Companion Tropes Extra 4
Do not attempt to escape or you will be obliterated! May I take your coat?
The Sontarans were once a big name villain in Doctor Who, somewhere around #4 on most people’s list of big hitters, after Daleks, Cybermen and the Master. You could perhaps claim Ice Warriors as #4, but the Sontarans were certainly one of the big classic series villains, one way or the other. They were arguably a bit incompetent right from the start, but just one Sontaran was sufficient to provide a genuine threat for their first two appearances, and then they showed up invading Gallifrey. By their fourth appearance they had grown inexplicably tall but were setting their sights somewhat lower, on Seville instead of Gallifrey, and as a side note they failed to fix it for a generation of kids and exterminate the biggest monster ever to appear on children’s television. Fast forward to the new series, and the Sontarans get one story where they are largely played for laughs, and then we are introduced to Sontaran Nurse Strax in A Good Man Goes to War.
ARTHUR: Will I be okay?
STRAX: Of course you will, my boy. You’ll be up and around in no time. And perhaps one day, you and I shall meet on the field of battle, and I will destroy you for the glory of the Sontaran Empire.
This process is known as “villain decay”, and although the Sontarans are probably Doctor Who’s strongest example, similar things happen to the other big name monsters at one point or another. During the classic series the Cybermen progress from terrifying monsters who convert humans, to “tin soldiers” who can be killed by a gold coin and a catapult. The Daleks’ villain decay happens even quicker, from invading Earth to incompetently following around after the Doctor and getting beaten up by Frankenstein’s monster. Of course, the Cybermen and Daleks bounce back to become convincing foes again, but so great is the Sontarans’ villain decay that this seems unlikely to ever happen with them. Certainly not for many years.
Sir, please do not noogie me during combat prep.
This sort of thing happens in just about every genre show. In Buffy Spike becomes a comedy figure after starting out as a big bad. In the Star Trek franchise (ignoring the yawn-fest that’s Discovery) the Klingons transition from villains to cuddly Worf, while the Borg become ever less frightening with each subsequent appearance (with the exception of First Contact).
STRAX: Oh, no. Not the one with the gigantic head?
JENNY: It’s hair, Strax.
So why does this happen? Quite simply put, the more a villain gets defeated, the less credible a threat the villain will appear to be to the viewer. The more effective the villain the more this can be circumvented, with frequent reboots. The Dalek menace is rebooted over and over again, in stories such as The Power of the Daleks, Genesis of the Daleks, Dalek and Resolution. But when the villain starts off with some degree of incompetence and transitions to comedy pretty quickly, it’s much more difficult to convincingly reboot the threat levels without undermining the hero. That leaves really only a couple of options: stop using them as villains (or at the very least rest them for many years) or use them for comedy.
STRAX: Madame Vastra wondered if you were needing any grenades?
STRAX: She might have said help.
If you don’t mind abandoning all hope of using the villain again as the protagonist, this actually works brilliantly, especially if you retain some of the violent tendencies, as in the case of Strax. There’s much humour to be mined from the sight of a scary monster playing nurse or butler, while still talking the big talk of blowing people up and conquering the planet (all by himself, naturally). You also get an added bonus, and here it is, from The Name of the Doctor:
STRAX: You are an affront to Sontaran purity. Prepare to perish!
VASTRA: We’re friends. Strax, your past is changing, but I swear, we are comrades!
STRAX: Die, reptile.
If you establish the comedy credentials of your former villain well enough, but retain some of their villainous or violent tendencies, then you can always pull a 180 on the viewers and suddenly make the comedy sidekick butler a deadly killer again. The villain decay is reversed, and for a moment the laughter fades away and things get real. That increases the shock factor dramatically, and it really packs a punch. Just like Strax himself, in fact. RP