Skulltopus 12: Come Out onto the Balcony and Wave a Tentacle


Okay, first a quick (well... relatively quick) recap and a few clarifications... because we've come a long way. And then onto some hot Zygon action.

The Story So Far...

If only 'Pirates of the Caribbean II' had looked this good.
According to China Miéville, the tentacular monster was introduced to Western SF/Horror literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the loose style/affect/trend known as 'the Weird'.  Lovecraft, Hodgson, Machen, etc.  They used various new forms of the monstrous, especially tentacles, as a 'novum', unfreighted with previously accreted meanings and associations, which could express something of the unprecedented, inexplicable, inexpressible catastrophic horror that was engulfing modernity with the onrush of world war, mechanised imperialism and endemic economic crisis.  (There were a couple of important pre-eruptions of the tentacular and Weirdish courtesy of SF pioneer H.G. Wells and 'ghost story' writer M.R. James.)  Mieville says that the Weird represents a way of trying to express anxieties that is alternate and incompatible with the gothic.  The gothic - or hauntological - is an expression of something we already know which has been hidden (or repressed) and which haunts us, threatening to return.  The Weird is what we don't - and perhaps cannot - know, erupting without precedent and confronting us with our own incomprehension.  Consequently, the gothic and the Weird exist in "non-dialectical superposition", oscillating back and forth... something which shows in the almost total absence in Western monsterology of the skulltopus, a fusion of skull (gothic) and octopus (Weird) which, on the face of it, would seem to be quite an obvious synthesis, especially given that the central hub of an octopus's body is decidedly skull-like in shape.

Much later, long after the process in Western literary and graphic monsterology that Miéville describes, and long after tentacles had been thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream of Western Horror and SF, tentacles begin to make their presence felt in Doctor Who. In the early days, most of the tentacles that appeared in the show did so courtesy of Terry Nation. For instance, he adroitly selected an octopus as a meaningless plot-device monster in 'The Chase'. He may have done this because the octopoidal carried a residual charge of blankness or meaninglessness. Also, Nation seems to have repeatedly associated a tentacular or Weirdesque monster with economic exploitation. The Brains of Morphoton have stubby tentacles and run an entire economy on hypnotism, making scarcity seem like material abundance; the Slyther turns up when the Daleks are forcing people to mine for them and black-marketeers are taking advantage of the situation. This may be a co-optation of the 'blankness' of the tentacular inherited from the Weird. It may also be that, because the modernity that filled the Weird writers with such nebulous horror was capitalist modernity, there is something in their pre-eminent monster-type that naturally lends itself to expressing horror at economic exploitation. (They themselves would probably have rejected this, most of them being reactionaries... though, interestingly, Lovecraft - who was a disgusting racist, living in dread of 'miscegenation' - once identified himself as a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, even calling himself a 'socialist'.) In any case, surprising as it seems - and I find this as unexpected as you probably do - Nation seems to have laid the groundwork for a semiotic connection within Doctor Who between tentacles and capitalism that later appeared, fully-fledged, at the start of the 70s.

Chiming with Miéville's ideas, while also working differently to the process he describes, there is a peculiar dialectic that gets started in the show between the gothic and this half-remembered version of the Weird.  'The Macra Terror' is the harbinger of what is to come.  It uses a recalled version of the Weird by using monsters that are crabs (the Weird is very maritime; Hodgson employs giant crabs a lot in his stories) and yet also undefined and/or overdescribed to the point of incoherence (this is also a trait of Weird monsters).  At the same time, however, the same monsters are deeply hauntological in that they literally haunt the Colony, representing repressed fears, their very existence denied by even those who have seen them lurking in the shadows.  This happens, I think, because 'The Macra Terror' is the first major attempt by Doctor Who - up to that point - to engage with some of the radical ideas of the 60s.  Like The Prisoner, which it anticipates in some respects, it frets over an apparent convergence between the underlying political structures of the 'democratic' West and the 'totalitarian' East.  The Colony is a political tyranny with capitalist features.  There is brainwashing, surveillance, a secret police force... co-existing with a Holiday Camp style atmosphere, leisure time, makeovers, beauty contests and an ideology of cheerful team-spirit.  This is a very 60s anxiety and ties in with currents of radical thought of the time.  Haunted by this idea, which cannot be openly acknowledged, the text resorts to radically obscuring its hauntological monsters by co-opting aspects of the Weird.

The most politically loaded image in 'Doctor Who'.
Not long after this, at the start of the 70s, Robert Holmes wrote a story with various elements that seemed to converge upon capitalism as a source of exploitation, alienation and hierarchy... and even to connect capitalism with imperialism, racism and sexism.  (I know, you think I've gone mad... well, click the following link to see my reasoning...)  'Spearhead from Space' contains this potential because it concentrates on a capitalist factory, upon the process of production, upon wage labour, upon products and commodities alienated and fetishized to the point of hostile autonomy.  Its monsters - the Autons - work as emblems of alienation and commodity fetishism as described by Marx.  They are hostile commodities, invested with a life of their own, confronting people as an external and dominating power.  They alienate the human image from humans.  They are made in the capitalist factory, by workers, several of whom are Asian women working for a white man making white dolls.  The Autons themselves are white - whiteness seems to be the Nestene idea of the typical human, the 'vanilla' human if you will.  The Autons are expressions of Nestene imperialism; the Nestenes explicitly describe themselves as colonialists.  The Nestenes merge their Autons with the human shopping centre and with a pantheon of white Western political oligarchs displayed in Madame Tussauds (with some non-white opponents of white imperialism - Ghandi, MLK - also on display, for counterpoint).  The plastic replicas of the ruling class stalk out of Tussauds to take over the country.  Meanwhile, the Autons attack in the high street, wearing price tags, gunning people down amidst adverts and logos and shop signs.  It's well understood that George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a 'satire of consumerism' because it features zombies staggering mindlessly around a shopping mall.  Indeed, it's pretty much a cliché to mention the fact.  It's time people realised that, once again, Doctor Who got there first - only more acutely.  However, at the figurative centre of 'Spearhead from Space', at the heart of the factory where the Nestene entity itself is being produced, Holmes seems to evade the convergence of these themes by the sudden introduction of radically incoherent tentacles.  The threat was that the themes and signs of the story would converge lucidly upon the capitalist system as a generator of modern nightmares.  The tentacles - harking back to their original Weird blankness - are a redaction, a scrambling, an obfuscation.  Doctor Who relentlessly concentrates upon the modern nightmares that are generated by capitalism - industrialised warfare and imperialism, biological racism, fascism, etc. - but cannot openly acknowledge capitalism as the hub from which they emanate, owing to its status - the children's own programme that adults adore - within the established culture industry.

The ironic thing is that this semiotic evasion almost instantly became a semiotic association.  This may express an inherent instability within any sign that is pressed into the service of the inscrutable or inexpressible.  Evasion of meaning is fundamentally not what signs are supposed to do.  Evasion of truth, sure, but not of settled significance itself.  Such a sign hunts around for a meaning, so to speak.  It must find a telos, even if the one it finds is the very telos it was supposed to be evading.  (This is not idealism, by the way.  When I talk about the sign 'doing' things, I'm actually talking about the people using it... just as one might say that a car 'cruises' when in fact it is the driver doing the cruising.)

In 70s Who, the tentacular sign is employed to evade capitalism, and instantly starts to signify capitalism.  It would be easy to see this connection between the tentacular and capitalism as a mere empty recapitulation of continuity when it reappears in Holmes' sequel, 'Terror of the Autons'... if it weren't for almost immediate appearance of 'The Claws of Axos', which is a development and intensification of the connection, written by different writers.  Echoing the process described by Miéville - and that's what this is: an echo - the tentacular in Doctor Who is, almost from the first, enmeshed in an antagonistic dialectic with the gothic, the show's better-established mode. For instance, in 'Claws of Axos' the tentacular elbows out the gothic (while taking on a hauntological charge). The story was originally about a space 'vampire' in the shape of a giant skull; it became instead about a huge bag of strange, spectacular, writhing, incoherent flesh.

Later, the tentacular is so integrated into the internal sign system of 70s Who that it just rides in on an association with capitalism, even when there's nothing that needs obscuring because free trade-style capitalism is being presented as implicitly good. But even at this point - roughly speaking, 'The Curse of Peladon' - it still continues dancing with the gothic. In 'The Curse of Peladon', Arcturus is very nearly a skulltopus because he's both capitalist (a representative of the Federation with all its trade and progress, counterposed to Pel feudalism) but also a protectionist reactionary who wants Peladon to stay a feudal backwater. (This, it need hardly be said, reflects the arguments about free trade vs. protectionism which flurried around the UK's entry into the 'Common Market' roundabout the time 'Curse' was made, i.e. the dawn of neoliberalism.)

Astonishingly enough, this character...
...turns out to be evil.
This skulltopusization can occur because 'Curse of Peladon' is a distant echo of the process described by Miéville; a televisual atavism in the 1970s of a process originally found in literature and graphics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The gothic/Weird dance continues, with tentacles always erupting whenever capitalism appears in the show as a systemic presence, throughout the rest of the Pertwee era. In 'The Green Death' - the last Pertweean gasp of the Weird - there is a tentacle which appears at the start, almost as an obligatory afterthought, and there are the Weird-esque maggots. Still, the gothic clings on alongside this recycled, processed version of the Weird. The gothic keeps trying to reintegrate. 'Green Death' works like an M.R. James ghost story, with its material 'hauntings', linked to technological modernity. It will be recalled that Miéville identified James as one of the precursors of the Weird. Reading James, one usually encounters not spectral ghosts but slimey, hairy, icky, chitinous things, or things that seem oddly to emerge from modernity - haunted prints, designs or train tickets, for example. This sort of thing is very apt to happen in Doctor Who because its version of the gothic has always been very material and materialist. 'The Green Death' is a perfect example, with its Jamesean 'ghosts': slimey, hairy, icky, chitinous monsters that emerge from a chemical factory. As James prefigured the Weird even as he wrote in the gothic, so 'Green Death' partially integrates the Weird and the gothic. It joins the Whoish 'material gothic' to its new habit of using the Weird as a way of evading/signifying capitalism. Even its title illustrates this dialectic, with the slimey, gooey 'Green' grafted onto the gothic 'Death'.

And so, we arrive at the Tom Baker years - always spoken of as quintessentially gothic. 

Broton's Zygotic Mynci

"Go away.  You're always hovering.  It makes me nervous."
"I just want to be near you."
"I've told you - not at work!"
The first appearance in the Baker era of anything even faintly Weird or Weird-esque (and it is faint) arrives (as already hinted) in 'Terror of the Zygons'.  The Zygons are covered in suckers.  They live underwater and control a sea monster.  So they're well maritime (as mentioned above, the Weird is frequently maritime in its concerns).  The Doctor even refers to them at one point as having tentacles, which is a bit of a stretch on his part, but still...  Moreover, they are shape-shifters.  This is another of those things which is actually rarer in Doctor Who than one might immediately think.  Apologies for the tautology, but the essence of the shape-shifter is indeterminacy of form. Here, once again, we have incoherence and the tentacular. I don't want to overstate. The Zygons are hardly inscrutable. They state their plans very clearly. They are most obliging with their freely-offered exposition when they capture Harry. There is little to misunderstand about them. They are a terroristic advance-guard of a fleet of imperialistic nomads. But they are tentacular (just about) and they are unstuck from a fixed physical form. Most especially, the inside of their ship is organic in a way not even hinted-at in the show since 'Axos'. With their great, domed foreheads, their name (which sounds so much like 'zygotes'), their ability to 'become' adult humans and their apparent loathing of doing so, their dependence upon the "lactic fluid" of a much-larger organism and their warm, snug, pulsing, fleshy, veined base of operations, it's hard not to notice that they are disquietingly infantile. Monstrous babies were much in vogue in Horror in the late 60s / early 70s. Rosemary's Baby, It's Alive, Eraserhead, The Omen... the original idea of the writers of Alien was that the monster should be like a "monstrous, deformed baby". This is a digression (gee, how unusual here!) but the point is that their ship recalls Axos, though in a much less wild and spectacular form.

The semiotic connection between the tentacular and capitalism is being continued, albeit it in a faint, garbled and undeveloped form. 'Terror of the Zygons' features rigs owned and run by an American oil company which is traumatically bringing on the collapse of an old, feudal way of life in favour of new capitalist development. Seven centuries of 'service' seem not to count "these days". All Forgill's servants leave to work for the rigs. Huckle's men trespass upon Forgill's lands, showing no respect for feudal land ownership in their pursuit of capitalist accumulation of a fossil fuel that will power modern technology. As in 'Green Death', the eruption of the Weirdish occurs in something of a gothic manner - the hidden erupts from beneath - as a result of the intrusion of modern, explicitly capitalist technology.

It's tempting to say that the Zygons are associated more with the 'old ways', the feudal aristocracy. Broton disguises himself as the Duke of Forgill and the Zygon ship is linked to the land by a tunnel that leads up into the dusty old library of Forgill Castle. Speaking in his Forgill persona, Broton seems convincingly to voice the resentment of the obsolete aristocrat in the time of the oil corporation. But this is to impose a clear-cut distinction where in fact there are complex interrelationships. The real Duke's ancestors would probably have been among those making 'improvements' to the land, i.e. enclosing it and evicting people from their homes to make way for sheep. This actually happened to land around Loch Ness. These were among the first steps in the rise of modern capitalism in Scotland. Huge tracts of private land used for bourgeois farming and/or rents, leading to the filling-up of industrial towns with displaced new proletarians and/or the expansion of the 'New World' colonies, vital because of their roles in the slave trade and production of commodities like cotton, or coal - the oil of its day.

Similarly, the Zygons plan a massive exercise in invasion and colonialism... chiming with the invasion and annexation of Scotland by England (re-enacted in a miniaturized, comic mode through UNIT's invasion and takeover of Angus's inn... a process he resists by loudly playing the bagpipes at the occupying, armed Sassenachs). But we can't straightforwardly associate Zygon colonialism with English colonialism. The Zygons are also refugees, driven away from their home and seeking a new one. They plan to colonize Earth using the slave labour of the humans. A great many of the Scottish Highlanders driven out of their homes by the Clearances ended up in the Carolinas in America. The Carolinas were, of course, slave states. If the Zygons work as the echoes of English domination of Scotland, they also work as an echo of the forced migrants who ended up dominating the New World. (Meanwhile, we can't straightforwardly assume a connection between Forgill's old-fashioned Scots aristocratic posture and Scottish nationalism. A lot of those dukedoms were created by the English crown.)

Recycling Experiment

Interestingly, some of these same dynamics - the interrelationship of feudal wealth and modern capitalism, the complex conception of colonial conquest - reappear in Robert Banks Stewart's other script for Hinchliffe and Holmes, 'The Seeds of Doom'.

The National Trust will have something to say about this.
In that story, Harrison Chase is a modern millionaire with a private lab and salaried employees, including a personal botanist and an enforcer with a gaggle of naff private thugs. Chase is entirely immersed in modernity. He is surrounded by modern technology - his private lab, his private plane, his huge climate-controlled greenhouse, his peculiar electronic organ (ooo-er missus), etc. He is also immersed in commodification. He buys officials, information, loyalty, etc. He owns people "body and soul". He owns and buys things constantly. He haggles over and buys a painting on screen during the story. He effectively buys the rights to the pod and everything that comes from it. That's how he sees it anyway. But he is also a relic of feudalism. His is evidently an old family, and his money is evidently old money. His house dates from the time of the Wars of the Roses ("charmingly named") and is haunted by Sir Bothwell Chase. There doesn't appear to be a contradiction here. The one form of power seems to bleed seamlessly into the other. Indeed, it might even go back farther than that. As the lord and master of cultivated grounds, as the Abbot of a "green cathedral", as a landowner and employer of a private army, Chase is almost like an echo of the earliest ruling classes that arose with the coming of agriculture. He's like one of the administrators or priests who came into existence when a new way of making a living - settled growing and reaping - brought surplus and, with it, social hierarchies... along with organised war, which suddenly became worthwhile once there were settled civilisations whose crops and plants you could seize. Chase and Scorby are like the descendants of these first lords and warriors, still fighting over ownership of the greenery all these centuries later. Feudalism and capitalism both seem to have carried this same violent and piratical hierarchy, in turn, down to the present. Chase is like a palimpsest of all these rulers. He's the Abbot, the lordly landowner, the modern businessman - all in one.

Also, there is much talk of 'revolution' in the story, and the inversion of power relationships... caused by an invasion and colonisation. Chase conceives of plants and flowers as being an oppressed group, as though they stand in a colonial relationship to animals. Even from the first, long before he seems to be 'possessed' by the Krynoid (not that he ever really is, if you ask me), he whinges to Dunbar about the "mutilation and torture" of plants in the practice of Bonsai, the favouritism allegedly shown towards animals by the World Ecology Bureau and the unnatural criminality of creating hybrids. Later, he talks of animals like a tyrannical ruling elite, about to be conquered and enslaved by the coming of the Krynoid, which he appears to see as a huge, plant-version of Che Guevara. The invasion and colonialism of the Krynoid is like the ousting of a native ruling class. He almost anticipates the doctrine of 'humanitarian intervention' - invade and conquer to (supposedly) free the oppressed - but for the fact that it isn't the humans he wants to save.

It's open to doubt whether 'Zygons' and 'Seeds' work this way because the show is still trying to evade noticing capitalism as a generator of modern nightmares. It feels more like the recapitulation of a settled sign, almost as a matter of habit. It also feels as though the studiedly gothic atmosphere of the Hinchcliffe / Holmes era is squeezing the Weird tentacles into an increasingly small corner. First there are tentacles that are not really tentacles (arms and legs with decorative suckers), then there are tentacles that are actually vines and creepers and roots. Capitalism still tags alongside these almost-tentacles (or is it the other way round) but in a decidedly muted, faint and compromised form. It appears mixed up with feudalism, in a very tangled way.

There is very little else in the Hinchcliffe years which qualifies as Weird or quasi-Weird or even almost-Weird. The tentacular returns with a vengeance, however, in the more political Williams era... just in time to notice that the world is changing, neoliberalism is flowering, class struggle is waning, Thatcher is rising and capitalism no longer anything to be worried about - at least not officially. Consequently, by the near-end of the Williams years, it no longer feels right to wrap capitalism in tentacles. But, as I say, this only happens after the tentacular/capitalist semiotic connection re-erupts... in ways that range from the furtive to the ambiguous to the angrily and hugely explicit.

CORRECTION, 28/09/12:
In the text above, I say that "A lot of those [Scottish] dukedoms were created by the English crown." That's just plain wrong. Factually inaccurate. Sorry. Thanks to Jennings for pointing this out.


Janjy Giggins 4 years, 7 months ago

I just found this blog and I wanted to say how fascinating and eye-opening I'm finding it. I'm enjoying these Skulltopus posts a lot. It seems like you're more interested in the TV show than novels, but do you have any plans to cover Damaged Goods? I was just re-reading it and with its story of capitalist commodification of people and a protean, long-forgotten, uncomfortably-melded tentacle-zombie running around the place it seems like it would fit into your thesis quite well (though obviously it's confronting issues of capitalism head-on rather than using the tentacular to sidestep it). Anyway, keep up the good work.

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Jack Graham 4 years, 7 months ago

Thanks for visiting. And reading. And being complimentary. Much appreciated.

On the subject of 'Damaged Goods'... you read my mind. It's going to be a major aspect of a future Skulltopus post in which I look at what happened to Weird 'Doctor Who' in the 80s and beyond.


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Lucy McGough 4 years, 5 months ago

A very interesting and convincing read.

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