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Creating a Monster

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2021-12-04 Radio Times p26-27.jpg


Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall reveals the inspiration behind his new villains...

Creating villains and monsters for Doctor Who takes teamwork. Every monster is the result of an assembly of talents. The starting point can be an image, an idea or an actor.

I wrote the Grand Serpent specifically for Craig Parkinson. We'd wanted him in the show for a long time. For a warm, funny and delightful man, Craig can do cold, quiet and threatening in a way that chills the blood. I didn't mention to Craig the disgusting way the Grand Serpent dispatches his enemies - I left that as a surprise for when he read the script.

For Swarm and Azure, Flux's big bad villains, I wanted to create an old nemesis for the Doctor, of whom the Doctor had no memory. It's a new situation, specifically formed out of the stories we've told with Jodie's Doctor - and to find a new situation after nearly 60 years of the show is always exciting.

I had an image of bejewelled skeletal faces, one male, one female. Prosthetic designer Danny Marie Elias, in her first series on Doctor Who, nailed the looks from the outset, creating a design of incredible colours, jagged crystals and ancient evil. Costume designer Ray Holman worked up a look, of flamboyance, decadence and simplicity - quite the balancing act.

Actor Sam Spruell brought understated, terrifying menace to Swarm, and Rochenda Sandal! is utterly mesmerising as the aloof, playful, chilly Azure. They bring a dynamic, unsettling chemistry to that relationship and made them their own.

There's not one way to create a Doctor Who villain - but all of them are a joy.


LET'S MAKE NO bones about it: baddies are the greatest parts to play," declares Craig Parkinson with conviction. The millions of viewers who watched his menacing turn as Matthew "Dot" Cottan in three series of Line of Duty will surely agree that it looked like he was having fun.

His slippery Doctor Who villain the Grand Serpent - who turned up in part three of the current run and joined forces with the Sontarans in part five - is the latest in a string of wrong 'uns on Parkinson's CV. But it wasn't always thus.

"I started off in comedy in my early 20s, doing little bits on shows like Black Books and lots of workshops with very well-renowned comedy people," says Parkinson, now 45. "Comedy was my go-to... I'd grown up on a diet of Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd and all I wanted to do was make people laugh. That was my thing and it's still very close to my heart."

His casting as gangster Ronnie Kray's fictional offspring Jimmy/ Johnny in ITV's Whitechapel changed all that. "Since then, everyone's gone, 'Oh Craig does that sort of menacing bad thing,' and it's just gone on and it's evolved. It's a lot of fun, especially when you get scripts as good as those that Chris Chibnall and [Line of Duty's] Jed Mercurio turn out. What more do you want?"

So who is the Grand Serpent? Chibnall didn't give him much to go on initially. "To be honest, Chris had me with the name," the actor laughs. "The character is purely selfish and he doesn't let anyone stand in his way or take no for an answer. He's very cunning and he takes his time - literally, he goes through the time zones - to get what he wants."

HE ALSO SPORTS a distinctive look: a peroxide-streaked quiff, a leather jacket emblazoned with serpents, cufflinks to match,

and Cuban heels that give Parkinson's 6ft 4in frame an extra measure of dominance. "I drew on the slightly camp aspect of a Las Vegas magician but with the deadly viciousness of a Sopranos character," Parkinson reveals. "He's very slick, he's very well groomed, he's got a slight shimmer of a tan. He's always very well turned out, because everything is meticulous with him."

Amid the villainy, Parkinson's childhood memories of the "slight danger" of Tom Baker's Doctor also played on his mind. "I loved his theatricality and the anarchy. Even though I was far too young to know what improvisation was, it was almost as if he was going off-script. There was a slight danger to it. I wanted to bring that sense that you didn't know what the Grand Serpent was going to do from one line to the next."

He shares the scares with his ten-year-old son, who is "the font of all knowledge" on all things Who. Parkinson is glad to be appearing in something they can watch together. "He did find the first episode, as I think a lot of people did, very overwhelming. He watched it twice."

While allowing him to enjoy his moment of pride in the school playground, Parkinson kept him in the dark about his character until he appeared on screen. "I've got quite good at keeping secrets over the past few years;' he says wryly.

Caption: EVIL STREAK Craig Parkinson as the Great Serpent: a "Las Vegas magician" coupled with "the deadly viciousness of a Sopranos character"

Caption: TIME LOVES A HERO Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor


Rochenda Sandall and Sam Spruell play sibling assassins Azure and Swarm

How did Chris Chibnall explain these Doctor Who villains to you?

ROCHENDA SANDALL Someone who wanted to cause the utmost destruction of the universe as we know it. The ultimate baddie!

SAM SPRUELL Chris talked about a couple of real-life villains - I can't say who, but they're quite scary figures in the high-finance world, powerful people who mix with politicians and high society but with an underbelly of corruption - to get the sense of the level of power he wanted in Swarm.

What's the appeal of playing a baddie?

SS They're great parts to play. Each baddie has a sensitive side but it's not always on show. There's lots to explore. People are horrible for a reason.

RS The dark side is a lot more complex. The simplicity of playing a romantic lead is very earnest, honest, true, direct and simple, whereas villains are very complex. The root of Swarm and Azure's evil is quite deep and goes back a long time.

What's your take on Swarm and Azure's sibling relationship?

RS Sam and I secretly came up with things that would make us extra creepy, like walking down the stairs holding hands like the twins from The Shining. You would be a bit weird if you'd been locked in a box for thousands of years.

SS I imagined them to be quite tactile, with each other and their victims. There's a kind of tenderness about their evil. After they shouted "cut", Jodie would sometimes do a shiver, so I knew I was on to something.

What's it like to act under such heavy prosthetics?

RS You're at work four hours before everyone else our pick-ups were at 3.30am. We were absolutely knackered by the end of it.

SS It's important to work out which angles give certain looks. It's a new face that you have to learn how to use and that four hours in make-up is the time to think about it.

Which Doctor Who baddies scared you as a child?

SS The relentless power of the Daleks was unbelievably frightening.

RS I met a Dalek while we were filming in Cardiff - there was one in the office upstairs, so I'd go and say hello to it!

Caption: BEHIND THE MASKS Rochenda Sandall as she appeared in Talking Heads and as Azure (above); Sam Spruell in The North Water and as Swarm (left)

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  • APA 6th ed.: Parker, Robin (2021-12-04). Creating a Monster. Radio Times p. 26.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Parker, Robin. "Creating a Monster." Radio Times [add city] 2021-12-04, 26. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Parker, Robin. "Creating a Monster." Radio Times, edition, sec., 2021-12-04
  • Turabian: Parker, Robin. "Creating a Monster." Radio Times, 2021-12-04, section, 26 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Creating a Monster | url= | work=Radio Times | pages=26 | date=2021-12-04 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=1 April 2023 }}</ref>
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