Things have been weird for me lately. In a bad way. Personal stuff. Worries. Health issues. Melancholia. And other obsessions, plans, dreams… including a recurring one that I really should’ve abandoned by now… but haven’t. In short: no time (and not much inclination) to blog. The promised Skulltopus post on ‘Image of the Fendahl’ is stalled, swollen to vast and unruly size, stuck at an impasse, erupting out of the Skulltopus category into all sorts of other genres (appropriately enough). Bear with me, Reading Few. I will rally.…
My monomaniacal focus on the quasi-Weird(ish/esque) in Doctor Who resumes (after a bit of a hiatus… during which I just couldn’t be arsed) and reaches the Graham Williams years, the heyday of the tentacular in the Baker era. See here for links to all previous Skulltopus posts and here for the last one (which includes a summary of the whole thing so far).
I started the whole Skulltopus thing with ‘Horror of Fang Rock’, but that was ages ago (and before I really knew where I was going with this topic) so I feel the need to go back to it, if comparatively briefly.
Okay, so ‘Fang Rock’. Hmm. Well, it’s a Terrance Dicks script, isn’t it? Uncle Tel is, as we all know, well dodgy on politics. He writes about how the working classes are happy being poor, and aristocrats are dandy, and the empire was kind of okay. His baseline assumption is one of contented ‘capitalist realism’, of unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. Plus he’s rubbish on the question of women and sexism. He’s so bad on issues of sexual exploitation that he actually seems to be rather too keen on bringing up the subject of rape.
Weeeeell… however true the above charges may or may not be with regard to his spin-off novels, the funny thing is that, in practice, his actual TV scripts don’t show much evidence of these traits. For instance, ‘Fang Rock’ is obsessed with class, hierarchy, status, property and money… and not in an obviously reactionary, or smugly-liberal way. In fact, it’s kind of edgy (as these things go). It’s one of those relatively few Who stories outside the early Pertwee years which portrays people performing waged labour, let alone showing the working people of twentieth century Britain. And, generally speaking, the story is greatly and openly more sympathetic to the working stiffs, and what they have to put up with, than it is to the gentry. The world the Rutan comes to and fits into is a world of deep economic and social divisions between classes based on work, finance, empire and gender. The workers have to work for a living, and do. They are explicitly below the gentlefolk in a very visible social hierarchy that is painted in unmistakably negative terms, to the point where their lives are shown to be implicitly considered of less value. The business of who does and who doesn’t get a lifeboat when Palmerdale’s yacht goes down foreshadows the sinking of the Titanic, probably the most famous example of ‘gilded age’ social injustice in popular consciousness. We are evidently invited and expected to be angry about this, to side with Harker. Indeed, in his rush to indicate his line on this, Dicks makes Lord Palmerdale just a tad too obviously despicable. Palmerdale’s wealth is evidently based on financial speculation. Skinsale’s position comes from his status as an M.P., as an old imperial soldier and (presumably) his respectable birth (i.e.…
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’.)…
Before the Skulltopus series moves on to the Baker years (and beyond), I feel the need to settle accounts with the Pertwee era, particularly with Peladon. Also, I need to clarify something about the way capitalism is portrayed and perceived in – and by – Doctor Who.
The maggots in ‘The Green Death‘ are the Pertwee era’s last gasp of the Weirdesque. ‘Green Death’ is also the last Pertwee story to properly notice capitalism.
Admittedly, there is some riffing on ‘greed’ in ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’; and ‘Monster of Peladon’ regurgitates (in a reduced form) the political semiotics of its parent story. However, in these stories, while class is in evidence… class struggle even!… there is no tracing it back to anything recognisable as capitalist social relations.
I’ll get to this, but first I want to loop back to address something about ‘Carnival of Monsters’ that I should’ve mentioned previously: Vorg as an entrepreneur and how this relates to the society in which he finds himself. Firstly, Inter-Minor isn’t recognisably capitalist. The latent revolution in ‘Carnival’ – the imminent revolt of the Functionaries that President Zarb (the panicky social democrat) is trying to placate and Kalik (the fascist) wants to crush – tracks back to race (the story does some heavy riffing on race) but stops there. It comes close… at one point mentioning a strike… but we get no sense of particularly capitalist relations. There are no wages, no profits, no recognisable industrial workplaces and only the barest suggestion of a market at the very end. Vorg, like other Robert Holmes creations, can be read as an embodiment of a more likeable version of free enterprise. Like Milo Clancy or Garron, Vorg is a private operator, a colourful chancer, an individualist, a guy on the make who seems vital and amusing when stood next to grey statist authoritarians. But Vorg’s polari version of laissez faire is ultimately judged harmless, or even constructive. He gets some stick for keeping “livestock” in the scope… and it’s possible to read the scope itself as a metaphor for commodity fetishism, displaying how commodification of living people involves their compartmentalisation and alienation from proper awareness of the endless rut in which they circle. However, I think this is far more about race as an artificial construct than it is about commodification (I’ll try to address this in another post some time). And, ultimately, Vorg’s carny capitalism seems to be a potential force for change, progress and reform in the insular, ultra-statist backwater of Inter-Minor. He ends the story fleecing Pletrac… but the tone the story takes with this implies that a dose of Vorg is just what the Inter-Minorans need. To the extent that capitalism appears in ‘Carnival’, it does so through the rosy lens of Vorg.
Now, back to the post-‘Green Death’ Pertwee era.
‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ is a densely political text, hugely ambivalent and needing a great deal of unpacking. There is, as I say, some harping on about the evils of ‘greed’ and an implied anxiety about industrial pollution… but, ultimately, the story essentializes the social dystrophies of capitalism into malformations in human nature, which are (it is implied) exacerbated when people go around believing things.…
‘The Green Death’ is a ghost story. Doctor Who itself may actually be best described, from one standpoint, as an anthology of ghost stories.
Okay, let’s go back a bit.
Firstly, let me defend my notion about 70s Doctor Who sprouting Weird tentacles when it notices (and thus needs to evade and/or signify) capitalism. ‘The Green Death’ is clearly aware of capitalism and, sure enough, shows signs of Weird inflection. (I’m aware, by the way, that I keep talking about the show as though its alive… a form of commodity fetishism that I’ll address some day.)
Apart from anything else, there’s a dirty great tentacle in ‘The Green Death’. It’s only in it for a few seconds, during the Doctor’s abortive trip to Metebelis III, but still…
As in ‘Curse of Peladon‘, this is the tentacular riding in on past associations… however, it can’t be said to work quite the same way as previous tentacles in the Pertwee era. This tentacle is clearly not obscuring any potential thematic convergence upon the subject of capitalism, as in ‘Spearhead from Space‘ and ‘Claws of Axos‘. Nor is it standing in for implied capitalism, as in ‘Curse of Peladon’. Capitalism is something that ‘The Green Death’ is aware of openly. It doesn’t need to be either obscured or implied… especially since the ‘critique’ of capitalism the story offers is actually quite diffident, to the extent of dehumanizing the working class. And this tentacle is only a momentarily glimpsed feature of a side-trip, taking place literally light years away from Global Chemicals. However, it’s in ‘The Green Death’ rather than, say, ‘The Time Warrior’. It’s in a story about an evil corporation rather than one about a feudal warlord. So, the association is still evident and active.
There is also a distinct Weird inflection to the maggots. Their multiplicitous tubular wriggliness is hardly a million miles from being tentacular. They have some of that quintessentially Weird incoherence.
However, like ‘Spearhead from Space’, ‘The Claws of Axos’ and ‘Curse of Peladon’ before it, ‘Green Death’ retains a hauntological charge.
The maggots themselves are steeped in gothic, in associations to do with death. Real maggots breed in corpses or bad meat. They are of putrefaction. This suggests skulls and bones and graveyards, and it suggests them in the gothic mode: as signalling extremes and transgressions, and the haunting presence of that which has been denied and repressed. Biological corruption is here aesthetically linked with the corruption of the environment by big business. The maggots appear in the mine because they are generated by the toxic waste from the Stevens Process, which is secretly dumped underground. Eventually, they erupt out of the mine into the world above, like zombies out of graves. They make a typical gothic move. They do it almost too literally. They have been repressed and then they return. They have been buried out of sight but wriggle out of their subterranean hiding-place. Moreover, this is gothic very much in the Who mode.…
You can rifle the Pertwee era for tentacles and find relatively few. They only crop up in stories in which capitallooms. They only fully-materialize as a major threat where capitalism is a systemic presence, threatening – even if only obliquely – to connect up various social and political nightmares.
That isn’t to say that social and political nightmares are thin on the ground. Far from it. But it’s only when those problems are connected to capital, commodification and trade as exploitative or destructive, that they sprout tentacles.
Evidence of Absence
The reason why ‘Spearhead from Space’ builds to an unexpectedly tentacular conclusion is because all sorts of things within it hint obliquely and elliptically at deep problems in the Britain of the late twentieth century, problems which seem to build towards a connection that must be occluded: namely the connection of all these problems at the economic base of society, the productive forces, the capitalist factory, the commodity form itself. ‘Spearhead’ is saturated in depictions of hierarchy, domination and class. The story hints – albeit very quietly – at imperialism, and at racial and gender hierarchies. The monsters are stalking emblems of alienation and commodity fetishism, manufactured things, products, hostile commodities in the estranged human form of consumerism. The tentacles appear to obscure the hub of the story. We don’t even see the hub of the creature within the tank, only its flailing limbs.
‘Spearhead’ is, however, unusually potent, oneiric, suggestive and loaded. That said, many of its preoccupations recur throughout the Pertween era… just not together, not in such a ‘joined-up’ way and not in stories that even notice capitalism, let alone suggest that evil emanates from capitalist alienation of labour.
For instance, in ‘The Silurians’, social hierarchy is definitely in evidence but it doesn’t reach deeply into everyday normal life as in ‘Spearhead’. Work is in evidence, but almost all of it takes place in a state-owned research centre and all the main characters are professionals who are, apparently, dedicated scientists rather than, say, factory drudges. The monetary value of the facility is mentioned but not in terms of profitability. There isn’t any poverty to be seen, or much in the way of class. There are certainly no drastic social divisions. There is xenophobia and prejudice but these are treated as human traits – related, if anything, to our biology – rather than social phenomena. Capitalism is hardly hinted at, economically or culturally. There is simply the world as it stands, as a backdrop to events. All of this broadly holds true for ‘Ambassadors of Death’ too. There are no tentacles in either story, though there is some mildly Weird inflection detectable in ‘Ambassadors’, in the appearance of the aliens and their peculiar ship. It’s worth noting, in this connection, that an attempt is made to commodify the alien ambassadors, whereas this is not the case with the Silurians.
In ‘Inferno’, fascism (or some form of totalitarianism at any rate) is a major theme, but there’s no hint in the text that it’s linked to economics.…
The quasi-tentacular returns in ‘The Claws of Axos’. Big time.
What’s more, this story is an orgy of strange flesh… to the extent of looking like a precursor to John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Now, if my idea is right – that, in the 70s, Doctor Who starts invoking Weird tentacles as a kind of evasion/signification of capitalism when it veers too close to potential systemic critique – then this really, really should show up in ‘The Claws of Axos’.
Not to keep you in suspense: it does.
Taking it on the Chinn
Now don’t get me wrong. I’d hate you to get the idea that I was claiming that ‘Claws’ is ‘subversive’ or anything. I’m not. It isn’t. As political critique goes, objectively, ‘Claws’ is feeble. Yes, it is very cynical about the government, but that in itself doesn’t amount to subversion. After all, Clear and Present Danger (to take an example more or less at random) features a secret plot by the President, the White House Chief of Staff and high-ranking CIA people to launch a covert war in South America – but Clear and Present Danger isn’t remotely subversive… indeed, it is a highly reactionary film that entirely supports the specious ideological assumptions of the American empire. This is slightly unfair to ‘Claws’, since it has, well, sharper claws than Tom Clancy via Hollywood (‘Claws’ is cynical about establishment power, while CaPD depicts the cynicism of powerful people as a danger to a fundamentally well-meaning establishment), but it does illustrate the point that simply depicting the wrongdoing of the state does not necessarily or automatically amount to a radical critique.
With its bourgeois patrician hero, its stiff-upper-lipped and self-sacrificing scientist/peer, its bog-standard sexist representation of Jo as dollybird-in-need-of-saving, its depiction of the American lawman (FBI? CIA? …something like that) as a square-jawed straight-arrow, the comic neutralisation of the issue of poverty, the implication that people starve because there is a lack of food rather than a lack of profit in feeding them, and many other such representations, ‘Claws’ is as well integrated into capitalist ideology, and as likely to ‘manufacture consent’, as any other Doctor Who story, the vast majority of which are straightforwardly and entirely unthreatening to the status quo. What political critique there is consists, for the most part, of moralistic liberal finger-wagging about greed, nationalism and xenophobia, which is itself compromised by the Axons turning out to be evil, shifty, bogus asylum seekers (that sort of thing didn’t start with Gatiss, sadly). Such moralistic liberal finger-wagging is inherently non-subversive and non-radical because it is inherently reformist rather than revolutionary, i.e. vote out the reactionaries, and get the common herd to be less materialistic, and capitalism will be fine and dandy.
However, everything is relative and context changes things.
The fact is, ‘Claws’ has probably the most straightforwardly, explicitly, non-metaphorical depiction of the British state as cynical and machiavellian of all Pertwee stories (though the impact is softened by Chinn’s comic incompetence). In ‘Claws’, the problem isn’t one slimey bureaucrat, one idiotic authority figure, one cowardly warmongering parliamentary private secretary… the problem is Chinn and his boss and the government they work for. …
The first fully-fledged tentacular monster in Doctor Who – in the senses of being both properly cephalopodic and of being a central monstrous antagonist of the Doctor’s – is the Nestene entity at the end of ‘Spearhead from Space’. That’s seven years in before the show does a proper tentacular monster with real plot significance.
Apart from ‘Image of the Fendahl’ (which we’ll get to one day) and the Cyber-head in ‘The Pandorica Opens’, ‘Spearhead from Space’ is also the closest Doctor Who has ever come to merging or (horrid word coming up, but needs must…) juxtaposing the skull and the tentacle. If you don’t know why I think that’s significant, please go back and read my other Skulltopus posts, starting here.
The Nestenes manifest as a tank full of tentacles…
|Yes Jon, pull a comedy face and go cross-eyed.|
That’s the perfect way to express mortal terror.
…inside which we can see a pulsing, vaguely obscene-looking anus/oesophagus/lung thing. Meanwhile, the same story’s main images of the monstrous are unfinished-looking plastic replicas of human beings. There is something faintly but definitely skull-like about their faces, especially when they’re not wearing wigs.
|Note especially the empty eye-holes,|
a detail lost in subsequent appearances.
If I were writing an Auton story now, my first priority would be the creation of a way for the tentacles and the plastic to co-reside in the same entity. This never happens in ‘Spearhead’, but the Autons do stand and wait in the room where the Nestene tentacled thing hides. At the end of the story, Channing reverts to a cruder Auton-form (once again making the Auton face skull-like, in that its appearance is linked to death in the more sophisticated Nestene replicas). A line of green matter is spattered on the dead and reverted Channing’s plastic face.
This is the closest that the plastic gets to merging with the alien flesh. The proximity of the plastic skull and the green organic squidgy creature is tantalising.
It Adds Up
Doctor Who – because of its (spurious) materialist/empiricist/educational remit – has a set of internal rules that generally make the explicitly supernatural off-limits. The show tends to have been made with the intention of at least outwardly championing the Enlightenment values and certainties. As I argued here, this self-imposed attempt to foreclose upon the supernatural guides the show towards material (and materialist) monsters.
However, owing to the converging influences of children’s fiction, mythological narrative (to which both SF and kid’s adventure fiction are much indebted) and the gothic (usually mediated through 20th century popular horror, most especially Universal and Hammer monster flicks), the show simultaneously inherits an underlying magical conception of reality and a tendency to make its monsters metaphorical and hauntological (if not usually spectral in the full sense), i.e. haunting us with the ‘repressed’.
Add the influence of ‘soft’ social SF literature, the prevailing ‘lefty liberal’ ethos among BBC creative types (which Barry Letts has spoken about) and the social context of pre-Thatcher Britain (in which there prevailed a broad ‘liberal’ socio-economic consensus), and you get a show that ends up representing this or that material nightmare of modernity in a great, mostly-liberal, allegorical morality play for kids.…
According to China Miéville, the classic, early 20th century haute Weird of Lovecraft and Hodgson is the nebulous, meaningless, reactionary scream of incomprehension that greets the onrushing horror of modernity.
I think that, for 70s Doctor Who, a resurrected and processed form of the Weird is what the show draws upon when it finds itself haunted by repressed knowledge that it cannot face: the knowledge that the modern nightmares upon which it dwells are generated by capitalism. When the themes of a 70s Doctor Who story suggest the possibility that capitalism could be noticed and indicted in systemic terms – particularly in terms of the exploitation of the worker, race and/or imperialism – the show tries to jettison the hauntological (realising that it is itself being haunted… nay, stalked) in favour of the Weird.
I intend to justify these outrageous claims in a forthcoming post.
In my last post – here – I casually asserted that the Weirdish ab-crabs in ‘The Macra Terror’ are a “prelude” to the connection the show will make in the 70s between the tentacle and capitalism. It occurs to me that I need to expand a bit on my Skulltopus post about the Macra – here – in order to make myself clear on this point.
I think that the Colony in ‘The Macra Terror’ is a picture of mainstream Britain in denial during the radical late 60s, of a prosperous capitalist world that runs on repression, oppression, obedience, media conditioning, hierarchy. The Colony strongly hints at being capitalist in various ways, not least the Butlins vibe that everyone talks about, the Pilot’s sitcom businessman manner, Barney’s salon and spa, etc.
Most explicitly, the story concentrates on the mining of gas… and Britain in 1967 was right in the middle of switching over to North Sea Gas. In the story, the gas (a toxic substance that humans don’t need and which actively endangers workers) is mined for the benefit of other, hidden, possibly insane reasons/persons – in this case, the Macra.
The Macra, as I noted elsewhere, are extremely hauntological (in that material/pseudo-materialist way that things are hauntological in Who) in that they actively and literally haunt the Colony while clearly representing something that the characters all know must be denied. In the January 2012 issue of Panic Moon, I hint that this repressed knowledge is the knowledge that they are exploited – specifically and explicitly as workers – by an irrational tyranny, and that this ties into the way that the radical currents in the late 60s were popularizing a critique of Western consumerist capitalism as tyrannical and alienating.
And so, whether it be cause or effect, we get Weirdish monsters.
They are giant crabs, as in some classic Weird fiction… except that, when you listen to the story (especially since you have to listen to it) they are also categorically indeterminate, big/small, crab/non-crab, insect/spider/bacteria things that people have trouble perceiving clearly, even – especially – when they see them.
Moreover, the Macra’s own mentalities are extremely contradictory, incoherent, self-denying… to the point of bordering on psychosis.…
Erato the Tythonian in ‘The Creature from the Pit’ doesn’t much resemble an octopus, but nevertheless he/it is a shapeless, amorphous creature that extends a probe which is (briefly) a bit tentacular… though this tends to be obscured by the fact that it also supposedly resembles a cock:
|If this picture reminds you of your genitals,|
seek immediate medical advice.
Neither seems to have been the writer’s intention. Indeed, in the novelisation, it is specifically stated that “you couldn’t call it a tentacle”. The probe is repeatedly described in terms of hands, fingers and fists. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Erato is meant to be a kind of giant, disembodied brain.
However, the probe is a long, flexible, green, non-humanoid limb… so let’s not fear to call it a quasi-tentacle, whatever Fisher says.
In any case, the Tythonian is – at least until it starts talking – reminiscent of the Weird… if only via its unstable and amorphous blobbiness.
In this post, I suggested that ‘Spearhead from Space’ erupts into tentacles at the end partly as a way of obscuring something else that is going on in the story, namely a convergence of various themes towards a potential critique of modern British capitalism as a system of hierarchy, racism, imperialism, sexism and exploitation. (Click the link and read it if you think I’ve gone mad.)
I’m planning, in forthcoming posts, to suggest that Doctor Who in the 70s adopts the tentacular as a recurring way of simultaneously fleeing from and signifying capitalism. There is a prelude to this: the Weirdish ab-crabs in ‘The Macra Terror‘. There’s also a transitional story at the other end, just before the semiotic connection largely dies out in the 80s. This transitional story is the final story of the 70s to feature the tentacular even as a suggestion.
Philip Sandifer, at his TARDIS Eruditorum blog, has described ‘The Creature from the Pit’ as “a proper anti-capitalist screed”. He describes Adrasta as “a selfish arch capitalist who is perfectly happy to thrive while everyone else suffers” and notes that Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles are wrong to write off as anachronistic the idea that Adrasta could’ve been intended as a Thatcher figure (the story was written during the election that she went on to win). However, his argument is considerably more sophisticated than this and rests more especially on something he identifies in the script: the subversion of the (by now) standard Doctor Who ‘evil ruling class vs. rebels’ trope. Sandifer identifies this story as coinciding with the great shift in the ‘centre ground’ of British politics that more-or-less coincided with the advent of Thatcherism.
The key thing is… the way in which both sides of an apparent political debate were in one sense indistinguishable because they both adhered to the same premise… [For example] the way in which the trade unions, Callaghan, and Thatcher all took for granted that maximizing profit was the right thing to do. The idea that they were opposing sides in many key ways serves more to cut other perspectives out of the debate entirely than it does to actually describe a fundamental philosophical difference between them.