Doctor Who: its villains’ offscreen activities

A salute to the unexplained story elements in Doctor Who, that leave us wondering who makes all the equipment for the Daleks?

Doctor Who raises many questions. What is the Doctor’s real name? What would he have said to Rose on that beach? And most important of all, who is it that designs hats for the Daleks?

Throughout the show’s history, right back to 1964’s The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, the Doctor’s greatest foe have demonstrated precisely cack-all aptitude for millinery. The Robomen in that story were humans converted into slaves and fitted with large helmet/neck-brace combos for mind-control purposes. By 1988’s Remembrance Of The Daleks they’d realised that putting a small chip behind Michael Sheard’s ear was much less conspicuous, but then in 2007’s Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks they’ve decided hats aren’t enough and turn people into pig hybrids. In 1984’s Resurrection Of The Daleks, the Daleks hire mercenaries who wear helmets designed to look like little Daleks.

All of these pose the questions: how did this come about at the planning stage, and who actually makes these hats?

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Tantalising questions like this are never answered onscreen. Yet there are so many of them, if not needing answers, then at least inviting them. Sometimes they’re plotholes, sometimes they’re just unexplained story elements, sometimes they’re just people designing weird headgear. Gallifrey-set stories seem to bring out something in costume designers. This is not an article about plot holes and weird hats though. Any idiot can list plotholes and weird hats, as I believe I have demonstrated, but it’s what they suggest that is interesting to me: the planning stages before the main event.

The writing maxim ‘Enter the scene late, and leave early’ is basically how the Doctor operates. Thus, we never get to see Doctor Who villains engaged in brainstorming sessions, Blue Sky Thinking, or going to Thought Camp. We do not get to see the Cult of Skaro sneaking around New York attempting to kidnap a pig, and yet something like this must have happened before viewers join the story. While the discrepancies in Sontaran height and the Seal of Rassilon appearing on Voga have been addressed in spin-off material, no one has ever successfully explained how and why the Daleks did the pig slave thing.

Big continuity errors get big fan theories, whole novels are written to incorporate an explanation, but nobody – not John Peel, not Big Finish – is attempting to answer questions like ‘As they’re logical machine creatures, why do the Movellans look so disco?’. Or ‘What sort of ceremony needs a Koquillion costume?’. Or ‘Why is Meglos only spiky up to his wrists?’

There are two ways of looking at these questions: one is that they’re evidence of production deficiencies, another is that they’re opportunities to expand the story. Why does Meglos only have spiky bits up to his wrists? A mistake in costume, or an astute piece of character development – having spiky bits up past the wrist and below the neck means you’d constantly snag your clothes. Anyone would get irate if you were constantly snagging your clothes on your own spiky bits, so Meglos (the last of the Zolfa-Thurans) is clearly going to avoid this if he can. This sort of forward planning adds credence to his threat as a villain – clearly he’s a force to be reckoned with. This is the version of Doctor Who I carry around in my head.

Let’s not be embarrassed talking about headcanons. We’ve all got them. It’s natural. Alan Barnes once commented in Doctor Who Magazine that there’s an even longer version of Genesis Of The Daleks to be told, and it’s still great. Similarly, there’s a version of Castrovalva where you get to see the Master’s DIY session where he hastily made a Block Transfer Computation prison and installed that little lift.

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Mainly, the reasons these exist are some quirk of production there wasn’t time or inclination to address, or they’re relic from an earlier draft that no longer makes sense in a different context. For example, in the Master’s debut story Terror Of The Autons, his arrival on Earth is at a circus, which he then hypnotises and kidnaps in order to steal a Nestene unit from a museum. When written out like that, it feels as if an earlier draft may have involved trapeze artists and strongmen circumventing the museum’s security systems, but got cut for budget reasons. In reality, writer Robert Holmes’ intention was that a circus would be a useful means of distributing plastic toys to families, but this second part was cut. Thus, the very first thing the Doctor’s arch-nemesis does in the series is kidnap a circus to burgle a museum, setting us up neatly for all the leftfield plans the character would embark upon in the 80s.

This is just something that happens in long running series. Any successful protagonist is going to be ultimately lessened by their return, and writers are not – usually – evil supervillains themselves. Characters get brought back not because there’s a story for them, but because it feels like they ought to come back. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the Cybermen, who have been many different things according to the whims of writers. So much about them asks questions. Their various costume designs, many and varied vulnerabilities (especially to gold) have been explained by fan theories, but the following issues still unanswered: Who designs their signage on Telos? Why is the target on their target range a dummy Cyberman? What are the handles actually for?

Sometimes I lie awake at night thinking about how, in Arc Of Infinity, the only explanation for the Ergon is the Doctor saying “One of Omega’s less successful attempts at psychosynthesis”, even though it isn’t clear how the Doctor knows this, or why Omega decided to bring one of his less successful attempts at psychosynthesis with him, and all of a sudden Arc Of Infinity isn’t a lethargic slog through the show’s mythology, but an insight into a lonely super-being trying to while away eternity by making crap chickens with his mind.

Thus, from one rubbish monster costume, we find a world of pathos. You too can enhance your viewing pleasure in this way. Simply imagine the planning stages for The Android Invasion, or the day the Azurian customs and Excise officers were introduced to their new uniforms, and your inner worlds of Doctor Who will be just that little bit richer for it.