Skulltopus 4: Attack of the Plot-Device Monster
The tentacle was already well established as a staple of monsterology long before Doctor Who was even a glint in Sydney Newman’s eye. When Who selected the tentacle as its semiotic method of evading/signifying capitalism – as I’m going to argue that it did in the 70s – it selected it from a pre-existing toolbox full of potential signifiers. But it didn’t suddenly stumble upon the octopoidal. It had encountered tentacles before, albeit only occasionally.
On the whole, the show’s early years are pretty thin on tentacles… but there are quasi-tentacular manifestations in ‘The Keys of Marinus’ (the Brains of Morphoton have stubby little almost-tentacles), ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ (the Slyther) and ‘The Web Planet’ (the Animus). The only proper octopus monster in this era is the Mire Beast from ‘The Chase’. It lives underground and exists solely to provide a way for our heroes to escape from the Aridians without deliberately sentencing them all to Dalek-death.
Oh look… bar the Animus, those were all written by Terry Nation. Hmmm…
By this point (the early 60s), the ‘novum’ of the tentacle had passed, but it had entrenched itself in the grammar of Western teratology. In the process, it had been greatly sheared of its original strategic meaninglessness. Even so, the Mire Beast doesn’t even try to mean anything. It’s almost as though a plot device monster so arbitrary and irrelevant had to be an octopus because the octopus still carries the Weird connotations of meaning meaninglessness. It means nothing, so what do we make it? An octopus. They mean nothing. Perfect.
I’m simplifying. And I’m making it sound conscious… which it almost certainly wasn’t. But I’m kind of thinking aloud here. Give me a break, can’t you? These things become less conscious and more consistent the more deeply the semiotic connections bury themselves into culture. They become like syntax. We don’t usually use syntax consciously.
Of course, ‘meaning nothing’ and ‘having no meaning’ are not necessarily the same thing. The symbol ‘0’ means nothing… but it doesn’t have no meaning. Indeed, it’s meaning is nothing. (This point is hard to get across in text… it’s one of those occasions when, to be absolutely clear, you really need to use vocal inflection.) This may be the same binary inherent in any sign that is adopted to evade meaning. It may be inherent in the Weird use of the tentacular. By trying to use the meaningless to mean meaninglessness, meaning is assigned. This is as much a dialectic as it is a paradox. The internal contradiction drives the change from the haute Weird tentacle to the tentacle as a standard monstrous limb-type throughout Western fiction. The tentacle initially emerges as the perfect way for the Weird to express what it feels to be the incomprehensible and meaningless horror of modernity via its ‘novum’, its unprecedentedness in Western literature, its semiotic emptiness. However, the meaninglessness of the tentacle becomes its meaning… or rather, it’s most prominent feature. Its very arbitrariness allows it unfettered entry into almost any context, sometimes even conferring an advantage upon it when someone like Terry Nation is looking for a default monster that will have nothing to do but get the writer out of a plot cul-de-sac, or look cool.…