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'Doctor Who' and the Perfect Antagonist Part 2

June 25, 2016

 

As we saw in an earlier article,‘The Daleks’, originally aired in 1963/4, came at a pivotal point in the development of Doctor Who.

 

Defying its creator Stanley Newman’s specific instructions, the script was very much a conventional sci-fi yarn about a post-apocalyptic world populated by semi-robotic mutants. It attracted audience attention by the millions, boosting the show into a top spot as far as ratings were concerned. But its key contribution was even more fundamental.

 

In these early days it was clear that the Doctor was developing as a villain. He is the character who creates the plot by sabotaging the Tardis so that the travellers have to make the journey to the city, leading to everything else that happens. He has already recklessly kidnapped the two teachers, Ian and Barbara. Now he places all their lives in danger out of rampant curiosity. 

 

This all changes profoundly as we get a glimpse of a partly-concealed assailant moving towards a terrified Barbara with a menacing appendage at the cliff-hanger ending of the first instalment. In that moment of fade-out to a blacked-out screen, things change forever.

 

What happened?

 

What had occurred was the invention of a perfect antagonist. The Dalek, emerging from a time well within living memory of the Nazi atrocities of World War II, completely inhuman in its portrayal, with its catch-phrase the spine-chilling single word ‘Exterminate!’, was the ideal enemy for any protagonist. 

 

Protagonists are more clearly defined in the book How Stories Really Work, but in brief are the centre of the audience’s attention because of their needs. In the case of Doctor Who, we identify as viewers with Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, who have lost their entire lives as teachers in 1960s London and whose actual existence is more often or not threatened by the situations into which the Doctor has thrust them. Gripped by their perils, we follow closely how they react and how they overcome or not the barriers placed in front of them. The Doctor, almost malevolent in his intentions in the story of the programme so far, is their adversary: cold, calculating, enigmatic, occasionally impulsive and irrational. 

 

Antagonists, as further described in How Stories Really Work, deny the needs of those around them. Instead, they seek to fill the ‘vacuum’ with solutions of their own. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, we first glimpse Sauron as the Dark Lord whose effect is to create mental conflict in various Ring-bearers from afar. This power then extends into sending the projected vacuums of the Nine Riders - empty haunted figures whose souls have long been consumed - against the Fellowship of the Ring. As the forces of good muster against him, Sauron refuses to contemplate that there could be any gap or chink in his armour. He sets about conquering Middle Earth, right up until the Ring is destroyed in the Cracks of Doom and the whole edifice he has constructed collapses.

 

In Star Wars: A New Hope, the Grand Moff Tarkin and his assistant Darth Vader - who has been turned into a walking Dalek himself, drained of life and made into a cyborg - cannot admit that there might be any kind of weakness in the Death Star, the Dark Side of the Force, or the Imperial Fleet, until the moment when Luke exploits the flaw in the Death Star’s plans. 

 

In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort and his dark wizards are simply incapable of seeing the strand of virtue which has taken shape right under their noses through the workings of Dumbledore, Snape and Harry, leading to their defeat.

 

Trying to ignore or suppress the needs of others as antagonists do has the opposite effect eventually: the need grows so great and urgent that it becomes desperate. Whether it is the One Ring (in The Lord of the Rings), the Death Star (in Star Wars: A New Hope), the Deathly Hallows (in the Harry Potter series), the Zola algorithm (in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), the witches’ prophecies (in Macbeth), Estella (in Great Expectations) or the power of the law in Athens (in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), all the devices of an antagonist eventually collapse because they have failed to spot the flaw which was always going to undermine them, and which the protagonist was always going to exploit.

 

The denied flaw is usually right at the heart of an antagonist’s 'empire', and will manifest itself as the thing that they use to try to overpower the people around them. The Daleks, like all these other classic antagonists, have a weakness in their structure. But they, like these other antagonists, can’t see it or refuse to acknowledge it.

 

This is obvious in the case of the Daleks. Their very design, both physical and psychological, leaves them open to defeat. And yet they make it a source of strength, turning their limiting travel device into a death machine. The strangely-destructive ‘plunger’ arm is counter-pointed by the extremely destructive gun. And although it took 25 years to clarify it on screen, their inability to climb stairs was eventually dismissed. In 2005, when they made the transition into ‘modern Who’, their potential as world-conquering supreme enemies was even further expanded upon.

 

Back in 1963, though, they were frightening enough - and they perfectly fit the bill as the ideal antagonist.

 

The ramifications of this were manifold. Chief among them, as far as the future of the show was concerned, was the fact that they had ‘out-villained’ the Doctor himself. Once he had met the Daleks, the Doctor could never again be viewed in quite the same way. He later defined himself by the fact that he was not them; in this first encounter, he became heroic and noble by contrast with them. 

 

What might have occurred - the shift towards Chesterton becoming a classic ‘hero’, with the Doctor as a recalcitrant ‘bad guy’, spoiling plans and creating problems as a mini-antagonist - was thereby made redundant. Doctor Who had its villains and in so doing, it had its hero, and it was the Doctor.

 

The other special feature of an antagonist - his or her intimate link to the protagonist, as we see with Frodo and Sauron, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Harry Potter and Voldemort and many others - was to develop over many years. Eventually, the story of the Doctor and his enemies were to be interwoven inextricably in both the attempt to interfere with history outlined in 1975’s ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ and the Time War between the Doctor’s people and the Daleks. He became their ‘Oncoming Storm’ and they became his worst nightmare. They were inseparable.

 

And so the programme was baptised in a fierce opposition that would see it through many crises and regenerations.

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