Why I Like… Doctor Who

It starts with a trip down a rabbit hole — a weird, angular, metallic rabbit hole that keeps changing the shape of its iridescent walls as you fall. Meanwhile, there’s a distant alarm going off — either that, or someone’s trying to shoot you with a ray gun. From the echoing bass rattle you can hear, you might be surrounded by miles of distant, faulty plumbing. If so, someone’s emptied a boxful of pins into the system, because you keep hearing these wooshing washes of tinkliness pass by. Then up from the darkness looms an enormous face. Tom Baker, eyes agoggle. There for a moment, then he’s gone, dissolved into many colours like a prismatic ghost. And still you keep falling.

Doctor Who is weird.

The first episode of Doctor Who I saw was from Tom Baker’s introductory adventure, Robot. As that was broadcast between the end of December 1974 and mid-January 1975, I must have been three and half years old at the time, which means that seeing the programme is one of my earliest memories. (Sitting in a bath watching my chicken pox peel off comes a close, but not so fondly-remembered, second).

I pretty soon wanted to be the Doctor. (I don’t mean I wanted to act the part. I mean I wanted to be the Doctor.) But it was the monsters that most fascinated me. The two are, of course, inseparable. The Doctor is the corrective called for by the imbalancing evil of the monsters; the monsters are the shadow cast by the heroic light of the Doctor. It’s why the Doctor always has an intuitive knowledge about the enemy he faces, often before he sets eyes on it/them — as soon as he steps out of the TARDIS he knows, like he can sniff it in the air, something’s afoot. And he often knows the sort of something it is, as well as the sort of foot, sucker, or pseudopod it’s afoot on. The reason for this is that the Doctor and the Monsters are one. They’re part of the same psychological picture.

Looking over the first few seasons of Doctor Who that I saw — seasons presided over by the dream-team of Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as script-editor — there’s a lot of blurring the line between men and monsters. In The Ark in Space, the far-future human Noah turns by painful stages into an insectile Wirrn (courtesy of a generous helping of green plastic bubble-wrap). In Genesis of the Daleks, Davros, already half robot himself (the other half a distinctly withered Mr Potato Head), fast-forwards his people’s evolution into slug-like creatures encased in “Mark III Travel Machines” (banality-of-evil-speak for Daleks). There’s the Jekyll & Hyde Professor Sorenson possessed by anti-matter in The Planet of Evil, and Marcus Scarman with his mind taken over by the evil alien Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars. There’s the humanoid androids all set to take over the Earth in The Android Invasion, and a man turning into an alien plant-monster in The Seeds of Doom… Virtually every story has men turning into monsters or monsters masquerading as men. (With some, such as the Cybermen, the process is complete before the story begins.)

The Doctor and the Monsters, like Angels and Demons, are opposing absolutes. The real story takes place in between, in the human realm. Here, there’s the constant threat that you, a human being, might turn into a monster. And not just a green bubble-wrap one. There are far more insidious forms of human monster. That first season of Doctor Who I saw (the twelfth since the show began) was particularly full of fascists, cold intellectual elites, and power-mad scientists — all ways in which people can really become monsters.

To the child I was, unable to understand any of this consciously, having that inner battle between humanity and monstrosity spelled out in such clear, vivid, excitingly fantastic terms was, I think, a vital part of the appeal of watching the programme. It also perhaps explains why I felt so disgusted when Colin Baker began his tenure as the Doctor by attempting to strangle his companion. That was 1984. Dark heroes were very much of the times (Watchmen was only two years away), but I couldn’t see the point in a Doctor indistinguishable from the monsters he was supposed to be fighting. Having watched every episode since Robot with almost religious devotion, I gave up. There are still some Colin Baker stories I haven’t seen, and never will.

But Doctor Who had done its job.

Whenever I read about the formative influences of my favourite writers & artists, there’s usually a point where they discover a cache of story — a collection of myths and legends, a book of fairy tales, a copy of The Arabian Nights. Doctor Who was my story-cache, and that weird, down-a-metallic-rabbit-hole theme tune was its “once upon a time”. (The TARDIS, bigger on the inside than the out, is the through-the-wardrobe portal to the only thing that is truly bigger on the inside, the imagination.) In its gleefully pulpy way, Doctor Who regularly plundered myth, fairy tale, popular entertainment, literature, history and science for ideas and storylines. (The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era had a particular penchant for Gothic Horror, Hammer style.) As such, it was the ultimate all-in-one cultural education for the final quarter of the 20th century.

That and Blue Peter, anyway.

Lovecraftian Doctor Who

It struck me recently how Lovecraftian my favourite period of Doctor Who (the first half of Tom Baker’s reign) was. I don’t know if there was ever an explicit influence, but the fact it was a science fiction show being made during a British horror boom (the early seventies), probably led to a certain amount of natural crossover.

Script editor Robert Holmes certainly brought in (or encouraged) all sorts of horror and sci-fi influences, mostly filmic ones — King Kong  in “Robot”, The Thing from Another World in “The Seeds of Doom”, The Beast With Five Fingers in “The Hand of Fear”, Frankenstein in “The Brain of Morbius”, for instance. He wanted to “darken things up a little”, saying “I don’t think it would be unfair to accuse us of aiming towards a slightly ‘gothic’ area. Tom always called it ‘Who-noir’.” (quoted in Classic Who: The Hinchcliffe Years by Adrian Rigelsford)

Another thing that led to a Lovecraftian feel could have been Holmes’s attempt to shrug off good/evil dichotomies. According to producer Philip Hinchcliffe, Holmes “had a theory that there’s no such thing as good or evil in the universe; it’s all just part of a process, and the side you fall into simply depends on how you’re made. He was fascinated by the notion of an organic life-form which lands on earth and causes havoc because it’s neither intentionally bad or good, it’s just that its ‘process’ conflicts with ours and appears evil by comparison.” (from Classic Who, again.) This is pretty much spelled out by Sutekh: “Your evil is my good, Doctor. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. That, I find good.”

Of course, Doctor Who could never have addressed the underlying cosmic horror outlook of Lovecraft. The Doctor is a heroic figure, and it’s one of the tenets of Lovecraftian horror that people can never be heroic — cannot, in fact, ever be anything other than gnats and flies before the terrible forces that rule our universe. (“In my presence, you are an ant, a termite — abase yourself, you grovelling insect!” — the ever-quotable Sutekh.) Doctor Who, on the other hand, had a fundamentally optimistic nature (necessarily so, perhaps, being a kid’s show). When the Doctor defeats Sutekh, it’s with the feeling of things being returned to their rightful balance, rather than a brief avoidance of an eventually inevitable human defeat (which is how “The Call of Cthulhu” ends). And just consider how Lovecraft would have viewed the story of one of the Doctor’s human companions — more as the sort of alien abduction perpetrated in “The Whisperer in Darkness” or “The Shadow Out of Time” than a romp through space & time, with the Doctor, perhaps, as a sort of charlatan Nyarlathotep figure.

But it’s surprising how much of a similar feel the alien creatures had during these few seasons to Lovecraft’s creations:

insect-like creatures who can fly through the vacuum of space — the Mi-Go (Lovecraft), and the Wirrn (Doctor Who)…

a man transformed into a giant, lumbering, tentacled monster intent on wiping out all human life — the creature at the end of “The Dunwich Horror” (Lovecraft), and Keller transformed into a Krynoid at the end of “The Seeds of Doom” (Doctor Who)…

an alien entity who wants nothing more than to destroy all life in the universe, but who has been imprisoned in a tomb on Earth — Cthulhu (Lovecraft) and Sutekh (“The Pyramids of Mars”)…

a created lifeform, intended as a servant/soldier, destroys the race that created it — Shoggoths (At the Mountains of Madness) and the nascent Daleks (“Genesis of the Daleks”) who, in their naked form, are rather Lovecraftian sea-slug-like slimy blobs…

an ancient alien lifeform, buried for millions of years, is uncovered and comes to life again — At the Mountains of Madness, “The Hand of Fear”.

To me, the most Lovecraftian creatures are the Fendahleen — perhaps just because they spring from the same impulse to try and create a monster that doesn’t simply look like a man in a suit (in the case of Doctor Who) or which isn’t just a slight alteration of the human form, but is designed to be totally alien to everything we ever think of as human (in the case of Lovecraft’s monsters).

Of course, a more direct source of influence on “The Image of the Fendahl”, with its ancient, alien powers being released by scientists examining a 12 million year old skull, is Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit. But the Lovecraftianism of Nigel Kneale’s output is a whole nother subject (the meteorites of Quatermass II — nicked virtually wholesale by Doctor Who in “Spearhead from Space” (another Robert Holmes story) — to me recalls Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space”, for instance.)

So, to recap: Sutekh is Nyarlathotep, Zygons are Deep Ones, and the Doctor ought to faint more often.