UNHOLY ALLIANCES - WHEN THE VILLAINS OF DOCTOR WHO WORK TOGETHER
One of the biggest complaints that's been levelled at late-80s Who (the 7th Doctor/Ace era, specifically) was that the whole series was starting to resemble the style of story-telling that we see in comic books. While such an observation is questionable, at best, there is an even more important point to pose against the complaint: is comic book-style writing a bad thing?! Comic book plots can be intensely entertaining and surprisingly profound. And a lot of the coventions they employ are downright fun.
One such convention that, ironically enough, we never saw much of during this particular era is the concept of a "super-villain team-up". One of the best example of this particular premise was seen in the Spiderman titles. Many issues ago, six of Spiderman's worst enemies formed an alliance so that they might take him down once and for all. The storyline was so popular that the "Sinister Six" made return appearances at fairly regular intervals for quite some time.
While Doctor Who is not a comic book - it still has its fair share of super villains. Monsters and/or characters who are so powerful and so loved by the fans that they return to haunt the Doctor over and over. On some occasions, these super-villains have chosen to work together. The reasons for the team-ups can be varied. Usually there's an attempt at universal domination, at play, here. Other times, they are specifically trying rid themselves' of their greatest foe (which would be the Doctor, of course). Sometimes, they're just working together to get themselves' out of a spot of bother. The motives for the alliance are usually pretty slender. In many ways, the audience doesn't care much why they're working together. It's just great fun to see Doctor Who baddies trying to get along.
What is, perhaps, even more interesting to note is that these team-ups follow certain patterns and can even be classified into specific categories. For the next few paragraphs, we're going to do what geeks do best and label stuff:
Alliance Style #1: Big Guys Helping Big Guys
This, inevitably, is the most popular style of super-villain mash-up. The afore-mentionned Sinister Six is as appealing as it is because these are Spiderman's greatest enemies. Foes that have given our hero a headache multiple times make for the best spectacle when they form a union. This works well in any genre. Be it comic books or sci-fi TV. A villain that keeps coming back over and over siding with another villain that keeps coming back over and over is great drama.
It's this very appeal that gives some degree of redemption to the intensely slow-moving Frontier In Space. Easilly, one of the longest-dragging Who stories in the history of the show, my inner fanboy still perks up as we reach the final episode of the tale. In Episode Six, we discover that the Master isn't just working with those nasty Ogrons - he's also in league with the Daleks, themselves'. The very notion of three popular recurring baddies all working towards a common goal almost makes me a bit giddy every time I sit through this story. This is still one of the most popular examples of the super villain team-up that we've seen in the entire history of the series. The way in which the alliance is revealed is the key element to its success. Those Daleks rolling into a view after the Master announces: "I've brought you some old friends" is exactly the sort of thing a fan relishes. And the impact of the moment is huge. Things could not be worse for the Doctor during that sequence. Pertwee, to his credit, telegraphs that quite effectively in his reaction to the Daleks' appearance. This moment, alone, makes the intermittent naps I take through the other five episodes worth it!
While the team-up in Frontier In Space still holds water after all these years, a more recent Alliance of Ultimate Bad Guys made for much better spectacle. And yet, somehow, those last few minutes of The Pandorica Opens still doesn't quite pack the same punch as the Master and the Daleks cresting that hill in Frontier does. To all intents and purposes, the revelation that the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarons, the Autons, the Silurians, the Judoon (and various lesser baddies) have all been working together to trap the Doctor should leave me far more breathless. Particularly as it's all shot very dramatically and has the most rivetting score playing underneath it. The scene is still one of the high points of the whole New Series, I'll admit. It certainly plays to those same strengths that we see in Frontier In Space. Once more, the Doctor is in Deep Crap. And Smith's reactions are as succinct as Pertwee's were. But, because a moment like this has already played out in the Classic Series the impact of it is lessened when we see it happen again.
But if "been there, seen that" is the only reason why Pandorica is less effective than Frontier then we have to be even more impressed with Frontier. Because, technically, it's not the first example we've seen of the Big Guys Helping Big Guys scenario. We just saw it play out two seasons earlier when the Master was first introduced in Terror of the Autons. While the Master wasn't truly a recurring villain at this point, he would be coming back immediately and repeatedly throughout Season Eight. So we can still file this team-up under this category. And, while we're splitting hairs, The Sea Devils also fits under this label. We are still seeing Homo Reptilia, here. They are the same species of creature that we saw in Season Seven. They still count as a recurring enemy. So when the Master strikes a bargain with them this is another example of this particular style of alliance. But neither of these instances still measure up to the power of that moment in Frontier In Space. There is just a special magic to that scene that seems unbeatable in its wow-factor.
And while there are multiple examples of this sort of spectacle in the Third Doctor Era, this is still not the first true instance of the Big Guy Helping Big Guy Alliance. We can go all the way back to Season Three to see this sort of thing. While a bit of a bumbler, the Monk still represents a fierce rival for the Doctor in The Time Meddler. If nothing else, the shock that there are other beings in the Universe travelling about in TARDISes and making trouble shakes the very foundations of the show's premise. And this lends great potency to the Monk as he is introduced at the end of Season Two. So when he returns a short while later to work with with Daleks in The Dalek Masterplan, we get a bit of the same atmosphere we would experience in Frontier In Space. But some of the comedic choices made in both the script and in Peter Butterworth's performance lessen the sense of menace, considerably. Still, this is the first example of a treaty formed between two returning villains and there's something to be said for the thrill it creates. This is a great formula and fans will want to see more of it.
And see it, they would. Particularly in the case of the Master. Bonding temporarily with enemies the Doctor has previously fought almost seems like an M.O. for him. As we explore other categories we'll see him/her pop up over and over.
But it should also be noted that just because two recurring monsters are encountering each other in the same story, it doesn't mean they will always team up. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday is a great example of this. The Cybermen even offer the hand of friendship to the Daleks at one point but they still don't gang up together to defeat the Doctor. Instead, an actual war erupts between them. The Doctor even takes advantage of the distraction they are providing each other so that he can save the day. We see something similiar happen during Time of the Doctor. All those different major baddies floating around above Trenzalore never seem to get the idea that they ought to work together to get through that force field and attack the town of Christmas. The attempts to invade still seem seperate from each other rather than trying to be a cohesive effort between various races. Perhaps, because they are all so self-interested, the distrust is too great. Only in the most extreme of situations will major villains truly team up. And Gallifrey trying to return to our Universe wasn't quite extreme enough!
Well, that thoroughly covers our first category. Let's move on to the next one:
Alliance Style #2: Big Guy Helps the Little Guy
Again, we see this type of alliance for the first time in Dalek Masterplan. Before they team up with a recurring baddie, the Daleks first ally themselves' with a team of villains we have never seen before and will never see again. Which is the true definition of this label: A villain we've seen several times is helping a villain we will only ever see once.
In the case of Dalek Masterplan, the one-time villains are the assortment of Galactic Ambassadors that feature prominently in the first two episodes. And, more specifically, the magnificient Mavic Chen who continues to persist throughout the rest of the story. While a returning villain siding with another returning villain is always the most exciting premise, a lot can be said for these lesser alliances. Kevin Stoney mouthing off to the Daleks is great fun. It would prove so popular that we would see it again a few years later when the Cybermen make a similiar alliance with Tobias Vaughn in The Invasion. And, is it just me, or does the resemblance Kellman bears to Vaughn in Revenge of the Cybermen seem more than coincidental? The production team attempting to capitolize on a previous success, perhaps?
In the Big Guy Helps Little Guy scenario, by the way, the Cybermen seem to reign supreme. Paricularly in the Classic Series. Over and over, they form temporary treaties with one-time-only villains. Ringway from Earthshock and DeFlores from Silver Nemesis are just two more examples of this. Although, we also see refusals of proposed alliances happening from time to time. Even when Kleig tries to force a partnership between the Cybermen and The Brotherhood of Logicians the Cyber Controller seems largely disinterested. So our one-time baddie doesn't always get the help of the Cybermen when it's asked for. They can be a bit picky from time-to-time.
And while the Cybermen may do this sort of thing the most frequently, it doesn't mean the Master won't throw in with a one-time bad guy now and again. This is best seen in Claws of Axos when the dark Time Lord does all kinds of legwork to help Axos establish itself on Earth. Although, this particular situation better suits the Forced Alliance category that we will see in a few short paragraphs.
The most effective demonstration of this particular style of alliance is, once again, taken from the Classic Series. I can still vividly remember just how hard my jaw hit the floor at the end of Episode Four of The Invasion of Time. Those nasty Vardans got kicked back to their homeworld and placed in a time loop and everyone seems to be celebrating just a little too hard. And then, we discover that the Vardans were just part of a bigger plan that was being engineered by the Sontarons. This still goes down as one of my favorite moments in the Tom Baker Era. And it's also one of the best examples of Big Guys Helping the Little Guys. There are several elements that enhance this particular team-up. While not the most visually impressive of monsters, the Vardans work great in concept. And the fact that the whole battle is for the fate of Gallifrey makes the conflict all the more compelling. Whatever the case, Invasion of Time will always be the best adventure that uses the idea of a recurring villain helping out a one-time-only baddie.
It also examplifies one of the most prominent traits of this particular formula. While the Big Guy might be putting on the semblance of a partnership, the Little Guy is really just a pawn in his game. Once his usefulness has been outlasted, our one-time-only villain will be cast to the wayside. Two recurring baddies seem to show each other a bit more respect and won't be so quick to betray the other (although, there are still instances where this will happen). But such respect is non-existant when a multiple-appearance monster throws in with a less popular alien. There will always come a point where the pawn will need to be disposed of. Although, the pawn can also bite back. Chessene executing the "double double-cross" in The Two Doctors displays this idea quite nicely. Just as Major Varl was about to play the same trick we'd seen Stor play on the Vardans, he gets his come-uppance from an Androgum and her cannisters of coronic acid.
One might expect our next category to be: Little Guy Helps Little Guy but we'll actually stop here with this train of thought. The fact of the matter is, there are just too many shades of grey in such a definition. Is such an alliance really a genuinely tangible concept? I mean, yes, there are some very concrete examples. Harrison Chase forming an alliance with the Krynoid, for instance. But most of the time, one-time villains aren't actively seeking out the help of other one-timers to create a big exciting plot twist. It's, moreso, just the way a storyline happens to be going for that one particular adventure and there really isn't any kind of degree of magnitude to it. In comic books as well as Sci-Fi TV, the super-villain team-up really only works if we've seen one of the super-villains in a previous adventure.
Alliance Style #3: Forced Alliances
Normally, a degree of consent is going on between two or more forces that are joining together. There are negotiations and conditions that get discussed and agreed to. But, sometimes, the major baddies working together is more akin to a press-ganging than it is to mutual cooperation.
Once more, the Master provides us with a great example of this. Not just in the previously-referenced Claws of Axos where his TARDIS is being held hostage, but we see a brief reluctant alliance that forms in The Five Doctors, too. Knowing he's just moments away from being executed by the Cybermen, the renegade Time Lord manages to convince them that he's better use to them alive. This is hardly the same sort of treaty that was formed between the Master and the Daleks in Frontier In Space. This is a man knowing he's doomed if he doesn't help out the troops that are holding him at gunpoint.
But a forced alliance isn't always a life-or-death situation. The Master, himself, can't be too bitter with the Cybermen in the Death Zone. He forced the Rani to work with him only a short while later by stealing the prescious brain fluid she had been extracting from humans during the Luddite Uprising. No gun was being held to her head in that instance, but the evil Time Lady still chose to side with him to get back her brain fluid.
Lytton, that infamous mercanery from Riften 5, forms a similiar alliance with the titular monsters in Attack of the Cybermen. He joins the Cybermen out of necessity to get himself off of Earth. Working with the Cybermen is not something he really wants to do but it's the only option left open to him if he wants to be free of the 20th-Century. We also learn in Attack that the partnership he formed with the Daleks in his previous story was also forced. He offers only scant details about that particular arrangement but one gets the impression it was more of a "do it or die" situation.
The Forced Alliance scenario shares a very definite trait with the Big Guy Helping Little Guy situation. At the very first oppurtunity, the individual that is being press-ganged turns on his allies. Again, the Master exemplifies this best. Within minutes of forming his pact with the Cybermen in The Five Doctors, he's leading them to their deaths in the Tomb of Rassilon. It only stands to reason that when someone is forced into a partnership - they will do their best to take down their oppressors as quick as they can. Leading them across a pi-based checkered floor certainly ranks as one of the most original ways to do it, though!
Alliance Style #4: A Very Tenuous Definition
One would think that these three distinct categories would have classifed all the different forms of evil-doer partnerships adequately. But there are still a few alliances that have slipped between the cracks. They are so slender or unique that they might not even properly qualify as a team-up. But just for the sake of being a completist, we'll include them in a special sub-section.
The most recent alliance that we've seen in the show suits this category quite well. To all intents and purposes, Dark Water/Death In Heaven looks like a joining of forces between Missy (formerly known as the Master) and the Cybermen. But if you take a closer look, it's not quite that. Missy hasn't so much made an agreement with the Cybermen that exist in our Universe as she has just taken the Cybermen design and used it to her own advantage. She has built an army that is subservient to her that just happens to be Cybermen. There was no actual deal that was drawn up between the two villains. Nor was this a forced partnership. It's just Missy using Cybermen. But, admitedly, it still feels like the Bad Guy Team-Ups that we so love in comic books!
A similiar grey definition exists between the Master and the Daleks during the 96 Telemovie. While the opening narrative states that the Master was put on trial for his crimes by the Daleks on the planet Skaro, many fans theorize that it wasn't quite as simple as that. That the very idea of the Daleks bothering to hold court proceedings seems so ludicrous that we believe this has to be something else. Many fans suggest that the Master was working with the Daleks to create an elaborate hoax that would lure the Doctor into a very over-contrived trap. But we have no direct proof of this alliance. It's only a fanciful theory, at best.
Once more, we see another messy partnership in the Master's long, sordid career as Survival unfolds. The work he's doing with the Cheetah People overlaps into several different categories. He's a Big Guy Helping a Little Guy but we're also pretty sure it's a Forced Alliance. If he wasn't helping the kitlings with their hunt, the Master would probably be on Cheetah Peoples' dinner menu. It's never clearly indicated that this is the arrangement - but we certainly get that impression. Things get even more convoluted when we see that the Master, himself, is starting to transform into one of the inhabitants of the crumbling planet. Is it really a team-up, anymore, if one of the participants is changing into the same species as the other participant?
And, finally, there's Sabalom Glitz. A man who changes his allegiance so frequently during the Trial of a Time Lord storyline that we're never sure exactly who he's formed an alliance with! His strongest loyalties do seem to be with the Master but it's anyone's guess who he's really working with...
And so, as we sit at the end of this little dissertation - we see that the show has had, at least, twenty different super-villain alliances. These team-ups are so complicated that they can be broken down into four distinct styles. The first time we see a covention like this being employed dates all the way back to the third season of its over-fifty-year history. And the most recent just happened in the last few months. One of its most popular eras (the Jon Pertwee/Terrance Dicks/Barry Letts period) has the highest concentration of this particular plot device.
I look at those sort of statistics and think back to that complaint some folks were making about the Seventh Doctor and Ace. And I can't help but ask: was there ever a time when the show wasn't using comic-book-style writing?