For every Dalek, there is an Adipose. For every Sontaran, there is a Rill. Doctor Who is replete with hundreds of villainous creatures and aliens who have fallen through the cracks of fandom’s collective memory. Not so much forgotten, as perhaps unappreciated. Unappreciated because of their design, or perhaps the quality of the story, or a combination of both. Surely, there are one off creatures, such as the Raston Warrior Robot, that were perfectly suited for their sole appearance, and need not return. But there are others, but for a random chance of fate, may’ve ascended to the heights of fan adoration and into the memory of the wider public. The list below presents my Top 5 Unappreciated Monsters, a legion of foes of the Doctor who almost, but just missed, being great. I’d love to hear what your choices would be, in the comment section.
1. The Nimon
‘The Horns of Nimon’ came about during a period in British life where the cost of living was being pounded by runaway inflation. With the economy in freefall, with the government of a once great Empire having to go cap in hand to the World Bank for a loan, with the infamous three day week in full swing, Britain was in a very, very bad place. Much like the people of Skonnos, blithely unaware of, but tempted by the riches on offer, by the menace that is the Nimon.
This story doesn’t have the best reputation. Tom Baker is so off the leash the role of the Doctor-figure was played by Lalla Ward, as Romana, in episode 3. The sets are flimsy, the acting is at times indifferent, and the lead human villain, Soldeed, is played with maniacal, if misplaced glee, by one time contender for the role of the Doctor, Graham Crowden. In leans, perhaps too heavily, on Greek mythology and the chief monsters, the minotaur-like Nimon are in flares and high heels. And yet…
The Nimon themselves, as galactic parasites, are a genius idea. Their plan, to send an envoy to a once proud people with promises of a return to greatness, all the while laying the groundwork in secret of forming a bridgehead to bring across its fellows, is a sinister delight. Greed, the pursuit of power and overweening ambition, are all human traits the Nimon were perfectly placed to exploit and profit from. So why aren’t they better remembered today.
Aside from the aforementioned production problems, the design of the creatures, in part, let them down. The 70s is responsible for a lot of wonderful films and music. Fashion, however, was a disaster. Believe me, I lived through it, and if a pair of tartan pants was considered a high point in Western consumerism, then perhaps conquest by those Russkies was something we should’ve welcomed, and not spurned. The ridiculously tall platform shoes, the black body stocking, and the split skirts aren’t the best realisation of an alien being. What does work though, is the warbling effect placed on the voice. And if it is not exactly clear that the Nimon is wearing some sort of helmet, the design work on the facial features is very, very good.
It’s unfortunate that production issues, a falling budget and performances like Crowden’s detract from what otherwise is a very effective creature. The devastation that Romana sees on the planet Crinoth, where the bulk of the Nimon wait to descend on Skonnos like a horde of locusts, speaks of a ruthless race of cunning creatures who tempt those greedy enough to ignore the warning signs. In the hands of a production team not beset by internal and external problems, the Nimon could return to the new series and present a formidable foe for the Doctor.
2. The Vervoids
The Trial of a Time Lord season has a lot of detractors. Many regard it as a failed opportunity for Doctor Who to prove to powers in charge at the time that the series was still relevant, and had a place on the BBCs schedules. It was faulted for not taking full advantage of the format – which took its inspiration from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – and instead presented a series of tired stories with an even more tired framing device.
While it isn’t ever going to be regarded as the highpoint of the series, over time, a certain warmth and affection has developed for Colin Baker’s second, and final season. And the commonly regarded highpoint is The Terror of the Vervoids, a sort of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ story set on a cruise liner in space. And deserving of a re-evaluation are the Vervoids, the human/plant hybrids that ran rampant through the story. Hating ‘animal-kind’ for their depredations on plant life, the Vervoids secrete themselves through the liner, and strike when the time is right.
Probably the biggest negative about the creatures is the quite obvious point that they are actors in suits. The second biggest negative is the design of the face. Go on, do an image search for ‘Vervoid’. Once you’ve had a good lie down, come back here for the rest of the article.
All that aside, I’m not sure what else fans could’ve expected, on the budget dished out to the production team. Sure, with the Seeds of Doom, the Krynoid creature was effectively realised, but that was one, not half a dozen. Within the bounds of what was viable, the costume itself is really very good, with a lot of busywork – vines and such like, adding to the look of the costume. The faces (ahem) while being slightly problematic, are again a really good piece of design work, with plenty to look at and…admire?
And the concept is a good one as well. The way an accident has turned Professor Lasky’s assistant into a hybrid of Vervoid and human recalls the body horror of the aforementioned Seeds of Doom. In fact, this is probably the very last time the classic series touched on that trope, and they use it here to very good effect. There is plenty of scope, should a future production see fit to resurrect the Vervoids, to use them in some sort of ecological based story that touches on the rapacity of humanity when it comes to the environment around them. The way the Vervoids piled their victims up in a compost heap hints at the view they have of humanity…
I must admit, when I watched the Aliens of London two parter, my heart sank. Here was a chance to have a gripping adventure in the heart of modern London, and the production team let it all down with having farting aliens as the villains. All the settings were in place – murder, mystery, intrigue and the threat of an alien invasion, the first real widescreen experience for the audience. And Russell T Davies went for the funny bone.
It’s still a decision I shake my head at but can understand with the benefit of hindsight. Davies was eager to ensure the returned series had as broad an audience as possible. Something for a family audience, in other words. There would be a bit of drama for the adults, a nice young lady for the Dads to admire, and the funny looking aliens who farted a lot for the kiddies. Since Doctor Who had some of its best ever ratings and was adored by a new generation of children, who am I to judge the decision making of a hardened professional?
Still, the Slitheen were fatally undermined as a ruthless foe by all the farting. Yes, it had a pseudo scientific explanation, but it was still farting. If anything was designed to undercut the credibility of a monster, it was all that release of surplus gas (plus some very dodgy CGI design work). That said…there’s heaps of potential that could be used.
Unlike all the classic monsters, which want to dominate or destroy or both, the Slitheen are instead more of a crime family, a sort of space faring Corleone clan, intent on making the biggest buck possible. Lowering the stakes like that brings them closer to the audience, and allows a level of individuality that the Daleks or the Cybermen cannot hope to match. We see their potential in Annette Badland’s performance as ‘Margaret Blaine’ an escapee Slitheen in ‘Boom Town’ where she gives a riveting performance against Christopher Eccleston. The Slitheen return a number of times in The Sarah Jane Adventures, where perhaps they find a more accommodating production team.
A future production team could have the Slitheen return in a caper themed episode, or have the Doctor and companions caught in the crossfire of a clan war between rival Slitheen families. Ditch (mostly) the farting, concentrate on all the crime tropes that can be gathered in one spot, and there’s the potential for a really fun and exciting story.
4. The Sea Devils
An aquatic knock off of the Silurians (or Eocenes for the pedants out there) the Sea Devils first appeared in a story of the same name during the Third Doctor’s era. Like their land based cousins, the Sea Devils sought shelter beneath the oceans when the planet wide disaster overcame their civilisation. Awoken by the actions of the humans above them , the Sea Devils sought to carve out a place for themselves in a world now hostile to them. Similarly in their return story, ‘Warriors of the Deep’, the Sea Devils attempted to take advantage of the world wide tensions of a world in the depths of a new cold war.
There’s little to fault the design work of the creatures, particularly in their introductory story. This was undermined in their return, where it was blatantly obvious that the headpieces weren’t really fitting with the chest piece on the actors. It’s little things like this that can undercut their potential menace for an audience. In a sense, the Sea Devils have always operated in the shadows of the Silurians, whose introductory story ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ was one of the strongest entries in Pertwee’s exceptional
It’s a pity, because with some care and thought, the Sea Devils can return to the production and provide an interesting menace for the Doctor. Indeed, the use of the Silruans in the Eleventh Doctor two parter, ‘The Hungry Earth’ and ‘Cold Blood’ could serve as a pointer, design wise, for any new iteration of their amphibious cousins.
Warriors of the Deep, in terms of their vaguely Japanese styled armor, also points to how they can be revived. A culture of sea going warriors, bound by a strong code of honor and duty, would make for a more interesting race than simply another mob of faceless aliens intent on conquest. Like the Silurians, the essential tragedy of the Sea Devils is that they’ve survived too long, and emerged onto a planet hostile to their continued existence.
There’s also the opportunity for sea-going horror here as well. The obvious comparison to HP Lovecraft’s Deep Ones is most apparent. Think remote Pacific island, shipwrecked travellers, a mysterious idol, and creatures in the night as the Doctor struggles to survive until the dawn. Spooky!
5. Vashta Nerada
There’s a lot going on in ‘The Silence in the Library’ and the ‘Forest of the Dead’. A planet spanning library, a group of explorers stumbling into peril, a woman who claims to know the Doctor’s future and an AI that appears to think it is a little girl. Not to mention that shadows that move of their own volition.
It’s the Vashta Nerada, those pesky shadows, that immediately captured my imagination. When they swarm in great numbers, they devour flesh all the way down to the bone. They are the simplest of monsters, possessing a hive mind and the desire to feed. Normally harmless in small numbers, in the confines of the Library, they are at their most deadly.
I suppose all the other elements in the episodes, particularly the first appearance of River Song, tend to overshadow the Vashta Nerada. But when you think about them, they are pure nightmare fuel. They silently stalk their prey, using the shadows as perfect hiding places before pouncing and devouring them. It is an idea so simple, much like Stephen Moffat’s later, more widely praised creations, the Weeping Angels, that this very simplicity gives the Vashta Nerada their menace.
They are perfect for any horror based story, one that relies on a slow build up, a menacing atmosphere and plenty of shadows. A stranded team of explorers are perfect fodder for their hunger. A party in a so-called haunted house, at night, presents possibilities. An abandoned spaceship, the uniforms of the crew lying seemingly abandoned in their positions on the bridge. A nightclub where the patrons go in, but never come out…
I personally think that at its best, Doctor Who is scary. Not gore scary, or torture porn scary, but full of tension and atmosphere and the sense that anything could happen at any time. Something that creeps or floats through the air as innocuous as a mote of dust. Tiny specks of darkness that lurk just out of sight, gathering slowly, building their strength, readying themselves to strike. Their introductory story would’ve been bereft without them, an interesting tale of an archaeological dig gone awry, with a strange character to baffle the Doctor, and nothing more than that. But it is the Vashta Nerada who add spice to it all, who tear away the certainties the characters have become used to, and who cannot be talked to or negotiated with. Their sheer implacability is their real power, and something a future production could put to very good use.