Doctor Who: Breaking Up With the Daleks and the Cybermen
Details are short on what we can expect beyond glorious eyebrows from Peter Capaldi's Doctor this coming autumn, but one rumor that's become quite prevalent is that the Doctor will face off against his two greatest enemies: the Daleks and the Cybermen. Frankly, it's time to retire the two races for a good long while.
New Who has a fair at best record of bringing back the classic monsters. In fact, I would argue that only two episodes out of the 80 or so in the new series really stand the test of time when it comes to featuring older enemies.
The first is "Rose" and the Autons. The Nestene Consciousness has never been a great villain, all things considered. They're creepy, sure, but ultimately they haven't really got a motivation deep enough to make them grand. Let us also never forget that they were responsible for the stupidest death in the entire 50-year history.
And that's why "Rose" works so well. The episode is not about the monsters at all, and there's no hype to them. The whole point of the adventure is merely to show Rose that there is a whole universe of mysterious threats out there and that there is a Doctor whose job it is to stop them. By making the Autons just one part of a greater picture than a piece of nostalgic fan service, they actually become interesting...so interesting that aside from a cameo, they haven't appeared again.
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The other episode that really sold a classic monster well was "Dalek." Yes, I am a big Eccleston fan, thanks for asking, but that's really just incidental. In "Dalek," again, the magic comes from what the Dalek means to The Doctor and to Rose, how what it is shatters both their words. The fact that the only thing that can stop it is its own self-destruct function that it willingly uses did more for establishing the menace of the race than any act before or since in the history of the show. It was all that really saw them through the deus ex machina-iness of "The Parting of Ways."
Aside from those two examples I am hard-pressed to think of a really great use of a classic monster in the show. The Sontarans and the Silurians became more or less laughable in their modern incarnations, with Strax and Vastra being far better as allies of The Doctor than their races have ever been as threats to the modern three. The Macra barely feature in "Gridlock," and while that is a pretty amazing retelling of "The Macra Terror" they are mostly inconsequential to the plot.
The return of the Ice Warriors and the Zygons did little to advance the clout of either race. The former ended up as an inferior conglomerate of better sci-fi terror tropes and the latter was more of a distraction to the 50th anniversary celebration than an essential part of the plot.
Davros has never been more than a super Dalek even in his own classic series appearances, and his one showcase in "Journey's End" was an exploration of how cartoonish and unthreatening the Daleks have once again become. As for the Cybermen, I've already gone on record about how they have only become shells of their former selves.
Except in "Nightmare in Silver." What made that different? Well, the answer was Mr. Clever.
The Cyber-possessed part of the Eleventh Doctor's mind served as the main antagonist of the adventure, with the traditional Cybermen really being no more than a reason to have battles in the background. The real fight was going on in the mind of The Doctor, and Matt Smith proved himself an incredible villain when pitted against himself. He really wasn't a Cyberman at all.
That's what you see in the re-appearance of two other classic villains which were wonderful. John Simm was a tremendous Master, but was he The Master returned? Not really, There's nothing of the Roger Delgado original in Simm's master at all, and while you could argue that there were Masters between Delgado and Eric Roberts they were all more or less heavily based on the original unlike the Doctor whose incarnations vary widely.
In short, Simm's Master wasn't the classic one returned, he was a whole new incarnation in a way the character has rarely gotten. Comparing his return to the series as the same as the Daleks is like saying that Matt Smith and Colin Baker are the same character. They're not.
Likewise the Great Intelligence bears little resemblance to his original form. He's the same disembodied substance in "The Snowmen" that he is in "The Abominable Snowmen" and "The Web of Fear," but all that is quickly cast aside as the Intelligence more and more defines itself by the form of Walter Simeon. It's Richard Grant that elevates the Intelligence into a worthwhile adversary for The Doctor by completely changing what it means to be the Intelligence.
Much as that first unnamed Dalek did in "Dalek."
I appreciate that it's neat when old villains return. I'd like to see Sutekh or the fish people from "The Underwater Menace" come back sometime myself. Lately though the practice feels like a crutch. We need more things like Patient Zero and the Atraxi. That remains the best introduction of a Doctor ever, and it was all pulled off with new ideas.
If you want to look to the past how about pulling from the modern show's own history? Let's see the Empty Child come back. Let's revisit lycanthropy in the British royal line. Let's fear the Vashta Nerada once more. Anything but another Dalek or Cybermen outing. At least not until you manage to make them more than space Nazis and tin zombies.
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