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.…