Doctor Who’s one-off monsters: a celebration

Andrew looks back over the history of Doctor Who's one-off monsters to select his top single-appearance villains...

Doctor Who is a carnival of monsters. There are those whose presence provides an episode with status, but more frequently there are those who make one appearance, and one appearance only. To appear once in Doctor Who is not a failure by any means, and in fact some of the best loved monsters and villains are so beloved because their one brilliant story was not followed up with something that diluted their appeal. 

Ignoring spin-off material for a second (which is a shame, as anyone who has ever listened to the Big Finish story Omega would tell you), as spin-off stories can and do indulge us in bringing back monsters in surprising ways (Brave New Town, for example, with Paul McGann’s magisterial delivery of the word ‘Uzbekistan’), the TV show is full of brilliant and memorable creations who only featured in one story. 

I am going to tell you about my three favourite such monsters. You are going to list yours below until we have a compendium of greatness. We will all grow as people as a result. Yes we will.

1. Mr Sin

Ad – content continues below

Mr Sin is a character who should be googled with care. He is also brilliantly grotesque. He’s a cyborg. Everyone loves a good cyborg. The problem with Mr Sin is that the organic part of him is the cerebral cortex of a pig. I don’t know if you’ve read Animal Farm, but pigs are right bad ‘uns. Only Robert Holmes could invent a monster that began life as a toy called ‘The Peking Homunculus’ before it becomes homicidal and nearly causes World War Six by killing a major politician, the Commissioner of the Icelandic Alliance. Oh, the world building in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, it is so very impressive in its economy and scale.  

Mr Sin enters the story as a ventriloquist’s dummy, who comes to life and kills people off-screen in ways that would make a horse sick. He shuffles forward, knife ready and raised, cackling maniacally. He moves like he’s been stabbed. He has been stabbed. The Doctor’s companion stabs him. It doesn’t stop him, because he’s an unhinged midget cyborg from the future who enjoys killing, torturing, and generally hurting people. 

The best thing about Mr Sin is that, really, he doesn’t actually need to be in the story for it to work. One of the many obviously not-Chinese coolies could have done the dirty work. However, Robert Holmes wants to give children nightmares. This is entirely laudable, as far as I’m concerned, as I don’t have any kids. If you have kids, and you want to give them nightmares, you could do worse than watch The Talons of Weng-Chiang. You could scream the text of Thus Spake Zarathustra at them while they are trying to sleep, for example. That’s much worse.

2. The Tharils

Ad – content continues below

Warriors’ Gate is Doctor Who as hard-sci-fi with a lyrical quality, brought about by writer Steven Gallagher, script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, and director Paul Joyce. All three combined, with no little debate, to produce a story that carries you along in its wake without your necessarily following any of it. Like Ghostlight, it may not be immediately comprehensible but it is entertaining enough for that not to matter. Reportedly Gallagher wrote what was essentially a draft of a novel, leaving Bidmead to knock it into something script-shaped, followed by Joyce directing the show with a flair and imagination that left the BBC dumbfounded and in fear of going over budgets, deadlines and viewers’ heads. 

The Tharils lived in a void between universes, and once commanded a great empire, enslaving many humans in the process, dismissing the amorality of this with the comment ‘They’re only people’. 

This is described in dialogue, because as visually impressive as Warriors’ Gate is, there was no way the budget could stretch to the image of thousands of leonine aliens spewing into our universe via a castle gateway hanging in space in order to attack and enslave another vessel and its occupants.

Now, on the other hand, we might have a cat in hell’s chance of achieving the special effects necessary to produce this image. The Tharils are, visually, another alien similar to an animal that the show has produced several of since 2005. They also lived in the void between worlds, and can only be contained by Dwarf Star alloy, both things that have been referenced in recent episodes. As time sensitive aliens (capable of surviving in the vortex unharmed) who once ruled a vast empire and then, because obviously things weren’t already brilliant enough, got attacked by killer robots, there is a lot of potential if they were to be revisited. However, after the Time War, it’d require a good explanation for them to return, as presumably they were involved in some way.

Despite this, I would love to see them make a return to the show. Preferably without human breasts and a catchphrase.

Ad – content continues below

3. Fenric

Fenric is ‘evil from the dawn of time’, among several disembodied intelligences in Doctor Who that seem to come from outside the known universe. Why is he better than the other ones? Because he only appears in corporeal form for twenty-five minutes and still manages to get most of the good lines in The Curse of Fenric, for one thing (‘Don’t interrupt me when I’m eulogising’ is my personal favourite). For another, he ruins lives with abandons, corrupting whole bloodlines so that his resurrection might come about. This godlike scale is the level he operates on, giving a story from the original run’s final series an epic background of gods and monsters to explore, and tie together a multitude of ideas and themes that reward multiple viewings. Also, it’s a story which has fun with some very traditional Doctor Who elements: we’ve got a good monster, rising out the sea, we’ve got a line explaining why the weather is so variable on location, and turning the unexplained into the explained using plausibly scientific-sounding nonsense.

The tainting of bloodlines is what eventually pushes Nicholas Parsons’ Reverend Wainright over the edge. In just a minute of screen-time we the final moments of a good man turned hollow by war, faced by the blunt statement that for some people there never was any hope of salvation, who loses his faith in religion, humanity, and himself. At the same time, we are also getting to see Nicholas Parsons fighting vampires.

This is precisely why I love Doctor Who.

Ad – content continues below

Fenric is a figure of potentially more power than The Master, having created an entire alternate future where humanity evolves into bloodsucking mutations, and then transported the last human alive back in time to Transylvania, to give birth to the vampire legends. He takes over bodies, so has no fixed appearance, but his glee in the face of mass slaughter and his obsession with games, riddles and meddling suggests that he too has form in being mistaken for a demonic entity. I don’t know if I’d want him to return, as his modus operandi is that of a series finale bad guy, and I am currently enjoying the prospect of new villains and monsters taking up that mantle. 

I have said my piece. I now relinquish control of internet opinion generation over to you. Use it wisely, for Google will probably use the information you provide to try to sell you stuff, and nobody wants a Tetrap shaped bog-roll holder.

See Also: