has condemned them to a terrible everlasting afterlife.

The first of this season’s great “monster moments” comes at the climax of the second episode, as the tombs are opened and the Cybermen revived. To the haunting score, they clamber from their cocoons, stagger to either side of the giant tomb structure and begin to descend the ladders to the ground. The episode ends with the reveal of the dome-headed Cybercontroller and his threat: “You belong to us. You shall be like us.” This introduced the idea of Cyber-conversion, the horrible thought that if caught by the Cybermen you’d be turned into one of them, existing forever more in a zombie afterlife, not human but not entirely machine either.

Yeti1There were more monsters to come. The Great Intelligence made its presence felt in The Abominable Snowman and the sequel The Web of Fear, transmitted over four months later. Thankfully, as the Intelligence is a disembodied, formless entity, there were the robotic Yeti to act as these stories’ fearsome physical adversaries, used by the Intelligence as part of its plan to inhabit a physical body and so conquer Earth. Set in the exotic country of Tibet, The Abominable Snowmen established a threat that would be brought closer to home in The Web of Fear in which the deadly robots are discovered lurking in the London Underground (perhaps not their natural habitat—if it had thought things through, the “Great” Intelligence might have chosen something that would blend in more, like a robotic tramp or a rat).

Essentially, The Web of Fear repeated a trick that had been used infrequently up to that point, but would become one of the defining hallmarks of Doctor Who. It brought the threat home, to the viewers’ metaphorical doorstep: in the famous words of Jon Pertwee, it put the Yeti on the “loo in Tooting Bec”. Previously the model of bringing a monster to contemporary Earth had been established in The Dalek Invasion of Earth (supposedly set in the future, but this was essentially contemporary London), and The War Machines. Previously for Troughton only The Faceless Ones had brought his Doctor to contemporary Earth.

IceWarriors1The third major monster unleashed in this season was the Ice Warriors, Martian invaders whose exact biological/mechanical make-up was somewhat uncertain: were they creatures in armour, or was that shell-like casing entirely natural? Their hissing, sibilant voices were suitably alien and suitably easy for kids across the nation to imitate, much more so than the Cybermen. They were, as Cold War scriptwriter Mark Gatiss told the Radio Times, “the embodiment of the slow-moving [Doctor] Who monster of legend”. In a nutshell, that’s largely their function in The Ice Warriors, to lumber after the Doctor’s companions (among others). However, like the Cybermen, they represented a civilisation, one that would be developed even further in their 1970s’ colour appearances opposite Jon Pertwee’s dashing Third Doctor.

Parasitic seaweed might seem like a feeble kind of malevolence in comparison to Cybermen, Yeti and Ice Warriors, but Fury from the Deep makes it work (as far as can be told from the audio and contemporary reviews). The heart beat sound of the weed creature takes on extra significance on audio, while the briefest of clips and a selection of stills are all we have to go on visually. Similarly, as the creature is defeated by the pitch of companion Victoria’s scream, it seems rather fitting that Fury from the Deep should currently exist in its fullest form as a purely audio experience.

The Wheel in Space brings back the Cybermen, in another “base under siege” tale in which the space station itself is the base. Having appeared merely months earlier, these Cybermen are subtly different in appearance than their immediate predecessors. Unlike Tomb, though, Wheel does little with the Cybermen and the story would be little different if they were replaced with Yeti or Ice Warriors. Where Fury from the Deep introduced the sonic screwdriver, The Wheel in Space saw the debut of another concept much used on the series in recent years, the Doctor’s alias of “John Smith”. So while it is packed with “monsters”, the main ones are if not humanised, certainly civilised by being representatives of a wider civilisation in the case of both the Cybermen and the Ice Warriors.

Zygons1The other season majorly driven by monsters is Philip Hinchliffe’s first full run as producer, season 13 in 1975-1976. Where in 1967-1968 the focus was on developing a relatively new monster (the Cybermen) and introducing some brand new ones (the Intelligence, the Yeti, the Ice Warriors), the season that kicked off with Terror of the Zygons was based around literary pastiche (mainly gothic) wrapped in B-movie homage. The show was showing its age once again, after almost a decade and a half on air, so Hinchcliffe turned to monsters to spruce things up. He admitted that he and script editor Robert Holmes were revisiting “motifs that had worked in the past [in literature], but we wanted to interpret them through the format of Doctor Who”.

The shape-shifting embryo-like Zygons (finally seen again in the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor) recalled such 1950s science fiction movies as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) in their modus operandi of impersonation. Locating events in the Scottish Highlands allowed for echoes of ancient folk tales, such as that of the shape-shifting Selkie, to be suggested. There’s more Scottish literary influence on Planet of Evil, as Stevenson’s Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde informs Professor Sorensen’s split personality, while the anti-matter monster recalls a similar creature from the Id seen in Forbidden Planet (1958, itself drawing from Shakespeare’s The Tempest).

Pyramids1Although drawing more widely on Egyptology and the “curse” of Tutankhamun (whose treasure had been exhibited in Britain as recently as 1972), Pyramids of Mars, with its robotic mummies and ancient Egyptian “gods” was inspired by Bram Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903) and lashings of “God was an astronaut” author Erich von Daniken. “Bob [Holmes] liked to rework some of the more gothic pool of material,” confirmed Hinchcliffe. There was more in The Android Invasion, whose robot duplicates riffed on Westworld (1973) and The Stepford Wives (1975, but the novel was published in 1972), while The Brain of Morbius shamelessly strip-mined Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for inspiration. The season’s final story, The Seeds of Doom saw the rampaging monster of King Kong (the 1976 remake was released that Christmas) crossed with the alien-pod-from-outer-space gambit of 1951’s The Thing from Another World. In 1976, Doctor Who was unabashedly a monster show.

While all these monsters were new to Doctor Who, they wore their literary and B-movie inspirations on their sleeves. The creatures previously unleashed in 1967-1968 seem somehow fresher, more rooted in a sense of alien civilisations. Supposedly the Zygons came from an advanced world, but it is hard to imagine how that civilisation might work, whereas with the Cybermen and the Ice Warriors, viewers could see there was more to them off-screen, an entire background waiting to be explored. The same cannot be said of the Krynoid, not matter how much fun it was.

Cybermen2There are weird echoes of the 1960s’ season five in the batch of episodes transmitted early in 2013. The Cybermen were featured, and redesigned (Nightmare in Silver), the Great Intelligence was a foe in two stories (The Bells of Saint John, The Name of the Doctor), the Ice Warriors made a splash (Cold War), and the Doctor battled his own doppleganger (Nightmare in Silver, again). Unlike in Troughton’s time, these monsters were not fresh inventions, ripe for deeper explorations, they were old, well-worn foes that needed drastic re-invention if they were to work anew. Just as Hinchcliffe and Holmes grave robbed pulp fiction archetypes, so current Doctor Who found new ways of revitalising monsters long thought dead. Long live the monster show.

This essay now forms part of Who Beyond 50: Celebrating Five Decades of Doctor Who. Click here to order it from


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