What Loki got wrong – and Doctor Who got right
Redeeming a villainous character isn’t easy but the Disney Plus series could pick up a few tips from the BBC’s flagship series.
We all love Loki – the God of Mischief, Lord of Chaos, a wannabe tyrant and murderer with a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step. So where on Earth (or rather, in the multiverse) did he go during his eponymous Disney Plus series?
When Loki was first proposed, I was intrigued to see a Marvel spin-off that focused on an amoral, self-serving character. But over the course of its six episodes, we saw Tom Hiddleston abruptly deliver a reverse heel-turn, transforming a character that had always skirted in grey areas of villainy into a fairly bland, heroic type who just wanted to save the universe.
In the final episode, Loki was offered the chance at universal war and chaos, a throne or a quiet home life in the background. The mind boggles that someone who tried to rule the planet just a few weeks before and apparently revelled in disorder would so quickly plump for the third option, no matter how nice his new friends were.
Maybe Loki needs more 'good' characters to bounce off for him to play the fun bad boy, as he had in the Thor movies. Maybe creating a Marvel series with a morally ambiguous lead, à la Rick and Morty, was never on the cards. But there was a way that Loki could have redeemed its central character without completely compromising what made him interesting in the first place. In fact, it’s been done before in a different series.
A few times over the course of Loki, viewers had compared it to Doctor Who, mainly because of its general time-travel premise (what are the officious TVA except Time Lords with a dental plan?) and especially after episode three saw Loki and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) trapped on a dying world. In fact, many commented that Loki did ‘Doctor Who’ better than Doctor Who itself, thanks to a higher budget and bigger stars. (Though did Loki have a sonic screwdriver? I think not. Case closed.)
And I actually think Loki could learn something from Doctor Who, more specifically, from a storyline that saw an iconic villain try to change their ways with mixed success.
Cast your mind back to 2017 and Peter Capaldi’s final series as the Twelfth Doctor. A major throughline of those episodes was the Doctor’s attempt to redeem his old nemesis The Master, then played by Michelle Gomez as Missy. Initially reluctant (and not before a few final backstabs), Missy did end up playing the hero, only to be cut down by an alternate version of herself (AKA her predecessor in the regenerating role, John Simm) before she could reveal to the Doctor that she’d finally come over to his side.
Crucially, during this process Missy was often as unpleasant, irascible and darkly funny as she’d ever been at her most villainous, regularly still insulting and belittling the Doctor and his friends even as she did gain more empathy and something of a moral code. She didn’t just completely gain a new personality, in other words, and the story was more moving and believable as a result.
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Of course, Loki is changed by what happens to him over the course of his series – the “journey” he goes on, as Jonathan Majors’ He Who Remains puts it, is needed to put him in the position where he’s willing to take over the TVA himself. But what we see him go through on screen doesn’t feel like enough to justify such a change in the character – or why the show would choose to make him so much less entertaining.
If Loki had always been how he appeared in the finale, he wouldn't have lasted as long as he has in the MCU, let alone get his own spin-off. Make Loki fun again!
It probably doesn’t help that we’ve seen an onscreen version of Loki's journey already which did a better job, with the 'older'/original Loki’s arc in 2017 Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok making a much better case for his gradual turn from self-interest to semi-heroism, though still with a trademark blend of arrogance and style (including bellowing “Your saviour is here!” as he rescued the people of Asgard).
Maybe it helps that, in that film, he plays second fiddle to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. Maybe Missy’s story only worked in Doctor Who because she wasn’t the main character, and similarly had the good Doctor to bounce off (though if someone does want to make a Missy TV show, I'm in).
Whatever the reasoning, something still feels a little off about this newly heroic Loki variant. Time for, if not a pruning, then at least a bit of a redirection if season two is going to find its glorious purpose.
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