Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Ten Worst Doctor Who Monsters

Traditionally, Doctor Who was always a show that was mocked for the perceived poor quality of its special effects. Most of the time this wasn't true at all - the show had perfectly good effects save for the brief moments that a family member walked in the room, when the show would suddenly switch to wobbly footage of a crudely made hand-puppet with a scary felt-tip face.

Of course, the new show with its mega budget put paid to those memories, and now Doctor Who is known as a television show with great effects (apart from when they're rubbish). That said, the march of time will soon make even the newest, most swish effect look awful. In some lists I've seen online, people dare to rank the maggots from 1974's The Green Death as amongst the worst - get a grip, people! The maggots were excellent for the day!

As long as they are making new episodes, there will always be rubbish monsters. But which are the worst? And what makes a bad monster? To my mind, it's not as simple as 'it looks awful'. To be truly bad, a monster must:

i. Be bad, even within the context of the period in which it was made.
ii. Undermine the production.
iii. Be a clearly terrible idea that no human being could have believed would work.

Here is my list of the ten worst, in no particular order. And no, you won't find the Abzorbaloff here. Because I believe it's secretly brilliant. No my friend, there are far, far worse than the Abzorbaloff...


1. Giant Rat
There's a subset of fandom which thinks the worst thing with The Talons of Weng-Chiang is the giant rat and not the fact that one of the villains is a white man made up in yellowface to be Chinese, and the entire story hinges about how evil the Chinese are. It's a fair complaint, but at the same time, Talons is a pastache of Fu Manchu, though the wisdom of doing a Fu Manchu story in 1977 is perhaps the more pressing concern.

Ignoring that, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a bona-fide classic, a tour-de-force by outgoing producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and writer Robert Holmes, featuring the 4th Doctor battling the evil time-travelling criminal Weng-Chiang in Victorian London. Apart from the ill-advised yellowface, the production is top-notch, until the Doctor's companion Leela goes into the sewers and is attacked by a man in a rat suit.

Rather famously, Steven Moffat is quoted as saying that "How could a good hack think that the BBC could make a giant rat? If he'd come to my house when I was 14 and said 'Can BBC Special Effects do a giant rat?' I'd have said no." Really though, that's not the problem. The BBC could have done a giant rat in a sewer and not made it look awful. The reason the rat doesn't work is very simple, and for a story that had so much care lavished on it, it is unbelievable no-one realised.

Sewer rats are not fluffy.

The rat that attacks Leela in the sewer is clearly a big fluffy rat that has never been near water, as it is a costume they just plonked onto the set when they filmed it. It didn't need CGI or expensive additions, all the rat needed was to have its fur matted down with water or grease and it would have looked ten times better. The rat isn't bad because it's a rubbish giant rat. The rat is bad because it's a rubbish giant rat that didn't need to have looked so rubbish.


2. Lazarus Monster

CGI is always a bit of a gamble on television. It can look great, but it can also be seen as a cheap shortcut to get something impossible to make physically with the assumption that it will always work.
2007's 'The Lazarus Experiment' featured the latter. A monster which could never have been a costume, but looked too much like a CGI model someone had animated (as well, it was). There's absolutely no suspension of disbelief as at no time does the monster look like it could possibly be real. This is because of the baffling decision to give it a human face.

Yes, the monster is a transformed Mark Gatiss. Yes, it is clearly some sort of vestigial face. But the issue is that the audience, as human beings, knows what a face is supposed to look like. It also knows what bad CGI faces look like. As much as you can argue "Yes, but the monster's face just looks like a bad CGI face and is actually some sort of vestigial thing," it still looks like a bad CGI face.


3. Alpha Centauri
Alpha Centauri is a monster beloved of many Who fans. He/she is a hemaphrodite from the planet Alpha Centauri in the galaxy Alpha Centauri and is called Alpha Centauri. With his/her veiny, shaft-like appearance and bulbous head with eye poking out, he/she also looks suspiciously like a giant green penis.

Upon seeing the finished prop, the direct or ordered it to be changed. The designers threw a cape around it, to which the director replied "Great, now it looks like a penis in a cape!"

Despite looking incredibly rude, Alpha Centauri appeared not once (in 'The Curse of Peladon') but returned for an encore in 'The Monster of Peladon' looking as equally dodgy.

That's only half the reason Alpha Centauri is so awful. Alpha Centauri also appeared on The Black and White Minstrel Show (this was a popular television show where white actors did songs in blackface). For shame, Alpha. For shame! Making a really rude-looking monster is one thing. Thinking it worked so well that you use it again is another. Then using it as a prop in an incredibly racist television show is somehow making the situation even worse!


4. Quarks
Apologists have tried to describe the Quarks as 'cute' but really, they're absolutely horrible. The Quarks appeared in the 1968 story 'The Dominators' and somehow were not the worst thing about that story, which was about how pacifism is stupid. Yeah, take that, hippies! The Quarks were seemingly a small child's idea of what a robot looked like (which was ironic as there were small children inside the suits) and consisted of a big box, two comedy feet and little stick arms that helplessly waggled out in front. They also make cute chirping noises.

Everyone involved desperately wanted the Quarks to be an iconic new monster, but they quite clearly weren't. Unfortunately the creators of the Quarks threatened legal action against BBC over their merchandising rights (as everyone involved was convinced that they were going to be The Next Big Thing) which nearly tanked the programme itself. The Quarks were not only clearly awful-looking, but somehow no-one realised and were willing to destroy Doctor Who for the glory of the Quarks.

When the Doctor was put on trial by the Time Lords, the Quarks were the very first bit of evidence he gave. The Doctor lost the case.


5. Dinosaurs
'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' is a story that for years was known as 'The One With The Crap Dinosaurs'. That was all anyone would say about it, which was a shame because the story itself is one of Doctor Who's best.  The problem is that Doctor Who was never good at doing dinosaurs, and yet the production team somehow became convinced that an entire story based around dinosaurs was possible. They contracted out to a company that promised them realistic dinosaur action, and got the Chewitts Monster.

The thing is, it's not actually that bad. There are some dinosaur sequences which are actually really good. Unfortunately there are also some dinosaur sequences that are really terrible. Because the story is called 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' though, a lot hinges on the spectacle of the dinosaurs, and so sub-par dinosaurs are immediately obvious. 'Carnival of Monsters' had a crap dinosaur and that story is a 10/10 classic; it's not called 'Attack of the Plesiosaur' though.

'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' didn't actually need dinosaurs in it. The dinosaurs were simply a plot device that could have been replaced by anything menacing from history. When the unusable model effect footage came in, the production team could have worked around it rather than using every single dinosaur shot. As I said, some of the shots are great. But all anyone remembers is the t-rex gently bumping its head against the brontosaurus. A fight that has no point in the plot apart from spectacle.

And it's crap spectacle. Crap spectacle that detracts from an amazing story.


6. Slitheen
"Ha ha, Slitheens fart, tee hee, next." No, I'm not going to criticise the Slitheen for fart jokes. Doctor Who is a family show, and fart jokes have their place (even though it was probably a bit much). The dark secret of Doctor Who fandom is that we all loved 'Aliens of London'/'World War Three' when they were first broadcast; it was only later that the internet fandom machine decided it was terrible.
The Slitheen though, don't work on a more basic level. In some scenes, the Slitheen are clearly costumes. They are large, bulky and slow-moving. They are lumbering, swaying creatures. In other scenes they are CGI, and are really quick, racing about at speed like dangerous predators.
Choose one. Either the CGI effects match the costumes, or you don't use the costumes and keep them all CGI. Having two clearly different portrayals of the same monster completely breaks immersion, and it's a really obvious issue. In fact, it's such an obvious issue that it demonstrates the pressures that the series 1 production team were under.

At some point at the beginning of production, someone forgot to make sure that the costumes and CGI portrayals of the monsters matched up. Something really easy to do at the start snowballed into something impossible to fix once filming was done and computer rendering finished. There's a moral here. And the moral isn't "don't make fart jokes."


7. Erato
1979's 'The Creature From The Pit' is a story that's unfairly maligned. It's actually a surprisingly fun story with some nice twists and a good villain. It's got the hand of Douglas Adams all over it, even though he was a far better writer than he was script editor. Still though, it's impossible to avoid Erato.
Erato was a monster that just didn't work. Everyone knew it, even at the time. The script called for a giant alien blob with a tendril, and with the best will in the world, the BBC props department is never going to produce something on par with Hollywood. They should have known better than to produce something phallic though.

So the Doctor is in the pit, and he meets the creature, and the creature's large, girthy tendril is floppy. The Doctor picks it up and it stiffens and he blows into it and... well, look. It obviously looked rude. There's no way that everyone involved didn't look at it and think "Goodness that looks like a giant wang". The question arises then: Why on Earth did they still film the scene where the Doctor performs his... oral skills on it. That scene wasn't needed. It would have looked far less rude and wouldn't have affected the plot one bit. There's a certain admiration for a production team knowing what they are about to film is going to be awful and doing it anyway, but still...
You knew what you were doing, Tom Baker. You naughty, naughty man.


8. Human Dalek Sec
Oh Human Dalek Sec, how I hate thee.

Apparently the writer of 'Daleks in Manhattan'/'Evolution of the Daleks' was reduced to tears by fan reaction to that story. This is often held up as an example of how mean fans can be on the internet, when really it should be held up as an example of 'don't write Daleks in Manhattan'. No-one was ever reduced to tears by the reaction to 'Human Nature' or 'Blink'. The Daleks having a secret base in the Empire State Building during Depression-era America, is actually a cool one. But then you add pig slaves (of course, the Daleks have pig slaves) and turn one of the Daleks into a man with a rude-looking face in a pin-striped suit, and you really have to start to worry.

The thing is, there's actually a lot to like about the story, but also a lot to dislike. Many parts just don't work. The worst part though was the meta-narrative, in which the BBC pushed hard the idea that Dalek Sec was the new 'face' of the Daleks, amidst rumours that maybe the BBC had lost the license to use the iconic Dalek design so were drastically redesigning them. Reaction was drastically negative, not just because no-one liked the design, but no-one wanted the design at all. A similar thing would happen with 'Victory of the Daleks'.


9. Cybershades
In 2008, Doctor Who was top dog on television. The de facto best show ever, and the Christmas Special 'The Next Doctor' was eagerly awaited. For some reason lots of people really hate this story, and they're completely wrong - it's great. It does have its flaws though, but they're not the flaws everyone thinks (basically, Jackson Lake should have saved his son and the day, rather than leaving the Doctor to do it).

The Cybermen are actually menacing for once. The Cyberking is a fun idea. The Cybershades are... what is a Cybershade?

Seriously. In terms of effects that didn't have a hope of working, putting a man in a furry monkey costume and placing a Cyberman hat on his head was right up at the top. At first glance I assumed the Cybershade was some sort of fake Cyberman that a conman was using, but no, it's an actual Cyber-minion.

What's it supposed to be? Seriously. What's going on? Why are the Cybermen putting men in furry suits? Are they secret furries? Did they successfully Cyber-convert the Taran Wood Beast? I genuinely have no idea.


10. Myrka
The script for 'Warriors of the Deep' called for a menacing monster that lurked in the shadows, cracking with electricity as it raced through the underwater sea base, killing everything in it's path.
The reality was a lumbering pantomime horse design that slowly ambled down floodlit sets, controlled by the operators of Dobbin the Horse from Rentaghost, head waving unconvincingly as it trampled down mattresses that for some reason were being used as bulkheads. The cameraman even made sure to get closeups of its big waddling feet.

The Myrka was awful. No-one will ever defend it. It nearly didn't happen though - internal BBC strife meant that studio space was restricted, and the Doctor Who team were left with the option of either filming 'Warriors of the Deep' in a rush before everything was ready, or not making it at all. They chose to go for it.

A brave choice. It's also very possible that if it wasn't made it would be thought of as a lost classic along the lines of Shada, and fans would be dreaming of the Myrka.

It did happen though, in all its horrible glory. The Myrka costume wasn't even finished, and smeared wet green paint everywhere it went. The decision to floodlight all the sets made every fault even worse (compare it to the Magma Beast and Queen Bat in Caves of Androzani, both equally terrible costumes, but the director wisely turned all the lights off and pumped smoke into the studio).

The new Controller of the BBC, Michael Grade, saw Warriors of the Deep broadcast on television and immediately called an internal inquiry onto how on Earth something that poor quality was broadcast. The blame was put squarely on the effects team, but really everyone was to blame. How can you see something like this and think "Yes, yes, that is perfect".

The Myrka was what got the ire of Michael Grade and got Doctor Who put on hiatus a year later, not the Colin Baker era. It was that hiatus that helped cripple Doctor Who in the public eye, eventually leading to the 1989 cancellation. The Myrka was a monster so awful it killed Doctor Who.

1 comment:

  1. I saw "worst monsters of Doctor Who" and you mentioning the new show, and immediately thought of #2. Dalek Sec wasn't that great, either.

    ReplyDelete