We don our flippers and take a swim with the curious monsters of the early 1960s that, though intended to be the new Daleks never to return to the television, but whose enigmatic appearance proved fertile ground for writers and creators in other media…
11 April 1964 and the fifth serial of Doctor Who screened on the BBC. Fans that the show had scooped up since its arrival the previous November had no idea that the 21st episode of the series, The Sea of Death, would originate an element that would become a recurring component of the show: the quest-based story arc, famously employed for a whole season with The Key to Time in the late 1970s and the Fifth Doctor’s tussle with the Black Guardian a half decade after that. It would also form form a simple, exciting framework for stories as diverse as The Chase, The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965) and The Infinite Quest (2007). Ideal for the show when it was in a tight spot. A simple story was enhanced by diverse mini-adventures, but the weight of those smaller stories was also bolstered by a light if compelling backbone. While the the concept would remain with the show, pioneered by the writer of The Sea of Death, the monsters of the piece wouldn’t be so lucky.
The Voord, the Milk Tray Men of Doctor Who, would never reappear on screen to attempt a chocolate delivery again.
Flipping stand ins
When rewrites of Malcolm Hulke’s Dr Who and the Hidden Planet pushed it out of the production schedule, script editor David Whitaker turned to Terry Nation, the writer who’d propelled the show into popular consciousness with its second serial, The Daleks, and was already lined up for its eighth. Confronted with a narrow window to write it, Nation was drawn to the idea of a quest and he and Whitaker settled on a light arc that would take the TARDIS crew to a number of varied settings. From the interior of the first two episodes the travellers would encounter a vast city, a courtroom, a jungle and arctic terrain. Linked to the overarching acr and waiting for them on the sea world of Marinus were the villainous Voord. Few were happy with how these monsters turned out. Carole Ann Ford, who thought the script took Susan’s character back to school, director John Gorrie who had eyes on boosting his career which allowed him to overlook issues with the speedily produced script, the audience and critics who gave it a mixed result – none were too impressed. But few could have been more disappointed than the Voord themselves.
As was customary, Terry Nation added very little description for the creatures to his script, so designer Daphne Dare used vulcanised rubber from prop builders Jack and John Lovell to sculpt heads of the monsters that sat atop a customised rubber wetsuit. Three costumes came in at under £70 which must have pleased the production. And while impractical and rather silly, their enigmatic and strangely effective appearance would provide ample opportunities to expand on the creations. Although, the reception of The Keys of Marinus put pay to them appearing on screen again.
Dalekmania had caught many off guard, while ensuring Doctor Who’s survival. The Pepperpots that had famously contravened show creator Sydney Newman’s “no bug-eyed monsters” rule had surfaced from nowhere and joined Beatlemania in setting a tone for early 60s Britain and ensuring a quick return. Hopes were high for a successor, but of the long line of pretenders who never reached that, the Voord were the first to fail. They got the merchandising deals and exposure, made it into the comic strips and even made their way to Amicus, who snapped up the rights to The Keys of Marinus along with the early Dalek serials. Neither the Keys nor the Voord made it to the big screen or back to the small. Though it’s important to note that Peter Stenson would later contribute his experiences of portraying a Voord in 1964 for a leather fetish magazine.
The Voord found a new, if not huge life in the show’s expanded universe, beyond the pages of fetish magazines. Let’s take a shifty through four of the interpretations of the Voord from four big names: Terry Nation, Grant Morrison, Andrew Smith and Paul Cornell.
Terry Nation – The Keys of Marinus (1964), BBC
The One Where: They’re the new Daleks
“Choice? What choice?”
The Sea of Death is an ominous episode title and setting. The locale of the island of glass that the episode pores over at the start could come right from of the final act of Rogue One, the prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy that would bring its black suited, black-hearted antagonist back to science fiction almost 50 years later.
Flipper first, the dark and menacing Voord appear on this silent island, emerging from their craft backed by the flute flourish of Norman Kay’s score. A tidal pool, acid water – it’s a beautiful, idyllic locale with a dangerous undercurrent – a Nation set-up familiar from his Dalek story lines. The Voord’s mysterious arrival adds to the unease. Even as they stumble across crafts and structures that should be quite evident, they carry mystery with them. Chiefly, it’s an inexplicable assault.
The Voord legacy lies in how captivating they manage to be here while they’re tripping over and falling through walls. They are wearing protective suits, but you’re never sure if the humanoids inside are human or not. Those flippers actually are flippers, but could their feet be webbed inside? They are variously described as amphibious assassins or rubber suited assailants. Their clumsiness doesn’t suggest a great deal of skill but they are tenacious and quite possibly fish out of water. Maybe they overdid the wetsuits. They are susceptible to a plunge and while those suits may protect them from the acid water, they can be ripped and can be cut by knives (one even stabs itself in the back) during the opening assault on the tower that contains the Conscience of Marinus.
It’s mainly thanks to the keeper of the Conscience, Arbitan, that we consider the Voord a great threat – and he’s no angel. The Conscience eliminates evil thoughts across the planet, but in a mild twist to established lore of early Doctor Who, it’s the villainous the Voord, led by Yartek, have learned to resist. An upgraded Conscience is ready to kick in, except a similar assault by the Voord many years before necessitated the splitting up of the five keys that make it possible. On a whim, and with a bit of underhand coercion from Arbitan, the TARDIS crew become the vessel to reassemble the machine, regain control over the whole planet including the Voord.
Sadly the Voord themselves, then disappear for four episodes. An odd move, removing a pursuing force from a quest like this.
Enter the Crystal Maze
What’s fascinating in the proto-Crystal Maze that unravels over the following four episodes is that Marinus remains a central player while the Voord are side-lined. The TARDIS crew’s dystopian tour reveals very little about the amphibious menace. Not in the mind-controlled fake-utopia of Morphoton (and the brilliantly designed Morpho – take that Morbius!), the Doctor’s companions venture on to the Screaming Jungle where the old Martinus scientist Darrius’ suspicion that Barbara may be a Voord either hints at what lies beneath their wetsuits or a sign of his derangement. Their true form is further muddied by Yartek’s later assertion that, “there are many races of men on Marinus”. Those hoping for an answer to whether the Voord are one or many of those or even hail from Marinus at all shouldn’t hold on to their antennae.
A trip to a frozen mountain (The Snows of Death!) and the Doctor’s pontificating in the City of Millenus’s gross inversion of Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat yields the five keys and a return to Marinus using their travel dials well into the sixth episode. That’s where the Voord become a little unstuck as soon as they reappear.
Back to Marinus
That Doctor and companions don’t know Voord leader Yartek has assumed control of Marinus after murdering Arbitan (by stabbing, they are a physical creature – in the courtroom episode of the serial that comes in for the most criticism there is at least less back stabbing). The pretence is seized on by the Voord leader with relish, extravagant arm gestures, a pale cloak and a hood and lines like, “After all, he’s ooooonly a servant” and “Useless lies!”
He may lack the antenna of the other Voord, but pyramid power has clearly gone to his head. We would say that Yartek is a fine addition to Who’s canon shouty villains if he were not one of the originals. Yartek’s scam does demonstrate that they have a concept of love and logic (“the man who loves you cannot condemn you to death”) but are clearly beings of evil, one with a discriminatory hierarchy. Yartek describes the other Voord as his “creatures” which seems a little harsh.
Yartek’s inner-actor has to emerge as those creatures lack a mouth or other moving elements on their face. The Voord are tricky to animate in subtle ways. They do cast a great shadow however, and there is that strange fascination in an enigmatic shape that can be so easily damaged or knocked out. Also, intriguing that they can be so caught up in their own trickery that they are fooled by a decoy key that destroys the Conscience and wipes them out. In many of those respects they are similar to the Daleks, but their may be a quibble mover their fascism. For all the forced intentions of seizing the mind-controlling ‘weapon’ the serial sets them up as rebels in the first episode. Ultimately, there’s no double-crossing and their actions, menacing form, and a spot of homicide paints them as true villains.
Rebelling is vindicated come the end as the show returns to business as usual. The mind-controlling Conscience can no longer be subverted by either Arbitan or Yartek’s ilk, when it’s destroyed and all the many people of Marinus are left to think for themselves – much to the Doctor’s grand design.
The result is a bit of an early mismatch which throws in some new elements to the show’s establishing mix, doesn’t do a great deal with them, before falling back to standard tropes. Those closest to the production weren’t the kindest. Considering her reservations about the way Susan was treated as a child, Carole Ann Ford later remarked of the Voord, “They made us laugh because they kept falling over their flippers”. They were difficult to understand, easy to escape and made squeaking noises as they squeezed past each other apparently, although she did say that she “liked the concept”. Designer Raymond Cusick was a little more wry in his memories behind the scenes. “I suppose the theme of the Keys of Marinus was ‘beg, borrow and steal’. Ah well.
Grant Morrison – The World Shapers (1987), DWM comic strip
The one where… They’re the old Cybermen
Grant Morrison, a giant of the British comic invasion, has shaped a career in off-the wall intellectual craziness that stretches the the barriers of the multiverse in every direction. He started in the grit and craziness of British sci-fi comics, including three stories for Doctor Who Magazine that stretched across the Sixth and Seventh incarnations of the Time Lord. Interestingly, even at the start of his career Morrison was myth-building. When he brings the Sixth Doctor and Peri to Marinus at the opening of the three-part The World Shapers, his second story for the character, he doesn’t waste much time in putting his spin on the Voord and referencing their past. Amphibious assassins is how his Doctor describes them, alongside “morphology creatures” and the “Fishermen of Kandalinga” – name-checking a prose outing for the rubber-suited menace in the 1966 Doctor Who Annual. It sets the tone for a controversial entry that has a shadow of 2000AD Future Shocks hanging over it, but manages to affect the fabric of the Doctor’s own people and classic villains the Cybermen.
In this short story the Voord are clearly from Marinus and Morrison picks up their predilection for purloining technology, rather than originating it. Or perhaps not. The crash landing and their use of a Worldshaper that can change a planet’s timestream accelerates the Voord onto their natural form, the Cybermen. Thanks to a throwaway line from the Cyber Controller in 1968’s The Invasion, Marinus becomes Planet 14 (AKA Mondas) and the The Doctor is drawn back to Jamie McCrimmon, picking him up from the Highlands long after The Two Doctors.
The main focus of the story was to provide a gallant end for McCrimmon, although there is the sad downside that travelling with the Doctor had ruined the young Highlander’s life – something that would be woven into the fabric of the programme’s companions after it returned in 2005.
The return of the young Highlander overshadowed the myth-making around the monsters of the piece, who were a 24-year old memory at time of publication. Morrison’s name and the radically expanded universe grew after the show’s cancellation in 1989 has brought the plot of the piece into sharper focus. The original serial is now available for home release, the comic book run reprinted so both can sit side-by-side in a canon that’s long jumped between three canons of television, prose and audio.
The issue of the Voord physiognomy is not explored, but Morrison carries on the idea that they are augmented in some fashion, and that augmentation will continue to a natural conclusion, and beyond. For all the canon-channelling of Jamie and the origin of the Cybermen, there’s another interesting subversion. Recalling the infamous choice that the Fourth Doctor baulked at in Genesis of the Daleks, the Doctor sees the chance to stop the Cybermen in their infancy. But it’s the Time Lords who stop him, taking the hubristic higher ground as they have the knowledge that the Cybermen would furthermore evolve into non-physical peaceful beings in the far future.
Dragging in old Jamie, tackling Series 6 (if not 6b), elevating Time Lords to disassociated Gods, this fairly lightweight tale is pulsing with history that even fits in a time loop to explain away a dangling line from the 1960s. While the Big Finish stories that didn’t conflict were made canon at the 50th anniversary thanks to Night of the Doctor, Steven Moffat went a step further by surprisingly tying The World Shapers into the canon during the Doctor’s frantic last stand against the Cybermen in Series 10’s The Doctor Falls. It’s an accolade that while not quite accepting the idea that Marinus became Mondas, is intended to establish that the rise of the Cybermen is a fixed development in time that has occurred in multiple locations.
Andrew Smith, Domain of the Voord (2014), Big Finish Audio
The one where: They’re revealed as the ultimate occupiers
From endings to beginnings. Morrison’s Voord may have finished off the Sixth Doctor’s regular comic strip in DWM, but they also kickstarted Big Finish’s new range of Early Adventures in the 21st century. In an accompanying behind the scenes snippet, writer Andrew Smith rather shoots down The World Shapers – he can’t recall Morrison’s name – and heads right back to basics.
The result is an evocative piece, proving how adept Big Finish are at recreating bygone eras. William Russell, still marching on, joins Carole Ann Forde to recreate the earliest TARDIS team, and with a dollop of good will they do a fine job. Smith set himself the task of building on the underused Voord, albeit within the framework of early 1960s Doctor Who. It’s a semi-sequel in many ways, but has a huge scope – in its way reflecting the gigantic ambition of the early days before the show settled into a more insular approach that was set by the time colour arrived.
For all the references to their earlier invasion, Smith makes one departure the other writers here don’t. He turns the Voord into an intergalactic strike force, seeking universal domination and assimilation. Marinus is not their home planet, though, and Yartek’s mission was a singular expedition a century before.
Arriving one year into a Voord invasion of Hydra, a water planet with one continent, the story has great fun stranding Ian and Susan on the planet as the Doctor and Barbara disappear for long swathes of the four-parter, until it ends in a rebellion typical of the era. The Voord are introduced through an underwater assault and targeting another water planet is no accident (one they attacked through air and sea). As the Voord commander Nebrin later explains, their technology has a particularly affinity with water.
Perhaps that’s not quite true of their most important piece of tech, however. Their infamous wetsuits and masks. Andrew Smith specifically wanted to address the suits. He recalled that the Marinus script implied they were due to crossing the acid sea. His script confirms that the Voord induct (presumably always) humanoid inhabitants of the worlds they enslave into the Group MInd. The inductees must be willing though – the technology that beds into their biology testing them out and rejecting them, with horrifying injuries if they don’t pass. Once a Voord, always a Voord, joined in mental communion on a genetic level.
That’s particularly true considering the adopted Voord are mere drones. Joined to the Great Mind, they are controlled by the augmented commanders with true telepathic control. These are the real Voord, those of the Blood Tree as they term it, who undergo induction and suiting in their formative years. With their mixed culture, the true appearance of the Voord is left ambiguous.
A useful crew
The TARDIS crew is nicely bedded into this invasion. Their previous dealings with the Voord are of interest to both the resisting Hydrans and occupying Voord. Of course, their continued survival doesn’t bode for the invaders, although they can’t resist the idea of harvesting the Doctor and particularly Susan, members of a “fantastically advanced race”, for the benefits of the group mind.
Their weakness is power, honour and their technology. Creating a gigantic Sea Engine to cement the hive mind creates an irresistible target. The control of the commanders is only short range – perhaps explaining the clumsiness of Yartek’s crack troop on Marinus – the drones covering for a small elite whose defeat ensures success. And strangely for a culture that willingly absorbs other species, it’s when Overlord Tarlak oversteps his mark by killing other Voord and forcing the Voord mask on an unwilling Susan that his second-in-command Nebrin rebels himself.
Most importantly, these Voord certainly retain a sense of theatricality. While Domain of the Voord radically expands on their culture (they’re in a whole four episodes!), it’s a singular invasion story through and through, linking up with The Keys of Marinus, but not attempting to force the Voord into wider Doctor Who mythology like the two comic stories we’re looking at here. There’s a real horror in the reveal that Voord absorb other species and that the guards of the Hydrans are Hydrans who’ve submitted. Most chilling is the honour of the Voord that demands new Voord submit willingly to their augmentation. When the Voord explain their goal of ‘one culture and one way’, calling it an opportunity, it’s Ian who draws the parallel to Nazism – and that’s another link to their forebears the Daleks.
Paul Cornell – The Four Doctors (2015), Titan Comics
The one where: They’re More Powerful than Time Lords
The Four Doctors is a cross-over from Titan comics that combined ongoing series featuring the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors respectively. Where the Fourth Doctor of the title fits in is a matter of debate, as there are three candidates including the Titan debut of a rather rugged War Doctor. The ‘event’ couldn’t have had better talent behind it. Superb art, and phenomenal likenesses from Neil Edwards, working with a script from Paul Cornell, who’s not only a Who alumni of screen and prose, but has helmed key properties for big hitters DC Comics and Marvel too. So what could Cornell do for the Voord? Well, take them to the future, or a possible one.
Into the future
Cornell’s tale is rooted in the Great Time War, matching it with time conundrums, the events of the television series, the expanded cast of new companions Titan matched to the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, and finding a fascinating new route for the Voord. Cornell makes them inhabitants of Marinus once again, ravaged by the Time War to a husk of a sand planet. Dragged into the conflict, the Voord allied with the Time Lords and thanks to constant paradoxes, developed new and and beyond evolutionary powers. Ever the cravers, it’s the worry that the resolution of the Time War will have those ‘improvements’ wheeled back that gets the Voord thinking about their tenuous alliance.
For the first time we see the unenhanced Voord – utterly humanoid, waiting to join the Voord Group Mind and ready to be absorbed in their new, malleable and metallic liquid suits whenever a member of the Group Mind is . Seeing this is of great interest to the War Doctor, possibly a judgement on his looser morals, as the corpse of an abandoned Voord is discarded to the elements.
Cornell matches the story to the new series well, with involvement of the Voord and the involvement of the Doctors premeditated by the future, or a possible one. The Conscience, rebuilt or survived, plays a key part, adapted by the Voord and is integral to modifying the Doctors’ memories before they are dispersed to their own timelines.
Including the Conscience, Voord powers are considerable, making their aim of replacing the Time Lords and achieving utter domination of time and space to enact their idea of galactic ‘peace’, quite believable. They have the technology to secure sanctuary in a pocket universe with greater success than the Time Lords. They even manage to remove themselves from universal memory, but with the power to reach through to any point in time or space. Their suits are completely morphic and able to expand mass to absorb and catch something as large and gangly as a New Series Doctor.
The sustenance and maintenance of the Voord Group Mind is their chief priority, but again, its prominence is a weakness. The Eleventh Doctor is able to take advantage of their momentary distraction for an escape attempt – which in a roundabout way works.
It’s the Group Mind that offers solace to a grieving Twelfth Doctor, betrayed by Clara at the opening of Dark Water. The New Series is fond of sending its Doctors into extended bouts of isolation, casting off companionship before they realise the error of their ways. That’s in particular focus when a Dalek continuity bomb draws out alternative realities from the television series. Along with the apathetic Eleventh Doctor who makes tea while the Universe collapses (The Wedding of River Song), we see the result of the Time Lord Victorious Tenth Doctor who refused to sacrifice himself. It’s an effective what if story, muddled as it can be, and a great homage to the show Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat had sculpted since 2005.
Again, the idea of time dilation is key, the Voord always on the way to somewhere else – perhaps a subliminal reference to their stunted and wasted development in the 1960s. But marks off for dispatching Bernard Cribbins.A year after Titan’s event put them font stage, Big Finish’s Ravenous arc would pit the Eighth Doctor against the Voord in Stegmoor, an unexpected location that crowned an illustrious spell for the the monsters that far exceeded expectations after their bookending on Marinus five decades before. Apparently, the appeal of the Voord remains. They just needed some time.
They were perhaps too close in their black-clad evil to the facism that the Daleks specialised in to supersede them. But it would be wrong to be prejudicial about their first appearance. Almost Voord-like prejudicial. As above, subsequent encounters would either shift them into a higher orbit in Who mythology – almost making up time after their 1960s sidelining – or in the case of Andrew Smith’s Domain of the Voord, pitch them as the ultimate occupiers in Who-lore.
The mystery of the Milk Tray Men who apparently never leave any chocolates behind needs to remain a certain mystery.
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