Doctor Who Has a Villain Problem

Doctor Who‘s go-to villains are boring. Daleks are boring. Cybermen are boring. The Master is extra super boring with a side of tedious.

The problem with these staples of Doctor Who is not that they are bad villains in themselves. Omnicidal mechanized life forms like the Daleks and Cybermen are a staple of science fiction. Star Trek has done a lot of good work with its Borg, who are just Cybermen with the serial numbers filed off. (For anyone wondering, Cybermen first appeared in the original Doctor Who in 1966, the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989.) As for the Master, you can hardly throw a sonic screwdriver in sci-fi without hitting a gloating egomaniac who acts as a foil to the hero. The problem with these villains is that they are a bad fit for Doctor Who.

A large part of Doctor Who‘s charm is the pacifism of its hero. As a hero who refuses to pick up a weapon and is always looking for a peaceful solution, the Doctor is, if not entirely unique, a refreshing rarity in science fiction, a genre often bristling with laser blasters and photon torpedoes. Through all the character’s many regenerations, this has been one of their defining characteristics: they approach the unknown with wits and words, not guns and bombs. An explorer, a tinkerer, a scientist, a detective, a negotiator—the Doctor is anything but a warrior. They are at their best not fighting an enemy but solving a problem.

Some of the great episodes of Doctor Who‘s new incarnation have been about precisely that: solving a problem. Even when the Doctor is up against some opposing force, they approach it not as an enemy to be beaten but as a riddle to unravel. Antagonists like the nanogenes that turned blitz-era Londoners into gas-masked zombies in “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” (season 1) or the clockwork robots haunting Madame de Pompadour in “The Girl in the Fireplace” (season 2) were not evil, just malfunctioning technology that the Doctor could fix or disable. Some of the Doctor’s great opponents have indeed been evil, or at least menacing, like the Weeping Angels in “Blink” (season 3) or the mysterious word-copying entity of “Midnight” (season 4), but the Doctor finds ways to defeat them that don’t involve fighting. These kinds of episodes are what we come to Doctor Who for.

Daleks and Cybermen are different. They cannot be negotiated with or peacefully fixed. They are, as written, super-powered beings whose only goal is to wipe out all other life in the universe. The only sensible response to them is simply to blast them to bits with whatever guns or bombs you have on hand until there is nothing left of them to blow up. If the Doctor did that, though, they wouldn’t be the Doctor any more, and we would lose what we love most about the character. Which means that whenever Daleks or Cybermen show up, you can count on one of two things happening: the Doctor will magically jigger together some handwavy way of getting rid of them without killing them (which is unsatisfying), or some other character will blast them to bits with whatever guns or bombs they have on hand (which rather feels like cheating). Daleks and Cybermen just don’t make for good Doctor Who.

(Also, Doctor Who has really stretched the limits of how much I can tolerate villains with annoying voices who narrate everything they do out loud, but that’s a separate issue.)

The Master is even worse. Daleks and Cybermen at least have coherent goals, however generic. The Master seems to exist simply to annoy the Doctor. Every atrocity they commit, every murder and overly-complicated scheme, serves only one purpose: to make the Doctor feel bad. The Master’s entire motivation stems, as far as I can tell, from one time when they and the Doctor were both Time Kids and the Doctor missed a play date, or something—that is all the depth the character ever gets (at least in the new series). There is no problem here for the Doctor to solve. Nothing to fix or negotiate, just an obsessed stalker whose go-to move is genocide. The best response to the Master would be to shoot them as soon as they turn up and keep shooting them until they run out of regenerations, but that’s not Doctor Who and I wouldn’t want Doctor Who to become a show where that would happen.

Doctor Who is all about saving the day without resorting to violence. Pitting its hero against enemies who allow for no non-violent solution defeats the purpose of Doctor Who. Give us more mysteries, more problems, more foes who can be diverted or negotiated with, not more implacable monstrosities.

Image: Cybermen confront a Dalek, from “Doomsday” (Doctor Who, season 2) via IMDB

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