An overview of Giant Monsters in Doctor Who – part one

5 10 2009
Giant ants vs giant butterflies in The Web Planet

Giant ants vs giant butterflies in The Web Planet

Doctor Who author and writer Nick Walters writes on the show’s obsession with BIG creatures!

SUPER SIZE WHO! or “Not so little, Peri!”

Introduction

Doctor Who has always been about the monsters, right from the very start. Well, almost. The programme began with an unearthly child, a couple of teachers and some cavemen, of course, and it was only in the second story that monsters trundled into view in the sinister shape of the Daleks, and history was made. Sydney Newman’s loathing of BEMs turned out to pissing in the wind as the Doctor’s first encounter with the evil pepperpots set in motion a battle which still rages now; new Who Matt Smith is, and this is hardly a spoiler, set to face the Daleks when the series returns full-time in 2010.

It also initiated a veritable onslaught of monsters as the programme-makers strove to repeat the success of the Daleks. Cue monster-of-the-week syndrome, when they felt they had to have a monster in the story whether it needed one or not. Sometimes they rose to the challenge, creating such memorable foes as the emotionless Cybermen, the robotic Yeti, the reptilian Ice Warriors, the spud-headed clone-trooper Sontarans, the Silurians and their aquatic cousins the Sea Devils, and plastic fantastic foes the Autons and their controlling Nestene intelligence, most of which prevail to trouble the Time Lord to this day (and it can’t be long before the Ice Warriors and the Sea Devils put in an appearance in the new series).

Other creations were not so memorable – or memorable for all the wrong reasons. Monster-of-the-week syndrome. The clunky, robotic Mechanoids, Quarks and Krotons all resembled the Daleks in one respect only: their lack of manoeuvrability; they had none of the Skarosian mutants’ menace. The history of Doctor Who is as littered with unconvincing or even ridiculous monsters – Plasmatons, the Taran Wood Beast, the Virus Nucleus, the Slitheen (arguably) – as it is with convincing, well-realised creatures like the Zygons, Draconians, Ood and Sycorax.

This gap between conception and realisation applies especially to giant monsters in Doctor Who. Due to the size of the creatures, and the need to make them fit seamlessly into the production, extra effort and ingenuity is called for from the production team, especially the poor beleaguered effects people. As we’ll see, across the history of Doctor Who, there are some spectacular failures, and some heroic successes; and even the failures deserve applause. At least they tried, at least they had the ambition.

This applies even now, when Doctor Who’s special effects are, to coin a phrase, fantastic – but that hasn’t prevented a few wobblers along the way. Which is reassuring, in a sense – despite the advances in technology, Doctor Who can still come up with an unconvincing monster, giant or otherwise, as we shall see!

Genuinely terrifying cover for Doctor Who and the Mutants

Genuinely terrifying cover for Doctor Who and the Mutants

Before I chart the history of giant monsters in Doctor Who, I’d like to offer up some definitions. In my view, there are seven basic types of giant monster encountered by the Doctor and his friends on their travels throughout time and space. These are they:

The Chimera. A creature, either alien or Terran, that is or looks as though it is larger than nature intended, sometimes as a result of mankind’s Tampering With Forces That Should Be Left Alone / That They Do Not Understand. These have clear roots in 50s horror movies such as Them!, Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis. Dabbling with nuclear energy or genetics is the usual culprit, and the scientists usually start with Good Intentions such as seeking alternative food sources to combat hunger – and we all know where Good Intentions lead. Mankind’s greed and disregard for the environment are also often at fault, which gives the programme-makers scope for making political comments about such evils as pollution and ruthless global corporations whose only concern is profit. I bet you’re all thinking of giant maggots now.

The Dinomad. A prehistoric creature that – poor thing- finds itself out of its own time zone, sometimes as a result of the same sort of scientific meddling that brings about Chimerae. (Dinosaur + nomad = Dinomad. Geddit? Okay, but it’ll do). Think Jurassic Park.

The Mythoid. Giant, usually alien, creature, whose appearance recalls something from mythology. Satan features quite a lot in this category.

The Megabot. Quite simply, a giant robot of either alien or terrestrial origin. Klank Klank You Die!

The Blob. Giant alien behemoth. May or may not have Lovecraftian undertones. Absorbing.

The Xenosaur. Giant, usually alien, reptile or lizard, whose appearance is similar to that of a dinosaur, but – crucially – it isn’t a dinosaur. Think Godzilla or Gorgo.

The Xenopod. Giant alien creature whose appearance resembles that of a Terran animal or insect. These may be human-sized when the base creature is small, such as an ant, wasp or slug. I put these in a separate category to Xenosaurs as they have elements of the Chimera, but as they aren’t caused by Bad Science I thought they deserved a category of their own.

The Original Series (1963 – 1989)

Typically for quirky old atypical Doctor Who, the first giant monsters he meets aren’t giant monsters at all and therefore don’t fit into any of my handy categories. D’oh! In the First Doctor story Planet of Giants, the TARDIS crew are shrunk to tiny size because they opened the ship’s doors too early before landing (did no-one think of checking the manual?) And so they encounter, in an homage to The Incredible Shrinking Man, giant worms, ants, bees, flies, and a particularly angry giant black cat. Clearly these would be considered Chimerae, but it’s not they who have been super-sized, but the TARDIS crew who have been shrunk. The realisation of these pseudo-Chimerae varies but is surprisingly good given the limited resources available.

Next up are the denizens of the planet Vortis, again visited by the First Doctor in The Web Planet. These are the first Xenopods to feature in the programme, though they have something of the Chimera about them: the Zarbi are giant ants, the Menoptra giant moths or butterflies, the Venom Grubs giant woodlice. God knows what the Optera are meant to be, they look like nothing I’ve ever seen in my garden. As they are human-scaled, they cannot truly be called giant monsters, but they are an interesting inclusion, even if their on-screen realisation leaves something (well, a lot) to be desired. This is where your suspension of disbelief comes in, kids. Mind-bending drugs also help.

More Xenopods confront Patrick Troughton in The Macra Terror; these are giant crabs, and they look rather ridiculous but their true appearance is shrouded in darkness and dry ice which aids their effectiveness somewhat. These creatures returned, as briefly-glimpsed CGI creations, in the Tenth Doctor tale Gridlock, though here they had lost their intelligence and reverted to, well, just giant crabs, with implausibly huge claws which should surely overbalance them. Poor old Macra, ludicrous in 1967 and 2007, what was the point?!

In The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, the Doctor encounters the Great Intelligence, a formless, incorporeal entity seeking to manifest itself in our universe using robotic yeti for its slaves. As you do. The series’ first example of the Blob.

Mention should be made of the Emperor Dalek, seen in Evil of the Daleks. Really just a big Dalek with all pipes coming out of it and a deep voice, it could arguably be the series’ first Megabot; though, of course, Daleks aren’t robots.

It wasn’t until Jon Pertwee’s tenure that we got our first real, proper, giant monsters, across almost all seven categories, which illustrates the advances in special effects being made at the time. In his first story Spearhead From Space, the Third Doctor encounters the Autons, plastic puppets of the amorphous, alien Nestene Consciousness – like the Great Intelligence, a manipulative and somewhat Lovecraftian Blob. This was never seen properly until Ninth Doctor debut and series restart Rose, and was portrayed far more graphically on Target novelisation covers, but all we get to see in this story is a load of unconvincing rubber tentacles which attempt to strangle a gurning Jon Pertwee. There’s also a tank with a pulsating, glowing “eye” thing which looks disturbingly gynaecological.

In the next story, Doctor Who and the Silurians, the Doctor and UNIT encounter reptile men in some caves beneath Wenley Moor, awoken from their long sleep by the activation of a cyclotron in an atomic research station. Man tampering with science again, but there are no Chimerae in this story – the Silurians are human-sized reptiles – but they do have a pet, a dinosaur which I think is meant to be a T-Rex, though I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it is clearly the first Dinomad to feature in the programme.

Golden humanoids! Terrifying spaghetti monsters! Phallic eyes on stalks! Foam! These are all part of a single organism, the vampiric Axos, which roams space looking for planets to devour. An excellent example of the Blob. With a bigger budget, and better effects, The Claws of Axos might even have looked excellent, though the production does achieve a kind of hallucinatory, psychedelic horror wholly appropriate to the year of broadcast (1971). Oh and there’s a Chimera in here too – when the Axons demonstrate the transforming power of Axonite, they use a frog, which grows to Whoa! size.

The well-remembered 1971 season finale (though they didn’t think in those terms then) features Azal, last of The Daemons – a creature which looks exactly like the popular image of the Devil; and, in a twist nicked straight from Quatermass and the Pit, is meant to have influenced humanity’s development (a theme that would recur frequently in Doctor Who – but that’s another article). The thing with Azal is that he can make himself very very tiny, or – you guessed it – very very big. Which is why he’s in this article as the series’ first ever Mythoid.

It’s business as usual on the planet Solos when the Doctor encounters scuttling, insectile mutants in, er, The Mutants. However all is not quite as it seems as these fearsome creatures (the Target novel cover gave me nightmares) are part of the natural life-cycle of the Solonians. These ‘Mutts’ look like giant beetly things so have a whiff of Chimerae about them, but are, of course, Xenopods. Write that down in your copybook NOW.

Carnival of Monsters promises much with its title, and delivers not one but two giant monsters. There’s the Dinomad plesiosaur which menaces the SS Bernice early in the story, and later on the ferocious, ravenous Drashigs enter the fray – the first and probably best example of the Xenosaur in Doctor Who. These things have the heads of dinosaurs and the bodies of enormous, bristly serpents, and, despite some dodgy CSO (the bane of 70s Who), kick ass.

Everyone knows about this next one. Yes, it’s ‘the one with the maggots.’ In the right-on The Green Death, evil corporation Global Chemicals (boo!) are the culprits. They pump green glowing toxic waste into an abandoned coal mine, creating the series’ best Chimerae in the form of the giant maggots everyone remembers. Extremely well-realised on screen (using condoms and fox skulls, apparently), these things are disgusting, managing effortlessly to rise above some (again) terrible CSO. The final form of the maggots is a giant fly which everyone seems to conveniently forget, but it’s not as bad as all that, though the Doctor mourning the death of this ‘beautiful creature’ is perhaps taking things a bit too far.

We’re well into giant monster territory here as the production team uses and in many cases pioneers TV special effects to realise their creations. You have to admire their ambition, even when the results are as terrible as the Dinomads seen in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. The models themselves – which include a T-Rex, a brontosaurus, a stegosaurus, a triceratops and a pterodactyl – aren’t too bad, but the way they move, interact with the scenery and actors is awful. If you can forgive that, though, this is the ultimate Doctor Who Dinomad story with an excellent plot which goes some distance past mere monster-of-the-week sensationalism.

The Third Doctor’s era bows out with the second best-remembered Chimerae in the programme’s history – the giant spiders of Metebelis Three, the Planet of the Spiders. These were originally from Earth, and were exposed to the mutating powers of the blue crystals on Metebelis Three when a colony ship crashlanded there. The spider models made by FX genius Mat Irvine are excellent, perhaps too realistic for comfort; though, again, dire CSO ruins some shots. Best of all is the Great One, a truly terrifying concept, the biggest spider ever, who is also insane. Think on that – an insane spider the size of a house. No wonder the Doctor was scared!

The Third Doctor confronts the Great Spider and his own destiny in Planet of the Spiders

The Third Doctor confronts the Great Spider and his own destiny in Planet of the Spiders

The Fourth Doctor’s era begins with a rumble with a robot, in, er, Robot, one of the series’ few examples of the Megabot. Initially human-sized – if very tall and broad – this misunderstood mechanoid, made of living metal, grows to giant size when zapped with a Disintegrator Gun. For no real reason than a loving homage to King Kong, again ruined by lousy CSO and totally unconvincing model shots (the toy tank is particularly cringe-worthy). The robot also kills its creator, homaging Frankenstein – yes, we’re at the beginning of the much-lauded Peter Hinchcliffe Gothic era of Doctor Who which plundered popular texts with abandon and élan.

In the next story, Ark In Space, we encounter the Wirrn – which are, basically, giant space wasps. Xenopods, of course; this category of creature is never shy of using nasty earth insects as inspiration, purely to scare the audience (see also the Mutts and, later on, the Tractators). And scare they do – Ark In Space is terrifying, with graphic bodily mutation which packs a punch to this day. CSO is still present, but less intrusive.

Genesis of the Daleks is, of course, one of the all-time classics of Doctor Who. It does contain, however, perhaps the most ridiculous Chimerae in the series history: giant clams! These always attract derision from fans, but are actually realised very well. They look just like what they are meant to be: giant clams. It’s just that, well, clams, of any size, don’t actually pose much of a threat.

Harry Sullivan gets clam clamped in Genesis of the Daleks

Harry Sullivan gets clam clamped in Genesis of the Daleks

Season 13 is topped and tailed by two excellent giant monsters. In Terror of the Zygons, the (excellently realised) Zygons’ weapon of terror is the giant, aquatic, cyborg Xenosaur, the Skarasen. (All together now – ‘I CONTROL THE SSSKARASSEEEEEEN!’) Despite received wisdom, this beastie works very well on screen, especially when chasing the Doctor across the moors; a very tense and atmospheric scene. It only fails when transported unconvincingly to the Thames in the last episode. Things end happily ever after for the Skarasen though as it moves to Loch Ness where… well, have a guess!

Planet of Evil brings us into contact with a Blob in the form of the giant anti-matter monster that is a clear homage to Forbidden Planet. Picked out only in a flickering outline, it works very well on screen especially when used against the excellent jungle set.

The Seeds of Doom ends Season 13 and brings us the Krynoid. Beginning in pod form, it infects the host and transforms the poor victim first into a tentacled, shambling plant-man and then a giant, writhing mass of plant matter the size of St Paul’s cathedral which will then germinate, send its spores across the planet, and thus eventually consume all animal life on Earth. To my mind the best conceived and realised giant monster in Doctor Who, yes, it is just a Blob, with roots (sorry) in Quatermass, Wyndham, The Thing and the Avengers episode ‘The Man-Eater of Surrey Green’, but every stage of its existence is so well realised that this doesn’t matter. And, of course, it’s terrifying. I still get the odd nightmare even now.

No giant beasts bother Tom until next season’s finale, The Talons of Weng Chiang. Magnus Greel’s experiments in Victorian London produce Chimerae in the form of giant spiders and rats. The former, though only briefly seen, is rather disturbing – crouching shivering in the Doctor’s hand – but the latter leave something to be desired, appearing far too fluffy and cute. Such is the sheer class of the story, though, that this shortcoming hardly matters at all.

The Gothic Hinchcliffe era now over, we enter the Graham Williams years which see an increased use of comedy in the programme.

Two Xenopods in a row next. The virus nucleus in The Invisible Enemy starts off microscopic and is originally portrayed in a journey through the Doctor’s brain as a sort of black rock with a claw, but when it becomes accidentally enlarged. It looks like nothing more than a giant prawn. Intentional or not, the resemblance is there, so Xenopod it is. In Image of the Fendahl, the titular creature is a gestalt entity made up of twelve Fendahleen and a core. The core is an actress in a white dress with big eyes laughably painted over her closed eyelids, but the Fendahleen are well creepy, giant worm / snake things and excellent Xenopods.

Next up comes Kroll. Ah, Kroll. They wanted ‘the biggest monster ever to appear in Doctor Who.’ What can I say? Epic fail. Giant fail. The on-screen realisation of Kroll, basically a giant squid, is woeful; criminal, considering that they did this sort of thing so well with the Krynoid in The Seeds of Doom. Kroll may look crap, but his categorisation is interesting. Clearly a Blob, he has aspects of the Xenopod (he’s based on Terran giant squids), though his origins have something of the Chimera; he was originally a normal-sized squid, but contact with the Fifth Segment of the Key to Time made him grow into the monster we see, and laugh at, on screen.

Another Blob next: Erato, an ambassador from Tythonus to the planet Chloris, chucked down a hole by the nasty Lady Adrastra to become The Creature from the Pit. He’s a giant, glowing, green thing, basically all brain, and is perhaps the purest example of the Blob in Doctor Who. His on-screen realisation varies; in some places it is undercut but Tom Baker arsing about (including one jaw-dropping scene where the Doctor appears to fellate one of Erato’s appendages), but the big reveal shot is actually quite stunning, and the creature is far more believable than its immediate predecessor, which shows that it’s not so much the state of effects art that matters rather the care taken by the production team over their work.

Interesting to note that from The Seeds of Doom to The Creature from the Pit we have a triumvirate of green Blobby, tentacly alien behemoths: the Krynoid, Kroll and Erato. But who would win in a fight? Such is the gist of my story pitch to the BBC.

The monster-tastic Tom Baker era comes to a behemoth-free zone in his final season, as another producer and script editor, John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead, take over, with a remit to rectify the ‘silliness’ of the Williams years. So no more Krolls or Eratos – more’s the pity. There are, however, Chimerae in the form of the giant spiders in Full Circle. They look crap, not a patch on their Metebelis cousins, but it doesn’t matter as they serve the evolution-based plot very well, and the Marshmen look fantastic.

The final giant beast the Fourth Doctor encounters is one of the best – the Great Vampire in State of Decay. This is the ultimate Mythoid, and is such a total bad-ass that the Time Lords had to go to war to rid the universe of his kind. He escaped into E-space, though, and we get to see the final battle between Time Lord and Vampire in this story. Though we only see a brief and blurry image on a screen and his giant hand as he emerges from sleep – the production team having learned, perhaps, from Kroll that full realisation of the Great Vampire would be best unattempted – the sense of ancient evil and menace is palpable. This mofo should have been Tom’s final adversary, rather than the Master in Logopolis.

The Fifth Doctor’s era is rather light on giant monsters, continuing the trend set in Tom’s final season. We get a giant snake in Kinda, as the Mara’s final manifestation; it’s awful, and this Chimera returns, still looking crap, in Snakedance. A shame because the ideas in both these stories are excellent, and giant unconvincing plastic snakes aren’t really needed to communicate the evil of the Mara. A case of the production team pandering to monster-of-the-week, perhaps not having enough faith in their ideas?

They shouldn’t have bothered, either, with the Garm in Terminus. A giant, rather benevolent looking dog thing, I’m not sure what this is meant to be, though its name comes from Tolkien (Farmer Giles of Ham) and there are elements of Norse mythology in there somewhere. We’ll label it a Mythoid, then, and move swiftly on to…

"Woof." The Garm from Terminus.

"Woof." The Garm from Terminus.

Warriors of the Deep, and the Myrka. One of the worst monsters, and certainly the worst Xenosaur, ever to appear on Doctor Who, this thing is meant to be the Silurian’s weapon of terror much like the Skarasen was to the Zygons. Operated by two blokes, it moves very like a pantomime horse, and at no point looks even remotely convincing. Comedy value only here, but one does wonder, has Doctor Who forgotten how to do giant monsters? Have they realised that the final results are always wanting, so best stay away, the game’s not worth the candle?

It seems so as the show doesn’t bother with them any more, not in its original run. The Malus in The Awakening is an alien reconnaissance probe, in appearance a giant face resembling a gargoyle, so we could say it was a Mythoid if we liked. Continuing the goodwill, Xenopods turn up in Frontios in the form of the Tractators, which sort of look like giant earwigs or woodlice. The Fifth Doctor’s final outing features a Xenosaur in the form of the dragon-like Magma Beast, which though not great, is nowhere near as bad as the Myrka (thanks to judicious direction from Graeme Harper) and is only on screen briefly. There’s also a Xenopod, the Queen Bat, but this only really exists as a plot device.

The Sixth Doctor’s first story, The Twin Dilemma – voted worst story of all in a recent Doctor Who Magazine poll – features more half-hearted Xenopods, in the form of the Gastropods. Giant slugs. Get thee behind the sofa! Or not. They are so poorly realised – especially their bozz-eyed leader, Mestor – that it hardly even registers that they are meant to be giant slugs at all, and they are not even remotely scary, which is the whole point of the Xenopod, as the Wirrn remind us.

There’s a giant fly in Vengeance on Varos, I suppose, but it’s an illusion. Quite effective, but, it really doesn’t count. I wish the Morlox in Timelash didn’t count, another in a line of dreadful Xenosaurs, clearly inspired by The Time Machine though anyone with half a brain will struggle to connect Wells’s pallid, sinister subterranean simians with these long-necked reptilian rejects. In an unconvincing alien bar on a poorly-realised planet somewhere, the Myrka, Magma Beast and Morlox (is it a coincidence that they all begin with M?) hug each other and drown their sorrows.

Mention must also be made of the climax of Mark of the Rani, which sees the Master and the Rani trapped in the latter’s TARDIS with a rapidly-growing embryo of a T-Rex; the last Dinomad to be seen in the programme… yet!

The Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, encounters no giant monsters during his three-year era. The Destroyer? A tentative Mythoid, though it doesn’t grow big enough to warrant categorisation. Eighth Doctor Paul McGann fares similarly poorly during his sole screen outing. Let’s not get into the books and audio plays, or comic strips, for that matter; giant beasts surely lay within, but I may never finish this article if I go down that road.

Part two later this week!

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2 responses

6 10 2009
irratrize

Intresting, this was actually a very great read! thanks

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8 10 2009

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